Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.


Monday, 30 November 2009

A Natural High

"A natural high," my friend said over coffee last week. "That's what you need. That's what everyone needs when they're feeling low."
"What a terribly good idea," I said, wiping some of the chocolate-cherry mocha from around my mouth and leaving the rest of it in a moustache shape that would later embarrass me in front of the children. "How very smart you are."

So this weekend, I went para-diving from one of the base mountains of Mount Fuji. At 1,500 feet, it was about as high as I could get.

There's not much to say. There was nothing to say when I sat in the van and climbed the mountain to the jump-off point. There was nothing to say when I jumped from a 1,500 foot cliff face with nothing but a double duvet attached to my back, and there was nothing to say when I realised that I was floating thousands of metres above the ground with Mount Fuji looming huge and snow-topped in front of me, and miles and miles of Japan stretched beneath me, and bright blue sky above and around me. There was nothing to say when the instructor asked if I was alright because she thought I might have passed out, and there was nothing to say during the fifteen minutes while we floated back down to the ground like tiny little spiders attached to our flimsy little web sack. There was nothing to say at all. Words totally disappeared. All I could do was make small, fishy, gasping noises, and try to communicate to my worried instructor via exhalation just how silent it was, and how peaceful, and how calm, and how utterly, utterly unterrifying.

And how happy it had made me, and would keep making me as long as I could keep remembering it. Which would be: forever.

"I did it," I said to my friend on my return.
"Eh?" she replied, redunking her tea bag. "Did what?"
"Found a natural high." I showed her the photo of my parachute. "And you're right. It was just what I needed."

There was a pause while she looked at the photograph, and then she frowned and looked back at me.

"I was talking about multi-vitamins or something," she said eventually. "An extra banana at lunch or something. But yeah." She looked back at the photo.

"That'll probably do it too."

Monday, 23 November 2009


Sometimes in the process of rebuilding you have to start again.

Japan gets a lot of things very, very right. Waste disposal, transport, taxes, public service, food, restaurants and incredibly effective face wash: Japan nails them. The cities are clean, the crime is low, the countryside is beautiful and the past-times are genuinely entertaining. This is a country where themed 'Love Hotels' (paid for by the hour, anonymously) aren't seedy or embarrassing but romantic and fun; where drunken karaoke is weekly; where adults can read comics on commuter trains without shame; where fat, naked men push each other around a stage for public amusement. Christmas isn't even a holiday here, but Japan still has the best cookies, lights and generally festive twinkle-fluff I've ever seen; I've eaten the best pizza of my life in a country where it's nothing short of a novelty. If the world was a playground and the countries its children, then Japan would be the really irritating little kid that gets everything right in class, wins all the football medals and still manages to not get their head put down the toilet. (The UK would be the fat, spotty one following around whoever was the scariest that day: probably America.)

Nothing in Japan, however, is quite as right as the Onsen; a hot spring public bath. Because traditional customs in Japan are based on Shintoism, cleanliness is of utmost, sacred importance, and public bathing in hot mineral water is therefore an ancient and still fervently upheld Japanese custom. It is commonly thought that the hot minerals heal, restore, regenerate and cleanse, and the communal nature helps to create ties of harmony and peace between strangers, thus strengthening Japan as a whole.

Which was all very well and good, but my first accidental visit to an Onsen - four days after my arrival in Japan - led to me bursting into tears, weeping incoherently at the receptionist and then running out again. All I knew was that I'd gone for a swim and found myself in a room full of butt naked old women, scraping themselves down laconically with sponges and staring at me.
'W-w-was i-i-it a a a jjokke?' I sobbed down the phone to The Boy, sitting on my suitcase and weeping into my coat at Nagoya train station.
'Was what a joke?' he replied in confusion.
'Th-th-th-the place you sent me!' I cried. 'What was it?'
'An onsen?' he said in still more confusion.
'B-b-b-b-but they were all naked!' I choked, welling up again. 'Why? Why would you do that to me?'
'Oh baby,' he said after a good five minutes of laughter that cost me about 500 yen in phone bill; 'onsens are naked. That's the point of them. It didn't even occur to me that you didn't know that.'
'W-w-w-well, n-n-n-n-ow I d-d-do,' I stuttered, and caught the first train I could back to a place where people wore clothes and didn't manhandle their breasts in front of me.

Yesterday, in the spirit of positivity and harmony and 'embracing shit' - as my friend put it - I decided to try again, and I finally understood what the onsen is about. Always a fan of having my bath water too hot, five different mineral pools - one filled with ice cold black mud, and one with extremely hot black mud - did, indeed, relax, rejuvenate and cleanse; I wallowed like a happy little pig until my friend told me I'd gone purple and should probably get out before my head popped.

But it was more than that. The room was full of women of all ages, of all sizes: utterly, utterly naked, and utterly, utterly comfortable with that. Women of 90, children of 10: they wandered, they bathed, they chatted, they scrubbed, and they generally made themselves brand new again. With bathing costumes on it would have felt hedonistic, sordid, pointless, Western. Without them, it felt like a kind of rebirth. Something natural, and clean, and innocent. And yes, we got stared at, but after ten minutes the little old Japanese women were laughing with us at our squeaks in the cold mud, and chatting with us about... well, I don't know what they were chatting with us about, but it all seemed rather lovely.

Everybody needs a chance to start again: to strip away all the hard stuff, and the hurtful stuff, and the stuff that weighs them down, and put it in a locker, grab a towel and immerse themselves in something that will take it all away. And Japan - the country that somehow knows what it is you need before you know it yourself - has it already built into its ancient customs: the cleansing, purifying, harmonising experience of the Onsen.

Pink, glowing and utterly naked, I left the room full of unclothed strangers this time feeling calm, and clean, and ready to begin again.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


All loves are alike, but all heartbreaks are unhappy in their own way.

I've not left my bed today, because there doesn't seem a lot of point. It's raining intermittently, I'm crying intermittently, and - although if I could coordinate the two to stop or start at the same time they might cancel each other out - I'm not in the mood for timing.

The worst thing about hurting is knowing that the other party is not. If you get hit by a truck, you want to at least know that you've dented the fender; if you fall out of a window, it's nice to know that you've left an impression in the grass, however faint it might be. If somebody takes your heart out of the fridge, breaks it and then eats it in pieces, it would be reassuring to know that they haven't gone surfing for the weekend to celebrate. When they do - when the truck drives away unscathed, and the grass pings back, and the boy takes his board and a group of friends to the sea - it feels as if you were never there to start with. As if you have dissolved, somehow, into thin air: the way a fly might feel after it has flown into your eye, obliterated itself in your pupil and then been blinked away without even a slowed step.

Too much of anything can be unhealthy, and it is certainly true of the 'character' I am - according to my friends this morning - building. I don't want to build character anymore. I have enough of it already, and too much of it makes you hard and impermeable and brittle: ready to snap at the next disappointment. I don't need to learn to be happy alone: I am already a solitary creature, and struggle to be with others in peace. And - before they say it, even though I know they mean well - I don't want to be made stronger either. I am more than strong enough. It's being vulnerable that's hard for me. It's the weakness I needed to practice.

Somewhere, in all of this - in giving everything you have for love and losing it all, spectacularly - is a lesson to be learnt. There is always a lesson to be learnt, just as there is always a seed in every fruit (and sometimes many: for instance, in a strawberry). But I have to be honest: from my bedroom - a safe zone that ironically was rocked last night as physically as it was emotionally, thanks to a large and rather scary earthquake that woke me up at 4am - I can't see it right now. I'm not sure what there is to be learnt. Whether I should be learning that you should never give anything up for love; that you should protect yourself at all times, in case it hurts at the end. Whether I should be learning to be suspicious, distrusting, hard, strong. Whether I should learn to hide my feelings, or control them, or kill them before they kill me. And never again repeat the mistakes I made this time.

But if I do that, then the heartbreak wins. If I do that, then the love - the next love, wherever it may come from - will lose. Because I will have so much character, so much strength, so much knowledge, that it will not be able to reach me. The delicate things that love grows from - trust, hope, vulnerability, self-sacrifice, weakness, innocence - will have been tucked away so far inside me that nothing reaches them anymore, and I will forget that they are even there.

I will not learn from my mistakes this time. I have learnt enough. I will not be stronger, I will not be wiser. I will not hold my head up and pretend that I'm not hurting.

Because if I do, then I might never be hurt again. And that, I think, would be the saddest thing of all.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Chocolate Orange

Somebody once said that you can live, or you can write about it; and the same is true for love.

Over the last nine months, I have loved somebody very much. I loved them so much that I moved to Japan to be with them; that I refused to write about them or talk about them, in case it made it less real. As if the writing would make them fiction, after so long of feeling like the fiction I wrote was real.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that they broke my heart, but really it was more like the slam on the top of a Terry's chocolate orange: they simply punched the top of it - welded together because of time spent in the fridge, rather than because of essential construction - and have spent the last few months taking away the pieces, segment by segment. The details don't matter, because the details never matter, but they kept going - kept coming back, kept saying sorry, kept saying they loved me too even though it wasn't enough - until it was all gone. Until I realised that all I was doing with my time was touching the bits that were still there and wondering how long I had left with them.

I think they're all gone, now. I think the last piece was taken today, while I sat on the phone to him outside a pub in the rain, staring at the inside of the hat he bought me, and crying. He took the piece, and he said sorry, and I said it was okay even though it wasn't, and then it was gone. He was thorough, methodical: almost surgical, really. And the last piece hurt the worse. I held on to it as hard as I could; I clung to that bloody last piece with all of me, because it's the last piece you need to prove to yourself that you ever had a heart at all. And because - when it's gone - there's nothing to show that it was ever there to start with, except for an empty wrapper and a few crumbs you'll probably throw to a stranger when you're drunk and lonely and missing him.

While he took away the pieces - and did, probably, what a sensible boy does and ate them - I was waiting. Waiting for what, I don't know: for the fragments of utter happiness when he was with me, for the spaces in between when he wasn't and I hurt because of it. To see which bits of me I'd give him the next time he came back; which bits of me he'd take with him the next time he left. And while I was loving, and waiting, and living, I couldn't write. In the last few months, I've written barely a thing. Not a page of a book, not a line of a poem: nothing, apart from the blog that hardly knew he existed. Nothing to do with working too hard, it was about feeling too much: as if the two couldn't exist together. The living - the good stuff - was too alive to write; the falling apart - the Terry's chocolate orange - was too broken for it. So over the last nine months I have lived, and I have loved, I have been taken apart, piece by piece, and - just like many people who spend their time really living, and really loving, instead of locked away on their own - I've written nothing at all.

Now I'm locked away again. He has gone, and I'm back where I always thought I would be before I met him: alone, again, and writing. Wondering how to pass the hours until I really, really understand that he's not coming back. Still touching the air where the pieces used to be, and wishing I had some left to give him, even if just so he could eat them again.

And - as I listen to the sounds of people coming home drunk, happy, and in one piece - I worry whether some people are made to love, and be loved, and others are made to simply write about it.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Shins and knuckles

There are two types of shame.

There's the public type; the hot flush that races over you when your skirt falls down half way through a ballet performance, or when you pee yourself on the first day of primary school, or when somebody loudly declares in front of a classroom full of 12 year olds that they'd rather die than kiss you. It's sudden, it's horrible, and it's exposing, but it never really touches you: not in a way that means anything. It's a flush that runs round the outside of your body, and then it leaves again: a diverted electrical current, over as quickly as it came, and the seed of most anecdotes, and most lingering childhood memories.

And then there's the private type. The shame that sneaks up, quietly, and heats the inside of you. The electrical current that runs through the middle. That can't be ignored, even though you are the only witness; that can't be silenced, even if you're the only one who knows it's there. That strikes to the bones of you, and then stays there.

In the supermarket this afternoon I had both types of shame in quick succession. A flush that heated the outside of me, and then - immediately - heated the inside of me as well. Rolling my basket around the aisles in bored, hungry distraction, I smashed straight into the shins of a little old man who was trying to do his weekly shop without physical injury. My cheeks went pink - appalled by the fact that I had hurt somebody weaker than me because I wasn't paying attention - and I apologised as profusely as I could, graciously accepted his apologies for being in my way, and then (feeling the flush die down: it was an accident, after all) made to turn away again.

As I turned away, I saw the little old man look at the contents of my trolley in unmasked surprise, and - looking down - I saw the contents as if I hadn't just put them there myself. Pasta. Pasta sauce. Pizza. Pesto. Soup. Bread (muffins, actually). Cheese. Chocolate. Frozen vegetables. A veritable culture shock of Western junk food; food that was as strange to him as Japan was to me. And then I looked at the contents of his basket: fish heads, seaweed, rice, noodles, chicken knuckles. Things that, to be frank, I couldn't actually define, because I didn't have even the vaguest idea what they could be: they were just Japanese foods that I didn't recognise, and so I no longer even looked at them properly.

And, looking back at my trolley again, I realised that the food in my basket was the same food that was in my basket at University. It was the same food that was in my basket in London; it was the same food that was in my basket when I lived at home with dad, and it was the same food that was in my basket when I lived with my friends in Bristol. I had moved to the other side of the world, and I - without even thinking about it - had continued doing exactly what I had done in England. In fact, I had gone out of my way to do it, because you can bet that the aisle for chicken knuckles and green tea here is a damn sight bigger than the aisle for pesto. I was in my little Western bubble (worse: my little Holly Smale bubble), and it didn't matter where in the world I took myself, that won out. I was simply moving myself and my habits around the globe, and never really letting the place I was in touch me.

The flush of shame in the middle of me was bad, but it only got worse as I continued walking in a trance around the supermarket. How had I apologised to the old man? In three words of Japanese, repeated profusely and at varying volumes. I didn't have enough Japanese to apologise properly, or to really understand what his response had been. Knowing enough to get by on a day-to-day basis, my Japanese learning has stopped: laziness, and habit, and tiredness mean that I know as much of the language now as I did two months ago. And so, like my culinary tastes, my mind has shut off from Japan too. I might as well have been in Tesco, this afternoon; a Tesco simply moved ten thousand miles to the right.

It wasn't who I thought I'd be: somebody with the courage to move themselves geographically, but without the courage needed to pull themselves out of a bubble of habits that has taken 27 years to build. I thought it was enough to get on a plane, but it's not. You can change the world around you, but unless you change how you see it as well then you might as well stay in the same place. And I'm ashamed. I'm ashamed that I've gone so far on a journey and then closed my eyes once I've arrived there.

I wish I could say that I put all my shopping back: that I fiercely returned the stupidly expensive pasta sauce - that has travelled just as far as I have - and filled my basket with knuckles and heads and dried octopus instead. I didn't. I'm not that brave yet.

But the first step to breaking out of a bubble is knowing you're in one in the first place. And the next time I accidentally take a chunk out of an old man's shins, I'm going to know how to say sorry properly, even if I'm full of pizza.

So that - next time - the shame is only on the outside of me, instead of in the middle.