The 2017 lookback

I know it’s only the beginning of November but I’m getting this annual ritual in very early because the first professional feedback on my book is due any week now and I don’t want it clouding over all my answers if it isn’t as encouraging as hoped. Life has made me acutely aware of how much can still change between this point in the calendar and Christmas. Three years ago this month, I went from just-about-hanging-in-there to one of my lowest ever points in a snap. A year later I had one of the best Novembers I can recall. This time last year, Brexit and the election of the tubthumping tangerine were killing my post-Marathon buzz and a company director advised me to write my book instead of accepting a City salary as a copywriter and qualifying for a mortgage in mid-Wales. Afterwards someone called the police because they were worried about a “female in distress” near Farringdon station. A bit excessive; quite embarrassing. Right now, anything nearest 2015 would be great…

1. What did you do in 2017 that you’d never done before? 

Finish writing a book. YES, FINALLY. A WHOLE, COMPLETE, ACTUAL BOOK, with support from TLC and The Arts Council. Twice. The whole business meeting-followed-by-police-incident was an incentive. And nobody died while I was writing it! Super-splendid.

2. Did you keep your new years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year? 

  • Finishing the book – yes, see above.
  • Taking up a new hobby (Most were too expensive because of learning to drive, so one for next year, even if I can only manage it sporadically).

Next year:

  • More stability in all senses of the word. I say that every year but I hope that at last having written the book which says what has long needed to be said actually helps achieve it.
  • If the above happens, other hopes may follow. I’ve never had a relationship worth shouting about and have consciously chosen not to for the last three years so the idea feels like contemplating a dark room full of nettles, but it would be quite nice if it didn’t.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? One of my oldest friends is due soon.

4. Did anyone close to you die? My favourite question to answer “No” to.

5. What countries did you visit? None. Forget being able to afford a holiday while you’re learning to drive.

6. What would you like to have had in 2017 that you lacked? A driving licence.

7. What date from 2017 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? 

  • The annual Time To Talk service at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Feb. I met an older woman there when I went along alone for the first time in 2015; since then we’ve made it an annual meetup-followed-by-lunch. Not exactly a fun and funky place to hang out, but in this era of connections being propped up by social media, it’s weirdly nice just to have the certainty of seeing someone whom you can comfortably label as something.
  • The London Marathon. Watching not running this time, but just as emotional. Well done Bryony!
  • Handing out Oyster wallets at Waterloo and Canary Wharf for CALM’s Mind The Chap campaign.
  • Doing yoga on Clapham Common with Mental Health Mates.
  • The writing retreat.
  • Listening to Green Light by Lorde alone and surrounded by green fields and rolling hills.
  • Visiting or being visited by friends.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Other than the book:

  • Learning Beginners Italian (Ropey – it’s Duolingo; I can hardly put together a sentence and I mix up the plural and singular – but it’s good to learn something new and I want to get to 100%).
  • Being – almost – able to drive. Test in early January I hope!
  • Kicking travel/social anxiety in the proverbial and making it away onto the writing retreat.
  • Being introduced to the media head of a national mental health and suicide prevention charity close to my heart, following a copywriting project I worked on last year. Which, when other people get to see it, we hope will help a lot of them…

9. What was your biggest failure?

  • Money, but most of what I did attempted to address that situation in one way or another so as the past six years go, a success.
  • Not sorting my complicated relationship with Twitter.
  • Wondering whether Brexit views would have ended relationships that could never have happened regardless of Brexit (Excellent use of time, Max, bravo). 

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? RSI while writing the book. Minor head injury.

11. What was the best thing you bought? A cloudy lemonade on one of the hottest days of the year. (The other choices in the vicinity were a selection of spirits, or a Jane Austen centenary mug; same price).

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration? Yours, if you voted Remain last year.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed? Yours, if you voted Leave.

14. Where did most of your money go? Learning to drive.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? Finishing the book (among many emotions). Going to places I’ll be able to drive to next year – hopefully on warm summer days, feeling accomplished.

16. What song(s) will always remind you of 2017? Sounds Good To Me by Thea Gilmore, from the new album, and Beautiful Day from the one before (I haven’t listened to Songs From The Gutter quite so much this year…). Green Light by Lorde. Cali by Ride. Oh Woman Oh Man by London Grammar. Solsbury Hill and Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you…?

– Happier or sadder? A low bar, but happier. Hopefully book feedback won’t alter that. (My big dread is being advised to crowdfund or self-publish – there’s a stack of reasons I don’t want to do either of those things).

– Thinner or fatter? Inexplicably thinner. Last year I ran a Marathon. This year I did a slow 10K and ran once or twice a week instead of thrice. Losing half a stone in the last three years is one of the few socially-acceptable reasons I don’t feel like a 33-year-old…

– Richer or poorer? About the same (not a good thing), but see Question 9.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of? Reclining in the sun.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of? Applying ice to my neck and shoulders.

20. How will you be spending New Year? I hope, in my friend’s flat with bad films and good food.  Last year I was meant to be hosting but my stomach said no and I ended up on my own with dry toast for dinner. After a bit of a mooch, I watched Dawn French’s Thirty Million Minutes on iPlayer in a candelit bath, which turned into an inexplicably awesome evening. Over the years, I’ve memorably spent New Years Eves: On Hampstead Heath, getting crushed in Trafalgar Square, all-night raving, shivering at house parties, at a Sri Lankan beach hotel on somebody else’s dime, and in High Wycombe lying to people so I could go home early because I hated my life and didn’t feel like celebrating anything. If you think of all someone’s New Years as an overall reflection of them, that sounds fair.

21. Did you fall in love in 2017? There are probably alternate realities I need not to be able to picture before that happens. Such as where I’m 27, and Brexit isn’t even a stupid word let alone a stupid reality.

22. How many one-night stands? I have audio smut for those needs. Unlike one-night stands, no dressing up required – literally or metaphorically. Like one-night stands, the quality varies…

23. What was your favourite TV or radio programme? I loved Apple Tree Yard, Clique, The Man In The Orange Shirt, Strike, Trust Me and GameFace. I also watched all of Veronica Mars S1-3 and rewatched the movie.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year? No-one I can think of.

25. Do you like anyone now that you didn’t like this time last year? Not as far as I know.

26. What was the best book you read? Didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked due to writing my own and now have a teetering pile of recommendations.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery? Five years behind the rest of the country, I listened to London Grammar properly. If was a twenty-year-old undergraduate in the middle of a Durham winter right now, Hannah Reid could have my soul silver-plated.

28. What did you want and get? A finished book.

29. What did you want and not get? Paid enough.

30. What was your favourite film of this year? I didn’t have a favourite but I loved having a midweek film day with a friend.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? I was 33 and there was a heatwave. I went for lunch and to see La Traviata with family because it was too hot to do much else, they wanted to see it, and I’d never seen it. Despite being a theatre nerd I’d never been to an opera: it is quite the treat.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? Not opening Twitter or watching the news and feeling like I’d just walked into a room full of smouldering rubbish bins.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2017? Gradually getting the hang of introducing more colour to my non-running wardrobe but still resistant to ditching my swampy footballer’s-widow sunglasses.

34. Who kept you sane? My family, TLC and the Arts Council, whose support and agreement that I should do it in order to move forward and have any chance of returning to normal life (or journalism, if you can call that normal life…) made writing the book possible. Also my friends, and the makers of the very funny My Dad Wrote A Porno podcast.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? (a.k.a “the section that gets sadder every year.”) Let’s not talk about what Nick Clegg looking tired and forlorn did to me at 3am on election night (Apologies to his wife, and to anyone who’s eaten recently…).

36. What political issue stirred you the most? Too easy.

37. Who did you miss?  You don’t need to know that. You do need to know this Thea Gilmore lyric:

“Fingernails, thorn trees, my fickle heart too. So many things in this sad little world grow back, except for you…” 

38. Who was the best new person you met? It was brief but lovely to meet Kate and Jess from the new Oxford branch of Mental Health Mates, which has grown from its London origins into an awesome worldwide phenomenon.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2017: Most of them are in my book.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up 2017: “Honey, I’ll be seeing you down every road.” 

Advertisements

“That’s just the way it is…” Dyspraxia, careers and the need to please

It’s Dyspraxia Awareness Week. If you’re aware of me, you’re probably pretty aware of dyspraxia, so rather than do a general “Here’s-what-dyspraxia-is” post, I thought I’d be more specific. If you don’t know me but know dyspraxia, you might’ve read something I’ve written about it in a paper, been at one of the same conferences as me or heard me speak somewhere about it. This is not an excerpt from my book, although feels like it could/should be. I may feed it in there when I do another round of editing after the first feedback in…eeek…4-6 weeks’ time…

When I was growing up, even before I’d heard of dyspraxia and been identified as dyspraxic at 21, I often felt negatively blamed for how I could be perceived by others. If someone wasn’t my biggest fan, it was somehow my fault for being somehow offputting. I’m sure it wasn’t always the message intended, but it’s one I often had. I don’t think I was ever directly told that sometimes other people wouldn’t take to me because they had off-days, were different to me in a neutral way, or were just tossers. Or that you just couldn’t win ’em all and nor would you want to (I was tacitly raised to avoid people with a certain worldview, although, growing up where I did, that was fairly difficult to do…). Especially as I went through my teens, if something didn’t go well, someone didn’t like me, or even was indifferent, the question was usually an anxious “What did I do wrong?” I needed to be more like this, or not like that, or do this and not that. Often me. Rarely them.

Being encouraged to self-question and please others was good in some ways, of course. It meant that despite my hopelessness at most practical, numerical or sporty things, I always tried and my efforts were acknowledged. Being able to own your part in why something hasn’t gone well is a generally valued life skill a few world leaders might like to try sometime. But it was also not good. It meant that by the time I applied to university my head was very poorly and I almost didn’t get there or stay there. It meant I took things personally more often than I should, and still do. (I still struggle not to blame myself and keep plugging away if the barest acquaintance doesn’t open up to me, or seems to be keeping a distance for reasons which may have little to do with me). It meant I put up with a lot of one-sided situations, sometimes with suspicion about why I was trying so hard to be liked. It meant a lot of bad behaviour towards me went unaccounted for. When I was 20 and a driving instructor tickled me as I was doing 70 mph on a dual carriageway I questioned my own actions as much as his. When I was in the wrong job I felt sorry for my boss even up to the point where his behaviour amounted to constructive dismissal. I let a bloke imply that it was all down to my intangible shortcomings that – although he liked me a lot – we couldn’t be together (Spoiler: The actual reasons were both very tangible and very unrelated to me…). Humble pie is like any pie – too much makes you sick.

When I was young and applying for full-time jobs in the media I did a lot of silly things but also saw a lot of bad practice, over which I got confused, angry, or blamed myself. If I ever dared object in passing to the way things were done and point out something was unfair – not only to me but in general – I was belittled and patronised and told “That’s just the way it is.” When I first wrote about dyspraxia for the national press I was still young enough to fit into the “here’s a moaning graduate for you to hate” demographic. Now, as I settle into my thirties, I can complain with a bit more authority and impunity. I can say that 90% of job specs and interview questions appear to be written by Kryten from Red Dwarf and are a hideous disgrace, let alone if you’re trying to recruit someone who can write. I can say that the “be ambitious but don’t ask for things because it doesn’t look good” attitude towards people with disabilities – visible or hidden – shuts them out of jobs they could do with the right support. I can say that competitive industries use recruitment tests to shut people out, and disabled people are often collateral. When I was younger, I never questioned why a generalist role at a magazine where only occasional subbing would be required would use the kind of subbing test you’d get for a traineeship at a national daily paper, just as a way of whittling candidates down. Now I do. I’m never going to be a chief sub at The Times but I’m a perfectly good proofreader. I fell into it while I was training for the London Marathon and recovering from a mental health dip and fast freelance work that didn’t require a lot of travel or interaction was ideal. My proofreading and editing has helped dyslexic people, non-native English speakers and all kinds of people who are not confident with language to get jobs, complete PhDs and be accepted onto MBAs. Yet I know there are proofreading tests I’d fail myself if I couldn’t squeeze proofing marks into tiny spaces with a nervous dyspraxic left hand. Things have changed a lot in the ten to fifteen years since I started working  – there is more general awareness of (some) disabilities, and more emphasis for young people on freelancing, flexible working and portfolio careers, which benefit many disabled and marginalised people. But there is still so much more to do. Too many are expected to be doubly grateful for any work or pay they can get. This is despicably wrong.

Seven years ago, in the light of my own experience in the workplace, I started giving awareness training to businesses on how to support employees with dyspraxia, amongst other strands of freelance work. I had several referrals through one particular London organisation which trains firms – from the media to the City – in how to be more disability aware and inclusive. Three or four years ago, a well-paid in-house job came up with them. I applied, got an interview, and then the fear kicked in. Being from a mostly-freelance media background, I didn’t have the HR and legal knowledge they listed under “Desirable”.  I knew that unless I outright lied this would become apparent quite quickly, and wondered whether there might be scope for training or development, but was too afraid to ask in case I came across as too demanding. If I looked bad in the interview they might never hire me for freelance work again and I’d lose a good client. I gave them my apologies and never went. With hindsight, a lot of me wishes I’d gone for it, done my best and asked about the training in the areas I was lacking, because helping companies be fairer in their recruitment of disabled people – and everyone else – is what I want out of life as much as anything to do with writing. I’m past the age where I enjoy moaning or snarking for the sake of it. I do it because I want to help people be better.  I’ve done a lot of trying to be better. How about meeting me halfway…?

On turning 33: Inescapable reminders of being a thirtysomething…

The only things that can keep you awake until 4am anymore are a sudden death or a snap election. The closest thing you have to a celebrity crush is watching Nick Clegg look sad about Brexit….and someone his age could conceivably fancy you without their fitness for high office being disputed. People are asking you difficult personal questions, with difficult personal answers. You’re young enough to count amongst your friends people you know from Twitter or blogging who live less than an hour from you and have met you no more than once or twice in years; but still old enough to find this strange and wonder whether you really should. You’ve actually written a book – one which Arts Council funding is going to help you try to sell – as opposed to the very “Twenties” thing of the perpetual work-in-progress. Being able to drive has moved from a nice-to-have to an essential. Your writer friends quote Bridget Jones in the solemn manner of believers quoting the Bible (TBF, I’ve been called things like “the indie Bridget Jones” ever since I started blogging in my late teens…). You own cookbooks, which you may or may not use. You’ve considered opening a separate savings account for the cost of going to weddings. You got a slightly iffy head from the bottle of supermarket wine you drank by yourself because your married friend announced her pregnancy at the start of a long weekend (TBF, I’m not complaining – big fan of babies, big fan of wine…). Birthday money is less for treats and more for those expensive bits of admin you keep putting off because they’re expensive. Being skint is no longer character-building but soul-crushing. If-onlys and might-have-beens are genuinely serious with implications not only for you. At Christmas you can hope to sink them with cheeseboards, word games and films. A birthday offers fewer distractions. You quite fancy seeing The Killers because you never got around to it back in the day, but thinking of the sorts of people who’d go makes you sigh too heavily. You’re going to the opera for your birthday because mum wanted the family to go for your dad’s birthday but couldn’t get tickets in time, and you’re the right age for it now. You observe that over the years many people you have known have significantly struggled to find their feet in one way or another but most now seem to be doing so. You’re old enough to have known several people die horribly, but still young enough to be in the minority for it – therapy and long-standing friends are great and you are extremely lucky to have both, but it would be great to have more friends who “get it” too. Adversity breeds achievement, a thirst for trying new things and a rush to help others. It also breeds anxiety, moodswings and flipping out over minor inconveniences. You don’t very often look forward to blogging these days, but you miss non-business emailing. Practically the best birthday present you could get from anyone would be a long chatty email; the sort people used to write to each other fifteen years ago. Or even a letter. You still remember actual letters. You’re not sure what you’d actually say in response to one, but you’re sure you’d think of something. No matter how old you are, and for what it’s worth (not very much, apparently…), you will find the words for whatever life hands you and write them down. You’ve been variously told you’ve gone through as much in your thirties as some people have in their fifties. But no-one’s told you how to reconcile with such a fact. You just have to busk that one. Well, we’re all just busking it really, aren’t we?

Never too old for a cause or a sloganed t-shirt: At Canary Wharf and Waterloo last week for CALM’s ‘Mind The Chap’ campaign: https://www.thecalmzone.net/2017/06/mindthechap_june2017/

I actually finished writing a book! And nobody died!

A celebratory hedgehog.
Not actual printout.

Eight years ago my then-boss advised me to write books and do crisis comms rather than continue in that job. Quite perceptively, it turns out. I’ve done plenty of both since. If by writing books you mean writing incomplete books, and by crisis comms you mean talking about my life.

It’s much easier to be writing a book than to have written one. Who knew!? But I’m now extremely delighted to be able to say that for the first time I’ve completed a first draft, which I intend to edit later over the summer and send out into the world early next year. You may or may not have known I was writing it, as I’ve been fairly quiet, or at least, fairly vague about it. Because previous attempts to write books have taught me writing about writing is the best procrastination there is. And getting hung up on what people think of you or it is the best way to get absolutely nothing written.

I abandoned my first proper novel in 2015 after several years of stop-starting. The concept wasn’t sellable enough anymore, I enjoyed the research more than the writing, and above all I often wasn’t in the best of emotional health for doing much at all. For various historic reasons, plus because people kept dying. The book-interrupted-by-death thing became a bit of an in-joke (my friend’s boyfriend quipped: “Have you tried writing novellas? They’re shorter. It might be safer…”) although obviously not ultimately very funny. Cumulative bad experiences put me in a permanent state of waiting for the shoe to drop. I became convinced I shouldn’t write books because it was a bad omen. Which is bollocks, obviously. Although quite fitting too, because many of my previous assumptions about both writing and tragedy have had to be challenged in recent years. I used to assume it would be easy for me to write a book. I was wrong. I used to assume wanting and being able to talk openly about difficult things was the norm rather than rare. Also wrong.

In early 2015 I took up running on my mum’s recommendation, which essentially saved me. In spite or because of it being so utterly alien, running was also immune from my usual self-doubt, to the point I believed I could run the London Marathon. Yes, while telling me I couldn’t even do my job, my brain also told me I could run 26.2 miles. Brains are such a lark, aren’t they. With my writing career seemingly stuck down the toilet, while Marathon training I fell into working as a freelance proofreader (in a very flukey and unsustainable manner I would not recommend, BTW). Marathon running taught me so much more than I’d ever have anticipated about how to approach a big project. So afterwards (with a little slumpy interlude of anger over work and politics) I fell back in love with writing and decided to approach a book like a Marathon. A writing schedule like a training schedule. c.90,000 words, from January to May. And it actually worked.

I soon discovered that typing morning until night seven days a week is not good for your mind or body, that writing can injure you worse than a marathon, and that physio is brilliant but expensive. I bought a laptop stand, enforced bedtimes and an evening laptop curfew and started being kind to myself, similarly to how running taught me to. The book is not all about running or mental health as some have guessed, although it does touch plenty upon them. Besides a lot of running and a lot of therapy, what’s really spurred me on is winning a bursaried read of the opening chapter with TLC, courtesy of the Arts Council and New Writing South. That was at the end of 2015. When I got in touch with TLC again this year with a progress update, to my unexpected delight they said I could have another bursaried read of the final manuscript. There’s still a very long road from here. As I said, I’ll be doing edits in June and July and won’t be querying until January. But under the circs, just having finally got this far without catastrophe is immense enough.

As far as my day job goes, I’m still officially a freelance proofreader but due to a lot of client heartache over the past year I’m rethinking this pretty urgently. I’d like to do more journalism again but wouldn’t everyone; I’d also like to pass my driving test first time in August and have a holiday in the tropics but I doubt either of those will happen. I would certainly like to do more copywriting and social media, either for mental health organisations, or for writing organisations that support underrepresented groups. It’s also partly because I spoke to the director of a copywriting agency who sensed I had baggage, asked about the TLC bursary I’d mentioned on my CV, then sent me away with: “Finish the book before you do anything else” that I decided to commit to it. It was as if I finally had permission.

My celebrations are being hampered slightly at the moment by a stinking cold bordering on flu and someone kindly deciding to clone my bank card last week. Soon after finishing, I had a lovely snotty, croaky ugly-cry at my mum (I swear I’ve done a life’s worth of public weeping the last few years; I’m basically a wandering cucumber). Then I listened to a song I used to play at university on the way to lectures and imagine I was in a film. (Did I just publicly admit that? Oh). But once the lurgy has bleeped off and my bank have sent me a new card, one of my treats for finishing will be going to the Comment Awards Conference and hearing Channel 4’s Matt Frei and the Beeb’s James Harding discuss Fake News. I heard about it through a journalist friend who told me she binge-read this blog, which even my mum hasn’t, so that’s nice.

Thank you all and thank you again.

One year on! Some advice for Sunday’s London Marathon runners…

Hey there April, month of ALL THE BIG FEELINGS. I’m currently busy finishing a big writing project (more on that later…) and trying to fend off some financial bother [nameless client] has left me in. I’ve just been invited to give evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee early next month on my experience in the workplace (Spoiler: My last boss advised me, without irony, to leave my media admin job mid-recession and go and write books…). Late-April is also the anniversary of when I last saw two people alive in person, in the same week of the same year. And, it’s a year since I ran the London Marathon for Mind. Which I’d solidly recommend to anyone looking for a socially acceptable outlet for obsessive tendencies and a penchant for things all-consuming. (It’s better for your mind, heart and finances than many alternatives; trust me…). 

I’ll be at this year’s Marathon on Sunday. Thankfully not running, but with my family and some of the other Mental Health Mates, to cheer on the lovely Bryony Gordon who is running for Heads Together. If you haven’t already, go and hear her Daily Telegraph interview with Prince Harry and subscribe to the Mad World podcast. 

For anyone running this year, or considering it for the future, some tips for the day…

  • Look after your feet. Slather them in Vaesline before you get dressed, clip your toenails to whatever length is most comfortable for you, and wear your best running socks. I was so worried about ruining my feet that they ended up looking better after the Marathon than they do after half an hour on the Bakerloo line in summer…
  • Be comfortably early.  Your Final Instructions magazine should guide you on where you need to be and when.
  • Stash some tissues and plasters in your bra, or whatever the male equivalent is. Mine had a handy front pocket for them. (I had a cold, so I soon ran out of tissues and had to ask the St John Ambulance people for extra, which meant queuing behind a load of people clutching their legs…).
  • Have some spare safety pins on you in case your race number falls off.
  • Keep a couple of paracetamol on you, and any medication you might need This is really important, because the medics on site aren’t allowed to give you any pills. Take them out of the foil or cut the foil so that the corners are round or flat and don’t dig into you.
  • Start slowly. Everyone tells you this, but it’s deceptively hard to do, even in a crowd! Because you’ll have lots of energy from tapering, plus nervous energy, it’s difficult to tell how fast you’re going. I looked at my Fitbit after the first five minutes and saw I was running a five-minute mile. Unless you’re aiming for a three hour finish, you don’t want to be doing that.
  • Use the loo beforehand whenever you can. My dad went to a boarding school where needing the toilet at a slightly inconvenient time was considered a character flaw, so I always try and go if I see one. It’s a helpful approach at running events as the pre-race loo queues are huge. Last year, the Travelodge near Greenwich DLR opened up their ground floor toilet for runners. Don’t panic, though, there are plenty on the route where there will be less of a queue.
  • Keep warm while you wait for your start. The usual advice is to wear bin liners or some old trakkie pants you’re happy not to see again over your kit and just chuck them to the side at the start, where a band of volunteers clear them up and recycle them. If like me you doubt your ability to disrobe quickly in a crowd without panicking and whacking people in the face, just wear a thin long-sleeved thermal top under your vest.
  • Smile hard and enjoy it, but prepare to be bored at times too. New parents always say “No-one told me it could ever be so boring.” As your more experienced equivalent in this situation, I’m telling you, bits will be boring. You will run across Tower Bridge, down the Mall and all the iconic bits you’ve seen on TV. You will also run past endless chicken shops and Deptford retail parks feeling decidedly meh.
  • The pain will be awful at the time but you’ll forget it afterwards. Women who’ve given birth say it’s similar in this respect. I wouldn’t know, but if you have, this may help.
  • Think of the physical pain as a substitute for your emotional pain. Enough said.
  • If you run with music, save it until the second half, when you’ll really need it.
  • Drink your energy drinks gradually from the halfway point onwards. Before that if you need to but certainly after halfway. Don’t wait until you hit the wall.
  • Not everyone hits their wall at Canary Wharf Some do it earlier, I did it later. Canary Wharf was actually one of my favourite bits.
  • Drink plenty of water, not just the energy drinks You’ll want to balance out all the sugary glucose which makes your teeth go fuzzy. For most of the final third, I carried a small bottle of water in one hand and bottle of Lucozade in the other and took small alternate sips. There are plenty of drinks stations as you head towards the finish so you’ll never be short.
  • Don’t try and run the whole thing. If you want to save some energy for the finish line, walk for a mile or two. I had my walk at about Mile 19-20 during one of the dull bits. Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know came on my playlist, and it rained…
  • Know where you’re going to eat afterwards. Everywhere will be full. I booked somewhere weeks in advance, told them I was running, chose my dish from the menu and made sure they’d have it.
  • Be proud and look forward to finding small-talk easier for the next two years.

The 2016 Lookback

Regular Max-watchers will know I’ve filled in this end-of-year review questionnaire every year of my adult life. I think it originated on LiveJournal, where some of my friends used to blog, or still do. Much like 2014 – which set the ground for some of its events – 2016 is one of those years which started jolly well indeed and collapsed like a flimsy dessert in the second half. But January to April alone was momentous enough to be worth celebrating. Here we are then…

1. What did you do in 2016 that you’d never done before? 

  • Was a bridesmaid (twice)
  • Ran a Marathon. I may’ve mentioned it a bit…
  • Walked ten miles across London for CLASP (I  chatted to Norman Lamb MP about the Marathon, and sandwiches. I also underestimated the difficulty of doing the walk, in May, in too many layers, three weeks after said Marathon, and fainted on the wooden floor of a pub in Battersea. But it was all worth it…)
  • Manned a couple of Freshers Fair stalls for the excellent male suicide prevention organisation, Campaign Against Living Miserably, (CALM) talking to students about mental health and such.
  • Tried ballet classes specifically for dyspraxic adults (not really my thing but very fun, and I’d like to try other dance).
  • Started spin classes.
  • Started driving lessons and actually felt I could pass my test.
  • Had a cameo in someone’s memoir, Bryony Gordon’s excellent Mad Girl (I’m unnamed, and it’s not the cheerfullest of subject matter, but very touching).
  • Had my face in Grazia and Glamour.
  • Disclosed mental health matters in a professional situation where the work wasn’t about mental health. Neither a happy ending or a disastrous one…

2. Did you keep your new years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I’ll continue with the one to try as many new things as possible that aren’t natural to me, or return to hobbies I’ve neglected. Once I’ve cracked driving, I want to learn to horse ride, find a choir and possibly go skydiving with my friend’s other half. Having had a crack at ballet this year, if I can find a dance teacher who’ll work with me longer-term, I’d like to try tap. This’ll also be my fifth year of going to Pilates classes, which is a bit like dance with less leaping around…

Also: Feel more secure and fulfilled in my work, pass my driving test and finish my damn book (not that one, the new one…)

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? I’m 32. Probably.

4. Did anyone close to you die? My Oma in Germany. But she made it to 90, which she had wanted.

5. What countries did you visit? Italy.

6. What would you like to have had in 2016 that you lacked? Certainty and money.

7. What date from 2016 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? 

  • The inaugural Mental Health Mates, on Valentines Day, the six month anniversary picnic in July where the BBC London News filmed us, and the Mad Girl book launch.
  • Marathon Day. And my massage at Browns a few days later  – my grandmother’s present to me for finishing it.
  • The two weddings I bridesmaided at.
  • The Mad Girl book launch, on a roof terrace with the other Mental Health Mates and lovely views of summery London.
  • Early September, when my other grandma died.
  • Clomping through Brexity-but-cute Hampshire in a palmed-off size-8 summer dress on the hottest day of the year listening to Thea Gilmore and Christine and the Queens (on Spotify, with inexplicably good mobile reception…), under the influence of a Pimms bigger than my head. Maybe next summer I’ll drive. Without the alcohol, obviously…
  • A photoshoot and lunch in Marlow (another Brexity-but-cute place) with my ace photographer friend, on another very hot day.
  • A long weekend in Rome with my mum.
  • Carol singing with Mind in Canary Wharf. Despite (or because of!) the sadly-lower turnout this year.
  • Ice-skating between Christmas and New Year.
  • Spending a New Years Eve I was meant to be hosting friends for dinner alone with stomach lurgy and barely the brains or the appetite to make a toasted sandwich. But (having apologised and quickly rescheduled with most of the friends who were meant to come, obvs)  actually finding the experience quite alright. When you’ve wasted too much youth seeking approval from people who don’t care about you, there is something quite liberating and fuck-you-ish about a simple, solo New Years Eve with boxsets, music, bland food and a long hot bath. I watched Dawn French’s magnificent two-hour one woman show Thirty Million Minutes on BBC4 – you should too, it’s on iPlayer!

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

  • Running a Marathon, raising thousands of pounds and a heap of awareness for Mind.
  • The comments on the Reader Report that I got for an early chapter of the new book which had won me a New Writing South/TLC bursaried read at the end of 2015.
  • More an awkward relief in a “Ohhh, I seeee…!” and “Stop making things about you that aren’t, Max, you big twat…!” way than an “achievement” as such, but still. In 2015, I sensed that someone was keeping me somewhat at arm’s length, and assumed a particular reason for it. A chance discovery in 2016 seemed to explain rather a lot, suggested my assumptions were off the mark, and made me feel quite daft. Fair point to whichever mid-’80s middle-manager coined the phrase “Assume makes an ass of u…” .
  • Trying new things purely for myself and not because of anyone or to impress anyone.
  • Inspiring other people to try new things.

9. What was your biggest failure?

  • Being 32 years old and feeling less likely to earn enough, meet the love of my life, own a home or have children now than I did five or six years ago.
  • Not being as supportive of various friends who’ve been through redundancy or performance management at work this year as I would like to be.  My own experience is still quite draining to have to relive. Please don’t think I don’t understand or care.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? A stinking cold during Marathon week which lingered on through and probably added half an hour to my time, not that I cared very much because I wasn’t really running for time anyway.

11. What was the best thing you bought? Driving lessons. Best present was the post-Marathon massage.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration? All my Marathon sponsors and absolutely everyone who supported me through it in any way.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed? 

  • Half the world’s electorateAppalled, angry and depressed.
  • Authors at charity events who use the space to plug their irrelevant books.

14. Where did most of your money go? Train travel and driving lessons.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? The Marathon obviously. And going to Rome, mostly.

16. What song(s) will always remind you of 2016? Tilted by Christine and the Queens. Walking in the Rain by Grace Jones. Ritual Union by Little Dragon. Mr Medicine by Eliza Doolittle. Let It Roll and Sweet Infatuation by Ladyhawke, The Dirt Is Your Lover Now by Thea Gimore, and her cover of Bob Dylan’s I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine. Everything on my enormous running playlist, especially Kiss and Not Tell by La Roux, Night In My Veins by The Pretenders, What The Hell by Avril Lavinge (SHUT UP), They Don’t Know by Kirsty MacColl, and Heroes by David Bowie. Heroes was a recommendation from a stranger who’d read that I was doing the Marathon in my university’s alumni magazine. It came on at mile 23 and I cried in front of 35,000 people.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you…?

– Happier or sadder? Generally sadder, although happy about some personal victories and trying to restore hope for 2017 in the face of a bit of a mental health lapse.

– Thinner or fatter? Fatter, I expect, because I was training for a Marathon last year and am no longer doing that. The first autumn-winter after a Marathon is a bit like early puberty when you stupidly feel huge just because you suddenly weigh more than nothing. But I’m probably still half a stone lighter than I was this time two years ago…

– Richer or poorer? Poorer. Which is a problem and a constant drain to discuss. This post early in the year did lead to a very nice but small and one-off project, but other than that I haven’t really made inroads in the direction I was hoping to. Most of my money goes on driving lessons and travel. Before Christmas I had a meeting with a director at a copywriting agency who told me I’m massively undercharging for my freelance work. Which is nice, except trying to get people to pay me even that is like drawing teeth. She also said agency jobs probably aren’t good for my mental health at the moment and suggested I think about doing internal comms for a mental health-related organisation or similarly good cause. I know of places that would gladly have me do it but can’t afford to pay me a bean. This is unhelpful….

(If you think you can be of any help on this front – coffee this month?? Please??)

18. What do you wish you’d done more of? Work that ends with a feeling my life has changed forever. But a) I’ll never be 27 again and b) for everyone but me that’s probably a good thing.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of? Being anxious. But compared to early last year, or this time two years ago…

20. How will you be spending New Year?  See question 7.

21. Did you fall in love in 2016? Only with a pizza from Dan and Angel’s in Clapham Junction….

22. How many one-night stands?  Zero. In the summer I had vague, financially-unfeasible plans for a solo Eurostar weekend jaunt to Brussels channeling my Brexit anger into cheese, wine and hot Eurocrats free of dodgy politics. I’ll probably never do it but may write a play about it…

23. What was your favourite TV or radio programme? I gave up trying to ignore the big storyline in The Archers on account of it being too weird because the wife of somebody involved in it is extremely bad for my brain, and just went with the media frenzy and the tweetalongs. Neither she nor he do social media so it doesn’t matter. And Helen Titchener is free. Hurrah!

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year? Nope. Pretty consistent on that front.

25. Do you like anyone now that you didn’t like this time last year? Nick Clegg. More than I’m comfortable with.

26. What was the best book you read? At the moment I’m reading….

  • The Stuff Of Thought, a book about linguistics by Steven Pinker.
  • The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson, set during the Russian Revolution.
  • Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World by Shereen El-Feki.
  • Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsnea.

This year, I’ve liked….

  • Friendship, a turning-30 friendship novel by Emily Gould, set in contemporary New York and The Clasp by Sloane Crosley (similar theme, with an art-history slant).
  • I was given The State We’re In by Adele Parks in a free ebook promotion – I read it on a sunny Sunday afternoon thinking it’d be some breezy sub-Sophie Kinsella type-of-thing and it had me weeping like a jilted bride…
  • On professional advice “to enforce confidence in your own [considerable] abilities”, I read the memoirs Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham and I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley. Apparently my writing is reminiscent of theirs. Sloane Crosley is great. Lena Dunham alternates between being interesting and a bit of a prat but then, so do I….

27. What was your greatest musical discovery? Probably not as “great” as if I was 20 and at Durham doing a Gender Studies Module, but Christine and the Queens.

28. What did you want and get? To finish the Marathon in one piece.

29. What did you want and not get? To finish my book. I wanted to do NaNoWriMo in November, but that immediately got swallowed up by work and money woes.

30. What was your favourite film of this year? I don’t think I had a big favourite.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? 32. Family dinner. Beaconsfield. Midweek. Brasserie Blanc does a good vegetarian tagine, if that’s your shimmy.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? The possible answers to this are either too dull or too incriminating to print. And one of them involves an alternate universe…

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2016? A twig in a long dress.

34. Who kept you sane? If you’ve read this far, consider yourself among them.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? Nobody I can remember or want to admit to.

36. What political issue stirred you the most? Brexit. Trump. Syria. The murder of Jo Cox.

37. Who did you miss? People who weren’t here. Seems obvious.

38. Who was the best new person you met? Bryony Gordon and all the Mental Health Mates, of course.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016

  • Someone who wants you to be happy and someone able to make you happy aren’t always the same thing.
  • Having things isn’t how you grow up. Dealing with losses is how you grow up.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up 2016:  

“Fingernails, thorn trees; my fickle heart too. So many things in this sad little world grow back except for you.” 

(I don’t think many lyrics can truly sum up any year. But Thea Gilmore is a lyrical genius, so there you go).

And: “Though nothing will keep us together, we can be heroes, just for one day…”

(David Bowie, obviously).

Five years.

Saturday was the fifth anniversary of a dear friend’s suicide. I still winced slightly typing that word and it still feels slightly as though I shouldn’t by now. The last time I saw him in person – in the same week that I also last saw a separate friend who more recently died the same way – means more to me personally, but as we had quite a few mutual friends, I go along with others. I had to go to exactly the same charity AGM I went to on that Saturday five years ago, which felt a bit Groundhog Day-ish, in the worst manner. I wouldn’t have gone, had there been a choice, and for the first hour I was fairly desperate not to be there, but by the end I was glad I went. I’ve also written to his parents, which I hadn’t since the first Christmas. They’re probably the last people on earth not to know I ran the Marathon and it seemed like they should…

According to received wisdom (and the writer Julian Barnes), five years on is a milestone in wanting and acquiring distance from any significant or traumatic event. It makes sense; I can remember feeling this way during my graduation year about things going back four or five years then. A smattering of people have affected me probably more than they’ll ever know or would wish, and grief is the very ultimate manifestation of that. My feelings ebb and flow. There are good and bad days, weeks and hours. At best, I make big plans, run long distances and remember how to go out just for fun or buy something just as a treat, which had become vanishingly rare since 2011 until about the end of last year. At worst, I worry the good stuff isn’t tangible enough, worry about money, doubt myself to the extent I need reassurance that past events took place even when I know they did, and take other people’s distance personally when it turns out their reasons aren’t personal at all and they’d probably think I was loopy if they knew I’d thought so. But running the Marathon taught me the importance of always having something to aspire to, which in the post-Brexit hellmouth of news I’m trying my damndest to keep in mind.

Some Good Things…

First: I’m quoted and pictured in this month’s Glamour magazine, for the lovely Bryony Gordon‘s piece about how she started the wonderful Mental Health Mates, which has introduced me to a group of fantastic, galvanising women. I slightly regret mentioning that I’m single, which makes me sound as though I’m pathetically desperate for a boyfriend and went to the group to try and pull someone – not at all the case and not at all going to happen, FYI. They’ve printed my occupation as “Proofreader” because having too many writers and journalists in it would’ve made it look too incestuous, but I’ve done more proofreading and web-editing work than anything else this year because it fitted best around Marathoning and running a fairly large house virtually single-handedly, so I can’t really argue. I was also in Grazia back in May with some of the other girls from the group. I blogged briefly here about the very first MHM meetup back in February and have been meaning to write/blog about it again for a while but I didn’t want to look as though I was trying to steal Bryony’s thunder – as if I could – so I will hold off on that a bit longer…

Second: I was commissioned by a health and public sector comms agency recently, along with a researcher from a leading UK university, to write an online pamphlet on how to support a friend or colleague who has been affected by someone’s suicide. This was in line with wanting to use some of my insight and experience from the last five years in my paid work and, as they say, Give Something Back. The brief was to highlight why the right support is so important, and give suggestions of what to say or do (and what not to); backed up by quotes from interviews the researcher has done with bereaved people. Her research bears out some of my experiences in terms of how a suicide can affect those left behind. Mental health dips in the aftermath are quite common in those with a predisposition to anxiety or depression, and even those without. I’m very lucky, though, that people around me have generally been very supportive and said and done the right things. Sadly, this is the exception more than the rule. I hope the leaflet will be useful to those who want to support someone they know but aren’t sure how to go about it. It should soon be available online as a PDF though relevant agencies like Cruse and The Samaritans – I’ll link in due course…

Third: I want and hope to be able to go abroad alone for the first time this summer, even if just a city break for a day or two. I have my eye on a boutique hotel somewhere that would annoy Nigel Farage. The family atmosphere post-Brexit is still fairly awful but that’s a whole other post…

Thinking of everyone who misses someone. Xxx