We must be careful about what we pretend to be

It is early morning in the West Country.
The light is grey and watery at this hour.
Midsummer has passed, but the endless murmur of time remains constant.

On my walk yesterday the fields glistened under hazy sunny skies; the silver-green of rapeseed pods weighed down with the knowledge of harvest.

Conversation flowed; an easy stream formed through years of deepening bonds.
Connections strengthened through shared times.
In lockdown, connections became the mind map to maintaining our sense of belonging.
Navigating our path through the swampy marshes of uncertainty, the puddles of fear and the burden of the unknown.

This morning my thoughts have turned to that place where new connections are made:
In the Covid era letting new people into our lives became a little complex as we found ourselves in social stasis.

The absence of physical touch – a handshake, a hug, a kiss – placing invisible barriers on the road to inclusion.
Masked and distant.
Proceed with caution.

Some months ago I made a new connection; seemingly a meeting of minds and the start of a new exchange.
A happy coincidence of shared ideas.
We spoke of the past
and acted in the present.
Fast forwarding into a seemingly natural familiarity.

One day they told me they considered themselves a closed book.
I nodded vaguely.

I observed:
A torn dust jacket.
The pages yellowed.
A broken spine.
Not a yearning for privacy; rather an anxious sense of secrecy.

For a time we continued to speak.
I wanted to understand what lay behind a hastily erected unhappy façade.

My empathy ebbing
A faint hardness settling as the
narrative changed.

Shape-shifting.
Themes repeated.
Inconsistencies, sometimes no more than a hair’s breadth distortion, unravelled the thread they sought to weave.

Much has been, is being and will continue to be written about the effects the pandemic, social distancing and enforced isolation had on the wellbeing of many.
Waiting in stealth to cast an elongating shadow.
Set to stalk.

As the mandatory wearing of face covering ends
There are those who will continue to mask their soul
Those who will maintain a transactional quality to their connections.

Social science has many terms for it.
I see it first-hand in my professional life and recognise its toxicity if it enters my personal sphere.
I thought about it, browsing in a gallery recently, when a caption on a print caught my eye.
It read:
We must be careful about what we pretend to be.

As the world around us adjusts, the magic of medical science injected a small dose of hope for greater healing.

I return to the now:
A cat is curled in my lap, luxuriously warm.
A voice, followed with a smile and the smell of coffee.

I am me.
You are you.

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Shadows and shades

In a recent rummage through old papers, I found a poem I wrote aged around 16.
It would later be copied in my best handwriting onto a card for my grandmother’s birthday.

The verse is poor and the older me smiled at the use of language and imagery:
History is a dance of shadows and shades.
I was living in South-East Asia at the time and fascinated with the mythology of Indonesian shadow puppets.

In the poem, in the land of make-believe, the sound of bells is colour.
In real life, it is the clang of silence that carries any number of shades into our thoughts.
In pandemic life, Wonderland became Bewilderedland.
Time became abstract and reflections through the looking glass distorted.

In the last few weeks* we have taken tentative steps on the path to establish a normality we thought we knew.
The old normal.
The old.
The familiar.

Remember:
Familiarity breeds contempt.
Remember?

I have spoken to many who have found the process daunting.
Lockdown served to put much of our inner world into stasis.

In my (professional) sphere I now regularly interact from behind a Perspex screen.
A transparent shield is still a barrier.
Protection or obstacle?

Now as we step back out from behind our shields, there are those of us who find unmasking hard.
Those who found comfort in the remoteness that social distancing brought.
Those who feel exposed and fear their vulnerabilities are now magnified.

This week I learnt that a young person I know (barely older than I was at the time I was writing bad poetry) had tried to harm themselves.
A cry for help that will now remain with them in a jagged scar.
A stained coat pocket that will never quite wash out.

On a different day, as I was walking under an early morning sky, a friend called, their voice trembling almost as soon as I said my ‘hello’.
They spoke of stress at work.
Eloquent and measured, their distress was no less palpable.
I was walking across a bridge as we spoke, and the river at low tide seemed to carry an almost contrived symbolism.

When the conversation ended, I stopped for a moment and observed.

People watching:
There were those who walked with purpose.
There were those who ran, determined.
There were those whose pace seemed to carry a hesitation or maybe a reluctance to reach their destination.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious: all around us are people whose demeanour belies the inner battles they fight, sometimes daily, to come out of the shadows,
to try and find some sense of wellness and worth.
I see it often with my clients.

Open your eyes, your ears, and your hearts to those who reach out, and even more so to those who don’t know how to.


____________________________________________________________________________________________________

*Easing restrictions in England commenced as a staged process on 8th March 2021. Hospitality venues were permitted to open for outdoor service on 12th April 2021 and indoors on 17th May 2021.

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Memories are like snow

Disclosure:

If rain is likened to tears
Then snow should be likened to memories
Formed into a structure.
Crystals that land softly
Some to dissolve on contact
Others to settle.
Sometimes into layers
Crunching crisply underfoot
Then freezing.
Hard and unforgiving.

Watch your step or
you’ll slip.
Fall.
Falling.
Painful and lasting.

A friend has been speaking to me about their past.
I will not name them, for their privacy is their fortress.

The past they speak of is theirs vicariously.
They have found themselves, in the alien world of lockdown, thinking of matters long lain dormant.
The secret rooms of shame.
Not their shame, not their secrets.

Knowing what I do and the subject matter that sometimes clouds my working life, my friend spoke about that endured by their sibling.
Caused by a parent.

The incomprehension they felt as a child, and the guilt they feel as an adult.

Engulfing guilt.
Insidious guilt.
Unrelenting guilt.

We spoke of ‘it’.
Snippets of images in my friend’s mind’s eye.
Snippets of disclosure from their sibling.

Layer upon layer of lasting pain.
Stress fractures on relationships.
Habits hard to break.

I listened.
Their sorrow as self-contained and as intricate as a snowflake.
The pattern delicate but impenetrable.

When they stopped speaking
I longed to fill the physical space that the current restrictions have imposed.

My friend would be sat next to me.
I picture them: sat on my sofa, there would be a glass, untouched, and a pile of tissues, helpless in their task to absorb hurt.

I wanted to reach out.
To touch.
To hug.

A phone call doesn’t allow for this.

So I talked instead.
Hoping my voice would carry the comfort I wanted to give.
Trying to stop my analytical self from taking over.
Knowing that I am ill qualified to advise, I remind my friend of all the good they have done.
All the good they have achieved.
I remind them of all the giving they have done and then of how loved they are.
I remind them of their future plans.
The soft glow of possibility.

I hear them at the end of the phone as their tears gather and break.
Then subside.
‘I’m so tired now,’ my friend says and I end the call.

Night night and lots of love.

The body seeks solace in sleep.

Outside the snow kept falling.

(Not quite a) Postscript:

It was winter still when I wrote this.
It is now spring.
Thousands of words have been voiced since that call.

Unquantified feelings.
Unqualified emotions.

Sometimes there is anger.
Sometimes there is pain.
Sometimes there are dreams that my friend recounts.

We talk more.
As I seek to reassure them, I think of Pandora’s box.
When all the ills of the world are released.
Hope remains.

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For Di.

In memory of Di Middleton QC.

As I walk out on my way to the park the day is still unfurling
Pale watery winter light greets me
Grey and white and wispy.
Icy.

Then the message pings
09:24
S:
‘I just discovered Di died last night’
And another layer of cold takes hold.

It has taken 2 weeks to be able to do this.
Another night of broken sleep and I am sat in bed, it’s 4am.
iPad brightness set to its lowest and readied for the swirl of thoughts and words to appear on the screen.

Others have written about my friend already.
A talented, dedicated QC.
One who truly fought for others.
One who truly fought.
One who never gave up.

It is just over a year since we last saw each other.
My living room filled with the presence of friendship.
Big enduring female friendship.
Not the scripted stuff of movies, but
A warm enveloping shawl, softly draped around us in flows of conversation, laughter and gentle support.

With so much of our communication now in written form, I’ve scrolled through chats over the last hour.
Moments immortalised in speech bubbles.

Di had created a WhatsApp group for 4 of us.
A place to check in.
A place to connect.
A place to document our connection.

In the year since Covid took over communication became less frequent.
The flow a little muted but not lessened in strength.
Little rays of sunshine on our screens when a message flashed.

I pause at the messages after that last evening together.
I had returned from New Zealand a couple of weeks before and the girls were coming over.

As ever Di arrived first.
‘Hello sweetie’ and she hugged me.
Then sat at my kitchen table, with a glass of champagne, wanting to hear all about my trip.

6th February 2020.
The day before we last met.
Di has sent some photos from the south coast.
R, another of our number wrote:
12:03
‘Oh Bozzie can we have a road trip please? It’s like you’re on the tips of your toes on the edge of the world’

Reading it now it feels prophetic.
Let’s have a road trip.
Let’s drive to that place on the edge of the world.
The thrill of breath.

The next evening, we gathered.

I don’t now recall why it was an early one.

22:43
Di Middleton:
Hey Boz, thank you as always for a wonderful gossipy deliciously yummy evening (and of course the take away which I’ve decided NOT to share with my greedy son!) Hope the reasonably respectably early night means you’ll manage an even higher kick at the barre tomorrow!! Xxxx

So many messages.
So much connection.
Emojis and exclamations.

Di and I went to Berlin together.
Walking around the city in late summer 2017.
It was the long night of the museums weekend (Lange Nacht der Museen)
We ended the evening at the German Spy Museum, a short walk from our hotel.
Then at the hotel bar with hot chocolate and whisky
We talked and talked.

A few months later, back at my kitchen table, she told me of the return of the cancer.
The faceless monster of many guises.

Once again the girls were coming over.
Di was the first.
We had bumped into each other on my home from a last minute run to the shops.

‘There, I’ve said it’ she said.
It was back, undetected, when we were away.
Now explaining her tiredness then.
‘I’m so glad I didn’t know’ she said.

It is light outside now.
And oh so quiet.

There are words still swirling in my head.
If I type them they will bring a finality I don’t want to find.

They will speak of a woman who shone bright.
I watched her in court: courteous, composed and always compassionate.

So many more words:
Courageous, generous, loving.
Kind, funny, supportive.
Friend, barrister, mentor.

A photo in Berlin: lunchtime beers in a small neighbourhood café.
It’s where I’d like to remember you.
Our Berliner Weiss mit Schuss and your straw fedora.

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On the periphery

A lovely friend messaged this week to ask if I’ve blogged about Lockdown 3.0, her kind words now have me at a screen, willing the words to flow. 
Willing to create a record, as my friend suggested, to be able to look back on at some future point and remember the feel of a moment.
 
It is Sunday morning and after the ritual of coffee and phone calls, what was earlier pale winter skies  is now a snowstorm, a falling hush outside my window.
 
When did the new became ennui?
 
Somewhere between quarantine and lockdown the perimeters of pandemic life move like a pattern of breath. 
Expand and contract.
Expand and contract.
 
This week, in my ‘real’ life protected by costume and now masked, I met a person who has been in custody almost a year to the day since Lockdown 1.0 (announced 23rd March 2020 in the UK).
 
I did not expect him to tell me that somehow after a year of near solitude (prisons have implemented a regime of keeping people in their cells for 23 and a half hours a day since the pandemic struck) he felt better. 
Life, he told me, is simpler, kinder. 
He’s had time to think, to slow down, to reevaluate.

His future, unclear at the moment, could bring years of the same or, after the verdict of others, deliver him back to a life of chaos, uncertainty and existence through gritted teeth.
 
I thought about it on my drive home. 
I have always associated driving with freedom, independence and opportunity. 
Even in the small measure that the week’s commute brought joy:
The roads familiar and gleaming after heavy rain.
 
Speaking with friends, a year since our world changed, there is a shared nostalgia for an age when we made plans. 
‘I just want something to look forward to’ said one friend.
‘I want to be able to take my wife out to dinner’ said another. 
‘I can’t wait till….’ said a third.
 
At a time when our present is governed by circumstances outside our control, we long for an autonomy and fear monotony.
 
The veil of sameness can weigh heavy. 
 
In Paolo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage, there is a point where his guide asks him how he is finding the crossing of the Pyrenees. 
They had been on the Camino de Santiago for seven days.

Paolo is so consumed by the purpose of his journey, that he had not noticed that over seven days his guide has taken him around the same 17 kilometres again and again, simply by devising different routes. 

He ends the chapter with a lesson called the Speed Exercise: Walk for twenty minutes at half the speed at which you normally walk. Pay attention to the details, people, and surroundings
 
In my mind, I have always thought of it as a cue to pay attention and sometimes give way to our peripheral senses; sound and vision.

In the early days of Lockdown 1.0 I used to do exactly that and loved the newness it brought to the old tracks.
 
I was reminded of it walking up Primrose Hill a couple of days ago.

The park was busy.
Busier than I would have liked it to be.

There are several paths up to the hill which affords wonderful views over London.
 
I had wanted to take my walking companion up there for what I hoped would be a shared quiet moment of taking in the sight and sites, but we both became a little frustrated by the footfall around us.

As we neared the top of the hill we stopped when a small child standing in the middle of the path excitedly told his father what he could see, reciting famous buildings and places and then ‘and I can see the rainbow!’
 
We turned around.
 
An arc of colour.
Symbolic to a fault and full of promise.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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The Great Unlocking

I started writing this on the morning of 5th November. 

Life took over with challenges in my professional role: in the 10 days that have passed, I dealt with an individual battling the burden of having taken a life, and another whose mind is a dark place of despair, with its own frail reality and fear of the world around them. 

The pandemic’s insidious journey is unrelenting.

As the clock struck midnight into a new day, a new lockdown began.
It was silent in my courtyard.
Carriages became pumpkins, and an urban fox – wild, resilient, wise – sat for a moment and then was gone. 
Did it see me at the window?

The next morning, for the first time in weeks, after a flurry of work emails, I found myself with a little window of quiet time.
Fog was hanging over the streets outside, and I stepped away from the view, cup of coffee in hand, seeking clarity.

Lockdown 2.0 is eerily familiar. 
This time there is solace in the knowledge that my daytime normal, evolved and evolving, has permitted a continuity that was previously lacking. 

In the race to protect ourselves and others from callous Covid, isolation has lost its splendour. 

The unlocking of communication pathways has never been more important than at this time, and I find myself constantly evaluating the relationship between value and values.

Later that week I caught up with an old friend; we had allowed time and circumstances to block what was previously a free flowing gateway and now we cleared a path once more and like Mary in The Secret Garden uncovered the door handle from under the overgrown ivy.

Doors are an obvious metaphor.

We talk about our door being open to someone in need or decisions taken behind closed doors. 

A way forward or a barrier.

Letting in or letting go.

A knock becomes a faceless sound and we forgo possibility. 

Sometimes we need to venture out: the call of the heart, even if on some interpretation viewed as irrational, should be followed without judgement and access allowed through a door left ajar…


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For granted

As northern hemisphere schools break for the summer I’ve been thinking back to my Singapore school days…

Long before it became hip to practice gratitude and mindfulness, in one ordinary school assembly morning, we were given a lesson that stayed with me.

Mr Bennett, a tall gangly Englishman, addressed us – excitable teenagers on the edge of adulthood – and talked about how fortunate we were to be able to take so much in our lives for granted.

We had safety.
We were nurtured.
We had knowledge.
We were inspired.
We had certainty.
We were loved.

In one form or another, there has always been some taking-for-granted strewn along my path.

Always there.
The safety.
The knowledge.
The certainty.

One microscopic being put paid to that.
One microscopic being shook us to the core.

In the weeks and months of lockdown there were moments when any sense of conviction about the road ahead was absent.
Palpably absent.

At a time when we are all encouraged to be kind.
It was sometimes difficult to practice
Self-kindness.
Self-care.

The self became a colour chart of emotion.
Grey.
Blue.
Green.
Yellow.

Moments of inhospitable solitude.
Our own four walls not a sanctuary but a prison.

Moments of reflection in every shade of the ocean –
Dark, choppy water.
Pale and calm to the horizon.

Moments of hope putting out shoots of renewal –
Gratitude to the amazing work of others.
Determined, committed, relentless.

Moments of sunshine.
Glimpses of beauty.
The words of those close to our heart.

At the weekend, after an afternoon of newness, I went back to the old.
Beaming smiles on my screen.

We raised glasses to offer our good wishes.

In my glass memories of gentle slopes rising above a dirt track, overlooking Lake Dunstan.
A man-made creation adopted by its surroundings.
The manufactured becoming second nature.

In my mind’s eye, I am drinking in the views around me.
There is sunshine and a gentle breeze.
Vines reaching out as though wanting to be touched.
The land is alive.

In my glass, another colour.
Red.
Shades of optimism, insistent and  celebrating the moment.
Light reflecting life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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7/7

I wrote this exactly 5 years ago in pre-Brexit London.
Before the fault lines appeared.


Hard to process 7/7 happened 15 years ago.
In a faraway world. 

—————————-

7/7/2005 was going to be an ordinary Thursday.

The previous day I’d arranged to go shopping with a friend; we would both be out of court the next day. A summer’s day mooch and lunch seemed the perfect plan.

In the calm of my bedroom (coffee, laptop, crisp white bed linen) little did I know that by 10am the London of outside my window had become a very different place from that of the day before.

Olympics euphoria evaporated into shock.

Sirens tearing through the quiet of Marylebone, which almost miraculously remained for a while unknowing.
Ignorant of the devastation that lay on either side of her elegant streets.
The local fire station (now the celeb-spot Chiltern Firehouse) had closed down a mere 17 days earlier…

Then the calls started coming in; a friend on my landline “thank god you’ve picked up”.  A police officer in a case I was prosecuting at the time “I know you’re central – are you okay? stay home if you can.”

Images on Sky News.
The never ending loop of reporting.
A bellyful of fear.
An acrid mouthful of it.
Obsessive compulsive viewing.

By late afternoon silence descended.

Grief, his wings spread above the city, enfolded London in a tight, painfully tight embrace.
Londoners became one, united in loss.
A crash course in humanity.

A decade later, the legacy of the atrocities of that day remains that sense of oneness.
A London bigger whole than the sum of its parts.

It is impossible to quantify the gratitude I feel to those who have given of themselves.
Those whose journey has made into guardians of freedom.
I remain in awe of them and the unwavering resilience of this great place I am immensely fortunate to be able to call home.

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100 days

Last weekend, in a garden full of roses and rosemary and set with tables laden with bowls of goodness glowing in the pink and gold of a summer’s sunset, I was fortunate enough to be in company that allowed for an evening in which time, if only for a few hours, gently took us into what felt like a bygone era where glasses shone with the optimism of champagne and conversation sparkled.

There was talk of art and travel, food and wine and experiences
The past but not the future.

100 days have passed since lockdown began.
The number came up in a news headline earlier this week. *
100 days.

100 days ago
It was spring.
The parks bursting with bloom.
Green shoots unfurling.
Daffodils and lonely clouds.

Now it’s summer.
I walk on land that’s grown weary under the sun.
The squawk of hungry seagulls.
Roses and heady scents.

Lockdown life is the transit lounge to the new normal.
It’s that moment in travel when you walk through an airport in bewildered unreality with no sense of place or time; it could be JFK or Changi, Santiago or Auckland, 5am or 5pm.
We follow signs that will take us to the ‘here’ we seek.

The new normal is made up of numbers, statistics and charts.

Death became a number greater than I am able to perceive.

I studied statistics at university.
The course was titled ‘statistics and methodology’.
We learnt the tools that allowed us to construct [visual] realities.

Now the stats are shape-shifters; making offerings at the altar of R.

R is the number we fear.

In an article full of psychobabble I once came across an acronym for fear –
False Evidence Appearing Real.

In real life I am forensic to a fault.
The evidence is real.
Its appearance – unscrambling my thoughts – seems not false, but difficult to process.

As we struggle to make sense of it the numbers take hold.

Stay away (2) **
Be good (R<1)

Be bad (R>1)
Deal with it (43,906) ***
Shrink (20) ****
Affirm life (6) *****

The old normal came at me in waves this week.
Moments of familiarity washing over before breaking into a million bubbles on the shoreline of my memory and retreating into the sea.

And in those moments, one hundred days evaporated, once again we were all as one.

————————-

* Lockdown was announced in the UK on 23rd March 2020.

** 2 metres is the recommended social distance between people

*** Official number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the UK as at 1.7.20

**** Percentage by which the UK GDP is estimated to have shrunk as at 12.6.20

***** The number of people permitted to gather as at 27.6.20

 

Artwork ‘R is the magic number’ by Simon Thompson

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10,000 Steps

10,000 Steps

As I walk through the park I become aware of the sound of my steps, the soft persistence of my trainers, so different to the clip clop of my heels in my other life.
The life before lockdown.
When my steps carried a sense of urgency; the here and now of the moment.
The here and now of the spoken word.
The here and now that defines my professional life – embellished with costume and a sense of purpose.

Today and now are different.
A hush has fallen over the city.
A quietude broken by the sound of helicopters overhead.
I think of Orwell’s 1984 and the Newspeak of 2020:
Super spreader.
Social distancing.
Self isolation.

The park is alive with its carpet of green and white and yellow.
The grass is lush and the daisies fresh.
Pablo Neruda’s words echo: ‘They can cut all the flowers but they can’t stop the Spring from coming’.
And I think of Hockney’s The Arrival of Spring at a Royal Academy exhibition in 2012…. the colours bold and engaging.
Some museum visits stay with you.
This one involved a good friend, endless conversation and one of those days when London, my London, sparkled.

Today’s news media speak of more deaths.
The cutting short of lives.
In a different forum I learn of another death.
The cutting short of a life.
T was an old school friend.
In the halcyon days of our teens, she was a ray of sunshine.
She had come from a country that at the time was still in the shadow of the Iron Curtain and her enthusiasm for all that our hugely privileged expatriate life offered was joyous.
Now she is gone.
Illness staked a claim on T for months and finally won.
I watch ripples on the water as swans and ducks and geese dive and surface, take off and land, and I think of my friend.

The blossom is endless and I’m showered in petals.
My hay fever brings watery eyes and tears.
Nature demands evidence of my grief.
Hidden behind dark glasses I can cry.
Seen and unseen.

I walk on.
In the past 10 days, my daily 10,000 steps have become a ritual.
These are steps I have taken countless times, passed shop fronts and houses, street signs and lampposts, across the road and into the park.
Now they are different.
My daily opportunity to go beyond the confines of the safety of the familiar and look up and around.
Taking in the world around me as if anew.
Slowing down to catch a glimpse of beauty – of colour and light and shape and sound.
A leaf, a bud, a tile on a step to a house, bird song.

Only a few weeks ago I addressed a jury about perception.
It was in the context of suggesting witnesses were mistaken in interpreting an act they saw.
In my notes I wrote ‘…we try to make sense of the world around us and our natural inclination is to try and make sense of what we’ve seen, heard or experienced.
The problem that sometimes arises is that we haven’t seen all the evidence, we are not aware of all the circumstances and that may mean the conclusions we may have drawn may be faulty…’

In my professional world I look for doubt.
Reasonable doubt.
Something that would allow for uncertainty.
Something that would allow a jury to find that things may not be as they seem.

In the lockdown world I look for certainty.
For reassurance.
Something that will allow me to comprehend, to process, to perceive of how the world has changed, is changing, will change.

I have no answers yet, and maybe won’t ever.
So for now
Each breath is a gift.
Each step is a journey.

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