The Fifty Words That Started It All

I found this under my bed the other day…

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To the vast majority of people it represents just another book. Priced at £16.99, to my parents it probably represents an overpriced, emotional blackmail purchase, but to me it will always represent something far more significant. Unknown at the time (and for many years afterwards), this represents a key cornerstone in my life so far. For in this thick little book is my first ever published piece of writing.

Back when I was thirteen years old my English teacher got the class to write mini S.A.G.A.S (short, adventurous, gripping amusing, stories), short pieces of writing no longer than fifty words in length. At the time we were suitably hyped up by the prospect that the top students would get their work published in a book. My teacher’s words had the same effect on me as a child on blue Smarties (I was that sort of kid). Rising to the challenge, I poured out tens of short pieces in quick succession. While my peers scratched their heads over content, I found the greatest difficulty was knowing when to stop. Fifty words in which to write a complete, self-contained, passage is actually quite hard. In the end I selected the piece of work I felt best reflected who I was and my writing style (it was also the piece that my teacher chose to read out to the class. Take that Will Townsend!)

Unfortunately what our teacher had failed to tell us was that being selected to appear in the book wasn’t quite the big achievement originally billed up to be. It turned out that every submission made it to print, so long as their parents were prepared to stump up the money to buy the book in advance. Barring one girl, everyone in my class got a mention in the publication (even Will Townsend). Of course at thirteen this didn’t stop me being dead chuffed that something I’d written had achieved a degree of recognition. It meant that someone had seen value in my work. The fact that I still own this book in a state of near mint condition says it all.

Flicking back through the pages of Mini S.A.G.A.S. all these years later I still feel the same way as I did then, that for a thirteen year old my entry is by far the best. It’s certainly the most cohesive and unique of my class and regional peers (oh yay, yet another entry about a crush). And, although it would take another eight years to get me into proper writing, I like to think getting a little piece of my mind published sowed the seeds of creativity. If there was a prologue to my blog’s creation this would be it.

(And the best bit? You’ll never know what it was.)

Five Minute Review: What the F*** is Normal?! By Francesca Martinez

Do you like the cushion? Yeah, me too. I thought that when it came to summing up this book it struck the right balance between deep and pretentious. Okay, so five minutes to review a recent read. Lets go.

What The F*** is Normal?! is an autobiographic affair by the comedian Francesca Martinez. Born with cerebral palsy, but waging a one-woman campaign to rename it to simply “wobbly”, Martinez gives a first-hand perspective of growing up with a disability in 1980s/90s Britain. Making light out of what are often very bitter or bleak encounters, Martinez takes us through the various stages of her life that have shaped her into the woman she is today. In one instance Martinez describes with mild humour an experience with a GP who doesn’t know how to handle the author’s disability. Reading the account for first time you feel frustrated and even a bit angry that this scene could have possibly played out so recently over something so small as a sore ankle. This is an author that has been through a lot at every stage of her life. It made me wonder whether society’s attitudes towards disability is much improved now, or whether as an able-bodied person I’m just unaware of the difficulties faced by millions each day.

Martinez also devotes a portion of her autobiography to re-educating Western culture. Never shy of a challenge, Martinez addresses the very real issue of consumerism and how it can damage our own self-respect. Simply put, depression of the masses fuels the yachts of the few. Despite being bullied by similar types in Secondary School, the author reaches out to the popular teenagers of today to stop worrying about appearances and embrace body confidence instead.

What The F*** Is Normal?! is an autobiography that ticks all the boxes; easy to read, humorous but also a fascinating study. All by a comedian who is not afraid to challenge disability stereotypes and poke fun at one of the great taboo subjects of modern culture. In the subtly of a true comedian, Martinez points out that ultimately life could be worse. After all, one could be starving in Africa, aborted in the womb…or even a pot of hummus.

5. One Man’s Car Crash is Another’s Failed Mortgage Application

Disclaimer: The names of individuals/financial institutions marked with * have been changed.

When I found myself sat in the non descript office of a finance advisor, sipping on tepid water and discussing my death it did cross my mind that I’d had more upbeat birthdays. The situation was made all the more bleaker when he asked me how I planned to spend the rest of my day. With a Christmas brass band playing outside the window, I said half-humouredly “oh, you don’t understand, this meeting IS the highlight of my day”. He laughed out loud, I cried a little inside.

The above paragraph is lifted from the opening of Happy 100th Birthday, Sorry, Blog Post to Me. It marked the start of a funny spell and probably the closest I’ve come to acting since I was fourteen years old. Sick with stress and fury, whilst having to plaster on a cheesy grin for the rest of the world. Angry phone calls one minute, cheerful conversations with business suppliers the next, ended by crashes in the evening. Seldom few people knew about it and fewer still knew the realities. When the sale almost fell through days before exchange the inner circle shrunk to only those who could be counted on one hand.

But here I am, getting ahead of myself as always. Let’s get back to that insipid meeting room, with the overly sweet hot chocolate and Bono playing on BankUK* FM in the background. Take it back to when I met Jack and learnt about his boyfriend’s Christmas tree, his mother’s house in Evesham and his love of dogs and cats. Jack*, my first mortgage advisor.

Having sailed through the telephone interview for my Mortgage in Principle, I spent the following couple of weeks pouring through paperwork, digging out statements and venturing to the dark recesses of my office collect old payslips. Having asked others of their experiences, I’d prepared myself for a long meeting, involving heavy financial gruelling to determine suitability. I also had the unwanted assistance of the Cotswold’s answer to Gok Wan sorting out my wardrobe.

“Use that bag! No, the other one! Put your hair into a bun! Wear that nice dress!”

“So, shall I assume it’s a no to the wolf hat then?”

“Alice, do not wear that bloody wolf hat!”

I had always imagined bank lenders to be bespectacled, scary and fat, puffing on a cigar while they scrutinised your documentation. Really I suppose I expected Jack to be the spitting image of a cartoon character from Punch magazine. In reality he was anything but. I had to fight back my surprise when he made casual remarks such as “wow, you’ve got as much in savings as I have in debt!”, and “I really should start saving money, but I’m just too addicted to using the credit cards.” How could this man be in charge with lending such high value sums?

As we neared towards the close of the meeting the only element of my spending Jack had queried was that on food.

“You spent £40 a month on food? Really?”

“Well, it’s £10 a week maximum. I struggle to spend more than that.”

“No wonder you can afford to buy a house,” Jack muttered, before moving swiftly on.

Before the meeting I’d clued myself up on what I could borrow and on the best rates. For getting what I wanted at a fixed-term rate BankUK came out top, hence why I was sat in their bland appointment room, not the bland room of another bank. I felt very confident that I’d pass the second approval with flying colours.

“Oh. The computer says you can’t borrow that much…” He showed me the red screen.

Thoughts ran like crazy in my head. Are mortgage advisors just chimpanzees who hit keys into a computer? Because I could have done that at home. Also, I spent fifteen minutes explaining very carefully the difference between the charity I work at and our competitor’s, this man owes me. Thirdly, he must be mistaken. Of the three, it was the latter which was verbalised.

“Ok, ok, let me try something.” Jack quickly twisted the screen round, quickly typed and clicked a few things in and sighed with relief.

“There, all sorted. It’s been approved.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, well it needs to be approved by the bank manager but I’ve worked some magic on it and I’ve got you through. Your figures all match up, it’ll get sign off next week when I’m in the team meeting. Now, we need to have a second meeting to sign the paperwork off, can you do next Saturday, 10th December?”

“Sure, sounds good to me.”

“Great, I’ll see you then. Enjoy the rest of your birthday weekend!”

“Thanks, I’ll try to!”

That was first and last time I saw Jack.

On 6th December, a day after my birthday, a letter turned up on the parent’s doorstep.

“You expecting any late birthday cards or post?”

“No.”

Inside the envelope was a girly birthday card signed by Jack “…and all the Heathley* BankUK team” was shoved in the corner as if it were an afterthought.

“Ok…”

“That’s amazing. Why did he do that?”

“New policy? ‘We’re going to bleed you dry of money, but here’s a nice birthday card to make you forget about it’?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Well, there’s a first for everything. I’ll stick it with the others.”

And that was that.

A couple of days later an email.

Hi Alice,

Hope you enjoyed your birthday.

I’m afraid I can’t see you Saturday, I’ve been trying to get the application approved and the branch manager is out of the office until Monday and the service manager is on holiday which of course isn’t ideal.  To make matters worse, I break for Christmas on Wednesday next week, which gives us a very small window to complete.

I can book you in for the first Saturday in Jan for you.

I’m sorry about this, I hope it isn’t too inconvenient.

I was a little perturbed by this minor set back, but accepted that with everything shutting down for Christmas and New Year the delay of one week shouldn’t affect the house sale. I wrote a half-cheery, half-formal response in which I asked him to book the meeting for 7th January. A quick reply back confirmed this had been done. So with nothing else to do than to wait for my application to be approved, I sat back and focused on Christmas.

January rolled in as the tinsel rolled out. Like every January the streets took on a more dark and slippery persona, very much like those who worked in my mortgage bank. I emailed Jack to wish him a happy New Year and confirm the appointment time (a finer detail which hadn’t been set pre Christmas). Nothing. I emailed again two days later, a little more formal this time. Nothing. On Thursday morning I sent a third, more concerned email, asking for a call back. Nothing.

Not wanting to spend all of my Saturday waiting in a bank (I can think of a million things I’d rather do on a day off), I called the 0800 number on Jack’s email. Eventually I got through to someone based in India. I was a painfully slow process but eventually I persuaded the lady to send a direct email to Jack and to get someone to call me back to confirm. She said she couldn’t see the booking, but my advisor could have made the reservation outside of the booking system. Starting to feel a bit uneasy, I spent the Thursday lunchtime walking around town and telling myself to not panic.

About an hour and half later my phone lit up with a 0800 caller ID. I scooted from my desk and went out into the office reception. It would be Jack calling to apologise. He’d bleat on about being busy and then confirm the appointment time.

“Hello, is that Miss Bennett?” Came the female voice.

“Oh, err yes it is,” I replied, confused as to why Jack wasn’t calling me.

“Hi there, my name is Katie Smith*, I’m calling in response to your enquiry into a new mortgage application.”

“Well it’s not new per say, I just wanted to know what time my meeting was with Jack on Saturday.”

“Your meeting with Jack?”

“Yes, we have a meeting booked this Saturday. It’s our second meeting, he emailed pre Christmas to confirm the date, but he’s yet to get back to me on the time. When is it?”

“I’m sorry, I’m calling about a new enquiry. The call centre in India passed your details onto this branch.”

“Well I’m talking to you about my existing application.” My voice raised a little.

“OK. Unfortunately Jack went off sick yesterday, it was a bit unexpected. Was he your advisor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, um, he hasn’t passed any details onto me. I can start a new application, but because he went off sick I can’t do anymore than that.”

My blood started to boil. “He said it would be approved before Christmas, in which case I only need to sign it off. I’ll be on your system, please look it up for me. You have my name, it’s a three bedroomed house in Swindon.” I said through gritted teeth. Watching people coming and going around me I realised that this was perhaps not the best place to be having this call.

“Here we are,” Katie said down the phone, “I’ve got your records here.”

“Ok, and…?”

“Yes, it says your application has been declined.” Came the blunt reply.

I hit the roof. “WHAT?!” I yelled down the phone. “It can’t be!”

“I’m only telling you what I’m seeing on the screen Miss Bennett.”

“You’ve done me wrong!”

“Miss Bennett, I can assure you…”

“No, no, you listen to me. Jack sat there and approved my application. He had all my information. He told me not to worry about it, it would be approved. Why are you telling me this?”

“Well Jack went off sick yesterday. He was in a car accident. I don’t know why it was declined, I can only tell you the outcome. We’ve been under a lot of strain, no one expected him to be off sick…”

“That’s not the point! My last appointment was over a month ago. Why didn’t anyone tell me my mortgage application was declined? Why am I only finding out now? Why have I had to telephone a call centre in Mumbai to speak to someone in my local branch?!”

“Miss Bennett, a mortgage can be declined for a number of reasons…”

“How many times? I sat there with Jack, before Christmas, we went through it all and he approved it. He told me it was fine. Why would he, a mortgage advisor, tell me that if it wasn’t the case?”

“Well Jack has unfortunately been involved in a car accident so we can’t ask him that, can we?” Katie’s tone grew sharper.

“Just admit you’ve done me wrong. You have, you know it. Just say that right now and we can start to pick things up from there.”

“I’m only here to book a new mortgage appointment Miss Bennett, that’s why I called you. I don’t have your detailed records in front of me, just the outcome and all I can see is that the application has been declined. I’ll also remind you to watch your tone and use of language when on the phone.”

That was the final straw. “After what I’ve been through in the past five minutes please don’t lecture me, the customer, on how to react to a unreasonably failed mortgage application. I need to go back to my desk now and do the job I’m paid to do, but you go and look through my records properly. Call me back on this number when you understand why I’m not happy. If you don’t call me, I’ll call you. Trust me Ms Smith, my tone of voice could be a lot worse.”

I hung up.

This marked the start of Fake-Face syndrome. I went back to my desk and put on a brave face, trying to carry on like the nothing unusual had happened. “What do I do now?” I thought, “why was it declined?”, “in all that time, why didn’t Jack or his manager chase to get the application approved?” I punched keys into my computer in a zombie like fashion, anything that didn’t require thought or emotional attachment.

A short time later Katie called back. This time her attitude was very different. She’d been through my file and discovered it to be, by banking standards, an absolute mess. Handwritten notes, random print outs, missing financial documents, it was in a real state. However, she also acknowledged that the bank manager had only seen the application two days ago.

“We will probably have to book you in for another appointment. Financial conduct I’m afraid, I can’t pick up Jack’s clients or any work he’s already started. We’ll also be unable to lend you same money the interest rate you originally applied for, our borrowing limit has changed.”

“You’re joking. I didn’t choose that figure because I wanted to borrow more. I need every pound of it to buy my house. You think I can just magically conjurer the difference out of thin air?”

“It’s all I can do Miss Bennett.”

BankUK had me in a headlock and it was clear that my irritation was, right now, as useful as shouting at the wind. While this wouldn’t mark the end of the war, I begrudgingly had to accept defeat at the battle.

“Fine, when is the earliest Saturday appointment you can do?”

“I only work every other Saturday, so it’ll be Saturday 21st at 9:15. That ok for you?”

“Just book it. I have no words right now.”

“Ok, that’s done for you.”

“Please be advised Katie that I’m not happy. A BankUK mortgage advisor lied to me and you manager failed to conduct his job by not approving an application within the time frame BankUK policy and finacial conduct dictates. Don’t think you can brush this off.”

“Ok, well we can pick this up when I see you.”

A thought popped into my head. For the first time that afternoon a wicked smile crossed my face.

“Tell your manager I have the emails too.”

“Sorry, emails?”

“Yes, it’s all documented. Jack’s confirmation that it would be approved, the suggestion that the house could be valued over Christmas, the meeting reservation. I saved them all.”

“Urm, ok, I’ll pass that message on.”

“And there’s the birthday card.”

“The birthday card?”

“Jack sent me a card for my birthday. It says ‘To Alice, Have a Great Birthday! From Jack and all the Heathley BankUK Team. Kiss, kiss.'”

A long pause.

“Hello?”

“Yes, urm, hi. Urm, I will speak to my manager about that. I was unaware Jack had sent a card. Can you bring everything in when you come to this meeting?”

“Sure, I certainly can. I need to go back to my desk now, but I’ll see you on Saturday 12th. I look forward to meeting you then Katie.”

“Yes, ok. Have a nice weekend Miss Bennett,” Katie’s uneasy voice replied as I cut the line. I returned to my desk feeling more exhausted than a marathon runner.

Shortly afterwards a colleague tapped me on the shoulder to assist with a work problem.

“Did he say that in an email?” I asked.

“No, unfortunately not.”

“Rookie mistake!” I said, turning to my personal archive of emails. “If there is one thing I have learnt from working in an office it is this; always, always, get it in writing.”

This post is part of the First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far), click here.

Five Minute Review: The Classic Cocktail Bible

How do I sum up this book? Alcohol, that’s how. Lots and lots of alcohol.

Amusingly you open the cover and see not a Drink Aware message, but instead a warning against consuming raw eggs (a foodstuff that features in some of the recipes.) Sandwiched between the hard covers of this recipe book are some very attractive looking images and nice little introductions to each drink (where their name comes from, the type of ingredients in the drink etc.). You’ve got the classics, your Mojitos, Bloody Marys Martinis, but you’re also got the different, for example Kinky Witch, Rusty Nail and Bobby Burns. In many ways there is something for everyone here* (unless you’re teetotal or under eighteen, in which case no, there isn’t).

All this however doesn’t detract from the simple truth that, as with all cocktails, you need about 100 different spirits and mixers tucked away in the cupboard to make them. The Classic Cocktail Bible is a classic by name and a classic of its genre; it is a book which sits on one’s shelf for many months/years until one day you think “oh, I really fancy a Cosmopolitan right now, I’m sure I can make that”. You open this book to mild disappointment when realise you can’t so instead you reach for a can of cider and consume that instead.

The Classic Cocktail Bible is a must have for the coffee table of the young professional or the kitchen cupboard for the impulsive buyer but be warned, it takes more than vodka and coke to make a good cocktail.

Catherine Mayer on Equality, Red Heads and the Manifesto She Wants You to Steal

“Crossing the stage, Catherine Mayer strikes a formidable figure as she throws down her bag and proclaims, “will there be rock?!””

Check out my review on Catherine Mayer here:  Catherine Mayer on Equality, Red Heads and the Manifesto She Wants You to Steal

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Five Minute Review: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

One classic novel, five modern minutes to write up its review…

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy is a novel which depicts the relaxed pace of life in the countryside of 19th century England. It essentially tells the tale of three men from different backgrounds fighting for the love of one woman. You come to dislike them all to more or lesser degrees. Bathsheba (yes, that is her name) is a character with little warmth to her personality and, like all urban dwellers of the period, treats her rural tenants like dirt on her shoe. There’s Gabriel Oak, a hapless shepherd which following disaster finds himself working for the rich and snobbish Bathsheba. To say Oak is obsessed with Bathsheba would be a vast understatement. It’s no plot spoiler to say he proposes to Bathsheba and gets turned down within the first couple of chapters (keen much?). Then you’ve got the more maturely aged farmer Boldwood who, after receiving a wicked joke Valentine’s card, becomes infatuated with our female lead. Finally there’s Sergeant Troy, a passing army figure and notorious womaniser. Guess which one Bathsheba takes a shine to?

People often get doe eyed with the English rural landscapes depicted in this novel, but I don’t see it. To me this novel depicted country folk as a backwards breed who spend all their time rambling on and on about nothing at all. One of the few times I felt sympathy for Oak was when he was trying to get urgent help but had to contend with a bunch of idiotic drunkards in a pub. Who is going to give you money for booze if your mistress is dead Mr. Poorgrass, WHO?

Like a lot of literature from this period of writing, footnotes take dominance across most pages and the copy had religious and general ‘thing’ references which I imagine very few people would be able to understand two centuries later. I started off trying to read all the footnotes but quickly gave up when I found I was spending more time reading footnotes than I was when I was at university. Unfortunately it meant that supposedly hilarious jokes and witty comments made absolutely no sense.

If you’re a fan of Austen you’ll like this but Stephen King obsessives keep well away.