Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Challenge Number 40 – Make a Christmas box for a needy child

 My friend Izzy set me this challenge and it’s been a lovely thing to do. The sort of thing that gives you a little warm glow inside. I am sending a box through the Samaritan Purse charity’s Operation Christmas Child scheme, and will be handing it over next week to Southlands Methodist Church down the road, where we attend a toddler playgroup on Wednesday mornings. It’s not normally in my nature to think about Christmas in October (despite the various efforts of high-street shops and mail order catalogues) but the boxes have an early deadline to allow for shipping.

Putting a box together is simple and fun. You basically decorate and fill a shoebox with a few small presents for a child, specifying age and gender if you wish. The charity’s website or readily available leaflets give gift suggestions for various different categories (e.g. education, play, hygiene), and you are asked to choose gifts from each of the categories. The gifts should be new rather than second-hand. Chocolate is a big no-no, but sweeties are allowed if their best-before date is after March 2013. Liquids, toy weapons and novels in English are also forbidden. You pay a £2.50 donation (online or in an envelope in your box) as a contribution towards shipping costs. If you pay online you can then download a unique barcode to put in your box so that you can subsequently find out where the box ended up. From the UK, it’s likely to be a destination in Eastern Europe.

I say simple, but wrapping up a shoebox isn’t actually that easy, I found. If anyone knows a way to do it neatly, then please share your secret with me. Hopefully the child who receives it won’t mind my battered, twisted Sellotape and torn, bunched up paper. I chose gifts for a girl aged 2-4, since this is the sort of child I know best, having one of my own at home. Inside the box (provided my choice of gifts is deemed suitable by the organisation), the recipient will find a rubber duck, some toothpaste, a toothbrush, a pair of bright pink earmuffs, two pairs of mittens, a hair clip, a wooden bracelet, a packet of Fruit Gums, a plastic shopping basket filled with material vegetables, a bouncy ball, a packet of coloured pencils, a novelty pencil sharpener and eraser, and a colouring book. The items were either toys that Charlotte had received duplicates of for her birthday, or were bought at Poundland, 3 for 2 offers at Boots and Tesco, on sale at the Designer Outlet, or from a friend who runs a toy stall at local Christmas fairs. No item cost me more than £1.35. I am not writing this to show you how ungenerous or impoverished I am myself, but rather to demonstrate that you can send some pretty good stuff without it costing the earth. 

The charity is a Christian one, so we are told that someone is likely to slip a booklet of Bible stories into the box before it is given to its recipient and then invite the child to a church-led follow-on programme. As a staunch atheist, I would rather that they didn’t, but it won’t stop me sending the box. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and to make their own decisions regarding religion. I would not deprive a child of some fun or useful gifts just because I don’t happen to share the organisation’s faith, especially if the alternative is that the child receives nothing. The Operation Christmas Child leaflet stresses that boxes are distributed to children “based on need, regardless of their background or religious beliefs” and that they are “an unconditional gift, asking for nothing in return”. And so long as that it is true and that the child is told that the gift has come from someone in the UK who cares about their welfare and well-being rather than directly from God (which would be a lie), then that is good enough for me.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Challenge Number 27: Visit both Clapham Junction stations

The first part of this challenge was completed in April. On Saturday, I got to complete the second. My friend and former subtitling colleague Sarah was over visiting from Auckland, New Zealand so I used the excuse of meeting up with her to complete another challenge. It was also a momentous day as it marked my first whole day away from Charlotte. I’ve managed a few hours on my own here and there (usually for hospital appointments related to all the tedious health complications I’ve suffered since giving birth) but never a whole day. And what a treat to spend it in London.

Up early as always, it was no bother to be on the 8.16am Grand Central non-stop service to Kings Cross, arriving exactly two hours later. A strangely nostalgic journey that I hadn’t undertaken in over three years. I felt slightly glum in its Hertfordshire section as we went through Stevenage (where my mother worked for many years in a primary school base for children with dyslexia) and Welwyn Garden City (where, aged only 58, she died of cancer in 2005 in the loving care of the Isabel Hospice). But then things became more upbeat as we hurtled past Alexandra Palace, which we used to be able to see from our lounge window in our beautiful Crouch End flat (the flat itself just a couple of streets away from the East Coast mainline), and through Harringay, our local station and the start of my commute for nearly four years, and Finsbury Park, home of a notorious imam, the Fleadh and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.

Kings Cross was always a bit of a seedy dive when I lived in London. But look what they’ve done to it now:

They've moved Platform 9 and 3/4

And brilliantly, I stepped into this new and airy space and immediately ran into another friend and ex-subtitling colleague Stuart and his family, who were on their way to visit relatives in Hatfield. How reassuring to know that even though I’ve lived away from London for five years, I can see a familiar face as soon as I return. After a quick catch-up chat, I had a look around, bought an extortionate croissant and then set off down to Clapham.

The Victoria Line, the best route to take me south of the river, was of course suspended due to engineering works. Nothing changed there, then. So instead I took the City branch of the Northern Line all the way to Clapham Common. Quickly back into London mode, high on the stench of the Tube that hits you like a heat wall as soon as you enter a station, I tutted at all the tourists standing gormlessly in the ticket hall struggling to work the Oyster card readers, got cross with a further load of them standing on the left-hand side of the escalator, and then barged past several more who’d stopped dead as soon as they’d got on to the platform, blocking the way for everyone else. I walked down to the far end of the platform and then waited with my back to the wall for the much maligned Northern Line minute to elapse (it lasted four) and the next train to Morden to pull in. It was as if I’d never been away.

My reasons for doing this challenge were the year and three quarters I rented a room in a shared house in Clapham Old Town and the contrasts between Clapham life in North Yorkshire and Clapham life in London. I decided to have a trip down memory lane in the area around Clapham Common before heading to Clapham Junction. It’s now eleven and a half years since I moved on so it was interesting to see what had changed. Lots of new apartment blocks, a Boris Bike or two, a smattering of different restaurants and shops, and the pedestrianisation of Venn Street outside the Picture House which had allowed room for an exquisite food market to set up its stalls. But otherwise there were plenty of familiar places with happy memories (The Pepper Tree, Gastro, Carmen tapas bar, the Frog), and a surprisingly stubborn clinging on of a lot of the grot.

I wasn’t ever really qualified to live in Clapham as I was neither city slicker, famous (the actor Neil Pearson lived round the corner from me) or yummy mummy, instead being just an impoverished media employee in her first London home, but it was a great place to be based. It only took ten minutes or so on the Tube into town and I could even walk to work if I wanted (it did take an hour, through the back streets of Stockwell, round the Oval cricket ground, and then up through Kennington, but I liked the empowerment of walking in London – nothing could make it take longer than that hour, unlike the unpredictability of rush-hour public transport).

Clapham High Street

Clapham Common tube station

Market on Venn Street

The church and paddling pool on Clapham Common

Clapham Common, scene of  the occasional "moment of madness"

I wandered round through the Old Town and on to inspect my old pad on Broadhinton Road. It looked exactly the same. Still right under the Heathrow flightpath. Still just down the road from a fire station and backing on to a recording studio. Still the most expensive space per square foot I’ve ever lived. Still the only place where I’ve found home colonic irrigation equipment on the bathroom shelf and where I’ve been burgled whilst fast asleep in my bed. But it was a beautiful house. A house where I wanted to feel more at home than I ever could, sharing with people who didn’t want me there and where I knew I would get evicted as soon as the landlady’s boyfriend moved in. I don’t know who lives there now, but as they bought the house for around 750K a few years ago, they probably are stinking rich and not very nice.

Clapham Old Town

Where I lived

Right under the Heathrow flightpath

Time was ticking along so I carried on past the Artesian Well down to Wandsworth Road and hopped on a number 87 bus to my challenge destination, Clapham Junction station. Britain’s busiest rail station. A total shithole. The only nice thing we ever did there was buy our double bed from the Warren Evans shop in its arches. It was pretty much unchanged from my last visit. From Wandsworth Road, you still go in via an unprepossessing shopping mall and after the ticket barriers through a dingy tunnel to get to the platforms.

The entrance to Clapham Junction from Wandsworth Road

The dingy tunnel

I instinctively walked up on to platform 11 where, a couple of years after I had left Clapham, I used to catch trains back to my flat in Earlsfield. On platform 11, I took the necessary photographs, had a good look at the Shard (a new building for me hovering on the distant city skyline), found some trainspotters (a permanent fixture at Clapham Junction, and my camera probably made me look like one), then hopped on a train to Victoria, to go on to South Kensington to meet Sarah and later on a couple of other former subtitling colleagues as well. 

Train to Earlsfield from Platform 11

My first view of the Shard


Looking towards the site of the Clapham rail crash of 1988

Battersea Power Station and the London Eye

It was a happy day, full of good food, cheese and cheer, the odd glass of wine, and the strange conflict of sensing a marvellous liberation whilst feeling like a part of me was missing. As I haven’t returned to work after having Charlotte (my research post at the university in York ended while I was pregnant), most people I know here don’t think of me as someone other than a full-time mum. It meant a lot to be with people that remembered me from the days when I was in gainful employment and with some level of professional skill.

And London – can’t live in it, can’t live without it. I wouldn’t want to raise a child there, but I hope that we can take Charlotte there more in the years to come, to see its brilliance, its buzz, its bullshit, its bloody-mindedness, its beauty. My journey to Clapham Junction was utterly therapeutic.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Progress Report: Halfway through

Whenever I tell anyone about my 40 challenges, they immediately ask how many I’ve actually completed. I find this difficult to answer since some challenges are still at the planning phase, others are partially underway but nowhere near finished, and others I haven’t even dared contemplate yet. Counting up through the original list, I reckon that 21 are completely finished with, so I guess that’s about where we should be halfway through. I’m pleased with all that I’ve managed to do so far, and have some wonderful memories already. But I am also acutely aware that time is slipping by and that I’m occasionally feeling swamped by all I still have left to do. I seem to have less time to myself than ever now, as Charlotte’s daytime nap has to be very limited in length, otherwise she won’t go to bed at night. And by the time she is settled in the evening I am too comatose to do anything other than stare at The Great British Bake-Off or DVDs of Frasier. It’s only going to get harder as winter approaches, when darkness will set in by half-past three and Charlotte may well ditch her daytime nap for good. It’s the challenges that involve writing, learning, thinking and – heaven forbid – piano practice that are proving the hardest to settle down to. Yet ironically they are the ones I want to do most.

And it doesn’t help that every single evening class I might want to take in York to help my challenges along (British Sign Language, pottery, oil painting, knitting) all seem to be on Thursdays at 6pm, which is when my pilates class is. Though making Dave leave work early more than one night a week to be here for Charlotte while I pursue my leisure interests doesn’t seem fair. Of course if someone were forward-thinking enough to run an evening class that didn’t start until 8pm, there wouldn’t be a problem. Apart from the fact that a lot of art classes are very expensive owing to the cost of materials.

And on a financial note, I have no idea how we’re going to be able to afford to go somewhere German-speaking before March, especially now we have to pay full fare for Charlotte on flights. I may have to cheat and just take myself to the cinema to see a German film (I think the wording of the challenge would permit this), if any happen to be in York over the next few months. A further cheat might be to extend my 40 challenges into my 40th year – beyond the celebratory lunch in a 2-Michelin starred restaurant.

But enough of the negative of what I might not manage, and back to the positive of what achievements I have actually made. Here is my first (and so far only) tomato:

It was very nice. I don’t hold up much hope for many more – there are a smattering of green ones on the plants, but as temperatures have dipped again, the sun has left our back yard for good until spring and the nights are threatening frost, I can’t see them managing to ripen before the plants wither completely. Green tomato chutney is probably called for.

And here is some more bread, which even I am starting to lost track of now... I haven't baked any for ages, so need to get myself back on the rails fairly sharpish to keep to schedule. These are loaves 17 to 21. So 21 loaves, 21 challenges. There's a nice harmony in that.