“Mummy, did you realise that this will be the last night I go to bed as a Year 5?”
Such was the plaintive cry from my daughter’s bedroom on the eve of the summer holidays. Like most children, she is averse to change, but it didn’t take her long to realise that change can also bring advantages. Not least the one that stems from the deal we did when she was still at infants school: I agreed that the number of pounds in her pocket money should equal her school year. She reminded me of our agreement the minute the summer holidays began, holding out her hand expectantly, “because, technically, I’m really a Year 6 now”.
Unlike my daughter, I positively embrace change. When I’m restless, rearranging the furniture makes me feel so much better. Not so my husband. Notorious for being unable to find things – glasses, car keys, wallet, shoes, daughter – even he feels it’s getting out of hand when he can’t find the sofa.
This autumn it won’t be just my furniture that’s getting a different outlook. I will be too. After being in constant employment since finishing my formal education, I’ve decided to go it alone. Well, I couldn’t wish for a more understanding boss.
By the time this edition of the Tetbury Advertiser* rolls off the press, I’ll be working from home. I’ll be writing, blogging, editing, helping other authors, and reading, reading, reading. (I like to think of reading as a job creation scheme for other authors.)
As a writer, I could – and often do – work anywhere I happen to be. But by choice I’ll be working mostly at the desk in my study, overlooking my back garden, which from this viewpoint is dominated by a huge old apple tree.
The apple tree serves as a kind of arboreal calendar. Imperceptible daily changes transform it from bare branches to blossom to harvest. No matter what I’m writing, wherever my imagination has taken me, a glance out of the window provides me with a grounding reality check or where I am and what season we’re in. A few weeks ago, the old tree was so full of apples that it showed more red than green. Now with only the odd scarlet dot breaking up the expanse of leaves, it just looks like it’s recovering from measles. Before long I’ll be able to see straight through barren branches.
Even that anticipated change doesn’t make me feel downhearted. 13 years of driving to work at Westonbirt has cured me of autumn melancholy. Nothing puts a more positive spin on seasonal change than the National Arboretum. Even when the autumn blaze of colour disappears, the trees spring magically back to life, their skeletons revitalised by the magical fairy lights of the Enchanted Wood’s Illuminated Trail. Such optimism is enough to make you look forward to midwinter.
But first, I need to rearrange my study…
(*This post was originally written for the October 2013 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser.)
Years ago, when I was a fresh young executive in the dog-eat-dog world of PR, it was the done thing to complain about your stress levels. Anyone in the office who didn’t was assumed to be not working hard enough.
Our boss Jim*, an ex-hack in his early 40s, was a kind man. Under pressure from the agency owners to maximise profits, he did his best to resolve our anguish, while still appearing to crack the whip. It can’t have been easy to be in sole charge of a bevy of ambitious young women, many of whom were prone to tears when losing a pitch for new business. Always the rebel, I was aghast when I overheard two women senior to me seriously discussing the merits of crying in the workplace: “It’s every professional’s right to express their true feelings.” I suspect there were days when Jim could have cried himself.
A family man with three lovely children, Jim was married to a former beauty queen. Although she adored him, I suspect she couldn’t offer him much practical help for dealing with women in suits. She’d probably have suggested a manicure to cure our stress. Jim’s solution was to send us on a stress management course.
Goodness knows how much the firm paid for that course. We were all shipped off to a posh country house hotel where our training session lasted all day. The cost of the coffee break alone must have run into treble figures. Inevitably, when we returned to the office, the training course made not the slightest bit of difference to our stress levels. All it did was salve Jim’s conscience that he was looking after us properly.
At the time, I was the only dissenter. “Cure the cause, not the symptoms!” I implored him. “Just eliminate the stress, instead of managing it.” I never did like wearing a suit.
Now that I’m working mostly from home, stress avoidance, not stress management, is my mantra. So when a nice man from confused.com challenged me to choose a stress-reducing gadget, with the chance of winning one for myself, I jumped at the opportunity. Jim could never have solved our problems with gadgets: they simply didn’t exist. In those days, the golfball typewriter was considered cutting-edge technology. If we wanted a gadget, we had to improvise. One of my colleagues infamously did so: she lobbed an ashtray at poor Jim in the middle of a difficult meeting. (Yes, it was that long ago: smoking in the office was still considered an acceptable way to manage your stress levels. Jim’s chosen prop was the cigar.)
My own approach to resolving stress is more constructive. I’ve pinpointed the early morning as the greatest source of stress in my day.
The stress kicks off when the radio-alarm wakes me up, ensuring that the first voices I hear every day are not those of my loved ones, but Messrs Humphreys and Naughtie on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Much as I admire these fine broadcasters, being woken by the news headlines is about as soothing as fingernails running down a blackboard. It’s less jarring when their gentler colleagues, Justin Webb and Evan Davies, are on duty, but even my favourite radio voice of all time, David Attenborough, could not make those news stories less than stressful.
The Antidote to Stress
Instead, what I really need to sound the alarm is an iPhone, loaded with soothing tunes, in an iPod dock on my bedside table. Music, not news, would wake me up: so that’s one source of stress that would bite the dust.
Another stress factor is checking the weather, so that I can put out the right school clothes for my daughter. Summer dress or winter pinafore? Light cardigan or sweatshirt? Boots or shoes? Socks or tights? I’d therefore also download a local weather app on to my iPhone. Then, each night before bed, I could check the forecast and lay out the appropriate clothes, leaving one less thing to worry about in the morning.
Knowing the weather forecast, I’d be able to ensure that it wasn’t just any old soothing music that woke me up in the mornings, but music chosen to put the most positive spin on the weather. (Ah, you see, all those years in PR were not wasted.) Whatever weather we woke up to, its accompanying tune would be a pleasure to hear. For sunshine, the choice would be easy: “Here Comes The Sun” by George Harrison. In case of rain, “It’s Raining Men” by The Weathergirls would never fail to lift my mood. For exceptionally bad storms, I’d pick “Greased Lightning”, from the movie Grease. Snow would provide the perfect excuse to play “I’m Walking in the Air” from The Snowman. If the weather ever got too depressing, I might cheat and load ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, a song that my daughter and I had on permanent repeat in the car last summer to raise our spirits while driving through pouring rain. But you get the general picture.
Less Stress For All
My system would be endlessly adaptable to suit all tastes in music. For those of classical bent, there’d be Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, although to reflect the impact of global warming and its ever-weirder weather systems, you might want to play the Summer movement in Winter, and vice versa.
You could also use the system to herald landmark days and events. “Get Me To The Church On Time” from My Fair Lady would signal a wedding. My daughter would not be the only one looking forward to hearing Alice Cooper sing “School’s Out”.
I’d even use it on days when I didn’t have to get up. I’ve thought of the perfect song for a lie-in, by possibly the most melodious duo of all time: Simon and Garfunkel. I bet you can guess what it would be: “The Sound of Silence”.
Strolling down The Ramblas in Barcelona, the leafy pedestrian thoroughfare that slices through this great city, we can’t help but fall into the traps that have been laid for the unwary tourist. Passing by the many living statues, we toss coins liberally into their collection boxes.
The statues are spectacular and imaginative, ranging from all-white classical Romans in togas to space-age superheroes. There is a diminutive Charlie Chaplin, a giant baby in a pram, a man with two heads and another with no head at all, employing the same clever technique as the invisible man that we (didn’t) see in the Park Guell. A particular favourite is what seems at first to be an abandoned fruit stall. As soon as we look at it, a fruit-covered man emerges from the display where he has been effectively camouflaged, holding out a fruit-bedecked hat for Laura to wear for a photo.
Laura is entranced, if a little wary. The more experienced statues know how to overcome children’s shyness and proffer coloured glass beads and marbles to encourage them. I find the marble policy particularly pleasing as Laura is diabetic. In any case, if they were offering sweets, the whole proposition would seem rather seedy.
We also encounter musicians on the Metro, to which Laura obligingly dances. She is hoping for a Spanish flamenco dress as a souvenir and is certainly meriting one on her performance. The quality of the music is very high – a delicate rendition of Bach on a mandolin, cocktail lounge favourites courtesy of duetting guitarists, soothing Sinatra from a trumpeter. Again, I’m easily parted from my money.
Soon I am slipping any coins I receive as change into my trouser pocket, for ease of access whenever we pass another street performer. When we encounter any plain common-or-garden beggars, of which there are plenty, I am hardened to their entreaties.
“Can’t you put a little more effort into your act?” I want to say to them. “Show a little creativity, won’t you? The competition is pretty stiff, you know.”
The sun comes out and we head for the beach, happy to pass a couple of hours making sandcastles for Laura’s Polly Pocket dolls. We gather tiny pebbles, driftwood and sea-smoothed glass to make Gaudi-inspired mosaics as decoration.
Finally, after dipping our toes in the Mediterranean – still quite cold, despite the 20 degree heat of the day – we head back along the promenade, passing magnificent sand sculptures, each the work of a young African man lurking nearby. There is a wonderful castle with high arches.
“How does he get sand to levitate?” I wonder. And a waterfall.
“A concealed pump,” my husband surmises.
The sculptor has clearly come well prepared. A giant dog, very simple but vast, pleases my daughter, though she gives a basking sand crocodile a wide berth. Cue for more redistribution of my wealth. I’m all out of coins by the time we leave the beach.
Laura has fallen into a quiet, pensive state.
“Perhaps I won’t be an artist or an inventor when I grow up,” she confides eventually. “I think I know what I want to be now. I’ll be a person who makes a model and people have to put money in their tin.”
Relaxing in the late afternoon sunshine, as we stroll back to our hotel, I decide that she is definitely on to something.
Well, that’s that. After 13 years, I’ve finally leapt off the treadmill of my salaried job and jumped on to the rollercoaster of life as a freelance.
Time now to reboot my brain, erase the files that are surplus to requirements and make space to record all that my new status will bring. It’s time to break all those habits, from the 6.30am alarm to the 6.30pm restorative glass of wine, and to go where my fancy takes me. I might even throw away my watch.
There will be no updates to this blog for the next week, then I’ll be back and raring to go – so please do come back to visit. In the meantime, happy half term, everyone. Oh, I forgot – I don’t need to think in terms anymore. This rebooting may take a little longer than I had anticipated .
Dr Who and I have a lot in common. Every now and again, we can’t help it, we just have to regenerate. I’ve reinvented myself several times during my adult life: I’ve been married, widowed, married again, then become a mother. In career terms too: a journalist, a PR consultant, a marketeer. All along, it’s been the same old me underneath, but I’ve just added another layer, an extra dimension. I’ve just evolved a little bit further.
I feel quite a lot like Mary Poppins, too. No matter how much I’ve loved my current job – I’ve danced on the rooftops, fed the birds, tidied the nursery, ridden the carousel – I know in my heart that it’s time to slip away and move on. And while Jane and Michael Banks might think they can’t function without me, not only will they manage, but soon they won’t miss me at all. I’ve imparted sufficient wisdom. My work here is done.
I’ve had a sign in my office for some years that says “When your heart speaks, take good notes”. (Not far from the one that says “The Romans didn’t build an empire by having meetings – they did it by killing everyone who opposed them.”)
The thing is, no matter how much you enjoy the carousel ride, sometimes you just want to get off and have a go on the dodgems. And in a few hours’ time, I’m going to climb aboard.