Sporadic blogs about my experiences, acting, writing, making theatre & generally just trying to muddle my way through life the best way I can, making the best of it I can. As Oscar Wilde said: We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Causes Worth Fighting For 1#

I want to take the time to talk about some causes that are close to my heart. The causes in this post and the one to follow are a variety of causes and some you may have heard of but I suspect that one or two of them you have not.

Care for Aids
(https://twitter.com/CAREforAIDS, careforaids.org)

Care for Aids is a charity I discovered when I spent time in Kenya in 2009. I'll be honest, I don't know who set it up or where their head office is, who runs the company etc. Not because I don't care but because I approached the organisation another way, volunteering through the connections between Care for Aids and the company I was out in Kenya with. This meant that I was thrust into the heart of the action, giving hands on care and so the also very important but separate 'office stuff' I didn't become involved with.

Care for Aids is set up on the principle that the most effective way to help those affected by Aids and HIV is to empower them. They provide holistic and spiritual care to the clients they take on for a period of about ten months. This means during this time a client receives food, counselling, medical attention and lessons in a variety of skills designed to equip the client to be self-sufficient at the end of the ten month period. So, for example, if a client likes making jewellery s/he can attend classes teaching them new jewellery making skills and if they are interested in setting up a business classes in how to start. Often, if it is needed, a client also receives a start up fund at the end of their time with Care for Aids to help them start their new business. They are seen and educated through local churches as well as receiving visits in their homes if they are too unwell to travel.

I was privileged enough to take part in the holistic and spiritual care given on centre days (days in which the local churches gave their space over to be used as meeting points) and to enter people's homes to speak to them also. Many people in Kenya live on almost nothing. Many live on nothing, getting by with whatever help and food they can find intermittently. To say seeing their living conditions opened my eyes would be an understatement. However, what I learnt from visiting them in their homes was not negative but rather the opposite. Despite being shocked to see people live the way they did, I was somewhat aware beforehand that people in Africa, and other places, where forced to live in horrific conditions. What I was not aware of was the warmth and generosity with which I was welcomed into their homes. People for whom taking one step was agony insisted on walking me sixteen steps to the road. Those who had little space offered me the more comfortable seats to sit on. Those who had little to eat or drink offered me tea. They were so grateful to Care for Aids and their volunteers, both local and from overseas, that they were determined to show it. To me, that showed both the power of Care for Aids and the hospitality of the Kenyan people.

Care for Aids is a Christian organisation. Part of the care and counselling they provide is spiritual. However, they do not take on clients on the bases of what faith they do or do not have. It is open to all and nobody is forced to go to a Church service or baptised against their will. Many, through the programme, do start to know and form a relationship with Jesus but this is an additional result of the company and not why it was set up. It is like getting a free pair of flip flops with this month's glossy magazine.

Time to Change
(@TimetoChange, time-to-change.org.uk)

If you have read any of my previous posts, you may be aware why this cause is so close to my heart. In case not, I'll explain. Since four or so months before my fifteenth birthday, I have suffered, in some form or another, from depression and anxiety. To say my life is unaltered by this would be a lie. Not only has it affected my own actions but it has affected the way I have been treated. Work is especially hard as you are now often obliged to disclose any medication you are on and why. When I apply for jobs, I dread it coming up. I once had a forty-five minute phone conversation in which I was able to persuade my future employer that while I did have both depression and anxiety it was something that affected my personal and social life only. I had to convince them I was fit for the job I had been offered. Basically, I needed to make them see I wasn't 'mad' or unstable. And I can understand why they might have thought that. With so many mental health conditions and so little knowledge of them and what having one of these conditions entails, they might have thought I was likely to snap at any point, including during my working hours. They thought it could make me unreliable and unsafe.

Time to Change looks to challenge these preconceptions and encourage us all to talk about it all, our demons, our conditions, how we're treated, how we're affected, how we are. It is as simple as that. And yet more important than you might imagine. A conversation can change, and save, a life.

Uhuru Child
(https://twitter.com/UhuruChild, www.uchild.com)

Uhuru Child is another organisation I came across in Kenya. Uhuru means Freedom in Swahili and reflects the organisation's determination to find sustainable ways to create employment for Kenyans and their ethos that providing education to young Kenyans will give them the freedom to chose their own path. Education in Kenya is mandatory at primary level (4/5-13 years). However, in reality not all Kenyans this age receive an education. Children must wear uniform to attend. Uniform costs money. Money is something many Kenyans do not have. And so many children do not go to school. On top of that, when you are 13, you take a test to get you into senior school. It is much like the 11-plus system in the UK. Except with the 11-plus system, whatever the result, you will go to a school. In Kenya, if you fail the test, you cannot go to senior school. If you can't go to senior school, your employment prospects fall dramatically.

Uhuru Child is determined to change this. They are building schools to provide free education to young Kenyans and work to create organisations that empower adults and children, through education and employment, as well as providing Christian discipleship on the side, much in the same way as Care for Aids, on a who wants it basis. By helping create ways to empower the Kenyan people they work with, Uhuru Child looks to make them self-sufficient, giving them the freedom to set their own course in life. A freedom that we in the West often take for granted.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

On The Possible Friends Reunion and The Changing Landscape of Comedy

On January 22nd, a Twitter account dedicated to exposing TV Secrets, @TV_exposed, announced that a Friends Reunion was going to happen. Despite being sick of E4’s constant repeats of the series a couple of years ago, having actively avoided it since then, I’ve been enjoying it more recently. So I’ll be pleased to watch it if it actually happens, though I’m not jumping the gun and expecting it will. It would be nice to see ‘The Friends’ later on in their lives and having grown up with it in my early adolescence, there’s a little nostalgia.

But I’m struggling to picture it working a decade later. Friends is so much of its time. And not just for the terrible clothes they wear (oh ‘90s fashion!) but because of the source of the jokes. Consider the episode that Ross and Rachel hire Freddie Prince Jr as Emma’s nanny and the problems Ross had with his gender. How funny the canned laughter informed you it was that Chandler’s dad was a gay burlesque dancer and that, especially earlier on, Chandler was often mistaken for being gay. The jokes made at any undesired and disapproved femininity the male characters showed and the ‘funny’ gay element brought out in Ross and Joey’s friendship the time they took naps together. While, some of the smaller, more provincial of the US comedy shows still stick to this style of comedy, I find it hard to imagine the more popular current comedies like The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother trying to get laughs this way.

Even jokes about promiscuity and how promiscuous men treat women are focused upon differently in present-day sitcoms. Joey’s lack of feeling towards the numerous women he sleeps with is made to seem like a loveable fault, akin to his lack of intelligence. But HIMYM’s equally promiscuous and far more devious Barney is often told off by his friends, especially proud feminist, Lily. Monica, Rachel and Phoebe might see themselves as feminists but they rarely call Joey out on how little he cares about the way his treats women, often portrayed as wanting a relationship (because the idea of a woman wanting a one-night stand is so rare). At least HIMYM shows both women who do and don’t want more.

I am not under the impression that contemporary US, or UK, comedies are completely without fault for the jokes they make. I saw a recent advert for Two and a Half Men in which Alan starts dating a trans-woman. Jokes are made about how she assumes the typical ‘male’ role in their relationship and she’s even shown punching a man to who insults Alan. In my opinion, this shows how far sitcoms and their devoted audiences still have to go. But we have at least evolved from our views and humour circa 1994-2004 and if a Friends Reunion is to go ahead, it too will have to evolve.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Being a 'Boomerang'

We’ve all heard it in the newspapers, radio stations, online etc, the Crisis of the Boomerang Generation. And we all know why it’s happening so I’m not going to go into the well-covered, hotly argued, very depressing statistics that explain why so many of us keep returning to the nest we were so keen to fly away from x years ago. There are, obviously, pros other than financial for living at home. For instance, it’s quite nice having somebody else cook your dinner every now and then, you’re not the only person who takes care of the laundry and the kitchen table becomes your in-house Book Club. I can pursue my creative ambitions without the worry of rent hanging over my head; I do not miss the monthly, ‘oh dear Lord am I going to make it?’ as I looked at my bank account before rent was due to leave.

But what isn’t talked about so much is the guilt that accompanies all of this. I feel guilty. I’m living off my parents, rent free, I don’t work 40 hours a week because I’m trying out a mixture of temporary and part-time work meets Chasing The Dream. You can’t argue with the sense behind it all but The Guilt is terrible. When I visit friends who aren’t living at Home, who are being Independent Adults, I feel much like a Child again. At a friend’s yesterday, I felt reminded that she was achieving the milestones of her twenties much faster than I was. But of course, I was forgetting her parents have bought the house she lives in and rent out the other rooms. She has had a helping hand. Her parents don’t live in London, mine do. Perhaps were hers in the city and mine not, the roles would be reversed. And she isn’t chasing an unlikely-to-work-out, dream Career.

But in our day-to-day lives, we do often forget the real sense behind things, the reasons why one friend is having it easier than another and why our own lives aren’t as stable as the person’s next to us. We love to judge ourselves against our peers’ achievements, forgetting their own failures and sacrifices. But I choose this life, I chose to turn my back on a stable income in my mid-twenties and to instead run at what was really important to me, the life that doesn’t have an easy step by step guide to it. If it means living at my parents’ while I try and achieve these things then fine, because you never know, I might just get there. In which case, I’ll have been really glad I’ve made that sacrifice of my early adult independence for the chance of unlikely creative success.

In the meantime though, it is a case of remembering that every time the guilt raises its ugly head. Still, I can’t spend too much time thinking about that today, I’m off to the cinema now. With my folks. And no, I’m not paying. Perks, eh?

Friday, 31 January 2014

The Fear

There is, apparently, a common dream that you end up somewhere like work or school naked or in just your underwear. Dreams For Dummies claims it refers to one’s focus on ‘privacy, modesty, honesty or being exposed’ and that ‘[b]eing in your underwear in public indicates you feel vulnerable’ amongst other things. There are few things that make you feel as exposed as the ‘arts’, whether it’s writing or acting or any artistic vocalisation of one’s self. The wonderfully accurate fountain of knowledge that is Wikipedia defines the arts as all human endeavours that are ‘united by their employment of the human creative impulse’. In layman’s terms, anything creative, anything one being, or a collective, have pulled from the recesses of their mind and put on display for the world to see.
And so the arts are not only a way you choose to expose yourself but they demand that you do so. Whether or not you plan to show your work to somebody, you’ve still physicalised it, on paper, on stage, in movement, in voice. Even if you’re the only person who will see your work, you’re still exposing the back of your mind to your own external viewing. Thinking about it in those terms, it’s hardly surprising that so many artists give up before they’ve even started and so many attics of so many houses are home to abandoned manuscripts and canvases. It’s also not surprising, when one considers this, that several artists are accused of having big egos. What better shield to yourself from the unpleasantness exposure can bring than self-assurance and confidence in your own brilliance as an artist?
 Still, whether or not you have a big ego, as an artist, there’s bound to be some part of you terrified of what exposing yourself in such a way might result in. In the end, if you truly want to be an artist, that desire has to outweigh that fear and if it doesn’t, perhaps it just isn’t meant to be. Or, perhaps, artists enjoy that fear of what might result from exposing themselves, the risk of what’s to come. Maybe, to those of us who don’t launch themselves off cliff-edges and swim with sharks, it’s our own version of thrill-seeking. Personally, I think both are correct and an artist will fall into one of the two categories, those who expose themselves despite fearing to do so, their urge for creativity overwhelming their fears, and those who expose themselves because they enjoy the thrill of doing so.
But, whatever category you as an artist fall into, there remains that moment, just before you take the leap, step out on stage, begin to recite or peel back the curtain, when fear sets in and you want to change your mind. But, however scary it is, you’ve just got to keep peeling back the layers and let yourself be vulnerable. Just remember that old advice: pretend they’re in their underwear and you’ll be fine.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Hero Worship

*Before I begin, I'd like to note, as with everything, these are just my opinions. I am not criticising individuals that encourage hero worship, I do it myself, rather I am criticising our society that has encouraged it.*

I think we believe that in the twentieth century we are fairly good at celebrating individuality and single people as opposed to fictional characters, sports players and performers, that the latter is a thing of the past when times were harder and the average person had little of their own life to take pleasure from. Perhaps, one or two people even speculate this might be due to the increased wealth of the average person from 50-60 years ago. But I do not think hero worship has decreased, in fact I think the opposite, and I do not think increased wealth helps, if anything it hinders.

Recently, I worked at an event that was designed to enable the child-fans of a certain premier league football team meet the players. It was only a couple of hours of my time and the children themselves were there for about 1 & 1/2 hours, maybe a little less. There were about 300 children attending, all seated at tables of ten. At the beginning, they were excited to see the players, to have them sign shirts and autograph books and hopefully talk to them. By the end, many were in tears and all left looking dejected.

The players only dropped in for about 20-30 minutes and barely spoke to the children, automatically signing shirt and book after shirt and book. Many did not reach all the children and most of the children had missed out on meeting at least three players. One of the children I was helping look after, a boy of about 10, possibly older, was crying quite heavily and found little comfort from the words of one of the club's PR people. He wanted his favourite player to sign a football card of himself. The PR lady told him he could bring it back next year and try and get it signed then. Little comfort and as I repeated this I knew it wouldn't make him feel better.

I will admit now that I dislike football. I find it a boring and rather unintelligent sport. My father (an Oxford and Harvard graduate) disagrees so maybe I'm wrong, it's just my opinion. I also don't particularly warm to football players. I'll admit, I have a low opinion of them, or rather the profession and the type of character it encourages. To say I have a low opinion of all football players themselves would require me to meet and get to know all of them in the world and that's just impractical. But I do dislike the kind of lifestyle many lead (flash with their cash, the world's their playground, they're untouchable etc etc). Normally this isn't a reason for me to dislike somebody, the way they live their life. Let's face it, many do and if I had a lot of money, I'm sure I'd likely dabble in excess (hopefully not to those levels though). Football players are not the only ones that live like this and while I might disapprove of people doing this, I wouldn't write off the entire populace that does. 'Judge not lest ye be judged' (Matthew 7:1), and all that, I try (note try) to make my outlook.

What I do dislike, though, is how this kind of lifestyle the players lead is coupled with the hero worship they receive and the way this hero worship is encouraged. I also dislike the entitlement it encourages in players. At this event, I saw the degree to which worship of the players is encouraged. To begin with, on arrival (in groups, bit by bit), the children were seated at their tables and given packs of player cards to trade. While they waited for all the children to be brought in (it took a while as they didn't want to bring them all up at once), a man who worked for the club spoke to the kids via a microphone, discussing who was who's favourite player and helping the children trade cards across the room. Once all the children were seated, he continue this for a little bit. All throughout, the players were discussed as superheroes. They were ranked, analysed and certain cards with certain 'best' players were coveted after. It was almost like the organising gods and placing them in order whilst sitting inside The Pantheon. In a way, looking back on it now, it also elicits some pity for the players from me as they were ranked like horses at a racetrack. However, when I consider the following, my pity does lesson.

The man on the microphone then started to 'pump up' the crowd so to speak. He started getting them to sing songs, first the team's anthem but then others about certain top players. One of which called a player something along the lines of super/great/invincible. And then the players arrived, to this chorus of worship and praise, almost like Jesus walking down the aisle of a Church during a hymn. But I hope, were He to do that, He'd spend more time with the congregation and give them more care than the players did to the children.

Before the children had the chance to have each player come to their table, they were called up and asked if they wanted to say anything to the children. Each mumbled out a very reluctant 'Merry Christmas'. Only about two bothered to say any more. Most stood there, looking bored, clutching boxes of pre-autographed photos they'd brought along. One player ignored the call to the front and carried on signing things for the children. When he'd come to my table earlier, he made a little more effort to talk to the children and when he was about to leave he graciously thanked the children for their support. He looked like he meant it. The rest might as well have been ordering a pizza, they were that unenthusiastic. I think many resented being there and just expected the children's worship without feeling the need to thank them. And society encourages this.

And this is what bothers me.

Working at a primary school, I noticed that the children, boys mainly but girls too, would talk about footballers an awful lot. Not surprising as many spent all their time outside playing the game. But they talked about them in the same way the man on the microphone at the football club was talking about them, the way he was encouraging the children at the event to see them, the way I'm sure they have been encouraged to ever since they were old enough to watch football. And the children at the primary school I looked after did not just talk about football players an awful lot but money too. 'I've got this much money in my savings for when I'm older', 'my dad makes this much', 'my iPad cost this much'. I don't know if the children worship the football players because they make a lot of money or if they valued money greatly because football players openly make and openly spend a lot of it.

Just think how often the magazines and newspapers that grace our shops talk about how much a player made transferring to a new team, or how much their wedding cost or how much they spent on a night out. News programmes too now cover this. It seems as if hero worship and the desire to make millions are tied into one. There's nothing wrong with wanting a lot of money in the abstract sense, thinking every now and then it would be nice to have that security, especially since the credit crunch and recession, but to want it in the more concrete sense, that it will give you value and worth...is that a message we should be sending out to our impressionable children and teens? Is it a message we want them to believe?

It is not just football players that are guilty of encouraging this and it is not just football players we are guilty of hero worshipping. Just think of the mania that surrounds One Direction and Justin Bieber, the merchandise each act churns out, mugs, calendars, duvet covers, t-shirts, (I'm guessing underwear too, I really wouldn't be surprised). And I remember in my teens, MTV had a myriad of shows about how was the richest actor in Hollywood, who had made the most money on what film, and showing off big, celebrity houses on Cribs. They probably still produce similar, if not the same, shows. Good for those who have worked to have nice things and nice homes. But this should not be the reason our children and teens look up to them. And we should not be encouraging such overwhelming worship.

I remember, as a teenager, standardly self-loathing, desperate to impress, be liked by my school mates and others, absolutely adoring a TV character. She was fantastic in my eyes, a great dress sense and pretty so she was quite often chased after by the boys in the show. She had a drinking problem but that didn't bother me. In fact, aged 15, I found it all the more reason to like her. Heavy drinking, after having lots of money, seems to be another thing our society encourages and, I won't lie, I like a drink or two now in my mid-twenties. But I'm well aware it should not be glorified.

I liked this TV character so much, I tried to dress like her, accessorize like her, be as much like her as I could manage. And why not? I was a miserable teenage and clearly being me wasn't working out. Why not try to be like somebody else? Years earlier, I remember reading in a magazine aged 10 an article telling girls how to style themselves after each of the female characters on Friends. Phoebe, Monica and even Rachel had enough of a tame dress sense for this to not really be an issue of age appropriate styling. But why should I and my peers have been encouraged to dress like somebody else?

Where is it that we celebrate our individuality in the media? Why is it that even in 2014, magazines and internet pages and reality television shows encourage a worship of what you, the reader, the viewer, the individual, is not?

Much of it is about PR. Back to the football club event, and just before the players left, the man on the microphone told the children (very clearly) 'Now, the players have got to go, they've got somewhere very important to be...make sure you tell your mums and dads...because they won't tell you this in the press, but the players are going to go to a children's wing of a hospital and visit all the sick children....isn't that nice?! So they've got to go now'. Football players, while worship and glorified in many press publications, are also vilified in others so I understand the PR team's fear-driven determination to try to turn around popular opinion. But, this to me, took the proverbial biscuit. Further encouragement of now an almost saint-like vision of the football players. Not only did they have super powers, but they were regular Mother Theresas too. Other celebrities, actors, singers, etc, are likewise praised the minute they deign to spend the time with somebody of ill health. But I now find it hard to respect somebody who openly and proudly declares 'I'M BEING CHARITABLE'. Children and teens, however, often are not so discerning in their opinions and once again the wheels of worship are set in motion.

Of course, PR is a huge part of any job that puts somebody in a position to receive regular attention. But I am increasingly finding the way it ties in with hero worship, in the same way that having money is tied into it, too much for me to not say something. Even if it is only on my little blog.

After the football club event, I made what I thought was a highly witty comment (being the highly witty person I am, of course) on my Facebook status about how my opinion of football players had not improved from meeting them but good for them for being tall. My friend called me out on it when I told him I disliked football players  'because I think they are over-paid, over-pampered & encouraged to believe they are almost demi-gods. For the most part, they then act this way.' I still stand by this. Except what I should have said was that I dislike the profession and the type of character it encourages. I also don't believe this is limited to football players entirely but I do think that it is more often expected of a footballer player than an actor. And of course, there are distinctions. I do not know how football players are treated elsewhere in the world and I know of course that actors from Hollywood are treated and behave differently (typically) than British actors. I think pop singers are treated fairly similarly across the world, that being worshipped also. And I do think both footballers, singers, and Hollywood actors are worshipped in a way beyond other professions. And they, or those of other professions giving them celebrity or money, should not be. Not to the degree they are, anyway.

A friend once told me that in your teens, studies have shown you are never more receptive to something, never more passionate about your loves and never more fervent in your adoration. That being the case, what should we be encouraging our teens to obsess over? No doubt they need something. I watched Channel 4's summer documentary about One Direction fans and one girl, who lived in a small flat with her disabled mother and young brother whom she had to care for, said that if you're sad and you think about One Direction, 'you're not sad anymore' and that was why she loved them. They need something. And even, we in our adult years, quite often need somebody to admire. But we need to stop letting it be the celebrities of our time. Nor the Disney princesses from fairy-tales from the past. I saw something online about a mother who'd dressed her five year old up as women from history who'd accomplished things like medical training when women could not or flying across the world solo instead of Disney characters. She sounds like she's got the right idea. To top it off, she then photographed her daughter as her daughter, the person she should want to be like the most. If our classrooms and magazines and TV shows began doing this instead, perhaps instead of rooms filled with miserable teenagers attempting to be more like a television character than themselves or hunt down their favourite baby-faced pop star and the streets next to football clubs filled with crying children who were unable to meet they favourite players would be a thing of the past. Perhaps, even, one might dare to hope, the One Direction fans might stop sending death-threats to the girlfriends of the group. But maybe that is a pipe dream.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A New Year. A 'New You'?!

I tend not to do the whole New Year's resolutions thing. I did once, aged 8 or so, write down all the bad habits I wanted to put an end to and burn the page. But I'm pretty sure it didn't last long. I don't think they work. Not because it isn't a good idea, starting fresh with the change of the year makes sense. You never want to start a new fitness regime/healthier eating/better bedtime/less internet use etc etc mid-week, it's far too tiring to try and change when you're just trying to make it to the end of the week. And often the same often goes for mid-month so using the New Year to help make changes is almost natural.

But the idea of a 'resolution' doesn't stick. Normally they are things like 'do more exercise', 'drink less', 'eat better', 'read more', 'have less sex with strangers', 'have more sex with strangers', 'go out more' etc etc. Aims. But not actually something you can call a resolution because that involves something more, a change of something within yourself. A new resolve. Basically, it requires a new outlook, which is something an aim can't give you.

What I propose, then, instead of making aim-like resolutions, is to think over the last year and to the next. Ask yourself, what do you wish to achieve? What did you miss out doing in 2013 and what did you do too much of? Once you stop going through your life on auto-pilot, you're much more able to make the changes you want.

Look at the bigger picture. I think too often we find ourselves living in the present, which is great if you are achieving things you want to achieve and enjoying the joy of the spontaneous. But if you're allowing yourself to go home at the end of work every day because you say you are too tired to go to the pub, or if you're messing about at home on the sofa in front of a screen all weekend, you're not enjoying the joy of the spontaneous. And you certainly aren't living. If you live your life in auto-pilot, how on earth are you going to achieve any of your dreams? I don't mean aims like being fitter or having a more balanced diet. I mean the dreams and hopes you have for the rest of your life that's to come. The things that keep you going when you feel bad/sad/mad etc. The hopes you've either shared with your friends and family for support or, out of fear, wrapped up secretly in your mind. Everybody wants something. Career-related or not.

So, as it is now 2014 and a new year, I suggest sitting down and writing down on paper everything you want to achieve. Look at it, take it all in. See how much you want, how far you've got to go. And make it happen. Stop existing. Start living.

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Smug Joy of A Round Robin

Every year, my parents receive several Round Robins popped inside Christmas cards. Some are informative, fairly unbiased news about the family with little to no bragging, an easy way to catch up friends you rarely see/talk to with your news. Some, however, the majority in fact, are not quite so reserved in their retelling of the events of the year and their family's news. These I love to read. But not for the reasons the writer intended.

After reading the worst/most amusing Round Robin my parents' received this year from some old friends from decades ago they never see and I've never met (and to be quite honest, reading the Round Robin, I'm glad of that fact), I decided to pen something of the same vein to share the horror many families are inflicted with in the Christmas cards they get each year. It is, if not the Ultimate then, a Supreme Middle Class Problem.

Dear Friends and Family,

Well, it’s been a big year for the Smythe family! But every year is.

For myself and Tom, my sedate and ever-patient husband who willingly took part in our family photo (complete with a chorus line pose, aren’t we fun?) at the bottom of this letter without complaint, 2013 has been particularly enjoyable on many counts.

 Firstly because we have used the copious amounts of money Tom earns from his boring old job as director of a large boring firm that I pretend to care about to go on lots of lovely holidays! We’ve gone to Greece, Madagascar, New York, and France. In that order. There are many things I love about going on holiday, the chance to learn about a new culture, being able to try new cuisine, lots of time for shopping and the opportunity to show off to many long-suffering friends.

Greece was fantastic. It was a trip organised by my good self and while I was hoping to go somewhere hot and so booked the trip with that intention, we still found the Winter charms of Greece lovely. Having packed lots of shorts and t-shirts in anticipation of hot weather, our first port of call was the shops. Would you believe it, they have a GAP there? Trip high-light (other than GAP) was a visit to Mount Peilon and the village where cinematic sensation and my all-time favourite film, Mamma Mia!, was shot. We made use of our pilgrimage there for some film-tribute photo opportunities (see aside photo that makes you shudder at our lack of taste and wonder why we’re friends).

We had a big family holiday to Madagascar in July and Atticus, Bramble, Constantin and Dulcie were persuaded to come with us (as long as we footed the bill!) and enjoy the sunshine, five-star accommodation, beautiful beaches and delicious food that Tom’s money bought. Atticus brought along his girlfriend, Cressida, who unfortunately caught food-poisoning when we were there. But she did insist on going to visit a local village and eating from a low-end inn to ‘truly experience the local culture’. These young ones and their crazy ideas! She even attempted to find some volunteer work while we were there. Alas, being sick kept her confined to her room for several days. Atticus was very put out that he couldn’t spend time with Cressida but did manage to find some companionship and comfort from some other young hotels guests (meaning he was able to avoid hearing her be sick every half hour).

Tom and I finished the summer with a trip to New York. We took Dulcie with us to reward all her hard-work and perfect GCSE results (all A*s in case you didn’t get the three emails I sent out to your inbox in August). We had lots of fun, did lots of shopping and got to stay at the best hotel in New York according to The Telegraph’s travel section.

With Christmas coming up, Tom and I then spent a weekend in Paris shopping, eating and drinking, it was great. We also used the opportunity to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Many of you will also remember we celebrated our anniversary with a party at the end of October. We were so pleased to see all of you and hear all of the speeches about what an inspiring couple we are. It has been an interesting twenty-five years and we are so blessed to have made it this far. As our couples helper says, ‘it is always important to appreciate what you have and are’. The speeches from our four children were particularly touching and the original poetry written by Bramble was very moving. She really is a wonderful girl and so clever to find so many words to rhyme with love.

The rest of this year has been standardly brilliant for myself and Tom. He received another bonus at work and has finally consented to have surgery to correct his snoring in January 2014. It will be nice to have a peaceful night’s sleep for the first time in ten years! It just goes to show nagging does work! He also lost a huge amount of weight in the first six months of the year. It has been wonderful to see his energy increase but there have been consequences and I’ve found myself running round the house most evenings a week to escape his attentions. There have been benefits and my own waistline has shrunk (not that it needed it to begin with but I always appreciate a bit of trimming!).

My cupcake business has been booming! It went from three event contracts in 2012 to six in 2013 and I am beginning to feel like Karen on The Apprentice. To complete this, I have begun restyling my wardrobe on hers. I threw out a couple of my old most-unfashionable dresses but the rest remain in a trunk in the attic. If any of you want some old clothes, do feel free to come over and ask to look through the trunk. What’s mine is yours etc!

Atticus has had a brilliant year. Having graduated in 2012, he found himself swept up in the trend of the 2010s and he had a little wait before finding a job. That’s our Atticus, ever fashionable! In April, he was offered a job at Tom’s firm and he is doing well there. It is truly a good fit for him and he has worked tirelessly since he was a boy to deserve it.  The week after he started work, he moved into his new flat. He and his girlfriend, Cressida, are very happy and she is a lovely girl though a bit headstrong! She works for a NGO charity and spends a week each month in Bangladesh. Atticus does miss her when she’s away but he manages to keep himself occupied with other friends. While they do sometimes seem rather opposite, we are very happy for them.

Bramble is happy and well and continuing to be her wonderful unique self. Having bucked the trend of going to Uni a couple of three years ago, she began the year expressing an interest in photography and took several courses to help build her skills. She is very talented, she must get it from her father as I’m not skilled in that area (but Tom is, he is skilled at everything, such a wonderful husband!). Bramble then went on to do some AmDram with our local group, the Suffolk Players. She gave a sterling performance as Maid Three in an epic adaptation of the Complete Works of Jane Austen by the groups’ director and held our attention every time she appeared during the six-hour performance. She finished the year exploring the written word and nature, her main theme, and spent a week away from her home (the family fort where she still lives to our great joy) living in Sherwood Forest to get to know her subject. I was a little worried about her but when the police rang to say they’d arrested her for pitching her tent in an area campers aren’t allowed, I was reminded of her resilience when they mentioned she’d kicked the arresting officer in the crotch. Bramble always will be a free spirit!

Constantin is as jolly as ever. Having spent his first year at University trying out different courses and settling on English at the end of the Spring Term, he was lucky for find his new professors very helpful and considerate. They gave him much advice and in October they suggested that perhaps Constantin was too advanced for a University degree and needn’t finish the course so to our brilliant luck he is now living at home! He has, similarly to his sister, begun an interest in poetry and romantic poets, particularly Lord Byron whose work he finds inspiring. In order to produce work of a similar standard, he has recently been experimenting styling his life like his hero! I think it’s rather sweet and tease him about it, when I get to see him, he’s so busy!! Constantin remains as popular as ever and while there is no girlfriend yet, I’ve met several girls I think he’s pursuing!

The baby of the family, Dulcie, spent much of 2013 working hard for her GCSEs. Her hard-work was paid off with all A*s!!!!! She really is a treasure. She persuaded us to take her to New York and we all had a wonderful time. Over the summer, as well as getting brilliant results, she found herself a boyfriend. Craig is an interesting boy with a very interesting perspective on life. Four years older than her, I think he is a good influence as he is able to help her grow into adulthood. Now in Sixth Form, Dulcie has begun her A Level years with a new attitude to work and seems more relaxed. In part, I think that is also to her new vitamin supplements her doctor and life advisors recommended and after several months of adjusting to some small side effects, she seems very well.

We have all loved 2013 and enjoyed having you all over so much. As ever, our indoor pool is open to all of you (just ring and ask if you want a swim and we’ll email you a booking form) and the sauna too! We’ll be opening our outdoor pool in April with our annual pool bash but I’ll be in touch with more details closer to the time.

Hopefully 2014 will be an equally excellent year for the Smythe family!
Love and kisses etc etc