Lessons from a lapsed commuter

I think I’ve forgotten how to commute. It used to come easily to me. But as I discovered yesterday, commuting into central London isn’t really like riding a bike. After not doing so for 15 months (commuting, I mean – I haven’t ridden a bike for ages), the skill didn’t return as naturally as you’d expect. Here are some lessons I learnt.

That’s Tower Bridge

1. Make sure your umbrella isn’t broken.

Okay, I know I chose the worst day possible to go into the office for a day, after a period split down the middle between furlough and working-from-home. But the challenges began when my umbrella broke. It started to drizzle as I left home, and I pulled my jacket hood up over my newly-straightened and now-long hair. A few minutes in, it was clear the hood wasn’t enough to keep me dry, so I put my umbrella up. (I’ve had little use for my umbrella in my current commute from the bedroom to the lounge.)

The rain was steady but gentle. Not enough to make my umbrella collapse, though, which is what I now realised was happening. I pulled it up to get that reassuring little click, and the entire shaft broke in two. I now had half an umbrella in each hand (I hate it when that happens). I managed to put the two pieces together again, but I had to hold the two halves of the umbrella together for the rest of my walk to the pier.

(Full disclosure here: part of the reason I was so eager to go into the office was because it meant I could travel in by boat. It’s much more fun when it’s not pouring with rain, or at least when your umbrella’s still in one piece.)

As I approached the boat, I tried to close my umbrella but it wasn’t co-operating. Like a child not wanting to do what you’re asking them to do, it went all stiff-legged and plain refused. I talked kindly and gently to it and was about to throw it into the river (not really, I wouldn’t do that to my umbrella, or the river, or my child, promise), when it folded itself up. I put on my mask, tapped in with my Oyster card, and tried to hide my frustration and my wayward brolly as the nice man welcomed me on to the Thames Clipper.

2. Wearing a mask is not just about wearing a mask.

I learnt yesterday that you can’t do the following things all at once. They don’t work well together:

  • listening to a podcast with corded earphones
  • wearing a mask that has loops around your ears
  • wearing hoop earrings
  • having newly-straightened now-long hair.

I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. But the combination of these four things involved a disproportionate amount of faffing. And then when the cord of my earphones got caught under the arm of the seat as I stood up, it pulled nearly all those things off my head at once. I think I still have a bit of whiplash.

3. Sometimes memories are more romantic than reality.

(a) I alighted at Bankside and managed to get my umbrella open and in one piece (ish) again. I couldn’t wait to take the wonderful walk past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, gazing at the changing tides of the Thames, St Paul’s in the distance, before walking past the Tate Modern, through a stylish Richard Rogers-designed complex and on up to the office.

But, to be honest, it’s not that much fun when it feels like someone’s walking alongside you pouring a bucket of water over your head all the way. The rain was relentless and sometimes horizontal, matched only (apart from the horizontal bit) by my determination to stop the rift between the two halves of my umbrella. Add to that puddles that required a diving suit and snorkel to get through, and you’ll understand the walk wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped it would be. Oh, and I didn’t even see if St Paul’s was still there. I think it is, though. I’d know, otherwise, right?

(b) In my previous commuting life, I had a regular morning stop at a coffee shop a few blocks from the office. I got to know the server there; she was a delightful and chirpy, chatty young person who got to know me, my reusable cup and my usual order. We’d chat about our various interests; she knew I was writing a book, and I knew she loved writing poetry. ‘I think up poems when I’m out and about, and I don’t always remember them,’ she told me one morning. ‘Can’t you use a notes app on your phone?’ I asked. ‘I don’t have that kind of phone,’ she said.

I bought her a notebook so she could write down her poems. The day I gave it to her turned out to be my last day of work in central London before lock-down. I’d written a note in the front of the notebook, encouraging her creativity. She loved it and wanted to hug me to say thank you, but we couldn’t.

The coffee shop is still open, but it’s somehow lost the charm it had before. When I got there yesterday, I looked through the window from under my broken umbrella and the unfamiliar face behind the counter pointed at her watch and told me they weren’t yet open. I went back a while later and she had no recollection of the person I’d met there last year. ‘She must have been a temp, I don’t know anyone of that name,’ she said, with little interest in me or my usual order.

Shradha, if you’re out there, I hope you’re still writing your poetry. You brightened my mornings last year.

4. Make sure your backpack’s waterproof.

I got to the office and to my assigned desk, now called a docking station. I peeled my soaking jacket off and tried to stop my sopping trousers from sticking to my legs. I took my notebooks out of my backpack and both were sodden. So my backpack, like my umbrella, wasn’t waterproof. And when I went to the bathroom later, I saw it wasn’t only my notebooks that had gone curly and weird from the rain. My previously-straightened and still-long hair had done the same. (Oh, another lesson I learnt: don’t forget to take a hairbrush with you. I spent the whole day with what looked like a long, damp shaggy carpet on my head.)

5. It’s weird the things you miss about the office.

I had a number of Teams meetings online yesterday and in almost every one of them, my colleagues working from home said how they missed the trees they could see through the window behind my docking station. And they cooed to see trains going past in the distance too. At least that kept their gaze away from my weird-looking-hair silhouette. On the other hand, I loved being able to see some colleagues and the office again in 3D, and being able to chat to colleagues from merely walking distance away. There was a bit of shouting because of the distance and the masks, but still.

6. London is still amazing.

It was sad to see how many shops had closed since I’d last been in central London, and the amount of empty office space. But I was encouraged to see places that were still open and some signs of the buzzing central London that I know and love. A few blocks from the office, I stopped when I saw a group of people standing together, posing under see-through umbrellas. I didn’t want to walk into their photo so when they started walking, I did too, and walked straight into their film shoot. I hadn’t seen the camera crew under the arches around the corner. It’ll be easy to spot me in the midst of that group – I’m the one with a broken umbrella.

I was glad the rain had ended when I left the office at the end of the day, as my broken umbrella had now been assigned to the bin. I’m sure I’ll get used to commuting again, I will grow to love going into London on the boat again, and I will get a new umbrella. But I probably should have put in some practice before yesterday. My shoulders still feel tense today; I’m not sure if that’s from the weight of my backpack, the incident with my earphones, or the tension from gripping my umbrella. One thing’s for sure, my Wednesday hair appointment can’t come quickly enough.

Sunshine signing off for today.

Act like no-one’s watching

A few weeks ago, I dreamt I’d lost my enthusiasm. It was a nightmare – I just couldn’t find it anywhere. It was such a relief to wake up and realise it was just a dream. Just as well – I needed it in buckets for my upcoming red box experience: a comedy improv workshop.

It was with a mixture of excitement and terror that I’d booked my place on a comedy improv workshop in central London. It represented everything I love and fear – spontaneity and showmanship – and it would mean taking a huge step out of my comfort zone. Love overcame fear, and I decided to go for it. I’m so glad I did; an afternoon in a chilly venue under the arches in central London, with a bunch of like-minded and hilarious people, has to rank among the most outstanding experiences I’ve ever had. It’s difficult to capture just how much fun it was, but let me try.

I had checked out ahead of time exactly where to go, and got to the venue nervous and early. I arrived at the same time as Sophie, who looked as tentative and nervous as I felt. Turned out she was a professionally-trained actor and singer, who was using this experience to get her confidence back to give acting another go. No, that didn’t intimidate me at all. We stepped into the interesting theatrical space – in the foyer of which was a caravan, of course – and met the delightful and uber-friendly workshop facilitator, Fiona. She noted our names and encouraged us to relax and have fun. My nerves must have been visible.

By 1pm there were 12 of us of different ages, ethnicities, accents and backgrounds, standing in a circle ready to begin our afternoon of improv. We were invited to introduce ourselves by saying what our names were and whether or not we’d done improv before. We offered no surnames, no job titles, no home towns, no qualifications; this stood us all on equal ground (kind of – Sophie and I were the only improv rookies) – and there was no place for assumptions, judgments or expectations. Equipped only with enthusiasm, it was easy to imagine leaving my inhibitions at the door. I had to act like no-one was watching, and I was amped.

Fiona introduced our afternoon of character-focused improv, and started us off with a warm-up exercise, which involved several bunny-related gesticulations, pointing at others, and dancing a kind of reggae move around our neighbours. A drinking game for the sober, if you will. It required co-ordination and offered bags of laughter.

Round two – a zombie-style game of ‘catch’ – saw my being the first asked to play a zombie. I had to lumber around the room in my ‘flavour of zombie’ in an attempt to catch someone. Once someone had been caught, we all had to dance around the captive and stage-whisper, ‘Watcher, watcher, watcher’, and the captive would have to nominate the next zombie. Fun! Spooky, but fun!

Back in the circle, we took it in turns to say something for everyone else to mimic. That was hilarious, and everybody had a good go at it. We then had a time of walking around the room adopting, in turn, unusual ways of walking, different ways of engaging with each other, ignoring each other, nodding at each other, leading with a body part such as a chin, or a bent knee or whatever took our fancy. It was really funny. Just when I’d adopted a walk that involved my right arm hanging over my head, Fiona told us all to freeze so she could interview one of us. In a version of musical statues, this continued – we walked around until told to freeze, and Fiona interviewed all of us one by one. My favourite characters included a guy walking around holding on to his trouser legs, shaking his trousers incessantly and moving from foot to foot. Turns out he had mice in his trousers, and he was on his way to the pet shop to sell them. Why were they in his trousers? He didn’t have a bag to put them in. As he spoke, some mice travelled from one leg to the other, and he became increasingly on edge. So funny!

Rhemy was another favourite. She was walking through a park in the posh part of town and, with her big teeth and bigger smile, she talked of how busy she was and how amazing her job was and how crazy her life was. She told of speaking loads of languages; when she was pressed to say which languages, she said, “All of them.” She said ‘yah’ a lot; she was fully the posh girl. Sue was walking completely bent over – her interview revealed she was a contortionist who’d put her back out trying out new moves in her bedroom.

Back in the circle, we took it in turns to hold ‘the gracious goat’ with a sense of whatever emotion we fancied. As one person held ‘the gracious goat’ and announced it, the people on either side had to announce this with some reverence, and the people on either side of those had to go down on one knee and, with a flourish, say, “Isn’t it exciting/confusing/boring/disgusting that s/he has the gracious goat?”

After a comfort break, we re-convened in an area of the room set out theatre-style with four chairs on the ‘stage’.  Cue the ‘creature comforts’ segment, Aardman-style. We all sat in the audience section, and four of us at a time had to sit in the chairs on the stage. Once on the front seats, we had to sit with our heads bent over our knees and pull funny faces. Fiona would say, “Pull a funny face. And another. And another.” After doing this several times, Fiona would say, “Now, sit up.” We had to sit up with the face we’d just pulled and hold that face for the duration of a series of interviews. She interviewed each of us in turn, and we each had to be that person with that face. This was brilliant and so so funny.

Stu sat up with a taut face and eyes stuck, staring heavenward. He talked of his failures at finding a suitable date, and about his forthcoming date with someone he’d met online. He was worried about how he’d ever manage eye contact. Jim sat up with mouth downturned and proceeded to talk as one without teeth about his grandson’s upcoming wedding, and how attracted he was to his young, Polish carer. “If I was 30 years younger, I’d have a go at Anastasia.”

Our final exercise of the day followed with groups of four, again, sitting on the chairs at the front. We had to adopt a common way of sitting, by copying each other and finally settling on a style. We then had to have a conversation among ourselves that we felt fitted with that way of sitting. Our group settled into a relaxed style, slouching and leaning far back on our chairs. Jim began to talk as a member of a London working-man’s club, smoking his rolled cigarette and discussing the merits of Tarantino as a film director. The conversation that ensued was hilarious, outrageous and incredibly great fun to be part of.

Fiona thanked us all for taking part in the workshop and invited us to come back again any time. We all said goodbye to each other; I picked up my bag and my inhibitions and stepped back into the chilly London afternoon, once again myself. After the amazing freedom of playing, pretending, acting out loud, laughing hysterically and showing off for a whole afternoon with a bunch of strangers, I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite the same again.  I had peeped at another version of me, and I quite liked it.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Disco fever at the London Sevens

Record crowds of more than 100,000 over two days. Sixteen teams from around the world. Two series’ cup finals. Two streakers and far too many men wearing floral sundresses. It could only be the 2012 London Sevens rugby series at Twickenham.

Twickenham in the sunshine

We were there last weekend to witness it all. Nestled in the north stand in weak sunshine on a chilly May weekend, it was difficult at first to know where to focus our attention. The rugby was fantastic, but the spectacle that is the London Sevens was hard to resist. Every series has a colourful theme; this year’s was ‘70s disco fever’.

Play that funky music, white boy

I have come to realise that English fans of rugby sevens love to dress up. Most keep to the theme but many seem to keep a fancy-dress outfit at home to suit all occasions. Take the two guys dressed as nuns. They must have thought, “What can we wear for a 70s disco fever theme? I know; our habits. Ace.”

To make it even better, one of the nuns carried a scarecrow with him, who interviewed people as they walked around the stadium on Saturday afternoon. Seventies disco? Bang on.

As we watched the pool games on Saturday, we also saw a team of dancing penguins, a Roman gladiator, two men in kilts, cowboys, doctors, tigers, Eeyores, leprechauns, beachballs, someone wearing a T-shirt that said I heart Will Young and an over-abundance of men dressed in pretty frocks.

Tigers and penguins dance down the aisles

As I said, way too many men in floral sundresses

The rugby continued regardless, with league leaders New Zealand, Fiji, England and Samoa showing their brilliance. Sadly for us, the South African team felt the loss of their injured star players and barely glimmered in front of an unforgiving crowd. I have noticed that English fans support England, the underdog, and any other country that is not Australia or France.

Naturally biased, fans filled the stands each time the England team came on to play, and the players were heralded on to the field by flag-bearing disco dancers. Equally, after each England game, fans poured out of the stadium. In the England v Australia game, the announcers welcomed each of the English players by name and then, almost begrudgingly added, “And Australia”. For each England try, the fans jumped to their feet, swung their forearms up and down to the annoying tune of ‘do-do-do-do’ – looking around as if to say ‘Did you see that? Did you just see that?’

The dying strains of the victory ‘arm shuffle’

When Australia played Portugal, it was clear the home fans would support their European brothers. Australia stood no chance. When one Aussie player broke the line and sprinted for the try line, in the midst booing from around the stadium someone behind us shouted, “No-one likes you!”

Those who kept on-brand with the 70s disco fever theme included the entire cast of Anchorman, complete with a microphone-carrying Ron Burgundy. We saw the Village People everywhere, as well as Kiss, an abundance of large colourful Afro wigs, Saturday Night Fever suits, John McEnroe look-alikes and plenty of headbands, scarves, platform shoes, chest hair, wide lapels and shiny, large-collared shirts.

Mid-afternoon saw a man dressed as a chicken evade security and run an entire lap of the field. When he got to the poles in front of us, he did a forward somersault on the grass before handing himself over to the stadium’s security personnel who tackled him to the ground. Three of them escorted him off the field.

Later in the afternoon, two men broke through security to run along the top of the western stand. One of them was dressed as a banana and the other had taken his kit off entirely. Security personnel closed in on them before running at them and tackling them both to the ground before walking them out of the stadium.

Saturday’s train journey home was epic. We shuffled on to a crowded train in the middle of loud, rowdy and worryingly wobbly fans, including a young woman pushing crisps into her mouth with unfocused concentration. A group of energetic youngsters decided to have a ‘burpy’ competition on the train. They cleared as much space as they could in the standing area and cheered each other on as they dropped to the ground to do press-ups followed by squats and wobbly jumps to their feet.

This soon became difficult, so the competition turned to pole-dancing. Game candidates jumped on to the poles and success was measured according to the number of times they swung around the pole before hitting the ground. Some managed five, others slid roundly to the floor immediately. Three young men dressed as boy scouts strong-armed their way through the crowds to the train’s exits. Banter ensued. The competition organiser told one of them, “You’re the reason I never wanted to be a scout.” The scout retorted with, “Well, with an attitude like that, you’ll never get your pole-dancing badge.”

Sunday’s crowd was subdued. The rugby became serious and hopes of winning cups, shields, bowls and plates were dashed or kept alive. As teams were knocked out, they each did a gracious and well-received lap of honour around the field. Fans clambered for autographs and photographs and the rugby heroes cheerfully obliged. I did notice some players taking off their shorts or socks and handing them over to adoring fans. Seriously.

The sun sank lower in the sky and the play-offs continued in earnest. We had the bonus of watching the final of the Women’s Sevens series between England and Netherlands. It was an excellent match won convincingly by the home side.

The England women’s team warms up ahead of series’ victory

During half-time in one of the last matches, a female streaker broke through security and ran the length of the field. She, too, stopped in front of the poles and did a cartwheel, to the roaring amusement of the crowd. She walked towards the inevitably approaching security personnel and raised her hands, before side-stepping and running away from them. She was hotly pursued and carefully tackled to the ground before being blanketed in a couple of high-visibility jackets and escorted roughly off the field.

Fiji met Samoa in the cup final and provided one of the most outstanding games of rugby I’ve ever witnessed. Two sides of strong, fast and skilful players entertained the crowd with speedy action, numerous tries and a popular win for a world-class Fiji.

The tired crowd left the stadium and headed, with jaded banter, to a less crowded station than the evening before. We stepped over fake sideburns and moustaches abandoned on the road, and walked alongside a 70s-suited punter who sang flatly as he downed his beer, “Down, down, down, down into my belly!” All around us were filthy bell-bottomed trousers, floppy Afro wigs, faded Smurfs, and floral sundresses tucked into trousers. It was clear the London Sevens of 2012 had come to an end.

Sunshine signing off for today!