I tend not to look back too much. Just the occasional nostalgia session with a friend when we reminisce about a holiday, a gig or party.
This afternoon I have found myself in a time warp. I’m taking part in an alumni Q&A tomorrow evening for an organisation called UNIQ. It organises summer schools for state school pupils who might find the idea of applying to Oxford daunting and / or out of their reach.
Nearly 30 years ago I was in that boat and nothing like UNIQ existed, so I’m happy to help out.
A politics teacher said I should have a go at applying for Oxford and my immediate reaction was ‘no way – definitely not bright enough, posh enough or rich enough.’
Despite feeling that way, I went for it and loved the whole process. Writing my notes today for my presentation tomorrow has reminded me of it all. What I intend to say to the 14 young men and women I’m meeting tomorrow is that I had a real fear of not fitting in. And for substantial chunks of time at Oxford I felt I didn’t – but it wasn’t a negative feeling. On the contrary I felt as if I had landed a starring role in my own movie. I was transported to a magical world that contained eccentrics, ancient buildings, fantastic minds and enriching friendships. Terms were short (just eight weeks), intense, and filled with escapades – drinking, acting, singing, debating.
The intensity brought with it anxiety (am I good enough? am I fun enough? am I anything enough?) but the good times will be with me forever and I am forever shaped by them. And it was, after all, a bit like a film, set against one of the most beautiful backdrops imaginable.
Academically, I am grateful for that part of my education. I put my mind through an intellectual pencil sharpener to emerge with a set of skills that I draw on constantly. I’m not a politician. I don’t earn a huge amount. On paper, I’m not the ‘success’ that might be expected of an Oxford student. But throughout my career I’ve used my ability to reason, argue, analyse and present time and again with huge success. The rigor of the tutorial system did that for me.
Writing my notes today I realised that I did absolutely fit in. Everyone did, that’s the point. The shy ones, the socialites, the socialists, the sporty ones, the aristocrats, the future politicians, the geeks, the true academics, the state school kids; we all had a place in the madhouse of Oxford, whether we could appreciate it at the time or not.
So, in a avalanche of nostalgia, thank you Oxford. You gave me three years I wouldn’t swap for all the money in the world!
Finally, I’ve had a chance to edit some Sydney photos. I realise that out of the many I took, only a few merited editing. It’s one of those cities where the finger is on the shutter almost constantly when the bridge or Opera House are in view. Whittling down the many to the elected few is a tough task.
So here they are – my Sydney Selection 2014.
Must start with a pano of the view from The Macleay, proving my point (from the previous post) that paying a wee bit extra for a view is very much worth it.
[warning: this post is tip-heavy - I apologise to anyone not planning to go to Sydney any time soon. Photo gallery will follow once I'm done editing!]
After a wonderful trip to Australia in 2011, I wasn’t sure when or if I would get back there, so it was a great bonus to go for work the other week. Flight paid for, I was able to tag on some annual leave so that I could catch up with dear friends.
It was a nail-biting, sweat-inducing couple of weeks leading up to the trip. I fell foul of the great Passport Office scandal and got my passport 24 hours before flying. So I packed in a hurry and scuttled off with great relief. [Quick LHR T4 tip: if you're looking for breakfast, don't settle for the nearest café (something straight out of tourist central). Instead, walk right down to Gates 11-17 and you'll find Comptoir Libanais - great food, wonderful services, andquiet.]
Onto Sydney….the great thing about returning to a city is that you’ve usually done the headline tourist tick offs, so your second visit can be about getting under the skin of the place, exploring neighbourhoods you didn’t have time for before. I think the best city trips are the ones where you get to wander at leisure, soaking up the culture and atmosphere that is unique to that particular metropolis. There’s nothing quite like sitting at a pavement cafe in so-called ‘Winter’ (20°C, blue sky with fluffy white Simpsons clouds, which is a summer’s day to Britfolks) watching the locals comes and go.
My first time round recommendations are:
Unless you are truly phobic about heights, do the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. It’s absolutely brilliant – knowledgeable and interesting guides and a cracking view. Money well spent and pictures in my head that I will treasure forever.
Early evening (or anytime!) drink at The Opera Bar – perfect views of the bridge and the Opera House while you slurp wine. Tip: order your wine inside, where’s there’s a better selection, rather than from the outside bar.
Botanic Gardens – the gardens are utterly gorgeous and added bonus comes from watching the super fit suckers do lunchtime boot camps.
Sydney Fish Market – photographers’ paradise.
Here are my second time around recommendations:
I was staying in Darling Harbour (avoid on your trip unless you are a sucker for cheesy tourist activities like Madame Tussauds) for the business bit of my trip and had an evening alone. I don’t like the big, noisy tourist traps of Darling Harbour, so turned to Concrete Playground to find a bar that was more ‘me’. I found The Small Bar – does what it says on the tin, folks. It’s small. It’s a bar. It was fantastic – great wine and simple but decent nosh. Note to whoever run Concrete Playground: sort your search function out – the map is amazing but sometimes you want to get straight to your bar of choice, not a geo location!
If you’re beyond backpackers but before big budgets, I have the ideal place to stay. The Macleay in Potts Point (28 Macleay Street) has proven perfect two times running. If you’re willing to pay $20ish extra a night, you can snag an Opera House and Bridge view. It’s well worth it, as waking up and going to sleep with two icons is a magical reminder of where you are. The hotel staff are really friendly (from coffee recommendations to a cheery ‘hello’ when you come and go), it’s spick and span clean and the rooms have mini kitchens in case you do get to the stage where you simply can’t afford to eat out. There’s a Woolworths opposite too. For any Brit who hasn’t been to Oz, Woolworths is a supermarket, not the failed ‘sells a bit of everything cheap store’ we knew and loved. My only quibble would be that Wi-Fi isn’t free. Is this the same in UK hotels? I think it’s time people sorted that out – it should be part of the price not an optional extra.
Speaking of Woolworths, you can buy your travel card there, so that you’re sorted from the first hour of arrival. Daily cards are $22, so if you’re in town for more than three days, buy a weekly card at $63, which covers all ferries, buses and trains, including journeys like the Manly Ferry ($14.80).
Potts Point is a great place to stay. It’s well connected by the 311 bus to Circular Quay, Surry Hills and a five minute stroll up to Kings Cross connects you to buses for Watson’s Bay, Bondi and of course the metro. It’s the posh elder sister of Kings Cross, filled with art deco buildings, cutesy coffee shops and beautifully groomed gay guys with sweet dogs. And there’s a great walk down McElhone Stairs, to Woolloomaloo Bay, up through the Bot Gardens and onto the Opera House, which I recommend as the ideal first day orientation.
[note on the 311 - at Circular Quay there is conflicting and confusing info about where to catch the bus back to Potts Point. Ignore the info booth guy, who doesn't have a clue and head for the corner of Pitt St and Spring St - that's where it starts!]
For anyone who has heard tell of Kings Cross being a really dodgy, scary place, it’s not. Well, I guess if you’ve never stepped out of your tiny hamlet in rural Britain to head for London, it might be… but to most of us Brits, it’s Soho-lite but tiny and without the theatres. Nowt to fear – just a bit scuzzy.
While we’re in Kings Cross/Potts Point, there’s a great little side street filled with cafes and eateries, Lankelly Place. Friends who live round the corner took us to a friendly little Japanese sake bar. Try the grilled miso eggplant – gorgeous!
Potts Point has no end of great breakfasts on offer and having tried a lot of them, I’d say the best is easily La Buvette. Full of locals – always a good sign – and a fab range of breakfasts. It’s billed here on Facebook as veggie but I’m sure I saw meat options on the brekkie menu. Everyone says Fratelli Fresh is the best but the menu at La Buvette had more choice and was definitely livelier with locals on a Sunday morning.
Top tip for coffee drinkers who take it black: Sydney has possibly the strongest coffee in the world. It’s great quality but sometimes the strength can wallop you. I took to asking for a one shot long black and it was perfect. [Thanks, Bree, for that tip - why didn't I think of it before!!!]
My first day off I took the ferry to Manly. Pretty much any ferry leaving from Circular Quay will give you fantastic views of the bridge and Opera House, so make sure you sit outside at the back rather than the front – tourists tend to pile on at the front, as that’s where the view is when you’re sitting in dock but of course the minute you leave, you lose the view!
I was in a jet-lag haze when I went to Manly, so I can’t really tell you much about it. It’s a lovely long beach so I meandered along thinking that surfing looked like a lot of effort for very short rides. I’ll leave it to someone else to stick some recommendations in the comments!
That evening I met with an ex-colleague. How we laughed when we remembered her anxiety that taking a break might harm her career. Within days of being in Australia, she had multiple job interviews and is now working for a super hot PR agency. We went to The Winery in Surry Hills. Absolutely lovely place, full of fairy lights and a wine list to die for. Gorgeous. I think the food options are a bit limited, so the next time I was in Crown Street for a night out, the Japanese restaurant, Zushi, next door proved a much better option. Amazing food and very reasonable (this matters when you’re a Brit who is shocked by Aussie prices! Sorry Bree!).
The next day my dear friend Bree arrived from Brisbane and we bimbled around and caught up on 18 months’ worth of life – Surry Hills and Paddington were the destinations de jour. This included essential shopping at Dinosaur Designs, purveyors of simply delicious resin jewellery and objects. That evening, we trooped off to The Opera Bar for a drink and then headed over to the new bit of the MCA for another. Great views from both!
Bree took me to two superb art galleries on Friday. Carriageworks in Redfern is a disused rail carriage workshop and is an absolutely gorgeous space. I would love to see a dance performance here.
The White Rabbit Gallery was a recommendation from our friends in Kings Cross. A collection of contemporary Chinese art, curated into three different shows per year. I’ll be honest – even better than the art was the Chinese tea room on the ground floor. A bewildering and utterly fantastic array of tea, stunningly good dumplings and friendly staff. I highly recommend a visit.
Something I can’t recommend as it was an exclusive… my lovely friend Bernadette had organised a charity auction for the Aboriginal Literacy Foundation last year and friends of hers had won ‘dessert by Annabel Crabb’. For non-Aussies, Annabel is a political columnist and has a highly successful TV show called Kitchen Cabinet, where she has lunch with a politician and brings dessert. The date fixed for the prize was the Friday we were in town and the only time we could see Bernadette and Peter John, so we were invited along. A fantastic evening. Annabel was charming, funny and entertaining and I for one will be reading her forthcoming book, The Wife Drought. And here’s the dessert she brought to dinner….health warning, cut veryslim slices, as this contains 750g cream cheese and 250g mascarpone!
Finally, a name check for my friend Peter John’s incredible book, which won an award when we were with him on the Friday evening. Public Sydney: drawing the city is ideal if you want a gift for someone who loves architecture and loves Sydney. Ten years in the researching and five years in the making, it ‘sets a new benchmark for navigating the historic layers of Sydney’s original CBD‘.
I loved my return to Sydney. If anyone needs a kick-ass communications strategist for a year, I’d definitely be up for a sabbatical in your glorious city!
I had a great billy work bonus the other week – I was invited out to take part in a communications workshop by a sister organisation in Sydney.
It was a fun and interesting trip and I’ll post with all my top tips and experiences in Sydney itself but first, my day trip to the Blue Mountains.
Our host from The George Institute, Rich, organised a day trip out to the Blue Mountains and I was thrilled, as I didn’t get there on my last trip.
It was winter, so the sun wasn’t consistent and it did get perishing cold at times but it was stunning. We went to Scenic World – a great way to get a slice of the area in one day and I never say no to a cable car ride or two! If you click on the first photo, you’ll get a full screen gallery.
A while back, I had a fascinating conversation with a good friend about empathy and kindness. ‘Do you have to have empathy for someone in order to be kind?’ ‘Are empathetic people more likely to be kind?’ (‘no’ and ‘yes’ are my short answers).
I have just been reminded of this conversation because I received a link to an animation from the RSA, all about empathy as an agent for social change. It’s wonderful and I highly recommend watching it. Why? Because I believe that empathy is one of the most under-rated human characteristics. It is the number one factor in helping improve personal relationships and communication. It is one of the most useful tools in professional life too – being empathetic with colleagues and ‘customers’ will give you a key to unlock potential.
So, what is empathy? My dictionary says: ‘The ability to share and understand the feelings of others’. I would add another, less concise, element – being able and willing to step outside my own perspective and prejudices (perhaps momentarily) in order to gain that understanding.
It can be an uncomfortable thing. How many of you have those really unwelcome moments of affective empathy, where you mirror someone else’s emotions? I’ve been in appraisals where I’ve had to give fairly difficult feedback and the appraisee has burst into tears. I have to work hard not to cry myself because the mere fact of seeing someone in distress makes me well up. That’s uncomfortable, particularly when that feedback needs to be given and heard in order for performance to improve. The interesting thing about the RSA animation was that it showed the difference between this ‘affective empathy’ and ‘cognitive empathy’, where you step outside your own perspective to understand others’ world view.
This isn’t easy. I’m empathetic and have a natural tendency to want to understand how someone is feeling, share that and act accordingly. But what about trying to understand and step into the world view of someone who has just voted UKIP? I’m ashamed that we have such a swell of people in this country that want to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ and retreat from the wider world. How can I feel empathy for people who believe that immigrants are spoiling our country rather than enhancing it? How can I empathise with anyone who votes for pulling out of a union that has improved our human rights and gives us around half our export trade?
I don’t think I can answer that one. It’s probably something I need to work on. When I find it easy to empathise with someone who is very different to me (for example, the homeless guy I pass in the street fairly often), I act with kindness and compassion. I chat to Tom because it must be lonely sitting on the pavement while everyone else hurries to work. Sure, I give him money and hot chocolate, but I’m pretty sure it’s the chat that matters most. But I don’t go far outside my comfort zone. I really struggle to empathise with what I see are narrow, bigoted views.
So, back to the original questions. I don’t think you have to have empathy in order to be kind. I saw a chap in the underground recently, who had his son in a buggy and was dithering at the bottom of the escalator. I simply asked if he wanted me to help carry it up. I didn’t need empathy at all. I just offered a helping hand up the stairs. He was grateful because he was young and shy and hadn’t liked to ask anyone. My empathy kicked in as we chatted, not before I was kind.
Are empathetic people more likely to be kind? Yes, I think they are. The people I know who seem to be missing the empathy gene tend to do less for others. They seem to be more selfish and more concerned with their own situation than others’. They are not bad people by any stretch but they ask fewer questions about how others are feeling and are less interested in their opinions. Often, these are people I might have fun with but don’t turn to as a true friend.
On a personal level, empathy makes people feel less lonely and more cared for. On a global scale, a lack of empathy collides with an inability to concede an element of power and perpetuates fear and misery. People starve in Syria because leaders won’t let in aid to ‘rebel-held’ areas; Palestinian families are deprived of an income because a wall divides their land; in Sudan a woman is destined to receive 100 lashes and the death penalty because she wants a Christian marriage.
These situations raise the question of whether power itself reduces empathy. I can’t answer that but I’m pretty sure it does. In order to survive in global power structures, empathy probably just ‘gets in the way’. If so, then THAT is what we have to change. I can’t claim to have a clue how we change it but we can all start by introducing more empathy into our own lives and letting it guide our actions.
We need more kindness in the world. We need more compassion. So my challenge to you this week is to increase your empathy and make a change in just one area of your life. Let me know how it goes!
I had never been on a yoga break before. I was a bit nervous, feeling that my ‘off and on’ approach to yoga would mean that I would struggle to do 1.5 hours each morning for three days. How wrong I was! It was just perfect.
Last year a good friend and I started an annual tradition – a Spring break. Her children are now old enough for her to feel okay about leaving for a weekend, so we went to Marrakech (you can read all about it in earlier posts!). This year we were planning a cheap break (Icelolly.com is fantastic for city breaks) and hit upon Rome. After an evening of scouring the potential hotels, Liz went home and all of a sudden I had an email in my inbox saying ‘forget cheap break, let’s do yoga!’
So off we went to Casperia, a tiny medieval village set upon a hill an hour and a half’s train ride North of Rome. It was idyllic. I village with cobbled paths and no traffic; a house with a sun terrace overlooking an endless rolling patchwork of green; yoga each morning and then long, lazy days in the sun afterwards. Yum!
I am converted. I’m hoping to go to Laos at Christmas and the first thing I did when I got home was to research yoga breaks there to break up the sight-seeing!
The holiday was with Sunflower Retreats. It was great, if a little expensive (a bit more yoga could have been included in the price – something we all agreed on). I do recommend it, although I think I’ll be looking at bookyogaretreats.com for future adventures in bendyness, as they list every conceivable break you could ever wish to find!
It was the summer the pavements melted. It was the summer I was intoxicated by love. 2003. Lying lazily in the parks of London, I was wrapped in a humid cloak of happiness. Despite the heat I danced. A lot.
It was, thanks to him, a summer of music; music I didn’t know existed before he gifted it to me, music I still love today.
Prime among the grooves were a band from Leeds called ‘The New Mastersounds’. Already a fan of funk, I was amazed to hear that I had been missing out on these low down, dirty bass lines and virtuoso guitar riffs for a whole two years.
It was our third date, a gig at The Jazz Café. Sandwiched in between him and his friend, my hips moved with the groove involuntarily while they did the boyfunknod (as instructed by Will Smith here and adopted by the majority of white men at funk gigs).
I went to see NMS last week and, inspired by the memories of the heady summer of ’03, there’s a big ‘thank you’ going out from me today for all the music you gave me. You know who you are and I wish you well.
There should be an image from Getty of Eddie Roberts (NMS) here…
Lalo Shifrin’s soundtrack for the classic film, Bullitt and pretty much everything Shifrin, as I’d not heard of him before.
A version of ‘Compared to What’ by someone called Jadell – it’s not a patch on Roberta Flack’s but has a raw edge that I really enjoyed at the time. This doesn’t really belong in this list, as it doesn’t have quite the legacy of others but it meant a lot at the time.
Roy Ayers’ ‘He’s a Superstar’ – I love ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and it was a revelation to be introduced to this piece of musical genius. And by the way, given that Roy Ayers released this in 1971 and the musical wasn’t til 1973, has Lloyd Webber ever given Ayers royalties for nicking his melody or was it all done above board at the time?
And one more joyous revelation… The Meters. ‘Just kissed my baby’ brought me fully into the world of classic funk and it’s a world I am happy to belong to.
So I leave you with this thought…wherever you are, have a funky Sunday. Get up and dance like you have the best boogie moves in the world and screw those who think you don’t! To massacre a quote from Eddie Roberts last week, ‘if the whole world got funk, there would be no war.
Please tell me your fave funk in the comments box. I’m always keen to make new discoveries.