Wednesday 5 December 2018

Are We Different?…

As someone who feels strongly about gender parity, and about striving for equality, today I witnessed unmistakable gender division which showed me that much as we might push for women and men to have the same rights and abilities, there are  fundamental differences in the way we see the world and the way we process logic which drives our behaviour to be different. 

Today I went to Cadbury World, Birmingham’s world famous chocolate factory, which sadly was not quite as fantastical and rich to me as it was when I was a youngster. Apparently Creme Eggs are not smaller than they used to be – I saw the chocolate moulds which allegedly prove it. Also allegedly they were not originally made with Dairy Milk – apparently that was only introduced in 2008 which I find incredibly hard to believe. Anyway, enough ranting about the loss of the deliciousness that was Creme Eggs. Today’s blog was about the differences between men and women.

At Cadbury World you do still get ‘free’ chocolate (albeit considerably less than you used to, ahem) and in a big mixed gender group today there was a significant difference in the way the males and females treated these freebies.

I am told that men see chocolate as sustenance, as immediate satisfaction, whereas women have a more emotional connection with chocolate, seeing it as a luxury to be savoured. Perhaps this is true, perhaps it is the way chocolatiers have conditioned us to be with their advertising over the years, but whichever of those it is, today when given freebies, almost to a man, the males ate each bar immediately, saving nothing for later, whereas almost every woman popped each bar straight into their bag to take home and have at a later time.

Could there have been any more perfect demonstration of the differences in the way men and women think than this? If I had surveyed every man about why he ate the chocolate or every woman why she saved it would I have received two sets of identical answers? Are we really that fundamentally different in the ways we see the world and the ways we think?

Or was it the behaviour of individual preferences imprinting on the group – one person makes an idle comment about saving it for later so the surrounding people do the same? One person excitably announces how much they love this type of chocolate bar and tucks in, letting those nearby know that it is ok to do so without judgment? I am not sure, but I do know what I saw, and it struck me as significant enough to reflect on it several hours afterwards. Are we fundamentally, internally different, divided by gender, or do we naturally seek to conform as a pack and create this division ourselves?

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Screen to Stage…

“You can’t just take a screen actor and put them on a theatre stage; it doesn’t work that way.” I found that comment coming out of my mouth as I left the Birmingham REP recently. I went to a matinee of Rebus. Ian Rankin, Rebus’s creator, wrote the story himself, and it was then adapted for stage and has received fairly good reviews. I love a theatre trip; it is always a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon. 

 I had never read any Rankin books and I have never seen an episode of Rebus on TV, but I know how highly praised the Rebus stories are so I was looking forward to this. I love detective stories in general, to be honest. Give me a Morse, Marple or Poirot and I am captivated. Give me a Nordic noir and I am intrigued. Give me a Castle or a Murder She Wrote and I am content.

The week before the play I read Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus book. I was impressed. Short, sharp, clever, it ticked the boxes, and I arrived at the theatre with a good enough sense of the character and his background to be able to leap forward in his story to the time in his life when Long Shadows is set – beyond retirement as he is pulled back to an old unsolved case and the ghosts of his past. 

The story itself was excellent. The portrayal of the character was along the right lines albeit very different to how I saw Rebus in my head; however, Knots and Crosses was set a long time before this and I do not know what has happened in between these two stories to further shape and damage the character. I also enjoyed the way his past murder victims were frequently on stage providing judgement, accusation, questioning and so on to Rebus as he remembered details from their murders and his past deeds. 

But – and I bring myself back to the point of this blog – sound was an issue. Voice projection, to be explicit. It is not the first time I have seen a television actor play a part in a theatre production and had to strain extremely hard to hear what was being said. Being able to project one’s voice is a key skill in a stage performer. With the best will in the world, if the audience cannot hear you, their emotional connection with you is lost, and that is what happened here, with almost every character on the stage.

Almost every character… with the exception of two. Two female actresses who played the two victims from historic cases, the two ghosts, were the best actors in the play, no question. And most distressing was that they were the only two players who had to share a stage bow at the end. All the rest got solo applause. I found that extremely distasteful.

Two of the main characters were played by actors familiar from television. Their voice projection was poor, both in terms of volume and intonation. Their energy on stage waned in the second half, their performance seeming to shrink as though aimed towards a television camera with a narrow field of vision rather than a theatre with an almost 180 degree span of viewers. It seemed stilted. Perhaps this was the director’s choice? The play was dark, set between seedy bars and gloomy offices; small locations, small discoveries. Perhaps the contained performances were intentional? I will never know if that was the intent, but for me, this detective story with these actors did not translate well from screen to stage. The story – its haunted narrative, its hard, tragic corners, demanded more of a performance, more of a strong darkness, more life. 

(Aside: please see my past blogs about actors playing roles in a different accent to their own. There is no need, people. Get a Scotchman to play a Scot. There is no shortage of fine Scottish actors.)

That is not to say I did not enjoy the play. As I said, the story was excellent. The set adapted very well to the various locations and the overall tone of the play. I came away still having very much enjoyed my Saturday matinee at the theatre. It just left me wanting a little more. Where I should have been reeling with the scale of Rebus’ decision, and the emotional impact of the story, instead I was wondering what had been said, or wishing it had been said with a little more conviction and grit.

You cannot just take a screen actor and put them on stage and expect the output to be at the same level of impact. They are different skills. Performance, honed take by take to a television camera until it is perfect, require far different abilities than standing in character for two hours or more in front of a live audience and being that character, embodying it fully for the audience for every second. I stand by my judgement. Just as a novel writer requires a different skill set to an editor, and a screenwriter from a director, so too does the screen actor from the stage actor. Cast the right ones and the audience will be with you from start to the bitter end.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 30 September 2018

Viszontlátásra, Budapest…

A month ago I left Budapest after living there for almost a year, and now, as I write this, it already feels so distant an experience… I dreamt it ere I woke.

So quickly has my new career drawn me in, filling my days and spare time with reflection and research. So familiar have become my old haunts so fast, old trodden paths come newly worn again. Faces, places of my past once more claimed as mine, as now. The heat and ancient majesty of Budapest, its shimmering banks and the Danube’s magic left behind along with the mysteries of its language and its people.

That was a different life I lived. One that may seem lost in a haze of the moment, but will not be forgotten.

Viszontlátásra, Budapest. You were a wonder. A dream. A foray into the land of the fae for feet that walk earth once again. I shall think of you next time I gaze out across a lake at sunset, or walk through snow-covered streets. The time went by so quickly, but the memories will take much longer to fade.

Elloise Hopkins.

Saturday 4 August 2018

Gender Bias…

Those who know me know that I really cannot stand to see gender prejudice. When we think about gender bias I am sure most people consider it in terms of rights for women, but we should remember that it can go the other way too. This week I had an experience which I found quite shocking, both in terms of what happened and then afterwards discovering what my colleagues felt about it.

What started the whole thing was a pair of shorts. We are in eastern Europe. It has been consistently 33+ degrees outside for the last goodness knows how many weeks. It is hot, and what I mean by that is that it is seriously hot. Hot enough to be permanently tiring. Hot enough to feel permanently uncomfortable. Hot enough to generate a near-constant sheen of sweat across my brow. It is hot.

A fairly new male member of staff came to work wearing a pair of shorts. They were smart shorts, knee length, inoffensive in no way whatsoever. This staff member was told to by his line manager, not in private, but in full view of his whole department, that his dress was inappropriate and unsuited for a work environment and that he should go home and get changed into full length trousers. I did not witness this conversation but am told afterwards that everyone was laughing at him and the manager’s approach was very blunt, and borderline rude.

I checked the policy when I heard this story. Our office dress code is ‘smart dress’ and nowhere in the document states that men have to wear full length trousers or that shorts are forbidden.

Needless to say the staff member in question did not take this order well, and the situation escalated into a discussion with the head of the office and the HR head and a series of latter communications over the subsequent hours and days – the contents of which obviously I was not privy to – but the end of the story is that his contract was terminated. 

When I heard about this situation later on, I was outraged on his behalf. From what I hear his behaviour after the initial incident was certainly unacceptable and as a department manager myself I certainly would not have tolerated that in my own team. However, my point is: the incident which started the chain of events – the request that he go home and change into trousers – shocked me. I completely understand that he would have found that a frustrating and unjustified request. I am not surprised that he reacted negatively.

When I challenged my fellow managers on this, I was further shocked to discover that not a one of them, male or female, agreed with my point of view or saw the decision to send him home to change as a poor decision. When I asked on what basis they felt this was the right thing to have done, not one of them could give me an answer. I pointed out that no one is forcing me to cover my legs in full length trousers or tights in this weather. They laughed. “Are you hot in those trousers?” I asked a male colleague who was wearing suit trousers. He refused to answer. “Do you not see that this is gender bias and is not acceptable?” I asked them. Two of them told me it was not gender bias but “the way things should be.”

I was disgusted by the reactions of all of them, and felt incredibly disappointed that the company I work for, that prides itself on having a modern and open culture, a ‘western’ culture in a traditionally closed and hierarchical society, had a group of such narrow-minded people forming its leadership team. I told them so, and also that I didn’t blame him for being annoyed at being told to go home and change. I explained how disappointed I was to be working among a team of dinosaurs, and left them to hopefully consider what I had said.

At the end of this month I am leaving the company. A career change into a new industry will be my next chapter, and I am pleased to say that at face value my new employer appears to actually embody that modern and open culture that my current company thinks it has. I have recently discovered that my new workplace actually has a gender neutral dress code. There is a little spark of hope within me that I will find the beliefs and opinions of my new colleagues more in line with my own, or at the least open to the ideas of others and open to the idea of change.

Gender bias works both ways, against women, against men, and neither is acceptable. Here, where it was based on unchallenged traditions and illogical decisions, it was a shocking demonstration of old fashioned values conflicting with the modern world. I can only hope the people around me will learn to open their minds a little more after this week’s episode.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 17 June 2018

Viscose is Not My Friend…

When I moved to Budapest I knew I would have at the least just shy of a year and was really exited by that fact. The thought of experiencing all of the seasons, knowing that here they have more extreme seasonal distinctions appealed to my constant desires for experience and variety. Since then, I have learned how it feels to live through some of these seasons.

I arrived in autumn to a pleasant surprise. It was warm, as warm as an English summer, in fact, and I basked in it. Yes I had to do boring admin like queuing for hours at the immigration office, finding a banker who spoke English to get a bank account open, and apartment hunting, but it was an enjoyable weather welcome to my new home and it helped me to appreciate that I had made the right decision in coming here.

Winter was cold. I think in a solid month long period in January/February the temperature remained permanently below zero. Bundling up was a necessity. My thick winter coat was a blessing. Yet I did not feel so terribly cold to the bone as I usually do in an English winter. The lack of a constant wind made a difference. Also the damp in the air, I am told. On stripping off outer layers after being outside, it does not take a further five hours to really feel warm again like I have on occasion at home.

Which brings me more to the now. It is early June. The beginning of March was still on the chilly wintery side of the seasons. In early April when I returned after a break spring and summer had definitely merged as far as I am concerned. For the last two months or so now, bar the odd few days here or there where it gets stormy and the temperature drops to the mid 20s, it has been steadily in the high twenties or low thirties – and we are talking degrees Celsius here – all day every day. I wake up and get ready for work in 27 degrees. I scurry around at lunchtime trying to run errands or hide in the shade from 32 degrees. I go to sleep at night in 27 degrees. In short, it is very hot. If this is spring, I confess I am quite scared about going into full summer. Wish me luck.

I have always loved the sun, and even described myself as a sun worshipper on occasion. Cut to my first weekend in Budapest when I moved here, sunbathing on Margaret Island (Margitsziget). Cut to last summer, England, we had a several week run of very pleasant weather in the 25 degree region. My lunchtime routine became a short walk to the local university campus for a 99 with a flake and a sunbathe before returning to the office. In fact it was the only thing getting me through the work day back then. At the end of the summer I quit the Birmingham property industry, hence my almost-year in Budapest.

As I sit here in my apartment, 9am Sunday, the early morning sun beams through the windows and makes the waters of the Danube gleam invitingly. If I could go and jump in it, I would, but I have been highly discouraged from doing so! Instead I am planning a mini holiday to Lake Balaton, Hungary’s beaches on the lake region, and of course there are always the thermal baths close by when you feel that need to plunge into cool water. Which I do, on around a three-hourly basis. It can be an expensive habit.

For someone who thought she was a sun worshipper, living in sun of this strength, for continuous periods like this, is hard work. Sticky, sun-cream laden skin is now the norm, rather than the sign of a holiday. No freezer compartment is big enough for the number of ice cubes I need in my day. Sweating and continuously rehydrating have become my life. My brain is functioning at around 70% performance.

Even my wardrobe needed a total overhaul, as I quickly learned. Any piece of clothing that is not at least 90% pure cotton, modal, other natural, breathable fibre has been banished back to the UK or at least hurled back into my suitcase in disgust ready for the next journey home. Polyester is a pest. Viscose is an absolute no-no. It is a horrible sensation trying to interview candidates for job openings or lead a training session when you feel over-heated and 100% uncomfortable in your outfit. Never have I fidgeted so much during my working day.

I have now been in Budapest for eight months and like a typical English girl, the weather still very much dictates how I spend my time. If it is going to be a real scorcher, as it often is, I may opt for a cool museum or art gallery trip coupled with a sunshine stroll around Buda Castle, City Park (Városliget) or the island where shade and thermal baths are on offer. If we are in for storms – and my goodness have I seen some phenomenal lightning storms since I moved here – then a welcome day at the keyboard it is. And for the rest, it involves a lot of water, a well prepared picnc, decent walking shoes, a hat, a helluva lot of high factor sun cream, and early morning energy to catch the bus/tram/train to the selected destination for a day of exploration.

I do still love the sun. That fundamental desire in me to feel its rays on my face and see it glinting off rooftops and water has not changed. But my desire to always be in it, feeling it against my skin, has. As someone before who would always have chosen to sit in the sun, now I make a beeline for shade. As someone who enjoys being outside, walking around new places, exploring, finding peace and being left to my thoughts, regularly sitting, dripping with sweat and exhaustion, on busy public transport, going here or there under fierce heat has become really hard work. It has got to the stage where it is almost a chore forcing myself to make a plan to go out and do something with my weekends and getting up early enough to go and do it before the sun hits its peak.

I always say, in life, that I would only ever want to regret things that I had done, and not things that I had not done. So I need to stick to that philosophy and force myself myself to fill my last months in Hungary with soaking up as much of its country and culture as possible before the chance to do so ends. Soon enough I will be back in England, onto the next chapter of my life, and I would hate to return knowing that I did not live this chapter as fully as I wanted to.

Then again, at least, if nothing else, I have learned that viscose is not my friend, and I have found that hiding from the sun does wonders for ones word count.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 8 April 2018


Whilst it can be of phenomenal strength in literature or poetry, music or film, repetition in life is arguably among the most tedious and irritating experiences we are doomed to suffer. At least that is the way it can feel. Time passes so quickly and yet at once seems to stutter and start over the same hurdles. Without challenge we would be bored, but why do the same lessons have to be repeated?

I seem to be stuck in a nightmare circle in my day job where the same problems, which have already been reviewed and seemingly resolved, crop up time and time again whenever there is a contract or staff change. Is it that people are inherently incapable of taking instruction from others, always believing they know best and resisting guidance? Is it that they are entirely unable to learn from mistakes? Or unwilling, perhaps?

I am become that broken record, continuously providing the same instruction and the same piece of advice over and over and over again in an endless whirl leaving me to frequently and repetitively pose the questions: “What is wrong with people?” “Am I speaking English?” “Where is the nearest brick wall so I can bang my head against it?” There is something severely distasteful to me about having to revisit something already considered closed. Why?

As a child I was very lucky – my parents would often read to me, making stories and characters come alive and igniting that love for storytelling which means so much to me today. One book, one phrase, always stuck with me, and I can, even now, hear my father’s voice uttering it: “And don’t look back”.

Has that phrase, don’t look back, so ingrained itself in my subconscious that any repetition, any revisiting of the past stokes impatience in me? Has it become my underlying philosophy in life?

Don’t look back.

Life is too short to dwell. Too short to spend time re-doing something that was already done. Too short to linger on what has gone.

Don’t look back.

Repetition. It can be a beautiful and poignant device.

Repetition. It can be the most depressing point of the day.

Don’t look back. Don’t dwell on it. Move on. Embrace the repetition. Perhaps that has to become my new mantra. Perhaps I will learn something, even if others won’t. Perhaps reaching for optimism in our lowest points is to truly find strength within that we did not know was there.

Elloise Hopkins.