Alan Rusbridger on post-Snowden: “Real things have started to happen”

On Monday 20th October, I went to the 20th anniversary of the University of Sheffield’s Journalism Studies course. I didn’t study there, nor do I have much interest in this milestone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled for the University, but I went along because the celebration came in the form of talk with Alan Rusbridger (which completely outshines my 20th birthday celebrations of a poorly attended student houseparty where I vaguely remember someone’s falling in the bath being a highpoint).

Rusbridger, Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian and the Observer, came to Sheffield to talk about the pre-Snowden age of journalism.

Arriving half-an-hour before anyone else and sitting on the front row and in front of the lectern is, under normal circumstances, beyond my levels of enthusiasm. But it was totally worth it because I think we had eye contact. 

In person, Rusbridger couldn’t look or talk more like a journalist. Perhaps that’s a rather obvious observation, but despite his hefty job title, he was still a person first. He didn’t come across as a formidable Big Boss Man.

In fact, if the Guardian had legs and wore a suit, it would be him. Rusbridger spoke with clarity, understated conviction and with waves of passion that surfaced when he spoke of the Guardian, and the job of journalism in society. No bad jokes, no alienating language, no ego.

It was only during the Q&A at the end, when he would pause to consider his answers, that my brain had a second to think how much of a privilege it was to be there. I’m aware it wasn't the first time Rusbridger spoke about these things – and of course, much of what he said is already known – but to be told about it in person, and with such humility, was a privilege. So happy bloody birthday, Journalism Studies, and may you have many more.

Rusbriudger began with Orwell, who he pinned as the man who lured him into journalism. He said Orwell’s books and essays made an amazing impression on him when he read them as a teenager.

And then he dived right in to the Snowden revelations. “I got a call to say someone had surfaced from the NSA. He was in Hong Kong and wanted to meet. He had the most secret documents anyone could handle.”

He explained how Snowden handpicked people he thought could do justice to his material, “He didn’t want to give them to those who weren’t willing to take a risk”, Rusbridger said.

It was notable, he said, that Snowden didn’t go to the New York Times (because in a similar case in 2005, it sat on the story for a year).

He explained how Snowden’s decision to hand out the files, rather than publish them himself, was a remarkable choice. He wanted journalists to have the files, make their own judgements and give the context that would help people understand.

“He went to the one independent source, the fourth estate,” Rusbridger said. “Journalism is there to stand aside from all other areas of power. He wanted to bring the facts through old fashioned reporting.”

Rusbridger then spoke about the questions the Guardian asked itself when it took in the files from Snowden:

  •        Should we look at these documents in the first place?
  •        What rules do we construct about what we look at?
  •        Do we use it, and if so, what do we use?
  •        Do we talk to the state in advance? 
Rusbridger said he had to decide what to look at and what not to look at, and said “we only published a tiny proportion of what we were given”.

Some journalists had said the documents shouldn’t be used, that it would be harmful, and that they defer to the state. “I find this an untenable defence for journalists,” he said.

The British government eventually told the Guardian it'd had its fun and it now needed to stop. It was instructed to destroy all the material. “I don’t think the government was thinking very clearly at this point,” Rusbridger said.

He explained that the next generation of leakers would self-publish if the Guardian had built a reputation of not publishing the data, which would send out “a terrible picture of Britain’s view of the press.” Rusbridger told the police this would have no effect on the Guardian’s reporting, as they would do it out of New York, where the state couldn’t intervene. 

He said it would be terrible to simplify the lessons we learnt from the revelations to just freedom versus security. He said the experience has taught us a lot, mainly regarding: 


Does the state have the right to right to scoop up all the information we put out there? Twitter, Facebook, and so many other companies all have relationships with the state.


Metadata tells everything in order to build up a complete picture of someone’s life. A lot of thought needs to go into security and location.

The Guardian

Rusbridger said “the police would have stopped us through legal means if they could. The state didn’t like it. I was summoned to Parliament and asked if I loved my country. I was left immensely reassured, and so happy to work for a paper with such robustness. People couldn’t get at it.”

The necessity of reporting

"The institutional power of a newspaper to do what it did, and under pressure, told me a lot about the necessity of reporting. Our Pulitzer Prize was for public service and that’s exactly what it is. Society needs unpolluted, verifiable reporting to survive, and we must protect the independence of what is it that we do," Rusbridger said. 

In an interview with Snowden last year, he said that the worst outcome would be that nothing would change. But Rusbridger listed the changes already taking place. Congress has acted on them and tech companies have changed things, including Apple. “We know the information was important. Real things have started to happen. That’s the public interest.”

During the Q&A, I resisted the urge to put up my hand and ask Rusbridger for a job, because I didn’t want to be that idiot. But it did make me think about my feelings towards the Guardian.

Rusbridger began his talk by recommending Orwell to those who want to think and write more clearly. That’s exactly what years of reading the Guardian has done to me. It’s built me up from a clueless journalism graduate to the more informed, opinionated and ambitious person I am today. The Guardian has done an immense amount for the public, but it’s done a lot for the individual, too.


David Brent is not an insult

Earlier this week, Harriet Harman compared David Cameron to David Brent. “Sometimes it’s like we’ve got David Brent as our Prime Minister,” she said, referring to Cameron’s incident where he was overheard saying the Queen “purred” down the phone to him after he told her the results of the referendum.

Aside from their first name and the fact someone could do both of their jobs better than them, I can’t see the resemblance between the two Davids. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that Harman used Brent’s name as an insult.
C/o Strellevik

If you’ve ever watched so much as one episode of The Office, you probably hate Brent. But if, like me, you’re almost always watching the whole thing on a loop, there’s a chance you wake up every morning and wish he was real. Because David Brent, the philosopher, motivational speaker, musician and businessman, is God.

I must stop here and warn you that I may be slightly biased in my proclamations, because I see a lot of myself in Brent. Laughing at my own jokes (and often having to explain them), saying completely inappropriate things (like the time someone told me their friend’s dad has just died and my response was “ah, and it’s Father’s Day today…).

Plus, his (albeit completely transparent) desire to fit in, to be liked, and to be perceived as funny was reflected in everything he said and did. Most of us can empathise with that to a lesser extent. 

Brent was a good person. Most of what made him annoying came from a place of insecurity, and how can we berate a person for that?

More importantly, he was entertaining. Forget the fact he was a fictional character that was exaggerated for comedic purposes – if I came across one Brent-like person during my day I’m sure it would be much easier to fight the 3pm heavy-eyelids attack.

What separates us from Brent is that we comply with social norms to fit in, constantly fighting natural urges in an attempt to be liked and accepted by others. We wouldn’t step out of our office to tell everyone a joke or dance like a prat. But Brent transcended this evolutionary survival skill.

Yes, he might have had a tendency to outwardly ruminate on the health of his testicles to a colleague enjoying her lunch, but Brent was unpolished in a world of people terrified to be judged like people judged him.

We spend our days thinking things we would never dream of saying out loud. I would find Brent’s lack of mental filter and inability to disguise what he’s thinking refreshing to have around (as long as I avoided the firing line).

A friend once said to me the worst thing you can be called is ‘boring’. But compared to Brent, most of us are a little bit on the dull side. Humour is often left behind as our preoccupations with not saying the wrong thing, offending or alienating anyone, or being met with deadpan looks and tumbleweed prevail. He got it wrong most of the time, but that’s probably the statistical likelihood of a joke flopping if you tell them repeatedly all day long.

It would be remiss of me to ignore his many flaws. For instance, Brent had a tendency to get jealous. But his way of dealing with that was to wear a pair of man-heels and a leather jacket to work. A lot of us would react worse in the face of wrath. He may have headbutted a woman in the face one time, but that was accidental so we won’t talk about that.

And when have you ever heard Brent complain? Even in dark times he remains positive, or at least he tries to pretend he is. When he’s made redundant and becomes a salesman, he focuses on the positive sides, like being able to stay in bed all day or pull over on the motorway to make a call.

Perhaps this positive outlook doesn’t permeate below the surface, but if he felt sorry for himself he hid it with all of his might – a habit that, in long run, could have run him into the ground with a heart attack or depression, but is endearing nevertheless.  

In the years since The Office ended, Brent’s personality has left such an abiding memory on so many of us. I feel confident in my ability to predict how he would have reacted in any given situation. He’s unforgettable, he’s practically an ‘ism’ (I’m sure I’m not the only one who has the odd Brentism) and we’ve all encountered diluted Brents at work.

He liked to see himself as a philosopher. I can imagine the pinnacle of his life would be to hear someone earnestly quoting him. The message behind his motivational moments were that life should be fun, that you shouldn’t live by “the rules”. There are worse beliefs he could live his life by.

But it’s not just a case of “he could be worse”, because he couldn’t be better. In an age where we’re distracted so frequently, discard things so easily and replace them so casually, Brent’s character has survived. He even frequents the mind of Harriet Harman. If Cameron was a bit more Brent-like, perhaps we’d all be a bit better off. I'll leave you with one of the beliefs Brent lived by: 

"Now you do not punish a girl, Dutch or otherwise, for having big boobs."


Should we take a stand against sitting?

An article yesterday, collating all of the bad news into one readable chunk, talks about one of our worst
habits: sitting. Whether you do it on the toilet, at the hairdressers or while driving, it’s killing you and you need to stop.

We spend half our lives sitting down, and it can increase our risk of almost every deadly disease you can think of, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes, as well as making us fatter.

The article cites a study that says even doctors are advocating standing up while we’re at work. It also warns GPs against sitting all day, and suggests that more consultations could be done with both the doctor and patient standing.

That’s right, the place you go to when you feel at your worst – the place that’s usually already unbearably hot and stuffy without flu germs pumping around your body – wants you to stand while a doctor pokes and prods you.

Outside of the doctors, the advice to spend more time standing is worth thinking about, especially because it can add years onto our lives – if only the world wasn’t designed around us sitting on our big, fat bums. Wherever you look, I guarantee there’s a seat. And it’s expected that you’ll sit on it like everyone else.

I could probably try standing up at work – after all, heart disease doesn’t sound great. But in an open-plan office of over 100 people who sit down, I’ll end up getting a strained neck, weird glances and looking like I have some kind of embarrassing bum-related issue preventing me from sitting down.

Aside from work, I guess I could try it on the train. Only, I’d probably get several broken bones before being kindly escorted out of the carriage and asked in a patronising tone if I’m aware how the whole train thing works.

The advice to stand isn’t practical. Until every office is installed with a treadmill desk, and every mode of public transport is as busy as a central London bus in rush hour – it isn’t going to be easy to take a stand against sitting.

We do a lot of things that are bad for us, and most of them aren’t compulsory. But sitting is a social norm, and seats are all around us, inviting our tired, aching feet to take a rest. I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs – sitting feels good, so let me have it.


Don’t decide to never decide

Bestselling book, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, has been translated into an app. Released last week, it claims to help you make impartial, uninfluenced decisions in your everyday life. Apart from the fact you’ll be influenced by the app.

Like the book, the app makes us aware of what it calls ‘cognitive biases’ – everyday prejudices that cloud our judgement – so we can “make better choices”.

For example, we’re programmed to copy others’ behaviour because that’s how our ancestors survived. In the modern world, however, this way of thinking is only helpful in certain circumstances.

The app works by asking users a series of questions on the area of life their decision relates to, whether it’s work, money, time or people. It then suggests the common cognitive biases, biases that usually go unnoticed, that could be preventing a clear decision.

It claims to give us the secrets to ‘perfect’ decision-making – but I highly doubt there is such a thing. If ‘perfect’ means without bias, then an app just isn’t going to cut it. We’re influenced by thousands of things we’re not even aware of, and the cleverest app in the world couldn’t detect them all.

But I must admit, the app does sound
appealing, especially because deciding something usually means missing out on hundreds of other options. As difficult as it can be, however, decision-making isn’t something we should leave to an app.

We’re on our phones all day, every day, apart from when we’re showering (see – we can make good decisions independently). Apps are so instant: this one would be ready to help us every time we’re in a dilemma. But if it was able to eliminate every bias influencing all of our decisions – how boring would life be?

Putting decisions into the hands of our hands has the potential to veer us onto a very different course. Decisions shape our lives. Our work, surroundings, everything is a product of our biases as much as anything else. And when they go wrong, most of us are good at telling ourselves – and believing – that everything happens for a reason.

Had I always made rational decisions, I might not have a lower second-class degree from a university that has since stopped the course I did because it was that bad. But my 2:2 has turned out to be one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Having something to prove has brought out the best in me.

Giving into biases doesn’t necessarily equal a bad decision. Misinformed, perhaps – but misinformed can lead us down the better path. That’s the thing with decisions: you just don’t know until you do it.

If you think about what makes you happiest in life – your friends, your family, your career – how many of those came about by strategic decisions? For instance, your partner may have first appealed to you due to an ancestral influence – but your deciding to spend your lives together came from instinct. And despite ever-encroaching technology, we must continue to trust our instincts. What else do we have when our phone battery dies?


The Dad Commentary

Over the past few weeks I've written a few articles for the Independent. One of the best bits about writing them has been my Dad's response when I've emailed them over to him. Here's the headlines of the articles, followed by what he has to say:

"I'm one of the biggest chocolate lovers I know, but you couldn't pay me to study it" 

Strangely just finished some chocolate ten minutes before I read this. Any chance of them doing a study on real ale and commissioning me? Think they could send me to the Lake District for a month to sample the pubs there.

I agree that nightclubs are bad enough when you're drunk, I can't imagine anyone staying more than five minutes in one of those dives when your sense of smell, eyes and ears are connected to your brain efficiently.

My excuse for going home early from company outings is that I have to drive and refuse to spend any time in the company of drunks when I'm sober. The buggers are tedious enough when the haven't had a drink. After two shandies they turn into bloody twelve-year-olds.

"The upsides to being a bit of a loner"


How to be a bit more positive sometimes

I've just started reading The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, and something had already caught my eye. In a chapter called ‘Does Harvard make you smarter?’ it mentions happy people, and how, when they’re asked for their secret to contentment, they say you just have to see the glass half-full.  

What these people don’t realise, Dobelli says, is that they were born happy. Their ability to see the bright side of things is largely a personality trait that stays consistent throughout life. This is why self-help books on positivity don’t help those like me who are inherently more negative. 

"The unhappy don't write self help books”, Dobelli says. I think it's about time there was some positive advice for those of us who weren't born happy. Realistic positivity, if you will.

  • Short-term positivity: asking a born-positive friend for positivity at the moment you need it and not a minute before. 
  • Keep a stash of ready-to-watch romcoms for when you need a positivity boost. Afterwards, you'll think everything ends happily for around half an hour. Avoid: Marley and Me, Titanic and The Notebook.
  • Never mull things over in the dark, on an empty stomach or during any other less-than-optimum conditions. 
  • Like a psychopath, you need to mimic your peers in their natural habitat. Try to copy the behaviour of positive people. On a Friday afternoon. The one before Christmas. My idea here is that if you keep pretending to be positive, maybe it’ll happen. And if not, at least it’s Christmas time.
  • We pessimists find pleasure in things going wrong and ending badly (because it reinforces our own belief system that everything is shit, not because we like seeing people miserable). Watch something with a sad ending (Marley and Me, Titanic, The Notebook) and your faith will be reaffirmed and you might actually feel more positive. 
  • A lot of negativity comes from our own inner critic: a niggling voice that tells us we can't do something, that we're not good enough and we'll never be happy. Instead of trying to tackle this voice and telling yourself positive things instead - just give a face to the voice. David Brent's face.
  • Pour yourself a drink just above midway for an instant half-full glass.


Weird Al's Word Crimes: perfect or pedantic?

Two weeks ago, Robin Thicke fans and grammar-lovers united, probably for the first ever time, and contributed to the viral heights of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Word Crimes YouTube hit.

Released as part of his new album, Word Crimes lampoons Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines video. Instead of crimes against music, viewers are treat to a string of crimes against grammar.

As well as dancing punctuation marks and hashtag overload, Yankovic targets some commonly misused words, including “literally”, “ironic” and the confusion between “fewer” and “less”.

The video has undoubtedly helped push grammar’s reputation further from the old-fashioned classroom to a more colourful present. But as well as entertaining, it has also been hailed as an ode to proper grammar (despite using the word “wanna”).

For these reasons, I should love Word Crimes. Perhaps I’m taking the video a bit too seriously – but there are a few problems I wanna talk about.

The video’s tone, and the grammar gripes mentioned within it, are synonymous with the familiar, malevolent blaze of grammar pedants who derive pleasure from shaming “abusers” of the English language. It implies that those who make common grammatical errors are less educated, and the pedants who abhor being plagued by these thoughtless inaccuracies are superior.

Someone who articulates this point much better than I could is Stephen Fry, in a video that shares Word Crimes’ hypnotic kinetic typography, but not its views. In the video, Fry says that these little things people point out – giving the “fewer” or “less” problem as an example – aren’t of importance.

He says he’s outgrown this “silly approach to language”, which is the same approach that Word Crimes encourages. He admits to having a natural pedantic urge, but fights against it just as he fights against gluttony and selfishness.

Of course, flouting all grammar rules isn’t the answer, and would lead to chaos. But disparaging people for incorrect grammar – especially publicly – only excludes them.

The video has attracted – and probably aroused – a lot of pedants. One article (obviously written with trembling excitement) points to an ‘error’ in Word Crimes, where Yankovic splits an infinitive in the line: ‘Try your best to not drool’. Said in this order it’s impossible to grasp what is being communicated.

A lot of the song’s lyrics are synonymous with what pedants say when they berate others, which often has undertones of poor education and upbringing: “You’re a lost cause, go back to preschool, get out of the gene pool, try your best to not drool.”

Yankovic is alleged to have said on American talk show The View, when asked if he wrote Word Crimes to educate his 11-year-old daughter, "No, my daughter is fairly literate. We raised her that way." 

When I make a grammatical error, it’s because I’ve overlooked, misunderstood or forgotten something in spite of my best efforts. It’s not because of my intelligence or upbringing. Being told, with obvious pleasure, that I’ve made a mistake makes me feel stupid, and annoyed that the person will unjustly feel better about themselves.

Sadly, it seems Yankovic isn’t parodying pedants: this is how he really feels. There’s previous evidence of his grammar awareness, such as in this video of him covering a “ten items or less” sign with “fewer”. And, on the release of Word Crimes, he said in an interview:

“It makes me think I’m not alone, I’m not the only grammar nerd out there. There’s a lot of other people who share my pain.”

The video also targets text talk, saying you shouldn’t write one letter in place of a word. But there’s evidence proving there’s no connection between poor grammar in texts and a child’s grasp of written grammar. What’s wrong with forgoing grammatical rules when texting a friend, as long as you can distinguish between this and situations where you need to write properly?

Word Crimes has got people talking about grammar. It doesn’t explain the reasons behind its dos and don’ts, but maybe it’s enough to compel some viewers to find out for themselves. And it contains 100% less misogyny than the video it parodies, which is a bonus.

But we need to upend how we talk about grammar. We need to stop criticising and complaining, and rid ourselves of the red-pen glory. It’s not about placing any less importance on correct grammar, but changing the way we communicate about it.

Along with Stephen Fry, many of us wince at grammatical errors. But the more tolerable among us disguise our instincts like a well-adjusted psychopath in order to remain undetected in public.

I can’t deny I wasn’t secretly pleased to see Word Crimes. I get it: telling someone they’ve put an apostrophe where it’s not needed feels like you’ve single-handedly aligned all the pieces of the world together.

Despite its faults, Word Crimes offers us comfort in knowing there are other grammar-lovers out there who are just normal people like you and I. Or is that you and me?
This piece was originally written for the wonderful Mind your language blog, but has been put here instead due to unforeseen circumstances!


The simple life

A few times a year I leave London, where I’ve been living for two years, and travel up north to visit home. Although I get excited, it doesn’t feel like returning to an old flame. I always knew I would outgrow the town that brought me up.

Up until recently, when I visited home I would look at the people around me, walking through a nondescript town with nondescript expressions, and assume their lives must be safe, unexplored and simple.

Driving to work, coming home, going to bed. I pictured their journeys in straight lines, back and forth, straightforward. In London, I imagined journeys as squiggly lines that bounce around.

When I come home, I notice that people walk slower. There are no buildings I can’t see the top of. It’s a chance to melt among the houses, roads and fields. Everything I see pertains to routine. Front doors open and close, people mow their lawns, everything is unending, safe, a slave to a comforting, compulsory routine.

Do people here know there’s more to life? They must know there are ways to distance themselves from reality – bright lights, loud sounds, big crowds. It looks like life stretches out in front of them, exposed. How can they face things so head-on without the distractions that come with a city?

I wonder if they have big ambitions, and if they know you can’t dream big if you don’t live somewhere big. The quiet is nice, but what does it sound like when it’s all you hear? We must be very different people.

This is what I would think when I visited home. I felt awful for simplifying the people I saw, for assuming those inhabiting the place replicate the desolation, greyness and remoteness I saw around me.

I realised that maybe some of these people, the ones walking from the corner shop with their heads down as an acknowledgement of the sameness around them, maybe they have lived in London. Or maybe they lived somewhere even more exciting.

Maybe they've never wanted to live in London, and wanting different things doesn't mean their aspirations are lesser than mine. If anything blinds us it's ambition, but I didn't realise it affected your vision quite like this. The virtue of being able to separate people from place took me a while to learn.

What London lacks, home offers in abundance: real, cold life. It serves as a reminder that it’s just me in this life, and that everything surrounding me, the superficiality of London, could disappear in an instant.

London is cruelly capricious, or at least it’s the perfect place to deal with the fickleness we face in everyday life. It’s not until I come home that I’m hit with the transience of everything.

When people at home walk from their car, up their driveway to their front door – I no longer see someone numbed by repetitiveness. They feel the earth under their shoes, and that must feel good.

London makes you feel like you’re floating. The ground doesn’t feel the same. Your contact with it feels precarious. It doesn’t really care about you. The earth at home doesn’t belong to me any more, and I don't think the earth in London ever will. But it’s nice to walk on it, even if it does put my head in the clouds.


Returning to meat

Last week, my flatmate had her friend round to stay. This is nothing new – often it’s not until the wait-time to get a shower on a Saturday morning exceeds an hour that I realise we have guests.

I don’t know her name, but this is also nothing new. My flatmates seems allergic to introducing people formally. So we shall call her Lucy, because it’s a nice name and I only have to type four letters.

After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Lucy wandered into my room and asked to look at my bookshelf before I had time to remove the handful that say ‘psychopath’ on the spine. As I sat on my bed, trying not to look like a psychopath, she pulled out a vegetarian cookbook.

“Are you vegetarian?” she asked.

I sat up from my nonchalant, horizontal position.

“Pescetarian,” I said, relieved. She’d know there was no way a pescetarian would have the energy to be a cold-blooded killer.

She told me she’d been vegetarian for ten years, but had recently started eating meat again.

“One day my boyfriend asked me what I wanted for dinner, and I just said ‘steak’. So we went to the best steakhouse and did it properly”.

She said not eating meat had made her ill, and she finally realised she needed to listen to her body’s cravings and take them seriously. She said she has steak once every couple of months, when she feels her body start to crave it.

“Eating steak makes me feel amazing. I feel so alive afterwards”.

I was jealous. Recently, when Nando’s messed up my order, I bit into a chicken wrap. I immediately spat it out and felt sick for the rest of the evening. I thought about what it would feel like to eat a steak, to have all that iron inside me. What it would feel like to not be tired and pale and feeble. Maybe I should consider it, I thought. 

“I’m not stupid with it though, I don’t just eat meat for the sake of it. I just realised that nothing is worth your 

Her words floated into my ears, taking on a much softer edge than before. She returned her attention to the bookshelf, and I realised my eyelids were were beginning to descend.


Why I love my body

It’s mid-July, and I find myself wanting to rip anything off that dares to cover my limbs. Today, on the bus home from a job interview, I slid off my black tights and stuffed them in my bag. This is what summer does to you: you stop caring.

Well, in a perfect world we would stop caring. But we do care, don’t we? And the world knows it. Adverts for anti-cellulite creams, emails advising you on the most flattering bikinis for your body shape, articles about getting the perfect beach body.

And it’s not just us, it’s the whole world. Articles on “fat-shaming”, blogs encouraging us to celebrate our flaws, obesity statistics constantly in the news – it’s hard to keep up with what it’s okay to be and think. But I’m out of the loop with which celebrities have cellulite where and what diets are the new best thing. And not just because I don’t read Closer magazine.

Throughout my teenage years I struggled with my body. For years I oscillated between starving myself until my periods stopped, binge-eating until it hurt and envying others until I cried.

As the years went by I gradually realised there were far more interesting things going on in the world to keep my mind occupied. But it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve gradually learned to be completely happy with my body. I’ve reached what magazines would call “body confident”. And my newfound confidence has nothing to do with my weight.

A couple of years ago I spent an entire month having panic attacks. My brain assaulted my body, and I fell for the tricks it played on me. I was exhausted, and terrified I was dying. But it had a profound and lasting effect on me that has gradually conquered the harsh critic of my younger years.

I don’t mean to belittle actual near-death experiences – I was convinced I was dying at the time. But my body fought the anxiety. It came through the month in one piece, unscathed and stronger than before, despite my doubting it. When my breathing turned my arms numb and I feared I would lose consciousness forever – my body kept me alive.

Anxiety forces you to pay too much attention to your insides and focus on every little pain. But now, although I do still do this sometimes, I look at my body from the outside. Legs that have held me up when I thought I would fall down and never get back up. Arms that have lifted me from restless sleeps.

Worrying about the size of my thighs doesn't feel important any more. Something has shifted. Frustration and jealousy has been replaced with gratitude. Now, I remember what it feels like to think your one and only body is failing, and I could never criticise it again. Anxiety led me to distrust my body, and anxiety forced me to accept that I have to trust it.

My body is far from perfect – whatever that is. But I’ll be proud to dress it in shorts and skirts this summer.



What you really think

I read an article today about an experiment involving 700 patients at a Medical Centre in Boston, US. The project is allowing patients to see the records made by their therapists, with the hope that giving them such insights will help with recovery and "improve therapeutic trust and communication".

At first, the idea sounded horrible. Surely, even the most transparent therapists would have to self-edit to make sure their notes were encouraging and couldn’t be interpreted in an offensive way. Or in a way that could reverse any progress made with patients. Therefore, the patient is probably never going to get a completely honest idea of what the therapist is thinking.

But imagine if the notes were 100% honest and unbiased. And now imagine knowing exactly what people think of you in other areas of life. Wouldn’t that be amazing? It would be a bit like living in the film The Invention of Lying. But not really, really shit.

The first meeting

Rather than “It’s so nice to meet you, I’ve heard so much about you”, what do people really think when they meet me for the first time? I’m sure it would be much more along the lines of:

“It’s not really anything to meet you. I’ve met a lot of people, and very few of them do I ever talk to again. I’ve not heard much about you at all, but I'm making an initial judgement on the quality of your handshake, how much you’re really paying attention to me right now and what you’re wearing.”

The flatmates

I’ve never been short of things to say about flatmates during my time at the bottom of London’s renting ladder. But I’ve never told anyone how much I’ve hated living with them. Which makes me really worry what they think about me.

“It’s really worrying that you like to eat from children’s plates and bowls. And it completely contradicts your sleeping habits, which are more like a pensioner’s. And how many things do you need to take into the bathroom just to put on your face?”

The interview

I’d love to know what interviewers really think of me. Do you really think that the second you shake someone’s hand and leave, the interviewers immediately disperse and go back their desks? It’s much more likely they’ll have something to say, something they would never tell you in the obligatory “sorry, you just weren’t the right fit for us” phone call.

When I leave an interview, I think it’s more along the lines of this:

“We should probably discuss her abilities for this role, but could anyone concentrate on anything she said, or were you completely distracted by her nervous fidgeting? I couldn’t put up with that every day. Who’s next?”

The doctor’s appointment

When you go to the doctor’s, you expect nothing more than sympathy. Along with a bit of medical expertise, of course. But I think my appointments probably make the doctor think something more like this:

“What kind of person comes to the doctor, asks for help, and then looks at my prescription and tells me she’s too scared to take the medication? She probably thinks she’s leading the way for an anti-antibiotic resistance movement, when really she’s just too scared. She’ll be back in ten years’ time with three children clinging onto her leg, begging me for medication.”

The blog reader

I like to think those of you who read my blog would think it passes for reasonably okay. But then, when I think about it properly, I'm not so sure.

"If this blog were a human, it would be old enough to walk and talk by now. It would probably even know colours and numbers. Maybe if Jess spend less time on her blog, she might know that stuff, too."


The new girl

She was coming in on the Tuesday.

On Monday afternoon, I heard my boss on the phone: “You’re so funny,” she cackled.

I’d been at work for two months and had barely reached the trying-to-make-a-joke point.

The following morning, just before her arrival, I heard someone say to the boss: “I’ll get her a cup of tea and make her feel nice and welcome”.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, she’ll be fine. She’s a feisty one”.

Within an hour of her arriving, she had spoken more to the two boys sat next to her than I ever had. She hurt her ribs in the marathon at the weekend, she said. She talked about her running group, and I concluded that being on the mailing list for a book club I’d never actually been to was almost the same thing.

The way she was talking, I thought she already knew everyone. But she didn’t.

As the week went by, we started working together. One quiet, mid-week morning, she gave me some advice, and as I walked home later, I thought about how she hadn’t made me feel like I’d been doing anything wrong, or that I'd not been putting enough effort in – but I felt sufficiently motivated to do better, as if it was my own idea.

She didn’t point anything out, patronise me or make me act defensively. In fact, I'd been completely honest with her about what had been holding me back, irrational assumptions I had made and problems I was facing. This was new. People giving me advice usually just made me uncomfortable.

She called everyone “sweetheart”.

I learnt that she’d worked around the world, but it was nice to back home in London, she said. I liked hearing that even those who are way more exciting than I am still have a longing for the familiar. Maybe we had some things in common, after all. 

Her weekend was going to be full of various forms of exercise. 

She found out she had a friend working in an office nearby. As she went off to see him on her lunch break, I did my usual walk to the fridge and back to my desk.

The furthest I’d ever gone at lunch was to the nearest bench, and straight back again because it was hot. Not worth the bother, I decided. Plus, there was nothing exciting that was close enough to get to in a lunch hour.

She came bouncing down the stairs an hour later.

“Where have you been?” asked the boys.

“I’ve been picking some blackberries from a bush just down the path. They're delicious”

I closed the plastic box of my Co-op sushi and squinted towards the light of the door.

Just when I thought we could be friends.


The highs of my trampoline

When I was younger, I had a trampoline. When I say younger, I mean from around the ages of 15 to 18. But being a bit too old to derive such ecstasy from what was really just a toy was part of the appeal. Although, I used it less as a device to defy gravity, and more as a second bedroom. It was a home a couple of metres from home. 

It trudged the two-minute walk with me from one house to the next when the family divided. To begin with, I sought comfort looking out of the unfamiliar window and seeing how awkwardly it stood in its new, smaller surroundings. Looking out of the same window after we'd sold it was painful for a lot longer than it should have been.

It made exam revision bearable. It carried my textbooks and acted as the perfect surface to throw them at. And then our relationship became temporarily strained as I irrationally blamed it for my getting sunstroke and missing my English A-level exam.

My fondest memory was in the Easter holidays of 2007. One morning, after a sleepover at a friend’s, I got the bus home and realised I’d forgotten my keys and no-one was in.

I went to the shop, bought a stack of magazines and sugar in various forms, and dumped them and myself on the trampoline. It was a really hot day, and I remember eating a melted Bueno. The trampoline turned the trauma of being temporarily homeless into a memory I’m so fond of I can remember it better than most days that have passed since.

On summer evenings I would lie on it, look up at the sky and listen to my iPod. Useless thoughts would drain out of my head, and the important ones would file up into a straight line. In my teenage bedroom my problems would feel like the size of the earth. On the trampoline, I could lie facing the universe and feel embarrassed for ever thinking such a thing.

The start of summer makes me think two things: I want to shave my head, and I miss my trampoline. I recently moved into a flat where there’s a neighbour’s trampoline taunting me when I look outside the kitchen window. Last night I was told that the lucky trampoline owner doesn’t mind sharing, so tonight is the night. I’m going to take my iPod and my scattered thoughts, clutch one in my hand and wait for the other to line up neatly.


Jess's law

Today is Friday 13th. But you probably knew that already. I'm guessing you've dodged scaffolding, ran away from a few black cats, got ready without using a mirror and walked to work like you've got a stick up your bum to avoid cracks in the pavement. Or maybe that's just me. 

As unlucky days go, this is the worst - apart from birthdays on February 29th. I've been thinking about luck recently, in particular Sod's law. I've come up with a way to use it to my advantage, and play life at its own, cruel game. 

And what better day to share my wisdom with you than the unlucky Friday 13th? Although, its taken me until the end of the day to publish this post. Unlucky.

Been waiting for the bus for ages?

Start tying your hair up - the more complicated the style, the better - or ring someone really important about something really important. The bus will come straight round the corner. 

Someone likes you, but the feeling isn't mutual?

Tell them you feel the same. This will be the very moment they decide they love someone else. 

It's too hot outside, you're in a rush and feeling flustered? 

Leave your umbrella at home. The rain will cool you down in no time. 

Feeling like you've gained a few pounds? 

Treat yourself to a shopping spree to accommodate your rounder figure. That extra weight weight will drop off immediately.

Hungover, craving a cheeseburger, but can't get out of bed?

Tell your friends you're becoming a vegetarian from now on. That cheeseburger will find its way to you in seconds.

Is your laptop playing up?

Get an IT person round immediately. As soon as they lay eyes on it, it'll work better than it ever has before. 

Waiting for an important parcel?

Take all your clothes off and start fake-tanning. That doorbell will be music to your ears in no time.

Invited to a party you really don't want to go to?

Book a plumber on the same day, and you can guarantee your valid excuse will knock on the door just when you should be leaving for the party.

Waiting for that special someone to text you back?

Find the nearest person and tell them you're fed up and you're swearing off men/women for ever. Reply: guaranteed.



You know those precious moments when you remember you should probably be happy to be alive? The moments that inspire you to live each day like it's your last? Whether it's grabbing the banister just before you fall down the stairs, or getting to the end of an episode of anything with Jack Whitehall in it, these sorts of experiences often give us a renewed sense of our mortality.

They’re the moments we think, “oh my God, I’m going to die someday”, and you don’t let anything annoy you for the next day and a half. And then Facebook takes a while to load and you go back to a sustainable level of gratitude.

I’m sure this happens to all of us on a regular basis. It’s a cycle of “Oh wow, I’m alive and it’s amazing” and “why is there ten minutes until my next bus and why is life so unfair?”

But there’s one constant source of perspective that stays with me, and does make me feel grateful every single day. It’s not often talked about, and it’s something I don’t tend to bring up in conversation. But after suffering with agoraphobia intermittently for two years, its presence is always in the back of my mind.

At its worst, I spent a very long six months watching the world from one window. I didn’t feel human. Everything I knew life to be just shifted. 

Agoraphobia takes you to an extremely disorientated place where the world is a threat - the environment you grew up in, the green you watched watched turn to brown every year, the dirt that stuck under your fingernails until you were well into double digits. 

The worst thing is knowing you won’t get better. Not thinking, knowing: there’s no doubt in your mind that you and the outside world will never touch again. But if I could tell anyone with agoraphobia one thing, it’s that even if you believe it will never get better, that doesn’t mean it won’t.

A year later, I’m halfway through a two-month freelance job - and, aside from a few hiccups, I'm doing it. Every evening when I get the bus home, I feel proud of myself for doing something so simple: sitting still in the outside world, and feeling safe.

There was no big realisation or groundbreaking moment for me, just a gradual improvement that I know could be completely reversed in an instant. But for now, and hopefully for ever, it’s only a memory. One that makes me so, so happy to be able to go for a walk, pop out to get milk, and get on a bus.

For a long time I thought I was weaker than everyone who walked past my window. I slowly realised I was just different, and when agoraphobia abates, it can open up a completely new world.