Cool as Folk

Some folk music - on the train to Edale!

Some folk music – on the train to Edale!

On Tuesday night, I took the folk train for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect. My friend Louise had decided to try it for her 30th birthday, bringing along me, another friend, Fraser and Louise’s mum. We had a pint in the Sheffield Tap, the brilliant real ale pub on Platform One of Sheffield railway station and then bought return tickets for the 7.36pm train to Edale, a tiny village in the Peak District, in the shadow of Kinder Scout, the highest point in Derbyshire.

We clambered on board the shabby train. One carriage was ram-packed, with people of all ages, ranging from twenty-something hipsters to elderly ladies. A group of people in the middle of the train started playing accordions  There was a lady who was supposed to be playing the fiddle but her strings had snapped en-route to the station, due to the extreme cold. Luckily, a lady getting off the train at Grindleford lent her fiddle for a couple of songs. The train rumbled into the Peak District and we soaked up the atmosphere, noticing that at each village station we passed, the snow still lay deep on the platform.

At Edale, everyone shuffled through the snow into the Rambler Inn, next door to the station, and we drank pints of ale while singing along with old folk songs such as ‘She moved through the fair’ and ‘The Irish Rover’. I thought the inclusion of the comedy song, ‘Why Paddy’s Not at work today’ was particularly funny, as it sounds just like some of the accidents I have to investigate as part of my current job.

As a carriage-full of folkies piled onto the train back to Sheffield, we must have been a shock to the surly-looking lad with multiple piercings, who had probably been on the train since it left Manchester Piccadilly. On the seat in front of him, the group of grey-haired, Arran-jumpered folkies got out their accordions and began to sing about barrels of ale, the young man pushed his headphones further into his ears, stared intently at his phone and tried to pretend that the whole thing wasn’t happening. When we reached Hathersage, the painfully cool young man, pushed his way through the corridor to stand by the doors until he could finally escape at Grindleford. We all thought it was hilarious that the lad had got out of the train at Grindleford, which is a picturesque Peak District village. Perhaps this young man has parents who are Morris Dancers and has finally escaped from Grindleford to live a cool urban life, only to find himself terminally embarrassed by the occupants of the folk train.

On New Year’s Eve 2005, I made a New Year’s resolution to do more stuff that I liked, including folk music, even if I had to do it by myself. My twenties had been quite “full-on” and, along with my circle of friends, we’d spent a lot of time at gigs and clubs. I was interested in getting into more folk music, but I’d been worried about it being a bit uncool or that my friends wouldn’t want to go with me. In May 2006, I volunteered as a steward at Wychwood Music Festival at Cheltenham racebourse, which eclectically combined folk, indie and dance music. For various reasons, my friends didn’t want to come. I was a bit nervous, but I went alone, on the train, lugging my tent for miles until some friendly Oxfam Stewards gave me a lift. I set up camp with them, in the middle of the racecourse. I met an amazing bunch of Oxfam stewards, including Louise and Fraser who accompanied me on the folk train. It was such a good weekend that I had completely lost my voice by the time I returned to Sheffield.

I’ve been stewarding for Oxfam at music festivals ever since the summer of 2006.  I’ve signed up to work for them at Download, Glastonbury, WOMAD, Beautiful Days and Shambala this year. It might not always be the most glamorous job in the world but you get a chance to make a real difference to people’s lives – at the festival, as well as the people who benefit from the money that Oxfam receives for providing a top-class stewarding service. Try it – you won’t regret it!

I’ve now got an international network of friends of all ages and from all backgrounds, ranging from hip young students to elderly hippies in woolly jumpers; anarchists to people who work for the military. And that’s only happened because I decided to take a step on my own and do something I wanted to do. From taking that small step, amazing things have happened. I’m about to take a much bigger step, into a whole new career, but now I know the power of following my heart and “doing the stuff that I like”!

The Folk Train. It really is “Cool as Folk”:

“This,” she thought to herself cheerfully, “is where I break my neck.”

I’ve stolen a phrase from the book I’m reading at the moment, The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White. It’s the fantasy novel about the future king Arthur. The young Arthur, known as “The Wart” is the foster son of an obscure nobleman in a fictitious medieval England until he meets his destiny by pulling the magic sword out of the stone. Merlyn the magician becomes his tutor and helps him to achieve his destiny by sending The Wart on magical adventures and turning him into various animals. In this particular scene, The Wart has been turned into an owl and is about to take his first flight.

And that’s how I feel right now, knowing I should be scared of falling, but excited about flying.

Yesterday, I plucked up the courage to give my notice at work. Following the much reviled office move to Derby, I had a month to make up my mind whether I thought I could give it a go. If I decided it wasn’t working out for me, I could apply for redundancy with no hard feelings. And that’s what I’ve decided to do. It was a very calm, and very friendly discussion, very far removed from the scene in my novel Outside Inside when Miriam quits her job at the building society. I work until the end of April, I’ll get a small redundancy package, and that’s that – I’m free! A few months ago, that thought was a terrifying prospect, but I’ve been spending the last few months learning about myself and starting to plan for the future. This blog is one of the tentative first steps that I’ve taken into the wide world.

I do have a plan – I’m sure it will evolve and develop as I go along, but the biggest change is that I don’t want my life to be dominated by one job that takes up the majority of my time. I want to have my cake and eat it really. I’m going to get back into education so the sensible part of my plan is to sign up to be a supply teaching assistant; to gain experience in working in a wide variety of schools. But I’m also going to be developing my skills as a writing tutor, volunteering with the wonderful I also want to develop my own creative writing business so watch this space! I should be terrified about leaving the security of a full-time job behind me, but I feel excited and inspired. I would like to thank my partner, family and friends who have been very supportive so far. I am also very grateful to Marianne Cantwell and everyone at Free Range Humans: You should check out the Free Range Humans website, especially if you are feeling a bit pissed off with your job and are wondering what to do next.

I’ve been able to practise my “free range” career lifestyle today because Sheffield was buried under a rather large dump of snow today. There was no way I was able to drive to Derby as half the motorway was blocked. Instead I just fired up my laptop and got on with a full day’s work. However, it was a case of “death by spreadsheet”, so at teatime, I took a walk to the fetch my veg box from my local health food shop, Beanies, about a mile away.  It was a very bracing walk, in a blizzard, but I felt alive and a bit smug watching people in cars sliding all over the place on their way home from work.

I feel like my personal spring is starting, but everyone is waiting for the temperatures outside to rise. In just over a month’s time, when I finish work, it should be almost Summer, but outside right now, there’s about a foot of snow on the ground and the steep roads in Walkley are impassable.  Come on Spring!

Here are some photos, I took on my walk, including an ironic one with daffodils in my garden covered in snow. I told you I was feeling creative!

Man (or woman) the F**k up and get on with it!

This is my version of “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

Two years ago, I volunteered as an Oxfam steward at Download festival. I love festivals and I’ve been volunteering as an Oxfam festival steward since 2006 but I’d never been to a ROCK festival before, even though the misspent portion of my teenage years involved head-banging at the Rockhouse in Derby. I was a little anxious about whether I’d outgrown METAL and I wondered what the “punters” would be like. At Download, I was positioned in the disabled camp site, putting wristbands on people and generally helping the campers out and helping with their enquiries.

I was a bit stressed at the time as my partner and I were in the middle of buying a house for the first time, in fact, the sale went though at the start of my shift. My mind was whirling with practicalities and plans for moving. However, what I learned that weekend got me through the house move. The Download disabled camp site is a wonderful place, with great toilets, showers and wheelchair charging points. Everyone, including the security staff greet campers warmly, help to solve any problems and even willingly volunteer to help put up ten. The same members of staff and volunteers come back year after year and many friendships are forged (in METAL!) The campers have a wide range of disabilities and many of them are wheelchair users. However, everyone is bound together, not by disability, but by a shared love of ROCK! People admire each others’ tattoos and use the wheelchair charging points to plug in straighteners for styling their mohawks. It’s got one of the best atmospheres that I’ve ever found in a festival camp site.

The attitude of the Download disabled campers is summed up by a phrase you’ll often hear people saying: “man the f**k up!” In some other context it probably means something macho but the first people I heard saying it were a girl in an electric wheelchair and her boyfriend as they charged the wheelchair before a full-on day at the festival. At Download “man the f**k up” means overcoming your problems and getting on with it; having a laugh, living with the things you can’t change (like festival weather) and enjoying life as much as possible. You could always say “woman the f**k” up if you want and it would mean the same thing.

The next week, during the big house move, whenever I had to psyche myself up to lift heavy boxes or pack and unpack endless amounts of stuff, I said to myself “man the f**k up” and I thought about the people I’d met at Download. It’s a phrase that I’ll be needing to tell myself again as I’m going through my career change. And I needed to tell myself to “man the f**k” up this week, on holiday in Whitby.

We’d planned a walk to Robin Hood’s Bay, along the old railway track and then the cliff path, about eight miles in distance. The weather was very cold and it kept snowing. We could have done some pottering about or stayed in the house, but we decided to go anyway. We wrapped up warmly and put on waterproofs and set off, buffeted by wind and snow. The going was hard at times, but there were periods of bright sunshine and some amazing views. One of the weirdest things we came across was on the cliff path, where sea spray had blown onto the cliffs and made ice-sculptures. It was sunny by the time we arrived in Robin Hood’s Bay, a picturesque old fishing village. I even made friends with a young sea gull! We could have had a really boring time but by deciding we were going to go for it and get on with it when more sensible people would have stayed in, we had an unforgettable adventure.

In the weeks to come, it will be important for me to remember this advice to myself: to not give up and to get on with the things I need to do in life even when the circumstances are tough. There will be better things to come if I make the effort to change my life and follow the path I want.

The dance of life

Dancing at Shefftival, August 2013. I'm on the left!

Dancing at Shefftival, August 2013. I’m on the left!

I’ve been learning to dance for six years. I was encouraged to go to a bellydancing class with a friend. At first, this seemed like an enormous step, even though I considered myself confident in other ways at the time.

Me? Dance? But I can’t dance (unless I’ve had a few drinks)! But I went along to the bellydancing class at a local sports centre. In my first class, I was so nervous and stood right at the back of the room. But I loved it. After a few classes, I was eagerly standing at the front, keenly watching every move of the dance teacher and trying to master every hip-drop and shimmy. I adored the long, flowing skirts and jangling coin-belts and soon realised that there was no going back. I couldn’t just bop around on the dance-floor any more – whatever I was dancing to, I had to try out new moves and fancy foot-work. As I realised that I had the ability to learn dance routines, I discovered that dancing is a wonderful work-out for the brain as well as for the body.

I’m forever thankful to the friend who dragged me along to the class, and also my bellydancing teacher, Cis Heaviside, one of the Boomshanka bellydancers in Sheffield. Full figured and proud to be a goth, Cis explained her own journey in learning to dance, as well as the cultural history of bellydancing and the moves. For example, the Saidi Hop move was originally danced by men, and the women learned it to “take the Mick” out of them!

The friend who encouraged me to start dancing is the wonderful Angelina Abel, who started the Mulembas D’Africa dance school  in Sheffield and I’m proud to say that I’m one of the most enthusiastic members of her dancing tribe. Thanks to both teachers, I’ve taken part in many dance performances and I’m guaranteed to get up on the dance floor even if sober!

On Wednesday, we had our first dance class for a couple of months. It was brilliant to see fellow dance-class friends, including two people who had returned after becoming mothers. We practised our moves and I realised that Angelina is now blossoming into a wonderful teacher, encouraging, inspiring and providing a safe, friendly environment to dance, learn and most importantly to laugh. We started working on our new routine. As usual, I struggled with some of the moves and felt frustrated with myself and a little ashamed! I’d positioned myself right at the front and at one stage I was thinking: “What possessed me to dance at the front of the class, when I’m clearly the most rubbish dancer in here? I can’t even work our whether it’s my left or right arm I’m supposed to be moving!” But I took a deep breath and focussed on learning the moves at my own pace, without comparing myself with anyone else. It worked, and I was soon enjoying myself again.

At the end of the class, we took it in turns to perform the dance routine in front of the others and I realised that lots of other people were using the wrong arm or leg. After all, we’d been dancing these steps for less  than an hour. It didn’t matter. It’s all about learning. It’s important to make mistakes; to learn; laugh at ourselves; get out of breath; get sweaty and wake the next morning with a serene mind and aching muscles. The most important thing is to have fun and to give new things a go.

A few years ago, I thought that I had two left feet and no dance ability at all. I would have never guessed that by 2013, I’d have danced several times on a stage, in front of a paying audience. And that could apply to anything: if you’re scared of learning a new skills, try it anyway, have fun and see what happens!

Only the lonely – sometimes you have to be reminded to count your blessings


On Tuesday night, I spent the night alone in Brighton as part of a work trip. I’ve been doing this regularly for the past couple of years, driving down for a monthly meeting and spending the night in a hotel. As first, it was a bit of a novelty, a chance to sample a restaurant and walk on the beach. After all, Brighton was one of my favourite places! But that was when I associated it with holidays with friends, of lazy days and late nights.

Frustrated with my job and wondering if I could possibly make a success of my life, spending the night alone on Tuesday wasn’t a very appealing prospect. The wind was icy, blowing damp air that danced in taxi headlights; not quite drizzle, almost snow. I wandered around the lanes and down to the seafront, but the beach was dark and desolate. I had a feeling of unease and for once, didn’t feel safe walking on my own.

I found a restaurant and enjoyed my meal. It was actually very good and vegan-friendly, which is something that Brighton is great at on the whole! It was Pho, a Vietnamese restaurant (part of a chain but very good!). The staff were very friendly. Sometimes I enjoy being the mysterious person eating alone, absorbed in a book or my Kindle, making mysterious notes and observing human life. But you always have to do the awkward thing that Jeffrey Lewis sings about – going to the loo on your own and having to take your bag with you for security, while simultaneously reassuring the waiters that you’re not going to escape through the toilet window without paying the bill. And when a party of about ten cheerful, hip twenty-somethings came to sit on the table next to me, I lost heart and decided to return to my hotel room as quickly as possible, feeling miserable and lonely.

My walk back to the hotel made me realise that I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. There were lots of people eating alone; a lady in the window of Burger King, comfort-eating her way through fries and a burger, people walking at top speed while chomping on a take-away snack. And there were lots of people walking on there own too, with weary steps and pained expressions. Then I got lost, trying to find the railway station and ended up in an area with large white Georgian houses on a hillside. There was a lady being picked up by a taxi, surrounded by bin-bags and suitcases as if she’d just been thrown out by a lover. A bit further down the hill, there was a couple having a nasty argument, each person unable to understand each other.

At the railway station, people were rushing around, bundled into coats. There was a homeless guy. He must have been homeless. Only in his twenties; ratty half-dreaded hair, clothes ragged in an almost Dickensian way, dragging a tatty sleeping bag with him as he walked around the station. He was walking in the same direction as me and I watched him warily. At first, I thought he was talking into a mobile phone; later I realised that he was talking to himself. Where was he going to spend the night? How had he ended up here, wandering around the railway station? There’s something melancholy about seaside towns. Lost people always seem drawn to them, searching for something.

Only a few minutes later, I was freshly showered, cosy under the crisp white duvet in my hotel room. That’s when it hit me. It’s easy to feel sorry for myself when I’m on my own – to focus on the negative stuff. But I was safe and warm and the next night, I was staying with my wonderful parents, before returning home to my partner and my own home (even though my duvets aren’t quite so crisp). I’ve got amazing friends and I’m healthy and able to make my own decisions in life. Tough times and lonely nights can almost make me forget these things. But I shouldn’t.

When you’re feeling low, count your blessings and don’t listen to the nasty voices in your head.

Stay positive – we only get one life, and it’s for living. Moping around or being angry and negative isn’t going to do anyone any favours, including yourself.

Things this blog is about…