My Life of Freelance Crime

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For several years now I have been completely besotted with the idea of working from home. It evokes images of tapping away imperiously on the 15″ Macbook Pro that I don’t own, swigging the chai lattes that I don’t like and barking things like “What’s the endgame?” and “I’ll SEO the shit out of it” into an iPhone 6. I don’t actually have a clue what either of those vague statements mean, besides something to do with Samuel Beckett or a fake skill on my CV. They just sound sort of work-from-homey.

I’ve given it a whirl on the odd day here and there with previous jobs; and ended up either A) forwarding calls to my mobile and going for boozy lunches with my Mum, B) watching Game of Thrones all day in between sporadic 100m sprints to the laptop to hit refresh on webmail, or C) not even pretending and just spending 24 hours glued to the rug in a hungover sludge of fear, misery and regret.

As of recently however, I am officially a Freelance Writer, albeit one without a 15″ Macbook Pro, any tolerance whatsoever for chai lattes or an iPhone 6. This Freelance Writer business looked so much easier from the other side of the fence. It turns out that I’m awesome at procrastination and really shit at working for myself. Instead of trying to get some work done, I wrote a list of obstacles I have slammed into over the past four weeks:

1. I live in Byron Bay and there is both sunshine and a beach. I had crazy ideas of working AT THE BEACH but then someone’s errant child kicked a grain of sand onto my notepad and I thought I’d better quit while I was ahead; or before I started holding toddlers under the water for extended periods of time

2. There is no-one watching me, so I can dredge through Facebook like a rusty fishing trawler all day. I have literally never taken so much interest in my friends lives. Its not just limited to Facebook. I now know everything about everything. I have pretty much read every word on The Internet. And because there’s no-one watching me, I can do it all naked with a flower pot on my head

3. I’m writing academic materials. Yawn. About management. Yawn yawn yawn yawn. I’m sure if I was writing about beer or venomous snakes or awesome books or Ancient Egyptians or haunted houses then I’d be a lot more productive

4. Despite the fact that I’m penning management diplomas as opposed to literary classics, I am suddenly a Hemingway/Williams/Fitzgerald hybrid and generally hit the booze at approximately 10.51am. There’s no-one to tut at me for cracking into my third beer of the day at 11.31, and the management diplomas really flow. “Mix things up! Have a meeting outside!!” I should lay off the grog really, before my ideas get too revolutionary

5. The Dothraki have no word for Willpower. I’m sadly not actually a Dothraki warrior, but I’m more inclined to learn a fictional horse-lord language than to do any actual work. I find it impossible to turn down any invite, whether its to a party, BBQ, waterfall, movie or prison sentence; when the alternative is to get some work done

6. Now that I’m at home all the time, all of the areas of my life that need organising are in my direct eyeline. When organising them means that I can put off working for another three hours at least, they tend to take on a burning sense of urgency. My iTunes could do with a bit of a groom – I’d better cull, reassign and illegally download for the next day and a half. My laundry pile has at least five items languishing in the basket – I’d better hand wash them reverently, wring them out for 20 minutes and then sit and watch them dry. My book collection should really be arranged in height order – time for a two hour reshuffle. I’ve never, ever managed a cartwheel – I should probably check that nothing has changed in that department for the next eight hours – plus an hour to nurse the bruises afterwards. I should put more effort into looking like Brigitte Bardot these days – it makes sense to hog the bathroom mirror for an hour to turn my head into some sort of sultry haystack.

There are downsides. As I’m at home for most of the day, I don’t really see many people. This means that when an unfortunate passerby enters my catchment area, they get a dose of my Cabin Fever induced madness and have to put up with me sweating and gurning and invading their personal space for longer than is strictly necessary.

Also, I am totally broke. The thing with doing no work is that you then don’t get paid; so my bank balance has now entered the point where I can’t physically withdraw cash from an ATM, and its just embarrassing to walk into Westpac to ask for my 71 cents. My phone has been cut off, so I can only get in touch with people when I’m hugging a wifi router; I can no longer afford beer and will have to take to licking frogs in the back garden – and I ran out of food. This could be pretty dire.

Yesterday I took my last $10 note to Aldi, mecca for backpackers, the unemployed, and those in desperate need of a wipe clean mattress protector or an olive tree for $20. I couldn’t afford an olive tree, so went in search of sustenance for under a tenner.

It turns out that Aldi is not as dirt cheap as previously thought – items were around the $3 mark. This would keep me in food for the next 30 minutes, after which time I would suffer a slow and lonely death; although with a non-existent laundry pile and fluency in the Dothraki tongue.

With no other option available to me, I stole 3/4 of my shopping list – strolling casually around the bargain bucket supermarket carrying a kilo of penne pasta and a bunch of bananas; whilst stuffing pesto, coffee and cheese into my beach bag. I did this quite brazenly, so that if questioned, I could claim that my lack of trolley meant that I had to carry cup mushrooms down the front of my knickers.

I paid for my pasta and bananas whilst my beach bag groaned with the weight of contraband tinned pineapple chunks and my clothes bulged in odd places, making me look like a Quasimodo type creature with bolognese-jar shaped deformations. No-one mentioned the fact that a sweet potato was peeking out of my cleavage.

Almost tasting the sweet, sweet air of freedom (although it could have been the grapes I’d hidden in the sides of my cheeks) I hobbled towards the doors praying that an avocado wouldn’t drop out of my pants. As I burst out into the sunlight sans convictions for stealing green beans, I heard my Dad’s words in my head, “if you’re going to steal, steal millions.” It has occurred to me that if I wasn’t going to pay anyway, I should have raided a fancy deli. Aldi – its a gateway supermarket.

Taking the Psychopath Test

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Like a reassuringly large percentage of the population, I have a morbid fascination with serial killers. I bagged an A* in my GCSE Drama exam due in part to a slightly disturbing play my friends and I devised about the Moors Murderers – Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. There was a scene where we played a recording of a little boy begging for his life, whilst we stared at the audience flexing electrical wire. With hindsight, it probably wasn’t what the assembled parents expected from a school play.

Natural Born Killers is one of my favourite movies. I know a disconcerting amount about Ted Bundy. I have often frequented the Ten Bells in London because of it’s purported links to Jack the Ripper, lurking in the corner stroking the wallpaper in case Mary Kelly leaned her elbow there once. When I was about 14, I whiled away a family holiday in sunny Spain devouring a biography of Fred and Rose West on my sun lounger.

I recently read a brilliant book by Jon Ronson called The Psychopath Test. The book explores psychopathy and how it can be measured. It’s focal point; Bob Hare’s PCL-R Checklist, is a handy 20 point indicator of whether or not the person in front of you is a total nutjob. Its pretty bloody interesting.

Most interesting of all however, is that after diligently reading through it I have discovered that I am in fact batshit crazy. What follows is my self diagnosis as a raging lunatic.

Item 1: Glibness/superficial charm: Sometimes I smile at people and engage with them in a friendly and interested manner, but… Get this. Really, I want to tell them to fuck off. Hare PCL-R Checklist – 1. My sanity – 0.

Item 2: Grandiose sense of self worth: I definitely think that I’m way more important than anyone else does. My job is a case in point. I am criminally underpaid, whereas I actually think I am worth at least a million dollars per year. In fact – lets forget work altogether – I think I’ve done enough of that over the past 29 years and should just be given large amounts of money to swan around going for coffee and wandering along beaches all day.

Item 3: Need for stimulation/prone to boredom: Sorry, were you saying something? I have been known to get bored in approximately 8.5 seconds flat. I often abandon my sister midway through movies, pretending that I need the loo and then running away. My career is terminally fragmented, with my CV looking like a life manifesto devised by a five year old. I’m not very good at living in one place for more than six months. I generally have about nine books on the go at any given point, my bedside table resembling the bookshelf at the Salvation Army. I drafted this blog post in a notebook in a startling array of about 15 different coloured pens ranging from fire engine red to a eye watering bright green.

Item 4: Pathological Lying: I pathologically lie about having a boyfriend when I don’t, in fact, have a boyfriend. Every time that an unsavoury character asks for my number, I make up an invisible boyfriend. Sometimes I feel flustered and can’t think of a convincing boyfriend cover story, mumbling something about the fact that he is called Mike and works behind a bar. Mike doesn’t sound like the greatest catch. Every so often I’m on fire and produce someone like Eddard the theremin-playing horse whisperer. Eddard sounds awesome. Also, today my housemate gave me some pumpkin soup to try. She asked me if I liked it. I said yes. I didn’t. It tasted like shit.

Item 5: Cunning/manipulative: Once, my friend Sam and I were queuing for coffees and delicious breakfast tarts. There was only one meaty breakfast tart left. He was ahead of me in the queue. I told him that the meat ones were pretty shoddy, and the veggie ones were fantastic. He bought a veggie one. I got the last meat breakfast tart.

Item 6: Lack of remorse/guilt: Five years ago, I went on a three week trip to South Africa to volunteer on a Great White shark cage diving boat. I had just moved in with my ex in London. I really liked South Africa and didn’t want to go home, so I broke up with him via telephone from a hostel in Jeffreys Bay. I also had my parents go round to pack up my stuff and effectively ‘move me out.’ And then I quit a job that I hadn’t even started yet, over email. I didn’t feel very guilty.

Item 7: Shallow affect: Now, here is a curveball. I don’t think I’m particularly shallow. I probably wouldn’t have gone out with the Elephant Man, but I do agree that personality is key. I definitely would have gone for John Candy in Uncle Buck. I even fancied Beetlejuice. I’m not huge on material possessions either; unless of course you would count books, notebooks, 1930s jewellery, pictures of oceans, 1970s dresses, comfy jumpers, big stompy boots, expensive cheese, hats (and I do mean any kind of hat), craft beer, salt and pepper pots that whimsically hug, leather jackets, and probably more books. So just a few material possessions that I would save in the event of a fire. Only a few.

Item 8: Callous/lack of empathy: I am totally capable of feeling sorry for people. It just depends on their level of deservedness. For example. I watched an episode of the Kardashian show (I am loath to admit) and Mum Kardashian had some of her stuff stolen. She made a big song and dance about it, and I just could not bring myself to feel sorry for her. I mean – she’s loaded. Just buy more stuff. However, if someone had stolen my stuff, I’d feel quite sorry for them. They’d excitedly riffle through my bag and find a broken hairbrush, seventy-three cents, a coffee loyalty card with two stamps and a wad of used chewing gum wrapped in a supermarket receipt that I’d meant to dispose of later.

Item 9: Parasitic lifestyle: This means that I take without giving back. I quite like the idea of paying it forward, for example if someone shoves you on the Central Line it is probably acceptable to push someone else down the escalator at Tottenham Court Road. Probably. I’m not very good at libraries though. The concept of taking and returning does not seem to work for me in that sense. I’m a fugitive from about eight different libraries worldwide. My bookshelf is packed full of books from Billericay, Essex; Paddington, Sydney; the mobile library in London… I also tried to join a library on the Gold Coast and they wouldn’t let me, so I tore the microchip out of the back of the book I wanted to read and borrowed it. But then never gave it back. So I stole it. Oops.

Item 10: Poor behavioural controls: Yes, definitely. I’ve had way too many instances of “I wonder what would happen if I….Oh, crap, I just did.” I also have the willpower of a recovering drug addict on Ken Kesey’s bus. It turns out that I’m not great at the word “no.” I also have the kind of temper where my mood sails along merrily in a perfect representation of easy going tolerance and then oh for goodness’ sake something has snapped and I’ve hit someone over the head with an empty Corona bottle.

Item 11: Promiscuous sexual behaviour: Huh-hem. My Mum likes to share my blog posts, so I should perhaps tread lightly here. Although I have already admitted to stealing library books and bottling people, so I may as well throw caution to the wind. Promiscuity is fairly relative. I’m 29 and single and have lived a fairly reckless, nomadic lifestyle for the past five years. I’m not running around with my knickers on my head catching gonorrhea, but I’m not sitting at home darning socks and waiting for my one true love to pop out from behind the sofa, either. I’ll leave that one open to interpretation.

Item 12: Early behaviour problems: I don’t think I was a particularly problematic child. I didn’t bully other kids or start smoking crack at age four or strangle guinea pigs. I ran over my rabbit with a BMX once but that was a complete accident. I may have hit my sister once or twice, but she probably deserved it. I ran away from school at eight years old with £1.50 and grand plans to live in a field, but my Mum and Dad happened to drive past me at the traffic lights and frogmarched me back to school.

Item 13: Lack of realistic long term goals: I wouldn’t say that describes me. I mean, who says that becoming a mermaid is unrealistic, anyway? Just because I’ve wanted to become a helicopter pilot, long-distance lorry driver, flamenco dancer, Hollywood actress, Greens politician, prison guard, MI5 agent, cowgirl, museum curator, fighter pilot, pro surfer, news reporter, intrepid explorer, reptile keeper, Ancient Egyptologist, safari guide, brewer, shark researcher, cheese-maker, bookshop owner and an Amazonian tribeswoman doesn’t necessarily mean that I have a lack of realistic long term goals.

Item 14: Impulsivity: Probably. Although I’m not sure that is a bad thing. I guess missing flights home to start a new life in a remote location with no money, visa or place to live could be impulsive. I jumped off a very high cliff once within two seconds of arriving at the cliff top…literally stepping out of the taxi, removing clothes as I walked to the edge and jumping straight off without breaking stride. It didn’t end too well, as I panicked halfway that I was going to hit a rock and lifted my knees up, landing flat on my arse in the water which resulted in bruises which hung around for the next six months.

Item 15: Irresponsibility: Admittedly, I can be a tad irresponsible. I hitch-hike home way more regularly than probability would suggest is a good idea. I probably party harder than statistics would allow for.  I do make a few more unconsidered snap decisions than chance would approve of. I recycle though, and I use turtle friendly shopping bags, and I pick up rubbish from the beach. So, you know, its only myself that I’m being irresponsible with. The turtles are fine.

Item 16: Failure to accept responsibility for own actions: I accept full responsibility for using turtle friendly shopping bags. Nothing else. Even I sometimes throw a plastic bottle into the normal rubbish bin.

Item 17: Many short term marital relationships: Ha! I’ve never been married! All of my previous relationships would have ended in divorce fairly rapidly had I have married them, but I averted those catastrophes by….wait for it…not marrying them. That method has worked out pretty well for me, so far.

Item 18: Juvenile delinquency: I have had a couple of blips. Just minor occurrences. My friend and I were once cautioned by the police when we were fifteen as we were running around Chelmsford High Street with no tops on and ran smack bang into two policemen. We tried to run away and hide in a multi-storey car park, but they found us and warned us that we were almost arrested for nude conduct. We tended to stick to clothes, after that.

Item 19: Revocation of conditional release: I just had to have a quick squizz at Wikipedia for this one. As I’ve never been locked away in jail, or a mental facility, or a cupboard under the stairs; it doesn’t really apply to me. It would mean that had I have been committed to a mental facility or similar, and been told that I would be free to go under certain conditions; that would be revoked if I didn’t satisfy those conditions. So if they said to me, “Amy please stop peeing in a mug and throwing it at the staff, otherwise we won’t let you go” and I ignored them and carried on flinging urine at people, I’d probably be stuck there for a while longer. Which seems reasonable.

Item 20: Criminal versatility: Yes. Yep. I definitely have the potential to be a criminal mastermind. I have definitely seen enough movies to be able to reinvent my criminal repertoire. I think I’d make a half decent getaway driver. I’d be a brilliant con artist. I also fancy my chances as a high profile art thief. I’m not sure about being a murderer though. It seems like a lot of effort to go through for minimal return. I don’t much fancy the idea of getting blood on my clothes, I tend to get stressed enough every time I cover myself in guacamole.

So, in conclusion, I am a bit of a fruit loop. But also, I probably won’t kill anyone any time soon. I think the world is safe, although I might run you over on my getaway driving spree or land on your head if I jump off another cliff. 

Release the Crocs

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‘Muddy’ has a sign attached to his feeble chain link surrounds stating “Extremely Dangerous – Keep Back from Fence.” He is about five metres long and his head is the size of your average kitchen sink. He looks pretty sleepy and disinterested, so I mosey on over for a closer look – Instagram prepped and ready to fire. As I get to within a metre of that spindly little fence, his eyes snap open like miniature vestiges of Sauron, he rears his big sink head and charges.

I swear that I hear a roar, but I might have imagined that. I definitely hear someone yelp like a banshee taken by surprise; but that one is all me. I fling my phone into the red pindan dust and fall unceremoniously on my arse. A grizzled Aussie with a face like a battered leather handbag chortles at me, and Muddy stares disconsolately through the hand sized holes in the flimsy wire – another tasty backpacker-shaped snack lost due to a chain link fence that has definitely seen better days. 

Each crocodile in the park has it’s very own sign proclaiming it’s misdemeanors – Mauler ate two horses! Charger likes to make you soil your pants by rushing at you out of the water! One Eye Willie was shot in the face by a police marksman! He survived, but now has one eye. He’s probably a tad pissed off. 

None of the prehistoric apex predators wallowing in their mossy ponds have any human fatalities splashed over their scuffed metal rap sheets – instead they are described as “problem crocodiles,” “particularly aggressive,” or “extremely dangerous” a la Muddy – leaving you to imagine how many of them have munched on an unsuspecting fisherman.

On our ‘feeding tour’, a guy in a croc-tooth necklace tells us how the baby crocs that we are nuzzling with are being reared for their skins, as the park has a contract with Gucci. I’ve been cuddling a tiny baby croc that feels like a little bean bag. As much as the guide reiterates that it’s like farming cattle for beef, I still want to smuggle Mini Crocosaurus out in my handbag, to save him from becoming one.

Sprinkled liberally around the park are signs telling us that the crocs adapt incredibly well to captivity as they are very territorial, and once they have settled into their pens are reluctant to leave – becoming aggressive when someone attempts to move them. The guide tells us over and over again that they don’t want to leave. How does he know that? Did Muddy whisper it into his ear?

I get very territorial when eating tapas, but it doesn’t mean that I want to live in a plate of calamari. I imagine that any aggression on the crocodile’s part is more along the lines of, “Oi, dickhead. You’ve just jumped on me with a bunch of your mates and loaded me onto the back of a Hi Lux, because someone built a boat ramp where I like to have my dinner. Now, just when I’m trying to relax, you start strangling me with some RSPCA stray dog harness and pulling me out of my glorified puddle.”

I know that my patience would start to wear pretty thin. A “problem crocodile” only becomes a problem when some retired bloke from South Australia buys a Winnebago and starts banging him on the head whilst filling his billy can from the river.

The guide throws Zooey the enormous saltwater crocodile some coral trout. Zooey lazily flicks his head to the side and bites down on the hapless fish with a bone jarring crunch. He’s had two wives, apparently. He ate the first one, and the second one hatched a desperate escape plan – burrowing into the next enclosure – where she was promptly eaten by Maniac – the next door neighbour. 

It seems slightly disconcerting that the salties can burrow escape tunnels. What happens when they start sticking posters of Raquel Welch on the walls and asking Red to procure a spoon? I’m sure Broome’s tourist trade would take a dip if 70 full size saltwater crocodiles took a stroll past Divers Tavern. 

That said, maybe it’s time that people accepted that launching their tinnie could mean losing a leg. I wouldn’t be too thrilled if someone erected a boat ramp in my home and then locked me up in some dusty enclosure; declaring me a problem. Maybe it’s high time that the crocs banded together, stopped eating each other and started burrowing.  

The Psychic Blues

I’ve always thought of myself as one of the world’s greatest sceptics. Having said that, I did just spend $23 on lumps of aquamarine and apatite to aid creativity, self-expression and the accumulation of knowledge. I’ve got a little silk bag for the aquamarine, as a 54 year old Californian woman with purple hair told me that I should wear it in my bra, as being prodded in the nipple by a shard of gemstone will no doubt transform me into a fount of motivation and literary genius.

At this point in my unshakeable Odyssey of Writer’s Block, I would try anything to get the creative juices flowing. If someone told me that in order to attain creative domination I need to smear dog shit all over my face and howl at the moon, I’d grab the nearest terrier and give it the old college try.

I’m in Western Australia, on holidays, and just spent the day wandering the streets of Fremantle looking at jade Buddha’s and drinking beer, interspersed with random women waving crystals around my head. I feel like I’m back in Byron.

Earlier in my stay, my friend took me to a ‘psychic brunch.’ I’ve never really been the biggest believer in clairvoyance, as it all seems to be about intuition and the shrewd reading of personal trappings and body language to me. Your psychic probably wouldn’t say “I sense that you’re battling some financial troubles” if a driver shielded you with a giant umbrella as you unfolded yourself from the depths of a Rolls Royce. I was pretty excited to go – secretly hoping that she’d hold onto my hands and exclaim “Oh my God!!! You’re going to be the future of British writing – the voice of your generation – one of the Greats of the 21st Century!” She didn’t.

As we walked into her little psychic lair I made the mistake of gushing “I’m so excited!!” in some kind of high pitched poodle squeal. With hindsight, I probably came across as a blonde haired halfwit that loves fluffy bunny slippers and making cupcakes.

After taking my hands, she laughed condescendingly and said “OK Amy, you are VERY gullible.” I stared at her in total incomprehension. What the fuck does she mean, I’m gullible?! She elaborated for me. “People know that you’re not the first one to catch onto the joke, and they take advantage of that. People you know are always playing pranks on you,” she bulldozed on. “Don’t let them make you the butt of the joke.”

She looked at me with a self-satisfied smile, as though I was supposed to chuckle knowingly and say “Yep! You pegged it! The village idiot, that’s me!”

Who says something like that to someone?! “You’re a milk bottle short of a full crate and all of your friends think that you’re about as intelligent as a dust bin lid. That’ll be $50 please.” Especially if it’s definitely not true! Hopefully it’s not true. Oh for God’s sake please don’t be true. I’ve read Ulysses! I’m really good at guessing the end of movies! Who goes around playing pranks on people??! I don’t live in a Dennis the Menace comic strip.

“Do you see that in yourself?” she simpered. “No, I don’t.” I hissed through clenched teeth. I hoped that she couldn’t read minds, as all I could think about was headbutting her. And that the only gullible thing about me was that I was choosing to give her a crisp note as opposed to going through with headbutting her.

“OK,” she continued, seemingly a little miffed, as though she was irritated by the fact that I wasn’t thrilled to hear that I was a complete mong. Taking my hands again, she said, “you are really stubborn. When you know that you’re right, you dig your heels in, and you will not budge.”

Now she was just describing 86% of the human population. Just because I stared at you with unchecked loathing after your shoddy personality diagnosis, doesn’t mean that I am a stubborn bitch. Most people dig their heels in when they know that they’re right. It’s like a clairvoyant grasping your hands and saying “I sense that you’d be quite pissed off if I punched you in the face right now.” Very few people would tilt their heads and think ‘Awwww shucks, I’d give you the benefit of the doubt.’

Closing her eyes, she ploughed on. “You’re going to fall down the stairs. Try to watch your step in future because, you know… you can be a bit of an accident waiting to happen.”

Oh, come on. Just come out with it and call me a retard, why don’t you.

“The name Paul keeps flashing up.” Does he push me down the stairs?

“Someone is planning a surprise for you.” Is it Paul? Is it pushing me down the stairs??

“You’re a mother, but you’re not.” Oh, for fucks sake – now you’re just making this up as you go along. I don’t want to have kids, I tell her. “Yes, that’s why I said that you’re not. You’re just a fusspot.” Trust me lady. I do not give a shit about people enough to be a fusspot.

“Someone is going to crash your car.” I don’t have a car.

“Avoid romance, it makes you lose your focus.” Alllrrriiiggghht… I’ll give you that one.

“You’re a travel bug – you get restless easily. I see three big trips in your future.” Only three?? However, this does sound more like it. Apparently she sees me in the Middle East. Maybe Paul lures me there to yell “Surprise!!!” and push me down the stairs.

She reads my tarot; talks about how I need to make more friends with connections, need to drink less, and am terrible with money – Wanky, Yawn and Blah – and then looks me square in the eye and says, “You are a brilliant photographer.”

Finally! She’s onto something! She must have read my last blog post.

Insta-Sham

When I was living in South Africa, I went on safari. We were volunteering at a reserve, which sounded to me like a pretty great score. We’d stand around shuffling our feet a lot and move some debris from one patch of ground to another patch of ground and then stare at it. Someone would take a photo of us, give us a bright yellow T shirt and then we’d all go and get pissed and get to gape at hippos.

As it turned out, we did stare at a fair amount of debris. The debris just happened to be mounds of sun-bleached bones that had recently been nibbled clean by the incisors of a lion. Guards stood around us with pretty bargain bin looking guns – less sub-machine, more sub-standard; and we industriously toiled away, moving mammalian remains into more orderly, tourist-friendly piles. Occasionally a guard would bark something in Xhosa and we would all shit ourselves; before we realised that he was asking for a light, as opposed to telling us that a full size alpha lion had its jaws clamped around our ankle. I kept freezing mid-action in a bizarre testament to Musical Statues, as keeping still worked out pretty well for the kids in Jurassic Park.

We also had to corral Peruvian horses, which sounded very romantic and I imagined flinging myself around a paddock like Robert Redford; but as a matter of fact wild Peruvian horses are stubborn bastards and I spent three hours sprinting headlong in random directions swinging a rope around as I had absolutely no bloody idea what I was supposed to be doing.

The job I enjoyed the most was babysitting tiny newborn crocodiles, who sloshed around in enamel dishes of water and were quite self sufficient so I could drink lots of wine whilst carrying out this particular task.

I snapped a few photos – one of which is below. The point of this blog post is photography based – focused around photographic social media in fact – that billion dollar idea… Instagram. That may come as a slight curveball seeing as I’ve just rambled on about South African safari reserves for the last 384 words…but there is a relevant point, I promise.

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Look at this photo. It’s the clearest of the 68 that I patiently snapped. It is complete shit. It looks like a diseased gecko that fell into a box of stuff you were going to leave outside the Salvation Army. It transpires that I am a really hideous photographer. It blindsided me, to be honest. I had always assumed that the photos of sand that I was studiously sending via Whatsapp back to London were being pored over with envy, eliciting reactions of raging jealousy and barely suppressed urges to book plane tickets. With hindsight though, it looks like I sent ten months worth of 98% recyclable beige napkin close-ups.

I’ll display another of my safari snaps.

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This one is a rhino. Walking away. With a bit of car bonnet in the foreground. The rhinos were lolling around our Defender at incredibly close range for about 45 minutes. This is the only photo I got that doesn’t look like a close-up of breeze blocks. One morning I opened my front door at 5am, bleary eyed and yawning and desperate for a pee, and walked smack bang into two rhino. They looked a bit miffed, as though they had been standing around for an hour waiting to see a human and they weren’t overly impressed with the specimen in front of them. I probably looked a bit indifferent too, but I think it was more the shock of having my nose 2cm from full frontal rhino horn half an hour before my alarm was supposed to go off. Eventually I recovered and filmed them for a while. They literally just stand there for the entire video, staring at me with total disinterest, and at the moment that they start cavorting and gamboling around like over-excited puppies, I turn away and film a tree. Even my Dad, who is David Attenborough’s #1 Fan and watches fishing shows, glazed over.

The entire trip was punctuated by examples of my shoddy photography – scorpions that we had shaken out of our boots, baby warthogs, a pride of lions devouring a tortoise and elephants scratching their bums on rocky overhangs. None of the photos remotely represent the gist of what we were actually seeing. My most impressive snapshot was a picture of an eviscerated water buffalo. I made the driver stop and hung out of the truck window for five minutes snapping away merrily, and meanwhile we missed a migrating herd of giraffe. My safari buddies were none too pleased with me, and spent the rest of the day ignoring my existence.

If they saw the photos that I created today, however; they might just change their minds and want to be my best friend. Or maybe just follow me, either through cyberspace or down an alley. I’m now some sort of filter savvy, hipsterfied photographic genius. For today, I discovered Instagram. I know that I’m a bit late to the party here, but I do live in Byron Bay where our local newspaper tells us all about the dangers of flouride, wi fi and low-vibrational people but doesn’t tend to dig too deeply into wider world issues, and also I generally abhor social media unless its asking me to sign an anti shark cull petition or showing me a photo of my Mum.

But Instagram has opened up a whole new over-exposed-but-in-a-good-way universe. I now feel like I lead an extremely glamorous life, documented in sepia. Pretty much every photo that I’ve ever taken has been put through the woozy filter process. I think Lo Fi is my favourite. I’ve hand selected a few for my account, complete with wanky captions like ‘Houseboat in Amsterdam’ and ‘Picnic at Audley End House with Mum and Jane.’ I sound like a complete prick, and people are probably thinking “who the fuck is Jane?” but I don’t really care because I have photos from at least three corners of the globe and so I must look like some kind of jet-setting person that drinks a lot of coconut water and has at some stage owned a vintage Lambretta.

Here is an example of my recent handiwork:

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It’s a koala that has given up on life. Sure, we all have tough days and just want to flop around like a torn bag of spuds, and this guy was conveying that perfectly. The pellets around him are small pebbles which I threw at him to make sure that he was alive. He raised his head at one point and stared at me as if to say “oh will you just piss off” and then went back to his melancholy sojourn. I told the zookeeper, as no-one wants to see a suicidal koala. But look at the light seeping around the edges of the photo. Check out the way that the colours just meld into one another. It looks bloody brilliant.

I might start referring to everyone in my photos by their initials like some sort of fictional prostitute. I will definitely take a photo of a brunch at some point. And I cannot wait to take a photo of myself staring moodily at a wall and plaster haziness all over it, thereby making myself appear ten times prettier than I actually am. No more out of focus rhino backsides for me.

 

“You’re going to need a bigger boat”

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A friendly shark visitor to our boat in Gansbaai, South Africa

An annual televised bash, this week is Shark Week. I know this, as I have spent way too many Friday nights in front of the Discovery Channel rewinding slow mo shark breaches and lamenting the fact that a bunch of whales have beached themselves en masse as they can’t bear to be apart from one another.

Apparently, Discovery Channel also run a Whale Week, which goes a little more unnoticed as whales do not tend to have the dramatic pull and Hollywood allure of the shark. Great White sharks mostly. I’ve never seen anyone get that excited over a Wobbegong.

Mercury. Supplied pic of a Wobbegong in the Towradgi pool. Photo. Norm Hoyland

I’ve seen more interesting shark specimens, myself.

Whales beat wobbegongs, at least, in the popularity stakes. Their habitual mass beachings usually get the locals all in a tizz and have led to several studies into what it is that makes them apparently launch into a suicide pact with a bunch of blubbery pals. Whales are intensely social animals. Their brains contain ‘spindle cells’ – which are the cells “which make us human” – neurons that enable feelings like love, emotional suffering, and which enable us to react to social situations. They are the catalyst that makes you buy a card emblazoned with the words “My love for you will last longer than Ned Stark’s head” for the object of your affections, the trigger that leaves you snivelling into a vat of gin when it all goes wrong and the signpost in our mind that points us in the right direction when manoeuvring through social interaction – i.e. what to do when you spot someone you know walking towards you from far away… Exactly how many times and for how long is it acceptable to wave before you are face to face with one another? And what do you do when you’re not waving? Do you just keep smiling? It’s a social minefield out there, I tell you.

The fact that whales, dolphins and orcas have these neurons is disconcerting when you consider the fact that some of these animals are locked up in tanks for entertainment value. Separated from their families, indeed often captured in the wild – taken from an ocean of possibilities, space and freedom and plonked into a glorified paddling pool. The death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau is a case in point for why orcas should not be held captive for the sake of splashing tourists and raking in some bucks – lets focus less on draining wallets and more on draining those tanks, shall we? If you haven’t already – see Blackfish – director Gabriela Cowperthwaite explores the history of keeping orcas in captivity and the incidents that have occurred as a result.

Sure, it might make you cry and having your genitals ripped off by a killer whale does not sound like a barrel of laughs; but its eye opening, well informed and will hopefully make a real difference. SeaWorld need to realise that their original target audience is all grown up – we saw Free Willy; and these days we want to see these animals living free – we don’t want to stare at flopped over dorsal fins and a whale that can’t dive as deep or swim as far as is natural and healthy. We’ve grown up SeaWorld, I think it’s high time you did the same thing.

Orcas are the largest animal kept in captivity, according to PETA – who have written a nifty little article here on why marine animals shouldn’t be locked up in watery cells – http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/marine-animal-exhibits-chlorinated-prisons.aspx. Not many aquariums have taken a punt at keeping a Great White. At the time of writing, SeaWorld have not launched a Great White/human interactive show where you can watch the trainers ride on their backs or applaud as the shark balances a seal carcass on its nose – although with SeaWorld – you never know. Monterey Bay Aquarium have kept a few Great Whites in 3,800,000 litre ‘open sea’ exhibits, where they make behavioural studies and then release the shark back into the wild, using the sharks stay as a promotion effort for a predator not usually viewed too favourably.

Ever since I can remember, I have had an unhealthy obsession with sharks, especially the king of apex predators – the Great White. Unhealthy?! you might ask. A heroin addiction, an unstoppable Greggs habit or a fixation on burning things could be described as unhealthy. Sharks can be admired from afar, in safety – i.e. from a photo, or on a cinema screen, or plastered over a wittily sloganed T shirt.

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Ah, Threadless, you kill me

The ill health side of the coin comes into play when you start swimming with them. It tends to the add to the general bad malaise when you are missing a limb, or seem to have misplaced your torso.

The Australian Shark Attack File states that the last 50 years have seen 50 fatal shark attacks in the country – a nice round average of one per year. How neat and convenient. Ta very much, Mr Shark.

Over ten months in late 2011 and into 2012 however, there were five fatal attacks in Western Australia alone. I was living there at the time, and as pro-shark as I am, being out in the water did come with a splash of added peril. It was not uncommon to see a cresting grey shape and shit yourself before you realised that it was a dolphin.

The government called for a cull, with WA Premier Colin Barnett announcing that it was no biggie, as they were “just fish”. Sure thing, Col. We’ll pop you in a tank with a 15 foot long Great White and a potato cod so you can admire the similarities. Conservation groups were obviously riled up at this plan – and as a lover of all things shark, I was resolutely not on the bandwagon.

I wasn’t just worried about the inevitable pissed up bogans getting their tin boats together and sailing off to hook themselves a real life Jaws in their Bintang singlets, Bundy red cans held aloft. The ocean is the domain of ‘sea monsters’, and always has been since horny sailors were putting the moves on manatees. More simply put, the ocean is the sharks territory, not ours. We’re visitors in that great blue expanse, and we’d better wipe our feet on the sand before we go in.

Australia does love a cull, and often they are quite necessary. Cane toads are a blight on almost every native animal population in Queensland – soon even Irukandji jellyfish will be popping their clogs and cursing the bloody cane toad next door.

Kangaroo culling is a little more contentious, with one side arguing that the ‘roos damage ecosystems and are a threat to other indigenous wildlife; and the other pointing out that the kangaroos have been around for a pretty long time and have done a half decent job of managing their own population so far.

Animals are culled in Australia when they are perceived as a threat to local flora and fauna. Sharks are as much a threat to marine life along the Aussie coastline as any other ocean predator – from octopus to humpback whales. They eat what they need to, in order to survive. In fact, they play a very vital role in the smooth running of the ecosystem down there. They keep food webs in balance, and keep prey populations and habitats healthy. The only fauna that sharks pose a threat to, is humans.

And what of the sharks? What if they floated around one day, observing the depleted fish stocks, the coral that has been bleached by human-caused global warming and the thousands of turtles, dolphins and their own kind that get trapped in nets and on drum lines every year and thought – “you know what guys? these humans have really got out of control. it’s time for a cull.”

Yes I love sharks, and yes I am biased. I also have not been stared down by a Great White without the safe haven of a cage around me, although I have swam with tiger sharks cage-free and am pleased to report that I am not dead. I have also stroked Great Whites on the nose from a boat on several occasions and they didn’t mistake my hand for a tuna.

I spent a month volunteering on a Great White cage diving boat in Gansbaai, South Africa; and was repeatedly blown away by the sharks that we saw. Majestic, agile and almost always giving off a remarkably calm aura. They were curious and playful, and any signs of aggression were purely as a result of baiting by the staff on the boat. I mean they probably weren’t even being aggressive. It’s just hard to look passive when you have a face the size of a Ford Focus and jaws full of Hattori Hanzo sharp teeth.

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A great amount of the people that have survived brutal shark attacks are against reprisal in the form of going after the shark. Rodney Fox is a South Australian who was attacked by a Great White in 1963. His ribs were broken, his abdomen “fully exposed”, his lung ripped open and the main artery from his heart was exposed. He needed 450 stitches after the attack.

And yet even after being used as a chew toy, he dedicated his life to studying and observing the species that had almost killed him. He has made documentaries, led expeditions, founded the Fox Shark Research Foundation and designed the first underwater cage to dive with sharks.

I am not always hungry (except on fast days…5:2 diet = bane of my life right now). I don’t walk down the street and grab every piece of food that I see, snatching burgers from the hands of innocent bystanders with wild abandon. Likewise, sharks are not constantly ravenous. They don’t have a burning need to eat every chubby seal or errant human that they come across. They’re always out there. Swimming or surfing off the coast of Western Australia, and many other places for that matter, the chances are that there is a shark somewhere in the vicinity. I’m sure that you could casually cruise past a Great White whilst paddling around in your Speedo and nine times out of ten, it wouldn’t be in the slightest bit bothered by your presence. Obviously the aim of the game is to avoid the one time out of ten when he’s still not bothered, but he’s eaten your head.

I’m About to Eat My Shoe

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I’m really not one to write about diets. This is probably because I’m really not one to go on a diet, either.

Denying myself of cheese, beer, wine, buttery crumpets, Solero ice creams and Dr Pepper is not really something that I’ve ever considered putting myself through, even if on a quest to lose weight. Surely I can just go to the gym and flail around in there for an hour or so? Why on earth would I need to stop eating cheese? You’ve lost me already.

Alas, my flight back to Australia is set in stone for early September and I will actually have to go out in public in a bikini at some point, so its time to wave goodbye to the Waitrose scotch eggs, and take some drastic action. (as if depriving myself of scotch eggs wasn’t drastic enough)

Yesterday I started the fasting diet, or 5:2 diet. This is probably the 875th blog post you have seen about this diet. Its literally everywhere. I swear 94% of the British population are on this diet. I had briefly browsed the particulars a while ago and dismissed it, as it involves a couple of days where you can’t eat very much, and I’m still on the lookout for a diet plan that allows me to stuff my face.

The idea is that for two days per week, you can only eat 500 calories worth of food. And the other five, you can eat whatever the hell you want. I guess there’s a stipulation that this is within reason, i.e. try to avoid Pizza Hut all-you-can-eat ‘slice off’ lunches and buying a whole child’s chocolate birthday cake to eat by yourself.

Yesterday was my first ‘fast day’, and I plunged in with zero forward planning. As someone who has never really counted calories, I assumed that 500 calories would be a breeze. I started my day with a banana and a tangerine, and then realised I had eaten 140 calories. What the god damn hell??! Since when was fruit anything over 2 calories????

I then had a Go Ahead bar for lunch. This was not a substantial lunch effort, and meant that I spent the entire afternoon looking at menus on Urbanspoon, reading recipes on BBC Good Food (something I have never before done in my entire life), reading reviews of London burger shacks and gnawing on my mouse mat.

I went for a long walk at lunchtime to distract myself and ended up at Leather Lane market, which is packed full of street food carts peddling burritos and cafes flogging lamb kofta wraps. Even food that I would never willingly eat was causing me to salivate. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Chicken Cottage, and found myself gazing with animal lust at a woman eating a packet of Chipsticks.

I had to sprint headlong back to the office, where after 8 cups of black coffee and a 25 minute motivational interval of flicking through shots of Victoria’s Secret models on Google Images, I realised that I had done no work whatsoever all day, and set off for the gym. Halfway through Body Pump someone told me that you’re not supposed to exercise on fast days, due to lack of energy. Caffeine and nervous adrenaline saw me through, although after the class I saw myriad purple spots sprouting in front of my eyes, and felt oddly as though I’d been out on the beers.

At Liverpool Street station, there was a 20 minute wait for my train. All I had to look forward to in the world was one plain pork chop and a scattering of wilted salad leaves. I wanted to eat my own face. I spent 20 minutes standing on the station concourse surrounded by Burger King, McDonalds and The Pasty Shop; whilst my stomach roared like a disgruntled hippo.

Finally my train arrived, and I could escape from all of these delicious ground-meat smells. I collapsed into a seat, tried to think about anything other than food, and a man got on and sat opposite me – delicately unwrapping a Burger King Double Bacon Cheeseburger. He deserved to die. I know it was a Double Bacon Cheeseburger, because I watched every single bite he took and took note of each ingredient oozing its way out of the bun. Plus, I know my burgers. This was unadulterated cruelty.

By the time I got home, I was ready to flop into a heap and sob on the doormat. I ate my one plain pork chop, drank a glass of tap water, and went to bed in case I ate my Mum. The only comfort was that I had lovingly placed a pork chop crusted with a parmesan and mustard crumb, and a heap of buttery new potatoes into a Tupperware for today’s lunch. On the train this morning it was all I could think about. Just knowing that Tupperware was nestled in my bag between my book and my umbrella left me in a state of total blissful contentment.

On arriving at work this morning, I told anybody that would listen about my fantastic lunch. I was crazed with excitement about eating it at precisely 11.59am. I took out the Tupperware to delight them with the sight of that parmesan and mustard crumb, whipping off the lid with abandon. A few forlorn potatoes rolled in the bottom of the tub. The pork chop was gone.

I looked everywhere – underneath the lonesome spuds, in my handbag in case it had slipped out and glued itself to my iPhone screen, even in the lift in case it had jumped ship on my way into the office. Nope, no pork chop. I have just brought a large plastic tub of cold boiled potatoes into work. I’m devastated.

I am still investigating The Case of the Missing Pork Chop. My money is on my brother to be honest – he is quite a shady character.

Tomorrow is my second fast day, and I am going to plan this one with military precision; from things to eat that actually graze the sides of my stomach, to effective means of distraction on StumbleUpon, and the price to be paid by anyone that dares come between me and a cold pork chop.