Ripples of Doubt – my experiences of sexual harassment

•October 24, 2013 • 4 Comments

There have been a lot of brave women speaking out about incidences of sexual harassment lately. I’ve been meaning to write something about my experiences for some time, but recent discussions have made me realise just how useful it can be to read other people’s stories. There’s something comforting in knowing that you’re not alone in the way that you feel about these things, the obvious flipside is the sheer awfulness that other people have been through not only similar, but far worse than me. So, in case it is of any use to anyone else out there, here are a few examples of things that have happened to me, and how they made me feel and how I responded.

1)      “Do you want to sleep together tonight?”

Said casually, as though it were a perfectly normal thing to say, except for a number of things: It was totally uninvited, it was my boss who said it, my married-with-children boss, my new boss, he’d got me drunk first.

I lost part of my evening that night because I’d been encouraged to drink on an empty stomach, and while at a conference trying to keep potential new clients sweet, I’d  lost track of how many times my glass had been topped-up. My boss could have been looking out for me, instead he kept filling my glass, even when I wasn’t keen. I was relatively new in the job. I wanted to keep up. I am usually fine with a few glasses of wine. The small complimentary limoncello at the restaurant (I’d finally persuaded the group we should eat) threw me off course. Scarily, there are blanks in my night. I had a spare room key in the morning – where did that come from? Did I go to my room alone? Thankfully, yes, a trusted friend confirmed that I somewhat suddenly left the bar and went to bed. The reason? My boss had just asked if I wanted to sleep with him. Even in that less than sober state I recall reeling and saying “What the fuck?! NO!” and him responding casually saying “Oh, I just thought I’d put it out there”.

With the benefit of hindsight I should have told him he could put it right back in there and told someone immediately. I didn’t. I went to bed. In the morning I woke up, unsure about how the evening had ended exactly, but with the inappropriate proposition and my answer crystal clear.

So what should you do in that situation? Report it to his boss? He was the CEO. Report it to HR? We didn’t have HR. Report it to a colleague? I was the only girl in the office and I was new. I sat stewing for a couple of days. Furious with him for doing such a thing but even more damagingly, questioning myself completely.

I’d got the job on merit – hadn’t I? I had all the skills they needed, the exact set of skills and experiences and genuine love of the product. People not only congratulated me on the job, but congratulated the company on getting me. It felt good, like I’d made the right decision and could bring some real worth to the place. Suddenly all that was gone in an instant. Did he just hire me because he wanted to sleep with me? Does he only value my looks? Maybe the hard work I’d put in to the business was less important to him than getting into my knickers. It felt horrible. I felt horrible.

What did I do? I put all of the facts down in an email and I sent it to him. I didn’t want to cause a fuss because it could prove lethal for the start-up, which was already losing its place in the market, and I liked the product. I made it very clear that he should never have done that and he must never ever do anything close to resembling that in future. If he did, I would not flinch at making it a huge deal. A one-line response ensued “It was totally inappropriate. I apologise for the upset it caused you and rest assured it will not happen again”. To be fair, nothing like that ever happened again, but I was given many more reasons to wish I’d not stayed on there. I was never shown an ounce of respect – especially when my contract was terminated over email because I refused to lie for the company, but that’s a whole other story.

2)      “Oh please come swimming with me”

With an estimated 30,000 cardiologists in attendance the ACC is perhaps the largest cardiology conference in the world. I attended it a few years ago to do some research into the way doctors were using smartphones and tablets in their work. Questionnaires at the ready, I stopped attendees at random and asked if they could spare a moment to answer some short questions. I was surprised by three things while I was there: the enormity of the conference, the shocking ratio of men to women (I had to attend a specific ‘Women in Cardiology’ lunch to fill my quota of female respondents), and the readiness for any of the men to assume that by talking to them I wanted something “more”.

On the bus back from the centre I got talking to an older gentleman who agreed to fill in my questionnaire. We got chatting about this and that – he told me about his wife and sons – we shared stories of places we’d travelled to. General chit-chat. He’d not quite finished the questionnaire when the bus reached my hotel, so he offered to buy me a drink and fill it in. To be honest, I was glad of the company since my work colleague had managed to lose his passport the day he was due to fly out. He seemed harmless, an older gent, with a relatively high level position at a professional organisation, telling me about his family. When my other contacts stood me up for dinner he offered to keep me company. All fine. All very pleasant. There were different cuisines of offer and I chose Italian, not realising that this was the restaurant at his hotel. It was a fine restaurant, he ordered some very expensive wine, I realised that US doctors must earn a pretty penny but opted for something pretty basic on the menu. I’m not one for taking advantage and if I were to offer to go halves on the bill I had to ensure it wouldn’t entirely cripple me.

By dessert, the conversation had changed somewhat. He wanted to know if I would go swimming with him since the hotel apparently had five different pools. My immediate thought was to reply “no, I don’t have my swimming costume”, but the last few days, and this change in the tone of the conversation had put me on guard somewhat. I knew he’d have a simple answer to that, and it was one that I didn’t want to hear him say.

“No” I said, internally wracking my brains for a good reason to put him off, “I’ve already been swimming today” I said, as though it was perfectly obvious that you couldn’t swim twice in one day. He kept on though, cajoling, encouraging, suggesting, and then eventually begging. I’m not even kidding. Here was a chap, a professional, intelligent chap, old enough to be my father (perhaps grandfather), begging me to go swimming with him.

I just didn’t know what to do. I wanted to run away. I wanted to get out of there. But I was brought up nicely, I didn’t want to appear rude, he’d just bought me dinner. But there he was, begging me. It was worse than David Brent in the Office, it was so cringe-worthy that I was embarrassed for him. He had no idea though. No sense of how pathetic he was and so he kept persisting. It was hard for me, I don’t like to let people down, I don’t like to make people unhappy, but this? No way. I got out of there as quick as I could, even though my relief at being safe in a taxi was shortlived as the driver then tried his own brand of “charm”. Back in my room I just felt weird. I never said anything to my colleagues.

It sounds quite funny now. The one where the prominent cardiologist begged me to go swimming… When I tell it as a story I make it into something funny, because that’s all I can do. The truth of it though, was that it made me feel deeply uncomfortable on so many levels, and once again left me questioning my own worth as a person, as good company, as anything other than a stupid shell.

The two stories above happened in the last few years. The two following stories happened in the past few months – and actually, within 24 hours of one another, leaving me feeling like shouting “seriously mankind, get your shit together”.

 3)      “You wanna suck my cock?”

I’d done my good deed for the day, I’d walked an elderly American couple back to their hotel so they didn’t get lost, okay, it meant I’d be home later than I would have liked, but it felt good – a nice way to end an evening with new friends.

I was walking home, it was around midnight, I was alert to people around me. I was scared by the large group of young guys heading toward me, but I passed them fine and felt relieved – almost home. That is why I was so shocked when I walked past a lone young man and he grabbed my bottom just as he passed me. I was shocked and I was annoyed. I shouted at him. I don’t like to shout, I’m a quiet person, but I was furious. “Fuck off” I said loudly. “Do you wanna suck my cock?” he replied. This time a full volume “FUCK OFF!”. Not intelligent, but all I could muster. I walked a few steps away, then turned around and shouted after him “Is your mother proud of you?”.

I’d read a story once, about a woman who was being raped, somehow managing to ask her attacker what his mother would say if she saw him right then. Would she be proud. It shocked him, enough to stop attacking her. I always thought what an incredible woman she was for thinking of that at the right moment, and not in the aftermath – anyone can think of something clever afterwards. I remind myself of that story and practice saying it in my mind every now and then, trying to ensure that should I ever be in that sort of situation it might spring to mind.

I don’t know what my night-groper thought. I hope that it stuck with him though. I marched on proudly for a couple of steps, and then burst into tears. I was physically shaking by the time I got home and it took a while to put the key in the door. I told Twitter because I needed someone to be there while I was in shock and I didn’t like to wake my housemate. People were lovely. They were patient as I ranted and they sent good wishes as they checked that I was okay.

I felt better than previous occasions when similar things had happened to me, because I had said something, I had shouted, but I also felt violated, scared, and angry. Someone told me to call the police, but I didn’t, I didn’t think there was anything they could do, I didn’t like to make a fuss. So what that someone touched my bum, is it that bad? Am I physical hurt? No, it could have been so much worse. But despite the lack of bruising or more serious assault, I was on edge for days. My home streets were no longer mine, no longer “safe” (and I put that in inverted commas, because this is London we’re talking about..). How dare this person take away my safety like that. At least I shouted though. I did something. That has been the worst thing in the past – the thinking that it was in some way my fault or that I should have said something. Beating myself up for letting someone take power away from me and then make me feel like I’m not allowed to say anything. Feeling embarrassed about myself because of something that someone else did. It’s a strange set of feelings, but reading other people’s stories I realise that they are not uncommon.

I don’t know why I shouted that night. I don’t know if I would be brave enough to shout again in future. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. I’d like to think that I would though, if someone else is doing something wrong, then why should I keep quiet through guilt or embarrassment?

4)      “I want to kiss you”

I woke up, still shaken by the above, but felt heartened by kind comments on Twitter and decided that I wasn’t going to let this boy take anything more from me. I drew a mental line under it, put on a smile and went to a conference.

At lunch I networked with various interested people in the queue for food and was then offered an open seat on one of the tables. I got talking to the people around me and the guy next to me mentioned something to do with space. Those that know of my alter-ego “spacekate” will know that it doesn’t take much to set me off enthusing about spaceflight and here was a wiling victim. I explained the T-10 app that I’m developing to help connect astronauts and people on Earth. He thought it was great. Having had a somewhat unsupportive time at work of late I was delighted that someone was genuinely interested in something of mine so I let it pass when he said it was so wonderful he wanted to give me “a metaphorical hug”. I thought it a strange turn of phrase and decided to give him a wide berth at the post-conference cocktails. I kept talking about work, things that I have created or developed. He kept saying he thought I was marvellous. It was getting a bit strange, so I made even more of an effort to talk about my professional life in line with the topic of the conference. Suddenly he said “You’re a difficult woman aren’t you? I want to kiss you.”

I was taken aback. Seriously. Not even 12 hours had passed since I’d been groped in the street and now this – at a professional conference in London. Unbelievable. I told him it made me feel uncomfortable. I was quiet and polite and yet still felt as though I shouldn’t say something to upset him. He brushed it off and I made my escape.

During the rest of the afternoon though I got more annoyed – both with him, and with myself. How many other women had he done that to? How many others said nothing? Why did he think that was appropriate behaviour in the context of the situation? And what of my professional skills? I thought that he was impressed with my achievements, but was that all just a way of buttering me up?

I couldn’t tell if I was over-reacting to be feeling so sleazed-upon. Perhaps I should just accept that some people are just like that? But this was more than a daft flirty comment, this made me feel really uncomfortable. I couldn’t concentrate in the sessions so I tweeted a bit about it. People were immediate and clear in their response – his behaviour was entirely unacceptable. It was okay for me to be cross. So I decided. At the next tea-break I was going to politely, but firmly tell him just that.

I waited until he was not locked in conversation and said hello. He looked delighted that I had come over to talk to him again. That didn’t last long.

I said that I wanted a word about our earlier conversation. I told him that it made me feel uncomfortable. His response was that “I say that to everyone”. Erm, right. I persisted, I said that it wasn’t appropriate in a professional setting when we had been talking about professional matters. “It’s a Latin thing” he said, “they would be offended if I hadn’t said that”. Putting all ridiculous imagined cultural stereotypes aside, for the moment, I told him to look around. “Is this Latin? No, it’s a business conference in the centre of London. You can’t act like that”. He’d just come back from “there” apparently, so still needed to adjust. I didn’t buy it. I told him that he really mustn’t say things like that, that it was inappropriate, uncalled for and made me uncomfortable. I also let him know that I had made the conference organisers aware of his behaviour. He looked crest-fallen, upset even, and I almost apologised for making him sad. I didn’t though. I caught myself just before that and told him not to put women in uncomfortable situations and gave a quick “thank you” before walking away.

It was the right thing to do. Whether he meant to cause offence or genuinely thought he was being friendly, I had to let him know that it’s not the done thing. I hope that in future he will think twice. Who knows. All I know was that it was draining, that I was still left questioning myself and that despite it being his own doing, I felt bad for upsetting someone else. Then I felt annoyed to be feeling that too.

I don’t like to make a big deal of things,I’m writing this now because there is a conversation happening and I think that the more people share their experiences the more people will realise it is something that needs to be addressed. These are not the worst things that could have happened to me, thank goodness, but like I said, these situations leave you with a strange mix of feelings. It’s really disconcerting each time. Such a mix of guilt, anger, fear, doubt, embarrassment and more, even if you stand up to this unacceptable behaviour it is tiring. I am glad that more people are speaking out and sharing stories. I’m just sorry it has taken me so long to do so myself.

These are by no means all the stories that I could tell you, there are many others from my online and offline life, some less significant, others more so. The latter are riddled with complex feelings or misplaced loyalties. I’m not ready to share those. I’m sorry.

Flowers in the rain

•June 12, 2013 • 1 Comment

Flowers in the reain

It’s been a long winter. Even now, almost mid-June, Granny has got the heating on and I’ve been staring at dull grey skies.

If like me you need a bit of sunshine in your life, you may have got frustrated by the grey, but take time to smell the roses. Genuinely, they’re flowering now, so stop and smell them.

I’ve been walking to work and noticing the vibrancy of the flowers that have appeared. Not quite sunshine, but the next best thing perhaps, reminding us of the beauty inherent in nature.

I’ve been meaning to take some snapshops of them, to celebrate them, share them. Today was the day I said I’d make the time. Of course then it rained. (And rained and rained.) The flowers were out, so I decided that should should I be, and the above is a little collection of some of the photos I took on my smartphone. The full set is on Flickr.

Hopefully they will help brighten your day too.

Is “feminist” a dirty word?

•February 6, 2013 • 5 Comments

Equality

 

I recently wrote a blog post about the sexism inherent in the latest Lynx Apollo advertising campaign, which wants to send 22 brave men to space. The post got quite a lot of attention both on social and traditional media, with Forbes, Discovery News and RIA Novosti all picking up on the issue. Tomorrow morning I’m going to be on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme talking about why I think the adverts are damaging.

There have been many comments, some supportive, some questioning why I would be surprised that a male brand is targeting men, some giving personal reasons as to why this sort of campaign could put young women off thinking about astronautics as a career. Then there was one comment stream that really bothered me. Partly because it seemed to miss the central point of my post, partly because it tried to make out that I thought things I didn’t – then labelled me a hypocrite for thinking them, and then because it stated things like “Both men and women seem to be getting quite irritated by cynical privilege seeking from feminists.”

I have to say that this honestly baffled me. There was nothing in my post that asked for any privilege, I was just pointing out I had hoped that in this day and age, advertisers should be above using damaging sexist stereotypes.

The definition of feminism is “The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men”. Equality being a key word here. Calling for equality, is not seeking privilege in my mind. I’m pretty sure I’ve not missed anything there. Equality for women, also equals equality for men. The major clue being the word equality. Right?

Does that make me a feminist? Well on the basis of the definition, yes, of course. So why did I feel strange when someone suggested that I was? It should be something to be proud of. Maybe it was the suggestion that by pointing out an inequality for women, I couldn’t possibly be interested in any other exisiting inequalities. This is not the case.

Another part of the problem revealed itself a little further along in the comment thread. The perception of what a “feminist” actually is doesn’t necessarily match the definition. The same commenter turned to a female friend to ask what she thought of feminists: “Ugly lesbians who want to be treated equally to men by being treated special” was her reply. Aha. I’m not that, and it’s not the start of that sentence that bothers me, but the end. “Want to be treated equally to men by being treated special”, no, that isn’t what feminism is about. Not in my book, and not by the definition. Feminists want equality, right? What’s wrong with that? If they wanted special treatment, then they would be hypocrites, indeed. I totally agree, but the issue is that if people assume that it what feminism is about, it makes it very easy to label things as “feminism” and then ignore them. This is itself dangerous.

If you believe feminism to be something which by definition it isn’t, you are bringing your own prejudices to situations and using the term to excuse you from having to engage with them. That means that important issues can just be trivialised as people making a fuss over nothing, or wanting to be “treated special”.

I’m uncomfortable with this idea. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I paused before posting my original blog in the first place, because I knew that someone would try to belittle my concerns or make out I was making a mountain out of a molehill. But then I decided that if everyone felt too scared to speak out, then nothing would ever change. This was something that I could do, so I did it.

It is a shame that the idea of feminism has been muddied like this, to the point that it makes me feel uncomfortable to label myself a “feminist” because I know that people think of it in the wrong way. What a shame that after all the hard work that has been done by feminists, that the term is now being used as an insult to shut people down. I don’t know what to do about it, can we reclaim it for good and remind people of the true definition, or is it now just associated with extreme militant views?

I genuinely don’t know. What do you think?

 

Leveson: Am I missing something?

•November 29, 2012 • 3 Comments

Today we found out what Lord Justice Leveson had to say about the press and future of press regulation. The past few days have seen newspaper and magazine editors getting their knickers in a twist about things and coming out with some real nonsense. If I didn’t know better, I would have been quite scared that the freedom of the press was at stake. But unless I’m entirely missing something, no such thing was ever suggested.

Fraser Nelson, Editor at The Spectator spoke out to say they would refuse to sign up to anything enforced by government. I sat open-mouthed as Charles Blackhurst, Editor of the Independent suggested that if a regulator were set up, he’d have to keep ringing them to check he could print stories. Now either he’s totally daft (in which case how did he get to the position he’s in) or he’s scare-mongering.

My background is broadcasting. We are regulated by Ofcom. Does that stop us broadcasting news and entertainment? No. Does that stop good journalism? No. Have I ever called them to check something I’m about to put on air? No. Of course not. It doesn’t work like that. It’s just there to ensure that competitions are fair, children are protected, and listeners have a place to go to complain if they think they’ve been mistreated or found something offensive. Does Ofcom fine broadcasters for every complaint? No. They look at the evidence, the context and make a decision, independent of the broadcaster. That doesn’t seem too awful to me.

So Leveson suggests an independent body, well that makes sense. We’ve had the Press Complaints Commission “marking their own homework” for years and it’s not exactly doing a great job of keeping the papers in line. When I say “in line”, I am not talking about muzzling the press, but just stopping them overstepping the mark and doing horrendous things, like hacking the phone of a missing school girl. Most journalists wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing, so why should they be worried? The independence of this body should be backed up by legislation says Leveson. Okay. What’s so bad about that? An independent body, that *has* to be independent. Why is that scary? Why would that worry you? If you are doing good journalism, then you should be confident in your story and your skills to get that story out without breaking the law, intruding people’s privacy or hounding them. Occasionally there may be cases where the public interest may override the usual rules, but there are laws to protect you on that too. I really am at a loss as to why this should be such a bad thing.

Of course there will be people making a fuss about this, undoubtedly the papers will have something to say tomorrow, but for now, if anyone can tell me why the Leveson report is anything other than reasonable, common sense, please let me know. With all the fuss about it, I feel like I must be missing something, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s (parts of) the newspaper industry that are missing something. The simple truth that good journalism does not involve hacking phones and taking long lens photos of members of the royal family just to sell a few more papers, and that if they had confidence in their journalists, regulation shouldn’t be something they fear.

The Business of Death

•November 23, 2012 • 2 Comments

A Special Sunet

I’ve been a little quiet this week. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking. Thinking about the things I’ve lost, thinking about the things I’ve gained. Thinking about how nice it would be to show my mum what I’ve achieved in the years since I lost her. Tuesday marked the eighth anniversary of her death. That means I’ve spent a quarter of my life without her. Unimaginable, and yet true.

Today someone asked me to review some of their radio work, including a project that they did at university. It reminded me that I also made a mini-documentary for my Broadcast Journalism Post Grad at City, which I started the year after I lost mum. Something to get me out of bed each morning, and perhaps help me along on my career path.

When it came to choosing a topic for my piece I was still obviously thinking about all that had happened. One of the first things I thought after I lost mum was “what do I do with a dead body?”. Seriously, it’s might sound mad, but it just came into my head. I had no idea, and I had no idea how you were supposed to know. Luckily, I was at a very kind hospital, Queen’s Square in London and the staff helped me, told me what I had to do next, and I got on with it, because I had to, because I had no idea what else I was supposed to do. How to act, how to feel, how to go on.

One of the things that struck me, was just how much it cost to arrange a funeral. It’s something that we don’t like to talk about, death I mean, so it’s no wonder that this alien world of funeral directors and disbursements was a bit of a shock.  I guess it sort of bothered me that I had so little idea about what I was meant to do, and what to expect, so I turned that into this short documentary entitled “The Business of Death”. The idea was to shed a bit of light on the costs involved, and find out why things were so expensive. To talk about something we don’t often dare to mention. Death.

As I sat at the funeral director’s and they listed options and prices I was in a whirl. I wanted to do the best I could for mum. I wanted to show people who attended the funeral just how much I cared. But I also had her voice in the back of my head “Oh just pop me in the woods where I can fertilise the trees, that’ll be fine”. “How much? We could fly to Ghana and back for that”.

I knew that my mother wouldn’t want me to waste lots of money on a coffin that was just going to get cremated anyway. I asked about the eco-friendly basket options, even the cardboard box-style eco-coffins and almost wanted to shout out loud (in fact I may have done!) “how much”. I’d had this idea that I could personally decorate a cardboard coffin to make it look nice, a final gesture of love for her, but when they wanted to charge me over £1000 for a box that looked no better than that which my stereo came in, I just couldn’t do it. That voice, mum’s voice, was too strong and too clear. She wouldn’t have wanted that. I felt a pang of guilt, shame almost, asking if there were a cheaper option. What if I was being judged by the funeral organiser, what if the guests would think I didn’t care? But one thing that mum taught me was that money isn’t love. Time and thought, those are love. I stuck to my guns, opting for something that she would have felt happier with. I couldn’t splash out on something ridiculous and expensive, she’d roll in her grave – the words had left my mouth before I realised the irony…

I got over the feeling of shame. This was my mum’s funeral, no-one else’s. I know she wouldn’t have wanted the metallic pink coffin with the satin lining, the enormous wooden casket with a bad copy of The Last Supper carved into the inside lid, and I was pretty sure the painted Westham fan coffin wouldn’t float her boat either. No, we were doing this our way, she was (and is) still a part of me, and I was going to do what she would have wanted.

So there I was, sitting in the Co-operative funeral care shop (yes, there’s a kind of funeral supermarket in my area, coffins on show, pick what you like etc) and it dawned on me.

“You’re the co-op aren’t you?”

“Yes”

“The co-op co-op? Like the supermarket?” I asked

“Yes” said the assistant, wondering where I was going to go next.

And there it was. My mum’s voice, echoing in my head. My mum, who loved to grab a bargain and collect airmiles and bonus points.

“It’s just that my gran has a co-op dividend card, would she get points on the funeral?” I asked, somewhat timidly, but thinking what pleasure mum would get from knowing she was keeping grannie and grampa in food for a month through the bonus points.

“Well, I suppose she might” said the assistant. “I’ll have to go and check”. She trotted off, I threw my friend a little smile. I was back in control, that’s exactly the sort of stupid cheeky question that mum would have asked. The assistant came back a moment later.

“I’m sorry” she said, “you don’t get points on a funeral, but as a cooperative member, you do get 10% off”.

I realise that may seem like a very odd thing to have done, but sometimes, when the worst things happen, you have to revel in any humour you can find. I’ve never been so pleased that so many people have such awful taste as the day I went to arrange mum’s funeral. Honestly, how could you keep a straight face looking at the hideous, gaudy, enormous boxes that some people opt for. Don’t get me wrong, I understand exactly why they might do it, but I also know that my mum would be laughing with me.

Anyway, back to the point. I made this little documentary to investigate what people thought the cost of a funeral would be, and to look into the reality of it. Why are funerals so expensive. It was quite soon after I’d lost mum, so I suppose part of it was a challenge to myself, and part of it was a wish to bring the subject out in to the open so that other people didn’t get caught out and shocked like I did.

There is a health warning on this audio. Around eight minutes in I visit a crematorium and I record some sounds there. As a radio person it’s fascinating, powerful audio (I think). Personally it could upset people, but remember, I recorded this in the very crematorium that cremated my mother, and despite my initial fear, I actually found it quite reassuring.

I made this over six years ago, there are a few small things that I would change, but overall, I think that it has stood the test of time quite well. I’d love to know what you think.

Books, books, books

•April 11, 2012 • 8 Comments

Books books books

I love books. The feel of them, the look of them, the smell of them. The feeling of comfort being surrounded by them, and the wealth of knowledge, emotion and amazing tales the house within their pages.

Mum loved books too. In fact, like me, she collected shelves and shelves of them. I need to be strong and keep clearing more space, ready to make this house my own, but what do you do about books? It’s so hard to part with them. Each time I glance at a box I see another title jump out and I’m tempted to pluck it out and add it to my never-ending pile of “must-reads”.

I can’t though. I can’t just keep hanging on to everything. I’m trying to be good. I’m trying to declutter. So that means that books will have to go. I can’t just box them up and let them go though. That library of books that mum built up over her lifetime, they echo her and her interests. I feel her close when I pick up the yellowing pages of the Colloquial Egyptian Arabic Dictionary, knowing she would have spent hours looking through and reciting their contents. The Catalogue of Antiquities of the Cairo Museum and a 1960 guide to Egypt. Those are all part of the life she lead. Working in Egypt for over a year – a pioneer of the ‘year out’ you might say – learning the language, exploring the museum and all its treasures.

Then there are the craft books – silver-smithing, jewellery making, patchwork, weaving, knitting, and of course shoe-making. She did all of these things. Her wonderful creativity reflected in the many boxes of wool, material samples, beads and more. I’m yet to sort through these all properly. I’m dying to find someone with a love of stitching or knitting, who might take on the challenge of making me something beutiful that I can enjoy, in return for the rest of the materials. The eight-volume set, bound in dark green, Boots and Shoes: Their Manufacture, Making and Selling, is a wonderful repository of historical shoe-making techniques.

There are book about artists, collections of poems, one even has a personal poem inscribed inside the front cover, by the poet, and author of the book, Adrian Henri. There are novels by Orwell, Camus, Golding and Kafka. Books about teaching, introducing maths, children with special educational needs. Books about gardening, travelling, West African folk tales and from female Egyptian novelists. It’s a real mixed collection. A real reflection of some of her loves, interests and life.

So what do I do with them? I’ve got a catalogue so I can go back and read what she read one day. I don’t need the physical books. But I was always taught to treasure things. We didn’t have much when I was growing up, so we treasured those things we did have. We looked after everything, kept it nice. Saved odd bits of string “because it might come in useful one day”, recycled what there really was no use for. We didn’t really get rid of things that weren’t still useful, and books are always useful. So what do I do?

I could just give them all to a charity shop, but I’m saving up to go on an exciting university course, that I’m sure mum would be excited by too, so maybe I should try to get some money for them? I thought about a second hand book seller, but I doubt I’d get very much, even selling so many. If I’m not going to get much, then I think I’d rather see them go to good homes, people who will enjoy them at least. People have suggested I try Amazon marketplace, but there are so many, and I just don’t quite have the time to list them all and the faff with posting them out. So what should I do?

It’s hard letting go of books. Might you have a good home for any of them? If you’d like to help me get to space university perhaps we could swap? A few pennies towerds my dream in exchange for an interesting book or two? Here’s a list of mum’s books and a few others from around the house. If you’d like any, please let me know.

Kindness and true friends

•April 2, 2012 • 4 Comments

I’ll admit it. I’ve had a really tough few months. Various bits of my life which seemed secure, all developed a sense of insanity and decided to kick me in the teeth. It was alarming and upsetting. I thought it must all be my fault. My friends were there to prop me up and help me realise that I’ve just had an incredibly unlucky phase. Since I left Audioboo a few weeks back, I’ve started to find myself again. I’m no longer being ignored or undermined and people have told me I’m good at what I do. It’s been so long since I heard someone say that at work and it really knocked my confidence. I worked hard, I made things happen, but it wasn’t the right place for me. There’s a bigger story there, but that’s for another day.

This is just a short, open letter of thanks to the people who have gone out of their way to be there for me. People who really didn’t need to. True friends are there through thick and thin, and my friends have outdone themselves in these last few months, but there are other people too. People I barely know, but have taken the time to get to know me, who’ve helped me believe in myself again. Who’ve seen something of value in me and let me know. Thank you.

I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such kindness, such time and effort from people (and one of them is currently in space!), but I want them to know how grateful I am. I know that some people just see me doing all the fun amazing things that I like to do, and probably think I don’t have a care in the world. That’s not the case at all. I just know that when there are good times to be had, and adventures to go on, you might as well pull out all the stops so that you can bank those amazing memories for rainy days. I’d rather have great stories and great friends than money anyway.

Sometimes I just feel so humbled that people spare a moment of time for me, that astronauts remember who I am, that I have made friends out of business contacts, and have a network of lovely people around the world (and orbiting it). It’s important never to take these things for granted, and this is me, showing that I don’t.

I do my best to bring people along on the adventures I have. I know that not everyone is in the position to travel or take the risks that I do, but it’s nice when people – like my Granny – live vicariously through me. I’ve done my best to ensure that when I’m on space adventures I include new space tweeps in the fun, and I’ve lined up a special surprise for a Japanese lady called Kayoko who came all the way from Japan to attend a TweetUp at CNES  in France this week. It was her first trip to Europe, her first tweetup and she came all that way on her own. I wanted to find a way to reward that sort of bravery and adventurous spirit, so all being well, a special treat will arrive with her soon.

Lego shuttle!

A special treat arrived for me today. I’m overwhelmed with the kindness and thought that went into it. I’ve a Lego shuttle staring at me, tempting me away from serious work. I can’t quite explain what I’m feeling right now. A mixture of excitement, gratefulness, overwhelmed-ness and humbleness, maybe even a hint of pride. As I said when NASA administrator Charlie Bolden talked about me, “I guess I must have done something right”.

Thank you to all of you’ve who’ve stuck by me and believed in me. You know who you are and I hope you know what you mean to me.

 
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