Do the (Side) Hustle

Remember the 1975 disco hit The Hustle by Van McCoy and the Soul Symphony? The ‘song’ made No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Soul Singles charts during the summer of 1975 and on the Canadian RPM charts. It peaked at No. 3 in the U.K., No. 5 in New Zealand, and No. 9 in Australia. It only made 38 on the French Singles Chart, confirming (in case it needed to be) that the French are different. The Hustle won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance early in 1976 and sold over a million copies. 

But wait, there’s more. This catchy but annoying ‘song’ has been featured in films including Stuck on YouVampires Suck and The Lorax, T.V. programmes— Shark Tales, That ‘70s Show, American Dad! and Futurama, amongst others. You’d have to say it was a whopping success despite only having three words—Do the Hustle! 

According to wikiHow, The Hustle is a “fast-paced partner dance, related to swing, and commonly danced to disco and modern pop. The dance involves four basic moves: stepping, twirling, chicken dancing, a move called ‘The Travolta’, and turning.” Then it was rinse and repeat until you drop. 

If you want a walk down memory lane and the chance to brush up on your hustle moves or try them out for the first time, you’ll find instructions in this incredibly cheesy short video. You’ll love it … honestly. Despite my cynicism, listening to it brought a fun flashback to my mid-seventies teenage disco queen. 

Anyway, despite a cursory search into the background of the dance, I couldn’t find anything specific. Presumably, it was a nod to the need to hustle to succeed or survive in the hustle and bustle of the seventies. It’s become much more sophisticated these days—it seems everyone has a side hustle—as a cheeky ‘must have’ accessory to one’s working life. Side hustles are flexible work that you do over and above your primary job to bring extra cash, get your creativity flowing or add purpose to your life. It could be taking up a new hobby, learning a new skill or using an existing one you want to ‘monetise’ at some point. Could even be volunteering for a non-profit you rate. 

As professional speaker and coach Alissa Carpenter says, “We all know Millennials love a good side hustle—to fuel their passions and wallets”. But it’s not just Millennials. It seems we’re all at it, including me; you’re no one if you don’t have a side hustle. It’s the ultimate put-down of our contemporary world: “What, no side hustle!”. I exaggerate, but the concept of the side hustle is endemic. 

I feel we need an updated version of The Hustle—Do The Side Hustle. What a pity Van McCoy died in 1979, shortly after the hit’s success, so he can’t do a side hustle of his own by remastering the original and raking it in. Clearly, it’s a great opportunity for some keen hustler.

Of course, it isn’t new. People have been forced or opted to take up additional burdens to make ends meet since Adam and Eve were ejected from Eden without notice. I’m sure they hadn’t had time to build up a rainy-day nest egg. People bandy the words around like membership of an exclusive club, but for people living on the margins, it’s always been an unwelcome part of their reality—the only way they can feed their families and survive. There’s also always been the darker side. I’m thinking black marketeers during war and rationing when fortunes are made by offering consumer goods that couldn’t be bought in conventional shops at exorbitant prices. The side hustle all too often comes wrapped in the trappings of despair, manipulation or holding people to ransom.  

While this type of side hustle is still shamingly very much part of the human condition, the trendy contemporary version seems pretty harmless. Side hustles, after all, make us better, more rounded, more connected, or simply wealthier people. Where’s the harm? Who suffers if you decide to set up an Etsy Shop as an outlet for your creativity? Or if I use all my waking hours outside work trying to become a best-selling author? Surely, it’s good to pursue the paths that make our hearts sing beyond the 9 to 5 grind. Why not use our ingenuity to make money on the hoof?

I’m a side hustler with the best of them, but there are issues. I’m about to publish a new book, and I’m running on fumes, trying to keep all the plates spinning. Side hustles can be hungry beasts sucking up all your best energy. In my day job, I run a design studio, which I own. As my book launch date looms, I’m not entirely clear which is the side course, and which is the main one as I scramble to keep all the plates spinning and keep my business dynamic whilst doing everything it takes to give my book its best shot. I’m blessed with high energy levels, but they’re not infinite, and I’m conscious of the risk of burnout if I keep the candle lit at both ends. I live alone, so it’s my call how I use my out-of-office time, but side hustles can short-change friends and family, stealing time that should be theirs. 

I’m all for putting time into hobbies and gaining new skills. You meet new people, expand your horizons, and potentially earn a bit of welcome extra dosh. I’ve met a wide range of like-minded people through mine, something I didn’t even consider when I started my indie publishing business with my sister. However, the statistics show that side hustles as a necessity are on the rise. According to CNBC’s Gilli Molinsky, “44% of people with a side hustle think they’ll always need it—and more are picking one up”. According to an April 2023 Bankrate survey of 2,505 U.S. adults, more than 39% have a side hustle to help cover living expenses rather than for discretionary spending. Half of the Millennials surveyed and over fifty per cent of the Gen Xers have one. 

The tragedy behind these stats is that too many people are going backwards financially, often underpaid, and coping with eye-watering costs of living hikes. Inflation at least seems to be under control (for now), but that only means commodities stay at the same high rates; they don’t revert to their more affordable pre-inflationary levels, so the cost-of-living hike is hard-wired in even though the curve has flattened (again, for now).

Anyway, I’m sure you get my point. Side hustles can be fun and richly rewarding on many counts for those of us lucky enough to follow our dreams because we can. They shouldn’t be a survival mechanism for people who have no choice.

P.S. Sorry if I’ve given you an earworm. If it’s any consolation, I can’t get the pesky Hustle thing out of my head either.

Fun with flatpack furniture

How hard can it be? Seriously. Putting together a bunch of pieces to make an item of furniture? Child’s play, you might think. I certainly did, as I pressed Buy on a stylish mini-drawer set from IKEA, which looked perfect for my new home office. I live in an apartment, so space is always a consideration, and this baby offered bountiful bang for my buck in its miniature Scandi magnificence. 

Flatpacks, AKA knock-down furniture or ready-to-assemble furniture, are very popular. The concept is seductive—go to the online or physical store, buy the item, haul it home or get it delivered, and, after a bit of assembly time, voila, you have the perfect artefact for your home or garden or whatever. Right? Sort of.

But what a great wheeze flatpacks are…for their makers. Imagine the eureka moment when some eager beaver middle manager thought of an innovative way to make truckloads more money. Picture being a fly on the wall as said manager makes a presentation to their senior team, which might have gone something like this:

“I’ve been thinking outside the box to bring a major paradigm shift—or is it a pivot?— to the table here for your consideration. Thank you for the opportunity to run this game-changing idea up the flagpole. The central theme of the premise going forward is to let the customers assemble products themselves. Think what that will save us,” he/she/they enthuse as they rip through a PowerPoint full of quadrant graphs, up arrows next to dollar icons, etc. 

“We get them excited about affordability, convenience and the whole DIY bandwagon that’s kicking off—they’ll love it and won’t notice we’re selling them a pup. Next steps? Whiteboard a go-to-market strategy, take a deep dive, unpack the possibilities, and shift the dial. I’ll reach out in a couple of weeks to touch base and see if it’s in your wheelhouse.” 

In addition to being a walking cliché, our manager was clearly the identical twin of the towering genius who believed self-checkouts were a giant leap forward for civilisation. 

But love them we did—flatpacks that is, not the suits responsible for them. IKEA, the spiritual home of the flatpack, was founded as a mail-order retailer in 1943 by Swedish entrepreneur Ingvar Kamprad. By the early 2000s, IDEA was the world’s largest furniture seller, with three hundred-plus stores and infinite online buying options.

Anyway, in the same way, time heals all wounds—or wounds all heels, if you prefer—it also cauterises past flatpack traumas. I’m not a flatpack virgin—I’ve given a few of them a go since the London IKEA opened to much excitement in 1987. It’s brutal—every time. But if you leave it long enough between purchases, the scars fade, and you forget how awful it was. Your inner recovery mechanisms dampen any trigger warnings, and before you can say, “Flatpacks suck”, you’re back in that magical thinking place where hope triumphs over experience. In my experience, hope has always been the loser.

Returning to last Friday. My new flatpack duly arrives at my business and, with it, my first challenge. It’s heavy. When I bought it, I thought it was made of lightweight wood or MDF or something. Oops. It’s metal. The box itself is pretty small, but I can barely lift it. How to get it to my car and home without breaking myself? My business partner gallantly lends me his fold-up trolley, and, home from work, I’m feeling optimistic and light-hearted as I start unpacking. Until I look at the instructions when buyer remorse kicks in big time. There are 20 different steps involved. Surely, that’s overkill for a box with six dinky drawers. Realising this might be more than a two-minute job, I put it off until Sunday as I have more fun things to do on Saturday.

The next day dawns bright and sunny, but I’m a bit groggy, having got home at 3am and woken up at my usual first sparrows ludicrously early timeslot. Despite the lack of sleep, I know it’s now or never—if I don’t tackle the beast immediately, it will stay in its box for all eternity. It’s summer and already about 30 degrees. By the time I’ve got to Step 12, I’m sweating like a dyslexic on a spelling bee as I realise I’ve made all six drawers with the runners on the inside. Unlike Intel, which is a good thing to find within your computer,  for drawers, the big virtue is runners on the outside. OMG, kill me now. I unravel all six drawers, mashing my fingers with the out-of-control screwdriver and swearing like a trooper. You get the picture, I’m sure. 

It took me three hours. THREE HOURS! The miserable hours. But I have to say, broken nails and bruised hands and all, I am very pleased with myself and my wee drawer set. Here are some handy tips to consider as your mouse hovers over the BUY button:

  1. Understanding flatpack instructions is a near impossibility. Sometimes, you have to discern a build path from screeds of written instructions, typically in a font size requiring more magnification than the Hubble Telescope achieves. The IKEA people had helpfully reduced the one in question to mostly large pictures. Despite this, at most stages, I was still none-the-wiser and resorted to trial and error…which rewarded me with …mostly error.
  2. Putting the wrong pieces together or the right pieces the wrong way around is a certainty, and hours disappear like clouds driven by a gale-force wind as you undo it all and start again. 
  3. It’s easy to miss something in any given step. I’m unsure that the back of my drawer set is securely attached. But it’s the back, so who cares? Twenty-four hours later, it hasn’t fallen off. I’ll take the win.
  4. Think of a number, double it, then treble it, and you might end up with an approximation of the number of hours you need to allocate to this rewarding endeavour. 
  5. If you are a quitter, don’t bother. You need a backbone of Titanium— wait, make that Tungsten—and the determination of a terrier up a drainpipe after a rat to put this sucker together. 
  6. If you have high blood pressure or a heart condition, don’t bother. 
  7. On no account, try it alone. Even if the other person is as bewildered by the entire thing as you are, you need—nay must have—moral support, or you’ll risk insanity. 
  8. Flatpacks are a new level of pain, even if you’re a legend at DIY. I’ve done a fair amount of DIY in my time—hanging shelves, painting rooms, etc.—with reasonable results. Well, apart from that one time when I nearly electrocuted myself trying to wire up a small chandelier. Even this shocking experience had nothing on yesterday’s ordeal.  
  9. If you thought you were a ‘potty mouth’ before you started, you’ll discover profanities you didn’t know you knew before you finish.
  10. The opportunity loss is immense—so many other things you could be doing instead of breaking your hands and mental equilibrium, grovelling about on the floor, perspiring and cursing the gods of convenience as your body curses your choice. 

While researching for this post, I came across the previously unknown concept of flatpack assembly services. I felt immensely vindicated because if there are flatpack alchemists who can come to your rescue and transmute the base parts to furniture gold, that means flatpacks are impossible to put together—it’s not just me. How I wish I’d known. But OMG, the irony of paying someone to do what the manufacturers have offloaded—you pay less for the convenience of buying it in bits only to pay someone to put the bits together. Is the affordability thing, therefore, a delusion? Have we been suckered?  

Unless you are a DIY Wizard or professional carpenter (why would you need a flatpack item in the first place), my best advice is to buy the made-up version, get help from someone who knows what they are doing or even bring in a paid professional, however much it hurts to do so. In my case, note to self: never buy another flatpack. 

Serendipity rewards the prepared

When’s the last time you thought I just had one of the best days of my life? It’s easy when we look back to overload the scales with the things we’re not proud of or might do differently. Things that have caused us distress, harm or sorrow. Missed opportunities. Resolutions that didn’t make it to the end of January. The self-pitying seduction of the might-have-been is powerful.  

Everyone around me was weary in the run-up to the holidays this year. Not unhappy, just a bit over it. By it, I mean 2023. There seemed to be a sort of collective consciousness willing the year away—a profound desire to close the door behind us on a confused, conflicted and curiously flat year and move on to the undoubted sunlit uplands[1] of 2024. 

Human psychology is an interesting beast. Nothing changes with a new year. The seasons come and go; time moves inexorably on. A year is simply a construct designed to enable us to plan, record and be productive. There’s no alchemy about it. But the transition from one to the next has a symbolic importance that’s hard to ignore. It offers a valuable ‘moment’ for reflection and re-calibration. A holiday-induced pause (for those lucky enough to have them) to take stock and re-set, sometimes even take the extreme option of reverting to factory settings. 

Ringing in the new with a resolution or two is as engrained in humans as chewing slippers is in puppies. The Babylonians were the first people recorded as celebrating each new year through a twelve-day festival, Akitu, marking the start of the spring planting season. Akitu included making resolutions to their gods, like loyalty to the king, paying debts and giving stuff they’d borrowed back to their rightful owners. You’d have to think they might also have included the usual suspects. Stop killing so many ‘fatted calves’ so they could shed a few sheckles (Babylonian kilos). Spend more quality time with the family. Read a few of those papyrus scrolls gathering dust in the study. Re-gild and polish the chariot and get back into the racing circuit. 

New Year’s resolutions have been around since Adam was a boy. While they undoubtedly are an excellent option for some, I don’t go big on them because I’m a planner and a natural goal-setter. I enjoy the reflective time over the holidays, the headspace to go deep. I also like the feeling of optimism that is triggered by a New Year, which reinforces my commitment to pushing further.

But whether you’re a resolver or not, planning and resolutions only take you so far. Sticking rigidly to the programme shuts down the random twists and turns that become our tales of the unexpected. Those thrilling, surprising convergences when a heap of seemingly unrelated stuff coalesces as if by magic and makes something incredible happen. The times when you are looking for one thing and find something else entirely along the way. Being open to the unexpected.

At the end of October, I published a professional book—Brands with Moxie: Eight Steps to A Winning Brand. I was beyond delighted as this was the culmination of two years of commitment and hard work, which, at times, felt like a black hole sucking every fibre of my being into its relentless vacuum. It certainly hoovered up all my spare time. But it finally got done, and when the first copies arrived, I felt as proud as any new parent of my creation. I then, not unpredictably, got sick—or maybe I was just exhausted—and had some enforced time to ponder life’s big questions. This episode of navel-gazing confirmed what I’d always known. I want to write. More than anything. It’s my thing. I have a lot to say. I like entertaining people. I’m an essayist at heart. But the bonus was that I realised I had most of the content for another book comprising a non-fiction collection of opinion pieces in the style of and named after this blog—Never Succumb to Beige and Other Rules for a Colourful Life. It’s opinion meets autobiography meets history in a tongue-and-cheek way. It draws heavily on my not-uncolourful life experiences. I then worked like a demented being to finish it before the end of the year. 

This somewhat accidental book triggered a sequence of serendipity that makes me smile as I write. Serendipity is, of course, the beneficial occurrences and developments that happen by chance. Or, as American crime writer Lawrence Block said, “Serendipity is when you look for something, find something else, and realise that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for”.  

I decided early on to go the ‘indie publisher’ route and quickly realised success with the brand book would need coalitions of the able and willing. In this mindset, I amazingly unearthed a printer I didn’t know about in my own backyard with a business division supporting indies like me. I set up a meeting to discuss my brand book, but decided to also show the person I met my Beige manuscript. Her response blew me away—she loved it and thought it had broad appeal. She was also a fountain of knowledge about book publishing. From this one contact, others have flowed. I now have an editor and a top publicist who has agreed to work with me towards an April/May launch. I’ve also found new, like-minded people prepared to swop insights and discoveries. The happy dance goes on and on. 

Although this happened quickly, it’s not as accidental as it seems. I have been writing for years, but not in a particularly joined-up way. I’ve ghosted a book on sales success, co-written a column—Sects in the City—reviewing business networking events and how to get the most out of them and clocked up several other decent notches on my writer’s headboard. But I’ve always seen writing as a ‘side hustle’. While I don’t intend to give up my day job any time soon, I’ve now got a way to elevate writing and content production to a central role in my business practice, and I have at least two other books ready to roll after Beige.

I’ve wished on many stars over the years but often struggled with the self-belief to reach up and grab one. Serendipity walks hand in hand with risk and trust. Without taking risks, you won’t grow; you don’t take risks without trust. Without either, the beautiful possibilities of the unimaginable remain in the wings, and you risk missing out on all sorts of good things. When I look back, the highlights are often the unplanned events and people that seem to have landed in my path out of the blue. Luck, you might say. Maybe. But serendipity has also been described as intention unmasked. I like that concept. This most recent demonstration of serendipity in my life is a long-standing intention finally unmasked. 

It’s also said that serendipity rewards the prepared. A bit like fortune favouring the bold. Fate is more likely to step in when you’ve already put yourself in its path. I was prepared for my brand book to be the change I wanted to see, and it’s doing everything I envisaged, particularly as the foundation for a new direction for my business. I was rewarded with so very much more.

So, I’m excited about what the New Year will bring. I’m moving forward with optimism and confidence in my plans. But I hope there will also be serendipitous twists and turns I haven’t planned for. Like the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, I’m keeping some room in my heart for the unimaginable.

Best wishes for a 2024 journey that includes surprise, serendipity and adventure.


[1] Winston Churchill used the phrase “sunlit uplands” in his “their finest hour” speech delivered in the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, a month after he took over as Prime Minister leading an all-party coalition sketching a picture of an idealised or longed-for future time of happiness, prosperity, good fortune, etc.

Bouncing is what Tiggers do best

I haven’t posted a blog for a year. It’s not that I lack ideas, but when I get into any of them, I find myself curiously bewildered about what I want to say in this polarising world where every precious word can be someone’s micro-aggression, trigger, or unsafety. 

I don’t have a global following, so what I write isn’t likely to get serious oxygen, but it’s still depressing because I’m a Tigger type — it’s in my DNA. Remember AA Milne’s excellent Winnie-the-Pooh stories? (Are we still allowed to talk about these?) Pooh fans will know that Tigger is one of the animal characters in these stories who get up to all sorts of adventures and misadventures together. Tigger — unsurprisingly a tiger — is notable for his love of bouncing, which occasionally lands him in trouble with his friends or stuck up a tree he can’t get down from without help.

As a kid, my family used to joke about my Tigger tendencies as I bounced through each day — a happy little unit with a decidedly sunny nature who sang away to herself most days on waking. Like the unfortunate Elephant’s Child in Kipling’s Just So Stories (apologies if Kipling is no longer kosher either), I have “‘satiable curiosity” and am fond of shiny new things. I strongly lean towards seeing the good side of people and situations. Somewhat irritating qualities to the less Tiggerish in demeanour it has to be said. 

My Tigger gene has generally carried me through life with the wide-eyed expectations of a child in a sweet shop, helped by a succession of stylish rose-tinted glasses. Over the last few years, though, I seem to have acquired tinges of Tigger’s perennially pessimistic, gloomy and depressed friend, Eeyore the donkey. My vivid orange Tigger stripes faded like furniture left in the sun for too long. My bounce became more of a plod, and my enthusiasm for … well … pretty much everything, like my childhood dawn chorus, muted. 

It’s easy to blame everything on COVID, but that’s a bit of a cop-out. For sure, the COVID era has felt like a plague of locusts descending on the planet, consuming everything good and decent and leaving a miasma of misery, myopia and malice in its wake. It’s been a tough time on many levels, not least for owners of small businesses like me. The ‘global pause’ also saw the cancellation of so many rites of passage that bring humans together with some degree of harmony. Time has felt one-dimensional without them. We managed to flatten the curve of chronology even though we failed with the epidemiological one — COVID remains a Spectre at our feast, and chronology for a while morphed into one of Dali’s dripping clocks. 

I can’t blame COVID for everything. I can’t blame COVID for the results of my choices, tempting though it is. I can’t blame COVID for the gap the loss of my parents has left in my heart. Equally, I can’t give COVID credit for the good things that have happened — there have been a lot of those, and I’m grateful. I also am not prepared to give COVID credit for the decision a couple of years ago to adopt my sister’s favourite mantra, “Nothing changes if nothing changes”. Working on that basis, I made changes. I took back control and stopped being victimised by the times. My mantra has long been, “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it”. I realised I’d been merely treading water and started to strike out again with renewed determination towards my treasure laden ship.

The treasure I was swimming towards was purpose. The determination to re-invent my business. It was hard-hit during the pandemic and living on life support trying to sustain an outdated business model. It needed fresh thinking, so we defined an inspiring vision that would allow our Phoenix to rise in glittering splendour from the ashes of its previous incarnation. Nearly two years to the day, this vision is becoming a reality. I’m beyond excited and proud of the way it’s all coming together. I’ve written a book drawing on my professional expertise in brand development, which is being published next month, followed by the launch of an online learning platform by the end of the year. In my high-octane quest to re-calibrate and take our business into pastures new, I’ve been gobbling up apps and digital tools like the pursuers of wellness swallow Multivits. I’ve been at the edge of my comfort zone so many times mastering a heap of stuff, but l’m loving the journey.

Nothing’s easy, but it’s much easier when your gut agrees with your choices, and my gut is entirely in sync with this direction. It will allow me to focus on the stuff I want to do and not be a hostage to the place and time demands conventional businesses traditionally dictate. I’m not getting any younger, so this is a genuine need. It’s one thing I can unconditionally thank COVID for — we’ve all learned how to do things differently, and the pandemic accelerated the shift online by at least a decade, opening new ways of working and managing work. That feels a bit like freedom to me.

So, I’m happy to say Tigger’s back, bouncing around like a young grasshopper. The world once more feels like my oyster. Time has stopped dripping away. It’s not that I don’t care about what’s going on ‘out there’; I’ve just decided to stop letting the gloom darken my little corner of it. Our species has navigated into turbulent waters, but that doesn’t mean we must drown in the maelstrom. Life with purpose has always been a higher path. It always will be. Purpose gives our lives meaning. Purpose sees off pessimism. Purpose will get us through. My current purpose will keep me bouncing forward rather than up random trees I can’t get down from. 

I’m imagining the eye rolls of my family and the people I’ve lived with as I write. But hey, if I want to sing in the morning, I’ll sing. OK???

Illustrations from Winnie-the-Pooh books by E H Shepard. These are in the public domain.

Hibernation mode deactivated

I’m excited—I’m writing a book. Please feel free to join my happy dance. I’ve been writing my book for several months now. Unfortunately, after a burst of energy over the (southern hemisphere summer), ennui sank its fangs into the jugular of my writer’s mojo, and I went back into a slough of inertia, if not outright despond. 

This whole pandemic thing and all the other unthinkable stuff that’s going on around us has challenged me big time. It’s like someone found Pandora’s Box intact, read the cautionary tale about what happens when you open it, but thought it would be a winning idea to open it anyway and see if it’s as bad as legend would have it. Just as an aside, Pandora’s box was, in fact, Pandora’s jar. There’s a long and boring story about Erasmus usign the wrong word when he translated the story from Greek to Latin…zzzzzz. Anyway, box or jar, it was left in Pandora’s care and curiosity drove her to open it. Epic fail! Imagine her face as she watched sickness, death and myriad other evils escape into the world. Even though she shut the box as quickly as she could — well, you would, wouldn’t you? — the only thing she shut back in was hope, surely the one thing humanity needed to survive the others? Eek! You’d have to think Pandora spent the rest of her life in therapy, coming to terms with her guilt.

Anyway, back to me. I don’t think I have felt so much lack of certainty before. Frankly, I’ve been confused in these oh-so-changing and identity-obsessed times. Every time I crank up my computer to start a post, I get bogged down in the deathly dichotomy of doctrinal duality (not to mention laboured alliteration). It’s not that I haven’t had ideas; it’s just that when I start to run with one of them, so many different pathways open up that I quite literally get overwhelmed and can’t decide which to follow. Like Robert Frost, I’d go for the one less travelled, but almost all of them qualify on that count these days. 

For someone who loves to comment, this uncharacteristic state of no comment—haven’t posted a blog at all this year and only a couple last year—is disturbing. There’s been such a one-dimensionality about life. The usual rites of passage have been cancelled or postponed, sometimes more than once. My choir is on it’s fourth attempt to sing the mighty Bach Mass in B Minor. Parties, weddings, funerals, festivals, concerts, celebrations with family and friends, travel and holidays. Many of the things that anchor our lives haven’t happened. Time seems to have folded into itself. Chronological memory has stalled—it’s hard to remember what happened and when it happened because the rhythm of our lives has been messed around so badly. 

However, I had a ‘Damascus moment’ a few weeks ago. I realise I’ve been in mental hibernation. We humans aren’t supposed to be able to hibernate, but I’m walking proof “the science” is wrong on this. Think about it. Hibernation is the thing that animals do to conserve energy so they can survive adverse weather conditions or lack of food. But isn’t hibernation just one great big sleep? Not at all. They’re not all a bunch of lazy fur balls—hibernation isn’t technically sleeping, and hibernating animals ‘wake up’ periodically. Hibernation’s more a state of torpor. The animal’s heartbeat and breathing slow, and their body temperature drops significantly. But they are still capable of some activity, including suckling cubs. Sounds scarily like my last two years, except for the cub suckling bit. Oh, and hibernating bears don’t eat, drink or exercise for around 100 days. I’ll leave you to figure out which of those abstentions apply to my hibernation experience. 

If animals can hibernate to survive stuff like adverse weather, why not me ? I’ve clearly been in a state of torpor avoiding all the crap unleashed by the idiot who re-opened Pandora’s box (or jar). I’ve been in my imaginary leaf and twig-lined den waiting for better times. What? I’ve woken up too soon? Well, even bears can only hibernate for so long. 

In any case, as there is SFA I can do about any of the stuff I’ve been hoping to outlast, I figured it was time to grab some of those lemons life has lobbed in my direction and make some lemonade. It’s time to zoom in on the certainties and consign confusion to outer darkness. So, I’m writing a book about branding for the founders of start-up and early-stage businesses. You may well think this is a giant leap from writing about random shit in this blog, but developing and managing brands is what I do for a living and, after a lot of years plus a fair few cracks at the entrepreneurial life to lace through it all, I have a lot of material. You might say my stash of lemons is a big one. Much tasty lemonade should result. 

OK, I’ll stop labouring the point and move on. But I am excited. It’s going well. Energy is high, optimism is loaded, and the world is again my oyster. Hibernation mode is most definitely deactivated.

May we not live in interesting times

I’m sure you know the expression “may you live in interesting times”. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the Chinese Curse’. On the surface, it seems to be a positive wish, it’s typically used ironically with the “interesting” bit referring to moments when there is disorder and conflict rather than peace and stability. I should point out here that the cultural appropriation appears to be … er … not cultural … as there is apparently no known equivalent translation in Chinese.

Anyway, I’d say we’re certainly living in interesting times. In fact, you could likely put up an argument these are the most interesting times ever. In the proverbial sense, it doesn’t get much more interesting than the prospect of cataclysmic climate change that we’re facing, not to mention the seismic shifts going on in politics around the world.

In this sense, my last couple of months could also be described as “interesting”. I’ve been to three conferences focussed on sustainability and social justice issues, joined 40,000 others who marched to our Parliament building in Wellington’s Climate Strike, learned a useful new word,  Zweckpessimismus, and sung in a big production of Carl Orff’s immortal and highly bawdy Carmina Burana. You might struggle to see the connections, but ‘bear with’ …

With the exception of singing Carmina, which was tremendous, the common denominator linking the other threads was how easy it would be to get cynical and lose hope in the face of all the issues. For sure, the various conferences dished up some inspiring instances of people who clearly give a lot of damns doing amazing things, they also underscored a few home truths. While a lot of it was stuff I already knew, such as the awful state of our oceans with all that plastic choking the life out of everything in them and the shame of places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s still shocking to listen to researchers who’ve seen these horrors up close and personal and measured the impact. I knew it was bad, but the scale is staggering. And that’s just the oceans!

I was a bit depressed at the end of this run of events, wondering if it really is possible for us to get the lid back on the Pandora’s Box we’ve opened. Wondering why so many people are still in denial that it actually exists, let alone has been opened? Then I came across the concept of Zweckpessimismus which helped me understand why so many of us seem transfixed like  deer in the headlights, unable to pull their heads out of the sand.

Zweckpessimismus is one of those complicated German compounds which translates as something like pessimism on purpose. In other words, the attitude of expecting the worst in order to feel relief when the worst doesn’t happen. This is undoubtedly one way of coping in a very uncertain world, but it seems like the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that we should avoid like the plague.  Surely, we should be going hard out for the opposite — what can go right will go right?

Zweckpessimists, with their doomsday thinking are actually dangerous in these super-intersting times when we need hope and optimism above everything else. While it might be a wonderful feeling when you have expected the worst and it doesn’t happen, it is pushing out a form of negative energy that infects others with alarm and fear. Instead, let’s pool all the good vibes we can call forth to create an unstoppable wave of positivity to inspire our Simian ingenuity and creativity to find solutions. Perhaps then, the tipping point we seem to be reaching, will skew in the direction of a world we would like to see. Let’s opt for uninteresting times and be bored in perpetuity by the serenity of global peace and ecological abundance rather than the dystopian alternative that is the other option.

Coming back to performing Carmina Burana. It was a true celebration of what people can achieve in harmony.  Without blowing my own trumpet (both puns intended), it was a great night. Close to 2,000 people — audience and all the performers — left the concert on a high. This high — a palpable energy buzzing around the auditorium connecting us all — stayed with me long after the strains of the music were done. I hope that is true for others who were there. If we could always feel this way, how amazing would our lives be? Imagine the transformation that would follow if every Zweckpessimist out there expected the best instead of the worst. Someone should coin a word for that!

 

Counterfeit World?

Haven’t written a post for some time. When I turned 60 in March I came over all introspective and had an unaccountable urge to start writing my auto-biography. This was all going quite well until I got into a funk about how much of my life and times I actually want to share … honestly … and so I ‘pivoted’ (the moniker the start-up community apply to a whopping change of direction) and am now a funk-free zone.

However, today I read an article that actually made me get my blog groove back on. The article was about the fact that for several years, a number of the (credible) scientific community around the world have been testing the possibility that we are part of a simulated world. Oh great, another fear to be factored into the growing list. To be sure, this is not at all a new concept. In the seventies, I can remember reading sci-fi books like Counterfeit World (or Simulacron-3 as it was published, for some unaccountable reason, in some places) written by Daniel F Galouye in 1964.

Counterfeit World featured a total environment simulator created by a scientist to advance market research by reducing the need for opinion polls. The world’s  inhabitants are unaware they are only electronic impulses in a computer. As the story unfolds, the protagonist progressively grasps that his world is likely not “real” and struggles with inchoate madness brought on by this realisation. Well, you would wouldn’t you? Things get pretty nasty before they get better as the ‘gods’ controlling his  ‘world’ try to keep the lid on their unravelling experiment. I wonder if this fab little book provided inspiration for the spine-chilling gold standard for simulated worlds, The Matrix (1999)?

While I don’t actually believe that we are part of a simulated world, the fact remains that computer simulation has become a norm, even if we aren’t yet capable of creating actual populated worlds. As the article points out, since the 90s, computer simulations have been set up to try to get answers to Big Questions.  Questions like “What causes war?”, “How will climate change affect global migration?” and “Which political systems are most stable?” Does anyone else wish someone would answer the biggest question “How do I win Lotto?  … and please, I want more than the standard “Buy a ticket”.

As things stand though, computers aren’t really up to the job of mimicking the extraordinary complexity of our world. Or, at least, not very well. Anyone hear the “yet” hovering at the end of this sentence. I’m open to believing that someday they might be. That it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could achieve a state of sophistication where they could create simulations of people in computer code who are to all intents and purposes just like you and me in the way they think and behave. Scary shit huh? But there are people out there — and not just ANY old people, people with the sort of credentials that give them a seat at the table  — who think this may already have happened, that we actually are living in a computer simulation created by a more advanced civilisations.

As far back as 2003, the philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested that if you can believe that we might one day be running many simulations from an anthropological point of view to better understand our ancestors and the history of our civilisation, it is logical that we are living in one of them right now. And why would that be? According to Bostrom, “If people eventually develop simulation technology — no matter how long that takes — and if they’re interested in creating simulations of their ancestors, then simulated people with experiences just like ours will vastly outnumber un-simulated people.”

This would mean that our current world could then just be one of many because any anthropologist historian wishing to get beyond The Age of Empires as a way of understanding the rise and fall of civilisations will make many simulations involving millions or even billions of people to assess all the possible scenarios. As tainted genius Elon Musk sees it, “the odds that we are NOT simulations are one in billions.”

While this sounds like so much more conspiracy bollocks, since 2012, at least some members of the scientific community have been testing Bostrom’s thinking, including a bunch of physicists at the University of Washington. I’m no conspiracy theorist and I’m too lazy to try and decode how they are going about the testing — and why bother? After all, if we are living in a simulation or controlled experiment, ignorance has to be bliss.

The sinister aspect to testing whether we are indeed a simulation and actually proving that we are, is that if we knew for sure we are living in our own counterfeit world, we would become pointless to our controllers and they would likely end the experiment. It’s like when new drugs are tested for efficacy. It’s important that the patients involved don’t actually now whether they’re on the drug or taking a placebo. If they find out, the trial loses its point and will be cancelled. As Green calls it, a ‘simulation shutdown’ would occur and then what would become of us.? I’d say, whatever the truth, let sleeping dogs lie!

Happy New Year … you’re under arrest!

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 they want. “Frances Manwaring, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent … ” As the cop reels off my Miranda rights, I wonder if I’m in the middle of a nightmare. I pinch myself to be sure, but voice drones on…

OK, so I didn’t get arrested — just wanted to build the drama of the piece. But seriously, it was how I imagined things might have gone down if my business partner hadn’t gone to collect our mail from our PO Box on Tuesday. This is a rare event — nothing of any use comes by snail these days so weeks can go past without either of us stirring our stumps to go and pick up whatever dross has gathered dust. In this case it had been only been a relatively short gap since the last visit and that only because I’m in the middle of a transaction in the UK with an antediluvian, seemingly technophobic insurance company for whom physical mail, for some unfathomable reason, is the only way it will communicate.

Anyway, back comes John with a bundle of letters, mostly bank statements and the usual junk promos. While we’re on the subject, what is it with banks? Mine seem hell-bent on squandering whole forests by continuing to send paper statements, even though I’ve opted for digital versions more times than Kim Kardashian changes her handbags. But I digress — back to the main event. Because I’m hoping to find a reply from the annoying UK insurer, I don’t just lob the whole lot into the recycle bin as I often do. Thats an inspired decision as it turns out. Irritatingly, the hoped for insurance missive isn’t in the stack. Instead, lurking amongst the wad of bank statements, is a formal looking item with “OPEN IMMEDIATELY!” emblazoned on the envelope. How intriguing I think … how very Alice in Wonderland. Then I notice the Ministry of Justice crest and figure it must be something follow up from the Jury Service stint I did in early November. Being a complaint sort of person (!), I open it immediately as instructed without any concerns. But a brief first scan of the the short letter almost stopped my heart.

Nothing magical about this missive! Turns out it’s a summons to appear in court on Thursday at 11am. I’m reading it on Tuesday at about 4.50pm, so the imminence is pretty alarming. Has to be a mistake I think. Must have read it wrong. Reading it again does nothing to alter my first impression — it’s definitely a summons and it’s definitely addressed to me, so not a case of mistaken identity. And the heinous crime that requires my presence in court? A speeding infringement from mid-2016. The letter contains a helpful, but not very imaginative infographic (being MD of a creative agency, I’m quite up on what makes a good infographic) depicting the scary steps involved in the apocalypse triggered by this infringement. If you don’t pay the fine instantly, you get a reminder and some grace to stump up (Step 1). After continued ignoring of reminders (Step 2), the up the ante with a summons to court (Step 3). Failure to appear leads to arrest (Step 4).

Poorly rendered though this infographic is (note to self – send our credentials to MOJ and see if they need a new creative agency), I’m now more than a little freaked out. Us head girl types don’t get summoned to appear in court, it’s just not in our DNA! Anyway, it’s now 4.59pm and I panic dial the Ministry’s 0800 quicker than you can say Great Train Robbers to see WTF is going on and what I can do about it. I thank my lucky stars to find someone still taking calls (at a government agency) after 5pm and I have a very convivial conversation with this saintly person who clearly doesn’t think I’m an axe murderer. Having cleared that up, we quickly cut to the chase. The problem turns out to be a timing issue. I’d just moved house at about the time it happened, so didn’t receive the original fine notice (thanks whoever moved into that house after me and didn’t forward my mail). Then I didn’t notify my change of address to the powers that be before the reminder was sent out, so I also didn’t receive that (another heartfelt thank you to the new incumbent).

It was a little un-nerving how much information about my movements my new BFF was able to access while we were talking. I did vocalise somewhat stridently (not too stridently as I didn’t want to get offside with MOJ) my disappointment and surprise that only the one reminder appears to have been sent, and that there had been no subsequent communications until this summons to court more than two years later. In any case, I had to agree it was a fair cop as I hadn’t sent the change of address out immediately and it was therefore on me that the documents never found me. As you can imagine, I threw in a few mea culpas at this point. I’m sure youll be very happy to know that all it took to fix the problem was a credit card and $60 of creditworthiness. I certainly was! The irony of it all was that the original fine was only something like $12, the rest being penalties and court fees which couldn’t be waived because of my failure to notify change of address. However, she assures me I dont  have to make an appearance in court appearance and the long arm of the law wont be reaching out for me and we’re done. Phew!

Later, I pondered the astonishing amount of effort that goes into a minor misdemeanour when so much other big crime goes unchecked. That’s a story of its own, but there’s another side to this issue. I’ve moved several times in the last few years. I’m pretty diligent about sending out change of address notices to people like the Transport Authority, and I genuinely thought I had notified them all after that particular move. Apparently not. Some time ago I decided to get around this by using my business PO Box as my personal address to avoid all the hassle involved.

But my point is how easy it is to get offside with the law. Many people less advantaged than me also move a lot for all sorts of reasons, including financial or family difficulties. Many more have temporary addresses or no address. For sure, a proportion of these won’t own or drive cars, so won’t be in line to clock up traffic offences. However, I’m sure many of them do and I wonder how much of our policing time is spent arresting people who, like me, didn’t ever get the fine notices in the first place? Being generous, I’m sure most of us would actually stump up, particularly as they offer payment terms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing with the law. Curtailing the speed at which people drive makes us all safer and I do try to stay within the legal limits. I’m sure there are recidivists who never pay and deserve to be prosecuted because they clearly don’t care about the consequences. However, from this experience it’s easy to see how quickly things can escalate and suddenly you’re in trouble. I’m sure I wouldn’t actually have been banged up, but I might have landed a criminal record if I’d been convicted. I ended up thinking there but for the grace of God go I if John had postponed his trip to our PO Box by 2 days. Timing is everything! Happy New Year indeed.

Ghosts from Christmases past #2: Hip hip hooray!

Spending Christmas in hospital would not high on my Dear Santa wish list. I apologise in advance to all those dedicated and wonderful doctors and nurses who are rostered on through holidays to look after the hapless hoardes who are ill or break themselves at Christmas. Nope, those guys do a heroic job. But hospital at Christmas – it’s just not living the dream is it? It has to be said, I have been one of the hapless Christmas A&E admissions, having snapped my Achilles tendon on holiday on Christmas Eve a few years ago and I was truly grateful (a) that it happened in the early morning so I wasn’t competing with all the drunks that clog the system later in the day/night and (b) that those dedicated and wonderful types were with great good grace (amen) to put this Humpty together again without any kings’ horses or men in sight.

Still and all, a festive hospital visit is just not anyone’s top choice as a holiday destination. And yet, fifteen years ago, it actually was. I needed what is amusingly referred to as ‘elective surgery’. Elective because you can, in theory, choose whether to have it or not, and when, as the condition doesn’t need to be dealt to at a particular time — i.e. it isn’t life threatening. The whole elective thing is laughable. Big yeah right! In many cases there is a choice, but that happens when your surgeon accepts that your pain is so extreme that you’d likely go insane if you had to bear it for a nano-second longer.

To give you the back story, I had both hip joints replaced in my late thirties. I was unusually young, but by no means unique. There were a number of things wrong with me each one of which on its own wouldn’t have been much of an issue, but collectively combined to wreck the joints. Because of my age, my surgeon held the surgery off as long as he could because he was worried about future complications — the prostheses only last so long and there are only so many times you can effectively replace the replacements because apparently you run out of femur to play with (sorry if this is a little close to the … er … bone for some). It was all about probabilities. How long the replacement joints would last, how long I would live If the first was shorter than anticipated and the latter longer, I faced seeing my life out in a wheel chair. In any case, my condition deteriorated at a rate that would have made an Apollo Space Craft seem laboured. Movement became very limited, quality of life nose-dived and ultimately the pain became so bad he relented. I had both of them ‘done’ within a year of each other. Happy days!

Anyway, the ops were a tremendous success. I got my life and mobility back, the pain was miraculously gone and I was a happy little camper. Then several years later comes ‘The Fall. Before you get worried about my state of innocence, I don’t mean fall in the Biblical sense. No, my fall was getting a bit carried away at an al fresco party and missed my footing in the dark on the edge of some concrete circle we’d turned into an impromptu dance floor. Seemed like a great idea at the time. Wouldn’t have been too big a deal if I hadn’t landed so hard that one of my prostheses came loose. Back to limping, pain and the certainty of more surgery.

This time, there was no question of the surgeon putting up a fight — the revision clearly needed to be done and it was only a question of when. Luckily for me, I have a private health care plan which meant I really was in a position to choose a time that would be the least disruptive to my life. The first slot that my surgeon could offer was just before Christmas, meaning I would be in hospital for Christmas and Boxing Day. The next option was weeks away and, once I’d thought about it and got over the poor me aspect of it all, the Christmas timing was actually ideal. The private hospital I went to was very close to my house, so easy for family visits and minimal unscheduled time off work.

In all seriousness, apart from the fact that undergoing surgery of this sort is not a walk in the woods, once I’d got over the immediate effects of the anaesthetic and the post op trauma had passed, it was actually quite fun. I had a lovely big airy room on the corner of the hospital all to myself. The nurses were a great bunch, some were old friends from previous incarcerations. I think they were grateful to swop stories with someone who was under 85 to be honest as they dropped in more than was strictly necessary and we had a lot of laughs. It didn’t stop there. I had had more visitors than I probably would have had at home, and I didn’t have to lift a finger on the festive cooking front. The food wasn’t half bad, particularly a pretty yummy (for an institution) roast turkey dinner on the big day, washed down with one of those cute little miniature bottles of a hearty red and the decorations were pretty flash. Best of all, I didn’t have to suffer through all the endless repetitions of canned Christmas music. By the way, does anyone other than me find the whole idea that Santa sees you while you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake a bit creepy and stalkerish? Anyway, I was out by New Year and well into the familiar rehab routine.

Now that we’re in the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, there’s a bit of time to ruminate about stuff. This morning, in one of those desultory conversations one has with friends and family, my mother and I somehow meandered into comparing the vintage of our artificial joints. Tragic, I know but hips seem to be our family thing. We’ve all had them done. Big difference is when they were done; grandfather (late eighties and only one), father (early eighties and only one), uncle (well into his sixties and only one), mother (both — late fifties and early sixties) and sister (mid-fifties — one so far, but counting down to the next). Then there was me in my late thirties, not sure what happened there! Anyway, my mother’s first prosthesis is a venerable 25 whereas mine is a stripling at 20. No-one really knows how long they will last because everyone’s activity levels are different. Equally the vast majority of the recipients of artificial hips are quite old and so it’s difficult to measure average lifespans as the first one generally sees them out. However, 20 is thought to be a pretty good age, so mum and I were musing how much longer ours would hold out.

We also reprised a regular foray into imagining what our parallel universes would have thrown up  if this amazing technology had not been available to us. To be honest, It doesn’t bear thinking about. If we’d been born before the middle of the last century, we’d both likely be cripples, even if either of us was still alive.Early attempts at hip replacement were carried out in Germany in 1891 using ivory to substitute for the femur head. These were attached with nickel-plated screws, Plaster of Paris and glue. Hmmmm. Not surprising this approach didn’t take off. The pre-cursor to current techniques was pioneered in 1940 in South Carolina by US surgeon Dr Austin T Moore who performed the first metallic hip replacement surgery.  A more sophisticated version – the ‘Austin Moore Prothesis’ — was introduced in 1952 and is apparently still used occasionally. Like modern hip implants, it is inserted into the medullary canal of the femur, and depends on bone growth through a hole in the stem for long-term attachment. Another apology here if this creeps anyone out!

It’s always so tempting to think about the golden age that we perceive existed in our grand parents’ eras. Apparently, every generation since the newspapers rolled off the early printing presses felt this sort of nostalgia for imagined glories past, underlined by a fear of change and what it means for the future. Every time I get caught in this sentimentality for the halcyon past, all I have to do is think about my great good luck in living now and being on the receiving end of the incredible medical science and technology that is our norm. Even with all the problems we’re facing as a species, I’m grateful from the bottom of my soul that surgical advances have allowed me to live a full, pain free and normal life. When I think of Christmas miracles, my hospital experience in 2003 would have to be one of them. If we can achieve all this, surely we clever, inventive Simians, can find the tools to figure out the other stuff. Hip hip hooray to that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghosts from Christmases past #1: What a cracker!

Earlier in the week I did one of my favourite parts of Christmas — delivering Christmas gifts for my (Moxie’s) Wellington-based clients. While I was arranging my gaudily sequined Christmas hat as jauntily as I could and wondering whether I could still get away with this look, I had one of those incredible déjà vu moments as I remembered a ghost of myself from a Christmas past.

Thirty years ago, almost to the day, a lovely friend Daniella and I, resplendently festooned in Miss Christmas costumes, were hauling sacks of giant Christmas crackers around the streets of the City of London. We were delivering the contents of said sacks to commercial real estate agents and the crackers were a promotion to announce that the owners of one of the city’s newest tower blocks had decided to break down the floor space into smaller units for rent. Well, dear reader, what a buzz! Everyone was thoroughly into the festive spirit (some literally) and we turned heads, stopped traffic and generally had great banter with the people we passed. Lot of ‘you better be good for goodness sake’ sort of jive. It has to be said, the hats were coy, the skirts short, the heels high and the legs long. Of course, the clichéd red velvet and faux white ermine outfits had their own tacky but exotic allure. In these highly PC days donning we then this gay apparel might appear like the ultimate in objectification. Back then, we just saw it as a bit of harmless fun — it was for my business, no-one forced us and, in any case, we probably thought we looked ‘hot’ and enjoyed flaunting it. A whole topic for a different blog!

This cameo role was related to a business that I tried to help a friend’s son Ralph get off the ground. He’d already started it, but it wasn’t gaining traction beyond his immediate locale. We called it Absolutely Crackers!and the giant crackers for the city building were one of our biggest successes. In its short life span, Absolutely Crackers! really rocked the corporate promotions market — we made bespoke, weird and wonderful crackers for a range of iconic brands including Arsenal Football Club and top end chocolate manufacturer Charbonnel et Walker. Then there were the sumptuous crackers designed to match the splendour of art deco Pullman Carriages on the Venice Simplon Orient Express.  Fillers for these were white silk evening scarves for men and exquisite hand-painted ones for women from VSOE’s merchandise range. For a city broker, crackers made from the Financial Times were the perfect accessory for their annual bash.

The jewel in our crown was creating the invitations to CBS Records (now Sony Music) Christmas party in 1988. I don’t recall how we got in front of CBS — might have been via my then husband who was involved in music sponsorship — but we put together a very ambitions proposal for they invites which they, somewhat amazingly, accepted. In retrospect, they probably went for it because we ludicrously under-priced the whole gig.

The theme for the party was ‘Old English’ and, let me tell you, these weren’t just any old crackers. No, no, no, these were masterpieces of ingenuity and engineering. What we proposed, and they ultimately got, were individually boxed crackers — we designed a sleek triangular box to make them easy to post or courier to the who’s who of the musical world that were on the invitation list. In keeping with the theme, the crackers themselves were made from a beautiful burgundy and gold paisley patterned paper and the gifts were boxed miniatures of Glen Fiddich. Nice touch we thought even though Glen Fiddich is clearly not English. Nor is it even that old, having been founded in 1886, but good luck getting boxed miniatures of mead! Anyway, CBS seemed to agree that the single malt met the spirit … hem hem … of the occasion.

So far so good. The glory of the piece was the invitation which was hand-written by a calligrapher using medieval ornamentation on the lettering and then reproduced on parchment style paper. Most sane people would simply have rolled the invite up inside the cracker. Not us! No, we figured that to be authentic, they needed something else. So the invite was rolled, tied with red satin ribbon and then sealed using a custom designed CBS seal and traditional red sealing wax. The scroll this made was glued to the top of the cracker and the finished articles looked amazing.

And that’s where the wheels fell off. We had to assemble 350 of them. Anyone like to hazard a guess how long it takes to hand seal 350 parchment invitations? What calibre of satin ribbon can withstand the heat of the sealing wax being dripped onto it? No clue? We didn’t either. I can remember sitting at home at my kitchen table, the ceiling paint slowly blackening with the somewhat greasy smoke from the melting wax, my fingers progressively covering with Band Aids as the skin reddened and blistered, and the frustration grew as each ribbon sample melted down. I think we finished them off in the Board Room of my day job. (Happily I had a great boss who thought the whole cracker madness was great fun and might even have been the genius behind a device that got created to allow us to make about 10 ribbon seals simultaneously.) Anyway, the crackers were a huge hit even if we made no money out of them (on account of never having done anything like this before — has anyone?  — and not being able to price them effectively). But hey, luminaries like Mick Jagger and George Michael got our crackers … and what price a few first degree burns between superstar friends!

But how did crackers get incorporaed into the Christmas lexicon in the first place? It’s not like Matthew’s Gospel told us of wise men bringing gold, frankinsense, myhrr … and … er … crackers. You can sort of understand where Christmas trees and all the Easter paraphanalia like eggs and bunnies got adapted from the pagan festivals the Christian ones replaced. But crackers were unashamedly commercial. Wikipedia (bless) tells the story of how one Tom Smith was first to market.  He apparently created crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). But the novelty wore off, sales of bon-bons slumped, and Smith sought new promotional ideas. Apparently, he added the “snap” when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on a fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by trinkets. This new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e. Cossack), but quickly morphed into the onomatopoeic “cracker”. The other elements of the cracker we all know and (many of us) love —the gifts, paper hats and mottos — were all introduced by Walter Smith (Tom’s son) to differentiate their product from competitors who’d grasped the opportunity and got on the cracker bandwagon.

Back to Absolutely Crackers! Despite the genuine success of some of our promotions, the cracker empire never eventuated. Behemoth’s like Tom Smith still dominated the retail market and made it pretty much impossible for us to succeed. Without cracking (sorry couldn’t resist it) the retail market, relying on promotions was too random as they didn’t happen evenly during the year. Our vision was to make the cracker a ubiquitous part of the corporate party circuit, not just at Christmastime. Instead we coped with high stress peak times during October – December which, fun though they were … and they were … were also unsustainable. In any case, as with CBS, we didn’t really know how to price the jobs properly and lacked the confidence to just think of a big number and double it, then double it again, so we didn’t manage to build any reserves.

We did try quite hard to get into the ‘high end’ retailers like Harrods, Fortnum and Mason and Asprey but other independents peddling top of the line product, had got to them first. Asprey in particular offered eye-wateringly expensive crackers at around fifteen hundred quid for a dozen. Think gold plating and diamonds designed for wealthy Saudis! We didn’t have the working capital to really get stuck into this level of ostentation. In the end, we decided to throw in the towel and, with extreme regret, closed our little factory unit outside Hereford. I re-focused on my day job which likely pleased my long-suffering boss, and Ralph went off to study drama.

Despite this, I loved Christmas crackers  long after Absolutely Crackers! went to the big Christmas party in the sky and have re-prised my cracker making skills for family and friends on many occasions over the years. To me, specially designed crackers are like icing on the cake of my table setting themes. I also found them to be a very personal and loving way of wrapping carefully chosen gifts. I guess my feelings about table settings and crackers were akin to the way others offer love through food. However, it’s increasingly hard not to be sickened by the overt consumerism of this time of the year. All the advertising for too many things we don’t need and there’s no place to hide behind the knowledge of the damage we consumers have wreaked on our environment.

Apparently there’s a memorial water fountain to Tom Smith and his family at Finsbury Square in London. Perhaps this is another monument that ought to be removed? Crackers may well be a beautiful augmentation of the Christmas table and add some fun to the moment. But it is only a moment and they are just another layer of landfill when it all comes down to it and we need more of that like we need to colonise Mars. Well actually, we probably will need to colonise Mars if we don’t stop creating landfill like crackers, but I’m sure you know what I mean. I’ve stopped making or buying them even if I have to psyche myself to step away from the tantalisingly presented boxed sets in stores and mourn the creative opportunity loss for my table decorations.

Having said all that, all that remains is to wish you a cracker of a Christmas and a very happy New Year full of peace, joy, hope and love.

Thrift — the new black?

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.

 

 

 

 

Be yourself no matter what they say

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!

 

Take your shoes off when you’re wiping your feet on me!

At a dinner party some years ago the host came up with a provocative challenge which I’ve subsequently put to many others in the intervening years. Imagine the scene. We were still sitting around the table after dinner and and had got to that mellow point — i.e. belt-looseningly full and well wined —  where you get stuck into the really good conversations. The challenge was what would we call our autobiographies. “Great question” we all agreed.

As you can imagine, silence descended on the table for some time as we all tried to think of something suitably impressive, witty, challenging, ironic or, frankly, all of the above to impress each other with. Unfortunately, I can’t actually remember any of them because there were somer crackers, and we spent a couple of hysterical (serious LOL stuff) hours reviewing peoples’ choices against what we collectively knew about them.

Being known as Frankie to that group, I think I opted for something frivolous like Frankie’s Follies. “Not bad” was the verdict of my fellow diners as they considered the chapters that might make up this clearly racy little number. The ‘they’ at the dinner being people who know me quite well rather than the faceless ‘they’ who are generally cast as the common enemy. It was an eye-opener to understand from their comments that my fellow diners saw me as something like  Bridget Jones meets Barbarella!

Even at the time, I interpreted ‘not bad’ as ‘could do better’. Frankie’s Follies just felt feel a bit frivolous and try hard as a life story, and I’ve been on the hunt for an improved one every since. But I hadn’t been able to come up with a better option — try it, it’s really hard — until recently when I started writing this blog and now I’m spoilt for choice. The title of one of my recent pieces — @shit creek #no paddle — was a contender for a while. This was getting close I felt. Whether or not it could be the perfect moniker for MY book, it would certainly be a fab one for A book. Ultimately, I ruled it out  as I’m determined that the next part of my life will be shaped to avoid any more time wasted in the waiting room for the Shit Creek Express.

But while I was writing it, I did a lot of soul-searching about my life trying to find re-curring themes, good and bad, that underpin my story.. One of the big ones was loyalty. I’m extremely loyal person to people I care about. On too many occasions that has strayed into loyalty beyond reason where I’ve given too much — personally and professionally — putting other people’s interests way ahead of my own. Typically I’ve ended up with my head in my hands to play with; a financial loser with broken heart. That piece of navel-gazing prompted a post that’s been in the hopper for a while but, like Shubert’s majestic last symphony, remained mockingly unfinished — Take Your Shoes Off While You’re Wiping Your Feet on Me! I love this title. It’s got everything really … drama, bathos, victimhood, irony, insight … except authenticity for me now. Like the cast off @shit creek persona, the door mat who allowed too many people to wipe their feet on her is also banished from the narrative these days.

As you might have guessed, the search for the definitive title for my autobiography has become something of mission. At sleepless moments other people count sheep, meditate, name cities … whatever … I start thinking about autobiography names. Maybe this is not for everyone but, for someone who loves words, it’s the perfect way of passing time. You know the deal. When you’re sitting in a cafe or restaurant trying not to look like Jonnie-no-mates whilst waiting for friends who are running late? Or whiling way and hour or too on a cold, dark winter Sunday afternoon at home when there are no fires to fight?

Challenging other people, like my long ago host did, to name their autobiographies has produced some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking conversations I can remember. Last year when I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige I think I finally nailed it! The whole idea of not succumbing to beige has  become a personal metaphor for always being who you are, despite the pressure to conform to all manner of often uncomfortable societal norms. It represents my commitment to the ideology “to thine own self be true”, even if that true self is more bling than Ming. It captures the desire to not give in. To get back in the saddle again after falling off. To be indomitable and bounce back after the proverbial shit has hit the fan. It’s also an enduring reminder of the  husk I become during my last and very damaging long-term relationship. Most of all, imagine the epitaph it would make, ‘she never succumbed to beige!

Seriously though, how do you frame your life story? After all, what’s in a name? Does it matter? A life’s a life isn’t it? Should be. Nonetheless, I think names do matter. When you name a child it does seem that their name helps shape their personalities because of some deep-rooted need to live up or down to whatever they’re called.  Someone named Storm is likely to be a very different person from a Daisy for example. You’d be a laughing stock if you were a scaredy-Storm cat. Daisy? Well … er … I’m thinking … all those dairy cows.

Parents-in-waiting agonise over what to call their embryonic children. Any one who’s started a business will have agonised in equal measure over what to call their commercial ‘baby’ because the one they choose will shape the perceptions of every person who engages in any way with the business. I think equal dedication should be put into naming our life stories because it helps identify the values by which we want to live our lives, our primary vision and mission, and distill to its essence how we see ourselves as human beings.

We can choose to do this retrospectively when the story has already been long in the telling. This is the time when we are moving towards its ending and the denouement is becoming clear. Or we can name the story early on and allow it to shape how our plot develops and ultimately the conclusion we wish it to have. Of course, we can only stack the odds — life throws all sorts of curved balls at us which, without a crystal ball or other psychic assistance, we can’t possibly factor in from the beginning. This likely will result in a least one, if not several revisions or tweaks. But that’s a good thing, in the way that a quality business plan should be a living document evolving as circumstances change and understanding deepens.

If I had my time again, I’d take great care to more pro-actively shape my life by thinking about the story I wish to write. I don’t think for a moment I’d choose the schematic that would be required in the Take Your Shoes Off When You’re Wiping You’re Feet on Me version! If I’d started out with the Never Succumb to Beige ethos, I wonder how my life would have differed? While there have been shades of both through the years, giving a positive name to my journey earlier could have saved me from going down a lot of unnecessary rabbit holes along the way. The good news is I feel like I’m tracking pretty well against my chosen epitaph!

Thanks to College Artist for the perfect cover photo.

 

 

A dystopia of demagogues?

Over a drink last night, a friend and I ended up talking about THAT MAN. Well, it’s pretty much inevitable really isn’t it? What would a meeting of friends in today’s world be without a little Trump-bashing?

Once we’d got the hand wringing over and there was no more air left to suck through our teeth as we exhausted our daily outrage quotas, we got into a much more interesting discussion. about the man’s curious penchant for the world’s current crop of “strong men”. Let’s call them, for the sake of argument, Trump’s Posse. And what a band of merry men they are to be sure. I’m thinking al Assad, Jung-un, Duterte, Jinping, Erdogan, el-Sissi and Uncle Vlad Putin and all. They’d likely make all the horrors of the world that Pandora unwittingly unleashed look benign!

As individuals, Trump’s Posse are are called many things. Some of the more polite moniker’s include dictator, autocrat, despot, occasionally even oligarch (I’ll leave you to ponder the long, long list of  less polite options). My own favourite is the deliciously arcane “demagogue” — a leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices and makes false claims and promises in order to gain power. Perhaps more Trump than Duterte, but that might be splitting human rights abuses.

But what to call them as a group my friend and I wondered? Surely they have enough commonality to merit a collective noun of their own we thought. After another glass (or two) of wine and much hilarity (if you don’t laugh you cry right?), we came up with what we thought were some crackers … a doomsday of despots … a deception of dictators … a dystopia of demagogues …  an abomination of autocrats … for some reason we got stuck in the semantic seduction of slick alliteration.

Any better ideas?

I’m in with the in-crowd

Well actually, I’m not really, but it felt like an attention-grabbling headline and I could do with some more followers! Before anyone feels aggrieved, let me say quickly it’s not completely ‘fake news’. I do know a few people who know important people and in my life I have rubbed shoulders with the odd great or goodie from time to time; junior ministers, MPs, TV/radio types, musicians, sports celebs, poets and scientists laureate etc. After 13 years in London and now 12 in the capital of a country like NZ with a population of only 4.7m, you’d have to be some kind of hermit for this not to be the case. In any case, to justify the title, I did once sit at a table next to the glorious Mr. In-Crowd himself, Bryan Ferry, in an Indian Restaurant in Kensington. Pity I didn’t know I was sitting next to him at the time!

It’s hard to get away from the sheer, unadulterated joy in having bragging rights on an in-crowd moment. My personal best story undoubtedly is the time I swam with the All Blacks (New Zealand’s legendary national rugby team and current world world champions). Think about it. Most people only aspire to swim with dolphins. This wasn’t a sort of sponsored event to raise money for the team. No one took me out on a boat seeking a pod to cosy up to. It was much more prosaic. I was a member of the gym at the Intercontinental Hotel in Wellington for several years and used its pool most lunchtimes. Said hotel is where the ABs (when you’ve swum with them, you’re allowed a bit of familiarity I’d say) stay when in Wellington. Imagine if you will. You open the doors to the pool and there they are. A posse of glorious young men rotating between the sauna, the ice bath on the edge of the pool and the pool itself. You can imagine, dear reader, the flight impulse and unwillingness to unveil the then fifty something body was very strong. But I toughed it out and took the plunge … as it were. In the end, it was a lot of fun. They were utterly charming to everyone there. A story to dine out on forever.

But there’s also the in-ness of knowing someone who knows SOMEONE. The whole concept of reflected glory. A few years ago, the brother of a good friend dated a very (VERY) famous woman who was the ex-wife of an even more famous man … and at least one other not quite so famous one before him. Nearly wrecked the brother’s life, what with being followed and spied on and generally paparazzied (if that’s not a verb, it should be). Not altogether surprisingly, the relationship didn’t flourish and the very famous women somewhat predictably went on to marry another notorious A Lister. Don’t think my friend’s little brother was either famous enough or rich enough to cut it as a permanent fixture, although he certainly was a little of the former by the time his wonder woman jumped ship, and he wasn’t exactly a pauper to begin with. He just wasn’t in the same league as her hat trick of celeb spouses.

It was mind-boggling hearing about the media frenzy that surrounded their affair. My friend’s family was described very patronisingly as ‘socially anonymous’. They weren’t super-wealthy or super-successful or super-anything other than, to my mind, super-nice, but nice doesn’t sell column inches and so they were of utterly no consequence to the editors of prurience. It wasn’t an uplifting experience for any of the family or friends. I was reminded of this story whilst watching the endlessly repeated footage marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana in August. Love her or not — my jury has always been out — it has always seemed a cruel and pointless waste of two lives to end up in the mangled wreckage of a Merc in the small hours of the morning because your drunk driver has smashed into the wall of a Paris tunnel speeding to evade a baying pack of papps.

While my friend’s brother was able to retire to relative obscurity when his relationship ended, his experience at the time was yet another example of the collateral damage accompanying the cult of celebrity that’s endemic in our western societies. The Princess Diana story is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the high price of fame. Even though she was alleged to have manipulated the press big time and was therefore something of a poster girl for the ‘be careful what you wish for’ cautionary tale, no-one deserves the obsessive stalking that she endured.

It’s not just the stalking, there are also all the expectations to be lived up to. How do you retain self-esteem when every inch of you and everything you do is examined and picked over by the media on a daily basis? Having a barrage of cameras shoved in your face every time you venture out is unthinkable to anyone who values a degree of privacy. There’s also the fact that if you in the public eye, you have to compete with your Photoshopped publicity look. Great to be displayed on bill boards and front covers at your air-brushed best, where blemishes have been evened out and even the contours and proportions of your body might have been changed. But how would you ever leave home as the real you?

It’s not surprising people under this sort of scrutiny succumb to diet fads and eating related disorders including bulimia and anorexia. Again Princess Dianna is the poster girl here, but there have been so many others. People who are convinced that 40kgs is the ideal body weight are on the slippery slope to long-term health complications if not pointless and premature death. Then there’s the Siren call of the party scene that’s been a trap for many of an unwary in-crowder and I’m sure the sex, drugs, rock and roll lifestyle is a blast … until it destroys you.

For many, achieving any hall of fame can entail making some unpalatable choices. It’s become all too apparent over the last few weeks that the Weinsteins and Moores of the world use their power base to pray on the wide-eyed people trying to get ahead in their orbit, generally women, who are further down the food chain. It’s a sad right of passage if you have to run the gauntlet of sexual predation from powerful men whose fame and commercial bankability has, at least until now, protected them from being outed. How many aspiring women have had to put up or shut up to rise through the ranks? Worse, how much talent have we missed out on as women have walked away from promising careers to avoid conflict?

For sure the rich and famous seem to have everything anyone could ever want, but conditions most certainly apply. I know no-one promised famous people a rose garden and they chose to go down the path that led to the red carpet, winning on the international stage, awards, unimaginable wealth and similar. But looking at the price of admission, who in their right minds would want to be in with the in-crowd? I’d much rather be socially anonymous and free to lead my life as I wish. Having said that, I like to have a bit more of the rich bit in my relative anonymity — Croesus levels sprint to mind. It’s the fame bit you can keep!