Monday, 29 October 2012

Overdraft vs Student Finance England; round one

I've checked my bank account daily since the start of term. Each time, when I see the only change is that it's steadily decreasing under the weight of bills, food and rent, I get a lump in my throat and sheepishly ask Emma if I can use her shampoo and conditioner again this week.

I've been at university for a month, yet my student loan has yet to make an appearance. There were problems with my application this year, and Student Finance England are taking their sweet time in rectifying it. The thing is, I'm pretty much at breaking point.

I realised my loan application had been cancelled when the university granted me a Leave of Absence. They did this because they were under the impression that I wanted to take a sabbatical- despite me telling them otherwise six months- SIX MONTHS- earlier. That's a whole other story, which I won't bother with here, because I'll probably self-combust.

I reapplied for the loan. I'd never had any problems with Student Finance England, and had really been quite smug about it. While all my friends were stressing about being on hold for hours, about waiting weeks for their money to breeze in- I knowingly shook my head. What idiots, how can you manage to get such a straightforward system wrong? Turns out, this smugness was misplaced. Sorry judged friends, you're not all idiots. I take it all back, I'm one of you now.

First, there were admin problems on my part. Making a habit of moving house causes a lot of problems when it comes to locating important scraps of paper. Everything is in boxes, upside down, or three houses behind. When P40s and wage slips are asked after, it's usually taken as a rhetorical question. So  a week later, having harassed my parents' bosses into providing them with relevant paperwork, we were off. A collective sigh of relief was exhaled; from me, my parents, from all the people I'd been whinging to. It was all over.

Eventually, a letter dawdled through the post. You're eligible! We're going to give you a loan! Hurray! All you have to do is sign a letter -easy- pop it in the post -consider it done- and wait for your tuition fees and maintenance grant to dazzle you -thank all that is sacred.

I don't know which alternate realm Student Finance England occupies, but it's one where a first class letter takes more than nine days and counting to arrive. Disheartened by the ninth day of stealing eggs from my best friend and sending apologetic texts to my rent-less landlord, I decided I'd phone them up.

Twenty minutes later, having pressed one (to prove I was a student), three (to prove I wanted to talk about a loan), two (to prove I wasn't joking), one again (to say I wanted to speak to a person, not a chihuahua), nine (to sacrifice a lamb) and two again (to make sure I didn't actually require Childline), I got through to the lovely Irish Dan.

Dan agreed my loan hadn't gone in. He told me it takes five days to scan my letter (FIVE DAYS!) . He asked what form of post I used to send my letter (fucking owls, obviously) and then mentioned in passing that the problem may very well be that the university hasn't confirmed my attendance, which can take up to seven days. In Student Finance Speak, that translates as three months.

Me in ALDI every week.
I tried holding it in, but this was the straw to break the camel's back. The shock of being told it was going to take a week for the university to check the bloody register, ten days plus for them to receive in Student Finance World, then another five days for it to be scanned felt like a slap. I had a quick skrike on the phone to Irish Dan, who was probably not expecting having to deal with a crying girl today. I mumbled my thanks and hung up.

Immediately, Emma rang. She's on her way home, and there are criss-cross chips in the oven. I think I need a lie down. And some garlic mushrooms. And a bottle of wine wouldn't hurt.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Sprinting, rocking, and almost crying

11am, Leeds train station, dripping in latte, scanning the empty departure board; I'm pissed off. I've not had the best few days, so I'm desperate to visit the new Huddersfield home and TransPennine Express are doing everything within their power to depress me.

This morning when I tweeted "Forget wild horses, there could be a dragon on the line and I'd still get home today", it seems all relevant transportation systems took this as a challenge. 

My bus driver was a marde arse who insisted on telling me off for not sticking my hand out. What he thought I was doing stood at the edge of the road, by a bus stop, with purse in hand and smiling intendedly at the upcoming bus, if not waiting to board, I've no bloody idea. Facetious git. This lecture on bus-behaviour (tch) ultimately led to the ruin of the next few hours of my day. I'm not one to hold a grudge, but all I'm saying is that next time I get the no. seven -I'm paying in two pence pieces.

My train left a full minute before scheduled departure, leaving me awkwardly jogging around empty platform four at York. Disgruntled, and slightly self concious that I'd broken into a full sprint to no avail in front of quite a large crowd of Geordies, I decided to outsmart the Sunday train system by getting to The Hud via Leeds. Turns out the Train Gods weren't in the mood for my cleverness, so delayed me by five minutes. I missed my connecting train. The next one to Huddersfield was the same train I would have gotten if I'd just waited the hour and a half at York station. (f7u12, etc)

Frustrated, I went and got a coffee to try and perk myself up. I had nearly a full hour to wait in a cold Leeds station and I was in pretty sulky mood. Humphing into a seat against a corner, I counted down the minutes until I could finally board a train that would send me home. About two minutes after I'd collapsed down, a man in an impressive overcoat and beard came and stood in a way that trapped me in the corner. Not unexpected, considering I was next to the sugar and napkin dispenser. Then he started violently rocking. And humming. For about ten minutes.

Obviously, being polite, I ignored him and stared pointedly at my coffee. Inside, though, the panic levels were rising. Oh my god. I'm going to miss my train AGAIN because this man has decided to fucking sway right in front of me. How was I going to get out? Eventually, I made a bit of a fuss of cleaning the area around me of all coffee debris, hoping he'd notice and rock elsewhere. I ended up quite loudly telling him I had a train to catch, and kind of...slid... around him. I wonder if he was waiting for a train, or if that was just how he spent his Sunday mornings? 

I was so busy pondering the life of this man- does he rock and hum everyday? Does he mix it up with some singing every now and then? Is it always the train station? He's probably done a stint in Huddersfield bus station, that'll be where he learned his trade- I didn't feel a sneeze sneaking up on me. Loudly achoo-ing, my hands instinctively shot up to me face to protect other commuters from my germs. I still had my scalding hot latte in my hand. Not for the first time today, hot tears threatened to pour out in an embarrassing temper tantrum. No time to clean up, the train is pulling in and I'll be damned if I miss this one too.

You could practically smell the relief when I disembarked at Huddersfield after a 45 minute journey took nearly 3 hours. I've not been feeling myself lately, so this flying visit home means a lot to me. All these missed trains and fresh scalds were pushing me over the edge. But bugger the stress of the journey, how could anyone not be relieved when this guy is your new neighbour?

He knows we're having lamb curry.
View from the kitchen window. Srsly.

The eagle-eyed amongst you (or the ones I've been spamming on FB) may have noticed my shiny new Blog North Winner badge. THANK YOU for voting for me, my mam is now gleefully boasting to all her mates at work how her daughter has basically just won the Pulitzer Prize for blogging.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Piff the Magic Dragon- Harrogate Comedy Festival review (Yorker archives)

"Sometimes I think I need a gimmick", says the grown man dressed as a dragon. Holding a chihuahua. Who is also dressed as a dragon. The irony sinks in, and the audience guffaw again. Welcome to Piff the Magic Dragon- bringing a touch of magic to the Harrogate Comedy Festival.

Securing his place as a cult favourite on Penn & Teller's Fool Us, Piff is the absolute last comedian-come-magician-come-dragon you'll lose in a crowd. Despite his bright and cheery outfit, Piff is anything but a happy dragon. He's broke, divorced, and his only source of income is Mr Piffles, his slightly less than magical glamorous assistant.

When Piff pulls up a member of the audience to inflict some magic upon, he swiftly falls in love with her and decides he must find out if she is a true princess- via all the usual routes. Does the boot fit? Is she sensitive enough to sense a pea? Can she guess Mr Piffles' real name?

The show is quite unlike any other. Think a younger Jack Dee in a dragon costume, and with the ability to sneeze fireworks. The entire show is based on anticlimax- thrillingly so. You never quite know whether the tiny dog in a dragon outfit is genuinely about to be shot out of a cannon, or whether there's another punchline on its way.

The magic tricks were definitely a personal highlight for me- and were brilliantly set up. For instance, in handing a random member of the audience a giant box, he casually remarked that he was sure "it probably holds no relevance to the rest of the show, so you needn't worry".

My only minor criticism of the night would be that the magic/comedy balance was slightly off. As a comedian, Piff is great- with excellent timing, good audience banter and some cracking one liners. Yet, short of pretty cool Mr Piffles tricks- one disappearing dog in particular which was very impressive- and a handful of card tricks, there wasn't as much magic as I would have liked.

Mr Piffles, the bored looking chihuahua, makes a fabulous glamorous assistant. Allowing himself to be laminated, shot out of cannons, and forced to moonwalk (Piff declares him as "Putting the RSPCA into "Call the RSPCA!!")- he earns his treats by performing adorably.

With a whole host of dragon puns up his sleeve (not to mention the finger puppets or phone aerials), a cheating ex-wife who lives in his briefcase, and a broken heart- all this dragon needs is a hug and a round of applause- which he'll certainly manage to get at his forthcoming shows.

A night with Piff is an unusual night- how often can you say you've seen a real-life adult dragon make his chihuahua levitate, after all? The show is cute, funny and deadpan. Wonderful stuff.

The Harrogate Comedy Festival continues at Harrogate Theatre throughout October

Originally published on The Yorker, Oct 13th '12, here.

Friday, 12 October 2012

The C Word (or; third year fear)

My supervisor used the C word the other day. Sat politely in his office, having a chat about how our respective summers had been, he brazenly cracked out possibly the most offensive word he could have summoned.

No, not that one. God, what's wrong with you? This is respectable company we're talking about- he's an academic. You disgust me. I meant Career.

He wanted to know what I planned on doing after university. And it's a fair question- I wouldn't mind knowing myself. But that's exactly the problem; I haven't the foggiest. While everyone else has drawn up meticulous life plans- I'm still floundering around in a corner of the internet quietly wondering whether I can justify a new leather jacket to the Natwest overdraft people, and stacking my ever increasing pile of charity shop books onto my to-read list.

I have friends making the deadline for grad-scheme applications, friends comfortably setting up businesses and idly considering how much they're going to pay themselves, and friends lining up contacts for post-university networking. I don't know when you all started deciding what you wanted to do with your lives, but it would have been polite for one of you to give me a nudge, or to have at least told me to get out of bed. I mean really.

Me not knowing what to do with myself is hardly ground-breaking, but it's starting to get kinda important. I can pretty much rule out engineering, Japanese translating and piloting. I would suck at those jobs. So that narrows it down a bit, which is a nice start. Further than this though, I'm falling short of ideas. Suggestions welcome (seriously).

What I think I'll do, unless I unearth some unmissable opportunity, is take myself off one one of those gap-yahs I've been pining after for the last three years. Is that cheating? I don't care. If I structure it properly, I can build myself up a little stock of life experiences- and I might even be a little closer to knowing what I'd love to be doing at the end of it all. Filling a year with travel, lots of work experience, internships and more writing seems my best bet. I don't have to be tied to a place, I can satiate my itchy feet and (more importantly) I can buy myself some time before the real world hits.

Monday, 8 October 2012

How to say "love"

The quickest route to work from my new house happens to go through the most famous street in York. As gorgeous as Shambles is, it has now become the street I hate the most. All the quaint cobbles, curling buildings and flashes of York's 800 year history no longer remedy the fact that The Shambles is rammed with tourists.

The only time this street's been empty
Tourists were sent from hell to remind us just how angry we can be made by other people. They find the most awkward places to stand to ensure they're firmly in your way, they stop suddenly causing you to slam full pelt into the back of their head, and they sulk if you dare walk in front of their camera. In a word, they're arseholes.

Now. I may be being slightly hypocritical. When I'm tourist-ing, I seem to forget all usual human social conventions. So I can sympathise with the millions of people milling around on The Shambles, innocently pissing off the locals. I'm one of them when I'm in their hometown, after all.

Despite this- the hoard on The Shambles still house a special number one slot on the "People I Hate Most" list. Maybe it's because I'm in a rush to get to my shift. Maybe it's because some of them are just so categorically stupid. Probably it's because I have anger issues. Whatever. The point is, this wonderful, beautiful little corner of York has been ruined for me.

One of the ways I deal with these demons sporting backpacks when I'm rushing amongst them, is to use my inherent Northern charm. Once, this meant telling a guy insistent on not letting me pass to move out of the way, pretty please; but with my Mancunian accent, this polite instruction may have come across a touch more colourfully. Usually though, I'm in much less of a surging rage, and will instead twist through the crowds with a quick "sorry, love".

"Love" is a funny term. It has complex rules governing its usage- something I assumed everyone knew  naturally. Apparently not. Perhaps it's something inbuilt into Northerners, like always having a carrier bag on you in case you have to pop to ALDI. So I thought I'd clarify for the rest of you:

You can call the bus driver love, but you can't call your boss love. You can call someone older than you love, but only if they seem the type to use the term themselves. You can't call someone just a little younger than you love, but you can if they're quite a bit younger. There's no point calling posh people love. Don't call someone in a lower position than you love if you don't want to come off as patronising. If you call your mam love, brace yourself for a slap.

When a tourist in work called me love the other day, I was really offended. I was in an inferior role- his waitress- and he was quite clearly younger than me. I couldn't help but feel like he was patronising me on purpose. It undermined how polite I'd been, and definitely reinforced that he saw me as someone serving him, not just someone doing a job.

Obviously, my offence was a lot more to do with the guy's tone when he spoke to me, and the general sneering expression, but the fact that he used the word love to patronise surprised me. To me, it's a term of endearment. It's there to show that you care about the person (to some extent, I'm not sure the guy in McDonalds is genuinely fussed whether I enjoy my Happy Meal or not), and to make something more personable. The guy that accidentally bumps into you and curtly apologises might not mean it; and the guy that bumps into you and says "ah, sorry love" might not either, but I'd be more inclined to believe him.

Love is a pretty important term to me. It's a quick way of showing affection, and it's a handy extra for making something more polite. When you're barging through a swarm of people armed with maps and SLRs, it's my go-to tool for showing that us Northerners are friendly, but could you get out of my bloody way please. If this snooty guy is abusing the term- my term- then I need to make people more aware of how it's supposed to be used. Consider this blog Lesson One.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The working student (Yorker Archives)

As part of this startling independence you suddenly face upon arrival at university ("you mean I have to do my OWN laundry?"), a pitiful student loan and whatever spends you can convince your parents to donate won't ever seem quite enough to fund your debauchery or even your pesky food habit. And the realistic way of dealing with this is a part-time job. While Hannah Allies thinks it's a bit of a waste of time, I'm here to make the case for working students.

Pulling pints so you can afford your own ©Rama
Don't kid yourself that the time you're earning real life minimum wage would be otherwise spent hard at work in the library. Especially in first year, all spare time suddenly becomes nap time, or time spent pointlessly Facebook stalking people you've only the loosest connection to. It's certainly not spent rereading your lecture notes. You may as well put it to good use.

Working a part time job really will help your future prospects. As cheesy as it sounds, it's true. While you're probably not planning on becoming a professional shelf-stacker or barman after University, it's important to know how work environments work first hand. This means knowing how time-keeping works (if they say you start at one, turn up at five to), how to deal with idiot customers ("no sir, I can't give you a fifty per cent discount...") and how to handle a crisis (Table Twelve don't have their desserts yet and the kitchen's just set on fire).Transferable skills, right there.

No matter how fabulous your essays in first year were, nor how your were an avid member of Fish and Chip Soc, no employer is going to care about your CV unless you can prove you're willing and able to graft. Graft hard. Cleaning tables or changing beer barrels might not be the most fun things in the world, but it shows you know the real meaning of elbow grease. Employers lap that stuff up.

While work may eat into your social calender at some times- don't let this put you off. Weekends are pretty uneventful in York, so putting in a few hours at a shop or cafe in town will keep you busy without dragging you away from too many college matches or student nights. Plus, you've got a Christmas work-do to look forward to now.

Equally, it provides a handy excuse for those invites you'd rather not accept. Oh, you're all dressing up in bin bags for a night out? I'd love to, obviously, but I have work the next morning, and if I went in smelling like Mansion I'd probably get fired. Works a charm.

The main, and most obvious benefit of working is the wage. God knows you'll be needing some form of income; those library fines aren't going to pay themselves.

It can be tough sometimes, but just think of the money. When you're scrubbing someone else's vomit from the loo, when you're rearranging bras on a mannequin, when you're just clocking off at midnight. YOU ARE GETTING PAID. It might not be the most exciting wage, but it'll be worth it when all of your friends are eating plain pasta for the third day in a row and you can afford take away pizza. Think of the glamour.

First published here, and later featuredon Ones To Watch Media here.