Monday, 29 June 2015

Boyzone Live at Newton Abbot Racecourse (a review)

Cassette.  Because I'm retro.

Let me set the scene for you.  There's a girl aged thirteen years old.  She's being badly bullied at school.  She's shy.  She's not particularly happy.  But she has a few things in her life that make her smile.  One of those things - the biggest thing - is music.  Every night, before falling asleep, she pops one of her favourite cassettes into her Sony Walkman and listens to boybands, singing songs of love and happiness.  It's not much, but it makes her feel better.

I don't have to do the dramatic "that girl was me" reveal, because well, it should be massively obvious that it was.  And the two cassettes that I listened to far and above all others, were Take That's Nobody Else or Greatest Hits and Boyzone's debut album, Said And Done (pictured above: my very well-loved copy).

Said And Done is a fantastic pop album, perfectly filled with a mix of up-tempo numbers that make you want to dance and swooning ballads that teenagers fell for in their millions.  Of course, all of those young listeners had a favourite member of the band.  Mine was - and despite his death in 2009, remains - Stephen Gately.

Sleep soundly, Steo. xxx

On more nights than I care to count, I lay awake, with my headphones on, listening to Stephen's sweet vocals in my ears.

For many reasons, I never got around to seeing Boyzone live.  By the time they split, I was a Manics fan and going through a rather pathetic "I only listen to rock now" phase.  When Boyzone got back together and went on tour in 2008, I didn't go.  I don't even really know why, because I loved their comeback single and I loved the idea of seeing the band.  But I never went.  

In October 2009, Stephen died suddenly as a result of a pulmonary oedema, brought on by a heart attack caused by an undetected, congential heart defect.  He was just 33 years old.  I vividly remember hearing the news and being moved to tears that night as I lay in bed, listening to those same songs from my youth and bitterly regretting that I'd never seen the band live.  My best friend recalls travelling to London with me and sitting on the tube, opposite a man reading a newspaper report about Stephen's death, listening to me say over and over how sad I felt and how utterly tragic it was.

Fast forward more than five and a half years and you'll find that same girl who once lay in bed listening to Boyzone's debut album, delightedly heading to Newton Abbot Racecourse to see the now four-piece Boyzone appear live in concert.  Better late than never...

I was a bit excited.

Before the boys appeared on stage, we were treated to an opening spot by Alesha Dixon (perhaps better known for her TV judging roles, these days).  She got the crowd jumping and cheering and I freely admit that I was really impressed with her set.  So often, you spend the time that a support act is on stage, wishing they'd hurry up and finish so you can skip to the main event.  Not so, here.  As excited as I was to see Boyzone, Alesha was a fun opener and I didn't feel that quiet urge to fast forward to the bit I was really there to see.

Whilst waiting for Boyzone, my friend Tracey and I tried to decide on which song the band would open with.  We settled on the classic When The Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going), but we were wrong - the boys came on stage shortly after 8:30pm and immediately launched into a much more recent hit - Love Is A Hurricane.  The up-tempo mood continued with Love You Anyway, which remains a firm favourite of mine.

Despite missing Stephen, the boys were a solid vocal unit and had a fantastic stage presence.  The lads talked about how close they've become in the wake of Stephen's death and it certainly showed in their interactions last night.  The banter, the encouraging smiles and the tight harmonies were testament to their genuine friendship and their professionalism.

Stephen may have been absent in person, but he was absolutely there in spirit.  The band included him in several different, beautiful ways.  The first came in the form of a heartbreaking version of Bread's Everything I Own, which didn't even need a dedication for the fans around us to realise who the band were singing it for.  Later, during Words, Stephen's image was flashed up on a giant screen, with the song's opening lyrics, "Smile an everlasting smile..." written beneath his beaming face.  It was almost enough to cause the tears to fall.  But those were saved for later.

After a few up-tempo tracks, including the fabulous When The Going Gets Tough, the band left the stage and the screen once again filled with images of their lost friend.  After a few VT clips of each remaining band member discussing their thoughts on Stephen's passing, the opening chords of Gave It All Away, the final Boyzone single to feature Stephen's vocals (which was released posthumously), began to fill the air.  Before long, we heard Stephen's voice, singing those most poignant of opening lines: "I will learn to live before I die..."

The band arrived back on stage to sing along with their friend, whilst the tear-jerking music video that accompanies the single played on the big screen.  Just the sound of those sweet vocals would have been enough; the images of Stephen tipped me over the edge and the tears fell to the point that I briefly worried that they might never stop.

After Stephen's final refrain rang out amongst the crowd, the band spent time toasting his memory (albeit with no drinks!) and talking about their lost brother.  To round off the tribute, the band sang the beautiful Every Day I Love You, once again using Stephen's recorded vocals with their own live ones.  The result was stunning and there were many moist-eyes amongst the 7,000-strong audience.  Mine included!

Gave It All Away.

Every Day I Love You.

Once the tribute was complete and the tears had dried, the band continued with a cracking pop show, fusing much-loved Boyzone tracks with fresh-sounding versions of classic Motown tunes.  The live band were absolutely on point and the boys sounded brilliant, with their harmonies standing up to scrutiny, despite having lost the member most known for them!

The concert seemed to be over far too soon, as the band exited the stage with the audience frantically cheering for more.  Those fans were rewarded with an encore that saw the band wow the crowd with an empassioned rendition of their 1996 song, A Different Beat, followed by their first big hit in the UK, Love Me For A Reason.  The group ended the pop spectacular with a rousing version of Ronan Keating's solo smash, Life Is A Roller Coaster, which left fans bouncing up and down and singing their hearts out.

Life really has been a roller coaster for these four pop veterans, especially in the last six years.  But with a powerful, polished performace, Boyzone have shown that whatever life throws at them, they're able to come back fighting.  One star may be sadly lost, but this band still have their sparkle.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Bedtime Story (24/6/2015)

My apologies for using an "old" story, this week.  Due to illness and other things, I've not been able to write something entirely new for this edition of the weekly "Bedtime Story" feature, so I'm sharing an unpublished but pre-written story from my ABC Animals collection.  

This week's story does, however, feature sketches from the very lovely and very talented Cheryl Rail.  Chez, thank you, my lovely. xx

Daisy The Daydreaming Dragonfly

Daisy Dragonfly lived in a world of her own.  She spent most of her time dreaming that she was a princess, an astronaut, an explorer...

The trouble was, she spent so much time daydreaming, that she didn’t always notice what was going on around her.

In school, Miss Giraffe was always telling Daisy to pay more attention, but Daisy often didn’t even hear.

Her classmates called her “Daisy the Daydreaming Dragonfly,” but Daisy didn’t mind.  When she felt sad or afraid, she knew that all she had to do was close her eyes and imagine she was somewhere else and she’d feel instantly better.  Yes, she flew into the odd tree and didn’t always get her homework finished, but real life seemed so dull compared to her imaginary world.

One morning, as Daisy made her way into school, there was a buzz of excitement in the air.  Her class were going to the Jungle Theatre to see a play.  Daisy was especially excited; she imagined that watching a play would be like seeing a daydream brought to life!

Miss Giraffe summoned the children to their desks.  “Today is a special day,” she began.  “But we have some important rules to follow, so that everybody stays safe.  Do you understand?”

“Yes,” the class chorused.

She continued:  “We must stay together whilst we’re making our way through the jungle.  No wandering off or rushing ahead.”

The class sat quietly as Miss Giraffe continued.  Daisy listened for a while, before a glint of sunlight, streaming through the window caught her eye.

“That looks like a golden path, leading to a magic kingdom,” she thought.  “I wonder who’d live there?”

Soon, Daisy was so lost in her thoughts that she barely noticed all of her classmates, rushing to line up by the door.

“Daisy?”  Miss Giraffe frowned.  “Were you listening to those instructions?”

Daisy gulped.  “Of course I was!”  She fibbed.

Miss Giraffe narrowed her eyes.  “Did you hear what I said about the pathway and the tree stump?”

Daisy bit her lip.  “Y... Yes.”  She stammered.  Miss Giraffe nodded and walked to the door.  Daisy sighed with relief as she joined her classmates.  “That was a lucky escape,” she whispered to Briony Butterfly.  “I thought she’d tell me off for daydreaming again.”

Briony rolled her eyes.  “She wouldn’t have to if you paid more attention,” she replied.

The class made their way into the jungle, chattering in excited voices as they went.  Daisy lingered at the back, wondering what the play would be about.  “Maybe there’ll be a wicked witch, who turns everyone into statues,” she thought.  She hovered in mid-air.  “Help, I’ve been turned into a statue!” she shrieked. 

Nobody was listening; everyone was too excited about the theatre trip to pay attention to Daisy’s fantasies. 

As they trundled deeper into the jungle, Daisy began to wonder what it would be like to be an actress.  She imagined herself onstage, taking a bow.  A smile crept across her face.  She closed her eyes and pictured her imaginary audience.  “I hope you enjoyed the show,” she laughed.  Then she opened her eyes and gasped.  Where was everyone?!
Daisy glanced around.  There was nobody to be seen!  She buzzed about, calling for her classmates and her teacher, but nobody came.  Daisy landed on a rock and her lower lip began to tremble.  She was alone and completely lost.

“On no,” she groaned.  “Why didn’t I pay attention to where I was going?”  Tears formed in her eyes.  “What am I going to do?”

Just as she was about to give up hope, Daisy spotted a small path, disappearing into the distance.  She hadn’t noticed it at first, as there was a large tree stump blocking the path’s entrance.

“Miss Giraffe said something about a pathway and a tree stump...”  Daisy remembered.  She shot into the air.  “That must be the way to the theatre!”

Quick as a flash, Daisy began flying down the narrow path.  She frowned as she noticed thick brambles lying across the ground.   “This seems like an odd place for a theatre...” She muttered.

Soon, she reached a clearing.  The ground looked muddy and there was a dreadful smell in the air.  “Hello?”  Daisy called. 

“Ssshh!”  A voice hissed.  Daisy peered into the mud and spotted a warthog, dozing in the sun.

“Hello?”  She called.  “Sorry to disturb you, but...”

“Ssshh!”  The warthog didn’t even open his eyes.  “I’m sleeping.”

“But I’m lost,” Daisy persisted.  Her wings drooped and she felt more alone than ever.

The warthog opened his eyes.  “Of course you’re lost,” he said.  “Nobody comes down here unless they’ve taken a wrong turn.  This muddy bog is pretty dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.”  He yawned.  “So... What happened?”

Daisy blushed.  “I was daydreaming,” she confessed.  “I didn’t listen to my teacher when she gave us instructions and I got separated from my class on the way to the Jungle Theatre...”  She sighed. 

The warthog shook his head.  “Sounds like you need to save your dreams for bedtime,” he replied. 

Daisy sniffed.  “I can’t help it." 

“There’s nothing wrong with using your imagination,” the warthog replied as he rose to his feet.  “You just have to make sure you don’t get so wrapped up in your daydreams that you let real life pass you by,” he leaned in close and lowered his voice.  “Would you have gotten lost if you’d been paying attention?”

Daisy shook her head.  “I promise I’ll pay more attention from now on,” she said.  “I just want to get back to my class!”

“Come on then,” the warthog motioned for her to follow as he made his way back down the prickly path.  “I’ll take you to the Jungle Theatre.  It’s not far from here.”
Sure enough, soon Daisy spotted Miss Giraffe standing outside the theatre. 

“Daisy!”  She shrieked, as her missing student flew into view.  “Where on Earth have you been?”

Daisy burst into tears.  “I’m so sorry,” she whimpered.  “I was daydreaming and I got lost and...”  Her words disappeared into sobs.

“Oh Daisy,” Miss Giraffe sighed.  “I’m very relieved that you’re safe, but you could have gotten into danger today; you really must pay more attention.”  She glanced at the warthog.  “Thank you so much for bringing her back to us,” she said.

“No problem,” the warthog replied.  “I think this little lady gave herself quite a scare.”  He gave Daisy a smile.  “Remember, there’s no harm in dreaming, but it’s important to visit the real world from time to time!”

Daisy sniffed.  “I know,” she replied.  “Thank you.”  She gazed up at Miss Giraffe as the warthog made his way home.  “Did I miss the play?”

Miss Giraffe laughed.  “No Daisy,” she replied. “It’s just about to start.”

Together, they made their way into the theatre.  As Daisy settled down in her seat with her classmates around her, she thought about how lucky she was.  Perhaps the real world wasn’t quite as boring as she’d thought!

From that day on, Daisy always listened carefully when someone was giving instructions.

 And she never daydreamed when she was supposed to be doing her homework...
Well... Almost never.


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

It's Okay Not To Be Okay...

Sometimes we're not okay.  Sometimes we're so far from okay, it's almost impossible to imagine being okay ever again.  Sometimes "fine" is just a weather forecast.

In the last few days, I've not been okay.  First I was ill physically, thanks to a sickness bug.  Then I was emotionally unwell, too.  The bug is gone, but the grey clouds haven't quite lifted, yet.

And that - weirdly - is okay.  I've spent most of my adulthood hating depression and wishing it wasn't ever a part of my life.  But sometimes, to quote Jesse J, it really is "okay not to be okay."  Because sometimes I'm not depressed because of nothing.  It's not just a weird blip that I can't put my finger on.  Sometimes it's caused by something that makes me sad.  And feeling that sadness shouldn't be denied.  When something happens to us to cause us to cry or feel pain, we should let those tears and that pain out.  Holding it in is unhealthy physically and emotionally.

I've always been a crier.  I cry at pretty much anything remotely sentimental.  I cry at "sappy old movies (I've) seen thousands of times," to quote Boyzone.  And speaking of Boyzone; after writing my blog about the 90s, I've been listening to them a lot (I'm seeing them live on Sunday) and the heartbreak I felt at the tragic death of Stephen Gately in 2009 has returned with a bigger vengeance than before and I have sobbed over him on several occasions.  And that's alright.  I'm feeling an emotional response to something very sad.  I'm letting it out and, in a way, beginning to let it go in doing so.

Medicinal Disney is medicinal.

Sadness is horrible.  But we can try to learn from it and we must try not to hide it, or feel some kind of shame attached to feeling it.

There's no shame in a natural, human response.  Things have happened in the last 2-3 days that have made me incredibly sad, disappointed, confused and hurt.  I'm not okay.  And that's okay.

The squeezing in my chest, the feeling that I can't quite catch my breath and the hot, prickling sensation behind my eyes are just physical signs that I'm sad about things.  I'm not going to sit here and advocate wallowing, but I am going to suggest that when something makes you sad, it's much better to feel those sensations and allow yourself to respond to them, than it is to try to keep it all in and never let anyone know you're hurting.

No matter what (wow, I'm really going for the Boyzone quotes in this blog...) is causing you any amount of emotional pain, it's relevant.  It's important, because it's causing a reaction.  It doesn't matter whether it's a sudden realisation that a popstar you once adored is gone forever, or whether it's something that's affecting your life on a much deeper, personal level.  If something makes you want to cry, then there's no shame whatsoever in letting those tears fall.

We're used to being told about the British "stiff upper lip" and of hearing the celebrity mantra of "the show must go on" and sure, there's a time and a place for weeping and wailing.  I can't go back to work and break down in the classroom, showering the kids I teach in tears and snot, after all.  But I can allow myself to cry when I need to, when I am able to.  Too often, we stop short of showing our true emotions.  Well, I say enough of that.  By all means, hold it together when you have to.  By all means, try to throw yourself into something positive to ease the sadness (I'd say that's what I'm doing by seeing Boyzone, but I think it's a given that I'm just going to lose my body weight in delayed-grief tears).  But don't deny your feelings.  There's no shame in being hurt or upset at the shitty hand life can sometimes deal.  There's nothing wrong with needing support.

It's okay not to be okay.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Bedtime story (17/6/2015)

This week's story is dedicated to anyone who has ever made a wish and hoped for it to come true...

The Wishing Stone

Amelie's parents were worried.  Their daughter was so quiet and shy; all Summer, she had played by herself on the beach in the sun, seemingly too afraid to join in with the other children's games.  The family had moved to their new home by the sea just a few weeks earlier and now Amelie's first day at her new school was approaching.  Her parents had hoped that Amelie would have befriended a few local children, so that she'd already have friends on her first day.  But that hadn't happened...

Amelie was worried, too.  At her old school, she had always been the odd one out.  Too shy to ask anyone to play with her at break time, she had sat alone, watching the others, wishing she felt brave enough to join in.  But she never did.  Amelie had gotten used to being by herself.  She didn't think anyone would want to be her friend.  After all, she wasn't confident, funny or clever.  At least, she didn't think so.  So what was the point in trying?

Every day, Amelie's parents took her down to the beach in the evening, letting her run through the sand and splash in the sea.  Every day, Amelie noticed a group of children playing together on the rocks.  Sometimes, she'd pluck up the courage to flash them a smile and hoped they'd ask her to join them.  But they never did,

Finally, the last day of the Summer holiday dawned.  Amelie watched with butterflies in her stomach, as her mother ironed her new school uniform and left it, folded neatly, on the chair in Amelie's bedroom, ready for the next day.  Upon his return from his new job, Amelie's father asked her if she was excited about starting school.  Amelie managed a brave smile, but said nothing.

The family walked down to the beach that evening, as they always did.  Amelie skipped ahead, enjoying the freedom of the sand between her toes and the salty smell of the sea air.  She ran into the waves, kicking and splashing.  Her long brown hair blew in the gentle breeze and Amelie turned her blue eyes skyward, with a carefree smile plastered across her face.  Eventually, Amelie waded out of the water and ran up the sand dunes to where her parents sat, hand in hand, watching the sun sink lower in the sky.

As she ran, she spotted something glinting in the sunlight.  Amelie changed course and headed over the object.  Bending to get a closer look, she scooped through the sand with her hands and pulled out a shiny pebble.  It didn't look like the other rocks on the beach.  This pebble was a soft pink colour and had been made perfectly smooth by the sea.  When Amelie looked closer, she could see pretty white flecks on the pebble, like the crests of invisible waves.  She ran over to her parents, with the pebble in her hands.

"I found treasure," she gasped, excitedly.

Her father took the pebble into his hands and turned it over.  "Oh, this is very special," he told his daughter.  "This is a Wishing Stone!"

Amelie grinned.  "Really?  Does it make wishes come true?"

"Oh, yes," her father confirmed.  "Keep it with you on the way home and you can test it out."

Amelie gripped the stone firmly as the family began walking back up the beach.  She lagged behind her parents and slowly, she began to rub the stone.  "I wish for an ice cream," she whispered.

Suddenly, her mother stopped walking and glanced ahead.  "Look," she said.  "An ice cream van!  Shall we all have an ice cream?"

Amelie's mouth hung open.  Had the stone worked?  It certainly seemed like it; her wish had come true, after all!

When they reached home, a little later, Amelie decided to try the Wishing Stone again.  "I wish for a new Princess doll," she whispered, as she rubbed the pebble in her hands.  When Amelie went upstairs to her room, she could hardly believe her eyes.  There, on her bed, was a brand new Princess doll.  Her parents followed her into her room.  

"We thought you deserved a little good luck present, before your first day at school," her father grinned.  "And I know you've been wanting a new doll for ages."

"Thank you!"  Amelie hugged her parents tightly and climbed into bed, with a smile on her face.  As she settled down to sleep, she tucked the Wishing Stone safely under her pillow and whispered: "I wish for pancakes for breakfast."

The next day, Amelie woke to the delicious scent of pancakes and maple syrup, wafting up the stairs.  She giggled to herself as she grabbed the Wishing Stone and hurried downstairs to eat.

Finally, it was time to leave for school.  Amelie tucked the Wishing Stone into the pocket of her new school dress and tried to be brave as she entered her new classroom.  Tapping her pocket, Amelie whispered, in a trembling voice: "I wish for a nice, new friend."

As soon as her mother had gone, Amelie sat down on an empty chair and waited.  She smiled at the girl sitting next to her, but the girl merely smirked and turned away to talk to someone else.  Amelie sighed.  New school, same story...

But as the class stood to go into assembly, a little girl with ginger hair and a face full of freckles came dashing over to Amelie.  "Hello Amelie.  Your name is really pretty," she told her.  "Mine's boring; I'm Jane."  

"Jane's a nice name," Amelie smiled.  

"Do you want to sit next to me in assembly?"  Jane asked.

Amelie nodded, excitedly.  "Yes, please!"

Later that morning, when the bell rang for break time, Jane hurried over to Amelie's table.  "Shall we play together?"  

Again, Amelie nodded and smiled.  "I'd really like that!"

All through break time, the two new friends chattered away, playing games and sharing stories.  They sat together at lunchtime and by the afternoon, Amelie's new teacher had even moved Amelie onto Jane's table.  When the end of the day came, the girls headed out of the classroom together.

"I live right near the beach," Jane told Amelie.  "We could go and play together later, if you like?"  

Amelie grinned.  "That would be great."

Jane linked arms with Amelie as they walked across the playground.  "I'm so glad you've moved here, Amelie," she told her.  "I didn't really have a best friend at school before."

"Me neither," Amelie confessed.  "I was always a bit shy.  But then I found this Wishing Stone and..."

"A Wishing Stone?!"  Jane exclaimed.  "What's that?"

"It makes your wishes come true," Amelie replied.  "And I wished for a new friend, then I met you!"

Jane's eyes widened.  "Can I see it?"

Amelie dug her hand into her pocket and moved it around, but all she could feel was fabric.  The stone was gone!  A look of panic crossed her face, as she fished about, trying to find her special, missing pebble.  It was no use.  Amelie sighed.  "I... I can't find it."

Jane shrugged.  "Oh well," she said.  "It must have fallen out of your pocket, somewhere.  But it doesn't matter."

Amelie raised her eyebrows.  "Doesn't it?"

"Of course not," Jane laughed.  "Your wish came true, even without the stone.  You don't need it, anymore."

Amelie smiled.  "I suppose you're right," she said.  And with that, she gripped Jane's hand and the two girls rushed across the playground to meet their parents and tell them all about their day.

And somewhere on the ground behind them, a  perfectly smooth, little pink pebble, with soft, white flecks, lay glinting in the sunlight...


Sunday, 14 June 2015

My top 5 Defining Moments of the 90s...

Let's take a moment to admire my crazy MS Paint skillz.

I was born in September 1982.  When the 90s dawned, I was 7.  I had white-blonde curls, big blue eyes and a deep love for Jason Donovan.  When the year 2000 came along, I was 17.  I was a scrawny thing with unmanageably curly hair, boobs I wished were bigger and a deep love for Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers, because ONLY HE UNDERSTOOD ME, OKAY?!  

Or, to put it another way, I did most of my growing up in the 90s (and then a whole lot more growing up in the "noughties," because obviously 17 is not a grown up, however much you think it is at the time...).  Lately, there has been a bit of 90s nostalgia on TV and it's really made me appreciate the decade that has such a soft spot in my heart.

You see, I grew up in an era without Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Periscope or anything like that.  We didn't have mobile phones.  We didn't really even have the Internet in any big way.  We had Tamagotchis.  We had to wrap our school books in wallpaper or parcel paper for REASONS I NEVER FULLY UNDERSTOOD and we wore double denim with no sense of irony.  And we didn't entirely know what irony was, because Alanis Morissette used the word wrong in her song of the same name.  Which was ironic, don't ya think?

The nineties were a time of huge personal change, too.  By the end of the decade, I had no grandparents left, which was rubbish.  But we learn and grow from every negative experience in our lives and in spite of the terribly painful moments I went through, I still have an awful lot of love for the 90s as a general period in time.

Last night, I watched a TV show called The 90s: The Decade That Changed The World and that little bubble of nostalgia that I had been feeling, burst into a desperate longing for a TARDIS, just so I could go back and experience the joy of Take That's last single going to number one, again.  Sadly, I don't have a TARDIS.  But I do have a blog.  So here (in no particular order) are my personal top 5 defining moments of the 90s...

1. Musical Rivalry

Britpop happened in the 90s.  And frankly, that was so awesome that I could just end this blog here and tell you to go and search "Britpop classics" on YouTube and BASK IN THE GLORY.

Britpop caused me, as a girl of 12 or 13, to suddenly realise that there was more to music than just boybands.  It was a shock to my hormonal system (especially when I realised that Damon Albarn was just as beautiful looking as any boyband member...).  Suddenly, although I never gave up entirely on pop (and never will!), I thought of myself as liking "grown up music."  Blur, Sleeper, Pulp, Suede, Supergrass, Cast...  I even "discovered" the Manic Street Preachers for the first time in the mid 90s and they were a band that changed my whole life.

But music in the 90s was served up with a side-order of rivalry.  At the height of Britpop, you had to pick your side; Blur or Oasis.  I was - and am - Team Blur.  In a school where every boy in my class was very much Team Oasis and I was already being bullied, I didn't exactly help my case by wandering around, singing The Universal over and over to myself.  But in the spirit of Britpop, I also didn't give a flying fig.

Of course, I wasn't oblivious to Oasis' musical charms, either.  I was obsessed with Don't Look Back In Anger for a long time and it's still a song I absolutely love.  But had you asked me in the 90s, I'd have obviously told you that Liam Gallagher was a total nob and that Blur were far superior.  If you ask me now...  Actually, I think I might say the same... 

And it wasn't just Britpop where rivalry between bands was rife.  Even in the safe world of 90s boybands, magazines like Smash Hits were determined to make you pick a side:

In the 90s, all our boybands appeared exclusively in black and white...

Yes, if you were a teenage girl in the 90s, you were meant to pick between Take That - five handsome boys from Manchester and Boyzone - five handsome boys from Ireland.  YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND THE DIFFICULTIES WE FACED.

I was greedy, so I picked both, although Take That were by far my favourite.  The number of Take That posters on my walls far outweighed the Boyzone ones, even though I obsessively listened to both Nobody Else by Take That and Said And Done by Boyzone at an almost equal frequency.  One of my best friends at the time preferred Boyzone to Take That and so we had a friendly rivalry, in which one of us would explain why the other was so WRONG.  Despite the teen mags' efforts, I continued to love Take That and Boyzone, up until Take That split up and the teen mags declared that Boyzone had therefore won and I kind of felt like I had to hate them for a while out of loyalty to Take That.  There was logic in there, somewhere.  Anyway, my Boyzone hatred only lasted maybe a year or so, before I decided to "forgive" them again, much to my then-friend's relief. And of course, being hormonal teens, we had our favourites from each band.  She fancied Gary Barlow from Take That and Ronan Keating from Boyzone.  I was always into the little cute ones, so I was in love with Mark Owen from Take That and Stephen Gately from Boyzone.  Speaking of which...

...In 1999, Stephen Gately came out as gay.  It was one of the first times I'd had a crush on someone who turned out to be gay, but I didn't have a "broken heart" over it, as the papers suggested fans at the time would.  I was proud of him - hugely so - for being true to who he was.  No, what broke my heart was what happened ten years later, when Stephen died suddenly from a congenital heart defect.  he was just 33.  The press had a field day before the cause of death was known, claiming that his was a "troubling" death, involving drugs, alcohol and his sexuality.  It was no such thing.  It was just a tragic twist of fate.

Last night, I discovered that Stephen Gately had been afraid of the dark and didn't like sleeping alone.  When Boyzone went on tour, the other band members would take turns to sleep in Stephen's room so that he wouldn't be by himself.  On the night before his funeral, the rest of the band carried Stephen's coffin into the church where the service was to be held.  And then, with sleeping bags and pillows, they bedded down and slept on the church floor, so that for one last time, they could ensure that Stephen wasn't alone in the dark.


Sleep soundly, Stephen.

2. "Football's Coming Home" (even though it didn't)...

I still pretty much idolise these guys.

Football passed me by for the first half of the 90s.  I knew Gazza had cried during Italia 90, but I just didn't get the nation's obsession with the "Beautiful Game."  Then Euro 96 happened.

I don't know quite what caused my obsession - maybe I should blame David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds for creating quite probably the greatest football single ever, in Three Lions.  But whatever the reason, 13 year old me fell in love with football during Euro 96 and I've never really fallen back out.

Nowadays, we kind of expect England to do badly.  But back in the 90s, we had a pretty strong team and hope was high.  We had a genuine belief in the team that, sadly, is lacking today.

Euro 96 was going pretty well, too.  It was on home turf (that might be another reason I got so into it, actually) and the nation began to hold its breath, thinking maybe, maybe, this time it wouldn't all end in tears. 

Then we met Spain in the quarter finals.  It was a nail-biting game, which ended in penalties.  Any England supporter will be happy to give you a list of things they'd rather do than watch England in a penalty shoot-out and it will probably feature things like "stick pins in my own eyes" or "swallow razor blades."

That penalty shoot-out is etched in my memory for one reason.  And I can sum that reason up in two words:  STUART. PEARCE.

Pearce had been involved in England's losing penalty shoot-out during Italia 90, when the team had crashed out and missed their place in the World Cup final.  Stuart Pearce had taken one of those penalties and missed.  It wasn't just Gazza who famously cried as he left the pitch.

So, when Stuart Pearce stepped up to take a penalty in that Euro 96 quarter final, I can still vividly remember my dad holding his hands up over his eyes and shrieking: "OH NO!"

And then this happened...

He didn't just score.  He blasted that ball into the back of the net and the passion and relief etched all over his face in the moments afterwards brought tears to my eyes then and frankly, it still does now.  There was a man who embodied those three lions on his chest.  My fledgling love of football was galvanised in that moment and it's Stuart Pearce who remains my ultimate footballing hero.

Which of course made it all the more painful when we crashed out of the tournament in the semi finals.  On penalties.  Again.  This time it was Gareth Southgate whose miss sent England home and I still feel sorry for him, all these years later.  I cried myself to sleep that night and I still haven't forgiven Andreas Moller.

By the time the World Cup rolled around in 1998, I was cocky enough to consider myself to really know my stuff.  Confident enough to argue with boys at school as to who Glenn Hoddle would play upfront.

"Shearer and Owen," the boys insisted, as we skipped lessons and crammed into a lecture theatre to watch the team's first game of the tournament (we lived in an age where supporting the team in the World Cup was classed by our teachers as more important than school work, apparently).  "Micheal Owen is the kid everyone's talking about; he's going to play upfront with Shearer."

I sat and shook my head and told them: "Michael Owen is untested at this level.  Teddy Sherringham has a known partnership with Alan Shearer.  Hoddle won't risk putting a newbie upfront straight away.  He'll come on after half time."

In short, I was right and those boys were all wrong.  HA!

But all that paled into insignificance when our boys later met Argentina.  David Beckham kicked out like a petulant brat (and briefly became the most hated man in England) and got a red card for his troubles and we went out on penalties.  AGAIN.  And I cried myself to sleep.  AGAIN.

3. F*R*I*E*N*D*S

I had a pencil case with this image on the front.  It was my pride and joy.

Nowadays, we have about a zillion TV channels and dozens and dozens of sitcoms and drama series exported from America.  But in April 1995, we were sent a little comedy that had first aired the previous year in the USA.  That little comedy was called Friends and you probably know it as that show that's endlessly repeated on Sky.  But at the time, it was brand, spanking new and it's not hyperbole to say that it was an absolute game-changer in terms of television situation comedy.

In this modern era of Netflix and YouTube, anyone can watch pretty much anything at any time.  But back in 1995, when Rachel first crashed into Central Perk in her wedding dress, having jilted her fiance Barry at the alter, we had to watch live and wait a week before we knew what was going to happen next.

It may have been fiction, but the lives of these six singletons in New York City - Joey, Chandler, Ross, Monica, Phoebe and Rachel - took the UK by storm and you were nobody at school if you didn't have a favourite cast member and couldn't quote huge reams of the script off pat.

We genuinely yelled at the telly when Ross cheated on Rachel with the girl from the Xerox copy place (and then insisted that it didn't count, because they were "on a break").  We found ourselves feeling distinctly unpatriotic by loathing English Emily with a fiery passion.  We couldn't hear the words "so no one told you life was gonna be this way..." without instinctively clapping.  We actually toyed with using "how you doin'?" as a chat-up line. 

And this is still how I swear.

Friends laid the foundations for so many other comedies - on both sides of the Atlantic - that it would take the rest of the afternoon to list them all.  Suffice to say, if you have a show you're fond of, you can almost certainly thank Friends for paving the way.

Friends may have lasted beyond the 90s, but the early days of the show captured the decade almost better than anything else.  The fashions, the values... Just everything.  

I still can't watch the last episode without breaking down the second Rachel says "I got off the plane."



I wanted platform trainers.  I did not GET platform trainers.  Knowing how clumsy I am, I think it's for the best.

There will be plenty of people reading this, thinking "The Spice Girls?  Really?!  Not Labour's historic landslide election victory in 1997?!"  

It's hard to explain why The Spice Girls are so important, but I'll give it a go.

I was almost 14 when Wannabe came out.  I was being horribly bullied at school, whilst fantasising about pretty male popstars who seemed much less threatening than the boys who treated me so appallingly on a daily basis.  I felt very isolated, living on a RAF housing base where there wasn't much to do to take my mind off the whole "being bullied so badly I was suicidal" thing.

Then along came five pretty normal girls who were telling the world that women could be anything they wanted to be and that friendship was just as important as romance.  For a hormonal teen who'd never had a boyfriend, it was quite literally music to my ears.

Pretty much all the girls I knew had a favourite Spice Girl, because they were packaged in such a way that there was a band member for everyone to identify with.  The sports mad girls championed Mel C.  The glamorous ones who spent their weekends testing the make up in Miss Selfridge were fans of Victoria.  The feisty girls got to pick between Geri and Mel B.  And then there was "Baby," Emma.  She had the same name as me, so obviously she was my favourite, but she was also the very girly, sweet one and I identified with her more than anyone else.

There was a sense of fun and friendship about The Spice Girls that seemed at odds with other girlbands of the time, who were more focused on being sultry and soulful.  The Spice Girls had hits that were effortlessly catchy and the "girl power" rhetoric just made you want to get involved, somehow.  They were a bit of escapism from the negative aspects of my life back then and on a broader scale, they paved the way for more girl groups to come along and be taken more seriously.  After all, The Spice Girls had sales figures that you just couldn't argue with and they proved that girlbands had every bit as much "pulling power" as Britpop rock groups or boybands did.  They changed the landscape of the music scene in terms of female artists in a lot of ways and they did it whilst being awesome.

5.  The Death of "The People's Princess."

The owner of the second most copied haircut of the 90s.

On Sunday August 31st 1997, I was having my usual lie-in.  It's a well-known fact that I don't like early mornings and it's rare for me to surface before 9am on a Sunday.  To use the Michael McIntyre line, if you wake a woman on a lie-in, it should only ever be because it's snowing, or because a major celebrity has died.

And so it was that on that day, my dad burst into my bedroom, with the words: "You will not believe who's died!"

I groaned, yawned, just about managed to lift my head a bit and mumbled: "Who?"

Dad replied: "Diana!"

I, being tired and grouchy, grumbled: "Which Diana?"  In hindsight, I don't know which other Diana he might have meant, but it seemed like an appropriate question at the time.

Dad simply emphasised: "The PRINCESS!"

I then sat bolt upright in bed and shouted: "You're lying!"  

Quite why my dad would feel the need to make up the death of "the people's princess" is beyond me, but I guess it was shock talking.  I just remember leaping from my bed and rushing into my parents' room, where my mum was sitting up with the radio on.

Now, I should highlight here that none of my family is exactly a royalist (well, except maybe my dad, with his RAF past and all that).  So the sight of me, mum, dad and my sister all sitting there on the bed, waiting for the news to come on is, in hindsight, almost morbidly comical.  I suppose none of us could really believe that someone who was, at that time, one of the most famous women in the world, had suddenly been killed in such awful circumstances, leaving behind two young sons, one of which was the future King of England.

The 9 o'clock news came on and it was preceded by the national anthem.  All these years later, I can still remember a chill running down my spine: it was true.

Whatever you thought of Diana herself, you'd have to have had a heart of stone not to be moved by the thought that she'd died so young and left her two sons motherless, especially when she seemed to have finally found some happiness in her life.  

What perhaps nobody expected was the nationwide outpouring of grief that followed.  The last time I'd ever seen so many flowers laid in tribute had been after the Hillsborough disaster.  Kensington Palace became a sea of floral memorials from people who simply felt that they had to do something.

There are people who talk about this outpouring of emotion as being mawkish and unnecessary.  And whilst I can understand where those people are coming from, I also think they're wrong.  I think it's very fitting that a woman who shamelessly wore her own heart on her sleeve and became famous not only for demonstrating affection to her sons in a very un-royal manner, but for touching the hands of AIDS sufferers at a time when the disease was still massively understood, should have caused a turnaround in the way we stiff-upper-lipped Brits demonstrate emotions, in the wake of her death.  In many ways, Diana's legacy was to teach us that it's actually not a good thing to hold in our emotions and that there's nothing wrong with letting it all out.  Indeed, it was our Queen's reluctance to display any emotional response to Diana's untimely passing - or even to talk publicly in the first few days after the accident - that almost caused the downfall of the monarchy entirely.  The British people were finally shedding that emotionless stereotype and we wanted to see our figurehead do the same.

When you look at the way Diana's sons (especially Harry) react to people now - the way they shake hands openly, laugh with people and speak passionately on topics they feel strongly about - it's clear to see that Diana's influence is still strong.  In a lot of ways, Diana, the woman who wanted to be thought of as "a Queen in people's hearts," managed to change the monarchy in a greater way after her death than she could ever have achieved in her short lifetime.

2.5billion people watched Diana's funeral, as it was broadcast around the world.  Elton John sang a new version of Candle In The Wind (which I went out and bought on cassette because of course I did) and Princes William and Harry walked behind their mother's coffin, bringing pretty much all of those 2.5billion people to tears.

Unless you had a heart of STONE.

I genuinely feel as though Diana's death kick started a more emotionally open age for Britain and in my eyes, being more open is no bad thing.  It was certainly a massively defining moment of the 90s.

So, that's my list.  I could go on and on, but well... Maybe I'll save some more for another time.  After all, I've not touched on the brilliance of 90s kids' TV (Byker Grove, Knightmare and The Girl From Tomorrow, to name just three pieces of fabulousness), the trend for party dances (which I still celebrate on every trip to Butlin's), or any of the incredible films that came out in the 90s.

Ah, the 90s.  The decade that shaped me more than any other.  Thank you.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Seven Days Make One Weak (Apparently)...

So.  A picture appeared in my Twitter feed this morning and it made me uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable, in fact, that I felt the need to write about it.  I screencapped the image straight away and, at the risk of upsetting my friends with faith, I really feel very strongly that posting stuff like this is unhelpful.  Here's the offending picture:

I really do mean it when I say that I don't want to offend anyone who has faith.  I'm not about to go on a "GOD DOESN'T EXIT, YOU LOSERS" style rant.  It's also important to note that I'm not even an atheist.  I am - and probably always will be - agnostic.

I don't know whether there's a God.  I don't truly know whether there's an afterlife.  If we are brutally honest with ourselves, none of us do.  Faith is a belief in those things.  It's not, in itself, concrete evidence of their existence.

Now, I absolutely understand that for a person of strong faith, it is almost impossible to imagine a life without God.  That life, if they could imagine it, would almost certainly seem emptier and much less meaningful, because something they passionately believed in - something they may have devoted their whole life to - wouldn't be there.  And I can also understand that when you have a very strong belief in something and you feel that it has enriched your life beyond all measure, that it must be hard to imagine that those who don't have it in their lives aren't missing out in the most dreadful way possible.  But that doesn't mean that they are.

Without meaning to make a frivolous comparison; I think people who dismiss Doctor Who are missing out.  But I wouldn't consider their lives to be devoid of purpose or morals.  And that's the message I got from the picture above.  

I know plenty of people who are atheists and many lead rich, full lives.  Some engage in charity work, in order to help the worst off in society.  Some spend a great deal of time thinking about the incredible beauty of the planet we live on and of the creatures we share it with.  Some are happily married, some are bringing up children and some are involved in exciting careers.  Or, to put it another way, they are ordinary people, living their lives the best way they can.  JUST LIKE PEOPLE WITH FAITH.

That picture may not be meant for someone like me.  It was probably created for those who already believe in God and feel that He enriches their lives and that without Him, they would be weak.  If so, then I am probably being oversensitive to something that wasn't meant as a criticism of my Godless existence.  But too often, images like the one I saw today are used to "prove" to people without faith that their lives are somehow lacking.  That we are incomplete.  

Often, when someone converts to a faith, they speak of having felt as though something was "missing" before they "found God."  And that's fine; if religion makes you feel a sense of wholeness that you didn't have before, then it must be a wonderful sensation and I am genuinely glad for you.  But many people who don't consider themselves religious do consider themselves whole.  Many people without a belief in God do feel that their lives are full and that they are able to gain strength from other things.

Like I said, maybe pictures like the one that bothered me so much this morning are only meant to describe those who already have faith.  Maybe it's just about how those people would feel without the God they believe in.  And sharing a picture that sums up how you would feel without your God is of course fine - the Internet should never be policed to the point that we can't do such things.

But when we share things, they will be seen by those who do not share our views or beliefs.  And the wording of that picture makes it very easy for people who are not religious to see it as a criticism of our Godless lives.  It's easy to read it as suggesting that our week must be full of tears and waste and fighting, because we don't have faith.  And if you look at it from that viewpoint - through the eyes of the non-believer - it does come across as a criticism of the lives of those without faith.  I find that kind of accusatory, judgemental tone to leave a very unpleasant taste in my mouth.

For the record, being agnostic means that I have an open mind and I accept that I don't have all the answers to life.  In general, I consider myself to be a pretty well-rounded person (especially after the scone I just ate, smeared with clotted cream...).  I'm sensitive, I have varied interests, I have good friends I enjoy having fun with and if my life lacks anything, it's probably just a geeky boyfriend to share it all with.  I don't feel that my life lacks something because I don't have a strong religious faith.

Or, to put it another way, despite not being deeply religious, my week goes...


I'm not suggesting for a second that nobody should share images intended for those who already have faith, if indeed that's what it was.  But I do think that people of any faith should steer clear of casting judgement over the lives of those who don't.  After all, we have the free will to believe - or disbelieve - in whatever we choose.  And a life can be rich, meaningful and good (in all senses of the word) with or without God in it.