Sunday, 29 May 2016

What Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp Tells Us About How Society STILL Sees Abuse...

Most of you have probably heard all about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's marriage break-up, amid rumours of domestic violence.  Most of you have probably got an opinion on it.  A lot of you - whether you realise it or not - will have had that opinion shaped by the media and by societal beliefs when it comes to abuse.

Don't believe me?  Just Google it.  That's what I did, when I decided to write this blog piece and I was pretty horrified.  The top stories - predictably - were referencing Depp's ex wife Vanessa Paradis, who recently made the decision to wade into the controversy by proclaiming Johnny to be a gentle soul who would never hurt anyone.  Below those stories, were headlines about how poor Johnny had been "driven insane" by the thought of his wife cheating on him.  And of course, you can find stories about how the actor's family had never liked Amber Heard anyway and how she was almost certainly making up these "lies" about domestic abuse in order to make millions out of one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Why?  Why is the media so quick to jump to conclusions?  

We don't know what really happened, yet.  I, personally, always choose to believe someone who claims to have been abused, because I know from experience how atrocious it feels to go through any kind of abuse and have people claim that you're making it up.  It's a lonely, frustrating, frightening place to be.  I've been in the position of being told I was "lying for attention" when I was trying to open up about what I'd experienced with my ex.  It was HELL.  When a person has been abused, they need support, they need empathy and they need people to tell them that what they're saying is being taken seriously.  So, despite the fact that we don't know all of the details yet and despite the fact that Johnny Depp has always been amongst my favourite actors (and Hollywood crushes...), I refuse to start slinging mud at Amber Heard and accusing her of lying.  If she is, then it's a despicable lie to tell.  If she's not, then we need to seriously look at media coverage of this, because it shows up just how far we still have to go, when it comes to public understanding of abuse.

The photo Amber Heard submitted to court, of the injury she alleges Johnny Depp to have inflicted on her.

Regardless of whether or not Johnny Depp did subject his wife to a dreadful and vicious assault, the reaction from the press and some sections of the public have shown - yet again - that we haven't a clue how to deal with accusations of abuse.  Nor do we seem to understand how abuse even works.

Rather than report on the facts as we know them - that Amber Heard filed for divorce and has since been granted a temporary restraining order against Depp - the press have, in typical fashion, gone down the route of dragging up Amber Heard's sexual past, insinuating that her abuse claims are motivated by money (Depp's divorce lawyer has stated as such and the press seem to have run with it) and providing what look frighteningly like excuses for any potentially abusive behaviour that Depp may have displayed.

"He was driven insane with fear that his bisexual wife was cheating on him." - The Daily Mail

"Amber filed for divorce just three days after the death of Depp's beloved mother." - The Mirror

"He found it difficult to cope with the amount of female friends his wife, who had previously admitted being bisexual, surrounded herself with." - The Mirror

"As (Amber & friend Cara Delevingne) spent more time partying and flaunting their friendship, Johnny, 52, is said to have become increasingly infuriated by their behaviour." - The Sun

Now, I am NOT going to sit here and claim that Johnny Depp absolutely 100% abused his wife, because I can't do that without having a much greater inside knowledge of the situation than I have (I can say I believe Amber Heard, but I can't say "yep, he definitely did it").  BUT, considering that the press are reporting on hugely serious claims that a very famous Hollywood actor left his wife fearful for her life, due to his abusive outbursts, should they really be interested in Amber's sexuality, or her friendships with women?  Because, regardless as to whether or not it's their intent, in doing so, the press are providing readers with an excuse.  If they choose to believe that Depp did hit Amber in the face with his phone, causing the bruises seen above, they can also write it off as the action of a man driven to extremes by his wife's behaviour.  The unspoken message is: If he did it, he did it because she made him.

I've not used my big NO in a while, but it seems appropriate, here.

The press may genuinely believe that they're providing important context, or striving for a balanced view, but they're actually making the common mistake of forgetting one, vital thing:  THERE IS NEVER AN EXCUSE FOR ABUSE.  In providing their readers with one - again, whether intentionally or not - the media are suggesting that certain behaviours cause a person to abuse their partner, and all that suggestion does is further the culture of victim-blaming and misconception that already surrounds the subject.

Bolstered by the phrasing used in the papers and in online reports, Depp's fans took to social media to attack Amber Heard for her behaviour, stating that her flirting with female friends and her love of partying wound poor Johnny up to the point where it's almost understandable that he snapped.  And sure, maybe it would be understandable if he merely snapped in as much as he shouted "hey, I'm sick of the way you're behaving" and suggested that they split.  But that's not the accusation, here.  The accusation is that he swung a glass bottle around, screaming, damaging property and eventually hitting Amber in the face with his phone, leaving a visible bruise.  The allegation is of abuse.  That abuse - if it took place - would have been a conscious choice, as abuse always is, and that is NOT okay.

One Depp fan claimed on Twitter that Amber's behaviour during her marriage to Johnny was tantamount to emotional abuse and therefore Depp was acting in self-defence and should not be punished.  OKAY, LET'S GET VERY REAL:  Almost five years ago, I was in an emotionally/psychologically abusive relationship.  For over a year and a half, I was cheated on, put down, mocked, threatened, used and generally put through the worst Hell of my life.  If I wanted to "get my own back" on my abuser, perhaps it would be understandable.  But if I actually beat him up, I would still have committed abuse.  I would still therefore be an abuser, myself.  I couldn't claim self-defence, unless he had physically attacked me first and emotional abuse is notoriously hard to prove.  And despite knowing the anger and frustration being emotionally abused can create in a person, I know I could never have actually beaten up my ex.  Why?  Well, for a start, he was bigger and stronger than me.  I was afraid of his temper.  Johnny Depp is bigger and, arguably stronger than Amber Heard.  Even if she was behaving cruelly towards him, physical violence was totally and completely unnecessary.  Whatever she did, however she behaved, Depp had the option not to assault her.  If Amber's allegations are true, he made a choice to beat her face with his phone.  No amount of being scared that she was cheating on him, or feeling as though she didn't respect him makes that alright.  But when these facts were pointed out to said Depp fan on Twitter, she claimed that "Amber supporters" were casually excusing her behaviour, whilst criticising Johnny's.  That's not the case; all anyone is saying is that abuse isn't the answer to anything and that it's wrong to make excuses as to why someone might choose to physically assault their spouse.  

Emotional abuse is wrong.  Physical abuse is wrong.  ANY abuse is wrong.  Why am I still having to say that in 2016?!

The press have this vile habit of looking for reasons whenever a celebrity makes an allegation of abuse.  It fuels those water-cooler conversations, where people at work natter about serious topics such as abuse, as though it's flippant gossip.  "Oh, I heard she cheated on him.  Poor bloke, watching his wife flirt with other women in front of him.  I bet he was just so gutted and upset, he couldn't help but snap.  And he's proper gorgeous, isn't he?  I still would, you know!  *nudge, wink*"

And that leads me neatly on to the other thing that society still continues to get wrong, when it comes to abuse.  We STILL seem to believe that abusers are ugly-looking types in stained vests, outwardly creepy, openly unpleasant and probably on low incomes.  No matter how many times it's proven, over and over, that abusers can come from anywhere, look as gorgeous as an angel and be as charming as it's possible to be, we still cling to the belief that it could never, ever be someone we know or like.  Oh, no.  We'd be able to tell.  Abusers are horrible.  Actors, musicians. respected writers... We like them.  They're funny in interviews!  They look incredible on the red carpet!  They have talent!  How can they possibly be abusive?!  Don't be stupid.

And just to further compound that ridiculous belief, the friends and family come rushing out in defence, just as they have in the Depp case.  "He's lovely; I've seen him with his romantic partners and he's adorable."  Except...  Well, nobody knows what's going on behind closed doors, besides the people who are actually living behind them.  When I walked away from my abusive ex, I lost a friend I'd had since I was twelve years old, because she just couldn't believe that the man she knew - and had been out with herself - could possibly have treated me the way I claimed he had.  But here's the thing: abusers are great at portraying themselves well in public.  They have to be charming.  They have to be good at manipulating people.  They wouldn't be able to abuse at all if they weren't, because nobody would fall for the act.  My ex was funny, intelligent, seemingly sensitive and up for a laugh with his friends.  If I had asked around after I left him, I can say with almost 100% certainty, that not one of those friends would have labelled him as abusive.  Because they weren't there when he was abusive.  That was all for me.

This utterly stupid notion that people who seem clever, witty and who look good can't possibly be nasty in private is one of the major reasons that people who experience abuse don't speak out.  They fear they won't be believed.  And all too often, we see that fear realised.

Amber & Johnny.  Getty images.

What really happened between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp may never be known.  It could turn out that Amber did make up her allegations, in which case Depp was right to refer to her as "an affront to real victims of domestic violence."  Equally, it could be proved that Depp was abusive towards her and, regardless of the "reason," that is despicable and cannot be justified.

Whatever happens, the unfortunate fact is that this case has yet again proved that as a society, we have a very long way to go before we can say we understand abuse, or report on it with anything remotely resembling sensitivity or responsibility.  And that continues to shame us all.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Bedtime Story (25/5/2016)

Sometimes, a silly story pops into your mind almost out of nowhere.  Such was the case with this one!  If you'd prefer to listen to this week's story as a podcast, please click here.

George And The Loose Thread

George sat on the sofa, watching cartoons.  As he watched, he absent-mindedly picked at a loose thread at the hem of his green jumper.  

"Stop picking that, George," Mum scolded.  "You'll make a hole in it."

"Picking what?"  George replied, still tugging on the thread.

"You've got your head in the clouds," Mum tutted.  "Stop picking at that loose thread."

But George went on picking, barely noticing what he was doing, until the thread grew even longer, wiggling its way out of the knitted wool, like a bright green worm.  By the time George went out to play, the thread was several inches long and hung down at the side of his leg, like a lopsided tail.

He left the house to go and meet his friend Jasper and on the way, the loose thread got stuck on the gate at the end of George's garden.  

But George didn't see.

George walked all the way down the road, with the thread growing longer and longer as he went.  And as the thread grew longer, his jumper got shorter, as the wool continued to unravel.

But George didn't see.

George sang to himself as he walked.  The sun was out and he was looking forward to a trip to the park.  As he turned the corner and left his road, the long, green thread trailing behind him got caught on a tree.

But George didn't see.

He strolled towards the park, stopping briefly to look at his watch, to make sure he wasn't late.  He only had half a jumper, now, but the sun was shining brightly and George was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn't even notice as his tummy began to appear beneath the unravelling wool.  As he entered the park, the thread he trailed behind him wrapped itself around a lamp post.

But George didn't see.

George got quite a few funny looks as he walked down the path towards the playground.  Children playing football stopped and stared.  But George was a friendly boy and he simply smiled and waved at them all.  As he carried on, with a grin on his face, the long, green thread snagged itself on a metal rubbish bin, halfway up the path.  The force made the thread unravel even faster.

But George didn't see.

George spotted Jasper waiting for him next to the swings.  He waved at his friend, but Jasper just stared at him, with his mouth open.  George wondered what Jasper was looking at.  He began to jog towards him and the thread behind him wrapped itself around a rose bush.

But George didn't see.

"Hi, Jasper!"  George grinned, as he reached the swings.  Everyone in the park gaped at him.  

Jasper shook his head, as if trying to make sense of the situation.  "George..."  He began, pulling a face.  "What happened to your jumper?!"

George looked down and saw that his jumper was completely gone!  He was standing in the park, with no top on.  Behind him, he saw the long, trail of green thread and his eyes widened.  

Laughing, Jasper hurried to the rose bush, where the end of the thread poked out of the top, like a stalk with the flower head missing.  "I think we should follow this," Jasper grinned, tugging on the thread.

And so the boys followed the trail; around the rose bush, down the path, past the rubbish bin, around the lamp post, out of the park, down the road, past the tree, around the corner and all the way back to George's garden gate.

As they walked, George picked up the thread and wound it around his hands.  By the time he reached his house again, his hand was completely covered in what was now very dirty, frayed wool.

When Mum saw what had happened, she had to try not to laugh.  "I can't believe you walked all the way to the park, without noticing," she told George.  "I told you, you've got your head in the clouds!"

"His head in the clouds and his jumper all over town," Jasper giggled.

"Come on in, boys," Mum said.  "You can play in George's room, whilst I set to work, knitting him a brand new jumper."

George grinned at his mum.  "I promise I won't pick at this one!"

As he and Jasper disappeared up the stairs, George's mum smiled, sighed and shook her head.  

But George didn't see.


Sunday, 22 May 2016

The A-Z of Friendship

The above image appeared in my Twitter timeline this morning and, sweet as it is, I couldn't help but think it was a bit... Much.  Sure, it's an ideal, but it's a rather sugary one.  I'm very lucky, in that I have an amazing best friend and a very close group of special friends I refer to as "my girls" (what was it I was just saying about being too "sugary"?  Whoops...), but this A-Z just doesn't seem to describe us, properly.  So, I figured it needed updating to cover all modern, realistic friendships.  Because as much as everything on this list is definitely important for a long-lasting friendship, it doesn't get into the nitty-gritty of being besties in reality.  Real life isn't a Hallmark card, after all.  So, here's my A-Z of friendship, inspired by my best friend Lydia and the rest of my "girls" - Kirstie, Lizzie and Kate.

Friendship isn't about being 100% in agreement, 100% of the time.  You know who your real friends are, if you can rile each other up like crazy when you have opposing views, yet still find a way to respect one another's different opinions and carry on being buddies.  And of course, if it's really trivial things that you disagree on, such as whether or not a band are any good, or how a TV show should have ended, good friends can't help winding each other up on purpose, sometimes.  It's all part of that whole "I mock you because I love you" thing that happens when you get very close to another human. 

Bodily functions.
Oh, come on.  The day you can burp or fart in front of a friend in complete knowledge that they're just going to laugh it off, is the day you know you're onto a winner.

The best kinds of friends are the ones who tell you that of course you could get the object of your affections!  They encourage you to go for it and if it works out, they're genuinely happy for you.  If it doesn't, they'll give you chocolate and let you mope and cry on their shoulders.  And hey, if your crush is a celebrity, your best friend will send you gifs of that celebrity looking particularly gorgeous whenever you feel upset.  Or, at least, that's what my best friend does...

He makes me feel all warm and fuzzy and other, more adult adjectives.

Dream big dreams.
Yes, I'm agreeing with the incredibly sentimental A-Z above, with this one.  My best friends all fully support my writing dreams, even though they all know how hard it is to make it in a creative industry.  Likewise, I know my best friend has the potential to be an amazingly successful YouTuber and it's her ultimate goal. so I will support her forever in achieving it.

Encouraging one another's shared fandoms...
There is nothing like the joy of sharing a fandom with your friends.  My friend Kirstie and I are Manics gig buddies for life and we love nothing more than seeing "our boys" together.  Lydia and I share a ridiculously deep love for Dan and Phil.  It means we can spend an entire afternoon watching YouTube videos together and it's the BEST thing EVER.  Having someone close who shares your passion for something is an awesome feeling and it can even strengthen your friendship.

Platonic flirtation is one of my favourite parts of a close friendship, because it's utterly hilarious and makes outsiders wonder what the heck is going on.  If this isn't an aspect of any of your friendships, it goes a bit like this:
Me: "Does this dress look okay on me?" 
Bestie: "Phwoar, yeah.  You look hot.  I would."  
And then we both giggle because we find ourselves so damn funny.

When we giggle, we look like this.  Only *slightly* more youthful.  But only slightly.

Getting the giggles.
Seriously, giggling with your friends is paramount to the survival of your relationship.  If you're not laughing, you're doing something wrong.  There are few things more hilarious to me than when my best friend gets such a bad case of the giggles that she can't speak unless she says, with...pauses...between...each...word...for...laughter.

Hating the same people.
This is not something you absolutely MUST have in a friendship, but it provides a common sense of unity.  Mention a certain hugely famous YouTuber who steals stuff from other people and passes it off as his own, and my best friend and I will combust with rage.  And on a more realistic level, if someone has hurt your friend, letting them know that you are as angry as they are about it can only strengthen your bond.  It's a kind of "cross my friend and you also cross me" type deal.

If there is one sure-fire way to know that your friendship is truly real, it's the knowledge that you can utterly insult one another and not be offended.  When my best friend and I aren't pretending we fancy the heck out of each other, we're slagging each other off.  BECAUSE FRIENDSHIP.

I must remember to use this one.

Jumping to one another's defence.
I don't care who you are, how much bigger or stronger than me you might be, if you pick on any of my friends, you will unleash my feisty Greek side.  So, for your own safety, just don't upset any of them.  Ever.

Killing an entire day doing absolutely nothing.
Sitting with a really good friend, having a cuppa and talking about everything and nothing all at once for literally hours on end?  Sign of a pretty solid relationship, if you ask me.

Love you no matter what.
Yeah, I'm keeping this one from the sugary list, too.  A good friend doesn't just ditch you because you haven't been in touch for a while, or because you disagreed on something trivial.  A good friend loves you, even if you're a bit of an idiot, because you're their idiot.

Making memories.
Yes, "memories" were mentioned on the above list, too.  It's hard to come up with an entirely unique A-Z, okay?!  The fact is, memories don't have to come from big, exciting trips you've taken, together (although that's a pretty awesome way to make them); they can come from something really trivial, like a shared moment of total awkwardness in a public place.  Which, to be fair, is where a lot of mine come from...

My friend Kirstie sometimes refers to me as Emmykins.  This is officially the cutest thing in the world.

Obscure references and in-jokes.
My best friend and I had a Skype chat the other day, in which a good five minutes of conversation time was taken up by us both hysterically laughing at a shoe.  A SHOE.  None of our other friends would understand the significance (or hilarity) of said shoe, but it had us almost crying with laughter.  My friend Lizzie and I laugh at the word "so," if it's said in a certain way.  It's those little in-jokes and references that can make a friendship feel special.

Putting up with stuff, because it means a lot to your friend.
My friend Lizzie is not a Manics fan.  In July, she's coming with me to a Manics gig, because she knows I adore them and her sister, my usual gig buddy, can't make it.  Likewise, my best friend is a big Kanye West fan.  I... Am very much not.  But when we go on long car trips together, she knows she doesn't even have to ask before she puts Kanye on.  Why?  Because she's my friend and God damnit, I will tolerate Kanye for her.

Queuing for stuff.
If there's a Manics gig, Kirstie and I will make damn sure we queue to get to the front.  If Lizzie and I want the best seats at Centre Stage when we go to Butlin's, we'll start queuing early.  If Lydia and I... Oh, you get the point.  Basically, if we know it means something to us, we're prepared to be very British about getting what we want.  This one is, admittedly, probably specific to my friendships, but I stand by it.

Reminding each other of the importance of your friendship.
Okay, so this is a soppy one, but I am BIG lover of "I love you."  Why should we only say it to family members and romantic partners?  Don't we love our friends?!  I try to regularly remind all of my closest friends of how special they are to me, because they absolutely are.

My bestie and I even have our friendship promises inked on ourselves.

Sheer stupidity.
If you can't completely let go of your inhibitions and be utterly silly around your best mates, then you're doing friendship wrong.

Talking stuff through.
The only times my closest friends and I tend to fall out is when one of us is keeping something in, rather than sharing how we feel.  Letting stuff out ensures that trivial issues don't get brooded over until they turn into massive problems.  So, even if it seems silly, if there's something bugging you in your friendship, TALK ABOUT IT.  

Understanding when your friend isn't themselves.
A good friend recognises when you're feeling a bit low from talking to you.  A great friend can tell something's up just by the tone of your tweets, or your responses to text messages.  Part of fostering a really great friendship is knowing what makes one another tick.  Picking up on unspoken clues as to when your friend is a little down ensures that you're always there for them when they need you, even if they're not the type to ask.

Verbal AND non-verbal communication.
My closest friends and I can speak volumes with a single glance.  Sometimes, friendship is about knowing what's in someone's head so well that you don't even need words to express what you're both thinking.

Waiting for the storm to pass.
Sometimes, life throws us a curve ball.  The relationship we were so excited about six months ago could become abusive and leave us in huge emotional turmoil.  The job we thought was for life could disappear due to budget cuts.  Real friendship is about sticking by someone during their darkest hour and not only being there when things are going well.

X-rated conversation.
I'm told that roughly 75% of my anecdotes are preceded with the words "this might be too much information, but..."  From weird sex dreams, to bodily functions, no subject should be off limits in a really close friendship.

Youthful outlook/mature view.
Our friends keep us young, when they encourage us to embrace our silly side and have fun.  But they can also help us to view ourselves through mature eyes when needed.  A really good friend knows exactly when you need to grow up a bit and when to encourage you to unleash your inner child.

Zooming to your side when you need them.
When you need a friend, a good one will always try to be there for you, even if they can't literally zoom to your side.  They'll be there with a text to let you know that they're thinking of you, or they'll call you so you can talk it all out.  Friendship is about support and the best friends do that constantly and unquestioningly.

There we are.  The very modern, less mushy, slightly more realistic A-Z of friendship.  

And on a totally unrelated note...

Hey, guess whose latest YouTube video is now up for you to enjoy?  Only mine!  Woohoo!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Bedtime Story (18/5/2016)

To listen to me reading this week's bedtime story, just click here for the podcast!

Little Duck Gets Bored

The sun was shining down on Pear Tree Farm.  In the duck pond, Mother Duck was busy giving her ducklings a swimming lesson.  Dylan Duck, Dorothy Duck and Daphne Duck were all swimming along behind her, listening carefully and doing as they were told.  But the smallest, Little Duck, was lagging behind.

"Muuuum," he groaned.  "I'm bored."

Mother Duck turned to look at her littlest duckling.  "Bored?  How can you be bored, Little Duck?  The sun is shining, the water is lovely and we're going for a swim!"

"All we ever do is swim," Little Duck moaned.  "I want to do something else."

Mother Duck flapped her wings.  "Well, we are going for a swim," she said.  "If you want to do something else, I suggest you make sure that you're very careful.  I don't want you getting into trouble."

"I won't," Little Duck promised.  And with that, he climbed out of the pond, shook his wet feathers and waddled off in search of some fun.

After a while, Little Duck arrived at the pig pen.  "Hello?"  He called, as he squeezed through the fence.  "I'm Little Duck and I'm looking for some fun!"

"Fun?"  The biggest pig in the pen grunted.  "Come and join in, then; we're about to roll around in the mud!"

Little Duck paused.  He wasn't sure that sounded like much fun at all.  But, he was bored and he needed something exciting to do, so he flopped down into the thick, squelchy mud and began rolling from side to side.  

It didn't feel very nice.  It made poor Little Duck's feathers stick together.  He scrambled to his feet and shook his head.  "Sorry," he said.  "But I think I need a different kind of fun..."

And he hurried away from the pig pen, shaking his muddy wings as he went.

Soon, he came across some goats, gathered around a pear tree.  "Hello!"  Little Duck called, hurrying over.  "I'm Little Duck and I'm looking for something fun to do."

The goats all turned.  "Something fun, you say?"  One of them bleated.  "Well, we're trying to get some pears down from this tree, so we can munch on them.  You can join us, if you like?"

Little Duck nodded.  "Okay!  How do you get them down?"

"Like this," the goat replied, and he rammed his head against the trunk of the tree.  

Little Duck gasped.  "Oh... That looks... A bit painful..."  

"It's fun," the goat insisted.  "And if you knock a pear down, everyone cheers!"

Little Duck took a deep breath and then bumped his head against the tree.  It hurt.  He rubbed his sore head with his wing.  "I don't think this is my cup of tea," he said.  "Sorry to have troubled you."

Still caked in mud and now with a headache to boot, Little Duck carried on wandering through the farmyard.  Soon, he spotted Elsie, the farm cat, hiding behind a wall.  Little Duck rushed over.  "Hello Elsie," he called.  "Are you having fun?  Can I join in?"

Elsie hissed.  "Oh, for goodness sake, Little Duck!  I'm trying to hunt a mouse and you've just scared it away!"  She stretched out her claws and flicked her tail at him.  "If you're going to join me, you're going to have to be nice and quiet.  And get ready to pounce when I say!"

Little Duck sighed.  That didn't sound like fun.  "Never mind."

He trudged away, muttering under his breath.  He was starting to get hungry and the mud on his feathers was drying and making him itch.  He decided to try one more place...

Up in the paddock, the horses were munching on some hay.  "Hi, guys," Little Duck called.  "I'm looking for some fun..."

The smallest horse came trotting over.  "Do you know what's amazing fun?"  She asked.  "Galloping!  It's great; you go really fast and the wind blows through your mane.  Want to try it?"

Little Duck thought it sounded a bit scary, but he agreed, all the same.  He hopped onto the horse's back and clung on as tightly as he could.  With a whoosh, they were off, racing faster and faster across the paddock.  Little Duck squeezed his eyes shut.  He felt like he was going to fall off and get trampled on and the wind made him cold.

"Wasn't that fabulous?"  The horse asked, when she finally slowed to a stop.

"Oh, erm... Yes..."  Little Duck stammered.  "But I think I ought to go home, now..."

Little Duck turned and began waddling towards home.  He was dizzy and he definitely wasn't having much fun.  But, as he got nearer, he heard the sound of his brother and sisters splashing in the cool water of the pond.  Little Duck's feet started to move faster and faster until he was running.  "Look out!"  He cried, leaping into the water with a terrific splash.

"Look at the state of you!"  Mother Duck cried.  "What on Earth have you been up to?!"

Little Duck swam over and let Mother Duck gently preen his feathers, washing away the dried mud and leaving him clean and fresh.  "That's better," she told him.  "Did you have fun?"

Little Duck gave her a smile.  "I learned that the best fun you can have is by being with the ones you love the most."  

And off all the ducks went, swimming into the centre of the pond, laughing and splashing together.


Monday, 16 May 2016

Manic Street Preachers at the Genting Arena, Birmingham (14/5/2016)

Me in my Manics fan "uniform." ;-)

If there's one thing that should be relatively common knowledge to anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis, it's my deep and unending love for the Manic Street Preachers.  From the age of 16, they've been a constant in my life and I can't imagine my world without them.

So, on Saturday (14th May), I got all dolled up in my glitter, eyeliner, feather boa, tiara, homemade top and fairy wings and headed from my uncle's flat in Birmingham to the Genting Arena, along with my lovely gig buddy Kirstie, to see the band for the millionth fourteenth time.

Normal clothing is not required on gig days...

The band are currently touring in celebration of their classic 1996 album, Everything Must Go, which is now a whopping twenty years old (and I feel ancient).  The plan was to play the entire album in full, from start to finish, before pausing for a brief break prior to treating the audience to a short second set, packed with hits and the odd rarity.  As plans go, it was a pretty brilliant one, to be honest.

Everything Must Go is as close to perfection as any album I've had the pleasure of listening to.  It soars majestically along, with sweeping orchestral melodies and touching moments of poignancy in amongst the almost stubborn positivity of the album as a whole.  To hear every track played, one after the other, was an absolute treat for the ears.  The band were on top form, sounding like the tight unit we know them to be, and they looked the part, too - Nicky Wire showed off not one, not two, but three different jackets over the course of the show.  

The strangeness of hearing Design For Life second in the set (rather than being saved for the show-stopping finale) was overcome by the crowd's enthusiastic singalong and the promise of yet more goodies to follow.  Everything Must Go has always been an album that flows beautifully well and this translated into a live performance that never felt like it had gone off the boil, or left you wishing they'd play something else.  Songs such as Enola Alone and Further Away rocked the arena and left you wondering how on Earth the band even managed to choose singles from an album packed with so many gems.  James Dean Bradfield's gorgeous acoustic rendition of Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky was enough to bring a tear to your eye.  And when the bombastic guitar solo at the end of No Surface All Feeling kicked in and streamers shot into the sky and fell above the heads of the band's faithful fans, it was a moment of sheer euphoria.

Before the second set kicked in fully, James treated the audience to a short game of "Manic Street Preachers bingo," encouraging fans to shout out song suggestions for him to play on his acoustic guitar.  It's a testament to the level of devotion the fans have to this band, that many of the requests were for obscure b-sides and album tracks - this is a fandom that passionately devours anything the band produces.  In the end, James went for late 90s single, Tsunami.

There were a few unexpected little gems in the second "greatest hits" set; a cover of Fiction Factory's Feels Like Heaven and Natwest-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds from the Manics' debut album, Generation Terrorists, were highlights.  In fact, the only thing I would suggest to further improve Manics' shows, would be to include more of these rarities.  After all, we're talking about a band who've recorded over ten albums, meaning they have literally hundreds of songs to choose from (especially when you include B-sides) when picking a set list.  As much as it's good that the band are aware that they have casual listeners in the audience who will be expecting the well-known singles, rather than obscure tracks they've never heard, it does sometimes feel like the Manics veer too closely on the side of caution.  Purely from a personal point of view, I wouldn't mind songs such as It's Not War (Just The End of Love) and Your Love Alone Is Not Enough being dropped to make way for some lesser played album tracks from the band's back catalogue.  There's still Design For Life, You Stole The Sun From My Heart and other such crowd-pleasing staples to placate the casual listeners with, after all.  Whilst songs like It's Not War... might have been commercial successes, the fans have heard them plenty of times, now.  I think it's time to mix the set list up a bit and throw in a few more surprises.

But that is a trivial moan about a gig that was full of energy, excitement and musical punch.  The Manics are still relevant, still brash and ever-so-slightly OTT, still musically fantastic and, as far as I'm concerned, still the best band on the bloody planet.  They get five out of five stars from me and they always will.  Shh, I'm allowed to be biased, it's my blog.  ;-)

If you get a chance to see them, go.

And if you've not had the chance to see the band live, don't fret; I made you a little vlog, so you can experience them for yourself:

Click, click, click, click, click.  Click yourself over (to YouTube).

I'll end this blog with a few more pictures from the gig.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Bedtime Story (11/5/2016)

This week's story is also available as a podcast!

Betsy And The Talent Show

Betsy loved to perform.  She was always making up little plays to put on in front of her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  She loved to sing, she adored to dance and she was at her happiest when she was the centre of her family's attention.

So, as soon as her school talent show was announced, Betsy started to make plans.  "I'm going to sing a song," she announced over dinner that night.  "And I'll probably make up a dance routine to go with it."

She spent all evening, searching through her wardrobe for the perfect costume and practising her moves.

By bedtime, Betsy's idea had grown even bigger.  "I'm going to do impressions of all the teachers to make the audience laugh when I first come on stage, then I'm going to sing a song, with a dance routine."

Betsy fell asleep and dreamed of bright lights, roaring crowds and fame and fortune.

The following morning, Betsy's plan had become even more enormous.  "I'm going to do impressions of all the teachers, then I'm going to sing a song, with a dance routine to go with it, then I'm going to do a magic trick!"

"Betsy, I think you have to stick to just one or two talents," Mum told her, as they ate breakfast.  

Betsy frowned  "But I don't want it to be over too quickly.  And I want everyone to think my act is amazing!"

"I'm sure it will be," Dad promised her.  "Just do your best.  Whatever happens, we'll be in the audience, cheering for you!"

All week, Betsy practised her song and dance routine.  And, just in case she was allowed a little extra time on stage, she practised doing funny voices, to make the audience laugh.  She rehearsed a little sketch she'd written and she went over and over her magic trick, to make sure it was truly spectacular.  
Finally, on the night of the talent show, Betsy ate her dinner, put on her costume and excitedly headed back to school.  Her parents wished her luck as they dropped her off in her classroom and went to take their seats in the hall.  

Betsy had butterflies in her tummy as everyone filed down the corridor and took their place backstage.  She couldn't wait to get on that stage!  She paced around, barely paying any attention to any of the other performers as they came and went.  All she wanted was to get out there and do her thing.

At last, she heard her headteacher call her name.  Betsy skipped onto the stage, ran into the centre, right beneath the bright spotlight and she smiled out at all the faces in the crowd...

...And she froze.

This didn't feel like all those times she'd sung or danced in front of her family.  She knew them.  But here, in front of her right now, were what seemed like hundreds of strangers, all staring at her.  Betsy squinted against the bright lights, looking for her parents, but she couldn't see them.  

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.  She tried to start her dance routine, but she couldn't make her arms or legs move.  It was like everything had stopped working.  

Betsy's heart was hammering against her ribcage, thump, thump, thump.  She could feel sweat beginning to trickle down her face and her eyes started to fill with tears.  She turned and looked at the side of the stage, trying to get a teacher's attention.  She wanted to tell someone that she'd changed her mind.  

But then, out there in the darkness, Betsy saw a hand rise up into the air.  She squinted to see it better and the hand began to wave.  Slowly, the fingers curled and Betsy realised that someone was giving her a thumbs up.  She shuffled towards the edge of the stage and finally, she saw her parents, in the centre of the crowd, smiling, watching, cheering her on, just like they said they would.

It was like a switch had been flipped.  Betsy took several big, deep breaths and bounded back to the centre of the stage.  She launched into her song and dance routine and, the more she sang and danced, the less scared she felt.  In fact, she started to feel good.  She started to feel amazing!

At the end, everyone in the audience clapped and cheered.  Betsy took a little bow and gave her mum and dad a big thumbs up.  

The rest of the talent show passed by in a blur.  At the end, Betsy rushed into the audience to find her parents.  "I did it!  Did you see me?  Was I good?!"

"You were brilliant," Dad told her.  "I couldn't be prouder."

"I couldn't have done it without you two," Betsy said, smiling first at her dad and then at her mum.  "It was really scary at first... All those people looking at me.  I nearly didn't do it."

"Well, I'm so glad you did." Mum told her.  "Because you were fantastic.  But hey, if you don't want to do the talent show next year, you don't have to."

Betsy gaped at her.  "Are you kidding?!"  She shook her head.  "Oh, Mum.  I'd do it all over again right now if I could!  And as for next year, well...  Just you wait.  I have big plans.  I'm going to do some ballet, some acrabatics, a song, a magic trick, some jokes, some impressions..."  She sighed.  "The longer I'm on that stage, the better!"

And with that, Betsy and her parents made their way home, with Betsy spending the whole journey planning her next big performance.


Saturday, 7 May 2016

It's Good To Talk...

In-jokes are the best kind, eh Rach?

So, my last blog was written whilst I was in the grip of the worst depression I've had in a fairly long time.  I'd been in a metaphorical hole for three days, with very little sunlight making its way in.  Three days of constant blackness might not seem so bad, but when you're living it, believe me, it feels like a lifetime.

Thankfully, the fog has now lifted and it began to lift the very same day that I wrote that blog entry.  I can't help but feel like the two things are related...

I've always been a talker.  Ask my parents, friends and anyone else who knows me well and they'll probably tell you that there have been times when they've desperately wanted to search for the 'off'' button.  I talked early - by two years old I was having fluent conversations - and I've never really stopped.

When I was two, I looked like a fully grown man.  It's weird, I know.

The thing is, talking is the best way of untangling thoughts (besides writing them down, which... Well, I'm doing that right now... BLOGCEPTION).  Once you've put your feelings into words, it's much easier to make sense of them.  Until you do that, they're just a jumble of noise in your brain; confusing and scary.  Trapping your feelings inside and never verbalising them is like continually scribbling on a piece of paper.  Eventually, you press down harder and harder and keep going over the same spot, until something gives and the paper rips.

I've always been very self-analytical.  I like to know why I think and feel the way I do.  I like to be able to rationalise my actions and understand myself that bit better as a result.  When I was in that metaphorical hole, for the first day or two, I was unable to really talk about why I felt the way I did.  I just had these heavy feelings pushing down on my shoulders and I felt I had to internalise them, because I wasn't sure I entirely understood them.  I knew that there were things going on that were making me sad, but I hadn't fully connected the dots, yet.  I wasn't sure why I was reacting the way I was and that just made me even more frustrated than I was to begin with.  I was managing to get out of bed, go to work and do everything I had to do, but inside, my mind was scribbling furiously at that imaginary sheet of paper and it was weakening under the pressure.  A tear was inevitable.

That's when the talking started.  And it started, because it had to.  Because, if scribbling too hard on a piece of paper causes it to rip, I didn't fancy finding out what would happen to my head, if I carried on metaphorically scribbling all over my poor brain.  It was time for some serious untangling.

It started with my mum.  I got some stuff off my chest and she really listened and gave me the support (and hugs - lots of hugs) I needed.  I emailed my friend Rachel and admitted to feeling depressed and not entirely knowing what to do about it.  Then, my sister-in-law called me and I talked to her about the way I was feeling, too.  And every time I spoke about it, the weight on my shoulders got a little lighter.  The big, tangled mess of thoughts in my mind started to loosen, until it resembled a knot that even I - with my stubby fingers and flimsy, short nails - might be able to unpick.  

I had a big heart-to-heart with my best friend and admitted to silly things I'd been keeping in, which I should have been more open about.  That was a conversation that led to tears (of the "OH MY GOD, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH" variety, rather than the sad kind) and, eventually, a rap battle.  My best friend and I are weird.  And I wouldn't have us any other way.

She is Dan.  I am Phil.  Which means my number one crush is... Myself?  Er...

The point is, the more talking I did, the better I started to feel.  I'm not saying that all forms of depression can be magically cured just by having a damn good natter about it, but it's definitely a worthwhile starting point.  

For what it's worth, almost a week since the black dog arrived on my shoulder, it's now off, chasing a squirrel or whatever it does when it's not with me.  I can still see it, but I can't feel it anywhere near as much.  And a big reason for that, is that I grabbed hold of that knot in my head and, with a little help from my friends (and family), I worked out ways of untangling it.  I couldn't have done that if I'd left it in my head.  I had to open up to make things better.

I guess I had two realisations, as a result of my most recent trip down the metaphorical hole of depression:

1) Talking is so important.  I think you've probably got the gist of that by now, right?!


2) LISTENING is vital.

Seriously, had I not had amazingly supportive people to talk to in the first place, I wouldn't have shaken the storm cloud above my head anywhere near as fast.  Sometimes, just having someone say "I'm here if you want to talk," even if you're not ready to do that yet, is so important.  I've always been someone who tries to make herself available for others to talk to about stuff if they need to, but this most recent trip to the other side of that particular fence has made me all the more determined to keep doing that and to encourage others to do the same.  If you want people to be there for you in your hour of need, you need to be there for them in theirs, after all.

The theme song is now kind of stuck in my head, not gonna lie...

I suppose what I'm trying to say is, if there's stuff in your head and you're getting to that point where you feel like your metaphorical paper is about to rip from all the internal scribbling, let it out, if you can.  Talk to someone, write it down, talk to yourself if you think it'll help.  Just don't keep it all inside.

And if you're on the other side of the equation and there's someone you think is going through their own hard time, just offer them a shoulder.  You don't have to be great with advice; just listen.  Sometimes that's all it takes.

It's good to talk.  And it's good to listen.  Heck, it's good to be good to each other.  So let's all just keep doing that and the world will be a nicer place.