Fluffing up the sawdust

The first time I received an actual wage was somewhere towards the end of 80’s, when my Mum’s mate, Bridget, invited me to work Saturday mornings in her pet shop.

Bridget passed away from cancer in the 90s, far too young, but those hours spent with her left a lasting impression. The warmth and enthusiasm she had for her business made the whole idea of “working” immensely easy. I was probably around 13 years old, but these memories of Bridget are crystal clear.

In the shop, I can recall her instruction to “fluff up the sawdust” in the guinea pig cages – to help with the sales – and then, some months later, in her home, and unbeknown to my brother and I when she was very ill, Bridget had us over one evening to listen to her vinyl back catalogue. Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” still gives me goosebumps, planting me back on the Goan carpet in Bridget’s living room floor, singing along voraciously to the chorus.

To be born, as I was, with all the secure trappings of education, health and support, it has only been during these past two decades, of digging into a career in international development, that has highlighted so relentlessly what a privilege my life has been to date. And also, come to think of it, how much I’ve enjoyed working. Not something I’ve thought about along the way but, truly, I can’t recall a job from which I’ve not drawn something positive.

Perhaps, on occasion, this has been down to my perseverance, or from turning some learning from a previous work experience into practice. I’d argue back, though, that I’ve fallen on my feet most of the time because I’ve worked with some very special people.

From the auspicious heights of selling accessories for pets, through to working in my Mum’s gift shop, carefully sellotaping lavender fragranced pin cushions, and the like, in pink and white striped paper-bags, I ventured into gardening, landing summer work at the Prime Minister’s estate – Chequers – where the head gardener, Bill, taught me a thing or two about planting vegetables and cutting vines, as well as how to drive a car (he first took me, and three summers later, my brother, round the edge of the estate in his blue escort, barking out orders in his colourful South London accent).

From gardening, the inevitable mid-to-late teen indulgence of bar-tending took hold – I worked at The Pheasant pub in Great Missenden, and then at Moor Park’s Golf Club, which was nearby to my school. I did lunch and dinner shifts at the pub and worked the member’s bar and on Saturdays, weddings, at the Golf Club. The head barman at the Golf Club was a raging alcoholic and I often had to hide his car keys and befriend the patrons, in order to help usher him into a taxi. Every shift I remember being a bundle of fun. We laughed in the kitchens, waiting for the food to be plated, and we laughed after hours, smoking fags and knocking back drinks.

On one blessed day up in Moor Park, I served the comedian Peter Cook a pint of lager, not long before his sad passing. To this day I can’t remember what I said to him, but he was sporting a lemon jumper with a blue moniker on the breast, still wearing his one golf glove, and making small talk with his companions. He tipped me two quid.

Not long after I’d earnt my fortune from the catering industry, I left Uni and taught in Uganda for a year, (as I’ve long droned on about on these pages) – an equally rewarding and sentimentally charged chapter in my career. This was prefaced by two summers in Israel, volunteering as a jack-of-all-kibbutz-trades: milking cows, planting citrus fruits, washing dishes and chopping vegetables. I worked with Swedes, South Africans, Americans, French, German and Spanish. Hard work, long hours, and some of the best days of my life.

London next, from 1997 through to 2011, and a clutch of fascinating roles, firstly in the private sector for two years, hocking expensive, but life changing, month long expeditions to Africa and Asia for sixth formers, then a hop into Government, earning my spurs as a would-be civil servant, before landing in the non-profit sector and working my way through three charities specialising, respectively, in disability, cancer and, finally, corporate social responsibility.

2006 was the turning point, cementing my commitment to a mission of understanding how to address poverty and social injustice, and which has compelled me to write regularly (and now consult permanently) on the issue of women’s empowerment.

I know I’ve learnt a thousand things on this journey so far, but the one about women’s empowerment being the ultimate silver bullet to quashing the underlying causes of some of the world’s most profound societal issues, is one I will take to the grave. The formula is so simple, and yet we remain so far away from fulfilling the type of equity (in gender, but also in other areas) that would bring about profound, anticipated and deserved change.

When I think again about Bridget’s kindness and spirit, and how that helped curate a sense for me about what was important when it came to working, I can pick out a similar seam of behaviour from others with whom I’ve shared time in each of these jobs – in an office, a classroom, at a conference, with a community or, more recently, simply on a skype call.

Difficult to sum up in one word, these people, these experiences. Many colleagues have remained close friends, and I’ve long admired their passion for work, or how passionate they’ve been about getting the best out of other people at work. Many of them have also been just plain driven, determined, and steely in their resolve to do things well. Others, still, impressive in their knowledge, their courage, or in their humility.

Maybe the over-arching message I take away from these peers, and managers, over the years, is how important it is to keep one’s perspective in check. To know when to listen, and also when to act, is one skill, but to carry oneself at all times, and especially during the inevitable ups and downs of a workplace, with at least the bare soles of your feet touching one part of the ground, is a true gift.

Bridget had that gift. As did many of the other men and women I’ve worked with since, and with whom I hope to collaborate again in the future.

Philip Larkin wrote about work as a toad squatting on one’s life and I’ve long thought about his imagery since first reading his poems at school. It could be seen as an injustice, almost, that past generations have perpetuated an exhausting norm around a person’s career: that of working to live, of grafting away at a job as a means to an end.

For many billions of people, shaking off the work toad is impractical, ill-advised, or more likely, impossible. Our current Saigon lockdown is the worst yet, and it’s crippling people. Just as lockdowns in other countries have done, and continue to do.

My story and my message aren’t connected or related to the vendors at the end of our street, who have had to close their businesses. Or to the migrant workers from this region who travel to Thailand in search of factory work and higher salaries. My context and my reality is miles away from them, and from all of the communities I’ve visited around the world. This blog isn’t for those UK shop-keepers, either, anxiously opening up to customers next Monday, for the first time in over a year.

My luxury, right now, might not be the freedom of movement (it’s been 16 months to the day since I was last outside of Vietnam) but it is the freedom to work from home, and to continue to work with others whose very way of being inspires me.

If this writing is for anyone, aside from myself, it’s for those who might have lost some perspective, at work or in the day-to-day grind of living through a pandemic.

Virtual workspaces are a reality now for many, but I see not why it can’t still be possible to influence your colleagues in a positive way – be that person, like Bridget, whose breath-taking humanity and compassion might rub off on another, becoming forever etched, always there, just under the surface, glowing.

First world problems

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The UK Government is finally suggesting masks might help

I enjoyed Rod Liddle’s piece on face masks https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/why-I-will-wear-a-face-mask today.

For those unable to access the article, aside from the entertaining corollary he makes about only being allowed to have sex with his wife whilst wearing a mask, Liddle hammers home a key point, that many of us have been stating and re-stating over the past months about the merits of mask usage. Amusing banter aside, reflecting about Covid, he underscores what, in the UK at least, seems to continue to be an issue of Individual vs. Society.

“There seems to me more than sufficient evidence that while wearing a face mask does not entirely eliminate the risk of spreading the virus, it reduces it. We can argue about how much, but surely that is certain. And so, I will wear a face mask. Not just for sexual intercourse.”

Rod Liddle is an incorrigible writer and enjoys pushing people’s buttons on numerous topics. However, on masks, I couldn’t agree more with the premise of his argument for wearing one, and furthermore his conclusions over how slow to act the UK has been, in the face of the spread of the virus across Asia and into Europe.

Liddle doesn’t suggest Boris’ team has been incompetent, more that “they were possessed of an unconscious belief that this pandemic had been over-rated by supranational institutions, such as the World Health Organisation, that it was an over-stated concern.”

An unconscious belief.

Somehow this, for me, aptly sums up a lot of the conjecture, and ultimately the culture, of more developed nations such as the UK.

Of course, the UK media pounces on any decision the Government makes, when it comes to Covid. That said, the UK has suffered tremendously because of Covid, and although hindsight is a wonderful thing, many have been right to point out the shortfalls of the  Government which have made matters worse for the public.

Boris (described brilliantly by the comic Jon Richardson as a “human wet fart…funny at the time, but you have to immediately check for damage”) will, and probably should, remain the target for most critics. However, when it comes to societies typically used to seeing their country branded as “first world,” doesn’t this ‘unconscious belief’ symptom stretch further and wider, beyond politicians and the media, and into the day-to-day recesses of everyday life?

Were I to have still been living in London, these past 9.5 years, I would have felt the same. Covid started its carnage in a Chinese market, thousands of miles and cultures away from where I would have been living and working. If I’d been in the UK I can see me, back in February, talking to colleagues in Asia (as I did, in reverse, for weeks and weeks earlier this year from Saigon) hearing about the turmoil being faced by citizens in countries bordering China. Schools closing (as they did here during the first week of February). Quarantine rules in place shortly after this. Masks compulsory. Flights grounded. Lock-down enforced. Testing and tracing immediately initiated.

In Vietnam, and across Asia, there are more recent experiences of similar outbreaks, which have definitely helped drive action during Covid. Mask wearing is standard here, particularly if you are ill and out in public. It’s a cultural norm.

Citizens listen to their Governments in many Asian countries, because the nature of the political governance systems in these countries is different. Not all these differences are favourable to citizens, but they have contributed to a reality where Vietnam still only has 370 positive Covid cases and no fatalities.

There has been no end of speculation on social media as to why this is (as well as the predictable conspiracy theories). This thread on Twitter was particularly good in demonstrating just how pissed off some people were at the realisation that a “third world” country such as Vietnam was doing so well combating the virus.

Overall, you could say that there has been a unity here across the country, and in response to the measures taken by the Government, and perhaps that is part of it.

Expats like me are stuck until quarantine rules change, but life here is safe and we’ve had a much easier time of it compared to South America, Australia, the US or across Europe. Although schools closed for over 3 months, our actual lock down measures were many shades lighter than those elsewhere, and normal life resumed relatively quickly.

There are 98 million people living in Vietnam, and we have just 370 cases. These are truly insane figures, when you read that only yesterday there were 15,000 new cases in Florida alone.

Liddle’s words resonated with me because I realise the true privilege of perspective that living in Vietnam has given me.

Yes, I’m desperate to leave, move on to Australia, set up in fresh surroundings, and that day will come. Until then, recognising what and how these types of unconscious beliefs manifest – in all walks of life, and in their unbridled cause and effect – will remain something I’ll try not to take for granted.

 

Team Anyone But Trump

Kanye West says he's running for president, Elon Musk supports | KRON4

“Kanye West running for President”.

A new dawn, a new day, and another new absurd headline. I scanned the first few lines of this morning’s papers and shrugged off today’s selection of impending doom articles as quickly as it took for my coffee to brew and for me to seek solace – and salvation – in the cup’s reassuring aroma.

Like many, it’s hard to take anything you read in the papers too seriously. Especially when the topic is American politics.

But I was piqued, for a few seconds at least, by Kanye’s tweeted statement, whatever unfolds next.

It seems highly implausible for West to be serious, or in a position to launch an election campaign in 2020. It’s more likely a PR stunt of some description, but I am not qualified to critique Kanye West, as I have scant knowledge of the guy. I have only a fraction more of an understanding about how American elections work. But, of course, actual qualifications and knowledge are not required, when it comes to climbing to the top of America’s highest political perch. Anything goes.

So I don’t feel I need to do any quick research to be appraised of West’s credentials as the issue, it seems to me, is cut and dry: anyone over the age of 18 years old, from any background, discipline or political persuasion, anyone, would be better than Donald Trump as America’s next President.

The audacity levels of Trump (yesterday using an Independence Day public appearance to slander swathes of his own country’s citizens, whilst peddling more false information about Covid-19) have stretched so far that, as ludicrous as he is, as grotesque and revolting as his narrative continues to be, he remains highly likely to stay in power until 2024. That is the bizarre reality behind how so many aspects of our world order seem to operate.

Of course, some would say that there are far worse characters in the Republican right-wing than Trump himself. I say, isn’t it worth running a potential risk of that magnitude in order to, at the very least, remove Donald Trump from power?

I have not even an atom-sized morsel of a compliment to pay to Donald Trump. He is a bullying, bigoted, raping narcissist, whose child-like, toxic diatribes will forever stain his country’s history books. He should have been locked up long before he ran for President.

The rogue offspring of Beelzebub would make for a more palatable option on this year’s 2020 ballot paper than Trump. Literally anyone, anyone. Dear God, please, just anyone other than him.

To me, there is simply no longer any excuse for Trump to continue to be in power. No longer any excuse for him to be allowed to reside over any law, jurisdiction, or any decision or policy that has the smallest ripple of societal impact.

That the opposition party are only able to field “Sleepy” Joe Biden as their ‘best’ chance of toppling Trump is almost as excruciating as having to tolerate the idea that Trump is still in the frame.

From today onwards, Team Kanye have my full support.

Anyone but Trump.

YOLO [in Singapore]

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Fresh faced and 0kms on our legs.

A very cold IPA is slipping down right now as I wait to board for Melbourne. The crowning of an indulgent adventure in Singapore this weekend with my running compadre, Mr Lars Grombach.

We came to tackle the Craze Ultra 55km night run. Neither of us had necessarily reached pique fitness in the preceding weeks (Lars, in fact, fractured a toe whilst playing football on the beach during my stag weekend 6 weeks back) however both of us were in fine mental fettle, and then increasingly delirious from touching down at Changi airport on Friday lunchtime and checking into our hotel (complete with McDonalds round the corner and 7/11 even closer) all the way up to our 5pm starting time yesterday.

We moved into full prep mode once we got to Singapore. No alcohol Friday night. Lots of carbs and protein. Movie. Sleeping tablets. Lie in. And then an enormous buffet breakfast yesterday morning before plenty of chill time, during which our eyes watered as we watched Eliud Kipchoge smash his sub-two hour marathon attempt.

As soon as Kipchoge was hugging his family and jumping up and down with the Vienna crowds, we were marching off to the start line, vaseline applied, energy gels packed and music playlists at the ready.

Our starting group number was 30 runners in all. A “local” race you could say – a status cemented in full as a young girl, taking our picture on her smart phone, handed out our pre race instructions: “just run straight, unless you see any signposts telling you otherwise”.    Continue reading

Feeling at home, far away from it

The weekend sun rising. Kuala Lumpur airport.

Pit-stopping on the way back to Saigon – Starbucks, Kuala Lumpur airport, no less – I’ve the usual frisson of excitement about walking back through our garden at home a few hour’s from now, picking up the girls (Issy is in Germany this week, checking out fashion trade shows) and flopping on the sofa.

After five days in Sri Lanka, to work with our Chrysalis team there (musings on which from earlier can be found over here) I don’t, in some ways, feel like I was away from ‘home’ much at all this week.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Sri Lanka about ten times since 2009. I’ve written about it quite a lot, and that, no doubt, underscores why it’s one of my favourite places to spend time.

Aside from the professional experiences gained from engaging with our team there, and the organisations and people I’ve met along the way, it’s the day-to-day flow of contact and the momentary interludes that weave through these trips, which I think bind each together in a way that feels so familiar and reaffirming.

Moreover, it’s the simple easiness curated by the people you meet which imbues such a comfortable backdrop.

Dropping down to Galle on a quick pre-wedding whistle stop reconnaissance earlier today, to check on bookings and inhale the ocean breeze, I learnt about the reality of the recent Easter Sunday attacks, in terms of their impact on the tourism industry.

Not unsurprisingly, many tourists canceled their trips in May and June as a result of the bombings, and some hotels had to close completely. July and August are typically low season months too, and so a few hoteliers I met spoke of the “double whammy” of the events happening when they did.

Bookings are picking up again now. And whilst there is heightened security evident, things seem to have settled down. The country just this week was elevated to “middle-income” status by the World Bank, and the high ranking top spot given by The Lonely Planet earlier in the year to Sri Lanka, appears to have been reallocated back to the country, even though most of Sri Lanka remains in a state of deep shock over the events of April 21st.

With such charming scenery, culture and opportunity for the visitor, let’s hope that a  positive trajectory of tourist bookings returns.

As my taxi driver, Mahinda, took a short detour this evening, on our way to the airport, to stop and offer me tea and bananas at his house, and the opportunity to meet his wife and daughter who was awaiting her ‘A’ level results, I was touched by the sentiment and the care he took to make me feel welcome.

I found the same hospitality and warmth earlier in the week when invited over to my Air BnB host’s living room, to share dinner with him and his wife.

Listening to Mahinda’s daughter talk about her plans for university, and for finding work somehow with her degree (biology) I couldn’t help hope that, in the future, not only will my daughters have the self-esteem and spark to be excited about a feeling of “doing my best” in the world, as this young woman did, but also that they – and beyond them, that I too – hold close that very core humanitarian embodiment of connection and understanding that I felt, sat with a cup of tea in my hand, listening to and being a small part of, this family’s time together.

The overwhelming feeling of being truly welcomed into their home, for a few precious moments, will stay with me forever.

Colombo at dawn.

 

 

Taking on Pu Luong

 

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Home from home. Annie, Lucca, Matt, Colm, Ivan, Issy, Jess, Phoebe, me and our terrific hosts, after completing the 2019 Vietnam Jungle Marathon https://vietnamtrailseries.com/jungle-marathon/ (photo by Sally!)

I woke before the shrill of my alarm clock. 12:50am. The wooden floorboards creaked as the weight of my body eased itself into a standing position, the fan above tickling my face. I excitedly purveyed the heap of running kit laid out on the floor next to my mattress.

Time waits for no man, and May 25th 2019 was here. It had been far off on the horizon when we’d signed up to run the 2019 Vietnam Jungle Marathon in Pu Luong. But, now, as I consciously took my first few breathes of the day and begun to get changed, that horizon was gone and this was starting to feel real.

I’d run one ultra marathon race before – https://definitelymaybe.me/2017/09/22/thoughts-on-motivation/ – and the memories of numerous painful moments during those 13 hours had gradually dimmed and vanished from my mind. This race was a 55km-er (so, 15km shorter than the one up in Sapa) but with plenty of steep elevation to conquer.

Although struggling with a heel problem since the end of 2017, I’d somewhat stubbornly set out and run 10kms a day on average since the beginning of January this year, and was determined to immerse myself once more in the comprehensive and full sensory experience that these events offer up.     Continue reading

What a piece of work is man

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Photo credit: Global Sports Comms https://twitter.com/globalsportscom/status/828895683298131968

This often quoted line from Shakespeare’s infamous lead character, Hamlet, strikes a chord for me at the moment.

I remember Hamlet’s lasting messages, about 30 years ago at school, when we read the script in class, and were fortunate enough to then watch Kenneth Branagh play the lead at a production at The Barbican.

Since I last wrote a blog – over on the sister site to this one https://definitelymaybe.me/2019/02/04/transformation-of-the-third-sector/ – countless global news events have made Hamlet’s tormented reflections about the state of the world only more resonant.

I was sat on the balcony of The Galleface hotel, in Colombo, back in February when I wrote that last piece. Issy and me had that morning come from breakfast at The Shangri-La, a short walk away, and one of the hotels in which a terrorist blew himself up on Easter Sunday earlier this month.

Out of such horrific acts can only come the positive inklings of resilience. All else is pervasive and lasting devastation.     Continue reading

Fighting Power

 

Like a wretched and merciless earthquake doling out continued aftershocks, that most unsavory and inappropriate of candidates, Brett Kavanaugh, was hastily confirmed over the weekend to join the highest legal office of the world’s “super power.” On these pages recently I could only write whimsically about a new order of political leader. Each time I’ve refreshed my news feed since then fills me with dread.

When will the next tremor strike? When will it all just stop?

That Kavanaugh’s appointment should come as any surprise is to belie the previous eighteen months of regular seismic shocks, and moments of social destruction, caused by Donald Trump and his self-serving administration of obnoxious dullards.

I am sure many people, like me, who take umbrage at Trump’s oxygen stealing existence on our planet, wake up each morning and feel that nervous anticipation of news of his demise as leader of the free world. But, here we are again, the Monday after another phase of utterly grim and depleting political subterfuge, with Trump at the helm, and we read and watch in despair.

Social media is lit up and, for all the brilliant satire that this administration has concurrently inspired, every news update, bar none, from the world according to Trump, casts an ever mushrooming, morose cloud of poisonous bigotry across our screens. Clogging fumes of festering carcinogenic elitism. And, like a cancerous foe in the system, Trump and his degenerate followers have so infected the world, in such a short space of time, that modern science stands even less a chance of making a diagnosis than if this were, indeed, some new super strain of cancer itself.     Continue reading