Thursday, 2 April 2020

Turn down the suspicion

I watched the deputy chief medical officer making an announcement on the television a few days ago. She seems to think that we might be in this lock-down scenario for another six months, which is information I’m sure the majority of us took with an inward gasp of air. It really got me thinking: Obviously people are dying at the moment - in almost staggering numbers - and for the time being, health professionals probably need to be taking the lead in guiding us through the early stages of this pandemic. But, at a certain point, if the economy collapses because no one is allowed to go back to work, we could face a far deeper crisis. We are justifiably protecting the vulnerable in society at the moment, but, as lockdown measures continue, a whole new set of people will find themselves in deep water, and the government can’t keep bailing us out - particularly if there’s no hope of our economy being kick-started. 

Of course, there’s a lot of talk of kindness at the moment and, almost every time I look at social media, I find myself moved by the genuinely altruistic gestures of others. But I’m also seeing a lot of self-serving posturing and general virtue-signalling, which I think we could all do without - particularly from celebrities who seem to take great delight in posting their marvellous messages of hope from beautiful houses which look out onto enormous gardens. And, furthermore, in the process of demonstrating that “we’re all in this together”, others are taking to the Internet and being quite horrible to those they feel are not towing the virtuous party line. 

After what we went through last summer, it was no surprise to me that a knitter decided to use the “clap for our carers” initiative as an opportunity to “call out” Nathan, whose weekly online knit-a-long happens to start at 8pm on a Thursday, the very time that those of us who felt moved to do so were opening our windows and applauding our over-stretched health service. This knitter’s tone felt horribly smug and self-righteous, as she admonished Nathan for “making money” whilst the rest of us thanked our brave NHS workers. And to that knitter I say the following:

  1. Nathan’s online knit-a-longs are for people around the world and not just Brits
  2. Nathan is running them (without any form of monetising) so that people, at the same time each week, can check in with members of their community in a period where many are suffering great loneliness
  3. Gestures of kindness and solidarity like the “clap for our carers” initiative are only magical if people take part in them because they want to, and not because they’re told it’s a duty. 

We really need to stop focussing on what other people are doing and start focussing on what we ourselves are doing during this crisis. Quietly turn the negativity into positivity.

Let me make this statement: We are all different. We are all dealing with this awful situation in the best way we can. Some of us are coping better than others. Some of us are better placed to cope than others. Most government advice, in my experience, seems to assume that the majority of us are part of a nuclear family. But many people I know, of all ages, are living on their own and this lockdown is causing anxiety and waves of terrible loneliness.

The other thing I have observed in the few days I’ve been out of the house for walks since my Covid-19 quarantine effectively came to an end is how people, certainly in London, are really icy with those they pass in the street when they’re out on their constitutionals. I understand that we’re all terrified - but we’re not going to pass coronavirus onto anyone by smiling whilst we’re doing that hysterical do-se-do around them, whilst, simultaneously (if you’re me) holding our breath. It really isn’t very kind to look at everyone you pass like they’re plague victims. 


Nathan and I went down to Hampstead Garden Suburb for our walk yesterday. It’s now 18 days since we got the virus, so, by every calculation we’re now fully recovered. I celebrated by getting a vegetarian pastie at Daniel’s, a kosher bakery in Temple Fortune. There were only three people in the shop and two women were queueing behind us. As we turned to leave, one of these women scuttled to the other end of the shop. The woman behind her, somewhat confused, asked if she was still in the queue to which the scuttling woman replied “yes, I just wanted to get away from THOSE people.” She pointed at us like we’d just shat on the floor. As we left, Nathan addressed her, “it’s very difficult not to be offended by that remark…” I’m sure, had she found out that we’d actually had the virus, she would have considered her dreadfully unkind statement to have been justified. As it happened, it just upset me. Coronavirus, it turns out, isn’t a great deal of fun. I have had a pretty awful pair of weeks and I was actually really excited that I had sufficient energy to go for a walk and enough appetite to want to eat a pastie. I get that we’re all terrified, I really do, and perhaps it’s easier for me to say this, as someone who’s recovered relatively unscathed, but we really need to turn down the suspicion by a notch and start to treat those we’re forced to interact with with a little more respect. 

Monday, 30 March 2020

Wedding anniversary

Last night, at about midnight, I had a sudden flash of “what the fuck?” I realised that we are actually living through what, for so many years, has been the sort of thing which only happens in movies. Thirteen years ago, I worked as the acting coach on a film called 28 Weeks Later. The film was set in a post-apocalyptic London, 28 weeks after a weird virus had turned most of the population into rage-fuelled, blood-thirsty zombies. Actually, we weren’t allowed to call them zombies because they weren’t actually dead - they were known instead as the “infected.” We did a lot of filming in iconic London locations in the early hours of the morning. At the time it felt like quite a treat to be on Shaftesbury Avenue with all the theatre marquees turned off and no cars or pedestrians in sight. It gave us the opportunity to go down into abandoned tube stations, and strange tunnels and snickleways. One Sunday morning we did some filming in Finsbury Park. This particular sequence focussed on an upturned car on Stroud Green Road, positioned outside a bashed-up pizza restaurant. I think there were some corpses. To be honest, there were always corpses - it was a horror movies after all! I remember watching a night bus passing the scene, and a group of somewhat terrified clubbers, bleached-out from a night of partying, staring down at the scene, trying to compute what they were witnessing. 

And last night, I suddenly realised that I was living through the very thing which had seemed so far-fetched back in 2007!

I watched aerial footage of some of London’s key tourist destinations, all eerily empty. There was a shot of the pedestrian bridge over the Thames which runs from St Paul’s to the Tate Modern. We filmed sequences for 28 Weeks Later there as well - one early morning in October. The sunrise we witnessed on that day remains the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever witnessed. The sky was initially filled with streaks of mauve and lavender and then, as the sun appeared, everything turned orange and yellow. Every window lit up - almost as though the whole city were on fire. 

I have another rather special memory attached to that bridge. Back in 1999, when it opened, Sam Becker and I were working at the New Ambassadors Theatre. The bridge had some sort of design flaw which none of its architects had predicted. If people walked on it, on masse, their footsteps would somehow align, and the whole bridge started to bounce - really quite dramatically. Sam and I, keen for new experiences, decided to walk from the theatre down to the bridge to experience the phenomenon for ourselves. I guess it was almost midnight when we finally got there, but the place was heaving with people having a fabulous time walking across the bridge. And it was the most bizarre, stomach-churning experience. Like a fairground ride. It was almost as though the floor were somehow rippling underneath our feet. It was how I imagine an earthquake must feel. 

Of course, the following day, the bridge was closed for an extended period whilst they figured out how to remedy the situation, so I am always very grateful that Sam and I had thought to be so spontaneous. 

I think I feel a little better every day. I’m not coughing anything like as much as I was, but my sense of smell still hasn’t returned. I thought I could smell the soap I was using in the bath this morning, but that might have been a memory of the good old days! I am having surreal dreams, which my father tells me is a symptom of a virus. I dreamed a few days ago that I’d learned how to play the flute. For me, this is about as random as anything I could ever have imagined. Hell would freeze over before I EVER took an interest in the devil’s pipe. Flutes are the coriander of the musical world.

It was our sixth wedding anniversary yesterday, and, in line with our once-yearly tradition, we strolled up to Alexandra Palace. Readers will remember that we got married - in song, and on the telly - in a disused Victorian theatre deep within the “Ally Pally” complex. 

Our yearly visit to the Palace gives us an opportunity to see whether spring has come early or late in any given year. In 2014 it came particularly early. We’d had weeks of wonderful, unbroken sunshine in the run-up to the wedding and this is very much captured in the filming we did for the show’s opening sequence. Meriel appears in shot at one point like Julie Andrews twirling in a sunny alpine meadow!

Nathan’s sister stayed with us the night before the big day, and we got a taxi up to the venue first thing. There are a number of photographs of me holding a bouquet of dusky pink roses which had been sent to us by the singer Katie Melua - a particularly wonderful surprise and it was the first thing we were handed as we arrived. I remember my brother arriving very early, and then Hilary, and the five of us walking, with our photographer Gaby, to a blossom tree where we spent a wonderful few minutes enjoying the sensation of the pink and white petals falling down on us like confetti. The view from Ally Pally over London is spectacular and I remember it looking very misty in the early morning sunshine. I also remember noticing that the rainbow flag was flying from a flagpole outside the complex and feeling incredibly moved, welcomed and accepted. It was amazing to think how far the gay rights movement had come in my lifetime. That frightened little child who didn’t dare to tell his Mum that he’d been spat at in the street because people had decided he was gay was now the poster boy for true equality. And that felt magical. 

Of course, a lot of people at the time were telling us that gay marriage was going to lead to the end of society as we know it. Back then, the Christians were convinced there would be a giant flood. God was really going to let us have it to show quite how much he hated the concept of same-sex marriage. In the end God sent weeks of sunshine - and ironically chose to break the glorious sunny spell, some three weeks after we’d got married… on Easter Sunday! I’m sure there were one or two very disappointed and confused Christians that year. I often wonder how these religious sects must feel; you know, the ones who sit on the edge of a cliff waiting for the rapture to come. At what stage must they think, “oh dear, we’ve given all of our worldly possessions to the people who told us the end of the world is nigh, and now we’ve got to re-enter society with our tails between our legs.”? I think, if I weren’t brain-washed, I might feel a bit of anger. 

The blossom wasn’t quite as advanced on the trees this year as it was back in 2014. It has been very sunny of late in London, but yesterday morning, maybe just as a little subtle warning from nature not to spend the weekend passing the virus around willy-nilly, it actually hailed. Proper hail. 


Ally Pally was, of course, next to empty. The weather didn’t help, but they’ve also closed the car parks to stop people from congregating there. They’ve also blocked most of it off, so you can’t go up to the building itself. We walked up to the boating lake. They have these wonderful pedalos shaped like flamingos and swans, but all are moored to the island in the middle of the lake. One wonders how long it will take for nature to start taking over. How long will it be until the boats are covered in mill-dew and algae? How long until weeds start to push up through the tarmac? One day, we may well know whether those set dressers on 28 Weeks Later got it right. 

If reading this blog has given you a sense that you might like to see our wedding again - or for the first time - we have a link which you can follow for a private viewing. Let me know if you enjoy... Happy times. 


www.nathantaylor.co.uk/ourgaywedding.m4v

Friday, 27 March 2020

The infected

It feels like forever since I last wrote a blog. I’ve had very little to write about. Since the business with Nathan last summer, I’ve not much liked the world. It’s felt vengeful. Brutal. Angry. Divided. I’ve felt irrelevant. Ignored. Old. 

And, of course, in the last few weeks, the world has descended into… well, what is this? How can any of us effectively describe the situation we’re presently in? Is this the “black out” that the shamans warned us about? Is this the beginning of the end? Or is this the moment when we take a collective step backwards in an attempt to learn what we’ve been doing wrong, so we can finally begin the process of healing? 

It’s certainly a surreal time. A frightening time. More than anything else, I suspect, it’s a time when we realise how fragile ALL human beings are.

My union, the Musicians’ Union, awarded me a grant of £200 to help me to pay this month’s rent. For the first time in my life, I received financial assistance without having to fill in a painstakingly long form. I wasn’t asked which word best describes my gender or ethnicity. I wasn’t asked to apologise for being who I am. The union simply asked if I needed help. The answer was yes and a day later the money was transferred into my account. 

My own story is, of course, echoed by creative freelancers around the world. Three weeks ago, I lost nearly all of my work. Every day, over the course of about a week, the emails came in to tell me that my diary had been denuded. I fell into an absolute panic, waking up in the night in pools of sweat wondering what was going to happen to me. 

But then I realised it was happening to other people. More and more of us. Other musician friends were losing their work. The theatres were closing - and the bars and cafes. Then the schools, the shops… And there we all were; an army of workers, scratching our heads, shell-shocked, challenged in ways we could never have predicted. 

And then Nathan and I got sick. We spent nine days in complete isolation, living with this infamous virus which had travelled all the way from a market in a region of China I’d never heard of. We initially told very few people and simply hunkered down. The stigma felt great - and we didn’t want people to panic. The problem with Coronavirus is that it consumes all of your thoughts. The news seemed to suggest that it was the second stage of the illness - the coughing - which was carrying people to their graves. And so you sit, waiting for the cough to come, going to bed at night with a heavy chest wondering if you’ll even wake up in the morning. And the other thing about the virus is that it makes your head feel very strange. A sort of fug descends which, on one hand, fills your brain with bizarre existential thoughts, and, on the other, makes it almost impossible to focus on anything. And worse than that is the fact that the symptoms come and go. One day you’re full of beans. The next you’re exhausted again. And after a while, this can start to make a person oscillate between depression and anger.  

And the sodding thing throws insane symptoms your way. All of those adverts which say that the only two things to watch out for are a fever and a dry cough are just nonsense. I, for example, have had no sense of smell or taste for four days. Nathan’s eyes ached and he had weird deafness. I had oddly painful feet, terrible upper back pains… But the number one symptom is fatigue. A deep, dark, fuck-this type of fatigue. 

The other thing you find yourself regularly doing is shouting at the telly to tell them that their numbers are wrong. They have to be. If no one but the very ill and the very famous are getting tested for COVID-19, how on earth does anyone know how many of us have it? Our Prime Minister has it. Our future king has it. This thing is everywhere. I have it. Nathan has it. Becky has it. Jo has it. Thierry has it. My brother probably has it. Are any of us included in the official figures? Of course not! And then the next question is whether there are legions of people who are getting it, but experiencing no symptoms. And we won’t know any answers at all until we start aggressively testing. 

What does seem to be the case is that the virus has sunk its teeth into my synagogue. The festival of Purim, I suspect, came at the wrong time. 

I’m horrified to say that people are dying. 

I was devastated by the news of the passing of one particular old gentleman of whom I was particularly fond. I actually dedicated an arrangement to him and his wife in the concert we did last month. He got ill on Friday and died on Monday. His wife, now ill, has been forced to self-isolate. There’s no one there to hug her or do any of the things which bring hope and respite to the grieving. 

And then, of course, other members of the community are feeling frightened and desperately lonely. 

The irony, of course, is that we endured gale after gale in the first half of the year, but since we’ve all been in lockdown, the sun has shone every single day! Spring has come. Blossom is heavy on all the trees. I woke up two days ago thinking how much I wanted to see my parents. On a day like that, at any other time, I’d have jumped into my car and gone to see them. But we can’t. Mothering Sunday came and went with very few people getting to see their parents. 

There is, however, something strangely comforting about all of us being in the same boat. It reminds us of our commonality in an era where we were being forced to see only difference. And I believe this is the key to the healing of society. 

At 8pm yesterday night, something very beautiful happened. The entire nation stopped to applaud our beloved National Health Service. I wasn’t entirely convinced that Londoners would want to get involved in an initiative like this. Though it’s painfully true that, here in the capital, we’re ahead of the curve in terms of numbers of infections, Londoners can be a little prickly and arch. We aren’t renowned for our sense of community spirit. 

Anyway, at a few minutes to 8, I opened my window and looked out into the street. I could see a group of three people standing on the pavement opposite who seemed to be looking at their watches. Of course, the eerie thing was the lack of traffic on the roads. If people had started clapping on Ballards Lane at 8pm on an evening before self-isolation started, we almost certainly wouldn’t have heard anything but the roar of engines. 

But suddenly I could see windows opening in flats above the shops opposite - and, at the stroke of 8, the applause started. It echoed down the empty streets. Soon it became cheering and then whistling. It lasted about a minute. It would almost die-out for a few moments and then take off again. 

The idea that people were doing this the length and breadth of the country was deeply moving. My mother said that her entire street in Thaxted had taken part. Hilary and Meriel applauded in Lewes. We were united in our pride in and love for the NHS. Many of us will desperately need its services over the next few months. Some of the people who stood and applauded last night will find themselves on NHS ventilators, feeling absolute gratitude that our health system is still available - free - for everyone. 

We none of us know where any of this is heading. The only thing we know for certain is that things will get harder before they improve. I can’t help but think that this is an opportunity for us all, however. This event could go down in history as the movement when we rediscovered the true meaning of kindness. The moment when we collectively reappraised the meaning of happiness. The time when we stopped shouting and started listening. When we discovered that there’s a difference between what we want and what we need. When we stopped demanding our rights and instead focussed on our responsibilities. Who knows, this may even be the moment when we finally redistribute wealth. Owning a house might become a basic human right and not another way of making obscene amounts of money. 


Please stay well. And if you’re lonely - reach out. Tell someone. They may not be able to come running to you in the flesh, but the one thing about this crisis is that we’ve all got a lot of time on our hands to listen. 

Monday, 17 February 2020

Kindness

Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby paid a very moving tribute to Caroline Flack on Dancing On Ice last night. For those reading this blog from far-flung places, Caroline Flack is a British TV presenter who, on Friday, took her own life at the age of 40. The finger of blame is pointing very firmly at social media and the media in general. She was hounded mercilessly after apparently assaulting her partner who subsequently asked for the charges to be dropped. 

Holly Willougby quoted a tweet from Caroline with a particularly beautiful message, “in a world where you can be anything: be kind.” 

And so, today, social media is filled with people writing about kindness. Ironically, the trap that many seem to be falling into is the belief that they still have carte blanche to be as unkind as they like - as long as they’re being unkind about those they deem to be unkind. I have read so many tweets angrily demanding everyone stop following Piers Morgan, Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage because of their hate-filled words. Frankly why anyone would follow any of these people in the first place is beyond me, but they are also the most obvious examples of figures who court controversy by spouting prejudice-filled bile. They’re the sorts of names us liberals can fire into the echo chamber and be met with a sure-fire round of applause. Criticising them makes us feel good about ourselves because we’re signalling to the world that we’re virtuous. But the likes of Nigel Farage don’t give a shit what us liberals think about him. We’re not his target audience! 

The great irony is that I saw people tweeting messages today about kindness today whom I’ve witnessed aggressively piling onto people who don’t share their very narrow and specific views, and people who have publicly shamed others who’s only crime was questioning the liberal status quo.

And here’s the thing which really upsets me: 

Most of the people reading this blog will know that, in July this year, my husband lost his livelihood and very nearly lost his life as a result of asking people to be kind to each other. The only differences between what he said and the beautiful words of Caroline Flack were that he was asking for people to respect one another whilst discussing the thorny issue of diversity. Within minutes his words had been twisted and the obliterating tidal wave of hatred rolled over us.

And let me tell you something: It’s not the figures like Piers Morgan whose opinions cut the deepest when the shit hits the fan, it’s your friends who suddenly distance themselves from you. It’s the people you worked with in the industry who, out of fear for their own careers, disown you on social media without so much as phoning you up to find out the truth. And believe me, that is where a lack of kindness really shows itself in its horrific true colours. 

And that is when you realise who your true friends are. And believe me, I will eternally be grateful to every single friend, family member, colleague, ex-lover and person in the knitting world who kept us alive in the dark times. You know who you are. I wish I could thank you all by name, but they’d only go after you. 

Before what happened to Nathan, I was as guilty as anyone else of allowing my venom to be sharpened as a result of reading nothing but headlines. Particularly when it came to matters relating to the LGBT community, I could be incredibly self-righteous, deeply sarcastic, dismissive and horribly mean. When Seyi Omooba was offered the role of Celie in The Colour Purple, and homophobic tweets that she’d previously sent were made public, I became utterly addicted to outrage. I would often get myself so worked up by the anger I felt, that I’d sit up late at night, picking online fights with anyone in the industry who attempted to support her. I still remember that churning sensation, which grew and grew and often meant I couldn’t sleep at night. Friends and colleagues who told me what a lovely girl Seyi was were plainly the supporters of homophobia. I was incensed. 

But now I realise, that at the centre of this maelstrom was a young actress. A talented person with hopes and dreams and a joy for life who will now be changed forever and, as maybe a direct result of her treatment, probably far more entrenched in her views. She was taken to the cleaners and she’ll probably struggle to work again in the industry. Is that really what we wanted when we threatened to boycott the theatre if she performed there? Can anyone truly say they’re glad that this happened to Seyi? 

I saw first hand what Nathan went through and is still going through. The waves of terrible pain. The howls of anguish. The bewilderment. The loneliness. The sense of betrayal. And all this combining with the glee which some people seemed to show when I announced he’d been taken into hospital. We were accused of white fragility. Male fragility. Of weaponising our situation. Of lying about being in hospital and being told to provide filmic proof of where we were if we expected to be believed. The messages rolled in, one every five seconds, as we sat waiting to be assessed, a gash on the back of Nathan’s hand where he’d clenched his fist so tightly to combat the pain, the skin had simply split open. 

And those same people are still going after Nathan because he hasn’t apparently been punished enough. And they’re still chasing Maria Tusken, a year after she was torn limb from limb in very similar circumstances. A week ago, she posted a picture of herself on Instagram dressed in vintage 1940s clothing. The picture was simply captioned, “a 1940s day”. Someone then circled the phrase “1940s” and wrote “oh my God, unfollow this Nazi.” And I, for one, take particular exception to the misappropriation of the word Nazi. I believe it to be deeply insensitive and hugely antisemitic. 

It’s worth pointing out that people online are now calling calling their behaviour “radical kindness.”  But, in my view, if kindness needs to be qualified with an adjective, it can’t be called kindness. 

I stand with Caroline Flack. Nothing in the world is more important than kindness. Genuine kindness. Not kindness to a degree. Not kindness until someone says something we don’t want to hear. Not restricted empathy. Genuine understanding that every single one of us is struggling through life and if we understand and listen to each other’s fears, even if we think they come from the wrong place, we can consider ourselves kind. 

And I, for one, know that I still have a long, long way to go in that regard. 

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Icelandic wool

We are presently on a bus heading away from Reykjavik towards the airport. The weather has turned. I think it’s raining. It might be snowing. We’re passing through the most bizarre lunar landscape of black, jagged rocks, almost entirely covered in snow, but a mist has come down, and we can’t see for more than about thirty metres. I now know exactly what everyone meant when they told us we’d lucked out with the weather! 

Yesterday found us exploring Reykjavik more thoroughly. We took ourselves to a frozen lake in the middle of the downtown area and dared to walk across it on the ice. I say “dared” but a group of girls were playing a game of football on it, so plainly there wasn’t any great risk of falling through! I have no idea how deep the water was as I blithely skidded across, but it’s certainly not an experience I can expect to repeat in the near future. I am just about old enough to remember cold winters when we were able to walk across rivers and things in the UK. I think they even used to flood a field in Kennilworth for ice skating... but I’m sure global warming has put paid to that. 

There’s an area on the side of the Reykjavik lake into which they pump warmer water, meaning the ducks, geese and swans have something to float about on. We stood by the side of the lake to watch them, and were astonished by the appearance of three young swans who rushed up to us and started honking, plainly hoping for a bit of food. 

Nathan is a sucker for any animal he can anthropomorphise, so immediately demanded we head to the nearest shop to find them something to eat! Twenty minutes later, we were back at the lake with a bag of raisins, having read that they make a lovely treat for ducks. 

Of course we all know what happens when we eat too much fruit, so I have images of the entire population of water fowl suffering terrible diarrhoea today. 

We met a couple of Nathan’s friends for lunch: an actor and a politician. Everyone in Iceland knows each other. Asking an Icelander if they know one of their fellow country people is not at all like Americans asking English people if they know the Queen. In fact there’s an app here which tells you how closely you are related to a fellow Icelander which is often used by people going on first dates. The theory is that you don’t normally need to go back further than four generations to find a link! 

We met outside the parliament building, which is the least securely protected parliament I’ve ever seen. The square in front of parliament is where Icelandic people go to register their disgruntlement. The first time people went there en masse was in the early twentieth century, oddly to register their disapproval at the idea of an under-sea phone cable being created. 

Most recently, in 2009, thousands gathered to demonstrate against the government’s response to the country’s economy collapse. I’m not sure why Icelanders took to the square to bang pots and pans together but the event is known as the Kitchenware Revolution.

From the parliament building we went to Harpa, an astonishingly beautiful concert hall by Reykjavik Harbour, which was designed, I think, by the same bloke who made the brilliant Weather Project at the Tate Modern. That was the one with the giant rising halogen sun, which remains one of my favourite-ever pieces of art. 

The building is something else, based around tessellating hexagons and cubes of glass and steel which hang off the ceilings and cling to the walls like a blue, white and mirror-ball beehive. The views from the concert hall as as impressive as the architecture itself, across the lavender blue sea to snow-bedecked mountains on the other side of the bay. 

We did some souvenir shopping. I always like to buy a bauble for the Chanukah Tree whenever I’m somewhere special! The Icelanders have a particularly strange - and spectacularly pagan - Christmas tradition, which involve thirteen different, hugely mischievous Santas called the Yule Lads visiting Icelandic homes in the thirteen days before Christmas. They are the sons of a giantess called Grylla and they have somewhat bizarre names which describe their specific, anti-social tendencies. There’s Door Slammer, Sausage Swiper, Window Sniffer, Spoon Licker... Despite their puerile tricks, they leave little gifts, unless the child they’re visiting has been naughty, when they leave a potato. It must be great fun to live in Iceland during this period! Why stop with one, benevolent Santa when you can have thirteen evil ones?!

It started snowing at about 4pm. It was the first time we’d seen snow falling since our arrival, so it felt very magical as we walked along Laugevegur. 

Nathan’s knitting friend Rósa picked us up from our hotel in the late afternoon to take us on a tour of some of the many yarn shops in the Reykjavik area. It was an incredibly brave thing for Nathan to do as he has no idea whether he’s welcome in the shops or not. The most painful aspect of his horrifying experience was seeing friends of his - good fiends whom he’d holidayed with, shared experiences with - publicly distancing themselves from him after being told by some of the Social Justice Warriors that if they didn’t denounce him, they’d be next for the treatment. 

The deepest cut of all was the designer, Stephen West. I went on holiday to Italy with him, and thought we’d got on very well, so when he made his public statement telling the world what a horrible person Nathan was, I desperately wrote to him to explain exactly what had happened and that what he’d been told was nothing more than rumour and lies. I was literally at the end of my tether and I reached out to him for his help. He ignored my email. He didn’t even offer an explanation as to why he’d done what he did. I was utterly devastated.

To make matters worse, the person who badgered him to denounce Nathan, (a terrible podcaster with a face like a gurning, melted candle) was subsequently sent to court on charges of fraud. What a veritable beacon of morality she turned out to be. Well done Stephen: you sold your soul to the devil. 

Seeing books by him in the shops we visited was a hard pill to swallow and the experience made me feel highly uncomfortable, but everyone we met was utterly charming, particularly Rósa, who is one of the most beautiful and generous souls I’ve ever met. She asked me why I didn’t knit. Would you want to be part of a community which would eat its own?

Reykjavik is part of a continuous collection of different towns and cities which come together to form a mega-conurbation (at least by Icelandic standards!!) We visited one of them: Hafnafjörth, which looked very lovely. Rósa tells us it’s architecturally similar to Bergen... 

After a fabulous evening meal, Rósa took us back to Reykjavik, tipping us off about a little sculpture park in the vicinity of the main church. I noticed, as we drove past, that the gate was still open, and the place was floodlit even at 10pm, so, after being dropped off, we took ourselves back there for a look around. 

It’s so very “Iceland” to have a sculpture park which you can walk around at night. There was no one there to read us the health and safety riot act. No signs to tell us to beware of pick-pockets. No impending sense of danger, or group of lads smoking weed under a doorway. It was free to enter. We just got to wander around by floodlight, all on our own, our long shadows dancing on the glistening snow. It was a deeply memorable experience. 

But then again, that’s Iceland. Around every corner, something magical is waiting for you. You just need to open your eyes to it. I can’t begin to describe what a wonderful time we have had here and how welcoming and beautiful we found the people. I return to London feeling inspired and excited. 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Reykjavik

Waking up naturally in the dark is a very surreal and confusing experience. You literally have no idea what time it is and whether you’ve woken up in the middle of the night, or if you should be thinking about starting your day. 

The air up in the mountains in Iceland is as pure and soft as any I’ve ever experienced. Before we left the summer house for the last time, I stood outside taking huge gulps of pure oxygen, wondering how awful it must be for an Icelander to arrive in London, and then, how many years I’ve knocked off my own life expectancy by living in the metropolis since the age of 20. 

I learned this morning that the centre of Iceland, an unimaginably huge area of land which they call the Highlands, is entirely inhospitable and uninhabitable. There’s apparently a single road, which dissects the island and links the north and the south, which is closed for close to eight months of the year. I’ve been looking at pictures of the Highlands. They are profoundly beautiful in an utterly otherworldly way. It’s so bizarre to think that so few people will ever get to appreciate the area in the flesh. 

The Northern Lights we experienced last night were more glorious and magical than any we’ve seen on the trip so far. They are almost certainly our last before returning to London, as we’re in Reykjavík from now on, where there’s a great deal of light pollution - and the forecast is for overcast skies. But three straight nights of the phenomenon is about as good as it gets. Last night’s were brighter and more vivid than any we’ve experienced before. They were bright green with splashes of yellow and the sky turned into a giant lava lamp at one point. 

Watching the northern lights from a hot tub is one of life’s most decadent and wonderful experiences. Ice crystals actually form in your hair whilst the rest of your body slowly cooks!! 

On our way to Reykjavík this afternoon, we crossed over a river which had entirely frozen over. Thoranna and her daughter Ysold were both astonished and said they’d never seen the river like that before. 

The sun’s been incredibly watery today and was hidden behind milky, pastel clouds, which gave us far more of a sense of how depressing it must get in this country when there are long periods without the glorious, bright sunshine we’ve been experiencing for the last three days.

We are staying downtown in Reykjavik. It’s certainly unlike any other European capital city I’ve visited. It’s small, slow-paced and architecturally unique. A lot of the older buildings have roofs and walls made from corrugated iron. Many of the houses are painted in bright, vibrant primary colours. I’m sure they very much brighten up the winter months for the locals. 

We walked up to the main church, a striking building which looks like a giant Art Deco fan. We ventured inside for a few minutes, but I can never stay too long in a church without beginning to feel incredibly uncomfortable - even in Iceland, where the majority of people are atheist, and where Christians tend to be more tolerant than anywhere else in the world. 

The organ inside the church is stunning. It has over a thousand pipes and some of them stick out at very bizarre angles, almost like a heavenly band of bugles. For some reason I imagined those particular pipes providing sounds on the brassier end of the spectrum! 

The tarmac on the road leading up to the church has been painted with a giant pride rainbow. I’m not sure I can imagine that ever happening in the approach to St Paul’s Cathedral but it’s hugely indicative of the Iceland’s general embracing of “other.” It feels appropriate at this point to point out that Iceland doesn’t have an army. Many feel that this implies a general tendency towards pacifism whilst others argue the Icelanders are way too laid back to take up arms. Yet more suggest that they have a healthy disregard for authority. My kind of people, then! 

In the late afternoon, we visited the Penis Museum in Reykjavik, which is a sight to behold! It’s filled with jars with cocks in formaldehyde belonging to an assortment of animals from whales and elephants down to hamsters and mice. And yes, there are human penises there. 

The art and sculpture inspired by phalluses was fascinating, the picture of a dolphin pleasuring itself was hysterical, the ancient examples of condoms were bizarre and I very much wanted to have a toot on an ocarina shaped like a dick, but the willies in jars made me feel increasingly queasy.  I suppose it’s something to do with penises being life-givers and seeing them cut off and in jars felt utterly wrong. 

This evening we took ourselves to a drag show at Iceland’s premiere “queer” bar, Kiki, which was a huge amount of fun, despite the place being half empty and the drinks being twice the price of the UK. (Ironically, it was happy hour!) Based on the numbers in the bar, I’d wager that Iceland is either so tolerant towards LGBT people that no one needs a gay bar or that Sunday night is not party night here. There were certainly no Icelanders in the bar apart from its staff. Our drag queen was called Faye Knús. Get it? Fake News? Apparently “knús” means hug in Icelandic, so it’s a clever little name. She was very witty, very crude and a great lip-syncher.

The audience was invited to get up on the stage to lip-sync numbers, so I put Nathan’s name in the hat to mime to “And I’m Telling You” in a suitably over-the-top and comic manner. It went down a storm. Sadly no one else followed suit... I think they were intimidated. 

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Tomatoes, torrents and trolls

We woke up in Thoranna’s family’s summer house and realised we were surrounded by mountains, snow and the clearest, most crisp air. It’s always rather intriguing to arrive somewhere when it’s dark, only to discover what it actually looks like in the morning. 

We had left over pizza for breakfast and were on the road by about 10.30am

The Icelanders have definitely worked out how not to be slaves to the horrors of the natural world.  Broadly speaking, this is achieved by working with and harnessing nature instead of trying to defeat it. What they don’t know about driving in the snow, for example, probably isn’t worth knowing. In fact, I learned today that the first team to drive across the South Pole did so in a vehicle designed by an Icelander. 

The snow is far dryer and more powdery here than the sloppy stuff we get in the UK, but all the roads are quite comprehensively covered in the stuff and the cars just keep on driving. I’m told it’s largely to do with decent tyres. 

We drove along the “Golden Circle” today which is Iceland’s preeminent tourist circuit. It takes in some breathtakingly spectacular locations, so I thought it was going to be utterly thronged with tourists, but it was really rather quiet. 

The Golden Circle takes you through the mountains and, what I think the Icelanders might consider to be woods. The trees here don’t grow very tall, so when they’re clustered together they can look a little pathetic. Before the Vikings moved to Iceland, the place was apparently highly forested, but, after they’d chopped everything down, it apparently proved fairly difficult to bring them back. There’s a joke over here which goes, “what do you do if you get lost in a forest in Iceland?” “Stand up!”

Our first major stop was at the Gullfoss waterfall. I have no idea why this beast of a waterfall isn’t every bit as famous as Niagra or The Yosemite Falls. It’s on a scale so epic, I’m not sure I can quite do it justice by trying to describe it! The falls are incredibly wide - surely far wider than Niagra. Water thunders down in two stages and disappears deep, deep down into a ravine. The sheer volume of the water kicks up so much spray that you can’t see the river underneath. You literally can’t see where the falls end. 

The water which pours down the hillside is a somewhat mystical greeny-yellow colour: a little like oxidised copper mixed with chalk, but what is most thrilling about the waterfall at this time of year is that a lot of it has frozen solid. Huge towers of icicles cling to the sides of the ravine. It’s almost impossible to comprehend that such fast-flowing water would ever be able to freeze over, but the temperatures were astonishingly cold. I could feel my ears burning to the point that I felt if I’d bashed them too hard they would have shattered into a thousand pieces. 

From Gullfoss, we went to an area of great tectonic activity where a real life geyser called Strokkur spurts columns of boiling water thirty meters into the air. There used to be two geysers right next to each other, the first of which was considerably more impressive. That geyser was actually called Geysir and was the geyser which all other geysers were named after. Sadly, an earthquake in the 1970s brought Geysir’s work to a close and he’s remained a dormant, hot, sulphurous pool ever since. 

When you walk around the area, you encounter scores of circular pools surrounded by rocks shimmering with multicoloured minerals, none of which it would be wise to touch because they’re full of boiling water. People cook eggs there! They bubble restlessly like curious cauldrons and it’s of little surprise that Icelanders are so obsessed with trolls, witches, ghosts and folklore. 

We tore ourselves away from the geyser for the next adventure in our Icelandic saga, and saw scores of horses galloping along the side of the road. They’re smaller than ordinary horses but what apparently separates them from all other horses is a fifth gait called “skeith” which is somewhere between a cantor and a gallop, but an unbelievably smooth variant: so smooth, in fact, that the jockey doesn’t bob up and down as he or she rides. No other horse in the world possesses that particular ability. Or so I’m told. 

We had our lunch in the most peculiar setting, namely a geothermally-heated greenhouse where they grow tomatoes all year round. There are tables set up within the tomato vines and all the food served is based on tomatoes. Bumble bees live in the greenhouses all year round. The waitress told us that they’re a little quiet in the winter months but they were certainly still buzzing around. It was all absolutely fabulous. And the food was delicious. 

The last part of our glorious day saw us driving through the mountains as the sun melted into a peach-coloured light, which made the snow-covered mountains glow magically. 

As we made our way through the stunning countryside - tall skies, 360 degree panoramic views - we listened to ABBA. That’s about as good as it gets, in my world, particularly when everyone sings along in harmony. 

The sun set as we climbed a hillside overlooking a wide, wide river, silhouetted against the tangerine sky as the evening winds began to strengthen. To make matters perfect, we’re predicted more Northern Lights tonight. How lucky do I feel?