Dear First Call Renewals Team,
 
You look forward to hearing from me? That seems a little strange considering how terrible your service is. Then again, perhaps it was an automated service and there was a possibility that I hadn’t required help at any time.
 
In July I was hit from behind by another driver. Not my fault in the slightest but my car was a write-off. Still, I had had the foresight to arrange cover. Yet when I called I was informed that this wasn’t First Cover’s problem and that I should try calling my insurance advisor in the event of an accident.
 
Fortunately Gloucestershire Police (who say you are an awful company for being so unhelpful by the way) were able to crowbar the back of the car off the wheels so it could be driven home.
 
Anyway I have learned my lesson and now have breakdown cover with the AA. I also let everyone I know that First Call have no interest in helping their members when they are victims of retards in BMWs.
 
Happy to help with the feedback I’m sure you send straight to delete.
 
With no particular regard,
 
Kathryn Ashcroft
 
A year ago I sat down and penned my first Thursday Column. In it I looked back on the first decade of the new millennium. I made a number of resolutions for the first year of the second decade, the key one of which was to write this column every week. Looking back I find that what seems like subtle changes can be pinned down. I’ve found myself wondering when cinema became so focused on 3D and yet the start (for me at least) is documented in mid January when I went to see Avatar.

I have been enjoying reading end of year reviews this week but I will not be doing that here. I have written over 55,000 words on this blog over the year and it is just not feasible (nor desirable) to go there now. Instead, all of my columns will be published as an ebook with various extra material. It’s something I’m doing for myself as I assess the year, my year, and what the future holds but I’m publishing it because as a blogger, that’s what we do.

What then is my focus of the week?

I want to request that you pay attention to change.

For my local readers if not everyone, Jo Yeates, the estate agent whose body was found on Christmas Day, will be a familiar name. Speculation over details of pizzas, bottles of cider and characters seen leaving her flat has been rife on Twitter. Today the discussion was more about contempt of court.

@davidelstone was the person who drew my attention with some detail about this in his blog that explains that writing a tweet is publishing. Now, to me publishing is a term I use loosely. Coming from academia, publishing means printed by someone who matters. As such while I refer to publishing an ebook, a little voice in my head is sneering at my use of a word that suggests I’m performing anything other than an exercise in vanity.

But if that’s not the case legally is a post on a forum publishing? So much of what I say is context significant and as such what I say on Facebook (moderately private) differs greatly from what I’d say on Twitter (very public) and yet, my posts on a certain forum which is so public that certain posts are printed in an affiliated magazine, I say exactly what I think and feel. My assumption is that everything is read within the context of forum rules but what if a crime were to occur and the threads held up in court?

I doubt it will ever happen but then who’d have thought voicing opinions on Twitter could land you in trouble (assuming the contempt of court rumour is accurate)?

Something else that caught my eye today was a story in my Muck Rack Daily newsletter. Malcom Moore of The Telegraph pointed out amidst details of the trending topic of Skype that the Chinese Government had made using the service available.

Infringement on civil liberties in the East may not seem significant to everyday lives in the UK but I’d argue that unless information platforms can be shared by all (at least those with the intelligence to operate them, lets not start suggesting stupid people have much to contribute*) then compromises compromise us all.

And really what is the difference between what the Chinese are doing and what the British court system might do? To play absolute Devil’s advocate arguably by baning certain behaviour, the Chinese Government are protecting their citizens from the shades of grey in the UK. A Chinese citizen knows what they can and cannot do while yours truly does not. I don’t wish to speculate on the case but if I did, I wouldn’t know where the rules lay.

So to the title of this column; rules change fast. In Malaysia there have been occasions where civil society has only become aware of religious laws being passed upon their enforcement, namely when Muslim women were hauled away from a beauty contest and people being made aware of a fatwa that made it a sin for Muslim women to participate in beauty contests.

We aren’t living in Malaysia of course but as a former British colony, their legal structure isn’t so different to ours. Think about it, we don’t even have a constitution. Our laws are made on precedence (hence the many novel laws that are still in place until they are overturned).

I’m no legal expert and more significantly I’m not paranoid. While I’m no James Bond, doing fieldwork in the Far East has required certain degree of laissez faire attitude for authority. My point is not that we ought to unduly concern ourselves with changing laws but that we should nonetheless pay heed to them. See what gets said about Twitter as a publishing platform and follow the development in a lateral way. Learn a little about liberty across the globe and appreciate the words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben; With great power, comes great responsibility. 

When it comes to the tools and toys of modern life, don’t be passive; be aware.

And with that I wish you all a Happy New Year!

Yours appreciatively,

Kathryn x

* See, context! I’m saying that tongue in cheek. Mostly. Ok, I admit it, I don’t think stupid people should be allowed to use the internet.

 
In my early teens we visited some friends. He was a business contact of my father’s who had originally thought that my dad was a con artist. A key lesson from my dad was never to give up in the face of adversity and down the line the couple are still on my Christmas card list. We went out for dinner as there were rather a lot of us. I was transfixed. I could hardly believe that real people used restaurants for dinner parties. It was all so very New York to my young eyes (although as an adult I now am more accustomed to the wonder that is Cheshire).

In retrospect I had what I now consider to be a Sunday Supplement life. We lived in a farmhouse and bred horses, kept chickens and photos of me as a child mostly feature wellies and Barbour wax jackets. My brother and I ran pretty wild before being poured into nice clothes to visit beautiful properties with quantities of dogs that put our three to shame and where eccentric owners wore family jewels against family jumpers (think the stuff Oxfam would throw out) and our parents would examine stallions while we played with stable kittens.

As a teenager I hated it (something my mother wryly points out as I salvate over obscure rural Cotswold properties). It felt horribly isolating and I was jealous of my friends in their suburban homes close to pubs and peers. I was thrilled to head off to university (arguably one of the few for whom Durham seemed big city) and felt one of the greatest rushes of my life when I first let myself into my apartment in Kuala Lumpur. I stood gazing out of my window at the Petronas Towers and felt I’d made it.

I won’t lie. Kuala Lumpur is an amazing city. At New Year I decided not to go to any parties but instead to stay on the roof of my building and watch all the fireworks. It was magical and in true daydream life fashion, a group of charming men insisted I join their party. They dug out a bottle of red wine and took it in turns to play my favourite songs on Guitar Hero.

The funny thing about achieving my fantasy life however was that almost immediately my dreams changed. When I realised that with the right attitude you can achieve anything, I started thinking about what I really wanted. I loved my life, no doubt, but as a temporary thing. I wasn’t about to hang up my dancing shoes but nor did I want to take the only logical conclusion I could imagine of expat wife who wrote the odd piece for expat magazines about expat charity functions.

Part of my move to Gloucestershire was the offer of a relationship with the now fiancé but it was also partly a desire to pursue the life I had decided I wanted; a house with a garden and me baking while he mowed the lawn with the children. He was the one but I hadn’t really given the others a chance.

An early retired (which sounds FAR older than he was) English property developer bored with Thai women had offered his home to share in exchange for a proper girlfriend with a blind eye to dalliances. It struck me that I had a value in the Far East. I was educated and interesting; I was good girlfriend material for rich Westerners with business and social functions to attend. I sat, looking at the beautiful pool and reflected on the offer. It was a stunning property and I would essentially be a kept woman with complete freedom. But my thanks but ultimate refusal were based in a realisation that I wanted to recreate what my parents had had. Screw the James Bond House (the snob in me found it a little naff anyway), I wanted to keep chickens!

I want it Liz Hurley style of course (I’m not giving up the shoes any time soon) and lets just say it was convenient that when I first visited the fiancé it meant kicking up leaves as we walked through Cheltenham. I want a house with character where I float about in cashmere cooking up canapés while casually tossing seasoned wood we cut the previous autumn onto the open fire. I’m all about the Sunday Supplement lifestyle.

Even as I know it’s a myth (having had the Aga and formal dining room and knowing it’s the people you live with that count), the draw to the perfect life is utterly enticing. I pause, biting my lip and letting out tiny groans as I pore over Cotswold Life. I can’t help but believe that if I blow dry my hair properly and make my own canapés from a Smallbone style kitchen then I won’t find my job stressful, my partner irritating and the children demanding. Sunday Supplement wife is always serene and happy.

I have some vital elements. I make very good pastry for instance. I’m also very patient with children and animals so standing in the drizzle calling the chickens to coop isn’t a problem (I do it happily at work and there I don’t get eggs). Perhaps the appeal of the Sunday Supplement life is that this dream life around it complements who I really am. Sure I pulled off the partygirl facade for a while but it got a bit tedious with all the toenail painting. Sunday Supplement life calls for cosy socks and Hunter wellies with cups of tea.

At any rate, I’m convinced it is my destiny. So I shall hunt through the property pages and dream of raising my own pigs. I know it’ll happen because I’m that kind of girl. The question is whether upon achieving it, I’ll be happy...

 
Objectivity is a difficult thing. I am particularly bad at being objective as because I am a very rational person, I often delude myself into believing I am being objective when of course my rationality is as subjective as any emotional or instinctive approach. Just because my political, religious and other beliefs are things I have reasoned through as part of my refusal to take anything at face value does not give them any greater objectivity than unreasoned beliefs. The reality is that none of us have a better grasp on reality than our fears, desires, experiences and hopes allow.

While I have an opinion on just about every topic under the sun, I am careful to try and see the other side of the story. As a result I am able to appreciate that there is infinite complexity about the world. In simple terms, I greatly admire the work of Oliver James while disagreeing with his politics. For those unfamiliar with him, James is a Child Psychologist turned writer, journalist and television documentary producer. James has a conviction about the role of parenting and is unpopular in his refusal to soften the facts to allow for working mother sensitivities. However, James is pretty left wing. Thinking he is both brilliant and feeling icky (ok so not all of my beliefs are rational) at his wider society views is not some act of doublethink but rather an appreciation that I haven’t got it all figured out just yet.

I think what is important is to be ok with that. Where people go wrong is when they are threatened by shades of grey and contradictions in their views. The fiancé jokes that I am not a people person. I like my own space and am at my happiest when sat in front of my laptop, books and notes spread about me and inspired by an idea. And yet I choose to work in a customer facing role. Perhaps I like to be challenged, perhaps I crave a creative job over one that fits my introverted character, I don’t honestly know but it is working out ok.

I’ll put my hands up and confess I know relatively little about Julian Assange; mainly because I am not comfortable with Wikileaks. This is not to say I don’t think important work is being done but rather that I see a time and a place for revelation.

Context is a key issue here and lest I begin to sound like I’m turning fascist I’d like to relay a conversation I had with a friend this week. I’m not sure how it happened but we moved from work chat to crimes of unspeakable scale. She has been to Auschwitz; I have been to the Killing Fields in Cambodia. I said that my travelling companion had been a new friend and that there was an intensity to the experience that meant I couldn’t share it with him. We went about the site mostly apart and never discussed it afterwards. My friend said she had travelled with an old friend but that her experience was similar. There’s a part of your soul that is exposed at such a time and it is beyond many of us to be able to share that kind of intimacy.

For the record, I have no time for those that deny the Holocaust or suggest the actions of the Khmer Rouge were exaggerated. Sick crimes were committed and such actions need exposing and punishing.

So what is my problem with Wikileaks? In the nicest way possible, it is the stupidity of the masses. Before you bite my head off look at the numbers of people that voted in the general election as compared to Xfactor. Call me elitist but most people lack the necessary understanding to comprehend the actions of large businesses and governments. In my column Don’t hate the player, hate the game I questioned the problem many take with wealth without appreciating their views were based upon their own level of contentment. Similarly there is a frightening lack of thinking through.

My ex husband once dropped into conversation that he disagreed with people being paid to work for a charity. I asked him to expand and he explained that it was terrible that people who donated money were funding wages and not helping the charity. Whilst reeling I pointed out that money required managing and that where a lack of knowledge had been problematic in the past was when aid groups had delivered purchased grain that people consumed raw and tore their stomach lining; there was a place for not only managing delivery but promoting charities through marketing to build funds and the sad fact was that we all need money to live and to suggest that only the independently wealthy could work towards an important cause was absurd! Today I’m proud to work for a charity but the bottom line is that I have rent to pay and if a charity can’t pay me a salary, I cannot work for it.

To translate this to Wikileaks, my time studying politics has taught me how little I know. There are infinite layers of relationships between states and organisations and each has a multitude of etiquettes. Much as I have grumbled about the Malaysian government (my specialist area is the political economy of Southeast Asia and my PhD looked at development strategy in Malaysia), I appreciate that until you know Malaysia it is deeply unfair to criticise. I only lived in Kuala Lumpur for a year; one city in a diverse nation, largely existing within expat society. I am woefully under qualified to pass judgement on the complexity of the dual legal system (there is both secular and Sharia law) and while this doesn’t stop me voicing opinions (not least in my thesis) realising my limitations is sufficient that there is a lot I know that I see little value in sharing with the masses (although my most recent academic paper was a touch dramatic, running as it did with the title ‘Islam Hadhari; A Policy for Domestic Terror’).

Julian Assange strikes me as egotistical and paranoid. I think he sees adulation over truth and will take that at any cost. Of course I have no idea whether the claims against him for sexual assault hold any truth but a power hungry ego who dismisses the convention of law and order strikes me as being the kind of character that would not only assault women but see so little of it that he could deny it even to himself.

Am I objective? Certainly not, but I hope those in support of Assange at least consider the possibility that he isn’t a humanitarian. Nobody is all good or all bad, he could be just as great as they believe and also guilty of sexual assault. That’s the way it goes.

A favourite song of mine: Rosy and Grey by The Lowest of the Low.
 
Usually I have a clear topic in mind for this column but this week I have swung between topics. I wrote half a column on relationships and deleted it in an outburst of self disgust. Worse is the partly written column on snow that sits on the precipice of deletion a few return key strokes beneath these words as I type. It’s difficult to say what is so bad about those rejected quasi-columns’; almost certainly it is a reflection on last week’s column.

Last week was a good week. I didn’t appreciate it at the time of course. Quite often the fiancé’s feedback is at odds with my own; the columns he loves are rarely the ones I’m pleased with. Then come the trickle of comments and messages. I hadn’t particularly liked last week’s column. I felt the tone was a bit grumpy and the ideas more confrontational than necessary. And yet it was a popular one. I received some wonderful feedback.

Such an occurrence makes me doubt myself. My ego seeks validation and I find myself trying to identify the elements that pleased people and pick out the flaws in the columns that haven’t received much of a response. Of course this breaks the crucial role of writing to please yourself. The one trend I have identified is that the more true to myself I am, the more popular the column. I can be stroppy, happy, political, nostalgic, it really doesn’t matter as long as I am authentic. My readership sees the columns that are perhaps trying to be a little bit clever or the ones written in a depressed or detached mood and fails to become engaged.

What I dislike most about my own writing is my tendency to become autobiographical. A somewhat vocal low self esteem asserts that surely I am not so necessary as to warrant drawing attention to myself. This is rubbish of course. I know from the blogs I read myself that it is the people that share stories of their lives that are most engaging. Not that this is license to get a bit Woody Allen on you.

Ultimately the quest is for what the fiancé loves most; balance. Where it is achieved, I think a good blog emerges. So what are the elements? For that, I’m going to look back on my various blogs. There have others I’ve played around with but these are the key ones.

1) The Raw Blog – April 2008 to July 2008

My first blog racked up over 35,000 words in three months and charted the adventures of my newly single self in Malaysia. I shared everything as I sought to make sense of my life. The fiancé featured as “SB” (Significant Bloke) but I was very much the single girl and the blog covered everything from taxi rides to my sex life. It was raw and honest. I ended The Raw Blog to write The Balanced Blog.

2) The Balanced Blog – July 2008 to August 2009

My second blog was of a similar theme to the first and just as explicit but I felt the need to hit a middle ground between my past proper and my recent reactionary past. There was also a lot that I left out, things I chose not to share. It continued my adventures in Malaysia but became broader in outlook. It lacked the sparkle of The Raw Blog but ultimately reflected a happier and healthier blogger. It eventually fizzled out as my need to it fell away. These early blogs were therapeutic but something I was ready to move on from come the summer of 2009.

3) The Political Blog – March 2009 to June 2009

The political blog was moderately academic and in many ways laid the groundwork for The Thursday Column. I called it Creation for a Wealth of Nations and started to explore my ideas in greater depth as putting my thoughts down forced me to assess what I believed. While I loved what I was doing, the blog lacked direction and I stopped writing on it when I started working part-time.

4) The Photo Blog – April 2009 to November 2009

When I moved to Gloucester I decided to take a photograph every day. Eventually I lost interest but I vastly improved my eye and learnt a lot. I called it The Real Voyage of Discovery and it made me more reflective. That there was overlap with The Political Blog reflects that I was looking for my voice. The desire to blog was ignited by The Raw Blog but I struggled to settle on a format.

5) The Thursday Column – December 2009 to present day

The answer was simple. I realised that all I needed was a date and a word count. While there have been a few hiccups, this blog has worked brilliantly for me. It has ridden the storm of me starting full-time work, moving in with the fiancé and his kids and changing job to a far more challenging position.

I suppose the crucial point is that in The Thursday Column I found the fluidity that made The Raw Blog and The Balanced Blog interesting reading and the focus that had limited The Political Blog and The Photo Blog. While the little voice that tells me not to be so self-absorbed is ever present, I recognise that without the personal touch, my writing is flat.

I think that this week I was due some reflection. When I started nearly a year ago, I wanted to make writing a habit and that has been achieved. My intention was for a year of columns but now is as good a time as any to say that The Thursday Column will not cease at the end of the year. That there have been enquiries about this has been touching.

It’s late now and I’m tired. I’m aware that I’ve not really said anything but it was the column to be written. Maybe next week I’ll cover love or snow, who knows?

But what I’ve achieved tonight matters to me. I feel my concerns about this blog have been exorcised and I’m keen to move on. I wrote it for me and that is why I started blogging in 2008. Good or bad, it’s authentic and for a busy girl sometimes that’s all that can be managed.

See you next week x

To my long term readers I ask that you do not mention the names of my first two blogs if you leave a comment. I have deliberately not given them as while I have never written anything I would not admit to, I feel that out of context they do not represent the person I am today. Thank you.



 
Gosh I get annoyed at people that moan about the rules of games. Whether it’s the dating game and they’re a socially awkward loser who starts hating attractive women who reject him or the money game and they aren’t a high ranker and so they hate those that are successful. Whenever I come across such views I find myself hearing the words in the voice of my five year old stepson when he’s whining and a nasal tone creeps in. But where he has the excuse of being five and on a continual basis demonstrates that he is growing out of it, there are many adults that seem stuck in a whiney limbo of life that isn’t fair.

My trigger was The Observer where amusingly I read that ‘Now we tend to stick much more to our “own”; we read the newspapers written for people like us...’ Well not I. I like to know what the enemy is thinking. I remember sitting in a coffee shop with a couple of Persian friends in Kuala Lumpur and one of them hushing us in order to listen briefly to a conversation between a couple of Arabs who had sat near us.

“You speak Arabic?” enquired my silenced friend once the hushing hand was lowered.

“I’m learning it. You want to know what they’re talking about” he replied before turning to me and earnestly saying, “Kathryn, promise me you’ll never trust an Arab.”

I’m still on the fence regarding that issue but it stood out as a real time example of appreciating the views of those you disagree with (and being ever so slightly paranoid).

I don’t really see readers of The Observer as my enemy but I don’t think it’d be healthy if I read the Torygraph like my mother. I think I’m a little too right of field not to continually challenge my ideas. I feel that I ought to rationalise and be able to defend my beliefs in a reasoned way and not in a knee jerk way which incidentally seems to be the one I encounter from those that don’t like the Tory’s because they aren’t nice. (Bite me)

So the rules of the game?

It’s not nice.

It’s not fair.

It’s just life.

I don’t hold much truck with idealists. While certain degrees of socialist utopia sound lovely, the reality is they don’t work and frankly I don’t want to pay for the dependent.* Equally, I don’t want supporting. I’m happy to play the capitalist game knowing that I’m never going to be one of the field leaders. The whine by Danny Dorling entitled ‘Britain’s growing pay divide – is it really fair’ that set me off on the course of this column could easily be viewed solely within the capitalist game context but look deeper and a different picture emerges.

‘A recent poll by Compass and the Joseph Rowntree Trust showed that only 1% of people think that top executives should be paid as much as they are. Another striking figure revealed that 64% believe that a chief executive should take home an annual salary of less than £500,000.’

Why?

Seriously. Why? Why care what the super rich earn? Personally £500,000 as an annual salary is as unrealistic as £15 million as an annual salary is to me. So what is this view of the (interviewed) majority based on? My personal opinion is that it’s mostly a case of hating the player not the game.

I don’t hate the game. As a result I’m incredibly ambivalent towards the players (that I don’t have a personal relationship with) and I feel rather sorry for those that get so impassioned with the injustice. For me injustice worthy of passion is human trafficking and being in actual danger on the basis of the colour of your skin or your sexuality. Frankly I lack the energy to feel very much for someone who earns huge sums but is otherwise probably quite like me in that they have a relationship, a family and a job. How tragic to exert energy on a stranger who spends their time in meetings before returning to a big house to watch the same TV program as you after tucking their kids into bed under the same duvet cover design as your kids.

I think your view of the big earners says a lot about the degree of contentment you have in your own life. I think my ambivalence stems less from my being rather right wing than it does about my being happy in myself. I can recognise that a cap on earnings being £500,000 (which incidentally raises all kinds of questions about entrepreneurs) would make me no happier than if earnings were uncapped and I’d argue that it is the same for anyone. By focusing on fairness in this sphere you only increase your sense of being cheated of something. Let it go, and more importantly, look inside.

Now, of course money buys a degree of happiness. The fiancé flippantly suggesting we go for a drink before going to the theatre and not thinking twice about spending £10 on half an hour of time filling is great. I’m happier with this life than I’d be in one where we couldn’t afford to do that. But would I have been any happier if he’d ordered a bottle of designer champagne? No. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice but it wouldn’t make me happier than my glass of house white. Because what really made me happy about that drink was spending some unexpected time with the man I love in a nice environment. This realisation means I have no envy of the couple drinking designer champagne. I’m certain they aren’t happier than me.

If the key to happiness being making peace with the game of life sounds defeatist then I’m sorry but no matter what the system in operation the basic rules seem to be the same everywhere. Still, if hating the game is what you must do, then do so but for your own sake, don’t hate the players!

You can be better than that.

* Certain exclusions apply. I believe in free education for everyone who wants it up to the age of 18, welfare for the elderly and (genuinely) disabled, support for good mothers and I love the NHS.