There’s An Unexpected Item in my Bagging Area

unexpected item in the bagging areaI want to talk to you about shopping, those tiny exchanges conducted under strip light.

Buying stuff is the coal-face of human material desire,  the location of our drama about value and fairness.  It’s a simple and ancient idea, the swapping of one thing of value for another of (what we deem to be) equal value.

Buddha and lots of other enlightened beings tell us not to do it, but most of us do; we buy shizzle. We buy shizzle we don’t need. Singing fish, unwearable hats, items that go from gift to thrift store in days.

There’s the ‘necessary’ shopping, for food and pants, and then there’s ‘trigger shopping’ (for me, books, can’t resist the buggers). Then there’s what I call ‘human’ shopping where we’re telling stories with our purchases:  the new suit that reveals the first job interview in 10 years; the size 10 dress indicating small victories in the gym; the pots and pans for the kid who has just left home; the newly weds sheets; the funeral flowers; the fresh set of acrylics that give away a creative surge.

One of my favourite jobs was working in a health shop that smelled of patchouli and lemongrass. People would wander in like walking wounded and all with stories. Shell-shocked new dads looking for something to stop the wife crying, old men and their goiters, a lot of beleaguered eczema. 

So, it will come as no surprise to discover that I hate self-service tills. To me, they sum up the cold, hard, robotic vision of the future predicted in the 1950s. The self-service process offers no warmth, no humanity – for heaven’s sake, human experience is not binary.

Self-service scales are more sensitive and spiky  than a dopey end-of-season wasp. The SKU codes on items are unreadable, and loud accusatory alarms go off if you try to purchase a bottle of wine or condoms. Then, there it goes, “There’s an unexpected item in the bagging area”. Except there isn’t.

You shuffle your skin-thin plastic bag around a bit, as if re-jigging your items will somehow calm the hissy-fitting machine. You try talking to the till, escalating from reasonable to exasperated within thirty seconds. You wait to be rescued by someone in polyester, but help is busy manually inputting the SKU code for a fellow customer’s kumquats. 

I think perhaps it is the Ghost of Redundant Shop Assistants Past setting off those scales. Or an incumbent fly.  More likely however, is that the unexpected item in my bagging area is simply the unbearable weight of words unsaid, pleasantries unshared. 

Once you have extracted the lottery of coins from the obscurely-positioned change tray and fended off the vomiting of vouchers, you may think as I do,  “Fuck you Robo-Till and your cold, steel heart.”

I just want someone to chat about the weather with.  I want someone to say… ‘Oooh I love these too .. I ate them when I was pregnant with my first’ as they pass my jar of gherkins through the scanner. 

I want snippets of lives freely offered and freshly packed. I want a mutual exchange.

Give me a human, give me a human story any day.

Returning to Work: From the frying pan into the mire

The commute

My poor blog has been more neglected than a bikini line in winter. 

I’ve been working full-time you see, and I’ve also been letting things fall through the cracks.

Like many working women, I am still holding the domestic space together while trying to cope with the demands of full-time work. (This survey found that working women generally still do + 17 hours of  housework per week compared to men’s – 6 hours . Hang on, what?)

I’ve managed to forget music lessons and food shops, I’m haphazardly organising birthday parties, homework and play dates. I’m burning pizzas and missing school plays, concerts, and parent’s evenings.

I’m out of the playground and into the commute; away from the frying pan into the mire.

I’m trying to rally the troops, the children and my partner, with lists and memos; I have employed help – a cleaner and a child minder, and I know what a luxury that is.

And yet, and yet…

The jumble and scatter of life squeezes out my writing, these words that are my yoga and my Prozac.

Working life smooths out my edges as I polish myself down and re-imagine a woman I had forgotten; Our Lady of the Meeting, Doyenne of the Filofax, Director of Deadlines. Employee.

No more coffee mornings. No more spending hours honing a blog piece about pants or being a wanker mum.

I’ve been away from office life for so long, I fear that my brain is no longer malleable enough to accommodate the new connections I need to make. All my neurological pathways lead to my kids; they are my entrenched pattern, my learned behaviour.

While my part-time existence as a writer was isolating and badly paid, there was space. Time to reflect and get some perspective… too much fucking perspective to quote what’s-his-face from Spinal Tap.

It is a special kind of asthmatic wheeze, this squeezing out of the days, this stringing out of the hours to the last mote of air. Where are the morsels of time, those spaces in which we breathe?

Tell me how you do this thing you fellow working mums…

How to Take Great Photos With Your Smartphone

Gilbert & George by Robert Goldstein

Gilbert & George by Robert Goldstein

In the age of the smartphone, many of us are recording and sharing our entire lives digitally. Nostalgia-infused phone apps such as Hipstamatic and Instagram are just some of the accessible tools that have catapulted the idea of ‘capturing the moment’ into a new age. The instant share-ability and old-school feel of photographs edited with these apps create a bizarre juncture where nostalgia and modernity meet.

But, is something being lost? Is the art of photography being diluted, and can a smartphone ever do what a ‘real camera’ does? Are our children being robbed of a ‘proper’ photographic record of their lives?

I spoke to photographic ninja Robert Goldstein whose exhibition ‘Still’  is on at the Whitfield Fine Art Gallery in London.  Robert has been capturing enduring images for over three decades and, in his spare time, he teaches street photography to kids who have been excluded from mainstream education for social or behavioural reasons. Goldstein explains that photography helps these kids gain confidence and take control of their lives. His students are as likely to use the phone in their pocket as a DLR camera in their work, so I asked Robert for tips on thinking like a photographer when using a smartphone. Here is what he had to say:

“1. The thing about photography is that it’s instinctual. There is no difference between a  film Leica camera and a smartphone. Technically the smartphone thinks for you as you don’t have to worry about shutter speed or film. You just have to concentrate on the subject. At the end of the day it’s just a tool –  it’s in your eye , that’s where it begins.

2. Keep clicking till you think you have it – delete what you don’t like.

3. Notice how light falls on your subject . For example, dark skin or dark tones need more exposure or more light to get definition. A black labrador needs more light than a golden labrador. Darkness eats the light, keep this in mind when you’re shooting. Your smartphone will try and compensate and automatically put the flash on unless you deliberately switch it off. Experiment.

4. Composition is everything. Think about framing and how you are composing the scene. You can leave on the grid setting on your camera phone to see how the picture divides up. Where you put your central subject matter is important. For example, a face in the middle of a photo tells a different story from a face over to the right.

5. Be a Ninja! What I mean is, develop your spatial awareness. You have to learn how to be a ghost to take great photographs. You must be there but not be there. It’s Bruce Lee like; to practice the art of not disturbing your subject. “The art of not being seen” – it’s a book that hasn’t been written yet.

6. Think about colour. Personally, I mainly use black and white in my work because there is nothing to distract from the subject I am photographing. For me, B&W doesn’t sway you from seeing exactly what is being photographed whereas colours can bamboozle you into thinking it’s a great photo through the viewfinder, but then when you see the print, the colour is more present than the subject. B&W is more real for me. Experiment!

7. Practice, practice practice! If you enjoy taking pictures, do it like you should do everything else you love in life; with total passion.”

Robert Goldstein’s Exhibition of photographs, ‘STILL’ is at the Whitfield Fine Art Gallery, 23 Dering Street, off New Bond St, London W1 S1AW  +44 20 7355 0040 until November 15th 2013. Gallery open 10.00am to  5.30pm weekdays, 11.00am to 4.00pm Saturdays. http://www.robertgoldstein.com 

All This Scratching is Making Me Itch: Are Tights a Feminist issue?

Originally posted on Sara Bran:

Vintage Stocking Ad

Vintage Stocking Ad image from http://vi.sualize.us

The leaves are coming down which means the tights are going up in our house. While the Teenage Songbird is dressing her shapely pins in skeins of sheer and shimmer,  the Biscuit Thief and I are just plain itchy and scratchy. We, with our highly reactive ‘sensitive’ skins,  practically BLEED with annoyance the entire autumn/winter season because of the brutal and perilous world of tights and wool in general.  As an added bonus, my seasonal look is topped off by a nose that becomes my personal temperature, mood and alcohol gauge from September to February with a neutral setting of ‘shiny, scarlet and dripping’. I spend the chilly months living in fear that the thin, papery husk of skin holding me together might, at any moment, rip open like the Hulk’s shirt, causing my guts to tumble out onto the gum-strewn pavement; the shiny…

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7 Reasons Why I Am More Rock and Roll Than Keith Richards

Sara Rock n RollWhen I was young *croaky voice* I was in a band.

All those decades ago, as I smoked a tree-sized doobie with the drummer of an indie band in a dank rehearsal room,  I never thought to myself, “Well, this is great fodder for a future blog about parenting.”

But it is.

I have to tell you, being in a band is the best training for family life EVER. Because motherhood is rock and also, roll.

Motherhood is more rock than Keith Richards blowing cocaine up Stevie Nicks’ bottom.  (He never did this).

Parenting is more roll than an entire fridge of frozen desserts at Iceland.

Here’s why:

1. As the lead singer of my band, I was queen of the mood-swing, prone to episodes of unabashed egotism and crushing bouts of low self esteem that made me cry in the toilet and do nervous diarrhoea before every gig. This is EXACTLY what I’m like before Parent’s Evening.

2. When I was giving birth, I let a load of strangers see my fanny and I said ‘yes’ to every drug offered. I did not do this when I was in a band.

3. While I was pregnant, people did treat me a bit like royalty. No one gave a toss when I was in a band.

4. When I made records, no one wanted to produce me. As a mother, after my first product (daughter #1) gained much critical acclaim, everyone wanted me to produce another asap.

5. Negotiating with a dysfunctional bass player, a drummer who these days would be prescribed Ritalin, a keyboard player prone to building radios and a guitarist who thought he was God,  prepared me perfectly for my children’s birthday parties.

6. The reviews of my children have been excellent compared to the ones of my gigs and records. One music reviewer compared me to a Hobbit, which is frankly both size-ist and hair-ist. I’ve never suffered such crippling reviews of my parenting.

7. Also, the whole rock n’ roll, cigarette-stinking tour-bus-full-of-strangers who just want you for your free drink and snacks thing?  I have a child-filled Ford Focus covered in puke and biscuits and a battle going on for Fruit Shoots. *rock fist sign*

Forget the Grammy Awards, I want a Mammy Award for lifetime achievement! Basically, being in a band is the closest thing to designing your own family ever. You get to be really dysfunctional, go on road trips together and see everyone in their pants.  You are perpetually exhausted and someone is always tantruming, vomiting or needing a wee. There is no better training ground for parenthood and frankly, it should be the basis for a new GCSE. I’m going to run it past Gove.

You and Me are History: Archiving the Future

23 Snaps Photo book

My lovely 23 Snaps Photo Book…

The other day, I was asked to produce a baby photo of my youngest child, and I couldn’t. With a wave of nausea, I realised that every moment I have recorded of my youngest daughter’s life, has been digital. And I haven’t been organised about it either.

I sat on the floor with the defunct hard drive that contains the Biscuit Thief’s baby pictures. The connection needed to access the photos is not compatible with my latest computer. Other photos are on a PC that no one, apart from cavemen, use anymore. The rapidity of change in digital technologies is blisteringly clear in the difference between the photographic record of my teenager’s life (born 1996, box of photos in the attic) and that of my second child (born in 2005, diddly-squat in the attic). This problem is big, and it’s getting bigger.

So I’m worrying, I’m worrying about history. But I’m also wondering about whether it matters that I haven’t diligently archived my family’s past. There were, after all, generations before photography, video and audio recording and we can only guess what our ancestors looked, moved and sounded like. Is my lack of a tangible record of my children’s past any worse than the edited histories we have received down the years? Whole chunks of information and images have been discarded over time, deemed unworthy of preservation on (usually) racist or sexist grounds. History has always been selective, and the recording of it highly subjective.

I’m thinking that we live out a strange dichotomy. We think we are in an era of information saturation; that we are recording everything, enjoying this weird intimacy over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social channels. But actually, none of it is tangible… “all that is solid melts into air…” said Marx of modernity. This intimacy is fleeting, a firework in the night sky, a brush against a stranger. There is a disconnect between what we share, what is evanescent and what has permanence. History feels precarious at the same time as being collectively experienced over social media.

My memory is lit up by palpable things; like my father’s handwriting on old birthday cards, or my aunt’s silk dress, still mapping the contours of her body. Nearly six feet tall, she must have been an elegant woman with exquisite taste to own such a dress. My great, great grandmother’s engagement ring reveals that the central diamond, cut in Europe, was at some point removed from its original setting and cast in another in New York in the late 1800s. It tells me more about her life than a photograph. Yet I long to see her, to know her face. I yearn to know whether it is from her that I get my freckles and strawberry blonde hair. I wonder about the quality of her skin and the way her mouth naturally set when she was unaware anyone was looking. Only a photograph can show me that.

Thinking about all this has inspired me to get my digital act together and create tangible histories by printing off photo books for my children. In search of solutions, I tried out 23 Snaps, an app and website which allows you to upload photos to a central server and share your photostream with invited guests. You, and anyone else you invite, can compile and order beautiful printed books, all from within the app. A friend of mine recommends Photobox, and every six months or so, she compiles and prints off another photo album. There are other services such as Jessops and Snapfish but I have yet to find a good way to preserve video. Any ideas? I’d love to know what works for you… how do you log your life?

Writer & Stand-Up Viv Groskop: Laughter Lines

Catching The Comet'sTailThis week, Catching the Comet’s Tail features writer and stand-up Viv Groskop. Her memoir ‘I Laughed I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life’ is based on the diaries she kept during a marathon run of 100 stand-up gigs in 100 nights. The story of Groskop’s whirlwind entrance into the world of stand-up comedy  is also a moving and inspiring tale of motherhood, mid-life, following your dreams and the addictive qualities of Diet Coke. Viv is taking a live version of the book to the Edinburgh Fringe in August and if you get a chance to see her perform, you’ll be witnessing one of the rising stars of British stand-up. Also, she’s one of the few people on the planet capable of recounting the entire history of feminism in rap form.

Viv_GroskopViv on creativity

“I know this is really pathetic but I am slightly embarrassed by the grandiosity of words like “creativity” and “muse”. And I generally take a step back from someone who defines themselves as an “artist”. Unless they are Salvador Dali. I think sometimes these terms can put people off making stuff up and getting the job done (which is all “creativity” really is). That said, I am going to say something truly and massively pretentious: the root of the word “creative” comes from the Latin “believe” (“creo”). And if you want to create anything – if you want to do anything at all, really — it helps if you believe in yourself and in what you are doing. Now please excuse me whilst I go and take a call on my lobster telephone.”

 Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early literary and comedy influences?

“I initially wanted to be a nurse. Then I wanted to be a teacher. But then around the age of six I started watching a lot of television and reading a lot of books and suddenly I wanted to perform or write. This is fortunate as I would have been an “angel of death” nurse and a “why are you so stupid?” teacher. There’s a whole section in I Laughed, I Cried about watching Doris Schwartz (Valerie Landsburg) in Fame. She was the geeky one who wasn’t pretty enough to be an actress so decided to become a stand-up. I was obsessed with her in the early 1980s. Doris downgraded from actress to stand-up. I downgraded from stand-up to writer. Because even writing seemed like an impossible thing for me to do. I really had no idea how to go about doing any of these things. Which is probably why it has taken me until the age of forty to start a lot of the stuff I should have started a long time ago.”

How long did it take to put together I Laughed, I Cried

“I had an impulse to do 100 gigs in 100 nights long before I decided that I wanted to write about it. And even after I had done it, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to put it out there as a story in a book. I had found myself in a strange and unique position in my mid thirties: I could change direction in my life if I wanted to (because I’m freelance as a writer) without completely up-ending my life. Once I realised that, I started to perform comedy because I did not have an excuse not to. My progress was agonisingly slow, though, because life was always getting in the way. I needed a push and a fixed time frame to push me up to 100 gigs. I didn’t want to feel that I had to write about it. And I didn’t know if I would want to write about it, especially if it failed and (spoiler alert) I didn’t get to the end of the 100 gigs. I got a deal to write the book (through a literary agent) about six months after I finished the 100 gigs and I wrote the book in the next nine months, based on extensive diaries I had written during the process.

I still don’t know if I should have written about it. As the book doesn’t make me across as (a) a very nice person or (b) a very good stand-up. In my defence it all happened in 2011 and I can pretend that was a very long time ago.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity and what is guaranteed to kill it?

“The internet both kills and inspires everything. I waste millions of hours on Twitter, Facebook and aimless Google searches. I had to go to a library with no Wifi in order to get the book finished. I’m always researching these “block-your-social-media” apps you can put on your computer. But I know it would be pointless as I get most of my ideas and my information from the internet as well as all the distraction and wasted time. I think it’s a pretty good trade-off, to be honest. I’m constantly collecting ideas and chasing stories without having any idea whether they will lead to anything. They might turn into a phrase in a joke or a magazine article or the germ of another book or an idea that I can pass on to someone else who could make something better out of it than I can.”

What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?

“I find that I get less blocked the more things I work on. I have a lot of things on the go at once and usually they require different skills. I do a lot of book reviewing and that means sorting through books and ideas and publication dates. I perform at a lot of events and that means rehearsing and memorising stuff. And I’m putting together the programme for next year’s Independent Bath Literature Festival which means coming up with original and exciting ideas and getting people together who don’t necessarily want to leave their room. If I’m not making much progress in one area, I just move to another for a while. By the time I get back to what I started on, I can see it with fresh eyes. (Also I pay for childcare by the hour and this is extremely motivating.)”

Is there a collaborative element to your work or do you prefer to work alone?

“I hated working with other people for many years. I nearly killed people when I worked in magazine and newspaper offices in my mid twenties. I am a born freelancer. In recent years, though, I’ve changed. I am marginally less childish and more curious. I love performing improv and that has really changed how I relate to other people. In improv you have to say “yes, and…” to everything. You can’t block the other person or shout them down or contradict their ideas. (Which would be my natural inclination in most situations. Like I said, I am a really nice person.) After about three years of performing improv, I find that I am genuinely interested in what other people think, often especially if I disagree with them.”

Please talk a bit about the environment you like to be in to create…

Viv Groskop workspace“I do most of my writing on a MacBook Air sitting on my bed or at the kitchen table. I lost my “office” to a child’s room a long time ago. There is no such thing as an ideal writing environment and seeking it out only wastes time which you could use to write. I write on the Notes function on my phone. I write on receipts. I have written on train tickets, on my hand and on toilet paper (Soviet toilet paper is particularly effective). If you have a good idea or a turn of phrase, write it down and put it somewhere. It might come in handy. (Also, you might lose it. But that doesn’t matter. If it’s really important, it will find a way back to you.) Maybe I would be a better writer if I had the perfect room or silence or many more hours of childcare paid for by a wealthy benefactor. But things are how they are and you have to work around them. If you waited for the ideal conditions, you wouldn’t do anything at all.”

Do you have a daily routine when you are writing? 

“I don’t really believe in routine. When you have the chance to work, work. I do find that if I can get up really early, I can get loads done in the hours before anyone else is awake and before there is much going on internet-wise. Sadly, I am hopeless at getting up early so this is not a great solution.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity? 

“Being a parent really changed everything for me and made me much more proactive and efficient at everything. It’s partly the practical side of things: if you’re going to pay someone else to look after your kids so that you can work, then you had better bloody well do some work. But it’s partly a more nebulous, kick-ass thing. I began to think, “You brought these children into the world. You better show them what it’s like to live life to the full. Otherwise what’s the point?” I am still reticent about a lot of things and scared of a lot of things. But having children has meant that I really care a lot less about the things that don’t matter. (Like what “other people” think about you — who are they anyway?) Without my children and my husband, I would never have done stand-up, I would never have discovered improv and I would be some kind of weird, alcoholic, depressed and repressed hack from hell. Having a miscarriage between my second and third child was probably the best thing that ever happened to me: it made me realise that life is short and precious and you’re not in control of anything.”

Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process and tell us about it. 

Viv Groskops fish“This is an “articulated fish” which belonged to my grandma, Vera. She made a real point of referring to it as an “articulated fish”. (Its scales actually move so that it wiggles when you touch it.) There was a vogue for them in the 1970s and my grandma used to wear one on a long pendant over a stripy boatneck sweater with nylon “slacks”. I always associate it with her. She had an incredible enthusiasm for life and was a real one for just keeping going no matter what. I don’t wear it all the time but sometimes I put it on just so that I can feel like I’ve got a bit of her about me. It’s not magic but it’s nice and wiggly and sometimes you just need a bit of a wiggle.”

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master? 

“I love acting, I love clowning, I love singing, I love trying to find out about what makes audiences fall under the spell of what’s happening in front of them. I used to play the piano as a child and I miss that. If I could start all over again there’s so much I would do. I would train my voice. I’d learn to do accents properly. I would go to RADA, darling. Instead I read a lot of books about the Meisner technique (it’s an acting thing, a bit like method acting) and I’m a member of the Actors’ Centre. I occasionally go to auditions for roles which require “plus size” ladies. (I’m not joking, it’s a whole genre. I almost got a really big role for a diabetes medication commercial.)”

What are you working on next?

“I’ve got a work-in-progress show of the book, I Laughed, I Cried, at the Funny Women Pop-Up Fringe in Edinburgh on August 18 and 19. I still haven’t worked out if there’s a way of talking about stand-up in the context of a comedy show. I guess I’ll find out on those two nights. We’re also taking Upstairs Downton: The Improvised Episode to The Hive at Edinburgh with Heroes of the Free Fringe. It’s a Downton Abbey spoof in full period costume. All the people in it are amazing and come up with the most extraordinary things. It’s going to be the most fun. In the autumn I’ve got more shows based on the book across the UK. And there’s the small matter of about 180 events to put together for the Independent Bath Literature Festival 2014. I’d better get in some extra Diet Coke.”

I laughed I cried cover Viv Groskop’s book I Laughed, I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life is out now published by Orion. You can follow Viv on Twitter, Facebook or visit her website. You can book tickets to see I Laughed, I Cried in Edinburgh 18 and 19 August: 10.40pm or to see Upstairs Downton in Edinburgh, 1-25 August, 5pm at The Hive, click here