5 years later

I’m watching Grey’s Anatomy again. In personal terms, this can mean only one thing. Five years after I was first diagnosed with cancer – four of them healthy – the sneaky little fucker came back. Want to hear all about it? Great.

This illness got me into blogging in the first place – a fruitful hobby as it turned out, evolving into the copywriting work that has sustained me since prancing about on stage became a(n even) less practical source of income. I had just settled back into freelancing after moving to Sheffield last year, when I had a call. Routine blood tests (thanks, The NHS) showed a raised level of CEA, the handy protein that can indicate an intruder in the body. It was nothing to panic about, but they’d test again in a couple of months to see if it kept rising.

It kept rising. But in my now-trademark mode of denial I was sure that it would turn out to be nothing serious. Raised CEA can indicate a number of other things including irritable bowel – and having undergone cancer, radiation and surgeries followed by an eventual, enthusiastic return to beer, my bowel had every good reason to be irritable. I had a CT, a PET scan, and an MRI, and I went to Planet Zogg on my 35th birthday and got good and smashed just in case.

Cancer can be a scary word, but it’s an umbrella for so many hugely different conditions and experiences that it’s not worth getting worked up about until you have a clearer idea of what it’s going to mean for you. I’ve always found it helpful to remember that many conditions out there can be a hell of a lot worse for your quality of life (as pointed out also by George Monbiot in his current article about having cancer, which I feel to be an outrageous stealing of my thunder.) First time round I was treated with radiation, minimal chemo and surgery, which was judged to be a complete success. I was reassured that it had been caught ‘in time’ and throughout the whole process I didn’t spend much time worrying about dying.

This policy hit a bump several months later when an ashen-faced consultant called me in to inform me that contrary to their hopes, a follow-up CT showed that my abdomen was in fact now hosting some sort of cancer festival, headlined by multiple liver metastases that were likely inoperable. My least favourite take-home word from that meeting was ‘palliative.’

I spent a fortnight getting used to the idea of a dramatically shortened life-expectancy (during which we planned a shotgun wedding, because what the hell) before good news began arriving in stages. That sinister blob in the pelvis was actually an ovary, unmoored from its new home in my ribcage where they had hitched it to avoid radiation. That bit was some scarring, and that over there was contrast dye filtering through a kidney. There was a surgeon at St. Mary’s who said he’d take on the liver mets. (That’s where we were by our wedding day, which made for a significantly cheerier affair than anticipated.) Then the doctor who biopsied my liver took one look at the Toblerone shapes on the ultrasound and said ‘I don’t think that’s cancer.’ He was right – the biopsy came back clear and the lesions turned out to be a temporary side-effect of treatment. I was completely bloody fine.

Kind of. I was four years’ worth of fine. Hiding out in that hot mess was a polite little speck of actual cancer, which woke up last year and started quietly regrowing in my pelvic wall.

They can’t irradiate you twice and I had all of it last time, so I started chemo just before Christmas. Like the disease, the treatment varies massively from person to person, but I have found it to be pretty much as advertised. It’s basically the max amount of (magical) poison they can put in you without killing the important bits, and it’s pretty gross. My guts turn to rubber and the world is repellent for one week in two, taking on a sickly smell I can only describe as stale fabric and carrots. Carrots from hell. I become terrified of encountering my own farts. I also become an idiot – chemo brain is totally a thing – stuttering to a blank in the middle of sentences, forgetting to let the cat in and losing important items in a search radius of 1 metre.

My hair’s dropping out but I haven’t gone bald, which assists me in convincing myself that I am fine – though I was kind of looking forward to the dramatic head-shave and I’m just a little sad that I won’t get that souvenir image of me and J together looking like the last eggs in the box. (I could shave my head just for kicks, but having grown out a pixie cut once, I don’t think I can go through the horror of the Terry Wogan phase again.) The promised acne never really got itself going, probably owing to the insanely dry skin that spared me the same fate in my teens. Instead I have developed a bizarre rhinoceros hide, which falls off in what seems like its entirety once a fortnight. My response to unfiltered daylight is now that of Peter from What We Do In The Shadows and my #1 hobby is staring at the inside of my eyelids in complete silence. #2 is watching Grey’s Anatomy.

I gave up Grey’s Anatomy after I got better the last time because it is such an appalling time-hoover. I like it when I am poorly however, for exactly this reason, and because it requires minimal brain intervention and the people are so shiny. I like being annoyed that they never tie their hair up, and wondering how long it’s going to be before they have a plane crash in to the hospital to frame their increasingly preposterous season finales. I like that everyone has managed to become a genius without developing any rationality whatsoever and is always crying and yelling deeply unreasonable things at their colleagues – all of whom they have slept with and who face an implausible death (and possible resurrection) at an unknown time in the future. But I think mainly I like the casual way it deals with mortality, flinging it around like it’s no big deal. And maybe just a little bit, I’m reassured by surgeons constantly bursting into rooms and going “I’ll cut it out! What is it? I don’t care! Hand me that icecream scoop.”

Thus (but with less sex and crying, I hope) a real-life genius plans to wield their scoop at whatever’s left in my pelvis after chemo, hopefully leaving me cancer free for good – or for a long while at least. Five years in and at a sobering stage IV, I’m extremely lucky that that’s even possible. I’m also lucky to live in a country where lifesaving care is available to me in the town where I live, that I have a condition that appears to respond to treatment, and that I didn’t have to bankrupt my family or fight an insurance company to fund it. In fact I’ve found in the last 5 years that there’s nothing quite like illness for making you acutely aware of how privileged you are – and that this knowledge will transform life if you let it. In fact it has to. Despite being soundly beaten to it by George Monbiot, I’m hoping to unpick this in future blogs, but I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks for reading. Death to carrots.






7. Paint-shaming

It’s not all meditation-peddling and grumbling about feminism, you know. Look! A cat! Since my last post the kitten has morphed into a huge mountain-lion affair and graduated from running away from spiders to scoffing them live, the equal fate of all invertebrates foolish enough to trespass in her realm. This ongoing carnival-of-horrors also features much chewing of worms and leaving them in shoes, but no evidence of bird or mammal murder as yet – lending credence to my campaign to preserve her image as a gentle spirited cloud-creature made of fluff and happy thoughts. This said, as her pouncing skills improve it has become necessary to introduce an embargo on “firm biting” within the domestic setting. Here she is, angrily tolerating snuggles whilst looking massive.


So now I’ve caught your attention, I’ll be grumbling about make-up. Or specifically, ‘no make-up selfies’. By the time I’ve stapled down my opinion I’m sure the phenomenon will be long in the past, but I’m interested in the ill-feeling it generated. You remember how it went. Scrape off the Mac, post a selfie, donate a fiver (or mutter something about cancer awareness). As it went viral, people were quick to attack the craze as distasteful: narcissism dressed as charity, as articulated here. I say vanity-shmanity, whatever it was “really about”, £8m spontaneously raised for cancer charities is what it is. But had there been no donations at all, pontificating about the insecurities of participants is still just so much whatever-shaming, and kind of pisses on an actually helpful conversation trying to take place behind even the most glaring compliment trawlers.  The extent of the fad at least pointed to a widespread sense of something problematic in our dependence on make-up as a way to appear as other (or ‘better’) than we are. If we’re done being mean to each other (and scandalized on behalf of cancer sufferers who, trust me, have better things to worry about) perhaps we can talk about it.

I’m ambivalent about make-up, actually. I do think the beauty industry is monstrous, and it’s great that there’s an ongoing dialogue about its negative impact. The auto-feminist in me wants to disapprove of the fact that I buy in at all – but looking at it historically, it’s complicated. My personal route to make-up certainly wasn’t gender-specific – actually, to begin with I learned everything I knew from copying boys.

I escaped indoctrination in my early teens. Owing to the onset of unwelcomely fabulous breasts at the not-quite-fabulous age of 11, an illusion of maturity wasn’t top of my wish-list. Look-wise, aside from a brief and regrettable flirtation with adidas (inescapable circa 1995), a lot kind of passed me by. I wasn’t really sure what it was I was supposed to be into – until the day when, replete with circus-sized DMs and full Brian Molko eyeliner / lippy combo, I spied my first (I thought) goth. Around the same time, in the style of some lazily imagined coming-of-age movie, I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time, and was done for.

Goth turned out to be totally inaccurate, naturally. In (just) pre-internet Carlisle there weren’t really the numbers to be micro-tribal about alternative culture. Everyone from metalheads through punks, goths, skaters, indie-kids, hippies, skinheads, folk-rockers, grunge survivors and a few stray ravers were bundled together in the same handful of pubs, under a raggedy umbrella of necessity (greebos, to you). It invited a cross-pollination of styles wherein beginners and the less dogmatic often cherry-picked the music and the look, with varying degrees of success. My cd collection bears the scars to this day (it’s a mercy there are few photos.)

My real-life idol of choice was a grumpy, guitar wielding junior-anarchist with a diligently soaped mohawk (which used to foam up and get in his eyes when it rained as we walked home from school for his paper round) and a preference for passionately obnoxious music. He was the first boy I saw wearing make-up. And I lurved him. Him and Kurt Cobain (also handy, until his then recent demise, with a kohl pencil) tied. My favourite lipstick, acquired down the market with the express purpose of capturing his attention, was black, like his – certain early snogging experiments were like performance art events, leaving both of us resembling a child’s crayon drawing of Beetlejuice.

Throughout my teens, the assorted crap I wore on my face, sourced alongside dubious studded paraphernalia and killer boots on occasional pilgrimages to Newcastle, remained less of an attempt at idealised feminine beauty than a none-too-subtle statement of identity – paying homage to a soundscape and value system; claiming to belong. Although I later came to know that I belong to the world just as well without a look, its meaning to me was at least partly outside considerations of beauty and / or gender. When I see girls – and guys – with hair and faces all the colours of the Haribo rainbow I still think, not “you poor, objectified soul” but…well…”cool.” And whatever constitutes your idea of cool, I think I want it to be ok for you to smear it on your face if that’s what you feel like doing. Boy or girl. It’s your body.

So what’s our beef with make-up? Sure, it’s sad and crazy that we’ve come to a pass where posting a photo of a bare faced woman should be considered an act of bravery / lunacy in the manner of bungee jumping into a tub of wasps for charity. But I’m not sure the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of make-up per se. Actually, what struck me when the selfies were doing the rounds – and perhaps fuelled the ‘vanity’ grousing – were the many cries for validation qua beauty full stop. A filter here, a careful angle there – but more importantly, the corresponding stream of comments beneath, reassuring the subject that she’s naturally beautiful. That’s where the bullshit hides – this continual reinforcement of the idea that women have to be told they’re pretty. I’m not alone in feeling we’d do better to recognize that it needn’t be crucial to their self-esteem whether they are or not. Online attention-hunting compounds the issue, but it originates in an idea we’re being sold, not a product, and celebrating ‘real’ beauty isn’t the antedote. Take Dove’s ‘campaign for natural beauty’. Capitalizing on the fact that we got uppity about skinny models and airbrushing, they added the word ‘natural’ and then continued to market beauty itself at women as aggressively as ever. Cynical with an organic cherry on top.

It’s unhelpful restricting analysis to women. As is frequently pointed out, men too are encouraged to judge themselves harshly on a narrow and unrealistic scale of attractiveness, and without recourse to Touche Éclat, at that. The crucial difference is that the ‘real’ value of men is traditionally pegged more widely outside looks. Not hot? Never mind. You can be powerful/ successful / clever. Whereas men are denied the means to claw an easy couple of points back on the old 1-10 chart (cuban heels, anyone?) women, owing to some sort of perceived inner vacuum, are entitled to be superficial. Fill your boots, girls. (Or, you know, buy some new ones. You love shopping… right?) Telling women they must feel attractive both permits them the tools to privilege themselves within a system of false value, and traps them there. Take the make-up away and call it ‘natural’ and the problem’s still there. Only now you haven’t got a blemish stick.

Am I a hypocrite? I’ve participated in this game. Outside eras of beer-led excess I have dieted, painted, compared, been body image’s bitch. I compliment people on their outfits. I genuinely love an ankle boot. But while I’m reluctant to bin my mascara and shave my head just yet, I think we might all feel better when we just stop insisting that a woman must be told that she’s beautiful – whether tarted up to the ears or naked as the day she was born.

5. Not Meditating

Excuse the gap. Alongside the drought that usually follows my short bursts of productivity and other prohibiting factors that will come out in the wash, I have been on holiday.

It’s my long held tradition to turn up for these jaunts with my mother crabby and hung over, a few pounds beyond desirable limits and sorely in need of a detox. A gentle and nurturing week in the sunshine later I emerge like a thin(ner) brown(er) phoenix from the ashes of my pasty former self – clean-livered and newly sane, and ready to take on the world. Given the sobering influence of a major health shocker you might hope that this year I had a head start, but owing to the closing night of an especially fun show (and my first foray back on stage) I’m ashamed to say it was the usual story as I dragged myself red-eyed and fragrant to the airport. Sorry Mum.

Blog-wise I was confident: I pictured myself striding out by the sea, returning inspired and windswept to record my profound contemplations. It was hot, however, and I was tired from all the nothing I had been doing recently so in the event I sat on my arse all week eating Soleros, and didn’t think about anything interesting. I complemented this program of self-improvement with a rigorous policy of not exercising, and threw in not meditating for good measure.

I’ve been not meditating for so long now that I pride myself I am something of an expert. Despite strong, well-meant encouragement, convincing evidence and indeed full personal endorsement of its benefits, I remain stubbornly reluctant to develop a regular mindfulness practice. It’s a triumph for flaky self-sabotage in the face of good sense.  In the early years I upheld the studied policy of my friends; specifically that meditation was for wankers. Like smoothies and gap years it invited only mistrust and ridicule; a ruse most likely invented by the government to distract people from beer. Now I have no such excuse. I’ve read the science. I’m interested enough in consciousness to totally buy the arguments from neuroplasticity and I’m exactly the kind of intractably miserable bastard this thing is supposed to help. I have reason to expect that I will survive the next couple of decades so there’s ample time for transformation. Where’s the holdup?

J is a long-time mindfulness convert, and it has radically changed his once recognizably chaotic life. He now works for a company who provide guided meditation resources online, in a sustained and positive effort to spread compassion and wellbeing. I do my best to remain grumpy and a mess in the face of his patient encouragement but it’s a tough job. A breakdown for the uninitiated: mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism. It trains us, if we let it, to focus attention – to release ourselves from the distractions of a busy mind and exist, without judgement, alongside our own experience. At the very least the process can be extremely pleasant but developed as a practice the value goes way beyond relaxation. Over time it physically alters the brain, affecting anxiety and stress responses, improving memory and concentration, and increasing compassion as a by-product. It makes you quantifiably healthier and less of a twat. If all this wasn’t enough to convince me, it’s also supposed to make  animals like you better. Sure enough, despite my best attempts to bribe it the kitten follows J around like he’s the pied piper. It’s borderline weird.

Pursued to a lifelong conclusion, meditation is billed as the answer to suffering. Perhaps it’s the audacity of this claim or its association with religion and less palatable brands of hippy crap that has put people off something that’s essentially been going strong in the same form for over 2000 years. There’s a change in the air, however – as Western consciousness begins to cotton on to its value it is gaining in mainstream influence. Universities you’ve actually heard of are churning out convincing studies like there’s no tomorrow.  I have a feeling things will get interesting once it gains a foothold in education – and it’s headed that way, having already become established in some areas of healthcare (unsurprisingly, there’s little it’s not good for.)

So there we are. It all sounds to me like a very good idea. Moreover I’ve tried it, and it’s not even horrible, like jogging or green tea. We should probably all be doing it. I’ll keep you posted.

4. Plumbers, we’re coming for your jobs

I thought this week I’d wander casually into a minefield of complex and sensitive issues, and have a prance about. Sound good?

Good. At last, then, my wish has come true. Not the one about world peace and a campervan, sadly – give me time – but in personal terms the next best thing: I’m busy. Gloriously, chaotically, coleslaw for dinner and no clean pants busy. (Don’t worry, I put a wash on before I started writing this.) It feels awesome. But there’s a catch. That campervan ain’t getting any closer – once again, of course, I find myself in the murky territory of working for free.

My time, my choice? That’s one way of looking at it – but many would strongly disagree. It’s a loaded act, the implications of which extend far beyond a personal remit – especially among musicians, a group uniquely encouraged to work for peanuts a lot of the time. The prevalence of the debate within my own circle tends to wax with the perceived success of certain fringe companies who may be profiting tidily from shows where performers certainly aren’t, but it’s also a big issue in the industry at large and one that many artists feel rightly passionate about.

The MU ‘work not play’ campaign fronts the “against” position, and it’s a strong one. Musicians provide a service, for which they should be fairly remunerated. It’s a profession, not a hobby – you wouldn’t ask a plumber to unclog your u-bend for free and the guy behind the bar is being paid, so why is the person on stage going home empty handed? The TUC are unambiguously behind them on this and it makes perfect sense. Some employers play fair but others won’t pay for something they can get elsewhere for free, and if art is to survive and flourish at the highest level then it must be a viable profession. Why the thousands of hours’ practice and, in the classical world particularly, hefty conservatoire fees, to find yourself struggling to support a family on a meagre income, continually threatened by those willing to cross the unspoken picket line and undercut you at the lowest possible level? Man cannot live by “industry exposure” alone, and where that industry is shrinking under increasing pressure from arts cuts and new media, workers’ rights must be supported. It’s important to me to establish my credentials as a good socialist within this debate but if you detected a “however” lingering not far away, well done.

Art at all levels can be expensive to create. Fringe culture (though I kind of disagree with the distinction) is hugely important to communities. Offering a direct interface with worlds of inspiration, ingenuity and invention, mind-explodingly different to tv and digital media, it functions as a hub of collaboration and creativity, a forum for experimentation, a platform for new talent. It nurtures the weird, unsavoury seedlings that will grow to become the mainstays of emerging cultural institutions.  Accessibility is at the core of its value – as such it must remain affordable, and herein lies the rub. There’s a difference between downright exploitation, where serious money is being made by promoters or venues but artists are still expected to work for the joy of it (quite simply unacceptable) and a genuine profit share scenario. Under or un-funded and with their charmingly teeny capacities, fringe venues often aren’t lying when they say there’s little or no profit to go around. This still doesn’t address the question, however, of the barman and his (doubtless overflowing) paycheck. We’re all doing a job here. But do any of us truly believe it’s that simple? Or to put it another way, if it’s just a question of money, why aren’t you a plumber?

Those of us who trained long and hard can choose to see it as a great sacrifice, both personal and financial – but can we deny our immense privilege in the same breath? Didn’t you enjoy college? Weren’t you inspired by the masters of breathtaking skill and wisdom; transported by participation in your heart’s greatest passion on a daily basis? I spent six years in higher education. I have a hefty debt to show for it. Throughout that time I most certainly worked hard – but that still makes me a hothouse flower, not some sort of martyr. I’m in no doubt that the eternally cited plumber just loves to plumb – but does he plumb in the shower for the sheer joy of it? Plumb late into the night with his mates, weep with sheer disappointment when a sore throat puts him on the sofa for the evening? To a certain extent I’m playing devil’s advocate (I can hear you buckling on your armour from here.) We all have to live. But I don’t think we help our cause by conflating notions of value that don’t add up.

It’s argued that by donating our time for free we plug a gap that ought to be filled, if we don’t triple ticket prices, by investment in the form of funding from a government that understands the economic and social value of our art in real terms. It’s certainly important that we continue to highlight our value in the only terms the current government understands (£). But you don’t need to look much further than the treatment of arts in the curriculum to see that the scope of their imagination on this one is limited. Under current conditions with core public services being brutally dismembered (another can of worms – for a preview of my opinion on the NHS situation picture me standing on a box, repeatedly screaming “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”) we may founder on the one track notion of cash flow, if we don’t understand that it is within our gift to nourish our own community. If culture dwindles, collective bargaining won’t revive it.

I might cover my rent one month belting nessun dorma (…) into a conference hall mic. Agonising to the final second over new material in a cold crumbly room alongside people who inspire me usually pays fresh air. But I know which consummates my creativity. Is that worth nothing to me? Poorly paid work can make us feel second rate, but mainly because we’ve internalized the view that “if you play for nothing that is what people will think you are worth” (words of encouragement c/o WorkNotPlay at time of writing.) I’m for subsidy. I’m for fair pay. Make a big noise on the part of your profession and don’t let yourself be exploited. But don’t let anyone tell you that if nobody puts a price on your contribution it has no value – or worse, that it’s damaging. It is always an act of generosity that enriches the lives of others as well as your own.

3. Can you train a cat?

I thought I’d lighten the tone with some kitten business. Slave that I am to your good opinion, I feel I must offer a disclaimer before beginning. It would be futile to deny that I’m fond of cats, however I fear my fanaticism may have been exaggerated by a feedback loop of present buying and facebook posting. Thus sporting one item of cat paraphernalia generates a domino effect whereby friends are encouraged that this is your kind of party and buy you more and more of the same. On last year’s tour alone I racked up a cat makeup bag, cat t-shirt, cat calendar, cat phone cover, fake portable cardboard cat, floral cat brooch, two books of cat anecdotes and cat cards more numerous than the stars. All of which are delightful – thank you – but allow yourself to be seen with more than one of these items together and people begin to talk. Similarly, reposting of memes on facebook (I’m prepared to shoulder the blame on this one) has led to a proliferation of ‘and thought of you’ tagging so my wall frequently contains nothing but cat videos of variable quality. It makes me look mental. (Please don’t stop.)

Anyway. Can you? Train a cat?

If the internet, and my thinly researched bullshit prior to obtaining a cat are to be believed, then the answer is yes. I urge all of you here in the spirit of procrastination to check this action out:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XX_7z9HTbz8

Hell yes.

J has always been a dog person and teased me remorselessly about cats as treacherous parasites, awaiting only their opportunity to feast on your flesh as soon as you so much as sprain an ankle. I’ll snuggle anything furry (to a maximum of four legs) but was more than happy to split the difference and get a siberian kitten. According to the breed info they’re quite doglike – loyal and obedient – and although I consider the implicit indictment of catkind to be wholly unfair, J was sold and I thought it would be cool to take her for walkies.

I’ll document progress on here as we go, but at the moment I’m hearing a pretty firm ‘no’ from Bijoux in the matter of the harness and lead. Following a major scuffle my limited success was answered with an enthusiastic suicide attempt; kitten duly caught and disentangled, a good deal of apologising was necessary on both sides for equanimity to be restored. I won’t say who bit who.

So the training may have to be postponed until her youthful high spirits have waned. Which, as she grows with alarming speed, doesn’t appear to be on the cards any time soon. Chief among her interests are frantic tunnelling (in the absence of an arctic tundra the underwear drawer is acceptable) and perennial kitten favourite die hard / spiderman mash-up. She’s also close to nailing the ‘thriller’ move  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7ssVT6T3mQ  which she practices daily in the bedroom mirror. I’m hoping to incorporate this and her equally impressive ninja cartwheel into the final cut of the training regimen. Quietly optimistic.

Needless to say her every move is judged to be uniquely adorable, particularly by ‘surprise’ cat convert J, who keeps dashing in from other rooms to tell me what she has just done. She dishes out plenty of the good stuff at cuddle time and is genuinely hypo-allergenic, as attested by several of my allergic friends who have rubbed her on their faces to no ill effect. (It’s an enzyme thing.)

There are of course minor misdemeanors. As if to demonstrate, a recent stroll across the keyboard replaced the previous paragraph with the word “juk7” (perhaps she’s trying to communicate with her home planet so I shouldn’t be too hard on her). Electrical cable munching raises the obvious concerns and comes within a wider remit of inappropriate snacking; I’m choosing to interpret her penchant for chewing on human ears as endearing although I promise to revise this stance if I ever find her with one not still attached to a person.

I’d hoped she would be a powerful ally in the coming battle with the seasonal horde of spiders lurking in ever more intimidating ranks outside (and now occasionally inside) the garden / bedroom window, but the crucial stroke of September has fallen and she’s still quite little. I found her lunching on one of the foot soldiers the other day but from the look of things he had died of natural causes – I don’t much fancy her chances against the likes of this massive bastard, currently lording it on the bedroom ceiling.



(I was brave enough to take a picture with the zoom, but am now waiting for J to come home with the door closed.) I used to be quite gung-ho about stuff like that, particularly at uni when I was frequently enlisted by a quaking flatmate to evict one of the huge wooly ones that had evolved to tolerate the Edinburgh climate, but I can only conclude that I was drunker back then.

Most importantly, though, my new oh-so-fluffy-and-precious friend (the cat not the spider) has made it fun to not have a job. If you read my last post you’ll know that’s no mean feat. Animals are just plain good for you, and despite bad press qua (much maligned) cat-ladies, make you considerably saner. It continues to astound me that given only time, nature can build such a thing out of water and a couple of boxes of Go-cat.  Here’s a picture of her looking adorable next to a teacup. Nice kitty.


2. Get a job already

An exercise in exaggeration: stand down, I am not about to throw myself into the road.

Remuneration aside, my limited experiences of real-world employment have afforded a glimpse of an important unspoken benefit. Even when parted from bed offensively early, the period of belief that you must certainly die from misery and exhaustion is usually temporary – and in fact shields you from a greater peril. By the time autopilot has marched you through your ironic cereal choice, scraped your tongue, tied your laces and deposited you at your desk / microscope / helm of world avenging warrior craft, you are probably a good two thirds awake and often even have something to do. Unpalatable though this task may be, the chances are it will take you to safety (lunchtime, for the purposes of this theory) without ever encountering the curse that menaces your freelance / unemployed counterparts. I will call it The Woe.

Unlike its close cousin, The Fear, The Woe isn’t founded on any tangible suspicion of substance related misdemeanor or life-altering embarrassment. No hangover required, it is yours for free the moment the last gainfully employed slam of the door plunges you into accusing silence (the situation is greatly alleviated by flatmates of a skiving disposition.) It’s a flimsy lie, which is why it’s frankly embarrassing to be in its unsophisticated thrall; but if you are – and I am – it’s a powerfully debilitating phenomenon. Styling itself as far as I can tell on early 90’s sci fi, it feasts on positive emotions. Optimism and self-belief are devoured leaving you stricken with uncertainty; the only clear fact being that it’s all shit. All of it – but especially you, the biggest loser of all. You should get dressed but you’d probably suck at it, etc. etc… Paradoxically this seems to go hand in hand with a reinforced sense that you and your failure as a person form the epicentre of all meaning in the universe, and that your situation merits great (personal) concern. The existence, in fact, of other human beings becomes a distant and indistinct concept – aside of course from those you invite in to form an imaginary panel of projected disapproval.

Luckily, owing to a powerful streak of personal vanity I find self loathing a highly motivating force, so I will usually rouse myself to activity before any meta-loathing kicks in. And so on a tide of half arsed practice, “research” and c.v. bothering I too will eventually reach lunchtime and feel… totally fine. Albeit a bit of an idiot. What the fuck was all that about? It’s utterly mystifying. Is it a blood sugar thing? Hormones? Metabolism? Is someone trying to poison me? I feel there must be a physical explanation for an apocalyptic mood that simply evaporates at noon. My sense of perspective returns from thin air as I shamefully remember the ocean of genuine human suffering outside the walls of my flat, and I’m ready to be useful. It’s a good job most of my work has traditionally been at night time. (As I prepare to post this, I am in receipt of new information vis-à-vis AUBERGINE POISONING which apparently is really a thing. It could explain a lot. Is nothing sacred?)

I experienced a hiatus in my dealings with The Woe whilst I was very sick. Despite swathes of time spent marooned on the sofa being not at all industrious, I felt calm and at ease with myself. My chief theory behind this is that it’s hard to justify being mean to someone with cancer, so my subconscious felt obliged to lay off for a while. I didn’t even feel compelled to read or watch pithy world cinema but developed a thirst for weakly scripted hospital dramas and repeats of The West Wing. I serenely eulogized about my new outlook on life (too short, nothing to prove, blah) and truly believed I had learned a valuable lesson. Fast forward less than two months after my final surgery, however, and it’s a different story. I’m climbing the walls. Even this blog is a poorly disguised job substitute, and when I should be smelling the roses, I’m fretting about my skill set, wanly coveting the careers of others and beating myself up for malingering. I nearly had a stroke today when I found out that I’d missed auditions for Candide at the Chocolate Factory. Turns out I was just confusing inner peace with a solid excuse to vegetate, which can look remarkably similar.

So the task I’m setting myself this week is to try and find my way back into the place where it’s ok – fabulous in fact – to simply exist and be free. I will read harrowing NGO circulars while I gratefully eat my un-oppressed, first world breakfast. Perhaps I’ll really genuinely start to meditate (on which, more later.) I will give up aubergines. But whichever way, the pointless Woe will be no more.

1. “So, are you back at work yet?”

Eight months ago, life seemed to have found a trajectory. Six years into a hard-won singing career I was touring with a major show and anticipating the next big job; an opera contract which I hoped was the mark of exciting things to come. Don’t get me wrong, ‘big’ has never been a watchword for my career. My great ambition was having sufficient work to even call it a job and for the most part I was happy with the familiar patchwork of almost enough opera, occasional corporate crap, waitressing to make up the difference and wringing every last messy drop of fun out of my twenties after dark. I’m open to high fives on that one – the only sensible choice.

It was hard work though. As all but the luckiest artists will attest, pursuing a dream (I wish there was a less bollocks way to describe it) in a freelance world involves at best equal amounts of joy and pain. Nice work if you can get it, but living on a carousel of nerves, rejection and self torture has sent many of us, we will freely admit, a hair beyond sane. For me this was compounded by the weird social guilt of pouring all that anguish and effort into something that can often feel like a selfish enterprise. I occasionally found myself wondering, given that the art world wasn’t about to crumble to its knees at the notion of my departure, whether this was really the best I personally could offer the world. But the path of least resistance is a tempting one, and having finally booked a solid 18 months of good work I set a raft of fine intentions for my free time (learn French, train religiously, iron out the technique, start volunteering, writing, saving the world…) then breathed a sigh of relief and repaired to the theatre bar. It’s all very well thinking outside the box, but when you’ve spent so long building the bloody box and it finally looks like it might hold, it’s hard to walk away. Also important to mention that I loved the box dearly (stop me when the metaphor breaks down) and that it was an intoxicating and highly addictive box (maybe now.)

In short, despite the now obvious downside -it’s still counterintuitive to admit it – I just don’t think I’d ever have dared to stop if I hadn’t been forced. However, forced I quite unambiguously was. There’s no sidestepping a cancer diagnosis, and I dropped my work and made a full time job out of recovering from numerous treatments and surgeries whilst not going mental. Thankfully I was considerably better at this than I was at my old job, and eight months later I have the all clear, and am feeling better than I could have expected after all the frankly gruesome (and ingenious) things that have been done to my body. It was a dark time in some ways but the distance that I gained from my hectic, angsty life allowed me both to see what I had been putting myself through, and reassess the future. It’s encouraged me to resist falling into old patterns, and to at least explore what might be out there before I launch myself at another project.

After all, there’s life outside singing. Did you know? I think I used to possess this and other knowledge but it was mothballed the day I moved to London, presumably to make space for all the neuroses. Quite apart from all the music I’ve sadly neglected in favour of, well, music, but still – many of my friends and acquaintances appear to lead interesting, fulfilled, dare I say happy lives whilst simultaneously not giving a toss about opera. The fact that this comes to me in the form of big news itself suggests that perhaps it’s time to brave a bit of perspective. So the singing will continue – but the weeping and gnashing of teeth will stop. And (big finish, incorporating experimental note of optimism) I’ll push as many new doors as I see from now on.

Welcome to my life. Biscuit?


This little intro will hang out at the top of the page while posts appear most recent first. As I begin to understand WordPress the format may improve. This week’s big news is that after only 10 years of using the internet, I have learned how to insert  a hyperlink.

Having overcome the obligatory angst around blogging, vanity projects, etc, I’ll keep apologies to a minimum. I wanted to be writing more and am persuaded that here is a good place for it. I considered a cancer blog but it felt mawkish; and as I was doing a good job of blithely ignoring the seriousness of the situation at the time, I felt it wisest to let sleeping dogs lie. Instead I thought it might be more interesting to start at the (new) beginning. The nightmare’s over, the box sets are exhausted and I’m rebuilding. As I have precisely no idea what that’s going to look like, I can’t tell you what to expect – this blog will be about formulating the blueprint from here. It will also contain gusts of comment and nonsense as they arise, and far-too-detailed updates on my REALLY cute new cat… I’m hoping the structure will kind of find itself. I also hope that people will participate – post comments and suggestions, and generally help me find my way. Also, feel completely free to render the process unnecessary by offering me an awesome job. Don’t all rush at once.