Wednesday 27 August 2014

Why So Shy?!

Pictured: Total wall-flower.

There are people who might not think I'm shy.  People who saw me dance my backside off to Year 3000 at Butlin's this weekend just gone.  People who've seen me do story workshops in schools, whilst I was promoting my children's book series.  People who know of my propensity to pull stupid poses the second a camera comes out (seriously, the more ridiculous, the better).  But I am shy.  And I'm especially shy in one particular area of life...

My best friend has a long-running joke that I fancy everyone.  Like all good jokes, it's rooted in a little bit of truth - I do have a habit of forming big crushes very quickly.  Whilst I may be utterly in love with James Bourne at the moment, I also can't watch an episode of In The Club without squeaking: "Isn't Sacha Dhawan the most beautiful looking man?!"

Yes.  Yes he is.

In reality, I'm a little more wary.  I guess you could say that fancying celebrities is a nice, safe way of indulging in that side of life without getting hurt.  Sounds childish and a bit sad (and probably is), but when your last relationship was abusive and you spent a long time blaming yourself for getting into it in the first place, you don't necessarily trust yourself when it comes to starting over with someone else.  But that doesn't mean you don't look.  And I definitely look...

The trouble is, I look and that's it.  Not out of fear of getting involved with someone (I've gone through the whole "I can't trust my own judgement" phase and come out the other side), but out of fear of something much, much more mundane.  The fear of rejection.

I've talked very honesly on this blog about my experiences of bullying at school.  About being spat at and told how hideous I was on a daily basis.  About then, years later, being in an abusive relationship in which the man who supposedly loved me told me I was clingy and disgusting.  Suffice to say that whilst my confidence might be high in some areas, when it comes to approaching someone I like, it's really... Well, not.  And I'm tired of that.

This weekend, I met - all too briefly - a man who I instantly told myself was out of my league.  Didn't matter that he was kind of flirty.  Didn't matter that we kept staring at each other from across the room.  There was no way in HELL he could possibly be interested in me.  I mean, come on.  He looked like Jake Gyllenhaal.

I'm just leaving this here to perv over later...

Even when I found myself stood a few feet away from this gorgeous person, who'd been kind of flirty and quite stare-y, I did precisely nothing about it.  He was with his mates.  I was with my friend and she was much hotter than me, so he was probably looking at her anyway, right?!  And what would I say?!  What if I went over and he recoiled in horror?!  

My friend tried desperately to make me go and say hi.  We'd already spoken, so it wasn't like I'd be introducing myself to a total stranger.  Maybe he'd remember meeting me the night before.  She asked me what the worst thing that could happen was.  And I had quite a list, which, if I remember rightly, ended with: "I COULD DIE."

Seriously, what is it about a handsome face that turns me into an utterly ridiculous twerp?  Why is it that I can hold a conversation with a total stranger - making jokes, chatting away and seeming like the most confident person in the world - unless I fancy him, in which case I either start spouting nonsense or find myself unable to speak at all?!  

I can be confident when it matters professionally.  I can walk into a classroom, full of kids I've never met and teachers who are expecting big things from me and deliver an impressive story session.  I can be confident when it matters socially.  I can meet and greet new people and give off the impression that I'm fully in control and sure of myself (although hopefully not cocky).  So why is it so hard to be confident when it matters personally?

If "Jake" and I had bumped into each other somewhere quieter and with the opportunity to chat, I know I'd have been able to natter away to him, once I'd gotten over the whole "YOUR FACE IS SO BEAUTIFUL I WANT TO EAT IT" thing.  But actually going over to him in a loud, crowded environment and making the first move myself was never going to happen, because the idea was scary enough to render me incapable of movement.  Why?  I wish I knew.  Because I know that in reality, I almost certainly wouldn't die if I wandered over to someone I fancied and tried to strike up conversation.  I probably wouldn't even die if he told me to piss off.  Probably...  

So this is me, quite seriously telling myself to grow a pair.  "Jake" probably doesn't remember who I am now (and we only met five days ago, so that's pretty depressing), but I remember him.  More importantly, I remember how lousy I felt after getting home from a night out and thinking "he was stood right there, smiling over at me and I didn't even have the guts to say hello."  Who knows, maybe he was as shy as I was.  All I know for sure is that I don't fancy being a spinster for the rest of my life and if I'm going to avoid that fate, I'm probably going to have to learn how to stop being such a shy fool.  I just haven't quite worked out how, yet.  Answers on a postcard...

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Robin Williams: Depression Can Affect ANYONE.

Sometimes you hear the news of a famous person's death and it shocks you.  It shocks you perhaps because they were young, or because you were such a big fan of theirs that the very idea of their mortality is something you could barely entertain.  Sometimes it shocks you purely because it's just so bloody sad.

I grew up in the 80's/90's.  For several people of my generation, Robin Williams was a fixture of our childhood.  He was that zany guy we saw on TV if we were allowed to stay up later than usual.  He was the person we quoted at school (or rather his film characters were).  He was Mork.  He was Mrs Doubtfire.  He was Aladdin's genie.  He was Peter Pan.  He was just there.  Always funny, always able to touch our emotions in ways we probably couldn't even understand back then.  We watched those final words in Mrs Doubtfire ("But if there's love, dear... Those are the ties that bind.  You'll have a family in your heart forever.  All my love to you poppet, you're going to be alright.  Bye-bye") with a lump in our throats.  Because this hurricane of an actor could have you rolling in the aisle one minute and dabbing at your eyes the next.  

But of course, as kids, we loved him most of all when he was making us laugh.  At primary school, I can remember having one friend I always greeted with the words "nanu, nanu."  By the time I was in secondary school, I had another friend with whom I would sit on the school bus, day in, day out, quoting the Genie from Aladdin.  Our rather random favourite line was: "Boy, do I feel sheepish!  Okay you baaaaaad boy, but no more freebies!"  That line and several others, quoted over and over, made me smile.  And that's a big deal.  Because on that school bus, I had little to laugh at.  By the time my fellow Robin Williams fan joined my school and became my companion on the journey there and back each day, I had already been bullied so badly that I wanted to die.  Robin's hilarious performance as the genie was, quite genuinely, something I held onto with both hands.  It made me feel happy again.

Hearing that not only was Robin gone, but that he apparently took his own life has floored me.  I'm unashamed to admit that I cried when I heard the news last night.  Not a simple "oh that's sad," but a full-blown "this can't be true."  And yet, this morning, upon waking up, I realised it was.  

Depression is one of those things we all too often sweep under the carpet.  It's too big, too scary, too difficult to understand.  We mark those who end their own lives as "selfish."  We imagine they must have been crazy; different to us.  They're not.  They're mothers, fathers.  They're people who work in your local shop.  They're the actors who brought us so much joy growing up...  Depression, like all other diseases that kill, doesn't segregate according to wealth or status.  It doesn't care whether you're single or whether you have a partner and a family.  When it grips you, it doesn't matter who you are or what circumstances you have.  It can and does affect absolutely anyone.

I know that when I sat alone on my bathroom floor, aged just 12 or 13 (I've blocked out the memory so many times that my age has become kind of sketchy), trying to decide how I was going to die, I wasn't thinking about the people I would leave behind.  Yes, you can call that selfish.  But I was desperate.  I had sunk to a place in which I believed I was worthless.  Unlovable.  All I could hear in my head were the words of the bullies who took such pleasure in telling me that I didn't deserve to live.  And I believed them.  I didn't want to wake up to another morning on which I'd have to make that journey to school, knowing I'd be spat at and mocked.  I didn't want to keep feeling the crushing pain in my chest.  It hurt to breathe.  It hurt because I was fighting all the time to keep myself from bursting into tears.  It felt like I was lying to everyone around me when I forced a smile onto my face.  I went from being bright, confident and happy, to being subdued, shy and confused.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  And if I couldn't wake up in a better, friendlier world - one in which I hated myself less - then I didn't want to wake up at all.

I didn't know I was depressed, as silly as that sounds.  I just thought I was giving up on a situation that seemed impossible to live through.  I guess I knew I was somewhat broken, but I didn't know how to fix myself.  It took me until I was 20 years old to walk into a doctor's surgery and simply say: "Help me."

And what I learnt is that there is help.  There is support.  But reaching out for it isn't easy.  It's amongst the hardest things I've ever done.  Nine years later, I did it a second time.  I had walked away from an abusive relationship and I knew I couldn't put myself back together without help.  Walking away from that and mending the broken fragments of the person I used to be was the hardest thing that I have ever, ever done.  But I did it.  It's possible.  With the right help and support (and I had a fantastic CPN, followed by the best support worker from a local abuse charity ever), you can fix those broken pieces.  I'm still sensitive.  I still have days where my moods dip and I find myself on the verge of tears without really knowing why.  The difference is I can handle those days now, because I know better ones will come.

Depression can affect anyone.  It touched my life and it has touched the lives of many others I know and love.  It's not something that makes you "crazy."  It's not weakness.  If any good at all can come from the death of a man as beloved as Robin Williams, it's that we recognise that depression needs to be better understood and that help needs to be better available.  I'm not going to go on a rant about the state of mental health care in the UK right now.  But I am going to say this:  If you need support, please don't be afraid of asking for it.  Please don't feel that you have to go through whatever you're experiencing alone.  You might feel like you're worthless, but to quote the Doctor, I've never met anyone who wasn't important.  

Today is a good day to simply ask those close to you how they are and really listen to their reply.  Even more importantly, listen to what they don't say.  The seemingly happiest people could be fighting a battle you can't even begin to imagine.  So be there for them if you can.

And to Robin...  Thank you.  Thank you for the laughter.  Thank you for the silly quotes.  Thank you for giving me something happy to hold onto during one of the hardest times of my life.  I won't forget that.  

"Genie, I wish you free."

Samaritans (UK): 08457 90 90 90 or email

Sunday 10 August 2014

West Side Story (a review)

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a big fan of musical theatre.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say I'm pretty nerdy about it.  For example, whilst all the kids I work with were singing Let It Go from Disney's Frozen, I was just excitedly telling everyone that Idina Menzel (the voice of Elsa) was the original Maureen in RENT.  

I get my musical theatre geekery from my mum, who pretty much raised me on the classics: The Sound of Music, The King And I, Carousel, Half A Sixpence and of course West Side Story.  So when I read that the new touring version of West Side Story conveniently landed in Plymouth just a few days after my mum's birthday, it seemed a pretty easy decision as to what this year's present should be...

For anyone who hasn't seen West Side Story, be it on film or on stage, I'll give you a quick summary. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's show is based loosely on Romeo and Juliet. Essentially, it's the story of two rival gangs - the white American "Jets" and the Peurto Rican "Sharks" - fighting over territory in New York City.  A guy named Tony, who's trying to step away from his time in the Jets, meets and falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Sharks' gang-leader.  As the two groups struggle for supremacy, the young couple vow to find a place where they can be together safely.  I won't say too much more than that, because... Well, spoilers. 

Of course, you hear the word "gang" and pretty much the last thing you imagine is musical theatre, which does make for some unintentional hilariousness.  The Jets and the Sharks might be squabbling violently, but they do it rather beautifully.  If real-life gangs spent their time angrily pirouetting at each other and clicking their fingers menacingly, whilst singing insults, they'd be a lot less scary, that's all I'm saying...


There were two teenagers in the row behind my mum and me in the theatre and one of them said in the interval: "I'm not being funny, but if you brought members of a real gang to see this, they'd think you were taking the piss and they'd probably kill you."  Not going to lie, that overheard gem was a highlight of my night.

All jokes aside, however, the dancing in this production was breathtaking.  The cast put on such an incredible show that it was hard not to get utterly lost in the movement of the whole thing.  From the opening gang scenes, where dance was employed as a show of power and strength, to the beautiful balletic routine during Somewhere in the second half, the dancing alone was worth the ticket price.  Joey Mckneely's choreography was just brilliant.

The visual spectacle was aided by the impressive use of lighting on stage, plus images of New York City, projected onto the back screen.  The set was simple enough, but was used to brilliant effect and to be honest, you don't need massive sets when the action on stage is this good.  In fact, the starkness of the set design at some points (particularly the end) was really powerful, as it tied in with the starkness of the situations the characters were facing.  The lack of "in-your-face" set design means the audience can focus entirely on what's happening on stage and I always think that's better, especially in a show with such dark and emotive themes as West Side Story, which covers everything from gang violence to racism and yet still manages to have uplifting moments.

The actors were perfectly cast, too.  Katie Hall was wonderful as Maria - sweet, innocent and yet passionate with it.  Her voice is astounding and she portrayed Maria's heartbreak beautifully.  Louis Maskell was a brilliant Tony; strong, yet sensitive and with a voice you could bathe in.  What is it about guys who sing?!  WHAT MAGIC DO THEY POSSESS?!  Aaanyway...

I'm just saying if a guy serenaded me, I'd be putty in his hands, that's all...

As a kid, watching the film version, I was always a fan of the feisty Anita and Djalenga Scott brought her to life with passion and fire. Her sense of fun was evident immediately, which made her later scenes, when she portrayed such hurt and anger, all the more affecting.  Anita's big moment in the show is the well-known and well-loved song and dance number America and sure enough, it was a highlight of this production.  The singing, the dancing and the acting were all absolutely spot on and one of my only disappointments was that it wasn't done again as an encore, because it was just too good to see only once!

It's really hard to find fault with this touring version of West Side Story.  It's one of my favourite musicals and this production certainly didn't disappoint.  The gangs were angry, the dancing was outstanding, the singing was fantastic and there were some laughs to be had before the inevitable tears (and yes, I cried; try to look surprised).

The show is still on tour and I really can't recommend it highly enough.  If you get a chance to see it, go, go, go!