When London breaks

You know how when it snows, everyone gets ready to make those “Southern pansy” jokes? The ones about how oop North, we rally through full force gales, shimmy over snow drifts and pick our way through the perilous icy peaks to get to the mines, but when a single snowflake lands outside Buckingham Palace, every Londoner goes into a full-scale meltdown as though they’d never seen the sky deposit such an unearthly matter on their beloved city before, and as a result they spend all day blankly refusing to go to work?

Yeah. I used to make those.

I lived on the edge of the Pennines for a year, where, in winter, it was safer to sit on your bum and slide one mile down the ice-covered road into oncoming traffic than to risk breaking your back by walking down said hill- and I still never missed my bus. I used to slide to college, voluntarily or otherwise, every day with only a few complaints and a twisted ankle. I felt my perils were just a simple part of winter, and coping with it was a simple job of getting on with your life despite external forces.

I used to look at Londoners, whimpering over the weather forecast, and think that they were pathetic. That was then. That was before I experienced The TFL Tube Strike.

I’m not sure if you noticed (…) but London just had a public transport freak out. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the situation, so do your fact-finding elsewhere, but I do know that for two days, it messed with my head.

The night before the strike, I’d been pretty smug. Meh, I thought, ignoring all warnings, this will just be another thing that Londoners meltdown about. Oop Norf, we rally through full force gales to get t’werk…(cont.). That was before what should have been an hour and a half round trip took me SIX AND A HALF HOURS.

I saw five people crying. I saw three arguments. I saw queues of one hundred people trying to bustle onto a single decker bus. I was in Waterloo East when it had to be evacuated and I was in gridlocked traffic for so long that I gave up and decided to walk the remaining stretch in the windy drizzle.  I was on the only central-bound train from Clapham that thoughtful strangers decided to fart on. And you know the worst bit? I didn’t even have it that bad.

I’ve got a new found respect for Londoners. I used to think that the transport-drama headlines were hyperbolic, and simply proof that people were softer down south. But having experienced just a taste of what it’s like to be in a crowd of one thousand lost and late commuters, I sort of get it now. Because back home, when there’s a transport crisis, we’re not battling with crowds of hundreds of people who are getting in your way, or knocking you over to get on the bus. And there’s certainly no one farting into your handbag.


New Year Assholes

I’ve been struggling with something for the past nine days. It’s not been the biggest struggle I’ve faced- still not managed twerking- but nonetheless it’s been in my peripheral vision for over a week now. Like when you fall asleep wearing a contact lense and when you wake you’ve got a feeling it’s slipped round to the other side of your eye. Gross, internal, and bloody annoying.

So I’ll just come out with it.

What is up with the New Year Resolution snobbery?

There seems to have been a trend over the last few years to staunchly mock and deride the very concept of a New Year’s Resolution. Silly humans!  cry the mockers (at every fucking opportunity), if you’re unhappy with your ridiculous life, you don’t need a set date to change it! You are puny in your attempts to better yourself. The coming of a new year ought to have NO SIGNIFICANCE whatsoever to your desire to quit smoking/lose a stone/learn Arabic- and if it does, it is somehow more meaningless than trying to do said resolution in June! Or September! Or any month other than January!!!

Well, mockers. The tables have turned, because I am here to deride YOU.

Page One

What is wrong, exactly, with having a new year resolution? What possible harm does it have for people to anchor positive life changes around a particular date? A date they can share with others, a date that by it’s very nature marks a new beginning? What I think has happened here is someone, probably Richard Dawkins/someone equally derisive-for-the-sake-of-it, spouted out some poo about the foolishness of the idiot humans who wholeheartedly want to change their life/outlook/health out of some sort of defence system for not wanting to change their own life/outlook/health, and their pessimism has spread like a snarky STD in a Magaluf bed and breakfast.

I for one will not be silenced. I am resolving to make my resolutions, with or without your approval, naysayers. In fact, as an act of spite, I have written a five page- FIVE PAGE- resolution detailing exactly how I want to better myself in the next twelve months. Every drop of ink that went into the 2014 edition of Shit I Want To Improve is not only going to become my bible, it is also intended as a tiny, -ink-drop-sized slap in the face of every person who thinks that it’s okay to chortle at “fatties” taking over gyms in January, because “let’s face it, they’ll be back in front of the fridge in February”, or leave patronising comments on someone’s Facebook declaration that it’s “a New Year and a New ME”. Ya’ll need to start being nicer. Incidentally, that’s on my resolution list. Page four.


The Alpha Course Weekend: A Review

Sounds like a cult mate“. I laughed. My sister’s opinion on my upcoming weekend away with the Alpha Course was pretty clear. “It’s not a cult“, I told her. “It’s a weekend at the beach, with some talks.” Unconvinced, she changed the subject.

Friday evening rolled around and my colleagues asked me what my plans for the weekend were. Once I told them I’d be spending two nights in a Pontins with 300 Christians, eyebrows were raised. “Very rock n roll” one commented. “Phone me if it gets weird” another advised. I laughed, knowing they were overreacting. I was looking forward to getting out of London, if nothing else. Plus, my atheist-on-the-inside exposé was getting kinda dry, and this would be good blog fodder.

We drove down later that evening, arriving just in time for the last serving of food. My group sat around chatting, mostly about Miley Cyrus and the benefits of buying your food from the reduced section. We pottered off to our rooms- I was sharing with one of the girls from my group- and fell asleep. So far so good.

The talks

Each talk was prefaced with a song from the band. They’ve been singing the same songs each week at Alpha- in order to familiarise the audience with the words I guess- and I decided to let my guard down and join in. I’m the party-pooper that point blank refuses to join in at karaoke or SingStar (it’s for the best)- so I kinda relished being able to sing in a room where no one could hear me over the crowd. I was getting quite into this Alpha lark.

Charlie Mackesy, from Week One, spoke first. He was his usual, relatable funny self. He told us the first time he came to Alpha, he left every five minutes for a cigarette -“I don’t even smoke”. The talk centred on who the Holy Spirit is. He noted how crazy it all seemed, and told us of his reluctance to accept Christianty. He told us that the only time his ADHD pauses is while in prayer, and the peace that brings him. He told us a beautiful and intimate story of his fathers death that brought me to tears. We dispersed, and went for a chat in our groups.

The second talk, given by Emily Layzell, was another touching, funny speech. Hers was on what the Holy Spirit does. To be totally honest, although she was wonderfully eloquent and had some interesting insights, the only thing that I really recall from her speech was her anecdote of the time she accidentally drank a bottle of her son’s urine. I’m not sure how the Holy Spirit relates to sipping wee, so I’ll leave you guessing on that one. Again, we dispersed, ate lunch and chatted. I was feeling pleased with how un-culty this all seemed. I congratulated myself on being so open minded.


The tongues

The next group discussion centred on gifts from the Holy Spirit. I was asked to read out a passage mentioned in the talk: Corinthians 12. In this passage, Paul (total guess) tells the apostles (another total guess) that they can receive gift from the Holy Spirit. This comes in many forms, from healing, to knowledge and prophecy to speaking in tongues. You get the right gift for you, at the right time for you, so no point writing up a wishlist. My group leader asked us all what we thought of it, and which gift we’d prefer.

I had no clue, but I was the only one. Responses varied on personal preference, and I was surprised to hear some anecdotes of gifts in action- people seeing miraculous healing take place or knowing how to speak in tongues. Gifts of knowledge proved to be a popular choice, as did “discernment”- being able to accurately judge someone else’s stage of faith.

The next talk was by Toby Flint- of disastrous week three fame-and once again his examples failed to impress me. One popular reason for speaking in tongues is to say what our limited human vocabulary can’t- the way he exampled this was by telling us the average human has a vocabulary of just “5,000 words”- which as a linguistic graduate and a fellow speaker of words, I can tell you is total bollocks. Another example was of the profound nature of tongues speaking to non-believers. This example was a story of a preacher speaking in tongues when an atheist native Italian was in the audience. The preacher was saying “I love you” in Italian. Apparently not one person noticed this guy on stage shouting “ti amo“- despite it being a hugely popular phrase in a local language- other than this ONE Italian chick in the congregation, who instantly felt the Holy Spirit. I call BS on that one too.

While I stewed over his shaky arguments, he welcomed the congregation to ‘invite the Holy Spirit’. He told us that we may feel different sensations, like warmth or peace or giddiness. He told us we might feel nothing. The guitarist was quietly singing and people were praying. Looking around, almost everyone had their eyes closed, and a few were silently weeping.

The noise

Toby began speaking in tongues. As did the guitarist. He kind of looked like Harry Potter did when he spoke Parseltongue. The noise of people whispering in prayer was getting louder, and one man in front of me began shouting. I’d been told tongues was harmonious, but the guy in front of me was strangely aggressive and percussive. He fell to the floor and kept shouting- he sounded like he was begging. Toby could see that this was something of a distraction to others, especially those who’d never seen this before. “Focus on your own experience, don’t worry about the people around you”. I was alarmed. Toby invited us to sing in tongues.

I looked around, getting teary myself. People in my group were speaking in tongues, and a few began singing. It wasn’t the gibberish I expected, but sounded like no language. As the room got louder, I could hear the person next to me rising in volume. I closed my eyes to stop myself from crying. The man on the floor in front of me was shaking, still shouting. Knocking a chair, I ran out, my boots clomping on the wood floor.


I burst out of the room and looked around. One of the group helpers had followed me out, and led me outside. I slumped against the wall and started crying. It was too much. I had “What the fuck” swimming around my head. The helper asked if I wanted to talk.

I was upset because of how naive I felt. Church services are emotional, and I’d seen people crying and praying before. I thought I’d be able to handle hearing people speak in tongues, but I couldn’t. It was too dramatic. I felt a total idiot, like a Mrs Lefty-Liberal on a jaunt to prove how open-minded she was. These people weren’t trying to convert me, they had their own beliefs to deal with. Dying families  and breaking relationships and financial troubles and entire lives. I’d been silly.

After a while, I decided to go back in. The room was quieter now, no singing. It looked like a hospital ward, full of wounded victims. People were sat in groups praying and comforting each other. A few people still stood, their hands upturned and eyes closed. Everyone seemed to be having a spiritual experience. I couldn’t get over that we were in a fucking Pontins.

A friend, with best interests, prayed for me with his hand on my shoulder. I was uncomfortable, but didn’t want to interrupt. If anything, this whole course has simply solidified to me that I’m an atheist. Embarrassed, I left my group to go for dinner and went to ring my best friend from my hotel bathroom floor.

The come down

Lying half in-shower and half out-of-shower, idly considering locking myself in for the rest of the weekend, I got hungry. I shuffled towards the canteen, where I ate in near silence with my group, who were happily chatting about football results and the upcoming pub quiz. We returned to our rooms, where my roomy asked why there were towels on the bathroom floor. “Oh, I’ve been sitting on them for a bit”. She nodded, understanding. Nothing was weird this weekend.

Joining the rest of our team for the pub quiz, the room that had previously held three hundred crying Christians now held three hundred laughing Christians. I downed a glass of wine and ordered a second. Interspersed between quiz rounds, different acts perfromed in a sort of variety/talent show. The band that had been singing Christian rock all weekend did a medley of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Kelis’ “My Milkshake”. One guy used his hand as a kazoo to play ‘Happy Birthday’.

Next up, before the “Cheese or Font” round was vicar Toby Flint. He was going to dazzle us with his ability to make an accurate siren impression. Readying himself in front of the microphone, the audience were silent. He approached the microphone, and a single voice sprang out of the centre of the audience: “Speak in tongues!”.  The room burst into applause and laughter. I looked around at this community, where everyone looked happy. I wondered what the Pontins staff made of us.


You’ve just read 1600 words (or skipped to the end), so you might as well read a few more. I hope I’ve given a fair portrayal of my experiences, and maybe provoked some thought for you. More than this, I hope I’ve respected the experiences of the people on the weekend away with me, and indeed of Christians. If I’ve not, I’m sorry. Especially because many of the people involved here have become good friends. 


Blog Alpha: Why do I keep going?

After a particularly hairy week on the Alpha course, which I blogged here, I decided to go back. I glossed over my reasons in that particular blog post- partially because it was getting excessively long, but also because I had an episode of Breaking Bad that needed urgent attention.

So why did I go back? Why would I voluntarily put myself through another session of feeling vaguely offended and wound up? This is evidently not a place for an achingly liberal athiest. The free food was surely not worth the incandescent rage that followed, so I must have had another reason.


To be honest, I was intrigued to see how the next session would recoup. I was almost challenging Alpha to come back fighting: either give me a definitive reason to quit, or to make it up to me. I’d become invested in the course, and (cheese alert) I was enjoying learning.

You see, I went to a Catholic primary school, where the leading memory of religion was having an emotional breakdown in front of a priest, aged eleven, when I couldn’t think of anything suitable to say for my first confession. I also went to a Catholic secondary school, where the leading memory of religion was the fact that my RE teacher told us she couldn’t spell “crucifixion”. Other than those two stand out moments, I’m pretty ill-educated when it comes to what Christians believe.

Alpha had started to prick my interest in having faith. Though my personal beliefs are unchanged, I now feel like I actually get it. The logic, the personal experiences, the trust in there being more to life than squabbling amongst ourselves and acapella Beyonce megamixes. The mechanics of faith make sense now. I’m still athiest, or whatever, but something clicked.

Previous to this course, whenever people told me they had a faith I treated it with as much understanding as if they’d told me they had a degree in neuro-astrology. With a respect for their experiences, but no knowledge of a) what was involved, b) how you got started in something like that  or c) how that would help you in daily life.

I’m still no expert, and I’m still far too silly to get involved in argumentative debates about God. But I’m still mystified by certain bits of religious zealousness- watch this space for my speaking in tongues special (yes really)- and I’m still baffled by people who are dead certain of one thing or another. More because I can’t decide between poached or fried eggs, nevermind God or no God.