The best four words I’ve ever written?

I’ve written a few words in my time. Some have flowed from my pen like silk; ribbons of mellifluous prose. Some I’ve frogmarched into columns with military precision. Others I’ve frankly vomited onto the page and not had the wherewithal to wipe up properly. (For those I apologise.)

Recently I found myself wondering if the best of all these words, over all these years, might be the four that I strung together on behalf of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland.

I’m not saying they’re the best four words ever written. I don’t think they’ll ever reside in the pantheon of 4 word greatness, alongside “those blue remembered hills”, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” and “Talk to me, Goose”.

But they might just carry the power to do some real and lasting good. And for the lowly copywriter, that’s a thrilling prospect.

It all starts with the brief

It was just a regular Monday briefing. Creative team sauntered in clutching mugs of tea and coffee. Account managers dealt out wads of A4 paper and talked us through the task at hand.

Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland had asked us to come up with a UEP. (UEP = Unifying Emotional Proposition – the set of words that sums up what an organisation stands for beyond its functional purpose.)

The account team had already had in-depth discussions with the client. Q&As, interviews and workshops – the usual process of fact-finding, exploration and interrogation that informs the creative brief. But there was something palpably different about this one.

It was the clarity of ambition. The client’s commitment to being brave and taking a bold stance. We were in no doubt about the direction that the new Chief Executive, Jane-Claire Judson, wanted to take this organisation. And excitingly for us, she understood the power of the brand to get her there.

Her passion overflowed to her own marketing team, spilled into our agency brief and permeated our creative thinking. We knew what they wanted, and were inspired to find it.

Thank you, Baz Luhrmann

I was on the bus home when I thought of it. Top deck, left hand side, staring out of the window. Not so much a lightbulb moment as a dimmer switch, undimming. The trouble with the old lightbulb analogy is that it suggests there is darkness and then, ping! there is light. That the answer comes out of nothing.

In my experience, the creative process isn’t actually like that very often. First there’s reading and learning. Then there’s sifting and sorting. Thinking and incubating. Floundering around in murky waters trying to catch a fish. But eventually, with a bit of luck and a lot of persistence, the fish does land in your hand.

So back to the bus (where there is no fish, bar the old trout driving it).

I was still musing and mulling over the brief.

Earlier that day I’d been reading stories of people living with chest, heart and stroke conditions in Scotland. About the man who had to learn to eat with a knife and fork again, aged 62. About the woman with COPD who didn’t go out for weeks at a time until she found a local singing group for people with breathing difficulties. About the young dad paralysed by a stroke whose dream was to read to his daughter at bedtime like he used to.

All these stories carried a common refrain: there was life before the diagnosis and life after it.

Life divided into two halves – before and after. ‘Before’ was remembered as happy, healthy, care-free. ‘After’ was characterised by isolation, struggle and depression.

The whole point of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland is to be there for the ‘after’ bit. The condition might be life changing, but it shouldn’t be life ending. They are there to make each precious life the very best it can be.

We swung off Crewe Road roundabout onto Crewe Road North and under the cycle path bridge that feels too low for the double decker, so I always duck a little bit in my seat. Out the other side.

This UEP had to be about life, I thought – about making the most of life even when you’ve got a debilitating health condition – about not missing out on doing the things you always loved doing before – or giving up on dreams you had before this thing happened – about not just existing but really living – about living the fullest life you can – because the alternative is something partial, a life you’ve only half lived.

Suddenly Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom was in my head.

Vivir con miedo, es como vivir a medias!” explodes Fran when she can’t contain her frustration with Scott. Later, as he walks her home to the rundown outskirts of town, she translates it. “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”

A life half lived. If Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland had their way, there’d be no life half lived.

No life half lived.

Fighting talk.

Four words.

But they seemed to say it all.

I’d only gone and landed an 80lb salmon.

Tears before teatime

A few months later, on 29th May 2018, a gaggle of folk from Story (the creative agency where I work) attended the launch of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland’s new vision.

NLHL words

We walked into the Caledonian Hotel and saw the line everywhere. On lanyards, screens, presentations, leaflets, balloons, mugs, name badges.

It was obvious that these four words were going to be more than just a strapline. For Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland they were a platform. A promise. The foundation for the organisation’s entire strategy.

That was pleasing to see. But the thing that really made me well up was hearing the service users saying the words. A young woman who’d suffered a stroke spoke them with powerful conviction. When a man with heart failure uttered them, we saw hope in his eyes. As a lad with chronic asthma was saying them on the big screen, I turned and saw the same boy standing right beside me, a broad smile across his face.

Then Jane-Claire got the whole room to say the line in a rousing show of support – volunteers, fellow charities, donors, medical partners, survivors, staff.

That was a first for me. And a bit of tear-jerker.

I just stuck four words together, borrowed from a favourite film. The line is a good one, but it will be meaningless unless people get behind it, believe in it and commit to it.

But if they do… If Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland can use it to reach the quarter of a million people they want to… If they can make hearts work better, and lungs breathe better, and bodies recover better after stroke… If they can lift spirits that have been sunk, and persuade the rest of us that this work is worthy of our time, money and support…

Then yes, these will be the best four words I’ve ever written.

 

You can find out more and donate to Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland here >
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After the Arctic, the Beast from the East

The following statement will do absolutely nothing for my street credibility, but here it comes: I like going to church.

Not any old church of course. I like going to aesthetically pleasing church with soaring Gothic vaults, stained glass windows and lots of candles. Where the clergy wear glittering robes and move from A to B in a procession, ideally featuring incense. I like going to church when its choir sings soul-stirring anthems with scrunchy chords and old-fashioned hymns with descants. I like church with coffee in the hall afterwards where nice people talk to other nice people wearing a similar ensemble of corduroy trousers and beige knitwear.

It must be my Anglo-Catholic upbringing. (You can take the vicar’s daughter out of church, etc.)

I suppose the same goes for the Church itself. It can easily get complacent. Turn inwards not outwards. Settle into a pattern that’s all very cosy and familiar.

But then a few weeks ago, the Beast from the East came along and kicked the church I go to into a far less comfortable zone.

Out of the cold…

There’s nothing like a distinctly challenging night in the Arctic to change the way you look at people sleeping rough. (I say ‘sleeping rough’ deliberately, rather than ‘sleeping on the street’ or ‘homeless’. Sleeping rough doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s horrible. It might equally be called sleeping cold, or sleeping scared. If you can get to sleep at all.)

Like most people, I don’t relish the thought of anyone suffering a night on the streets in any circumstances, never mind sub-zero temperatures. But now the horror is a little more vivid. It was bad enough for me when I was wrapped in the security of being amongst friends and trained guides, and the comfort of knowing that I only had to get through that one night and the ordeal would be over. So when the Beast loomed, I couldn’t help thinking of all those rough sleepers I see in Edinburgh’s west end and wondering what would become of them.

I wondered, but I did nothing.

But St John’s Church on Princes St did.

In response to the extreme weather, the clergy decided to open the doors round the clock for anyone – homeless, hungry or stranded – to come in, help themselves to a simple meal and a warm brew, and find a place to sleep.

The call went out and volunteers came from charities, social enterprises and the church congregation itself. Local businesses donated food. Bundles of warm clothes appeared at the church door.

One evening I dropped by for a meeting and saw what was going on. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head ever since.

… and into the warm

I was greeted at the door by one of the volunteers from a nearby kirk. Dressed in bright colours and a broad smile, she joked about her “various mental health problems” in a way only someone with various mental health problems can, before peeling off down the south aisle singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, thank your meds…”

I wandered on up the nave. In the low light of the church there was a hum of activity. It was warm. It was calm. A lady was serving food and drinks from a table in the back corner. There was a rail of jackets and jumpers that anyone could help themselves to. Small groups huddled in pews all around the church, clutching cups of warm soup. Church pews aren’t very well suited to sitting and conversing, so people sat in contorted positions to talk to each other over the wooden barriers.

Most of them were men under 40. There was a handful of women.

Sleeping bags had been laid out on the carpets at the front of the church, in the children’s corner and in the chapel. The long cushions from the communion rail were being used as mattresses in whatever space people could find.

I stepped into the sanctuary. One man was sitting on the steps to the pulpit, head bowed. Another was sitting in the choir stalls, staring up at the vast organ pipes, lost in his own world. I don’t know if he was having a moment of spiritual enlightenment or in a drunken stupor. The thing is, it didn’t matter. This was his home for the night and nobody was judging.

A man staggered down from the high altar shouting something incoherent. He wasn’t angry, he was just shouting. Everyone ignored him.

No part of the church was out of bounds. There was no sense that anyone could come in as long as they tucked themselves away in a corner. It was as much their church as anyone’s, and they were asked to make themselves at home. So they did.

When it was time for a church service, nothing changed. During choral evensong on Sunday night, the congregation doubled as the usual church-goers joined the homeless community. Prayers were intoned. The congregation mumbled along. Some of the guests joined in, others moseyed around with cups of chicken broth. The choir sang the regular canticles, responses and anthem to a harmony of snores and random yelps. They sang the Magnificat: “He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

The uncomfortable truth

I had wondered, but I had done nothing – paralysed by indecision and other excuses. So now all I can do is tell the story of what I saw that week, and hope it reminds people that churches can do very real, courageous and important things.

I was humbled and awed by the speed with which the church responded to that crisis. No creeping decision by committee, no bureaucratic implementation process. Just a human response to need.

They could, so they did.

The life of St John’s looked very big that week. I’ve never been prouder of the place I go to church – however uncool that makes me sound.

 

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The crushing disappointment of being right

I always said I didn’t like camping. Not for a summer holiday. Not at a music festival. Not even in my back garden. The mere thought of that small, enclosed space was enough to make me shudder. So when I did finally go camping, on a frozen lake in -34°C, it should have come as no surprise that things didn’t go too well.

Here’s what happened.

PART 1: TREK

Day 1 of our Arctic trek could not have been more glorious. At 9am, rigged up with harnesses, pulks and walking poles, hand warmers in our mitts and a spring in our step, we walked from our hotel down to the frozen Ounasjoki river. The sun was coming up and the sky was blue and clear. Not a breath of wind. It was bloody cold, but as we were marching at a decent pace I soon started to feel the warmth in my core working its way out to my extremities.

Everything was covered in snow. As the sun lifted, the landscape glistened as though laced with tiny crystals. The wide river was lined on both sides with delicate snow-covered birch trees, the minimalism punctuated by the occasional wooden summer house; daubs of falu red, ochre and turquoise on the otherwise white canvas.

We strode along this river for 13km, walking side by side and chatting amiably. Dry snow underfoot made the going quite easy. The pulks slid along behind us and we quickly forgot they were even there. Every hour or so we stopped to rehydrate and grab a handful of snacks. The men peed at the side of the track. The women looked away, but enviously. That was a hurdle we too would have to face before too long…

Just as the river setting might have started to get a little predictable, we turned off to join a steep path into the woods. The pulks were suddenly weighty behind us, but the scenery was so picturesque that we didn’t care. We passed through a silent village where the roofs were iced a metre thick, then on up through a forest of fir trees laden and drooping with heavy clumps of snow. At the crest of each incline, we were rewarded with the sight of the low sun slanting across unspoilt quilts of white, making the trees and even the air itself sparkle.

snowscape

On we ploughed, delighting in the dazzling views. The going became trickier as we descended the wooded hillside, the track only as wide as our pulks with deep, soft drifts on either side – about thigh deep, as I found out pretty quickly when I stepped off the path. No matter, the snow was dry and brushed straight off. Here the trail undulated through the sapling firs, so we held the fronts of our pulks to navigate the steep drops while pushing through low branches poised to pour their snowy load on the unsuspecting trekker.

Eventually we emerged onto lake Sinettäjärvi – the home straight, just 8km to go. We had walked so well as a group that we’d made it to this point in record time. Legs were tired, but spirits were high. I know mine were.

As the setting sun turned the sky purple and pink before dipping to indigo, we pressed on until we saw the light of a campfire flickering within a clearing on the wooded shore. On the frozen lake itself, a row of tiny tents.

PART 2: CAMP

“Dump your pulk, grab your down jacket, spork and mug and get yourself warm by the fire!” came the instruction, and who were we to argue. Soup and stew were served. We sat around the roaring flames recounting our favourite parts of the day, with much patting on backs for such a well-walked trek.

By about 9.30pm we were ready to turn in. And this must be where something went awry for me. We had already inflated our roll mats and shaken out our sleeping bags. Nobody had more extreme-rated kit than me – thanks to Fi who had lent me her top dollar RAB expedition sleeping bag and down jacket. So, as bitterly cold as it was on the lake, all I had to do was get into the sleeping bag as quickly as possible and all would be fine.

tents on the frozen lake

The trick with bedtime, when you’re camping in severely low temperatures, is to get into your sleeping bag while your body is warm. It’s a total faff, especially when you have little experience of getting in and out of tents. And it’s dark. And your headtorch has suddenly decided to die.

You have to half climb into the tent, then, with your feet still outside, take off your walking boots, clean the snow off them, put them into a dry bag, and bring them into your sleeping bag with you so they don’t freeze overnight. Oh, and you’ll also need your gloves, clothes you might want to put on during the night or the following morning, and extra foot and hand warmers tucked into socks and pockets. Quickly zip up the tent. Then shuggle yourself into the sleeping bag, bring the hood up over your head (with hat), and tighten the cords until there’s just a tiny hole round your face. Then go to sleep.

Except I didn’t go to sleep.

Whether I spent too long dealing with my boots while the tent was open, or I wasn’t warm enough to start with, or I just have terrible circulation, I don’t know. But after three hours of wriggling my fingers and toes, with uncontrollable shivers spreading through my body, I began to feel sick. I realised I needed to get myself warm again, which meant climbing out of this icy cocoon, fumbling in the dark to find my boots and jacket, then stumbling back up to camp to try and rekindle the fire.

This I did at 1.30am, along with another trekker who was suffering from the cold. Thankfully Les, Rick, Jo and Neil (our brilliant trekking guides) came to our aid. They soon had a roaring blaze going and were enquiring into my exact symptoms. They plied me with tepid sweet tea – possibly the most disgusting yet welcome drink to ever pass my lips.

At 3.30am they checked my feet for frost nip and gave me the all-clear.

At 4am they layered me up with extra insulation and took me down to the tent. Now I was wearing base layers top and bottom, a fleece, a trekking jacket, a second pair of thick leggings, insulated slippers, a hat and my RAB expedition down jacket, with hand warmers tucked in every pocket. Jo bundled me into the sleeping bag with my boots, then zipped up the tent.

I had never felt so comfortable, warm and cosy. I shut my eyes and waited for sleep.

But instead of sleep, I got heart palpitations. My pulse was racing, like the beginning of a panic attack. Then the shivers began again. Numbness spread from my right hip to my foot. I bashed at the leg to get the blood moving. I bashed so hard I found a whopping bruise there the following day, but I hadn’t felt a thing at the time.

Sleep never came.

I resisted as long as I could, then reluctantly heaved myself once again from the tent and returned to the camp fire. The worst of it was having to wake the guides only a couple of hours since I’d last left them. They too had to rise and dress carefully, forcing themselves quickly out of sleep and into warmth. I felt so guilty.

I saw them conferring in a huddle and knew what was coming. With no sleep and even a mild risk that I could develop hypothermia, I would have to be taken off trail. “Extricated” they call it.

I was devastated.

I gave Sarah a hug, failing to fight the tears as I thought of her continuing this adventure without me. Then I left.

PART 3: FINISH

Extrication didn’t come without some positives. The crazed snowmobile ride up a steep wooded hillside, ducking under branches and clinging on for dear life was actually a highlight of the whole trip. As was the warm shower that followed. And the relief of knowing I wouldn’t have to face another night in a tent.

But mostly I felt such a failure.

I thought of all those people at home wishing me luck, willing me on and longing to hear how it went. What will I say?

I thought of all that training and planning and prepping. For what? I always thought this challenge would be tough, but I didn’t think I’d ever fail to complete it. And suddenly there I was back in the hotel in Rovaniemi without so much as a blister or a twinged muscle.

I thought of all the others soldiering on out there, completing the trek. How will I face them? The next day, those of us who had left the trek early (I was not alone) would take a taxi up to the Arctic Snow Hotel, stride out across the lake to meet our intrepid friends and walk the last half mile with them to the finish line. For that, I would have to summon a very different kind of courage, to bury my humiliation and enjoy everyone’s elation – graciously celebrating the achievement I had so desperately wanted for myself.

That experience was actually far more joyous than I had anticipated. Seeing Sarah staggering towards me through the snow was an amazing moment, and I felt genuine pride, delight and awe in seeing her cross the line. But I can’t say it wasn’t tinged with envy.

CHAS finnish line.JPG

I knew I should console myself that it wasn’t my fault; that no amount of training could have prepared my body for that cold; that I could not have brought better kit (other than that ruddy headtorch); that this challenge was always about taking myself outside my comfort zone, whether or not I completed it, and that I had done. But in the immediate aftermath, none of that felt like any consolation at all.

The only consolation is that I was right all along: I do not do camping.

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Rovaniemi, here we come…

Tomorrow, bright and early, we fly. First to Heathrow, then Helsinki, then the town of Rovaniemi, from where our trek begins. Rovaniemi (population 62,000) is the capital of Finnish Lapland. It’s located just south of the Arctic Circle at the confluence of the Kemijoki and Ounasjoki rivers. Blah blah blah. What really matters here is that Rovaniemi is the Official Home of Santa Claus.

Poor old Father Christmas. A man who receives thousands if not millions of begging letters every year, but I’m guessing not quite as many thank you letters. So on Friday, in between acclimatisation, last-minute kit shopping and a spot of dog sledding, I shall deliver two notes written by my girls to thank the big bearded fella for his unceasing generosity.

Speaking of which, there are a few people I also need to thank. Because there is no way I would be ready to take on this challenge if it wasn’t for them.

So here are my own short but heartfelt thank you letters…

To Kayleigh McCallum

For the beautiful illustrations dotted throughout this blog. (www.kayleighmccallum.com)

To Pies, Nina, Sam, Cliff and Susan

For the various bits of essential kit including clothes, bags, headbands, glove liners, skin cream and hand warmers.

To Vikki

For the loo brush and the homemade, vacuum-packed, high performance energy balls.

To Christine

For the Percy Piglets and Colin the Caterpillars.

To Gordon at Helly Hansen

For donating the merino base layers.

To Gail Littlejohn

For all the massages – even the ones I needed gas and air for. If anyone is after health or fitness advice or some seriously good muscle ‘TLC’, Gail’s your woman. Ask me and I’ll give you her details.

To my lovely GP

Who didn’t bat an eyelid when I broke down in tears last week because I had a cold.

To Boots Opticians

For rising splendidly to the challenge when I phoned up to ask about wearing contact lenses in the Arctic. The receptionist asked the optometrist and the optometrist asked the contact lens specialist, and they all dropped what they were doing to look up the latest research. They got me an appointment that very afternoon, fitted me with 7-day-wear lenses (that’s the answer), and sent me away with all the tips, advice and spare lens solution they could muster. I was impressed.

To Fi

For lending me her amazing, top-of-the-range expedition kit. Also, for starting sentences with phrases like “when I did the Everest Marathon…”, but still managing to make me feel like I’m in her league – which I am most definitely not. For reminding me that everyone’s comfort zone is different; belatedly taking her English GCSE is apparently as daunting for her as this trek is for me. And for the nuggets of advice only a properly intrepid polar explorer can give you. If it wasn’t for Fi, I wouldn’t be taking superglue for cuts, dental floss as emergency string, or butter for slipping into hot drinks round the campfire.

To Story

For being a brilliant place to work, putting up with my tedious daily training updates, and supporting CHAS so generously.

To Rory

For not minding when I accidentally signed up to do this trek in the first place. For not complaining when I disappeared for long weekend walks. For the early morning planking sessions. For all the words of encouragement. For giving the girls extra cuddles while I’m away. For being you.

To Sarah (AKA Aussie in the Arctic)

While I have doubted the wisdom of taking on this challenge quite a few times, I have never once regretted my choice of trekking buddy. It’s fair to say Sarah and I have covered a lot of ground over the last 22 months – both geographically and conversationally. We’ve debated politics, shared secrets, discussed snacks, scoffed picnics, mapped our futures, got lost, crossed rivers on fallen tree trunks… yet never once come close to falling out. That may all change in the next 6 days, but something tells me she’s way too awesome for that.

To everyone who has sponsored us

When the going gets tough up there, with nothing much to look at except blankets of snow, we will picture each of your magnificent, munificent selves, recall your motivational messages, and imagine all the wonderful things that CHAS will be able to do with the money you have given. If that doesn’t keep us plodding onwards, nothing will.

My most conscientious readers may remember that in blog post 3 I set myself a target:  that by the time I stepped on the plane to Finland I would (1) have raised between £500 and £1,000 for CHAS, and (2) be able to do one full press up.

I’m happy to say that as of this moment our fundraising total stands at £1,968.24. So THANK YOU. (It’s not too late to add via JustGiving if you wish.)

As for the other thing…

PressUp

Love, Olivia xxx

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Can’t walk now, I’ve got a list to write

If you’ve ever dipped into the pages of Who’s Who, you may know that each eminent person featured gets to state their recreations alongside their professional or social importance. My grandfather (a diplomat) put ‘mending things’ amongst his hobbies. My dad (cathedral dean) has ‘playing the piano and looking out of the window’. Barry Humphries (no relation, but it’s my favourite one) says: ‘kissing, inventing Australia, painting beautifully.’

Should my life ever be big enough to warrant an entry in Who’s Who, I think my recreations might have to include ‘writing lists’.

Because I do love a list.

Crossing off
A tent is not all we share: spotted in the downstairs loo of my fellow trekker Sarah (aussieinthearctic.com)

There are, of course, different types of list. There are the ones that read like collections, inventories or compilations. I keep a few like that. You know, my top ten favourite films, books worth reading, all the boys I’ve ever kissed.

The lists I really like, though, are the type where you can tick items off. Planning lists. Lists of intentions. To-do lists.

One of the best things about preparing for this trek is that I’m surrounded by lists. Checklists, kit lists, shopping lists. Lists of things I need to do, stuff I need to buy, questions I need to ask.

So many lists, in fact, that I’ve had to employ my very best list management techniques to keep me right. In case you’re not versed in superior list writing, I’ll quickly share some of my personal expertise in this area. It’s pretty useful.

The What’s What of list writing
Idealists: lists that begin with one item that’s easy to complete. There’s nothing more discouraging than a great long list with nothing ticked off. On a really busy day, start your list with ‘have a shower’ or ‘write a list’. Getting that first task ticked off will give you a disproportionate sense of achievement.
(Also, there’s nothing wrong with retro-listing: adding an item to your list after you’ve actually done it, then ticking it straight off. In my book, this is another excellent morale-boosting technique.)
Cyclists: also known as rolling lists. This method involves starting a new list every day and rolling over any uncompleted tasks (of which there are usually several) onto the new list. Some of these tasks may be rolled over for weeks or even months. I have a to-do list that has featured ‘get leaky shower head fixed’ since July.
Environmentalists: Tasks and reminders scrawled on recycled scraps of paper / old envelopes / the backs of boring bank letters. Positively encouraged if you’re employing the cyclist method above.
Realists: proper handwritten lists, as opposed to digital ones. I have tried keeping a few lists on my phone, but as soon as I’ve done something it gets deleted. And then I can’t see the thing I’ve done. This is deeply unsatisfactory. The true joy of list-making is seeing what you’ve crossed off, not all the stuff you’ve still got to do.
Vocalists: memos made with the help of an Echo or similar. Doomed to failure, as exemplified by this attempt made earlier today:
Me: Alexa, make a to-do list.
Alexa: What’s the to-do?
Me: Phone the plumber.
Alexa: I’ve added bread to your shopping list.
Me: Add phone plumber to my to-do list.
Alexa: The time is 2.03pm.
Pointillists: lists that feature bullet points rather than numbers. I prefer bullets as they don’t denote priority, so I can write down and tick off my tasks in any old order. They also look prettier.
Mentalists: memorised lists. Completely useless. What were you thinking?

 

But I have digressed. Let’s look at the most pressing lists I have on the go right now and see how I’m getting on. (Bearing in mind that I leave for Finland in 26 days.)

Today’s to-do list
  • Eat breakfast
  • Buy Arctic kit (see separate kit list below)
  • Phone opticians: can I wear contact lenses in the Arctic without them freezing to my eyeballs?
  • Phone plumber
  • Prune buddleia
  • Iron school uniforms
  • Go on long walk
  • Promote justgiving page (only £117 needed to hit fundraising target)
  • Publish blog post about lists
The kit list
  • Sleeping bag rated to -40°C (extreme)
  • Roll mat
  • Down jacket
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Trekking jacket
  • Micro-fleece
  • Merino base layers – upper and lower body
  • Trail trousers
  • Boots
  • Outer socks
  • Sock liners
  • Thermal gloves
  • Glove liners
  • Hat
  • Buff/neck scarf
  • 120L pulk bag
  • Goggles
  • Sunglasses
  • External charger
  • Headtorch
  • Spare batteries
  • Dry bags (multiple)
  • Walking poles (buy in Rovaniemi)
  • Drinking bottle
  • Nalgene bottle for night
  • Spork/spoon
  • First aid kit
  • Wash bag/towel/toothpaste/baby wipes
  • Hot packs (heat activated hand warmers)
  • Mug
  • Dental floss (acts as string for emergency repairs, spare boot laces etc)
  • Loo brush (for scraping snow off boots before taking them into tent)
  • Snacks (nuts, dried fruit, Haribo)
The bucket list

I suppose the ultimate to-do list is a bucket list.

I’ve never had a bucket list. I wonder why not. Do I think I’ve done everything I ever wanted to? (Spawned two perfect children, swum with dolphins, met the Queen; what else is there?) Is it a lack of curiosity about the world and all the experiences it has to offer? Have I got so stuck in my own little rut I’ve forgotten to dream? Or do I have dreams, but am confidently assuming I will get round to fulfilling them one day, just not now?

Some people write a bucket list when they lose someone close, too young, too suddenly, and they are filled with an urgent desire to make the most of their time on this earth. And they’re right. Why wait? Why assume I’ll be here to enjoy a long, adventure-filled retirement?

I’m going to stop being so complacent. I’m going to start a bucket list. And, according to the rules of good list making, I’ll start it off with a couple of items I have high hopes of ticking off before too long.

It’s by no means finished, but here’s how it’s shaping up so far:

  • Trek across the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland.
  • Camp under the Northern Lights.
  • Drive a train.
  • Go to Jerusalem.
  • Write a novel. (Only the writing of it – no need to get it published.)
  • Dance a tango in Buenos Aires.
  • Keep an orchid alive for more than 3 weeks.

Funnily enough, I’m not tempted to add ‘make a million’, ‘become an establishment figure’ or ‘Get into Who’s Who’ to that list.

I have a feeling my life will be perfectly big enough if I just fill it with small but wonderful things. (Here’s looking at you, kids.)

If you’d like to, you can support me by donating to CHAS via my justgiving page 

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The point of the exercise

The phone alarm pierced the silence while it was still pitch black in our bedroom. Rory and I groaned and blinked ourselves awake, then without a word tiptoed down to the sittingroom, deftly avoiding the creaky stairs, like naughty children in search of midnight snacks. Except, this was less about the midnight snacks, more about the early morning squats.

This is what happens when you have no time in the day to train: you’re forced to squeeze it into what I generally consider the night, i.e. before 7am. But perhaps this is no bad thing. No child should have to witness their parents in the act of bird-dogging. Imagine if they told everyone at school that they’d caught mummy and daddy planking together on the sittingroom floor? They wouldn’t understand. Truth be told, I don’t understand.

The thing I don’t understand the most is how anyone could ever enjoy this sort of thing.

On day 1 of the ‘Arctic Trek Training Plan’ we started with the plank. Propped up on forearms and toes, we each held our bodyweight for as long as possible. I managed 37 seconds, Rory 1 minute 28 seconds, before we both collapsed in an exhausted sweaty heap.

Moving on: the bird dog. This involves getting onto your hands and knees, then raising one arm horizontally in front of you (à la superman), while lifting the opposite leg straight out behind you. (I have to assume this is the dog bit. If only we had a lamppost in the sittingroom I could fulfil two early morning functions in one go.)

Oddly, I could do this no problem with my left hand and my right leg, but not at all the other way around. I spent a not-so-good ten minutes wobbling about on all fours, faltering, repositioning, trying to get my balance. I’d like to say this provoked a fit of giggles. It didn’t: it made me remarkably cross. So I gave up.

What’s next? Glute bridges. Modified bicycles. Leg lifts. Side planks. All miserable.

Shoulder alphabets: lying face down on the ground and making the shapes of letters with your arms. That sounded more promising, except they only wanted me to work with the letters I Y T and W. So I went a bit Countdown with it and added two more vowels and a couple of consonants. Now I can spell out SWEATYBITS. This might not be doing much for my training, but it keeps me amused at least.

Why am I doing all this?

Because of the pulk. For those unacquainted with Arctic trekking, the pulk is the sledge that carries the kit, which will be attached to a harness around my waist so I can drag it across the snow. For three days. Have you seen pictures of people dragging tyres across a beach? I’ve got a horrible feeling I should be doing that. For now I’m just concentrating on finding my core, and seeing if it will forgive me for ignoring it for 40 years.

Since our initial training attempt I have to admit some of the exercises have got easier. I can now manage over a minute of planking and perform a glute bridge without my leg going into spasm, so I guess I’m getting stronger. But none of it gives me a buzz. It’s still mind-numbingly boring. And I still can’t manage a single push up.

So that’s my goal. Something to keep me motivated when the 6am alarm goes off. By 1st February, when I hop on a plane bound for the Arctic, I will be able to do a full press up.

I have another ambition. I would also like to have raised between £500 and £1,000 for CHAS.

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of visiting Robin House, one of the two children’s hospices run by CHAS. What struck me on this visit – and I know I’m not the only person to find this – is that even against a backdrop of immense sadness and pain, the hospice is so full of warmth and laughter and creativity. Of life and hope and joy.

And yet, the heartbreaking truth is that CHAS can’t be there for everyone who needs them. They want to be, but they simply don’t have the funds.

Each week, three children in Scotland die from an incurable condition. Three children a week. Right now, CHAS can only reach one of these families.

To reach them all, CHAS need to double their fundraising income over the next five years. Some of it will come through hefty corporate donations. Some from big fundraisers like the CHAS ball. But lots of it will have to come from the generosity of people sponsoring fools who sign up for things like Arctic treks.

So: 1 push up and £1,000 raised for CHAS. If I can achieve both of those things, I’ll consider that this whole exercise will have been worthwhile.

If you’d like to help me with the fundraising bit, here’s my JustGiving page

 

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Change is afoot

“How’s the training going?”
If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that, I’d have raised a fairly hefty sum for CHAS by now. (Justgiving page here if you’re interested.)
Well… I’ve managed a total of three 10+ mile walks since January. I’ve also printed off and thumbed through the 39 page training schedule provided by Breaking Strain Events. Clearly I am not remotely ready for this Arctic trek. But with just over four months to go, I’m sensing a shift in momentum.

The other week, for example, I bit the bullet and went to buy a pair of high performance trekking boots. This turned out to be an unexpectedly emotional experience.

I should probably point out that I am not and never have been a shoe fanatic. I’m just not that into them. From the last 40 years, I can count on one foot the shoes that have lingered in the memory.

There were the sky blue Clarks with a single bar across the ankle. They were the first pair I had without a T-bar, and were so pretty they required me to stare at my feet as I walked.

And the burgundy patent party shoes with cut away sides. I was no 7 year old fashionista, but even I knew that shoes with no sides was completely brilliant.

And that was it really for the next 24 years, until the day Rory and I got engaged. (Exactly 10 years ago today as it happens.)

We were holidaying in Australia and had had a rare tiff about nothing much, so I’d hopped huffily onto the boat from Manley to downtown Sydney to make myself feel better with some retail therapy. I spotted a pair of totally impractical, off-white, suede high heels with diamante-encrusted bows, tried them on, asked the price, calculated the exchange rate the wrong way and discovered too late that I’d spent £250 on them instead of £75. Ouch.

Later, after Rory had proposed to me by the opera house, overlooking the glittering harbour (the romantic devil), those ridiculously expensive shoes took on an extra significance. I still have them somewhere, battered, scuffed and unwearable. They are the only shoes I have ever been remotely sentimental about.

Until now.

What happened in Go Outdoors

Go Outdoors in Edinburgh has an entire wall of serious hiking shoes, boots and trainers. There must be about 50 of them, all pointing northwards like an indomitable right-footed army. To someone like me, this wall is as alien and forbidding as the Eiger, but as my eyes trailed wildly across it I found myself thinking: somewhere in this crowded ballroom is the chosen pair; the boots that will accompany me to the Arctic.

It occurred to me that I was going to form a bond with one (or presumably two) of these sturdy, graceless boots. They would be my future training buddies. My companions on this trek of a lifetime. My sole mates. (Oh come on, you have to allow me one corny pun per post.)

After several fittings and with the advice of the very helpful man in Go Outdoors, I eventually settled on a pair of Mammut Ayako High GTX®. Whatever that means. The product literature tells me that I have opted for supreme functionality, with Base Fit®, Goretex membrane, Feetmap climate regulation, motion control, heel support, 3-zone lacing, Vibram Mulaz outsole and integrated Nespresso machine with milk frother.

They’re going to keep my feet comfy and dry, basically. They’re also a rather fetching shade of aquamarine with magenta detailing. Ooooh.

These boots were made for walking

For the first week, the Mammuts stayed in their box. I’d pop open the lid occasionally and peek at them. Unworn, unsullied, they looked so nice. But deep down I knew these boots had a greater purpose than looking pristine in their packaging. So out they came: time for us to get to know each other.

IMG_4021
Unworn, unsullied, they look so nice.

For our first outing I took my boots to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy. (While I admired saintly faces bathed in divine light, my boots preferred the grimy, bulbous toes of dying martyrs.)

Then my boots took me for a muddy walk along the Rocheid Path beside the Water of Leith. Better, thought the Mammuts. But hardly arduous.

Our next excursion will be this weekend’s 30K training walk in Glen Tress with an overnight camp. I’m actually looking forward to it. In fact, I’m hoping for awful weather and punishing terrain so I can put these bad boys to the test. And that’s not something I ever expected to say.

So yes, my friends, change is afoot. Just look at my feet.

 

I am taking on this Arctic challenge in aid of Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS). If you’d like to donate to this amazing charity, you can do so on my justgiving page. Thank you!

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Call me foolhardy. Call me impulsive. Just don’t call me generous.

Since signing up for the CHAS Arctic Trek 2018, I’ve been called generous and brave on numerous occasions. But on the night of the CHAS Rocking Horse Ball 2016, I can safely say I was neither of these things. Impulsive perhaps. Naïve maybe. In truth, I was mostly a bit sozzled and highly emotional. But generous and brave? Not a bit of it.

So how did I accidentally sign up to trek across the freezing Arctic wilderness? I will tell you.

olivia_blog_pulk

24 June 2016, Prestonfield House Hotel, Edinburgh. A steady stream of taxis delivers guests to a gin and champagne reception. Summer sun glows across the lawns. The hotel’s resident peacocks, so accustomed to the chirrup and chatter of excited ball-goers, sit in the branches of stately trees and don’t give us a second look.

I partake of a glass of fizz. Somebody tops it up. I suspect this happens quite a few times. I’m too busy air-kissing and giving small whoops of delight as I greet friends and we slowly make our way into the big, circular, twinkling room that is Prestonfield’s Stables. We gather around our table. Another glass of bubbles? Don’t mind if I do. Well, isn’t this splendid.

After a while, a mum walks onto the stage and tells us the tender, funny, devastating, uplifting, gut-wrenching, heartwarming story about her involvement with Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS). I’m helpless in the face of her heroism. And while I’m at my most awe-struck and vulnerable, they get the auction underway. Before long I hear, “Item 3: a once-in-a-lifetime trek across the Arctic Circle. Who will start me at £1,500?”

I glance at the auction catalogue. This is what I see:

  • A blanket of untouched snow stretching out beneath a vast glimmering Arctic sky
  • A pleasant amble across said snowy paradise
  • The glittery green spangles of the northern lights
  • A 5* snow hotel

This is what I don’t see:

  • 70km of packed ice, frozen rivers and freezing wilderness
  • -30°
  • Tents. (I don’t camp. It’s a thing of mine. Four solid walls, a floor, a roof: that’s where I’m at accommodation-wise.)
  • Pulks. (I don’t know what a pulk is.)

I am sitting next to my friend Sarah. Sarah keeps sticking up her hand as the bidding goes to and fro. But the prize is for two people, and her husband isn’t there. She isn’t sure if he’d be up for it. The auctioneer points at Sarah – are you in? She hesitates. So I mutter into her ear, “I’ll go with you.”

“You sure?” she says, and I nod. Before I can further consider that answer, her hand is back up. And just like that, we ‘win’ the prize.

So you see, that’s not brave. That’s rash. The mum who stood up to share her story and bare her soul – she gets the medal for bravery.

And the medal for generosity? At a charity auction, that surely has to go to the donor of the prize, not the bidder. It’s the donors who are really giving something away. The bidders, after all, get something for their money. Consider the artist who donates a painting. That could be two months’ work, handed away right there. I bet it’s pretty rare for the bidder to spend two months’ salary buying it.

In my case, I casually blasted my auction budget on this trek. In front of all those people I looked like I was splashing lots of cash for a brilliant cause. Which I was in a way – but look at what I got for it. Six days in a part of the world I would probably never get to see, doing something I would never get to do otherwise. The chance to challenge my comfortable, cosy, middle-of-the-road existence with a once-in-a-lifetime experience (unless I love it so much I go back, but I currently doubt that). As the brochure says, I’ll always be able to bore people at dinner parties with my stories of “when I was in the Arctic…”

Put it like that, I got a bargain.

A company called Breaking Strain Events donated this trek. They won’t make a profit from my ticket. So let’s raise a glass to them, because they deserve the generous accolade, not me. And they deserve a little promotion off the back of it too. So now that you’ve finished reading this, go and check out Breaking Strain Events. You never know, you might accidentally get yourself signed up for a chilly stroll across the Arctic.

If you’d like to, you can donate to CHAS via my justgiving page 

I’m going on an Arctic trek. Sorry, what?

You heard me. An Arctic trek.

I don’t, as a rule, do the camping thing.

I don’t take much exercise.

I don’t particularly like the cold.

So what could possibly go wrong on a 3 day, 50 mile trek into the Arctic Circle, dragging a pulk through snow and ice and sleeping under canvas in -30°?

I’ve decided the only way to confront this impending disaster is to blog my way through it. Because if I’m actually going to make this crazy journey, you (dear reader) can jolly well come with me.

 

P.S. The lovely illustrations you will see on this blog are by Kayleigh McCallum 

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