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May 3rd, 2016


07:15 pm - Languages I have loved
A now-rare public post from the Young 72stroopwafels (I ramble on about allotments on here now and as I’m enjoying better health overall, I find I’ve just got less to talk about generally. Except when it comes to geeky language posts, as we will see).

A few months ago, while killing some time in Newcastle before my Irish lesson started, I stumbled on the Kittiwake Trust Multilingual Library. I’d been trying to retreat to a quiet bit of Eldon Square shopping centre, and suddenly, there it was in front of me. I had a quick look round and discovered their excellent range of books in the more expected languages (German, Spanish, French) and the less expected ones (Irish, Welsh, Afrikaans and Geordie). I’m still yet to actually borrow a book because I’m not in Newcastle all that often and also find that I’m struggling to carve out enough time these days for reading, something I’m trying to tackle by simply reducing the amount of time I sleep. There is probably a better way of tackling this problem.

Then last month, the library emailed me to say that actual real-life David Crystal was coming to the library and would I like to meet him. OF COURSE I WOULD. I had not felt this excited since I went to a talk by Noam Chomsky in Cardiff about ten years ago. Chomsky, Crystal and Trudgill were the linguists I was reading as a younger person, while all other self-respecting students were socialising and drinking. I’ve been self-employed for over a year now and considered attending this talk an opportunity for which self-employment was made. I took the afternoon ‘off’ (taking time off isn’t necessarily one of my talents and I ended up working that evening, but I tried) and headed off to hear him speak.

It’s hard to summarise Crystal’s talk, especially when I don’t have to because the entire thing can be found here. It’s a link I might show people whenever I hear “But don’t Dutch people all speak perfect English anyway?” or “You want to be learning Chinese instead, they’ll run the world in 10 years’ time” or “Oh, you’re learning Irish…I didn’t know that was a language”. It was nice to chat to people who understood the idea of learning languages because it’s really fun to learn languages. I queued up to speak to the great man after the talk (met a fellow friendly and star-struck enthusiast @Nattalingo while waiting!).

I am still in a bit of a giddy state almost a week later. It got me thinking about language learning and different attitudes people have towards it. I’ve always seen language learning as a bit like signing up for tennis lessons. You don’t expect to become a professional tennis player, but you hope to learn a certain amount, and most importantly perhaps, to have fun along the way. That’s how I feel about learning languages, and indeed, it could be argued that they’ve kind of replaced sports in my quite lazy life. I’ve got a history of taking up new languages, but I’m only fluent in two in addition to my native language of English. I was reading recently about Johannes Haushofer, who put together a CV detailing his professional setbacks. I don’t view my not achieving fluency in a language as a setback, but I thought I’d detail every language I’ve ever seriously attempted to learn here in chronological order anyway, just to show that perfect fluency doesn't have to be the end goal. Or because I worked on a Bank Holiday yesterday and thus find myself with a bit of free time today.

Welsh: I used to have a long commute to my secondary school in Herefordshire, and aged 11, used the time to try and teach myself Welsh. This did not win me many friends on the bus but helped me briefly overcome travel sickness, and I can still remember how to count to ten and the chorus and first verse of the Welsh national anthem. I want to revisit Welsh again one day and have proper lessons.

French: Compulsory for the first three years of my secondary school education and dropped by me in favour of German when I was 14. I hadn’t embraced my status as a language geek at that point so didn’t think much of not doing the GCSE. I slightly regret that now, but I did Geography instead, so I know how to survive an earthquake.

German: The first one that ‘stuck’, as this is now one of my working languages. I started learning it when I was 13 and now I’m 28, and if I dwell on that fact for too long, I start feeling very insecure about my level of German. I didn’t feel ‘fluent’ until I went to live in Germany aged 19 and only spoke German for a few months, however.

Japanese: I took Japanese lessons during lunchtime while I was at secondary school but never got too far. Maybe because I had to skip the eating part of lunch and was too hungry to concentrate. I only remember how to count to ten and am not convinced I remembered that correctly.

Spanish: I decided to take Spanish GCSE while doing my A-levels, so when I was 17, around the time I realised I was becoming a bit addicted to languages. I found it interesting, but as with French, I didn’t love it quite enough to continue studying it, and I don’t remember much of it at all now.

Dutch: Dutch started fascinating me when I was about 16 and worrying about my university options. A good way of narrowing these options down was to look at universities offering Dutch in the UK. The University of Sheffield has a thriving Dutch department and was an excellent way of nurturing my interest. I loved the fact that as a speaker of German, I could understand some, but not all of it already – kind of like watching only the first half of a really good film, so obviously, I had to learn Dutch, and after changing my degree to incorporate even more Dutch, it’s now my second working language. I find it far easier to read than German, but much harder to speak.

Russian: I took an evening class in Russian during my second year of university, aged 19ish. I didn’t do very well. I think it didn’t help that I was obviously spending most of my time on German and Dutch anyway, so it was difficult to take on a language like Russian as a ‘bit on the side’. I remember almost nothing.

Luxembourgish: This isn’t a language I’d ever go too far to learn, but my university did a module in Luxembourgish in my final year, and I was nurturing a fascination with West Germanic languages and dialects. I got very confused trying to learn three similar languages at once. I clearly remember accidentally speaking Dutch in my oral exam. I don’t remember much except for the fact that ‘that is’ translates as ‘dat ass’, which never fails to amuse me.

Norwegian: My reasoning for learning Norwegian was that I’d read somewhere that it was the best one to learn out of the three if you wanted to be able to easily understand Swedish and Danish too. My studies mostly involved reading the dialogues of Sue and Arne and their doomed love affair (Arne really likes Sue but she’s mostly interested in him just because he’s Norwegian).

Plattdeutsch: Also known as Niederdeutsch or Low German or ‘What happens when you mix German, Dutch and INSANITY’. I was and still am a bit in love with Plattdeutsch and took lessons when I lived in Oldenburg. I became conversationally fluent after a term (not because I’m super-wise or anything, just because anyone with my language background would) and did well in my exams, but unsurprisingly, when I moved back to the UK, there weren’t many people to speak it with. Not that there were many in Oldenburg below the age of 70 either.

Swedish: This sort of explains why I stopped learning Norwegian, moved as I was by the fate of Sue and Arne. I have adorable friends in Sweden and after I’d visited them for possibly the sixth time, I realised it would make sense to learn at least a bit of Swedish. This may be the only time in my life, incidentally, that I’ve tried to learn a language because it’s useful. I took lessons when I lived near London but there weren’t any available when I moved north three years ago, so it’s a bit rusty. I could read a newspaper article and summarise the gist of it, but I’m terrified of speaking it.

Irish: I ramble about Irish a lot more here so this is a summary really, but it was always on the ‘to learn’ list along with Welsh and Finnish, and I was happily surprised to find reasonably-priced lessons not all that far from me at the Tyneside Irish Centre. It’s been around eight months and I can’t say a lot yet, mainly because of the amount of grammar you’ve got to power through even in the early stages, but I think I’m in love. I’m off to Donegal in the summer to go on a week-long course and maybe chuck myself in at the deep end, a prospect I’m both scared and excited by. I aim to reach conversational fluency and have set a realistic timescale of 10 years, which is only partly a joke.

So the point of this wasn’t ‘O wow look at all these languages I speak wow I’m so clever’ like a hyperpolyglot, it’s more ‘Look how many I’ve tried out and put to one side for a while’. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. Some people are single-minded enough to stick to learning one language and achieve fluency in a short space of time (especially when you consider factors like the necessity of learning the language in question, if they’ve moved abroad for example), but there are people like me who flit wantonly from one to the next, and this is a practice I’d defend, because it’s been so much fun.

And one day I want to learn Finnish, but that’s far into the future.

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March 17th, 2016


04:31 pm - Learning Irish - but why?
Like most people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today, I’ve got Irish ancestry stretching back to the time of the High Kings. My lot ruled Connacht, apparently, then the Normans came and ruined everything. And like most people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today, my links to what people insist on calling the Emerald Isle, i.e. the island of Ireland, are pretty minimal in terms of my daily life. I’ve been over a few times, it was nice, then I went back home again.

But unlike most people celebrating today, I go to Irish lessons every week, close to where I live in the north-east of England. When I mention this to people (and I do, a lot), the reaction tends to be somewhere along the lines of ‘But why would you do that’. Usually a quick way of explaining is to mutter something about the increasingly weak family links to Ireland and then shuffle away to quietly revise lenition. But it’s not really true though. I’m not trying to do everything my ancestors did, partly because some of them probably did some terrible things, or at least things that would be morally dodgy from a modern day perspective.

As to my motivation, cards on the table: I’m a geek, specifically a rarer breed of geek with a strong interest in languages. It’s an obsession that’s influenced the course of my life; I work as a translator of German and Dutch into English, and it was while I was learning Dutch in particular that people started mentioning the ‘But why’ and ‘They all speak English anyway’ arguments. I learnt to file that away under ‘Advice people keep giving me that I will ignore’, and I was right to ignore it. I now earn a living from being able to translate German and Dutch. I’m in a happy situation in which my obsession is also my career.

I don’t envisage that Irish will ever help to earn me a living. At this point, around six months into learning the language, I’m not even aiming for fluency in the foreseeable future. There’s a huge amount of grammar required even to be able to say ‘My house’, for example. To say the Irish for ‘my house’, you need to understand the difference between broad vowels and slender vowels. That’s reasonably straightforward. Then you need to know basic pronunciation rules, which really don’t seem basic to a speaker of English. For interesting reasons of dialect, there are about three different ways to pronounce many words in Irish, and I’ll usually manage to pick the one way of saying the word that’s objectively wrong.
Then you need to learn lenition, which is a sound change at the start of a word and which seems at least as complicated as any bit of German grammar I ever learnt. But when you think you’ve got it cracked after two months of wrapping your head around lenition, you realise that while it applies to possessives like ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’ and ‘her’, totally new rules apply to ‘our, their and your (plural)’, and you have to learn eclipsis, a totally different but equally complicated system currently shrouded in mystery as far as I’m concerned. It can be maddeningly difficult.

So I’m not learning the language as an obscure way of honouring the ancestors, I don’t need to speak to anyone using the Irish language (and in fact, encounter very few speakers of the language here in Northumberland), it’s sometimes frustratingly difficult, and it’s of no direct use to me in my career. I sometimes forget why I’m learning it, but then I quickly remember it’s because I love it. I mean, it sounds beautiful, for a start. In addition, working on trying to understand a bit of grammar for weeks and then suddenly having it click into place gives you the same sense of achievement as working out a crossword clue. Language learning for its own sake isn’t about the bigger picture; you haven’t failed if you’ve yet to achieve fluency – even in the act of continuing to try and grasp a particular aspect of the language, you’re succeeding.

Without wanting to delve too far into Northern Irish politics, the Irish language is counted as an indigenous language of the United Kingdom, and there are plenty of reasons to learn one of these indigenous languages even beyond the fact that it’s a useful way of exercising the brain. When you learn any language, you don’t just learn that language, you learn a wealth of ideas, history and reasoning behind it. You can learn facts about other languages in the process and discover the way things are linked – Irish is responsible for a modest number of words entering the English language, including but by no means limited to ‘galore’. Learning Irish is fascinating in itself, even for those with less geekish tendencies, linguistically speaking. I’d accept that it’s difficult and that it seems strange, but I won’t accept that it’s pointless, or even that there’s such a thing as a ‘pointless’ language. I think “Because I enjoy it” is the best answer you can give to the question of why you’re learning a particular language, and it’s an answer I’ll be using more often in the future.

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December 30th, 2015


02:14 pm - 2015 in review
I waste time by not doing the work I should be doing yaaay:
CatsCollapse )

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October 29th, 2015


08:55 pm - The limits of my world
Rejoice, for I have safely returned from Sicily. My first solo holidaying adventure, and the furthest away I've ever been from the UK. It was awesome, though, I loved it. Sicily's not a holiday destination that I'd normally choose - I have some perverse part of my brain (well, several such parts come to think of it) that wants to only go to cold places, but I was really glad to get out of my comfort zone and do something a bit different. I went to the weird microclimate that was Etna:
EtnaCollapse )
I ate a lot of food, trying to go for choices that were as Sicilian as possible (OK I admit I also had chips a couple of times, but I couldn't go out for a meal EVERY night because even a mighty global company like HobbitInc has finite monetary resources). I had pasta alla norma twice, cannoli two or three times, caponata twice, granita once (despite my efforts to find more at the airport as I left), and of course plenty of local wine. Rude not to. Now I only want to ever cook Sicilian things.
Pasta alla normaCollapse )
I also fulfilled one of my goals in life - no, nothing normal like marriage or spiritual enlightenment, but rather to see where the Godfather was filmed (well, parts of the trilogy). And I did, up in Savoca near Taormina. I had my first granita sitting just metres away from where Michael Corleone and his two mates sit talking about Apollonia. To be honest, a lot of the places I saw, I wouldn't have immediately recognised as scenes from the Godfather, but now I've looked over various scenes from the films, I've been getting a sense of 'Ooooh yeah, I saw that in person!'

I managed to do a reasonable amount of travelling round eastern Sicily. I stayed in Catania the whole time, which kind of grew on me. I'd heard very mixed reports about both Catania and Palermo, with one person online describing them as 'gritty', but I thought 'Well, I lived in Sheffield for three years, so bring it, Catania'. I didn't think it was gritty. The outskirts weren't hugely picturesque but also not ugly, and I was maybe half an hour's walk north of the city centre. There was a very nice bit right by the sea with various restaurants and a small colony of cats that was lovely to visit in the evenings. Yeah, I developed some affection for Catania.
I also went to Taormina, once just as a stop-off on my way to Savoca and other mountain villages, and once to take more of a look around. It was far more touristy than Catania, but that wasn't such a huge problem. I think both tourist and heat-wise, I chose a very good time to go (it averaged about 23 degrees, and I know you're thinking 'O Katie you're pathetic for thinking that's too warm', but it really felt much hotter). A lot of people I met said I should go to Siracusa, so on a whim on Monday I hopped on a train for an hour and a half, and there I was. I visited Ortygia in the south of the city and had my first proper Sicilian pizza, but had left it too late to have a proper look at the ampitheatre (although the huge blisters on my feet are evidence of my efforts to get there before my train back to Catania left without me).
SiracusaCollapse )
So all in all, a fantastic trip. It didn't all work out as I'd planned with a couple of the tours, but that was fine, I didn't stay inside weeping, I went out and did stuff instead. It's weird, when I lived in Germany I was really scared of just going to a cafe or restaurant on my own and not caring if people judged me for it or if I made a mistake in speaking German, but in Sicily I felt way more confident. Not sure whether it's my great age or the tonnes of propranolol I'm taking, but it was quite a relaxed holiday in many ways. I'd like to do it again, both solo holidaying and going to Sicily. I'm not sure whether I'd go for staying in Catania again or going for a more touristy place like Siracusa or Taormina, but I think I'd have a good time either way. The only slightly bad/uncomfortable thing was the first day when I was a) wearing a dress and b) slightly lost and stumbling into a bit of a dodgy area, and I got a lot of comments from men as I passed them. It wasn't enough to frighten me but did make me uncomfortable. After I stuck to wearing trousers and avoiding certain bits of the city, things settled down.
I think if I went again, I'd quite like to take a daytrip to Malta (it's only four hours by boat) and also visit the military museum in Catania (annoyingly, I only realised it existed on my last night so it was too late). That said, I think I fitted a LOT in to the holiday. Today's been mostly trying to get everything in order. I'm off to merry Glasgow tomorrow to see Christy Moore in concert (another life goal). I'm trying to re-adapt to British weather. Honestly, in Sicily I forgot what it was like to feel cold. I did kind of miss British weather, because I'm critically insane.
Limits of my worldCollapse )
So look, those are the new limits of my world - the furthest I've been in each direction. It doesn't look like much, set out like that. I've got this desire to keep extending them every time I travel (possibly northwards, as I've wanted to go to Iceland and Greenland for literally forever. Oh and east too because Finland. Oh and also Mongolia. I want to go to far too many places, especially for somebody so attached to staying in one place). At this rate, HobbitInc will go fully mobile.

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October 15th, 2015


05:14 pm - HobbitInc survives six months
Yes! My business (or rather me as a sole trader, which is less catchy albeit more accurate) has survived half a year. Six months since I reluctantly returned from Sweden to move into my new house/office, ready to anxiously stare at my inbox, waiting for work to come flooding in. It's all OK, actually. I even did a mini-appraisal thing earlier in the week when I had a bit of time, and I concluded that THIS:

Is NOT an accurate picture of me. I've got plans and everything for the next six months, and while I've messed some things up, it turns out that these things don't get you kicked out of the translation industry, never to return. Because, as a good socialist sole trader, I value free time just as much as cash, I've been trying to keep things balanced and not work too many late nights or weekends, which it's REALLY easy to do when your laptop's just there and you've had your eye on a nice dress from Dorothy Perkins for a while now. I've also decided not to work during Epic Holiday in Sicily next week, even though I'll be bringing the laptop. I thought about it and concluded there wasn't much point in going if I was going to sit inside working all day. I'm nervous/excited re. holiday, but I think it will be fun. I have to start packing at some point.

Although I SOUND like a proper adult in some ways, I've decided I'm not really. The fates are against me. I tried to get critical illness insurance, slightly paranoid about what I'd do if I really did get ill. The day after I applied, I got hospitalised (not with a critical illness at all, just with a thyroid that was kindly doing more than it needed to). So my cover's cancelled until my thyroid's 'under control', which amused me. I had visions of it creeping out of my neck while I was asleep and terrorising the local population. I've got a pension now, though, so maybe I can count that as another step towards becoming a proper person?

I blog openly way less often these days. A major reason for this is because I used to blog a lot about mental health, specifically my own, and now there's just not as much to say. Which is a really good thing, and a sign perhaps that if I can tread that path towards sanity, strewn with CBT and sanity snacks, others can too. In your face, anxiety. I have wobbles occasionally but overall, I'm way better, especially considering my insanity went on for many years before those in which I was actually being treated for it.

One of the major challenges over the last six months has been the social aspect of being a freelance translator, or more exactly the lack of a social aspect. I'd expected to experience it to some extent but didn't think it'd hit me so hard, given that I'm relatively people-phobic. But if obsessively playing the Sims 2 as a youth taught me anything, it's that even antisocial Sims, I mean people, need to have some kind of connection to the outside world. Otherwise their 'social' goes into the red. To start off with I set up some basic rules - I have to leave the house at least once each day, ideally more often. Then I started actively planning my free time. It used to be the case that I'd use the time after work to recharge my introvert batteries, but that's kind of reversed now - those batteries are recharging while I'm working. So I've started doing a few things after work. I'm considering volunteering, although I've not found exactly the right thing for me yet.
The most exciting thing I'm doing, in my mind, is that I AM LEARNING IRISH. I'm only two classes in, but I think I'm in love with the language. I'm not really surprised. I've been a language geek since I was about 11 and tried to teach myself Welsh, with no success. Irish, Finnish and Welsh are POSSIBLY the top three languages I want to learn most of all. And Irish has such beautifully weird grammar. It's one of those many things that I'm not allowed to talk about to other people too much, because they get too bored and I get too happy. Once I get a cat, I will be an archetypal geeky freelancer.

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September 10th, 2015


05:35 pm - Bleurgh
I'm experiencing my very first 'freelancing while ill' panic. I've been under the weather all week and last night I was up early with an unhappy stomach, and all I could think was 'o but I have deadlines tomorrow and what do I do if I can't meet them'. I think that says more about my paranoia that any wonderful work ethic. Luckily, today I was able to function as a kind of freelance translator heap:

It's annoying timing too, because normally when I'm back in the Midlands, I don't have time to do all the stuff I want to. This time, I have a whole week, but yesterday I took a trip to Worcester, visited my favourite vegan cafe, and felt so unwell that I might as well have been cwtched up in bed, like I was today. Most alarmingly of all, I've not had coffee in three days, which is the longest I've gone since I was 14 and unwisely tried to give it up for Lent. I hope I improve soon.

It is not all doom and gloom. Last week I abseiled down a castle. Specifically Bamburgh castle. It was really fun. I want to do it again.

I think I'm still sponsorable.
Last Saturday I trolled off to the wedding of an old friend (friend who has been a friend for a long time, not aged friend, obviously). It's the first time I've been to a wedding as a proper adult, i.e. without my parents. It was such a nice day - nothing went wrong, I danced in public (something I do extremely rarely) and got to see people I'd not seen in aaaaages.
I am to remain in the Midlands until Sunday. Once I regain my health, I've really got to start planning my trip to Sicily. I've sorted the important bits, like where I'm staying and flights and so on, but I think it'd be a waste of time if I get there and just walk around looking lost because I've not arranged anything. I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the information online, though. I have an idea of what I want to do, it just all looks quite expensive at the moment (*cough* Godfather Tour *cough*). Maybe I'll just sort things step by step. Or buy a guidebook like a normal person. If any readers have been to Sicily and have any recommendations, this would be most welcome.

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August 12th, 2015


09:42 pm - The GodHobbit
Or: HobbitInc goes to Sicily.
(I've started referring to my translation company as HobbitInc, despite a) This not being the name of my translation company and b) Me not actually having a translation company, as I'm a 'sole trader'. And sometimes I get confused and just use 'HobbitInc' as a variation of my name, but I think this kind of behaviour is more or less in keeping with my general nature and is what people who know me expect. Nobody's formally raised any concerns. Like a couple of months ago when I pretended to be an owl because my life seemed to stressful and busy for a human, and everyone seemed fairly cool with it).

I've spent quite a bit of my life going 'O I would like to go there or there some day', but it's dawning on me slowly that if I don't actually book tickets and do things, nothing will actually happen. So to celebrate six months of being self-employed, I'm trolling off TO SICILY, specifically Catania, in October. I started wanting to go when I was a teenager obsessed with The Godfather (obviously), and finally I am to succeed:


Don Vito Hobbinto

When I have been on holiday before, there have always been friendly Swedes to look after me and prevent me from doing anything too stupid (bar cutting off the odd thumb, getting trapped in the odd bus, drinking the odd bottle of too-strong cider). They will not be there this time, so I'm a bit concerned about, y'know, looking after myself like a grown adult. I've tried to learn some Italian on Duolingo (I know Sicilian is different from Italian, but even Duolingo has limitations in what it offers) but I don't think my brain's designed for Italian. I speak German and Dutch, meaning I can - and do - sound as grumpy as I like when I speak them. With Italian, you need to speak like you care about stuff. And maybe use HAND GESTURES. Well, I have a couple of months to sort out my personality.

I think it is a good idea. Another place I've always wanted to go is Mongolia, so who knows? Maybe I'll embrace a travelling spirit of adventure, pack the laptop and merrily translate from various places around the world. Before I head off, I have to give myself an appraisal (this isn't me being mad, I'm genuinely going to make Excel tables and evaluate how I've been doing as a 'freelancer' for six months, and draw up plans for the next six months, because I'm possibly insane) and maybe 'do my taxes', which for all I know involves attaching banknotes to a passing owl and hoping that it gets to the right people, whoever they are. A holiday is a nice way of rounding off the busiest year of my life (which has spanned centuries for I am one of the oldest people).
I realised that last week, it was the three-year anniversary of me being diagnosed as A Mental. I tried to think of something profound to say about it and sum it all up but couldn't think of much. The anniversary of diagnosis seems more significant that the anniversary of coming off Sanity Snacks (a year ago next month, o how time has flown), and I marked it by solemnly eating a bowl of Angel Delight in memorial (around the time I was diagnosed, I'd had to leave the office when I was working down in Buckinghamshire one day because I was too mad to stay, got back to my flat, decided I was too mad and worried to cook properly, so then exclusively ate Angel Delight for about a week, which maybe wasn't very funny at the time but seems more humourous now). But anyway. I'm glad I went to the GP in that tiny posh village three years ago. I wish I'd done it nine years ago, but still, it was one of my wiser moments. I don't see myself as 'cured' despite being 'subclinical', but I am a happier hobbit.

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July 12th, 2015


05:07 pm - The Big Meeting
Yesterday I went to the Durham Miner's Gala. Me and about 149,999 others. It was my first visit. I'm not a native of the north east and I hadn't realised exactly how much of a big deal it was for fellow trade union fans.
I'd been the victim of train misery, which I could cleverly link in with privatisation (the train I was trying to catch was run by Virgin East Coast), but I think to do that would be to oversimplify the issue, and it's not like I never had any problems on nationalised trains either. Anyway, I was stuck at the station for three frustrating hours and it meant I missed Jeremy Corbyn's speech, which was sad, but I still got to see Owen Jones and Len McCluskey. By the time I got to Durham, I'd forgotten the misery, refilled my veins with caffeine (I hear some people are still using blood for their veins, which is charmingly quaint), and got into the spirit of things.
It was a wonderful day out, and I want to go again next year. I soon located my union, Unite, and marched with them for a bit. It was a day with a lot of historical significance, and I think that was how some people saw it. You don't really see union banners these days, because there aren't many occasions any more on which they're used. Equally, a lot of people there saw it as very much a political event, and there was a very broad spectrum from Labour centrists to revolutionary Marxist-Leninists there.

I joined Unite about 6 years ago, when I was 21 and unemployed. At the time, I didn't know many other people in trade unions. It wasn't common in my age group, and still isn't hugely common in my industry. For a woman with sympathies lying left, it came naturally to join a union, and even more than that - to talk (sometimes quite a lot) about being in a union. As I saw it, if I were to start a company, and then employ people in that company, my main aim would be to make a profit. It doesn't mean to say that I'd deliberately make my employees miserable, because I'm a human being who enjoys gardening and hates conflict. But, when it comes down to it, and especially if my hypothetical business is struggling, profit might take precedence over the wellbeing of my employees. I haven't ever really seen it as an 'us versus them', employers vs. employees issue, but I tried to understand why it is that the rights of employees get overlooked, and what the best thing to do about it would be. And my conclusion was: join a union.

Unions can still do a lot. Disputes between employers and employees can often be 'tribunal-based', which is to say that tribunals are often used to enforce employee rights. The downside of this is that employment tribunals rarely order re-employment, so you might find that you've won your case, but are out of a job. Weighing up this risk together with the fact that claim fees and hearing fees will generally apply means that plenty of people let the matter slide, and either put up with the issue that would bring them to a tribunal, or they search for a new job. Understandably, this is more likely to happen in the case of employees on a lower wage, and while compensation from tribunals is tied to your income, claim and hearing fees are fixed, meaning those on a higher wage stand to gain a lot more from taking their employer to a tribunal. Besides offering advice in situations like this, unions often cover the claim and hearing fees, along with offering college courses, retirement advice, and a lot more besides.

Today though, I can take part in my union lottery, I can get good rates on home and car insurance, and I can enter competitions to win shopping vouchers. None of these are bad things, but they are also not the reason I joined a union in the first place. Related to this, I find it difficult to get personally involved in my union. Realistically, the only time we'd ever have any kind of contact is if I had an issue at work. I don't think it's not all over for the unions, but at the same time, I think they need to head back towards politics.
A wider issue, and one that is perhaps harder to fix, is that the nature of work is changing in Britain. When my dad started work, his notice period was 6 months, and there was an understanding that he'd be staying in the job for years - and indeed, he stayed for almost two decades. But it's now more common to go to university, meaning that more and more people are leaving their local region at a fairly early age, making them more likely to consider moving regions, or perhaps even countries, in order to get the 'right job'. This kind of mobility just wasn't there when trade unions were at their strongest in Britain, and has led to a kind of 'If you don't like your job, find another one' mentality. In the long term, this can be bad for employers too, as unhappy employees will tend to vote with their feet, but depending on the industry involved, companies can patch up the employee leak with a steady supply of graduates. For employees, however, it can mean that they are more willing to move away to find a more suitable job (perhaps in the same industry, but with a better employer) instead of holding on to the job they have and striving to improve it.

Increasingly, my feeling of disconnection is also dictated by my personal circumstances. I'm self-employed now, and while (as far as I know) this doesn't mean I have to leave my union, there are some unions I wouldn't be able to join because I no longer have an employer and because this situation is unlikely to change. I intend to stay in a union despite the fact that I'm now my own boss, partly because I still think I will encounter issues that my union could advise me on, and partly because it's a wider issue in society - people being treated unfairly at work is still an issue that affects me, even if it doesn't affect me personally. There's also the fact that I don't consider myself a supporter of the Labour party as things stand, and while I can live with the strong links between Labour and trade unions (and would welcome even stronger links), one of my impressions from yesterday was that while like a lot of people there, I would very much like to see Corbyn as leader of the party, I didn't feel totally justified in having that opinion given my lack of support for the party. Equally, though, I don't strongly side with any one political party, so maybe I'm bound to feel a bit disconnected in any case.

The day got me thinking, definitely, which is usually a good thing. If only to keep me amused while I dig potatoes on the allotment.

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June 13th, 2015


10:23 pm - A wheeled hobbit
I haven't blogged properly in a month or two because nothing hugely significant has happened, but THEN SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT DID HAPPEN:

As of Thursday, I'm now allowed to drive an actual car. I did well at only telling three people in the world the exact date of my test - normally when I'm worried about something, I tell EVERYONE so they can talk a bit of sense into me. Or feed me whiskey or gin. I was surprised that a) I passed at all and b) That I passed fairly comfortably, and people have been saying stuff like "See! It's not so bad, what was all the fuss about?" Well, I found it all difficult, throughout the many, many months I was learning to drive. It was still terrifying even once I knew a bit more about how to operate 'vehicles'. But then, maybe I can take some pride from that. I did think about quitting quite a few times, but I was glad I stuck with it.

I don't have any immediate plans to invest in a car, but at the same time, I don't want to leave it for ages and forget how to drive. I've considered joining some kind of cooperative car share scheme - might be an idea as I don't really need a car on a daily basis anyhoo. And despite my (ongoing) terror, I think part of me would quite enjoy taking trips round Northumberland. There's still a lot more I want to see up here.

Work seems to be going well. I mean, there is work. Work is being sent to me, then I make the foreign words into English words, then send the words to people, and then they send me money which I spend on food and drink (I describe this slightly differently on my CV). I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked if I bother getting out of my pyjamas (I do, every day, because if I didn't, that would be disgusting. I maybe don't get dressed as EARLY as I used to, but it will be at some point in the morning). I'm still managing to leave the house, and although I've had a few teething problems, I'm more or less balancing work and personal life. I did have a couple of weeks where I didn't resist the pressure to take on ALL the work, but I'm understanding the importance of setting aside time to do things other than translation. Like today we went to THE NORTHUMBERLAND MINERS' PICNIC, one of those things that seemed to have been designed to make me happy.
I'm not even sure why I love mines so much. I mean, obviously, there's a link with socialism and unions etc., but still. My ancestors were dockers, not miners. Maybe I should be frolicking round the docks, although that might give people altogether the wrong impression. Anyway, it was awesome. It was as good as the time I visited Big Pit, which I fully intend to return to some day.

One thing I've not really been making the most of as a freelancer, really, is the 'free' bit. In particular, freedom of movement. The second most common thing people say to me after the pyjamas thing is 'O you could surely take your laptop with you anywhere and troll off to distant climes, young hobbit, yet be careful not to enter Mordor'. I sometimes take the laptop and sit in the different part of the flat, but that's not quite the same. So far I've only really become a proper satellite worker once, when I went to see my parents last month. It worked out pretty well, so I think it's something to aim to do more of in future. I want to travel more this summer. There are people I know scattered about who I've not seen in actual person for ages, so it'd be nice to not just confine myself to the flat the whole time, like a ginger hermit.

(having said that, the Steam sale is on, so I'm totally not going to abandon being a hermit entirely)

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April 30th, 2015


06:04 pm - Freelancing for hobbits
It's been a while since I last posted 'in the open', and that was to announce that I was boarding the mythical freelance albatross. Well, I'm aboard that same albatross. And slightly lost in this metaphor, although I brought that on myself.

A few things have happened since my last update. I've booked my driving test for a secret point in time, known only to about five people worldwide. I'm quite keen to pass, as I suppose most people are when they have these tests. I spent the first week of April back in the Midlands with the family, and the second week in Sweden with Little Rhian and Pelle, which was as fantastic as ever. I've also been doing quite a bit of gardening:

(your humble author exhibiting a fondness for putting food out for the birds from an early age)

Also, I moved house! I decided to move house on my very last day of work, because it's always fun to test the stress levels. I didn't really decide that, to be honest, it was just the way things worked out. I'm only a few doors down from where I was, and while it's not gone TOTALLY smoothly, and there's a lot that I want to be sorted out still, I think I'm glad I did it. I was fond of my last place in a strange way, and a bit sad to leave, but it made sense to move somewhere bigger given that I'm working from home. I KIND of have a separate office, although my generally poor life organisation skills have meant that the system is more like two office-bedrooms than one office and one bedroom. But that's not really a problem.

Work-wise, my first week and a half went exactly the way I'd hoped. I got back from Sweden on 14th, fully expecting to spend the next few days feeling sad about not being in Sweden. But my moping had to be postponed, because I ended up with enough work to last several days. Things quietened down a bit last Friday, but I wasn't too daunted, because a quiet Friday afternoon is something I'd usually welcome.
However, the next Monday, and indeed most days this week so far have been pretty quiet, and it was here that I learnt my first lesson as a freelancer, namely not to totally freak out if you don't always have work. I think it was disconcerting because it was a Monday morning, I'd been fully expecting to work...and there was no work there. I didn't really have a back-up plan, so stared at my inbox in distress for some hours. I came to realise this isn't a healthy way of doing things. So for the time being, I'm keeping a list of 'downtime activities' - stuff I can do that's actually productive (so not playing computer games, which I've decided isn't allowed until after 5pm during the working week), but which I can interrupt if work comes in. So far it includes unpacking from the move (still ongoing, no fun at all), cleaning the house, learning Swedish on Duolingo and taking short walks. I've set myself seemingly random rules - I'm allowed to stay in my pyjamas until the first coffee of the day, but after that I really have to get dressed. I have to leave the house for at least half an hour, at least once each day. If I end up working on a translation really late, I'm allowed to take myself out for lunch at a local cafe later on in the week. I'm hoping these rules will preserve some sanity.

Aside from getting used to the ebb and flow of work being much more noticeable, I've found the other big change is weighing up all the various factors: how much work to take on, for how much money, and of course the type of work. There's a lot to consider - you want to avoid very low rates, but sometimes you have to compromise because there's also the matter of 'bills' and 'food'. Taking on more work equals more money, but then if you overload yourself, it'll have an impact on quality, which would be especially unwise for a newbie like me. It's a similar idea with type of work - how far is it wise to stray from your comfort zone? And what even is a comfort zone? In an ideal world, I'd only be sent translations about things I know about like u-boats and gardening, but obviously, that can't happen. So I think it's a case of finding a middle ground. I'm translating far fewer words per day than I know I can, because I want to make sure that what I do is of decent quality. I'm also enjoying asking other freelancers for help about all the stuff I'm unsure of.

ANYWAY TO CONCLUDE: it's going well so far, some things have worked out as I'd planned, others really haven't, but overall I think I'm a happy potato.
Current Mood: busybusy

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