The Enduring Perfection of Nadia Comaneci

One of my most abiding Olympic memories is of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal games. As I recall, there was a heatwave that summer, one that scorched its way across the US like a smoldering fuse-wire, raging through cities and forests, melting tarmac, setting prairies alight and drying my lips to paper.

I was 9-years-old, watching the Games while on holiday at my grandparent’s house in the New Hampshire mountains that smelled of pine trees at sunset. A chunky colour TV beamed Nadia’s hipless frame right into my pre-pubescent consciousness. In her unforgiving white leotard, stripes up the sides popping like arteries, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci performed like no gymnast had ever done before.

She was fearless and focused way before life coaches brought the Gospel of the Goal to the mainstream. Nadia was angular yet kittenish, pure muscle, with an anatomy of metal and spirit of steel that shames the chronic public anorexia of today. She also had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes that betrayed the fact she was still a child. I was transfixed by her every move both on and off the apparatus.  She was like no girl I had ever seen before.

Back home in London, my city was agitated.  IRA explosions had rocked the West End earlier in the year, the punk movement was bubbling under with the Sex Pistols just months away from signing to EMI. I was slightly too young for punk to get under my skin, but Nadia felt like a peer. To me, she embodied subversion with every sinew of her slight yet powerful frame. She was the pale, mechanical, aloof ‘other’, perfectly fitting the cliched perception of ‘Eastern block’ citizens we had back then, before the walls and Ceausescu came crumbling down.

Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars on July 18th 1976 is etched on my mind forever. After a gravity-defying routine, there was a delay before the Omega scoring system showed a result of 1.0. The crowd and the commentators were initially confused before it became apparent that Nadia had actually scored the first ever Olympic perfect ‘10’ in gymnastics. “She broke the machine!” I thought in wonder. The computer had, quite literally, said “No”.

I was entranced by this idea of unexpected perfection. A completion so exquisite that it broke the rules, a perfection so persistent that an outdated system had to redesign itself. We did not know then how symbolic this would come to be. Nadia’s faultlessness seemed so transgressive and useful and desirable, anything less seemed suddenly pointless.

I learned everything I could about perfect Nadia. I was delighted to find she shares my birthday, 12th November, my Scorpionic twin ~ I took this as symbolic of our probable affinity. She was my first female icon, the one that led me though puberty. Nadia set the bar for what one could achieve by aged 14; suddenly the possibilities of my life as an adult had some tangible form.  Whatever I did, I wanted it to matter. In my young mind, she was the embodiment of Cold War austerity and pain and I was embarrassed by what I perceived as the flabby ‘too-much-ness’ of the West. Our gymnasts had breasts, curves, cellulite and no medals. It is probably because of Nadia that I studied Russian at school.

But over the years, like my personal dreams of perfection, Nadia’s image was replaced by pictures of women who symbolized other ambitions, new guardians of my creative journey. My photos of Nadia would be covered over by ones of Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Joni Mitchell and other goddesses of music. Then by writers and artists who stole my heart and weaved their magic; Sylvia Plath, the Brontes, Toni Morrison, Frida, Georgia, Elisabeth Frink.

Sometimes I think of that bedroom wall in my childhood home and imagine how an archeologist, chipping away through the layers of my own personal iconography would find at the foundation, a pull-out-and-keep spread of Nadia Comaneci in the saturated inks of 1976, still perfect.

In Andalucia

Spanish bullBy the time you read this, I will be floating on a lilo in a pool. I will have a blank, can’t be arsed facial expression, like someone whose OD’ed on Botox, been slapped by a fish, and then had a shock.  I will be roasting like a piggy on a spit, slowly browning like the meat gyro up the kebab shop on the Harrow Road. I will occasionally look up from my paperback, its spine melting and pages wrinkling in the heat, and utter the words, “more figs please” to whoever will listen. I will have a sweaty lip ‘tache and clammy nethers, but this is not the point. The point is, I’ll be in Andalucia, Southern Spain, one of my favourite places in the world. Land of the poet I love the most, Federico Garcia Lorca, and, more importantly, home (via La Mancha) of the best cheese ever, Manchego. It’s from SHEEP!

I’ve always had a bit of a ‘thing’ about Spain; it’s been a long-term crush. In my late twenties, I took myself off to University having originally bypassed the whole degree thing, choosing instead to pursue a rock n’ roll life on the road armed with my acoustic guitar and a handful of songs about being dumped. Ultimately, my rock n’ roll years were actually spent in the back of a transit van that smelled of vomit and boys. Disillusioned and practically brain-dead after saying, “Check…1… 2…check 1…2..” for the 35,000th time, I decided to go to back to school and exercise my brain.

My chosen course was a BA in Humanities with Hispanic Studies. Over the four years of my degree, I was immersed in all things Spanish and South American in terms of literature, art, music and language. I spent some time in Madrid. I conjugated a lot of verbs. And I sussed out the many things that pull me in about Spain.

For a start, I love the language. It is BRILLIANT because there is something that I call the verb of diminished responsibility. In Spanish, it is perfectly legitimate grammatically to say, “The car crashed itself” or, “The table broke itself” or, “The wee, peed itself all over the floor mummy”. You can blame inanimate things for human weakness linguistically! Genius!

The hair. Gotta love Spanish hair. It’s everywhere! The men are all, “Ooh, you may look admiringly at my Erik Estrada ‘tache and rest your head on my wiry chest forest while I read you something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a schmexy voice.” Yes, I like it.

And the women! Those long, black, shiny tresses. Sigh. As the owner of some flaky, brittle, blonde fluff up top, I am so envious of that long, black, shiny hair.

And I love the whole flamenco thing. Yes, it may be a cliche, but stomping around on the earth and shouting is EXACTLY my kind of medicine. I ended up doing my thesis on the Spanish concept of duende which is this intangible thing that happens in flamenco; a cross between frenzy, enlightenment, excitement and an existential moment of realisation about death, sex, love, pain and the futility of human experience. As far as I can work out, most women experience a moment of duende in childbirth at some point, and will tell anyone who can hear it exactly where they can stick their duende, but I didn’t know that when I was in my twenties studying it.

I like the way flamenco as a dance form is directed at the earth. None of this pointy uppy toward the sky stuff or being contorted into a masculine shape like in ballet. Flamenco dancers usually have busts, waists and curves, and that’s just the men! Some of the best female flamenco dancers are bloody ANCIENT and have all the grace and power of fire. They strop around with a pained facial expression like I do at parent’s evening.

And the time signatures in flamenco music, wow. None of your standard 4/4 stuff here. No, time signatures are in things like 78/3, 196/4.8. They make prog rock bands sound like kids with a Casio drum machine when the batteries are wearing down! OOh and the cajon. That big, booming box that is used to beat out the rhythm. That’s what I like. I nice, big, phat cajon being slapped by a hairy man in 78/5  time on a hot, steamy night. I also like the way flamenco embraces musical notes that aren’t generally considered part of the standard music scale. They use quarter-notes, eighths, wibbly-wobbly-in-between stuff that only Andalucian dogs can hear. What’s not to love I ask you?

The wild poppies and the stars. In rural Spain you still get incredible starscapes at night as there is little street lighting. By day in the spring, the wild poppies mirror Orion, Perseus and Cassiopeia on the scorched earth. It’s heavenly.

Everyone has their ‘other’ land do they not? The place where we sketch out a fantasy other life, places that speak to parts of our soul that lie dormant at home. Spain speaks to my wild places; I am barefoot all the time, I eat with my fingers and swim in the moonlight, shedding pounds of London grey and lard.

Where does your heart sing that is not called home?

How to Quit Your Gym

Vintage Keep Fit Equipment

The cross trainer was agony…

Dear Gym,

It’s over.

After nearly five years of flirting, sweating and a whole lot of grunting, I’ve realised we’re just not good for each other me and you.

Gym, oh gym,

you do not make me slim.

You make me bored and annoyed like the One Show and doing accounts.

I’ve tried it all; weights, cardio thingy, jumpy-uppy-downy class, tums, bums and thumbs, even that wibbly-wobbly power plate thing that makes your fillings fall out. (Weirdly, that doesn’t seem to happen to that older lady who just sits on the plate smiling for HOURS). Zumba, Zimba and also Zamba,  I loathe it all. Even the smell of you Gym; cheese, vinegar and despair all mixed into one just makes me want to gag up a kidney.

I’m sorry, but it’s over. I just don’t love you.

You want to know why I’m leaving? Well, I’ll tell you. The final straw was yesterday when I was in the shower  and an actual turd floated past me in the communal drainage from the next door cubical like something from the the conveyor belt on Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game.  “Some personalized luggage….a cuddly toy…a child’s poo please Bruce.”

I liked your pool though. It was nice to have more than 1 square foot to swim in London that didn’t involve accidentally swallowing floaty plasters or the risk of TB. But the last time I swam, I was chatted up by an 82-year-old man who left his teeth on the pool side before wading off to his aqua aerobics class. I just felt so CHEAP.

You promised me ‘fitness’ and ‘well-being’ and instead I have a belly full of shattered dreams (and undigested cakes) achy knees and an appreciation for the terrible stenographer at Sky TV whose hilarious misspellings have kept me sane while I’ve worked up a tidal wave of gusset sweat on the Cross Trainer (which actually does make me cross, really narked) for FIVE, LONG, PUNGENT, DISAPPOINTING years.

SO, I am cancelling my (misunder)Standing Order even though you will try to stop me by bringing out the Manager who is hotter than a young Denzil Washington crossed with Ryan Gosling who will ply me with offers of a 1 hour FREE session with a personal trainer called Gareth, a FREE guest pass or a FREE fluorescent cocktail at one of your ‘socials.’ I wont be taken in (yes, I know it worked the other 5 times I tried to leave, BUT IT WON’T THIS TIME).

Oh damn you Gym with your fluffy towels, sauna and steam. Sod you with your whooping, smiley, bouncy, erect-nippled staff who have clearly NEVER HAD KIDS. IT’S OVER!

OK… the truth is, I’ve met someone new. I haven’t actually been out with it yet, or spoken to it, but I have been admiring it from afar and stalking its Facebook page. I’m not even sure if we’ll get on but it looks and more importantly SMELLS amazing. Really amaaaazing. There’s lots of chanting and there are tattooed teachers from New Yoik who look like they could crush a Volvo with their gluteus maximii. What more could an unfit girl want? Look out Jivamukti, here I come.

I’m sorry Gym. It’s not you, it’s me.

Actually no, it IS you. No one REALLY likes you.

It’s been awful,

Love,

Me

x

5 Things I Really Should Know By Now: Notes on Growing Up

When I was a child, I assumed that by the time I was in my forties I would have achieved certain things. I imagined I would be living a life of sophisticated inner-peace as I breezed around my creative business empire wafting of Eau du Coutts and Cotswolds. Instead, I exist in a primordial soup of chaos fuelled by caffeine and crumpets and what is more, there are important things I STILL don’t know such as:

1. How to reverse park

Sorry, but I just I can’t do it. It gives me a hurty neck and I get all confused. I have parked blocks away just so I can do a fronty entrance.

(And yes, all the above also applies to sex.)

2. What I want to be when I grow up

I’m not sure whether the lack of certainty here is about not knowing what I want to do, or not being sure what the general signifiers are that one has ‘grown-up’ and I’d like to know. Is it about having your hair ‘done’ regularly and acquiring a mortgage? It’s certainly not about having kids because that’s sent me into some kind of potty-talk induced decline. Plop. You see, the word still makes me laugh and I know I’m not the only one.

So what is it? HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE A GROWN-UP if no one gives you a certificate in assembly to you show that you are? I am a big believer in having something to work towards like a badge or a small engravable trophy. So until the passage to adulthood is made clear to me and broken down into small, achievable goals, I’m not playing. *Folds arms, kicks over toy bucket and sulks.*

3.Which clothes suit me

This may be a natural consequence of  Point 2 above, but I have no idea what looks good or even acceptable on me any more. This is partly because my middle-aged body is a stranger to me (as I explain in this blog). I usually go out looking like a cross between Fearne Cotton and Fern Britton which looks something like this:

Britton Cotton Bran

My face, Britton’s boobs, Cotton’s pegs

I’d be on my own What Was She Thinking page every week if I were a magazine. I don’t have a little black dress that always works, my killer heels do actually make me want to die and the last time I wore something saucy in the bedroom, my husband got the giggles and did a tiny sick in his own mouth.

I used to know this stuff, but it seems that ‘the knowledge’ fell out of my croissant along with my children.

4. How to save money and be all sensible about investments and ploppy stuff like that

You’d think by my mid-forties I’d have some savings or own some ‘stuff’ but my net worth has about the same value as an actual tiddler-net from an actual garage. I have put aside exactly diddly, zilch, nada, not a sausage. I like to think that this is because I have chosen instead to invest in skills that I do not have to ever retire from like writing and having v. smart children who I have guilt-tripped into making sure they feel they owe me.

“You will look after yer dear old mum won’t you? ” I say to my talented girls as I drop my pants and show them my caesarean scar for the 6,000th time.

So, if all you own is one cardigan, a pair of unwearable shoes and a hair dryer, you are not alone my friends.

5. How to accept that my husband really does love me

I just assume that I irritate the hell out of my husband and that at some point he will get fed up and leave me. I press his buttons daily (no, not those ones) in a perpetual test of his love like my 6-year-old smears bogies on my living-room wall to test mine. Even after 12 years of his consistent, patient, steady loving, I just can’t relax. Perhaps I just don’t really believe that I’m that lovable, or maybe it’s because I’m a child of that dreadful hairy 70‘s era when men did what the fuck they wanted when they wanted with whom they wanted while women were stuck somewhere between liberty and tradition. Why is it that women assume they will be left for a younger, prettier version of themselves, and men assume they will be abandoned for a richer, better provider? Perhaps the old adage is true, that until you truly love yourself, you won’t believe that anyone else can. Or perhaps learning to let someone love you is Lesson One in growing-up.

20 Things I Want My Teenage Daughter to Know – Notes From a Menopausal Mum

Sara Bran by Mia Bran aged 6

My mum by Mia Bran

1.Choose a personal theme tune early on and stick with it. This is extremely useful for the cinematic enhancement of dramatic life moments such as break-ups, anniversaries and celebrations. It will also provide comfort during time spent on runways waiting for Easy Jet flights to take off (approx. 98 hours in the average lifetime),  childbirth and terrible sex. My theme tune for example, is Saturday Night Fever and when my daughters were born, there was only wah-wah guitar in my head. That and the vision John Travolta’s white nylon-clad buttocks. But that’s Pethidine for you.

2. Enjoy those perky nugga nuggas. One day you will be able to tune into Radio 4 with them.

3. Laugh often. Some day this will be accompanied by small amounts of wee.

4. Whereas I could floss my teeth with your underwear, you could raise a small family of baboons in mine.

5. When you kiss someone, kiss them like you could die. Abandon all reason, climb inside the moment heart and soul, surrender to love and all its possibilites, and then steal their wallet. (I have found that being a combination of Jane Eyre and the Artful Dodger is practically irresistible to men).

6. The same boy who is currently breaking your heart will one day be capable only of breaking wind. One day, he will be an unemployed security guard living in Leighton Buzzard with a wife he hates. One day, his hairline will receed. And also his gums. (N.B. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental).

7. You are rubbish at sex and will be until you are at least 30.

8. When (if)  you say, “I do”, it is perfectly normal to have an evil genius voice inside  your head going, “Hehehe… or do I?”

9. The intangible feeling that you should either be doing something else, be somewhere else, living a different life or that you’ve forgotten something important, never, ever goes away.

10. It is still a man’s world.

11. Karaoke is a cure-all for all ailments for all women. There is, in fact, an underground insurgency taking place in karaoke bars around the world vis-a-vis the above fact of it being a man’s world. Fuck burning your bra. Wear a good one with decent support and SING SISTER SING!

12. If you decide to mother, do it unconditionally and with complete abandon. Thinking you can still do anything else leads to utter despair and an addiction to Jaffa Cakes

13. Also, if you decide to mother, during pregnancy, sandpaper your nipples daily. No one advises this but it is a genius idea and prepares you for the reality of breast feeding.

14. In mid-life, inexplicably, one armpit will start to smell worse than the other. (Or is that just me?)

15. Some day, you will really understand what sisterhood is all about and it will save you. Now sisterhood is all, “Can I borrow your Top Shop jeans,” and “Will you hold my hair back while I chunder up this WKD?” but one day, you will find solace in another woman’s empathic smile as you wipe baby sick off your jacket. You will love beyond measure those girlfriends who drag you out to celebrate your divorce. Sisterhood will save you when the blokes all start popping off earlier than us tough old birds. When we stop being in competition with each other and judging one another’s mothering/parenting/looks/size/shape/choices, women are awesome.

16. Whatever your age, if you have music in your bones, nothing will be as joyful as standing in a muddy field at sunset when the bass kicks in.

17. When you are a teenager, there’s a lot of hassle about best friends, boyfriends, bitchy friends, twitchy friends, new friends, old friends. In middle-age the only friend you need is good lighting.

18. That old saying about being a ‘Wise Woman’ in later years is actually a misreading of the term ‘Pies Woman’ which is what you become after you stop giving a damn what boys think.

19. Because I was born with all my eggs, as all women are, it means that when I was in my mum’s belly, you were there too. Remember your maternal grandmother’s story and pass it on. It matters.

20. One day you will look in the mirror and see me.

Empty Orchestras: On Karaoke as Medicine

Music Karaoke Medicine

The room is dark apart from the blue glow emanating from a giant flat screen. The wallpaper is lush and there are velvet cushions everywhere. There is a button on the wall that reads “Booze’. When you press it a young male appears who, enthralled by your mightiness, brings alcohol. I already assume I must be in heaven but it is about to get better.

I love it here. It feels like an illicit womb that I am temporarily sharing with seven sisters. I’m ready for whatever is conceived in this secret place tonight but you should know Dear Reader that usually, whatever happens in a room like this stays in a room like this. Until one of you blogs about it.

It transpires that I am not in heaven but in the karaoke bar above the aptly named Paradise Pub in London’s Kensal Green. Karaoke translates as ‘empty orchestra’ and no phrase on earth sums up the pathos of singing your heart out in a darkened room apart from some unallowable juxtapositions of words like happy/sad, mortifying/liberating or brilliant/awful. Why oh why oh why is singing loudly with your mates such a stress reliever? Why does it feel so damn good that I actually had a comedown the next day?

Perhaps the answer lies in the physiology of singing. Apparently you need a ‘vibrator’ (the vocal folds of the larynx) an ‘activator’ (the air from our lungs) and a‘resonator’ (the throat cavity) to make a singing sound. If this all seems vaguely sexual, that’s because it is. In what circumstances do women let go and allow big primal sounds to come out of our mouths other than in the bedroom or when we give birth or when we sing? The facts are that singing has a balancing effect on the hormones, increases oxygenation of the blood and works muscle groups that only pilates and gynecologists can touch. Singing makes most people feel bloody brilliant psychologically and physically even if the vibrator/activator/resonator alignment is a bit out of whack and the resulting sound is something only a mother could love. All these ‘well-being effects’ are multiplied when humans sing as a collective; if there’s one thing we cannot resist, it’s resonance.

The ritual of karaoke unfolds like this: at the beginning there will be performance anxiety but luckily its pervasive laxative effect can be easily countered by saucily named cocktails. You and your friends will attempt to ignore the huge karaoke screen that glistens alluringly in the corner like a pole dancer’s pants. The two dead microphones lying on the table in front of you will seem impossibly big and way too phallic to handle. Suddenly, several cocktails in, one of you (in our case my mate Polly) will go for it. It’s Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon. “Yoooooooouuuuu, consumed with what’s to transpire…” and there it is. The Banshee-wail of the undervalued, underpaid, overworked mother is something magical. (David Attenborough voice) “At the same time as this siren call of the Kensal Rise she-wolf cuts through the night air her husband, miles away, experiences a mysterious chill whilst watching Police Interceptors.” Such is its power ladies and gentlemen, such is its power.

Once the full force of ladies doing karaoke is underway, it’s like unleashing a hurricane on a Wendy house. My sisters and I were unstoppable for the next two hours becoming increasingly high on singing loudly. In nature, a bunch of females making this much noise would be viewed as sending a signal of either empathy or warning to the surrounding tribe. Judging by our waiter’s increasing reluctance to respond to our booze bell, we were perhaps sending out the latter message. Mind you, if confronted by a room full of wild-eyed women-of-a-certain age screaming a rendition of “Sister’s Are Doing it for Themselves” with the kind of ferociousness usually reserved for the January sales, I too would be scared shitless.

I know the NHS is cutting back, but couldn’t we just have a little singsong session every Friday at the local surgery? If they had karaoke in the waiting room, most patients would self-cure and cancel their appointments after one communal round of Rod Stewart’s “We Are Sailing”. Karaoke as medicine could save the NHS millions of pounds. The ironic thing about all this is that I used to be a singer. For fifteen years I lived breathed and puked music until one day, worn down by disappointment, I decided I’d had enough. I placed my music on the pyre named Thwarted Dreams and simply stopped singing. My Kensal karaoke night was a timely reminder that one can sing for many things other than ambition; for joy, for love, for life itself.