Posts Tagged ‘London’

Ruminations On Passports

December 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Given the huge virtual fistfight about blue passports this week, I started to wonder where my old one had gone, and found it buried amongst old exam certificates and random paperwork in the dusty corner of the study.

I’m not madly bothered what colour the UK passport is, to be honest, and given they apparently have to be redesigned every few years to prevent fraud and keep up with biometric advances, it’s not the end of the world if they end up blue/black again without costing any more money than it would anyway. It does rile me somewhat that this is being portrayed as a huge Brexit win against the evil EU in some places, given that we could have chosen any colour we liked (as Croatia has) but didn’t. (A bit like the mythical immigration that we “couldn’t control”, when Belgium and other countries already do place restrictions on free movement so we could have done the same, but OUR government decided against it.)

Anyhoo, the idiocy of Brexit is taking up far too much of my mental and emotional energy right now, and this piece is about the other things my passport means to me, namely that it’s a visual reminder of why I became so internationally minded.

My old blue passport was valid from 1988 to 1998, from the age of 17 to 27, and looking at it now, really shows the changes that happened to me and shaped me. Some I chose, some I did not, but I am very much the person I now am due to those things.

In 1988 I was studying for my A-levels, living at home in the suburbs of Leeds with Mum, Dad, and my elder brother Lee. An ordinary life, I was a mostly confident young lady with plans to be the first in the Clark family to go to university and make everyone proud. I imagined I’d go off to another city for Uni and then come back to my hometown of Leeds, maybe rent a flat with a friend and eventually settle down, after seeing lots of the world. Kids didn’t really factor in this imaginary life but a posh flat on the canal did, and a cool 1980’s yuppie lifestyle and definitely fantastic holidays.

By 1998 instead I was living and working in London, a city I had been to fewer than 10 times in my life, and you only have to look at the ’emergency addresses’ page to see what happened in the interim period. Tellingly, stuck over the original home address, with both parents in the same place, there’s a piece of paper with two new addresses on, one saying ‘father’, and one saying ‘mother’. Typed neatly, clearly expecting that state of affairs to also last, it then gets increasingly covered with scribbles and crossings out, and arrows backwards and forwards to track the location of my parents, which change multiple times over the remaining years of the passport validity.

First Dad stayed in Leeds, Lee moved in with his then girlfriend, later wife, and Mum moved to London. That’s OK, I was going to university soon anyway, so retaining my childhood room in a family home seemed pointless, as I had no intention of being there much, if at all. I could always go to the pub in Headingley if I wanted to see a few familiar faces when I popped ‘home’.

Then Mum’s London address is changed to one in Hong Kong, then an arrow back to London, then another scribbled change to Kuala Lumpur, then back to the UK in Weybridge. Meanwhile Dad moved from Leeds to Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, and the arrows shows that during the time he too moved out and then back to the same place again.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that with all that domestic change comes emotional impact, both highs and lows. It was a decade of divorces, house moves, trauma, homesickness, tearful reunions and for me the gradual realisation that I no longer had a Leeds home to speak of, whether I wanted to go back to it or not.

But not all changes happened without my own input. Inside the passport pages are multiple stamps from different countries, from my madcap solo interrailing trip across Europe before university, my US work visa from the university summer holidays of 1991, and the entry and exit stamps from visiting my Mum in whichever country she happened to be living at that time. During that time I deepened my knowledge of language, and was exposed to people and places and stories I never would have expected.

These experiences too are filled with ups and downs. For one I started to hear the huge variety of interpretations of historic ‘facts’ that we in the UK hold true. There are moments of extreme discomfort when you realise that the ‘benign’ impact of colonialism that you are taught is anything but the truth, and that your forbears are at least in part, responsible for many ill-thought out decisions that still echo painfully in international politics today.

There are also moments of utter joy, when you see the the massive similarities that bind people across all those places. Family, friends, security, food, love, a roof over their heads.

These experiences, both good and bad, once seen cannot be unseen, or facts unlearned. This has driven my yearning for both a kinder politics and a more open heart to those who through circumstance were born on one side of a line that an old bloke drew 100 years ago, as opposed to the other.

It’s called growing up, and learning about the world. I was desperate to do it, it’s painful in parts, it’s also stimulating, exciting, frustrating, scary, and life affirming.

All with my faithful passport in hand, enabling and accompanying me across those painful, joyous and inspirational years.


Our annoyingly smug wedding story

September 22, 2012 2 comments

Partly for posterity, and partly as I found myself telling it again for the umpteenth time, I thought it was time to capture the details of our amazing wedding-the details of which have amused many a traumatised engaged couple over the years.

The story begins in my usual way, with an anally retentively well planned day: spreadsheets aplenty, many venues visited and a slight disappointment in finding out that we couldn’t get married on a moving boat (they have to be permanently moored, to allow for any random member of the public to object at the opportune moment-not that just anyone would gain entry anyway these days so a slightly pointless tradition put paid to my maritime flirtations. Back on land we finally decided on Kensington Roof Gardens, it being a) gorgeous b) in central London so easy for people from all over the place and c) able to host both the ceremony plus reception, presenting less chance of decrepit Leeds relatives getting lost and wandering around “That London” to be picked up by police in between ceremony and champagne.

So, in January 2000 we booked our slot, paid our deposit and settled down to be sold to by glossy magazines for the next 15 months until the planned day in May 2001.

Bored of choosing favours (what?) and everyone involved in commerce’s eyes lighting up as if with cartoon currency signs the minute we mentioned weddings we bailed out early and decided to go on a pre-wedding Oz/Asia ‘honeymoon’ for 6 months over the winter (aided by the timely profits from a shoebox I bought in 1993). This turned out to be the best thing we could have done at that stage-rather than stressing ourselves and destroying our relationship with endless details and frippery, we spent 6 months wondering along beaches, chilling out in hippy traveller cafes and re-discovering the joy of meeting someone or something new every day. We also saved a wodge of cash on my wedding and the bridesmaids dresses-made for under $100 for the lot, in silk, in Hoi An, Vietnam and posted back in an amusing Vietnamese post office adventure that took around 3 hours, 2 rolls of sellotape and gave us a free Vietnamese Post Office t-shirt as a thank you.

Arriving back home in March – a bit dusty and having fallen for the myth that Thai Red Bull t-shirts and fishermen’s pants were acceptable items of clothing; we thought we were in plenty of time for last minute wedding arrangements. Even the seeming reluctance of the Roof Gardens to set a date for our menu tasting didn’t worry us. We knew there had been a refurbishment over the winter (building a whole new floor it seems, for what is now Babylon restaurant) and that plenty of time had been left for over-runs, so we carried on with our lives, found and started new jobs and settled back into London life.
Little did we know then that the refurb had hit several problems, one of which I think was the discovery of asbestos, meaning the work took months longer than planned-threatening ours and one other wedding, which were the first events booked there for early May (after a January planned finish date).
So, we carried on not knowing, and when the missive of doom finally came we were floored. Since arriving home we’d stepped back onto the frenzied wedding juggernaut in which any mishap is blown up to represent the end of life as we know it. Even factoring in wedding planning paranoia this was a pretty big crisis.

The Roof Gardens refurbishment had only just finished, the kitchens weren’t ready and it all still had to be signed off for health and safety, Without this we couldn’t even use it as a room, never mind restaurant- so there was no way we could get married or have the reception there.

Big problem. Huge.

Several issues meant a replacement venue would be difficult to find:
1) we’d booked a Sunday wedding on a bank holiday weekend
2) we wanted the ceremony & reception in the same place and
3) we had 13 working days left before the wedding
4) we lived in Lewisham borough, and were getting married in Kensington & Chelsea (meaning we had to post our banns locally 10 working days before the wedding for us to legally marry)
Therefore we had 3 days to find a new venue.

3 days!!!

Anyone who’s planned a wedding will come out in a cold sweat at this thought, and believe me this was my reaction too, and terror, and fury.

And tears… many many tears.

It was at this point that events took on a bit of a surreal tint. Peter, the events manager was on the phone apologising for the venue not being ready, and he said something odd; “Richard is aware of the problem and wants to do all he can to help.”
To which I answered “Richard? Richard who?”
“Richard Branson.”
“Am I missing something? Why does Richard Branson give a shit about my wedding?”
“Well. We’re part of the Virgin group.”

Being that I work in media I did immediately think “Oh good, I’m sure he’ll do something as he’d hate bad publicity” (mental image of weeping bride on the front page of a red top), which in retrospect was ungenerous of me, as I had no idea of the extent to which Richard would become our fairy godmother over the next few days.

So Peter said he’d had some thoughts and he’d send a car around to pick me and Jules up from work that evening to show us some potential replacement venues. This in itself was a treat as we certainly aren’t the kind of people who have access to drivers at our beck and call, so we said something along the lines of “Ooooh, thanks.” and prepared for a new experience.

The car ushered us to some posh part of London I’d never been to, and pulled up in front of a *massive* white Georgian house, all beautiful dimensions and manicured gardens. We got out of the car, ran up the drive avoiding the rain, were let in the front door and as we were shaking our brollies in the hall Peter called around the doorway into a room we couldn’t yet see; “Richard, they’re here!”

We looked at each other. Seriously? Was this real?

Giggling we followed Peter into the house, to be met by non other than Richard Branson himself. Smiling, (wearing an appalling Giles Brandreth-esque jumper), shaking our hands and saying “Mel, Jules.. I am so sorry we didn’t get things ready for you in time.
May I offer you some champagne?”

We drank champers with Richard Branson as he said sorry, and (still unbelievable 11 years later) offered us his house as a potential reception venue. He then had to go off and do something far more stimulating than watching two star struck idiots stumble over their words, but we were shown where the marquee could be in the garden, where the cloakrooms would be, and stood in his lounge where our guests would later gather, looking at family photos on the walls, and plastic plane models on top of the telly and just grinned.

And yes, he did it. We had our wedding reception at Richard Branson’s house.

Peter also found us a glorious licensed ceremony venue in the 10th floor bar at the Royal Garden Hotel a skip away from the original venue, laid on double decker buses to take us from there to the Branson residence in Holland Park (oh yes) where we partied the rest of the day away, surrounded by immense joy and a very overwhelmed set of family and friends- who still to this day hark back to that wonderful day.

And the lashings of free booze they threw in as an extra sorry.

Oh I know.

I know he’s rich, and I know it’s not his only home but he didn’t have to greet us personally, or offer what was clearly one of his family homes for us to use… and that is why I always smile when I think of Virgin.

Thank you Richard!

The riots: my tuppenceworth

August 21, 2011 2 comments

I’m not sure I’ve ever known so many people get so passionate about politics, parenting, social issues, crime, race and policing, so in a way I’m glad the London/UK riots have stimulated a lot of passionate debate. There is nothing more worrying to me than people who either refuse or see no point in getting involved or having an opinion about politics; saying “It won’t change anything”.

Many of the contributory factors to the riots were political, and we’ve already seen that the discourse and proposed (many draconian) responses will be, so it’s important to understand the political context behind issues like this in order to go any way to solving them (as all parties have previously stated- David Cameron of course has conveniently forgotten his understanding/humanity of yesteryear, of course).

So, firstly I’m saddened.

Sad that shopkeepers in run down areas, with probably no stock insurance won’t be able to regain their livelihoods, adding to the shuttered up blight.

Sad that in the same world where millions in east Africa are at risk of dying of hunger (I blame corrupt govt and religious anti-condom rhetoric for much of that) we have people who have so little context on hardship that they loot their own neighbourhood and pretend that they’re getting what they deserve.

Sad that the media blaming frenzy includes bigotry of almost every shade, and in almost every instance fails to grasp that violence, frustration, bandwagon profiteering and cruelty are neither new nor confined to the poor, unmarried, young, black or any other sector of society.

I’m also heartened by the massive movement of people involved in the #riotcleanup. Hundreds of people with brooms, dustpans and brushes turning up in Clapham, Hackney and across the country, to make good the damage other people caused brings a smile to my face and a little leap to my heart.

For what it’s worth, I have a political theory. I think the riots can be traced back to the selling of council houses. The crucial accompanying theory is my belief that between the carrot and the stick; the carrot seems a much more effective way of maintaining social norms than the stick. The fear of official punishment is often a lot less than the quest for peer approval. So instead of vast police numbers, spending a fortune on jails and punishment, (or maybe an effective addition to) the answer could be in getting society to help to maintain those standards, right?

Here’s the thing: for hundreds of years there have been strong communities of relatively poor (some may say average, as judged by the standards of the past) who lived in subsidised council housing for their entire lives. They knew their neighbours, their parents, extended family, friends from school, staff from local shops all lived in the local area.

My paternal family came from exactly such stock. I remember my Nan in Leeds telling me (on many occasions) that when a new council estate was built, she and my Grandad were proud that their family were invited to be tenants, as they had looked after their previous council house so well, and been model tenants. They were very poor-bringing up 4 kids on one unskilled wage- my grandad went from being a barber to eventually working for decades at the Tetley brewery, but they were proud, clean, law abiding and have turned out, at last count 19 descendants of varying levels of education, but all of whom are working, law abiding and grateful for the chances they have been given. Amongst all of us, the fear of parental, family and social disapproval is a far greater disincentive to crime than the tiny chance of being caught.

So, what happened when council houses were sold off? One family, often from the exact same stock as mine, gain a goldmine-a foot on the ladder, a sense of ownership and a stake in their financial future. But as the houses were sold and not replaced, and the original buyers move on; sometimes making a healthy profit along the way the community changes. The estates where everyone knew each other now have various houses split into privately rented flats (better rental return that way) with transient tenants in. The inflating housing bubble-exascerbated by the lack of affordable long term rental property, makes the privately owned ex-council stock the only property reachable for first time buyers, who move in for a few years – never intending to make this their home or where they raise their family. After a few years of decreasing social connections/pride, a few of the houses get a bit run down, then the only landlords interested are the low level private landlords who rent out ex council property for more than the council would, in a worse state of repair.

Now we get into the much touted ‘broken windows’ theory. Once a neighbourhood goes this way, it’s incredibly hard to regain its social glue, and meanwhile all the people living within it have a constantly reducing sense of social collective responsibility, and the results are clear.

None of this is to say that parents, schools, stop-and-search and ASBOs, unemployment, despair and a materially driven media don’t bear some responsibility; but in Africa they say “It takes a whole village to bring up a child” and where one or more of the above are failing, having no social safety net is hardly the way to learn that society includes you.