Keep Your Head Up

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Being a commuter to London – or to any big city – can leave you feeling like a bit of a zombie. Heads down, gazes averted, we spend our morning journey avoiding eye contact and absorbing ourselves in our own little world. This might be a book, music, or technological wizardry that allows you to watch TV. The number of books I’ve read since starting a job in the city has trebled, and I do enjoy it. But it makes me sad too. By the time I get off the train, I’m not feeling energised and ready for the day – I’m in just about the same state as I was when my alarm went off, if only a little better dressed. The day isn’t set up for productivity, but instead begins with a bleary eyed stagger from the carriage to the office, the train bubble burst so rudely and suddenly you can’t quite remember where you are.

So I’ve decided to make a change. It probably seems small and silly to even mention it, but it’s a change nonetheless and one that I’m already feeling better for. In the mornings, on my 8:43 train, I try not to read my Kindle (gasp!). Instead, I look out the window, with eyes wide, and take in the trackside scenery. Coming home now the evenings are getting longer, I sometimes do the same and admire the sunset. Just yesterday I spotted a beautiful rainbow towards Kennington – looking around my carriage, not a single other person had shifted their concentration from their lap. So that rainbow was my own, beautiful and vibrant for those who dare to look up. The rain storms produce some spectacular cloud displays, and as the sun fades to a dazzling orange, they’re lit up like a painting.

This probably sounds a bit bizarre. A bit airy-fairy, and not the ‘down to earth’ writing I tend towards. Perhaps it’s because at the moment I’m feeling stressed and deflated by work and so am grasping at the little things to keep me going. In fact, I’m sure that’s it. For the last few weeks I’ve woken up with a feeling of dread and nausea; just the simple act of engaging with my surroundings stops me from bursting into tears or turning in on myself. I can face the day knowing that my return journey will show off the sky in a different way. The little things that make each day move slightly easier, at the very least bookending the office with a ray of sunshine.

So take from this what you will. The random scribblings of someone who has a lot to say and few to say it to. Or insight into how to make each day a little bit more special, a little less grey, and less likely to turn you into the undead. Even dark skies have a dramatic tale to tell if you just keep your head up and read them…

© Ben Howard

Book review: Chaos Walking trilogy

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This series of books by Patrick Ness delves into a world of conspiracy, power, and hidden thoughts. A world where the minds of men are open, leading to a constant conflict of honesty and secrecy. Thrust into this mix are two young people. Children, forced to engage with adults in ways they could never have imagined, and try desperately to save the world from itself.

The first in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, introduces us to Todd Hewitt, a boy just one month away from the birthday that’ll make him a man, living in a town without women, the youngest male left. The first thing that strikes you is the odd vernacular with which Ness writes – part phonetic, part illiterate, it sends the reader right into the mind of Todd, feeling every emotion in the raw, open manner of an innocent child. We also discover The Noise – an infliction that only affects men and leaves towns loud, malicious, and violent. There are discoveries to be made, and secrets that the Mayor of Prentisstown has kept hidden for far too long. Secrets that will see Todd lose everything he’s ever known, and uncover more than he could have imagined. Throw into the mix a mysterious young girl, the first Todd’s seen, and what follows is a journey fraught with danger, frustration, and adventure, but not necessarily the good kind.

There is a war building, a conflict between Todd, Viola, and the powers that be. And that war spills through everyone they meet in the second book, The Ask and The Answer. Finding more questions in response to the ones they’ve already had, Todd and Viola are continually tested. This second book did feel a bit long. At every turn, they came to yet another obstacle, which started to feel repetitive. Every iota of hope was dashed before it could become fully formed. Of course, that is the way life goes. It is not fair and it does not always reward the good. I suppose this is a trial we all know too well, and perhaps that is why it felt a bit dry at times. I longed for the innocents to succeed. For the triumph over evil. For the underdogs to find their paradise. But by the end of The Ask, you can’t help but root for them more due to the trials of the past 400 pages. Their bond, their lives, and their consciences made better by this continual struggle. Knowing that it would lead them to something better. Continue reading

Flexibility and Flapjacks

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As I’ve mentioned once or twice – or enough times for you all to be rather bored – I’ve got a bit of a dodgy skeleton. Nothing major or particularly difficult to live with, but nevertheless noticeable for someone whose chosen sport requires the body to be put into all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes.

The main issue I’ve had when climbing is the ‘rock over’ move. This is when you are on the wall, and need to get your foot or toe on a hold about level somewhere between your waist and chest, and rock all your weight over (hence the name) and stand up on said foot. It sounds ridiculous written down, but comes quite naturally – just imaging stepping onto a hip-height wall from the floor. Nothing too strenuous on a wall, especially when at least one arm is pulling you in the right direction too. However, I’ve struggled with this as my hip muscles don’t quite engage properly. The over-rotation means there are tiny muscles that haven’t been activated my whole life as other parts (like my lower back) have over-compensated, and so the motion of pulling my body in towards my toe just didn’t make sense. My brain said “go” but my leg wouldn’t budge. Not great, especially when I’ve been trying to hit those upper grades which tend to use this move.

When I was at university my gym was the Surrey Sports Park – a multi-million pound facility that hosts the Harlequin Rugby Team and was the training base for a number of Paralympic teams in 2012. It’s a great centre, and I was fortunate that I could get student membership. Before lectures on a Thursday a friend of mine suggested going to Body Balance – a class by Les Mills that incorporates Thai chi, yoga, and Pilates. It’s great for strength, flexibility, and toning, and you can make it as easy or difficult as you like by just pushing a bit harder. When I graduated and started working, I found another class local to me, and the benefit of Les Mills is the classes have standardised choreography across the world. What I love are the focused hip and back tracks which allow me to really work my hips in similar positions to all my physio, and carry on strengthening the bits that up till now haven’t worked properly.

Today, after a few days off sick and feeling pretty rubbish, we went for a Sunday morning climbing session at White Spider. And it was the first time I’ve noticed the positive effects of Body Balance. I was making rock over moves almost without thinking, and finding my legs able to pull myself across in a way that they’ve never been able to. That’s 22 years of weakness being undone in just 3 months of yoga! I’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s encouraging to see this progress finally come to fruition.

As a reward for my new-found flexibility, I treated myself to a double chocolate brownie. But no, I wasn’t undoing all the goodness of climbing – it’s the newest flavour of BattleOats, a healthy alternative flapjack made with coconut oil toe ensure maximum protein, minimum fat. This new bar is nicely indulgent, however it is a little drier than their plain chocolate chip one. Perhaps save it to have with a cuppa as an elevenses snack to make you feel better at work when you’re really dreaming you’re up some mountain somewhere…

Not a bad Sunday after feeling like I would never be well again on Friday. I would highly recommend yoga to any climbers out there wondering why they’re not progressing – with all the strength in the world, sometimes what you really need is the ability to put your foot by your ear.

Another Year On

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Let me preface this blog post with a word of acknowledgement. I know my injuries (if I can really call them that) are not life threatening, permanent, or drastically altering in any way. I am not belittling nor exaggerating either my own experiences or those of people who have suffered far more than me. But nevertheless, my ‘suffering’ however small has affected me and changed my approach, and that, I feel, is just as important.

On the 9th February 2013 I injured my back rowing. I’d discovered a new sporting passion, found I was very good at it, but my body had other things in mind. A diagnosis of mild scoliosis and an over-rotated pelvis meant my body was just not cut out for the rowing motion, and several months of physio just about fixed it, but ruined my new-found sport. I struggle with the regret of trying rowing, because I know I can never continue it, but it didn’t stop me for long, and my I decided to shift my thinking.

10th February 2014. As I was climbing – something that I was very happy to be able to continue during my recovery the year before – I slipped a disc. At the age of 21, it was a frustrating incident which required more treatment with a physio I’d seen a few years before for a knee problem. It led to more months of pain, tingling sensations in my legs, limited movement or flexibility, and restricted climbing. I still get pain and stiffness now, and it’s something I’ll always have to be aware of.

But what changed was my focus on my body. I recognised what I could and couldn’t do at that time, and started to try to make things work to my advantage. Certain climbing moves don’t work for me as my hip muscles don’t engage (yet), so I have to think creatively of how to do it my way. I now go to Body Balance once a week to relax my back after days of tension, and slowly but surely renew the strength in areas of my body that have been neglected due to an odd skeletal structure. After just 8 or so weeks I’m already seeing improvements to my lower back, which is down to perseverance and the right sort of exercise.

My focus is not on the injury, but the recovery. If it’s sore, I stretch and take pain killers. If it’s strong, I climb harder and make the most of the respite. However I admit that this week, I’ve been somewhat tentative. I’m not a suspicious person, but I couldn’t help feel a bit wary of this time of year. But do you know what, I’m just fine. I climbed really well on Tuesday, regaining my confidence on lead and managing to warm up on grades that were at my limit just before Christmas. I might currently be sat at home with a fever fighting off some mystery bug (I blame the train commute and an office job), but my back is relaxed and pain-free.

Injuries happen. If you do physical activity, you may increase the risk of this. It’s an annoying part of training, something you’ll keep in the back of your mind, and it can lead you to have to change your way of life. Luckily for me, those changes haven’t been extreme or hugely negative. The key to take from it all is how you can improve. How you can prevent further problems, and ensure your body is as strong as it can be for as long as possible. I refuse to reach an age where I can’t walk due to inactivity – push through the physio, do the exercises, and just keep going.

Review: Cats

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I always find it difficult to write a review about an incredibly well-known play or musical. You’ve got decades of audiences behind you, years of criticism and praise, and a wealth of sing-a-longs that have undoubtedly filled your head before you even step foot inside the theatre. When something becomes iconic, it’s hard to see past the hype and expectation, to take off the rose-tinted glasses and see it as something fresh. So when I headed to see director Trevor Nunn’s revamped comeback of Cats, having not seen it the first time round, I had to remind myself that this was, for me, a brand new production.

First of all, a note on the set. Being up in the gods at the London Palladium is definitely a little vertigo-inducing, but being that high meant I got the full impact of John Napier’s design. The beautiful canopy of lights (giving me all sorts of unhelpful future ‘big party’ ideas…), the intricately detailed ‘rubbish heap’ surrounding the stage, the collaged flooring covered in bottle labels and newspapers. This all created a sense of busyness, of disuse and reuse, as well as a scale to give the human-sized cats some perspective. I always think it’s a good then when I can barely find my seat for the staring at the stage work.

But of course, the people make the play, and the current cast of the London tour are understandably brilliant. With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s impressive score, and intricate choreography by Gillian Lynne, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the fluid movement of the actors on stage, weaving between each other with a dexterity that mimics their feline counterparts. Lithe bodies accentuated by cleverly created cat suits (sorry!) move effortlessly with the music, interacting with each other, the audience, and their surroundings without slipping into pantomime. I hadn’t realised just how much dance there was in Cats, but was delighted to be witness to their skill and talent. I have to make mention of my favourite number – the tap dancing cockroaches that accompany Jennyanydots (Laurie Scarth) created a hysterical scene, and one which had me itching to tap along with them. The 1950s-esque melody and beaming faces definitely made that my standout dance, and something to break from the ‘Jellicle Cats‘ riff that underpins the majority of the production Continue reading

2014 in review

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This year’s reflection is a little later than usual – blame it on a wonderfully busy Christmas and New Year, and one which I’m not sorry to have been distracted by.

2014 has been a year of two halves. I was finishing my final year, and that saw me delve into the world of the dissertation, as well as rehearse fervently for my last performance at university. A bitter-sweet time where I was engaging with my most challenging acting role yet, but realising that soon I wouldn’t be on the stage any more. The end of one journey was to mark the beginning of another.

After a frustrating university experience, thankfully my final year was a great chance to reflect and learn from the past 3 years, and ensure that I made the very best of the time spent studying. It resulted in a dissertation that I’m immensely proud of and was recognised by my tutors with great marks and an award, and a final degree that made the struggle a bit more worth it. My university time has had its ups and downs, but graduation on the 16th July 2014 will always hold incredibly fond memories. Studying taught me a lot about myself, and about what I really value. I now plan to do a Masters at some point in the future… perhaps even a PhD. But on my own terms, in my own time, determined by the self-motivation that was nearly extinguished with my undergrad. I still love learning, and that will never change. I might just be slightly more careful with which subject I choose.

This summer was spent with family. Both mine and my boyfriend’s, both of us going on the first proper family holidays for years. Devon in a beautiful cottage where days were spent climbing and evenings drinking wine and playing board games gave me a chance to really get to know Simon’s family more and begin to feel a part of it. Then Dorset with my family in a quirky old mill where we embraced the good weather, spend lots of time on the coast, and soaking up my sister and brother-in-law before they left for their travels on the 1st September. Again, a bitter-sweet time of laughter, whilst always knowing that they’d be leaving for 18 months. That in itself has been incredibly hard, and I miss my sister every day, though I know they’re having the time of their lives.

On the 21st July, 5 days after I had thrown that cap into the air, I started my first full-time job in the industry I’d decided to pursue. I’m one of the lucky few who managed to leave university and jump head first into the big wide world. Suddenly I had a salary, a 9-5 day, and a commute. But it was a position in one of the most famous publishing companies in England. And three months in, the day before my probation ended, I was promoted. Needless to say, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind – trial by fire into what the working world really entails. It’s difficult and I’m not yet exactly where I want to be, but it’s the best start I could possibly hope for. I’m continually trying to remain positive through the difficulties – as I’m sure every working adult encounters – and really appreciate how fortunate I am to be in this position at the age of 22. There’s so much life left to live, but so far it’s starting incredibly well.

My climbing goal for 2014 wasn’t reached, but that’s okay – I’ll get there one day, and in the meantime I’m getting stronger and fitter with each session. My life has moved from a student with a job in a climbing centre to an adult paying taxes with a pension… I’m happy to keep on climbing for the enjoyment, and some day reach those goals. Putting pressure on yourself in a hobby which isn’t your whole life is dangerous and can suck out any pleasure you once found. So I’m cutting myself some slack for the time being, and am just glad to still be climbing at all.

Alongside these major events there have been two weddings, Simon’s 30th birthday, our first anniversary, the renewal of our flat tenancy, multiple plans, theatre trips, and holidays both home and abroad. All ending with a 1st birthday party on the 20th December in Cheshire, Christmas in Worcester, Boxing Day in Surrey, a 5 day trip to Bucharest, and a New Years Eve Murder Mystery party. 2014 has been a wild one, but I have a feeling the best is yet to come…

Book review: The Story of You by Katy Regan

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I never paid much attention to this sort of book – aimed at women from ages 15 and up, I’d cynically assumed that they wouldn’t have great content. Bubblegum for the eyes, I have read a few that really were just ways to switch off my brain. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I’ve often enjoyed picking up a book knowing I can just drift into a rom-com movie in my head and not need to engage too much energy.

I admit that I expected The Story of You to be one of the same. I’d heard good things about it, and was keen to get involved, but thought it wouldn’t be particularly memorable. I’m the first person to admit that I was wrong. Very, very wrong. This book is so much more than just a way to while away a few hours. It hit me harder, probably because I hadn’t thought it could. And for that reason, I’ve found it poignant and incredibly important.

Robyn fell pregnant at 16, shortly after the death of her mother, and her whole life changed – for the worst it seemed. 16 years later, it’s like de ja vu. All of a sudden, the little life she’s created for herself begins to crumble, and she finds everything she thought she knew unravelling before her eyes.

What struck me most was the gritty honesty with which Katy Regan fills every page. Nothing is held back – we see the raw emotion we feel every day, but immortalised in black and white. Robyn is a mental health nurse, but finds her own mind drifting down a dark path. She vocalises every fear that I have myself. Fears about life, about pregnancy, about health. All those things I barely admit to myself let alone anyone else, and when I see them written in front of my eyes, I can’t help but feel touched.

Katy Regan has found a way to make her readers see themselves in her book. Not in a clichéd way where the heroine is a blank canvas. Far from it – Robyn is complex, deep, emotional, and a mess. But she thinks like me. Acts like me. Thinks and acts like the majority of my female friends. And for that reason, this book saw me laughing and (nearly) crying, comforted to see someone go through what I fear most, and come out the other side the stronger for it.

This is an unexpected gem. Unexpected because I thought it would be just another chick-lit, but it turned out to be an astonishing insight into the parts of us we hide from the world… until we can’t hide any more. It’s the story of you, the story of me, and the story of so many more.