Soulsister.

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If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a friend who hasn’t met Ginny Meeks. I want to tell you who she is, but please, sit down and make time. She’s difficult to summarise. Ginny isn’t simply precious or rare – and she’d be the first to tell you that you are. This is an attempt to describe a kind of energy, of magic, that she and her family radiate which makes many of us want to be a better version of ourselves… It’s selfish therapy to write this, of course, and it’s also a love letter, but a hug worth sharing. You won’t get the chance to meet her now, but you can meet my fragments, best accompanied with a glass of wine.

It’s hard to pluck a linear strand of story from the blur of energy about one person. We’ve all experienced individuals who emit energy and others who absorb or dull it. Ginny is a light source with the full spectrum: an intimidatingly neon cloud of Stax, Motown, Grits, Sugar-Hill-Gang recitals, chaotic pet dogs, unrepeatable facial expressions, late-night stomping on top of antique furniture, limericks, cruising with the top down, hitting the gas, debilitating sarcasm, exasperating attention to detail, fierce loyalty and a laugh as famous as she is. And also quieter moments – stolen corners with Jane Austen, legs hanging off the dock above the creek, tearful eyes filling with easy pride for others, filling up diaries, investing in experiences, decrying idiocy,  Gone with the Wind, and thousands of handwritten thank-you notes.

It’s now six months since she left us, but she infiltrates hundreds of actions, decisions and thoughts every day. In each of her relationships, she powered up every channel she could for conversations and real friendships – far more than you or I will achieve in a lifetime, to a degree that’s hard to fathom; a seemingly unstoppable flow that somehow, hundreds of us received huge chunks of. These cartoonish chunks of affection were backed up by reason, warmth and humour, dished out in mammoth quantities.

Ginny was, and is, an astute original, the conversation-starter-and-finisher, a firmly-fixed moral compass, confidante, and of course, sister, daughter, mother and best friend. She’s been better at some roles than others, and much, much better than most, at all of them. A  thousand labels without trying to be, she and her family, and mine, are my icons and treasures.

After two horrible years, in which her closest went through more than most of us could ever endure, Ginny’s body denied us much of the time we wanted, but everything she is is shared among us and treasured.

I tried to explain her to someone who will meet her family next year for the first time. Just as people meet slices of my father through my siblings, my mum, his friends or me, there are always pieces of our souls to be found, dispersed but clear as day. He’s met many of Ginny’s already.

A couple of months ago, standing on her mother’s dock in Beaufort, South Carolina, beside an empty osprey nest and a silent but beautifully dark, teeming creek, her best friend read out the same quote quote I’d found half a world away, and also found comfort in, from Maya Angelou: “…People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So how did she make people feel? Her sister Sydney can describe Ginny much, much better than I ever can.

“Ginny Meeks lit up a room even when she was a child. She was inquisitive yet polite, assertive yet deferential. She was wise beyond her years and yet every bit filled with childlike wonder. She was my protector and biggest cheerleader. As she grew older, she became the protector and cheerleader of countless others.”

Ginny was the biggest reader of this indulgent noticeboard of mine. She told me when she was proud, said “I love you” liberally, and gave the most brutally honest feedback with warmth – so you couldn’t even dispute it.

Powered by the intention of making things better, right or enjoyable (albeit often by laughing loudly at things that are plain stoopid), she energised us with that ‘insatiable spark’ so tediously attributed to many, but trademarked by all three Meeks ladies; Ginny, Sydney and their mother Lila.

Understanding these women requires understanding the setting; Beaufort, South Carolina, the location of what Sydney describes as ‘an idyllic Lowcountry childhood’ – the setting that Lila and her husband Buster built around the girls and each other.

“We were children of the ‘70s and ‘80s, listening to our 45s and our cassette tapes while dancing on green shag carpet. We vacationed with mom’s family in Pensacola and Fripp Island and with Dad’s at Pawleys Island every summer. We lived for the creek and ocean waves and time with cousins and best friends.” 

My family held on tightly to theirs and ‘theirs’ is ‘ours’. I often try to explain that while Lila, Ginny, Sydney and their families are not blood relatives, they are our family. I have three sisters; Jessica, and Ginny and Sydney Meeks. My mother in Solihull loves a mother in Beaufort – and these women support each other, and hold each other’s grandchildren as silver-haired sisters with an ineffectual ocean between them. The Meeks probably have the hugest ‘non biological’ family you’ve ever seen, and a steady army of sisters who lost one of the best.

It’s fair to ask – how does a British family from the West Midlands find its heart in the Lowcountry? In 1981, (pre-me), the intrepid John Butcher (Butch) took his wife, the tolerant but cool-for-school Anne Butcher, on a road-trip down the east coast of the United States, bringing a 6-year-old and 4-year-old for the ride. Obligingly, Anne agreed, on the condition of one week at a beach, somewhere in this Monty-Python-esque journey.

Butch picked the most wildlife-tastic beach he find. Pre-google, he’d read that Fripp Island was home to deer, pelicans, loggerhead turtles, osprey, colossal cockroaches (sweetly named palmetto bugs), and an abundance of fauna to geek out on. While Anne was bronzing, and Butch spying on or tormenting wildlife, (he always resented David Attenborough for having the job he wanted most), my brother, 6-year-old Ben shouted at 6-year-old Chilton, a little girl in the kids’ pool who couldn’t pronounce his name without a southern lilt.

 “It’s NOT Biyenn – it’s Ben! Say Ben!”.

Butch met Gene. Anne met Beth. The dentist met the member of parliament and the  teacher met the town-polymath. The Beach Boys met the Beatles, and a sharp Solihull schoolteacher became firm friends with a southern sorority sister. Pre-Skype or WhatsApp, the Graces and Butchers began a friendship, that with annual trips, letters, phone-calls, Christmas cards and a steady exchange of southern hospitality, incredible kindness and eccentric humour, is now three generations and four decades deep.

There are too many adventures to list here, but plenty of music, wigs, beer, buckets of crab, in-jokes,  traffic-cones on heads, more road-trips, infinite bug-bites, silliness, and later, grief, across what is now several families on both sides of the Atlantic; Graces, Butchers, Meeks, Birchalls, Bookers, Tuppers..  and now Fowlers, Shumans, Simpsons, Hefners and Simmons.

It’s strange that the friendships that are among the most valuable are the ones I was born into and didn’t even get a say in; an established alliance begun by six year olds in a pool.

The Low Country is the captivating setting for Forest Gump and Gone with the Wind, and a corner of the world that’s uncommonly beautiful and uncommonly kind. With spanish moss hanging from the trees, impeccable “Yes Mam’s” and grace before grits, it’s easy to romanticise, but after living in five cities, four nations and three continents, after thirty years of coming back to Beaufort, I can say it earnestly.

Beaufort is an intricate community, governed by church-faring morals, easy smiles, impeccable manners, boat-rides and good beer. It’s home to the oldest African Baptist church in America, a block from Lila’s home, a stone’s throw from the Episcopal church that weaves through so many family stories. The main street is alive and well, albeit, peppered with out-of-town-golfers, but has not given in to Mall-life, and at the Post Office, or out at Walgreens, there’s always a face you know.

Downtown, kids play ball among streets of antebellum homes, and galleries and antique stores sit pertinently between ancient trees – watered by expensive pet dogs. Baseball-capped families carry shrimp buckets, ice boxes and gluten-free cookies, and the always-encroaching K-Marts, Wal-Marts and Real Estate Developers creep into town. Beaufort smells like creek mud, cinnamon cookies, damp wood and Elizabeth Arden. And among this, my parents fell for a congregation of smart, funny people, the kind Dad sought out in any country – interested and interesting – in that order – like Ginny and Sydney’s parents Buster and Lila.

The Meeks settled in Beaufort in the 1970s. Lila was a lecturer in American literature at the University of South Carolina, and Buster, a lawyer after retiring early from the military. They shared the same wit, warmth and lack of falseness, and internal libraries of general knowledge that could hold down any conversation well beyond small talk. With a love of good music, art, books and classic movies, both had the glint in their eye that their daughters inherited and used repeatedly to their advantage.

Buster could be found standing at the back of the group photo, or pulling a child away from calamity while holding a huge bowl of Frogmore Stew, amid loud family gatherings or barbecues disrupted by the odd hurricane. John Butcher looked forward to stolen conversations with Buster and Gene, about history, humour, music, politics or the ‘opinionated’ women in their lives, typically providing their own louder, running commentary on procedings.

Sydney said “…It is hard to overstate how important that community is to the person that Ginny became. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone looks after everyone. When there is joy, the whole group celebrates. When there is tragedy, the community bands together to mourn and take care of each other. Ginny felt that overwhelming sense of community throughout her childhood, and she both sought it out and created it for others throughout the rest of her life.” 

Set apart from the town, over meanders of the Harbor river, along a raised road across a marshy expanse of creek, Distant Island was, and still just about is, a quietly beautiful enclave just enough out of town to be wild, but close enough to be part of that community. A part, but apart, the Meeks could find solace or company whenever they sought it, while carefully avoiding suicidal deer on the drive home.

A looping drive of fifteen houses, each with their own dock tiptoeing into the creek, Distant Island is a small kingdom shaded by trees that arch over the road like a regal tunnel through the woods. Up the drive, onto the porch, and inside the olive-green house, the walls were illuminated by Lila’s vivid print collection and the smell of books and good food. In this house, Whitman, Wharton and Faulkner vied with Little House on the Prairie, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, and the girls furiously filled their journals while at least one boss-eyed Boston Terrier would be busy terrorizing seated guests or destroying elaborate table arrangements. Even just a few months ago at Sydney’s, her Terrier eliminated an entire wedge of Gruyere cheese in the nano-second we weren’t looking.

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“Our parents encouraged us to celebrate our community, and also to appreciate art, music, literature, and travel. They taught us that the place you’re from matters immensely, but that you must constantly seek out experiences far away from where you’re from in order to get a more complete picture of the world. Ginny became who she was because of the values our parents instilled in us. As for her spirit, there was never a doubt that Ginny would be confident, caring, whip-smart and devastatingly funny with Lila and Buster Meeks as parents.”

Around 1985, Ginny became the Grace’s babysitter, and in 1986 she joined them on a holiday to the UK, the year that Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson, and a three-year-old pigtailed Madey (me) shouted obscenities at the crowds gathering below our hotel room (under the instigation of my big brother).

That Summer, we felt the force of a few of the Meeks trademarks: sparkle in the eye, exceptional manners and lightning-fast wit. At fourteen, she understood and matched every joke (and Dad and Gene Grace were fond of deliberately trying to obscure crude jokes as part of the joke). She laughed with the adults, while being one of the kids.

While ten-year-old Ben Butcher was typically being shouted at (normally deservedly), eight-year old Jessica was in awe of this girl who was almost a woman; a mass of big, brown eighties-hair, stone washed denim and sweat-shirts. It was the warmth and the ease with which she engaged with anyone – any age, any demographic.” that would make Jess see Ginny as a role model for many stages in her life.

Straight-A student and class valedictorian, at school, Ginny was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” and both she and Sydney did. They each signed year books with smart quotes and empowering praises, but were no goody-goodies. Their originality meant they would always be the cool kids, and Beaufort Academy was not a place for Mean Girls – not when parents saw each other a minimum once a week, and every babysitter doubled up as a spare older-sibling in at least one other household. Ginny’s high-school senior quote was “Lightheartedness in the face of adversity is the sign of true courage.” She proved that more than any of us ever hoped she would have to.

After high school, she headed to an internship at the Whitehouse. A couple of America’s most powerful lobbyists today count Ginny as their closest – even if she occasionally nullified arguments with a glass of wine and no agenda but conversation.

Ginny earned a BA from North Carolina University, where she became a Tar Heel – loudly supporting UNC’s Basketball Team… To give British or Middle Eastern readers an idea of how militant perfectly-normal Americans can be about College sports, I can’t, really – except to say that the passion surrounding a collection of young men playing for team glory and not multimillion salaries creates a very authentic breed of sport and fan, and “She was incredibly skilled in the art of hating Duke,” the rival NC team.

Following time at NC with a J.D. from USC (legal qualification, not Bourbon), Ginny chose the quiet, unassuming city of Miami to pursue her Masters. In these years, there are grey areas – we know she studied hard, and possibly may have partied very hard, of course – collecting more lifelong friends along the way.

In November 1997 the Meeks, and all of us, lost Buster to a long illness that had quietly ravaged him for years. It was November 11th, Remembrance Sunday – when  Commonwealth countries remember those who gave their lives fighting for their countries. Not long after, Ginny went into organization mode, privately making sense of the biggest loss in her life by taking diligent care of others, trawling through paperwork, cases upon cases, and trying as best she could to tie up every loose end. As Sydney described it; “During law school, she single-handedly got her family through a tragedy that few people can imagine and then returned to school and finished in the top of her class”.

That year I was fifteen, and having a wretched time at a school in which I did not and could not fit in. It was either my mother’s spark of genius or madness, to send her unhappy teenager to South Carolina to stay with Beth Grace and Lila for the Summer.

It sounds awful to say it, but what was the hardest Summer in the lives of the Meeks was possibly one of the most precious of mine so far. I got to spend long moments with each of them, absorbing their humour and strength, even in their toughest moments. I got to stay up, laughing with Ginny and Sydney until 2 am for just a couple of nights in Pawley’s Island that are with me forever, and though I barely got to know Buster, I started to understand him through them.

Lila and I watched classic movies, and the Graces took me on epic road trips, and that Summer I understood that trying to fit in, to perform, or please, isn’t necessary, but being yourself is essential.

Before I had any idea of ‘strange fruit’, Lila would quote Atticus Finch to me, and in their home, where Buster had played Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ahmad Jamal records. the community – all of it, and doing the right thing, was a given, without needing to shout about it.

Both of the girls became legal professionals who, like their father, would go out of their way to use their expertise to help whoever needed and deserved it. Sydney became a defence lawyer for individuals often from the wrong side of the tracks, for whom the legal system was not always a protective force. Ginny practiced estate law for twelve years, and like her father, was “a skilled and compassionate lawyer who went above and beyond for her clients” – many of whom she ended up befriending. A successful attorney who always gave back, always paid it forward – and was adored by her clients for it”, she provided pro-bono services to several area nonprofit organizations in their early stages, and in 2010 she became a Professor of Law.

Like her mother, Ginny could easily hold a room full of students, and explain complicated concepts with concise humour. A mentor on campus or off, fellow tutor Lisa Smith Butler described “a colleague, mentor, friend, teacher and a terrific human being. She made everyone feel comfortable and welcomed. She laughed and made us laugh. Her smile reached her eyes. When she entered a room, it lit up. She was beautiful inside and out.”

Many, many people describe how Ginny lit up a room. It happened often. They describe how she made them feel more confidant, or the air lighter – someone or something that brought positives out in people around her. People described my dad with the same quality, and I see flashes of it in my brother. I see Ginny’s fearless talking to strangers shared in my mother, and her kind but debilitating put-downs employed by my sister.

In 2002, Dad picked up Ginny’s hand on her wedding day and led her around the dance floor with pride. He whispered into her ear; “Ginny – I’m going to say what Buster would have said if he was here – don’t take any shit.” 

In December 2006, the Butchers, and all of us, lost Butch to a long struggle that had ravaged his heart for years. It was Christmas Day. In those months, as we reassessed our paths and ourselves, Jess did a Ginny, and went into organization mode, while Mum descended into the same numbness Lila had felt not long before, and both still share. Lila knew what to say, and how to say it. Jess took care of us when we couldn’t see straight, and the Graces and Meeks reached across the void.

Dad never got to meet Darden or Nolen, Ginny’s two greatest accomplishments. Darden  was born in 2005, and Nolen in 2007 and the two became the energy sources for everyone else’s giant lightbulb. I won’t begin their stories here, but the opening chapters are already brilliant.

“She was arguably the loudest and most passionate fan at every one of Darden and Nolen’s school sports games. She was best known, however, for the countless ways, large and small, in which she helped others every day of her life. Often those on the receiving end of her help were people she barely knew.”

Ginny was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in April 2015. With the incredible help of her family and a collective of friends who redefine the term “best friends for life”, and a medical team who did everything in their power, and then some, Ginny did her best to keep the cancer from abusing her body for as long as she could. Sydney described lighter moments during this time: “During one gruelling radiation regimen Ginny befriended one of the techs and within weeks had helped him obtain guardianship of his disabled daughter. She would schedule her own medical appointments around meetings she had with patients at an estate planning clinic at the Cancer Center.”

“To keep us going, she would wear a rasta beret with dreads. She encouraged her niece to serenade her with an ad-libbed song called “Bald Is Beautiful.” She kept the women in the infusion area laughing throughout her treatments, and would tell the patients in the waiting room “It’s OK, I talked to the doctor and he said we’re all going to be fine.”

Even before Ginny’s first round of treatment was complete, Lila was planning the celebratory trip to Europe. And you’d better believe that between Lila and Ginny, we had our month-long itinerary mapped out …six months in advance! And it was, indeed, the trip of a lifetime.”

We are each bit-parts of a greater story, in which Ginny has a lead role. It’s a funny one, brightly coloured, and ongoing, carrying all of us about it like the Harbor river.

Like Ginny, losing a much-loved father was a part of the story we never chose and wore too soon. And, like Ginny, I have a smart, fiercely funny and inspirational sister and mother who are rocks in their own rights, with no shortage of friends, extended family or stories. Losing her can inevitably become part of the fabric that defines us, and having a piece of her makes it much richer.

Ginny’s and Sydney’s children are my nephews and nieces. As they grow, all too fast, they are friends of ours in their own right – (despite not being allowed to hold a can of beer yet).

The crater left by Ginny is a gap hundreds of people wide and by its ripples, a few thousand deep, and affects many she never met. A piece is always missing, but we’re also heavier; a little bit clueless and more acutely aware – of her, of our place, of what we have. The space is deafening and very quiet, but the story, one of the hardest ones we have to tell, is also a wonderful one, that’s nowhere near finished.

I found one more quote by another female poet, Mary Oliver:

“The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.”

You never met Ginny. I hope now, you feel like you did. These last words are from a Whatsapp video on my battered old phone:

“Ok Madeleine. You know I don’t know how to do this stuff very well. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying having your mum here. It’s so weird talking to this dot. She has been a breath of fresh air, and the kids have loved it. I’m trying to deal with the chaemo treatment. I’ve lost all my hair again, …but I’m feeling pretty good… It sure is nice to have all of this attention from everybody – it’s overwhelming. Anyway, we do want you to come visit sometime soon, and I’ll talk to you when I have a little more energy – god – look at all the wrinkles on my face! Good god – I need to get my gap done – ugh – I’ve got a lot to do! I don’t like doing this – not in the bright sunshine anyway. It’s 80 degrees here – we’ve got the windows open. I guess it’s 80 degrees in Dubai. Urgh. I wish I had something to report, but we’re all good, and I love you, and I’m proud of you. Right. Bye.” 

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Believe the Hype.

Hype magazine has been a bastion of Dubai Nightlife for most of my time in the Middle East. Its pages describe a positive, perhaps more realistic portrait of Dubai Life than pearly botoxed, eye-bleeding Charity events, unbuttoned COOs pouring bonuses into sparkler-flaming Cavalli glasses… Nope. On a weekly basis, Hype printed the faces and voices of thousands of aspirational, multinational revellers, burning the candle at both ends; earnest, ambitious and optimistic, and very rarely with a toe on the property ladder.

Hype championed authentic, miscellaneous, organic creative troupes, from trust-fund-free designers to desert-appropriate sports fiends, one-off projects, new movements and a broadening art scene wholly unaffiliated with money laundering. Its pages were a very genuine picture of the lifestyle that’s kept me and many others rooted here in a city that is emerging and growing and changing all the time.

Hype became a brand apart from the magazine, with a colossal annual party in the park, and an anticipated annual awards ceremony, followed by the annual worst-hangover-of-the-year. But for some excruciating reason, the grey-haired men at the top table decided that ‘Online’ was not an appropriate platform for Hype’s sought-after demographic. So Hype stayed analog. And while its target-market burgeoned, and its content standards stayed high, it became another victim of the downturn in publishing across the Middle East.

Despite a passionately-fierce editor steering a talented team, with banging design and a much-loved presence, Hype as we know it is waving goodbye. It’s waving on rollerskates with a G&T in hand to the backdrop of a neon sunset and pounding bass… but it’s goodbye nonetheless.

And despite driving the team insane with my later-than-last-minute, seriously-maddy-sort-it-out submissions and technical ineptitude, I was thrilled to be asked to contribute. And now the only way to document my pieces for posterity? Online.

Here’s a run-down of what I got up to in Hype in the last two years. I’m missing quite a few because my inbox, desktop and state-of-mind are currently a landfill. And for Hype… and her epic team, I wish them every success, wherever they head to next.. They deserve it.

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Almighty Almaty

My cheeks hurt from smiling for four days. My throat’s hoarse from laughing and shouting, and my poor, poor liver.

Six Dubai hipsters had the privilege of spending our Eid Al Adha in Almaty, Kazakhstan with our good friend Olga, a real-life Kazakh who we now regard as a Gangster Princess. All we knew about her nation had been defined by a British, Jewish impersonator with a Turkish catchphrase – “Yashimash”.

In the following days, Craig David crashed a wedding, we got rhythmically spanked with oak branches by a semi-naked Korean, a tearful spy passed out on our couch, we sang Irish shanties around a soviet satellite-monitoring station and some innocent children were farted on. And among this and a few things that are unpublishable in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, we fell in love with a country that surprised us a thousand times. This is a long one. Sit with me.

Almaty sits just beside the border of Kyrgyrzstan (spell that without looking). With 1.4 million residents, it’s surrounded by colossal mountain ranges and  home to major winter sporting events thanks to all the gradient and icyness. That’s the factual bit. Now let’s engage.

Friday September 9th.

Upon arrival in our first ‘Stan, with a Wikipedia summary on the plane and no expectations whatsoever, before we could absorb the cyrillic signage and our first slivers of soviet concrete, we were packed into what looked like a bullet-proof van with black windows, which became the Gangsta-Party-Bus, captained by our enthusiastic but patiently bemused Driver/DJ, Azim. I’m scoping out potential Kazakh husbands and Azim is candidate number one.

Kazakhstan is 70% Muslim, 30% Christian/Miscellaneous. Its people are 60% descendants of nomadic Mongolian tribes, who revere Ghengis Khan as a unifying warrior-emperor (and not the Khal-Drogo-Barbarian Western countries have historically painted him as). 30% are ethnic Russians and mixture of other Eastern European cultures.

On the whole, it seems a bit divided between these two groups, which makes our multi-ethnic party an oddity, with apparently the only combo of both an Indian and Black man in town. This is where I give myself the covert mission of whispering to strangers that our friend Edem is British Songwriter Craig David. (Edem still doesn’t know how many Kazakhs I said this to).

Driving through the outskirts of the apple city (Almaty is apparently the spiritual home of apples – they started here- every apple ever), our wide-open tourist eyes try to decipher every difference in this culture from the worlds we understand, from intricate tiles and ornate fences to super-size policeman’s caps and take-no-prisoners driving.

Kazakh homes are cared for, and thoughtful design is everywhere. It’s in the layout of parks, the buttressed facades of 80s residences, influences everywhere of nomadic Mongolian craft, and a completely unique fusion of Communist-Imperial-Brutalist-Mughal-Modernist-European-Asian aesthetic. I’m confused and inspired at once. But inspired design is not there functionally in the traffic system yet, where getting between two spots within a 15 minute walk can take 20 minutes in the car around a gargantuan one-way circuit (which mystifies me in a city with a grid format).

The bullet-proof Gangsta-bus takes us to a group of theatrically-majestic spiked glass towers in the centre of town, built in the style of a mountain range. Smarter people at this point would remember the name of where they’re staying.

After our first few rounds of vodka and a sample of horse meat (we ordered a Pork platter), evening sets in. We get back in the Gangsta-bus and head across town to a dark, questionable alleyway, with a solitary young Russian-looking woman standing under a lamplight. Before panic sets in, we’re told this is Olga’s best friend, and we’re happier to be ushered in to the adjacent brick-walled courtyard. We pile out and crowd around an incredible feast of thirty plates of incredible hot and cold food under the moonlight.  Joining the loud and grateful diners, this platter is provided by Alexei, the owner of a Banya, who generously passes around a Kazakh ‘Shisha’, with a smile that radiates with perfect consistency for our entire trip.

I didn’t know at this point that Kazakh herbologists are extremely adept at their trade. Maybe it was the altitude of such a high city, but my internal altitude soared and I was not prepared for what came next. A Banya is a Sauna-and-Plunge-pool affair, but you’re encouraged to wear woolly hats in the steamy heat (“to stop your hair going frizzy”) and then lie on your front while you’re tapped, smacked then tapped with oak leaves for 10 minutes. This shamanistic soft-percussion releases bad energy, eliminates stress and detoxes. But I got very stressed when my turn was up, and continued drinking vodka to calm my nerves.

We posed for a group photo, holding up a plate with one delicious-looking brown unidentifiable fish, (purely because it looked fancy). The fish’s head fell on the floor mid photo, and we howled with laughter, while our Kazakh hosts were very confused. (“they have never eaten fish?”) Right before it was my turn to get smacked for ten minutes, I dug into the fish and ate what I thought was couscous. I had inadvertently disembowelled the fish with my finger and eaten its unborn foetuses. Cue a royal freak out.

We steamed. We plunged. We smoked. We drank. We dressed, and we went clubbing. ‘Pink Pong,’ also owned by Alexei, is one of my new favourite places.

imageA small, assuredly cool but subtle affair, it’s a sleek little bar with wooden walls, pink light, and quietly friendly artists, designers, copywriters, account directors and individuals who were interested and interesting.

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Occupying a residential area, it is the unfortunate doorman’s job to regularly shush the clientele. The shushing and his earnest face don’t instill fear, and soon we’re all shushing back as soon as he comes near, then theatrically shushing each other. He probably doesn’t find this as hilarious as we do.

Inside, drinks are cheap and the music is exceptional. Erika, an impossibly cool and impossibly beautiful half-Kazakh-half-Mexican DJ nonchalantly plays body-rouser after body-rouser, and we reach for Shazam every time. I haven’t had a night in years where I’ve been so thrilled by such a danceable playlist of tracks I’d never heard. She, Rustem, Arys and Aidaar kept us on our feet, while we danced the vodka out of our systems.

At 4am, slightly confused, a bit worse for wear, my two roomies and I are bundled into a cab with Rustem, who at this stage, we don’t know that well. None of us can remember the name of the iconic tower we’re staying at (featured in most Almaty postcards), so we go on an early-morning ‘road trip’ across a city none of us know, in languages we don’t speak. Driving the wrong way up a one-way street, we’re pulled over by a cop. Our driver is expected to bribe him to be allowed to pass GO, but the policeman insists instead that after we’re dropped off, the driver goes and gets him some snacks, cigarettes and a magazine. Apparently this is normal, but Rustem is as confused as us. The driver agrees and we continue the wrong way up the one-way-street to Whatsitsname.

Saturday September 10th. 

We rise, and walk across town to the base of the Cable Car up to Kok Tobe. Cable Cars turn me into a Six year old on Christmas Morning (but so far, so have most experiences in Kazakhstan). Kok Tobe is a mountain with a ferris wheel on top, a petting zoo with ostriches, stags and giant rabbits, a bronze statue of the Beatles, a Toboggan run and a rooftop cafe with hearty local food where Almaty’s answer to Michael Bublé serenades us, then breaks out a Violin and makes my heart implode. Maddy Heaven. If there was a cinema here playing only 80s comedies, life would be complete and I’d find a way to relocate here and never come down. I could take care of the giant rabbits.

Photos tell us Gerard Depardieu, Steven Seagal and Prince Michael of Kent had the Kok Tobe experience too. And the Kazakh herbs are helping us appreciate the nuances of every second.

imageSitting in the Toboggan with my head between my best friend’s legs, I loudly lose my mind and voice plunging down metal rails towards earth across the side of the mountain. Then another Cable Car ride. Everything is amazing. Too. Much. Awesome.

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imageAfter Kok Tobe, we take a stroll through the park, towards Zenkov Cathedral. Built in 1907, and apparently the 2nd tallest wooden building in the world, the outside looks like a perfect Birthday Cake, while inside, the Russian Orthodox version of Eid Al Adha, the feast of Abraham, has me spellbound. Women wear headscarves, and sing better than any orchestral choir I’ve seen, in front of guilt-gold panels of incredible paintings. I’m in awe of their faith, and the piety of their talent; perfect voices in harmony, tnot aimed at a camera phone, but at an altar. Just like the voices in a Baptist church in Brooklyn, the sounds inside Zenkov Cathedral will stay with me forever.

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We walk from here to Panfilov Park, where a pantheon of colossal sculptures commemorate 28 soldiers who died fighting the Nazis outside Moscow, and who are about to be commemorated in a film. The huge figures are composed, powerful and emotional. This is not a place for Selfies, but to feel intimidated by pride, bravery and action.

On our way out, a wedding party lines up to have pictures with Craig David and his friends.

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That evening we head to Kino, another exceptionally cool club with BBoying Kazakhs, a delicious funky-disco soundtrack, and a proprietor and smiling DJ, Rustam, who also happens to run Jazzystan – an outdoor, annual hilltop Jazz festival at my favourite place, Kok Tobe, that features Jazz, electronica and funk acts from across all of the Stans, and a few global ones too. I will be there.

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The day’s not finished. We head to an abandoned Munitions factory that is one of the coolest hipster-tastic spaces we’ve ever seen. A former production line for human destruction, it’s now an impossibly cool temporary art-space full of sculptures, hyper-cool lighting, terrifying toilets and music that makes us feel like we’ve taken drugs even if we haven’t. Getting home is still difficult. Nobody has yet tried to remember the name of the massive spiky landmark we live in.

Sunday September 11th. 

Our groggy heads bundle back into the GangstaBus and up the mountain to the former olympic site, Medea. Cue today’s ear worm, SL2’s “On a Ragga Tip” for the intro lyrics: “Dea, Medea, BeWanladidi..UmbaDea… “

We queue for another cable car, only now it’s raining, and the cable car is not going anywhere. The queue becomes a stationary crowd of angry faces shuffling forward when there is no forward. To try and reclaim some space, a member of the group uses their own personal emissions. Two Kazakh children are in the line of fire. This is a low point in our behaviour on the trip, but achieves the desired outcome.

The queue’s not moving, but Gangsta Princess Olga conveniently meets some friends nearby, who lead us to another friend’s nearby log-cabin in the mountains – An Actual Log Cabin, made of actual logs, with an open fire, and a professional multi-restaurant-owning Serbian chef barbecuing slivers of the most perfect meat we’ve ever tasted. imageThe friend in charge of the log cabin is Aidar, another brilliant DJ, who also runs his own massive annual Almaty music event, Cosmic Picnic. I’ll be there. And near to the cabin itself, despite the rain, a busy, family-friendly mountain-music-festival was taking place. We dance and grin to a Kazakh Klezmer-Punk-Ska band with wonder in our souls. A lot of cameras wanted to film Craig David’s attendance. Everything is still amazing. Too. Much. Awesome.

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That evening we head to the home of another DJ, Red-bull-award-winning composer Arys Arenov, and a small gathering in what we believe is his own apartment, but may possibly be owned by his parents. Buttressed Arches shape the Windows as if Rennie Macintosh was inspired by Starwars. One of us asks: “When was this built?” Arys replies “86”. Our response: “1886?” “No, 1986”. This little misunderstanding is indicative of how the architecture throughout the whole city is like nothing we know. We had no references, no context, and we loved it.

We ask Arys to give the six of us a tour of the apartment. We pile into the dining room, expectant and excitable. “This is the …dining room”, is followed by an expectant pause, confused looks, then an awkward shuffle out of the dining room and into the genuine Kazakh hallway. Perhaps not every single element of this trip is supposed to be a mind-blowing adventure.

In Arys’s kitchen we play the escalator game. An Indian, a Ghanaian, a Kiwi, an Australian, an Iranian, a Brit and six Kazakhs applaud one another over impressions of passing up and down a hypothetical escalator  behind a table.

With every country or nationality I’ve ever encountered, humour unites and forges friendships like nothing else. It establishing understanding, boundaries, trust, and for me, loyalty. One real, deep-down-dirty belly laugh and you’ve got me for life.

Hometime. Nobody knows the name of spiky tower. Jane thinks it might be called “Noodly Towel”. Arys’s bottomless blue eyes may be another factor in me looking forward to a return trip.

Monday September 12th. 

We thought we were already blown away by Kazakhstan, but the Almaty gods had more in store. Just as the rain led us to a perfect log-cabin, the following day clouds are trying to disguise a new treat. They blanket the city like a comfortable gloom as we head up to the mountains. We stop for a picnic in a traditional wooden hut. More delicious food, and Pork Shashlik, which our Indian gang-member has been raving about since the plane. He’s right. It’s dangerously delicious.

Back on the bus and we make our way towards Almaty Big Lake, nestled in the peaks that line the jagged border with Kyrgyrzstan. We drive up and up, then above the clouds, and our jaws drop. On left and right are valleys that look like the saturation has been turned up on Photoshop and the CGI team have gone all-out.

Prehistoric don’t-fuck-with-me mountains straddle the heavens while having what looks like an engrossing conversation with one another at the same time. They make me miss my humble Lake District, but their beauty is completely their own. I feel like I’m on acid just looking at them.

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Big Almaty Lake is a light blue colour, due to Zinc, Rustem tells us. Today, the mountains around it are peppered with discoball shafts of sunlight. To add a cherry on the top of this perfect-perfecty-perfectness, a newlywed couple are nearby being photographed on a rock. With her dress billowing in silhouette, they held a smoke flare and my heart implodes again.

Craig David and I try to bring things back to our humble-mortal level with multi-man poses in one Panorama.

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Rustem asks if we fancy heading to the nearby Space Observatory, a former communist monitoring station still in military use. There’s a unanimous YES. Arys and Rustem make quiet calls ahead with serious faces. We pile back in the Gangsta bus and up to the Tien Shan Astronomical Observatory. Our passports and security cards are handed over to a man at a check point. Kazakh herbs can be stronger at this altitude, so I don’t  quite understand the gravity of the situation, and maybe my white privilege has made me a bit complacent these days, because I don’t think I stopped singing, erraticallg dancing or laughing all the way up the mountain, at the checkpoint, or around the station itself.

The Aussie poet of our group, Meredith described Tien Shan as a “vintage Astronomical wonderland” and it’s exactly that; a mystical setting for strange, purposeful buildings and old-school sci-fi equipment, in an ethereal landscape. Remnants of a mistrustful but diligent soviet republic, watching the skies, from as close to them as possible. We want to absorb it all.

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I wish I’d had a slightly clearer head at this point, instead of trying to sing The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” with my arm around the unimpressed but tolerant slightly-terrifying Russian lady following us as our security escort. I think I’m being a bit obnoxious-Brit.

It’s hard to peel ourselves away from the colours and shapes and the calm mountain quietness I’ve so rudely and repeatedly interrupted, but we make our way back down from the mountains and into the city with sufficient levels of drama.

Azim, our DJ/Driver blasts Euro, Kazakh and Russian pop at us. It’s as formulaic as global pop, so we’re able to sing along loudly without having heard any of the tracks before. The whites of Craig David’s eyes widen as we hurtle down the mountain pass screaming neon ballads, with a sheer drop of death on either side of the road, and our laughing driver turning back to look at us instead of that road, while we stay gleefully thankful to be alive.

With the hills, then the burbs, then the city trundling past, my eyes try to take in every last piece I can; the blend of brutalism and humanism in the buildings, small or big. Rigid lines of confident optimism with sudden arcs of sweeping energy of decades not that far gone by. They show me that the Soviet psyche was not the one-dimensional characters of robotic villains in films. These visionary structures could not be made by regimented, repressed, unimaginative souls. They hold belief and ambition. Their lines, angles and defiant shapes were full of a brave new optimism for a bold, space-age, world-conquiering future. That future might have taken an erratic path, but it’s still forming, and the richness of modern Kazakh identity is fascinating.

Hometime.

From what we saw, Kazakhs are quietly observant, and loudly friendly. They’re discerning and aware, and in design, music and fashion, the individuals we met knew their shit. It felt like they’d taken the best of what the world creates, but stayed true to their own. I love that. There was no need to please, minimal homogeneity. Just a desire to share, a pride that didn’t have to be declared, because it was authentic and assured.

Kazakhstan is no fairytale, and Olga’s friends do not represent the entire populace. Ruled by the same president since 91, communism may no longer be the official regime, but democracy as half the planet knows it is not here yet, and equal distribution of substantial wealth appears to be far off. In a country with limited press freedom, and a regime in charge that has been known to brutally and mercilessly intimidate dissent, this is a stunning wonderland where everyone appears to work very, very hard. Even the supposed Slackers would be unequivocally back at the office at 8am after an all-nighter with us. But we didn’t see poverty – we saw people working hard. We didn’t see drunks staggering across any streets (well, except us), or hear the same kind of street-shouting/slurring the Brits tend to do at home and abroad (although I hear it’s a different story after dark).

Despite recent troubles with Islamist Militants, we felt safe, perhaps because we had Craig David with us, perhaps because we stuck out like sore thumbs, but safe thumbs.

I think it’s evident I fell pretty hard for the place. I can’t wait to go back, and am booking in Cosmic Picnic and Jazzystan. You’re welcome to join me.

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The stars of this adventure were:

Olga Verchenko   …(Superstar actually)

Sachin Mendonça

Jane Aldersley

Edem Agbotui

Meredith Carson

Lady who can’t be named

And of course, Ruslem, Erika, Arys, Alexei, Aidar, Azim, Ruslan, and a host of brilliant folks with incredible generosity.

Click here and go find adventures.


Stranger, Better things.

There’s a Game of Thrones gap in my life that has now been nuked by a ‘Stranger Things’ gap. In the aftermath, I feel like a beloved pet has just died. In just 8 episodes, Stranger Things made me excited, inspired, flattered, and it made me care about things, and people that were pretty ridiculous. The hugely popular (and now cult) series didn’t have the world’s most colossal budget, (but an evidently big one) or a colossal cast of exceptional shakespearean thespians slumming it. But, like the coolest cat at the party, it was intricately composed, while appearing free and easy. Its characters were whole, without having to lord it. Its settings took you back to your own past, without looking like the set designer was enjoying himself too much.

Like most, I binged the lot, like a Cartman with a bucket of popcorn, a dark room and no friends. I screamed, but I loved it. And I tried to figure out why it’s so bloody lovely. This is my theory:

CRAFT.

Everything has been thought of, delicately enough to look like it hasn’t. Shot on an impossibly expensive camera, ‘The Red Dragon’, a layer of subtle ‘frosting’ film was added to give the overall feel a subtle “VHS” look that adds subliminally to an overall feel of authenticity (more subtly than the crackling opening credits).

The composition of each frame is as painterly as Pans Labrynth, from  dancing particles of ash, to monochrome Barb sitting on a diving board. And the subtle colour grading throughout never gets in the way.

ERA.

This is everything that makes Stranger Things an Instant Cult classic. Egregiously referring to the era that is the apex of Stephen King and John Carpenter, there is an innocence to sci-fi, horror and comedy from this period that allows films to be all three genres without having to stake a sole claim in one and own it vehemently. Stranger Things is not a buddy flick, horror film, thriller, drama or vintage homily. It is free to be all of them at once.

The Duffer brothers chose the last period of time when popular culture was still innocent. Celebrities still had bad hair and teeth, and teenagers wore cardigans knitted by their mothers. When sanitised MTV culture stole the 90s from us, it paved the way for High School Musical, not awkward kids playing boardgames. The 80s is a time we can still remember with a warm nostalgia- where fads, toys and brands came and went without brands declaring their domination. And we miss it.

CHARACTERS.

We now live in an era with too much excellent drama, in our golden age of almost too many rich, believable characters and plots set in the real world, we’ve been spoiled. Over the last ten years we’ve had Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and so many powerful character arcs and compelling stories we feel a part of. Because the standard, thanks to HBO and Netflix, is so high now, it’s refreshing to meet characters that, at first, don’t appear to ask too much of us – where, with the luxury of eight hours and not two, we are allowed to appreciate them, on whichever level we choose to.

The characters are developed, and believable, but you could happily sit back and just gorge on the E.T. and Goonie-ness of it all with a little healthy shit-yourself-fear thrown in. The casting however, is the golden ticket. The Duffer Brothers struggled to sell the show to a series of networks primarily because nobody wanted to bank on a horror format with children as the stars. And that’s exactly what makes this whole thing precious. I’ll say more about that.

SOUND.

You can now get the Soundtrack on iTunes. The sound design for Stranger Things is not simply a homage to 80s synth. It gets it. The Duffer Brothers (my new unequivocal crush) actively sought out Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and it was one of the best decisions they made. Dixon and Stein do not over do it. We’re aware of the score, and yes, it manipulates, but, unlike in Game of Thrones (which is brilliant at orchestrated crescendos versus softly-stepped acoustic anticipation), it frames, and subtly leads us, without giving anything away. Somehow, all it does is add to the whole beautiful thing.

Have I raved too much? I’m not done yet.

CAST. 

The unknowns and the knowns. The five twelve year olds at the heart of this are not Hermione Grangers or “seeing dead people”. Whether it’s the child stars, or the brilliant direction of the Duffers, the action is simply taking place, and the boys and girl seem completely unaware of the camera. I really want to see how good they’ll be in other projects, or whether this is about the whole production.

We can laugh at these eleven year olds, but we care about them, because Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Materazzo and Noah Schnapp are each brilliant. The teens too. Joe Keery’s annoying Steve Harrington won the directors round, enough to change his character’s plotline and keep him in it, as more than a basic bully. Natalie Dyer’s Nancy Wheeler was sweet but strong, kind but manipulative, and grew to dominate  with every scene.

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My Questions.   # # # S P O I L E R S  # # #

  • If the Demagorgon senses blood, surely that makes every menstrual lady in the town a target? And also.. the hospital?
  • Which came first – the egg or the slug?
  • Where is the dog. Why does nobody care what happens to the dog?
  • Can we have a prequel purely about Barb? She’s amazing. Totally worthy of the memes she’s been generating.
  • 3 juicy relationships – Eleven & Mike, Sweetly-Badass Nancy and whichever-one’s-about, and of course, Joyce and Hopper. Really wanted the last one to happen..
  • In series two, will the children have the same innocence that makes this so accessible? Or will puberty take a massive bite out of the playfulness of the whole thing?
  • That article on the noticeboard. Many, many questions about that.
  • How is the carbon-based, carnivorous Demagorgon so impervious to bullets/flames/massive leg-spiked traps
  • I love it that the Demagorgon is now being described as “Tulip Head”. I’d like to see how far they can steer this away from being a bit too “Aliens”/”Predator” in the next series.
  • Eleven. Can she not just become Hopper’s adopted child and then everyone’s happy? That would make me happy.

I’ve said enough.

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1,520,000 pairs of eyes & ears…

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Infiti makes beautiful cars, but car ads, across the world, are interchangeable, predictable and patronising. I do the odd bit of brand consultancy and regularly explain this to clients, who take it on board, then carry on peddling the same bollocks. Car ads use the same words, the same gruff male voiceover, the same angles of studio car-shots placed out in the open then re-touched to buggery.

The twin peaks of my Advertising career were car ads, made at TBWA, where Elisa Arienti and I were the creatives behind ‘Inspired Light’, and ‘Chromatic.’ With a team of talented, insanely-hardworking individuals, we were able to create something iconic, and world-reaching. Across Facebook and Youtube, Inspired Light received over 300,000 views, while Chromatic is currently at about 1.22 million.

“Inspired Performance” was our brief, and after the success of Inspired Light, we pursued a route that would fuse design, music and animation, where the cars were not simply instruments, but made up a new kind of audio-visual fabric, one that would ebb and flow into new characteristics. We wanted to achieve a collaboration that would beautifully mess with your mind. A slow, electronic acid trip that was Suitable-For-Work. And if we could apply Chromatic to a 3D projection experience, I’m pretty sure I’d implode.

Cars have made music before. Honda’s Cog, Volkswagen’s choir. it’s hard to make something listenable, but not new. Our client Francesca Ciaudano bravely took the gamble with the three opinionated ladies sitting opposite her in the conference room again, and it paid off. Two Italians, two Egyptians and an opinionated brit sat down and figured out how to make this work, and then to recruit a German and Australian to make some magic.

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There’s something to be said here for the fact that beside the composer and motion-designer, the team was all female. It’s no secret in the Business world, and particularly Ad-Land, that while men are very good at talking the talk, and ‘bigging up’ their part in proceedings, women tend to get their heads down and get on with it. It’s why Sheryl Sandberg needed to write “Lean In”. It’s why you don’t get many female Creative Directors, and it’s why for the past two years I’ve been working on a book aimed at women from 16 – 25 called “Big Up Yourself” (- watch this space). It’s also why we were able to roll up our sleeves and make this happen, among ourselves, without two many cooks filling the pot with egos.

It’s rare that big brands root global projects in the creativity of this region; this ’emerging market’ that is both evolved and incredibly complex in beautifully segmented ways. Once we’d figured out how to describe what we intended to do, (and storyboarding what was essentially a moving abstract piece, reacting to sound was an absolute nightmare), we set about finding the right people for it. UAE-based producer Megadon Betamax created a dance track in his own distinct style, entirely from scratch, from the sounds of the cars of the Infiniti range. We knew he could compose it, and make it listenable. It was hard, and he was inspired in his process of collecting the sounds just as much as composing them together, but as a classically-trained musician and just as passionate as we were, he was our man.

Motion Designer Misha Shyukin, who had recently created visuals for Amon Tobin, was the perfect candidate to task with creating a hyper-responsive video to articulate this sound literally, and unpredictably. Take a glimpse at the visuals on his site and you’ll see this was a brief he eats for breakfast. His task was to route the visuals entirely on arabesque patterns of Islamic Art, in monochrome, because, you know, Chrome-atic. (See what we did there… but also – Monochrome always looks badass). The results were a feat of design that, if you pause at any point in the video, gives you a stunning composition worthy of a framed poster. And Shyukin’s skills are made even clearer in black and white.

I recently watched Chromatic in an office playing ‘Billy Jean’ simultaneously – and they worked beautifully to that too…

When we first heard the finished music our hearts were pumping. When we first saw the visuals we felt shivers.

Chromatic is one of the most precious projects I’ve ever been part of. It’s also the reason I left Advertising for Art – because if something as tangible as this; a long-running, arresting visual that now has paid-ads by other car-brands appearing before it when viewed on Youtube…  that gets over a million views, not by being sponsored but by being beautiful, can barely make a ripple within the very agency that created it, or by the right applications within the awards industry, (going in for packaging design, which, I’ll admit, was done beautiful too) this was not the Industry for me. The MD never once asked about the project.

While sounding like another in the army of jaded creatives that exit agency life with a bitter taste, it’s hard to understand or feel part of an industry that rewards posters stuck up a month before award season, seen by 25 people, with an expensive video to boot, and overlooks a multi-disciplinary project that gave artists reign to make something new.

Sure I’m biased, but here in the Middle East is a forward-thinking brand, doing what other, bigger brands should be doing, doing what’s preached at awards/creative-events across the world – a CAR brand, enhancing experiences, attracting without invading, and inspiring, with the product still at the heart of it, without being an outright ad, with a story to it, and a conversation around it. 98982924249897.56331c1b8398c.jpg

Here’s the project on Behance. 


Dirty Laundry

I’ve not written for a while. It’s been a shitty year. Not shitty in the grander scale of things –compared to the year of a close friend battling cancer and divorce with bravery and humour, or the friend whose abusive marriage ended, coming to terms with how much of herself she almost lost, with creativity and hard work. “Shitty” doesn’t describe the year’s points that ruptured the lives of a Bangladeshi Blogger or music fan in Paris. Mine was a universal problem; a simple heartbreak.

We all have them at some point, and they can leave a mark. I thought I was better, but I let mine take seven months to seep in, five to absorb, to grieve for times before the rot set in, to build again, watch it topple over and build again. The world has bigger things to deal with than my break up. This post is for me to put the whole sorry mess in a jar with a neon “Don’t you DARE do this again” label, place it on a high shelf and leave it there, and come back amd truly smash it when I’m grateful for what I have in future. This is a purge. A catharsis. A Fuck-You.

I had my heart broken before, so when I did it to someone else, I felt the sharpness of knowing exactly what I put him through. I’m grateful we’re friends again now, because I don’t think you stop loving someone, even when your lives cut different arcs.

Of course heartbreak is ripe for creativity – everyone staying at the hotel thinks they’re the only one. Beautiful songs spring out its intensity, and multi-million-selling albums say the world wants to hear. I write songs. Perhaps this time I should’ve done an Adele… But when you treat art as therapy, unless its earth-shatteringly incredible, you risk putting the audience in the position of having to verify your pain. I’ve sat through tedious acoustic gigs where the subject wasn’t able to defend their corner, while we colluded with the ‘victim’. And I didn’t want to trade emotions for Likes. So I wrote an album about Bees and Ants, made portraits of people I admired, abstracts of emotions that were positive, but still, this angry prose is about to come tumbling out of me like a lava flow at a children’s party.

In August 2014 a smiling individual (we’ll call them ‘X’) sat beside me on the sand and asked if we could spend forever together. I called my mother, then wore a diamond for 13 months. I’d spent at least 12 years in relationships before this one, and am still in touch with each of them. I felt the gleam we had now was more than enough for the rest of our lives, enough to throw an engagement bash for 300 people on our roof, sponsored by two drinks brands, and we were blithely happy.

There were warning signs, and I trundled through them gleefully in the passenger seat. In month one, X said, “You’ll have to get used to the kind of attention I get when we’re out”. I laughed it off – I’ve never been the jealous sort, and somehow my blindness stopped me laughing at a ridiculous phrase. Friends smiled, and stayed quiet.

I shrugged off Promo girls holding a little too tight for photos, or messaging later in the night. I vilified the ex who spent six months talking to my partner every day, who glanced at me with a sadness I didn’t try to comprehend. I placed blame on the others, like a daytime chatshow host would have us do, when two girls are goaded on while the man-in-the-middle slouches, shrugs and smirks at the audience and the cameras.

Together, we gorged on Netflix, held one another close, wrote notes on the mirror and grew into habits: a shared love of good music, presents for no occasion, foot-rubs, weekends away, the odd headshave. We cooked each other meals, shared laundry, chores, opinions and dreams.

Then mirror notes became motivational quotes not for at me. Cuddles in one arm, Facebook in the other. Presents became IOU-concert tickets that never materialised. Meals I made were never right, and stopped being made. Decisions started with a choice from what my partner was willing to do, and I carried on hanging soggy pants on the balcony.

Then bigger questions loomed, like children. My fiancé wanted me to have our babies, and talked about it often, but there were Pinterest boards with bespectacled toddlers in bowties, tweed or mohawks, and not a blonde hair in sight. I pictured barefooted smiles, muddy hands and messy hair. We argued hypothetically about fundamentals – I  felt it was unfair to think it was fine to love your children more than the partner you have them with – that creating a family meant not having children as extensions of yourself, or clothes-horse insurance policies to love you unconditionally. I felt children are a part of forming a unit for life – in which parents are there for each other first; the rock that carries the whole thing. It’s not always possible, sure, further from it now than ever in these times of Tinder-from-the-toilet, but I was lucky enough to take that rock for granted all my life – to have two parents who were not just rocks for the three of us, but for every stray we brought home, and there were plenty.

I’m hanging out my laundry here, and playing the victim is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I struggle with voluntary or continual victims – it’s a state you’re the only one that can shake yourself out of, and my family is not brilliant at sympathy. My mother grew up tough because she had to. She was never, ever cold, but she wasn’t going to let us go soft. As a family, when our friends need us to listen, we often don’t know what to say – we want to be pragmatic, to fix, when, as a therapist will verify, often, all people want is an ear. Only now, in my thirties, I’m learning how to listen. I’m not very good.

But my family listened, and although they tried, I couldn’t see a way up or out.

X was not a villain. Just as music is both an individual meditation and a shared consciousness, so is Love. No two people experience it the same way. You might both identify with a song, or place, but you process those feelings in completely different ways. Nobody can love you the same way you love them, but they can compliment it – understand, respond, reciprocate. X did feel a version of love, but couldn’t demonstrate it in day-to-day things, express it verbally, or defend it when it got difficult. Despite sharing a bed, Whatsapp became our main means of communication, and in that, we were both guilty.

But some elements of Love are fundamental. While people often cheat on the ones they love, and can feel the full spectrum of emotions kind and unkind, Commitment is tangible. It’s bigger than a ring, status or tattoo. It’s what that ring means. It’s not a public statement, but a private, everyday process of little things securing a bigger picture, long-term. Changing loo roll, remembering to buy the juice with the bits, plucking your partner’s hairs, saying goodbye with a kiss, bringing both plates of dinner out of the kitchen, five minutes in the day. Sometimes it’s on autopilot, sometimes it’s a conscious effort – I’m an appalling timekeeper, with a hopeless memory and no organizational skills. But little things embody the base, an invisible coating over the long-term warmth, spasmodic ecstacies and voluntary dizziness.

One night we went for dinner; my partner facebooking as I looked out over the Marina. The wedding came up. “We’ve got to push it back to next year. I’ve got too many things on before then”. “That works for me, my art isn’t making much money right now..”My art was a source of uncertainty too. The roles we were used to when I was in advertising were not the same now. “I’m going to live in New York next year” … Oh. OK. I went quiet and contemplated what decisions had been made.

When we got home, my fiancé went to the shop, returned with one Cornetto, sat beside me on the couch, licking it and watching facebook videos on the smart phone. “Can I see?” “In a minute”.

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My sister listened and succeeded in snapping me out of various bouts of insecurity, reminding me of things  an outsider can, and I needed it. We drew up to-do lists, -date nights, other tactics.

But mentions of me disappeared from statuses; solo-selfies and shots of #sockgame #onpoint increased. Winks at waitresses continued, with or without me, and wet laundry was regularly left in the machine. Late nights at work became late drinks with colleagues, with the odd all nighter. I went out more, drank more,  passed out on friends’ couches more.

At the low point, I went for a drink with someone I knew was attracted to me and let him kiss me. It gave me a piece of control I hadn’t had in a while. X said it was the Equalizer – that “it takes two to break up a relationship.” And that was the biggest bullet.

Even the strongest, most equal Love can become cancerous when a poisonous helping of insecurity, or even resentment, become part of the mix. Yes, you should work to fix. Yes you should never give up without a fight. But which fight, if both parties lose? I’d never felt so lonely as I did now, and I didn’t know what I was fighting to save anymore.

I watched all of Breaking Bad, the Matrix… Towards the end, I spent a few days running after my partner across a UK music festival. Sprinting into a tent for one gig, there was no glance back for me. In that act of running after someone who didn’t care if I was there, whatever it had been, this wasn’t love.

We flew back separately for deadlines. I returned three days later, at 7am to an empty flat and unslept bed. Last night’s Facebook status described ‘sexy ladies on stage’, and without needing to discuss, the rings came off.

Days later X was sleeping with someone new. X moved out. I started a new job. Friends in Dubai, Birmingham, Berlin and New York felt closer than ever. I got addicted to getting my hair done every week and dated a few smart, creative folks I now call friends. One almost got under my skin, but recognised that the best thing he could give me was space.

I went to India to paint a school in the foothills of the Himalayas. I found I could still feel sexy, and that it’s determined by the emotional state you radiate. I posed for a shoot, and a brilliant wordsmith wrote a few rhymes about me I’ll always treasure.

I was on track, but rumours of indiscretions kept trickling back. Five weeks into the reconstruction, X tried to address a few stories, but also suggested we give it another go, apologizing for throwing us away. Despite my friends’ loud warnings, I would find that ‘closure’ concept that is absolute bollocks.  There was a second overlap of the same three people in a different direction, and the complacency for this new partner, this innocent party, showed me what a terrible judge of character I had been all along.

Then I got angry, and the real break up began. I wanted to broadcast to the world the kind of person X is, but everyone knew. I got angry when others thought it would help to show me conversations, winks and asides I missed, names of girls I’d never met who knew all about me. And I was angry that I still wanted to know. And when I admitted ‘I’ll never forgive you’, a barrage of elated selfies and #myview tags filled the iPhones of our circle.

When we met after the first wave of revelations, I acknowledged my discoveries with a barrage of drunken swearing. I got the same smirk of the Middle-Man on the chatshow.

People fall in and out of love all the time. Relationships end, people move on. Thankfully this was never a marriage, and no children involved. And it’s boring being angry. It’s poisonous to nobody but the person that chooses to be. It’s a process, and I have to own my mistakes. I can laugh now when friends shout “Maddy! Don’t marry a haircut!” But there’s a cynicism that wasn’t there before. I don’t want to give myself away like that again, not unless it’s reciprocated.

I’ve learned that being by myself is good. That there’s an art to Solitude, and being comfortable in your soul. It’s different to being alone – and it’s good for you, to take time to understand what you’re about.

I’ll still be a golden retriever. I still have an innate capacity for joy that’s loud, bright and easily shared. I want to write, paint, sing, laugh and drink with good friends; and I do. I want to feel intense highs and lows that are mine. I don’t owe anyone anything, but I’ll take care of the folks who care about me, because they are the treasured, most precious things I have in the world. I’m getting back to being my noisy, flippant, huggy, eccentric, spontaneous self, and I’ll stay passionate and able to grab what I can now and whatever’s next.

An article on NPD as a growing phenomenon

 


So good at being in trouble…,

There’s a global, religious sect of seasoned, hardened festival goers for all genres. No, not the two or three you’re part of every year. I mean booking accommodation 12 months in advance, finding each other through dedicated Whatsapp chains and secret Facebook groups, seeing each other eight times a year, purely at festivals, then retreating back to separate real-world lives as IT consultants, HR managers and Video Editors.

Primavera 2015, Barcelona.

Primavera 2015, Barcelona.

I’m not a seasoned Festival Goer. I was proud of my 2 Glastonburies, my 1 Rock the Bells, 1 Benicassim, 4 Fringes, 2 T-in-the-Parks and 1 Electric Elephant. Silly me.

This lot share countdowns to purchase tickets in the discount window, weeks before early-bird tickets, months before the line-up is announced. And it was my pleasure to have these aficionados as my guides at Primavera 2015.

All festivals are a platter of intense highs, epic crowds, shared passions, ringing eardrums, a myriad of live performances, spontaneity, moshing, mass elation, extreme inspiration and variation, lack of sleep, odd tattoo choices, sweating in the open air, appalling nutrition, cheek-ache from smiling too hard, questionable hygiene, mindbending, phone loss, high Hipster count, and your alternative 5-a-day.

Primavera encompasses all of these, year in, year out, with a superb alternative list of the world’s most talented live musicians NOT typically streaming on commercial airwaves, and a real connoisseur’s mix for global ‘Festheads’. Some of these Festheads are famous purely for their passion – Big Jeff Johns from Bristol is now a facet of the music media without writing a word, as the tall, very recognizable ginger grin at the front of every discerning gig in every discerning festival. When his face appears on the monitors, the crowd gleefully shouts “Jeff!!!”

Dubai’s very own Festheads include the inimitable and exhilarating Mo El-Amin, described by another Festhead as “30% as famous as Big Jeff”. His 6-foot-afro and pearly white ecstatic grin can be found at the front barrier, or in the heart of every mosh pit. Mo led an elated but confused crowd of thousands at Dan Deacon’s behest, in a dance that was an inspired ‘holy moment’. He’s not the messiah, and he’s a very naughty boy, who was tossed personally into the crowd by the lead singer of Fucked Up, and of course, praised by Killer Mike himself with a “Shout out to that crazy motherfucker with the afro, crowdsurfing! That nigger – Jesus”. In every crowd, Mo was a beacon to other Festheads. A reminder, if we needed one, that as much as we’re all here for the music, we’re also here for an intensive celebration with likeminded souls.

Other Dubai Festheads include Nazy; a stunning Iranian who is by day, a musical Encyclopedia, and by night, crowd-surfing fiend and moshing behemoth. Then there’s Mike-and-Aaron, (buy one get one free), a respectable Dubai Editor and Businessman, who become the phone-losing, shoe-losing front row stalwarts and backbone of this ragtag group of mischievous misfits. Not to mention Jane, proprietress of Dubai’s favourite alternative (or ‘Portlandia-style’) Indie-Rock night ‘Bad House Party’; small in stature, epic in presence, screaming one-way conversations at lead singers from the front row , and of course, crowd surfing.

Now to the festival. While Primavera’s two main stages hosted the Big Guns, the Pitchfork, Ray Ban and Adidas stages were where our motley crew typically resided, supporting Up-and-comings, Alternatives and Cult classics, sharing and exchanging enthusiasm, and in many cases being blown away by spectacular skills, energy, passion (and of course, our own collective awesomeness).

In a group of about 20, we were all able to peel away to catch favourites. None of us saw entirely the same menu of acts, but here, according to my makeshift criteria, is a chart-review of the wonders I discovered at Prim 2015.

So when my mother says “I think now would be a good time to stop and think about where you want to be in ten years time”, I sincerely hope Primavera 2025 will be on the cards. (And we’ve already booked the hotel).

Primavera Table 1 Prim2 Prim3 Prim4