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April 20, 2013 / thatsarahdean

Everyone act normal

First published in Third Way magazine, October 2012. Guest article covering for regular columnist

In the supermarket yesterday morning the cheerful chap behind the till handed me my change, wished me a good day and added, “It’s nearly the weekend!” I nodded politely and smiled, then walked away thinking “Since when did Wednesday at 10am become ‘nearly the weekend’”?

Don’t get me wrong everyone looks forward to time off work and this was clearly a conversational set piece, a silence filler in a dull retail job but this exchange reminded me that after a summer of Jubilee, Olympics, Paralympics and scandals about nudey princes in Vegas, we are now staring down the barrel of normal life.  At this time of year as things get darker, colder and damper many of us, myself included, get a bit fed up, and this year after all the excitement of summer 2012 that feeling could well be worse than ever, what then have we got to look forward to?

Firstly anyone who answers that question with Christmas deserves a dead arm, because it’s way too early for that, and anyone who says Halloween is clearly younger than me and doesn’t realise trick or treating is not a British thing, we just copied that from the film E.T. The correct answer is there is nothing to look forward to, for a while at least, because we are now in “Ordinary Time.” And to this I say Hooray!

I grew up a Methodist, so I was too busy drinking sacramental Ribena and debating whether tombolas were evil to fully engage with the liturgical calendar. (Some searing denominational satire there for you schism fans!) It is only in the past few years that I have learnt about and appreciated the rhythms and seasons of the liturgical year, something I have picked up from listening to Franciscan podcasts. (Can I just say I love the fact that monks are always on the cutting edge of technology – podcasts, the blast furnace, beer with fruit in it! Nice work lads.)

There are thirty-three weeks of Ordinary Time in the average liturgical year (thirty-four weeks some years for a reason I don’t really understand, but the podcasting monks have probably developed an app or a IMAX presentation to explain why).  I like the fact that in calling it Ordinary Time, it is as if the church is saying ‘It’s official everyone, go about your daily lives please, nothing special needs to happen. It doesn’t matter what Clinton Cards say we are not, repeat we are not, in the official run up to anything. Do everyday stuff. Do the laundry, read the Bible, pay the gas bill, worship God, eat beans on toast, eat the beans cold out the tin with a fork if you like, it’s fine, it’s ordinary!’

All of October and the bulk of November is ordinary time. So after our 2012 summer of wonder and before Advent creeps up on us all, normal service is resumed, and we have permission to just be.

Like most people I am not a natural at ‘just being’, and it is definitely easier to praise God and appreciate the simple things during a time of plenty. However I am determined this autumn not to see Ordinary Time as a low point in the year, a long dark, cold trudge to the next time of wonder. Instead I am going to revel in the every day, enjoy the fact that the pressure is off, that we can restock the cupboards, wash the muddy festival clothes and get back to normal.

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April 5, 2013 / thatsarahdean

Things they don’t tell you on the marriage prep course

Number 1 in an occasional series: No-one is allowed to talk during Doctor Who.

Something I didn’t know until I met my husband is that the correct way to watch Doctor Who is in complete silence. It’s not just talking that is banned, gasping, squealing and exclamations of fear are also frowned upon. Even if the episode is way scary, like the one with those blinky angels or that spooky little kid with a gas mask wandering around saying “Are you my Mummy?”, you must to stifle your eeks, oh nos, and blimeys in case you talk over an important plot point.(I’ll be honest I don’t know who turned out to be that kid’s Mummy, so perhaps DW silent viewers have a point.) You must also muffle any coughing or sneezing, and where possible cut out any unnecessarily noisy respiration. “You’re doing the breathing again” is a real quote from our marriage that I am thinking of making into a sampler for our living room wall. (For the record I had a cold and it was that or die due to lack of oxygen.) Doctor Who must be enjoyed in a room so quiet you could hear a pin drop, although obviously noisy crafts like embroidery and knitting are not permitted during DW, so that sampler will have to wait.

On the flipside, in order to view the Great British Bake Off properly you are invited to gasp, smack your lips, shout ‘yum!’ and give short whistles of admiration throughout the duration of the programme. The other viewer can either join in with this noisy appreciation or agree to must make no comment at the cacophony of the other. The same rule applies to One Born Every Minute. Gasping, wincing and audible sobbing are an entirely appropriate response from the viewer, although shouting ‘yum!’ whilst a pregnant woman squeezes another person out of her foof is really inappropriate in most cultures including our own.

And finally if upon returning home from work you find your loved one watching the Hairy Bikers, which they then hastily turn off and look a bit guilty.  This will be because they are ashamed to admit that they have been voluntarily watching some of the most fake bonhomie ever caught on camera and not because they fancy old fat blokes from the north-east. And no amount of shouting “Why-eye! Stroke my lovely beard!” will get them to say otherwise.

March 18, 2013 / thatsarahdean

Choirs + covers = good

I love a good choir.  I love communal singing.  Both doing it and watching it.  In fact what I really love is not a good choir, but an AVERAGE choir.  The more community orientated, slightly shonky and off-key-but-giving-their-all the better.  The very act of making a joyful noise, working together always moves me and I end up with “something in my eye.”

Turns out I am not alone, so I created a one-stop shop of clips of choirs giving it their all.

So fancy a cry? Here’s the dead cert way to get those ducts leaking. Hankerchiefs at the ready folks, as I present:

Choir Covers Make Me Cry

A snifftastic collection of cover versions by choirs, all in one handy Tumblr, so you can have a listen and sob in just one click. Choral Catharsis!

Submit to the loveliness!

January 20, 2013 / thatsarahdean

National Mango Month

It still amuses me that this little film I made a few years ago about my favourite fruit to mark June as National Mango Month (an actual thing) still has had more hits than the official National Mango Month film created by the fruit board of America or whoever they are.   (To be honest their film had less boobage in it.)  Ready, steady, MANGO!

January 3, 2013 / thatsarahdean

Miss Information’s Booth – bringing answers to the clueless of Britain!

Miss Information’s Booth is a unique answer providing resource for the general public.

Ask a question, any question, and Miss Information will provide an answer from her vast array of leaflets, pamphlets, encyclopedias, and reference books. Miss Information’s answers are also drawn from her innate common sense, vast life experience and considerable wisdom.

No question is too difficult, too taxing or too complex for Miss Information. In fact Miss Information guarantees that all questions will receive an answer. TERMS AND CONDITIONS APPLY*

*Miss Information reserves the right to provide vague, inaccurate and downright untrue answers to any questions posed.

Visit Miss Information’s on-line booth to see more of her trusted staff in action and find out the answer to the question –  Can you think of a super hilarious, 35-minute, awesome street theatre show for an all age audience that I can book for my festival/corporate event/flower show? 

July 1, 2012 / thatsarahdean

Icon of the month: Olympic Mascots

First published in Third Way magazine, July/August 2012

The first official Olympic mascot was Waldi, a multi-coloured Dachshund created for the 1972 Munich Games by graphic artist Otl Aicher. Waldi proved so popular in the run up to the games that organisers decided to redesign the route of the marathon to resemble his shape.

Whilst rerouting an event isn’t a requirement the International Olympic Committee’s official guidelines for mascots are incredibly complex. An official Olympic mascot should “be the concrete form to the Olympic spirit of participation, solidarity and fair play; spread the Olympic values of excellence, respect and friendship; promote the history and culture of the host city; and give the event a festive atmosphere.” Unsurprising with such a complex brief a majority of the 21 mascots created for summer and winter games since 1972 have been regarded as design disasters. As anyone who has ever tried to explain the Trinity or Eucharistic Transubstantiation will know, explaining several ideas clearly through one object or symbol is tough.

Many mascots have failed to catch on because they are just too complicated. For example Izzy was the first computer-generated mascot, created for Atlanta 96. He/she/it was a “Whatisit”, a shape shifter “eager to make friends with people around the world.” It seems people didn’t want to make friends with “an annoying blue sperm wearing sneakers.”

On several occasions artists trying to incorporate indigenous culture into their designs have often been accused of disrespect and outright racism. The artist who designed the mascots for the Beijing Olympics even claimed the job was cursed. His Feng Shui inspired characters are said to have caused natural disasters in run up to the games and two heart attacks for the artist himself.

Other designers have played safe, stripping their designs right back, thereby creating rather boring mascots. For example Amik the Beaver for Montreal ’76 had none of the cuteness you might expect from Canada’s national animal, as he was an expressionist black blob that looked like you had a stain on your t-shirt. Haakon and Kristen at Lillehammer ‘94 were just two local children wandering around in traditional Viking dress. And even Disney couldn’t get it right when they designed Sam the Eagle for the Los Angeles games in 1984. Remember him? No. He was just a bird in a hat.

The most popular Olympic mascot ever is widely regarded to be Barcelona 92’s Cobi the dog. Critics initially derided his cubist inspired, flat-faced design, but children and tourists couldn’t get enough of him and toys and merchandise flew off shelves.  He even had his own TV series, which ran long after the games had finished.

The Vancouver 2010 games had a whole team of cute creations led by Quatchi the Sasquatch. One, a marmot called Mukmuk was designated by the designers as a sidekick and so didn’t feature on merchandise.  Mukmuk fans started a campaign for him to be awarded full mascot status.  Organisers eventually bowed to pressure and issued official Mukmuk toys. (Proof that where there’s Mukmuk, there’s brass.)

Ultimately mascots are a way to make money. Get your mascot right and you can bring in over 25% of the cost of the games in merchandising revenue. When the London 2012 mascots Wenlock and Mandeville were unveiled, games chief Lord Coe said “We created our mascots for children. By linking young people to the values of sport, (they) will help inspire kids to strive to be the best they can be”. All very noble, Seb, but it’s not entirely true is it? The mascots need to appeal to kids, so they pester their mum into buying them the lunchbox, the t-shirt and the limited edition Sheffield steel cutlery set

The critical consensus is that for London 2012 once again the Olympic mascots are over-designed. The fact that each mascot has one eye, which is also a camera has an uncomfortable resonance with CCTV, particularly for a games that began it’s planning process amidst the 7/7 attacks.  At their unveiling that Lord Coe said the mascots would set the tone for London 2012, seemingly that tone is Orwellian.

Olympic mascots are iconic as cute cheerleaders, a family friendly way into sport and a demonstration as to why design by committee is never a good idea. Whether Wenlock or Mandeville merchandise will be overflowing the bargain bins on 10th September remains to be seen.

June 1, 2012 / thatsarahdean

Book Review: Please God, find me a husband! by Simone Lia

First published in Third Way magazine, June 2012.

The title Please God, find me a husband! sounds like a terrifying Christian self-help book, or a jokey tome to buy your single friend for her thirtieth birthday, thankfully Simone Lia’s new book is neither of these. It is a joyful, hilarious, life affirming story “for spinsters, seekers of enlightenment and lovers of graphic novels.”

Simone Lia’s illustrations are delightfully simple with bold felt tip lines, a nod to her background in children’s books, but do not be mistaken this autobiographical story is undoubtedly for adults. Lia is expert at dealing with heavy weight subjects using the seeming lightweight form of the cartoon. She is a friendly, self-deprecating storyteller, who tackles the difficult and emotional territory of faith and relationships with humour and honesty. In Please God… she deals with singleness, belief and childhood trauma via guitar playing trees, muffin baking nuns and God riding a BMX.  Her honest and open narrative style ensures that despite the sweet illustrations, the book is neither cutesy nor vapid.

The story begins with 33 year old Simone walking through central London. She has just been dumped…worse than that dumped by email. She tells God that if he wants her to get married or be happy, then he needs to get a move on. Surprisingly God answers her prayer through the lyrics of an INXS song! And so begins our heroine’s “Adventure with God”- a spiritual journey that takes Lia half way round the world to Australia by way of rainy Wales where she serves as ‘a temporary nun’. Along the way she has encounters with a Crocodile Dundee look alike, a rather disappointing hermit and on several occasions, God himself.

Lia is a likeable heroine. She’s an ordinary Londoner who happens to be a Christian Some of her friends happen to be nuns, (fun ones who sing along to The Sound of Music in the car). Her faith is ordinary and matter of fact. She talks to God when she is on her bike. She constantly questions whether she is merely deluding herself.

Christian readers will recognise in Simone’s story their own shortcomings laid out in excruciating and hilarious detail. For example Lia takes part in a silent meditation. After three wordless frames, we see her thoughts, she is thinking about lunch. By the bottom of the page, she is completely distracted, looking around at the other people praying – “I don’t think I’m praying right.”

Throughout the book Lia playfully uses the comic frame format to add an extra dimension to the narrative. Her pictures underline or cleverly undermine the written words. For example Lia is disappointed that nothing dramatic happened during her retreat. She had been hoping for – “a drama or a conflict that was miraculously resolved and fun to draw.” This frame is of course illustrated by a drawing of an exciting and miraculous drama.

For every sweet squeaking suitcase or Roger Hargreave-esque snake saying “Harrumph”, there are more challenging images and episodes exploring the struggle of personal faith.  A single frame of a scribbled tree, eloquently expresses the seeming loneliness of prayer for example.  A particularly moving sequence features Lia imagining herself walking around the streets of Jericho in Biblical times, and she, instead of Zacchaeus, gets called down from the tree as the real sinner.

The real joy of this book is that Simone Lia is not afraid to tell a story that is so uncompromisingly honest that it has none of the convenience of being neat and easy to tell. This fact is further underlined in a rather meta scene where Simone is pictured sitting in church worrying about her book proposal – for the book we are reading – her publisher has suggested that it’s content might not have “commercial potential”.

Fortunately for us Lia persuaded Jonathan Cape to let her tell her story, her way.  Please God, find me a husband! explains what it is like to be an ordinary person of faith struggling with singleness in a way that is both moving and honest, witty and endearing, as well as accessible and appealing to a wide audience of all faiths and none.