Friday, 30 December 2011

The best eleven of '11: books

First of all, it's important to note that only a few of these books were actually published in 2011.  I almost never read recent releases (unless it's trashy crime fiction: I'm always first in the library reservation queue when a new Tess Gerritsen or Ian Rankin is released), tending to buy most of my books from secondhand bookshops or charity shops.  But they are all books that I read, and loved, for the first time this year (in no particular order)...

Non-Fiction

Caitlin Moran How To Be A Woman
One book that actually was published this year and has won all sorts of well-deserved plaudits.  When I was a teenager I wanted to be Moran, who was a writer for Melody Maker by the age of 16 and presented Channel 4 yoof show, Naked City in all her Doc Martened-, red hair dyed-, size sixteen-glory.  I loved her book - which is part memoir, part feminist polemic - and still can't quite get over the fact that it won the Galaxy prize for best book of 2011 earlier this week.  Even if this book was rubbish (which it's not: it's funny and moving and incredibly clever), I'm excited that a book about feminism is at the front of WH Smiths.

Tom Hodgkinson How To Be Free
How often can one say of a book, truthfully, 'it changed my life'?  But this really did, in a hundred tiny ways: subverting certain long-held ideas about work and life, and altering my shopping habits to name just two changes.

Anne Fadiman Ex Libris: Confessions Of A Common Reader
I bought this in a dusty secondhand bookshop on a sweltering summer's day in Seattle and read it in one sitting on a freezing night in Iceland, driving my travelling companion mad as I whooped with laughter at the essays about books and reading.  There is nothing quite like coming across someone who is as barmy about books as you are; who makes your weirder habits (stroking my books every so often being one of many) seem acceptable. 

Susan Hill Howards End Is On The Landing
I read this on a very book-themed week in Wales this May, visiting the Hay Festival with my mum and brother.  Subtitled A Year Of Reading From Home, this book is a wonderful journey through literature in the company of award-winning novelist Hill.

Claire Tomalin Jane Austen: A Life
Clearly, there is a link developing here in my non-fiction reading.  Books about books; books about reading; books about authors.  This biography of Austen was incredibly readable, tempting me to tackle Tomalin's 560+ page life of Dickens next year.

Dave Eggers Zeitoun
Eggers tells the story of Zeitoun - an immigrant, a businessman, a husband and father, a Muslim - in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  After Zeitoun risked his own safety to help people during the floods, he was mistakenly arrested and held as a terrorist.  Reading it this summer in New Orleans was a raw and painful experience.

Fiction
I devour fiction, racing through two or three paperbacks a week, on average.  However, few of these have any lasting impact; perhaps because I consume them so quickly, perhaps because they tend towards the trashy.  If it features a vampire detective, a werewolf looking for love, or a time-travelling witch, I've probably read it.  However these are a few novels I've enjoyed this year, with nary a supernatural crime-fighter between them.

Stephen Chbosky The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
Deservedly compared to The Catcher In The Rye, this novel follows the wallflower of the title, Charlie, through his years of high school and is brilliant, funny, wise and true.  I recognised the teenage me in the main characters as they struggle to find their places in the world, helped only by Rocky Horror, The Smiths and each other.  The final twist in the plot hits like a slug to the guts.  Heartily recommended.

Armistead Maupin Mary Ann In Autumn
I adore all of the Tales of the City series, and enjoyed this latest episode all the more for having been in San Francisco this summer.

Steve Kluger My Most Excellent Year
I have a whole shelf dedicated to 'gay themed YA novels'.  This is a well-written but essentially fluffy novel about two best friends - one gay, one straight - and their quest for love over the course of a year. 

Jennifer Egan A Visit From The Goon Squad
Deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize this year.

Kate Atkinson Started Early, Took My Dog
The latest title in Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series, strictly speaking this is genre fiction; a detective novel, yet it's so much more than the sum of it's parts.  Superbly plotted, fantastic characterisation, and with an ending that will leave you hungry for answers.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The best eleven of '11: music

I do love a good end of year list.  I played around with various permutations this year (having done seperate top fives for album, single and live music last year) and in the end decided to stick them all in together, which led to an interesting One Direction vs. Two Door Cinema Club face off. 


1. Sufjan Stevens live at The Apollo, Manchester, 19th May
It was interesting to see Sufjan Stevens' concert at the Southbank centre (together with this Manchester date one of few he played in the UK this year) on many end of year 'best of' lists, often from theatre or art critics rather than rock music writers.  Not just the best live experience of 2011, but the best of my life I reckon.  You can read my detailed review here.

2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
I was so excited about this release after loving Fleet Foxes' debut album and experiencing their incredible live show in 2009.  I rarely buy CDs as soon as they come out, but I had Helplessness Blues on pre-order, so desperate was I to hear it.  On first listen I was every so slightly underwhelmed, but it really is a record that rewards repeated listening.  It was my constant companion as I travelled in the Pacific Northwest this summer, sounding at home amongst the towering pine trees.  The whole album is close to perfection (Sim Sala Bim striking the only false note for me), but album closer Grown Ocean is my choice for favourite track. 


3. Beirut - The Rip Tide
My love of this album has been documented here before, so I won't harp on again about it's brilliance.  Suffice it to say that three months after it's release I still play it constantly, and it's increased my appreciation of the previous albums too.

4. Metronomy - The English Riviera
Reminiscent, as the band intended, of an English seaside resort, I've played this less as the seasons have changed.  Just as I listen to Midlake a lot during winter, Metronomy's second album belongs to the summer months and I predict it will make a return to my stereo come April.

5. Karima Francis live at The Glee Club, Birmingham, 30th September
Reviewed here.

6. Two Door Cinema Club - What You Know (single)
This gloriously jangly guitar-pop single (from the 2010 album Tourist History) makes me grin like a loon and dance around the kitchen whenever I hear it.  It was a tough choice between this and One Direction for the top single spot, but the fact that I'm not embarrassed to like Two Door Cinema Club edged it for them.

7. One Direction - What Makes You Beautiful (single)
Time hasn't blunted my love for this slice of cheesy pop heaven.  I still squeal when it comes on the radio, we had a little singalong to it at my last craft club, and when it was played at the year 7 Christmas party I chaperoned, I think I might have been more excited than the kids.  Wrong, I know.

8. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
Hailed by music critics as being a return to his Gold-era form, this would be in my top ten for the title track alone. 

9. Feist - How Come You Never Go There (single)
I loved this lead single from Feist's new record, Metals, but have been a little disappointed by the album.

10. Jeffrey Lewis live at Lock 42, Leicester, 29th OctoberIf only because we got to stand next to the man himself during the support act.

11. Bombay Bicycle Club - A Different Kind Of Fix
Single Lights Out Words Gone is one of the best things they've done.  I can't wait to see them in 2012.

To come later this week: books.  In the meantime, let me know what your top gigs and records were in 2011.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Music Monday: The Smiths


When I first left home for university it was a conceit of mine to listen to this song when I returned home, as the coach pulled into the bus station.  Bradford, a northern town as grim and bleak as any Morrissey ever sang about; were it not for my family I would certainly have felt that "I would rather not go/Back to the old house". 

Driving past the house I grew up in  - my mum having long moved - on Christmas Eve, I began singing this again.  A masterpiece of longing, as so many of The Smiths' songs are, Back To The Old House conjures that precise mixture of regret and jubilation one feels on returning to a place you have previously escaped.  

Monday, 19 December 2011

Music Monday: the saddest Christmas song ever


I love this melancholy, beautiful song from the 1940s musical Meet Me In St Louis.  And ok, so it might not be the saddest but it's certainly one of the most bittersweet in the Christmas canon.  If I knew lots about music I could probably point out that it sounds sad because of a descending minor chord progression in the chorus or something, but I don't so I won't.  For me, it's all about Garland's delivery; the way she makes the line "let your heart be light" sound anything but light and cheerful.  Today I'm feeling exhausted, headachey, sick of children and horrified that we still have another three days of school to get through, so melancholy suits me down to the ground.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Music Monday: Sufjan Stevens



One Christmas a few years ago I decided that what my Sufjan Stevens-loving (but Christmas-hating) brother needed to give him some festive cheer was the five CD box set Songs For Christmas.  The fact that I could listen to this gift in the run-up to Christmas, before wrapping it and putting it under the tree, was entirely a lucky coincidence.

So Christmas Day dawned and we gathered around the tree to open our gifts.  A few presents in, I came to one which was a very familiar size and shape, but addressed to me from Richard.  Having a hunch what it might be, I handed him his gift and, at pretty much the same time, we opened our identical copies of Songs For Christmas.  Mine had also been 'previewed' by the giver.

There is so much to love on those five EPs, from original compositions such as Sister Winter (which to my mind is as good a song as Stevens has ever written) to new arrangements of classic carols like Oh Holy Night and Amazing Grace.  I've chosen Joy To The World to share today because it takes a carol that is somewhat rambunctious and over the top and turns it into a gentle and reflective hymn.  Plus it has sleigh bells, as all good Christmas tunes should.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Music Monday: I Am What I Am


A song that I doubt needs too much introduction today.  Famous as something of a gay anthem, it was originally written for the musical La Cage aux Folles and has subsequently been recorded by Gloria Gaynor, Shirley Bassey and John Barrowman, amongst others.  But don't worry, I haven't suddenly become a raging Barrowman fan.  I'm posting this because Gay Abandon sung it in their concert on Saturday and it's been stuck in my head ever since.  Their arrangement is more pared-down and therefore more moving than this somewhat overblown version.  No matter, because it's the lyrics that count.  Reproduced below, it's clear why the song became a gay anthem (not least because it's sung by a gay character in the show and is unequivocally about being out and proud) but I also think it can resonate regardless of sexual orientation.  I spent so much time in my teens and twenties trying to fit myself into what I thought other's wanted me to be.  One of my favourite things about being in my thirties (actually, it might be my only favourite thing about my thirties) is that I now have the self-assurance to say (and mean), "I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses".

I am what I am
I am my own special creation.
So come take a look,
Give me the hook or the ovation.
It's my world that I want to take a little pride in,
My world, and it's not a place I have to hide in.
Life's not worth a damn,
'Til you can say, "Hey world, I am what I am."
I am what I am,
I don't want praise, I don't want pity.
I bang my own drum,
Some think it's noise, I think it's pretty.
And so what, if I love each feather and each spangle,
Why not try to see things from a diff'rent angle?
Your life is a sham 'til you can shout out loud
I am what I am!
I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses.
I deal my own deck
Sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces.
There's one life, and there's no return and no deposit;
One life, so it's time to open up your closet.
Life's not worth a damn 'til you can say,
"Hey world, I am what I am!"

Thursday, 1 December 2011

I have never...

Have you ever played "I have never..."?  It's a great drinking game, although I do blame it for the biggest hangover of my life on my 30th birthday.  Don't worry though, I've not got the shots of sambuca out tonight.  The latest series of I've Never Seen Star Wars has just ended on Radio 4, and it made me think about the cultural experiences that I'm lacking.  For instance, until last week I had never read, nor seen, The Lord Of The Rings.  To be entirely accurate, I still haven't as I'm a few hundred pages - and many hours of DVD - away from finishing.  My brother, Richard, has just finished the last Harry Potter book, after being convinced of their worth by a small girl he met on a train in America.  Coming late to a cultural phenomenon is an odd experience because you approach the book or film with many preconceptions.  The first hundred or so pages of LOTR were confusing for me, not least because from what I'd picked up over the years, my impressions of Gandalf didn't mesh with the character who spends much of the opening putting on a firework display for someone's birthday.

For an English teacher, I have a real paucity of knowledge when it comes to certain key texts in the literary canon.  I've never read To Kill A Mockingbird or One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.  Not seen the films either.  I'm embarrassed that I've read Twilight but not Wuthering Heights, but I'm not in any hurry to go and find my copy of the Bronte classic.  When I was younger I fiercely resisted reading any book my mum recommended to me, preferring to discover things for myself.  I think that as an adult I still have that stubborn streak within me: most books, films or TV shows regarded as a 'must-read/see' tend to pass me by.  Essentially, I don't like being told what to do.   So what cultural experiences would you be able to say "I have never..." about and why? 

Monday, 28 November 2011

Music Monday: Born Ruffians


Born Ruffians are on my long list of bands that I love but no-one else I know seems to have heard of.  In fact, apart from people who have listened to me rant about how brilliant they are, I've never met anyone who's heard of them.  So this is my attempt to spread the word.  At the top of the page is the ultra lo-fi What To Say, from their most recent album Say It.  I love the slow build up of instruments, beginning with just a sparse bass line until by the end it's a veritable riot (well, for Born Ruffians anyway) of noise.  I like the video too, which is a perfect match for the band's low-tech approach.

Below is a live version (which looks like it was recorded in someone's basement) of Foxes Mate For Life, from first album Red Yellow & Blue.  This is one of my favourite songs for singing along at the top of my voice (usually in the car, far away from any innocent ears).  All together now: "and I kno-oh-oh-oh-oh foxes ma-eh-eh-te for life becau-au-au-se they're in lo-oh-oh-oh-ve". 


Finding these videos has just reminded me how much I adore Born Ruffians.  Let me know what you think of them.  I'm off to put the album on now...

Friday, 25 November 2011

Mag hag: 24 hours with a pile of magazines

Pretty much the only benefit of spending the last two days languishing in bed with a bug has been the chance to tackle the large pile of magazines I'd aquired over the past few weeks.  Reading them back-to-back led me to ponder the weirdness that is women's mags.

Red
Traditional glossy, aspirational woman's magazine.  I used to love it but cancelled my subscription recently when I realised that reading it made me feel bad.  The Christmas issue is a must-buy though, if only for the annual 25% off at Paperchase voucher.
Coverlines include 'My 10-year love affair with Botox'; 'Lorraine Pascal's totally lazy Christmas'.  Did feminism ever happen?
For women who, judging by the articles therein, are in their 30s or 40s, live in impossibly nice houses with their impossibly nice husband and 2.4 children.
Wants you to buy Tom Ford eye shadow palette, a bargain at only £62; a £920 sheepskin beanbag from The White Company; an £8,000 Rolex watch.
Reading it I feel an increasing sense of dissatisfaction with my life.  Looking at the glossy interiors photographs, my thoughts turn to the grubby grouting in my bathroom.  There are some articles that resonate - particularly 'Get an experience high', about how to cut down on buying and focus more on doing (which seems ironic in a magazine that is 50% adverts) - but overall reading it reminds me why I cancelled my subscription. 

Mollie Makes
Relatively new (only on it's eighth issue) craft magazine aimed at young, trendy crafters who might watch Kirstie's Homemade Home then go out to a gig.
Coverlines include 'Thrifty style secrets: recycled makes for your home & wardrobe'; 'Scandinavian inspiration: Norway's coolest design blog'.  Clearly not your average craft magazine, with patterns for teddy bear cross stitch.
For women who have always been into crafts, honest, I'm not jumping on the 'cool craft' bandwagon, I swear...
Wants you to buy a new Janome sewing machine, £99.99; handknitted lambswool egg cosies.
Reading it I wonder who are these people who find amazing junkshop finds for a few quid?  My local junk shop is full of, well, junk and it costs a damn sight more than the £6 for a chair quoted in here.  Mollie Makes is just as aspirational as mainstream women's mags, it's just a different kind of aspiration.  Instead of lusting after Rolex watches and posh make-up, we're lusting after vintage fabrics, car boot bargains and screenprinted cushions.

Fat Quarter
Recently defunct quarterly magazine, clearly published on the thinnest of shoestrings but packed full of interesting articles that feel aimed at women exactly like me (whoever they may be).
Coverlines include 'Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses'; 'Drag kings'.  Terse and to the point.
For women who "are after a 'countercultural ladies' mag," according to the tagline.  I'll assume the "ladies'" is ironic.
Wants you to buy albums by bands so obscure even I haven't heard of them.
Reading it I want to weep that after only three issues, the only possible UK alternative to Bust or Bitch has folded.  Blogs are all well and good, but I'm old-fashioned and like to turn pages when I read.


Diva
This is neither the time nor the place to go into detail about my sexual preferences.  Suffice it to say that I've dated girls and boys in the past (is it bad that I still think in terms of 'girls' and 'boys' at the age of 33?!) and I enjoy the ocassional flick through Diva, if only for the novel experience of reading a magazine for women that isn't obsessed with diets.
Coverlines include 'Feminine lesbians: Too straight looking to be gay?'; 'New Leeds gay quarter - ghetto or fabulous?'.  They like rhetorical questions.
For women who like women, duh.
Wants you to buy The new Bjork album; an Annix dildo for the special offer price of £29.99.
Reading it I decide I want some fabulous red lipstick, like the women in the vintage fashion feature.  But no rage, no yearning for consumer goods... this might just be the winning mag.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Music Monday: Rufus Wainwright


An awful admission for an English teacher, this, but I'm not that familiar with Shakespeare's sonnets, beyond the famous sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee...") and a couple of others that I studied at university years ago.  This is a state which I need to remedy, because I have fallen deeply in love with Rufus Wainwright's rendering of Sonnet 29.

A traditional sonnet is focused on the object of the speaker's affection, whereas this poem is more speaker-focused, concerning itself (to begin with, anyway) with the experiences of the writer rather than their feelings for another.  Only at the end do thoughts turn to a lover, when the poet "think[s] on thee", and his previously despairing wallow turns into something more joyous, "like the lark at break of day arising".  I love the contrast of the image of the depressed young poet in the first octave with the lover of the last sestet.  Beginning with a rather careless, throwaway,"yet..", he decides that actually, he can put up with all of it if he thinks of "thy sweet love".

Wainwright set the words to music as part of a fundraising project for RADA in 2002, and what a spectacular job he did.  Contrasting piano and banjo, and then accordion and cello, it is a startlingly simple orchestration which allows focus to fall on the lines of the poem.

Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Rip Tide by Beirut

I appreciate that Beirut aren't for everyone.  Their first three albums were heavily influenced by world music: Balkan folk music on 2006's flugelhorn -heavy Gulag Orkestar; French chanson on the second album (lots of accordions this time) The Flying Club Cup; Mexican mariachi on The March of the Zapotec from 2009.  I happen to love the first two especially and enjoy the thematic way that songwriter Zach Condon approaches the production of an album, but new record The Rip Tide serves as a riposte to those who would claim that Condon can only write 'concept' albums.

Album opener A Candle's Fire may begin with a beautifully mournful accordion solo and yes, that may be a mariachi-style brass band joining in at 00:16, but this is not another musical tour in album form.  The song titles alone speak volumes: previous albums have taken the listener to Bratislava, Rhineland, and Cherbourg, amongst others.  On The Rip Tide, the titles tend towards the abstract rather than the geographical, the furthest they take the listener is Santa Fe and East Harlem.  If there are any influences at work on The Rip Tide, it's straightforward (or as straightforward as Beirut ever get, anyway) American pop music.  Musically and lyrically, this record is closest in style to their Lon Gisland EP; those of you with eagle-eyes will spot that the title of the EP referenced another American location. 

There is more 'space' on this album; more moments where Beirut allow the piano, guitar or ukelele to play unencumbered, which allows extra focus on the lyrics.  It also makes the moments when the trumpet, flugelhorn, accordion, trombone and myriad other sounds rise up all the more effective.  Title track The Rip Tide opens with a quiet piano line before being joined by a brass section, which then fades away for the first verse.  Throughout the song the two elements - acoustic vs. full instrumentation - ebb and flow to evoke the image of waves moving in and out on the tide.

A Candle's Fire has a confessional quality to it, as Condon sings "I, it's certain from afar, have failed to pull my weight."  Santa Fe is more upbeat; almost, even, a Beirut song you could dance to.  And if the album never quite reaches the promise of these incredible opening tracks, there is still much to appreciate. 

Monday, 14 November 2011

Music Monday: REM

At My Most Beautiful by REM

I read an interview with REM in The Guardian on Friday, which prompted me to spend the weekend revisiting some of my favourite albums of theirs.  I love New Adventures In Hi-Fi (which I always think of as I relatively new REM album, so imagine my shock when I realised it was released in 1996.  Yep, that's how old I am: something that happened 15 years ago is 'recent'!); Monster was the album playing in the background when I fell in love for the first time; I have a great fondness for Nightswimming and Sweetness Follows from the album that sent them into the stratosphere, Automatic For The People.  But if I had to narrow it down, I think my favourite REM track would be this one. 

At My Most Beautiful is, for me, the most perfect expression of what it means to be in love. 
When Michael Stipe sings, "I read bad poetry into your machine/ I save your messages
just to hear your voice/ you always listen carefully to awkward rhymes/ you always say your name/ like I wouldn't know it's you, at your most beautiful" there is something wonderful about the reciprocity of the love that he describes.  The fact his lover "listens carefully", the way he describes the leaving of a message, "like I wouldn't know it's you".  These tiny expressions of devotion captured in a few lines of song, so much more impressive than Bruno Mars' recent boast  "I would catch a grenade for ya". 

Monday, 7 November 2011

Music Monday: Smashing Pumpkins


I'm surprised it's taken me so long to get round to posting a Smashing Pumpkins video.  I may listen to other bands more, and the Pumpkins line-up may have changed more often than the Sugababes, but they are the band I have loved most and longest.  From lying in a darkened teenage bedroom listening to their Siamese Dream album for the first time and thinking "sod you Bradford chavs, this is who I choose to be now"; to 'making out' (great phrase, so much nicer than 'snogging', which seems tinged with alcohol and boredom) while Lily, My One & Only played in the background; to watching them on the main stage at Glastonbury while under the influence of a raft of chemicals; to playing Rocket triumphantly on my car stereo after I passed my driving test at the grand old age of 29, the Smashing Pumpkins have been there at every stage of my post-adolescent life.

As soon as I hear the bombastic chords that herald Cherub Rock's  arrival, I feel like I'm 16 again.  My then-boyfriend Ollie and I used to play this down the phone to each other.  Both struggling through the last weeks of our GCSEs at different schools where we were bullied for being different, we decided that the lyrics were nothing short of genius.  Now I look at them and cringe, but I still adore the song.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Music Monday: Jeffrey Lewis


The Jeffrey Lewis gig on Saturday was a good one, but I felt too lazy yesterday to write a proper review of it.  His just-released album, A Turn In The Dream Songs, is a gentler, more acoustic bunch of tracks than his last couple of albums, and feeling tired from cycling 18 miles around Rutland Water that afternoon, I found myself being lulled into somnolence.  This song, To Go And Return, came about halfway through the set.  As lovely as it is, I was pleased to be woken up when they launched into three blistering covers of 60s garage rock songs (learnt by the band, bizarrely, after being booked to play at the opening of a furniture shop in Brighton) and hence into crowd-pleasers Broken Heart and Slogans from his last album, 'Em Are I.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Not buying it: the aftermath

Two weeks after finishing my half term of buying nothing, and I am heartily sick of shopping already.  Suddenly, free time that I was using for crafting, baking or reading have become consumed with, well, consuming.  After spending the third afternoon in five days shopping, I have decided to call a halt to the whole thing. 


Two dresses, a pair of shoes, two CDs... they're all lovely but the thrill I got from purchasing them was very fleeting, replaced quickly by a little voice asking, "but do you need them?"  Actually, it was five dresses that I bought, but another feature of my borderline addiction to shopping is a tendency to buy something, then return it the next day.  Of course, laziness or circumstance sometimes means I never return the item and hence my wardrobes are full to bursting of things that have never been worn.

One thing I missed last half term was my Saturday ritual of walking into the city centre, browsing the shops, buying a couple of things and finishing with lunch, so this Saturday I was excited to return to my usual pattern.  However, instead of enjoying it I just found the whole experience pretty empty.  Like Chandler Bing at major New York landmarks, I found myself wanting to moo at the crowds mindlessly wandering from one shop to another.

It seems ridiculous to me that I made it to the age of 33 without realising the utter pointlessness of consumerism, but at least now the scales have been lifted from my eyes.  However, I work best with rules and it wouldn't be enough to control my spending to just say to myself, "oh, I won't shop so much".  So I am reinstituting not buying it, from today.  I have some slightly different rules this time though, to make it a more sustainable long-term approach.

1. No more ban on magazines, however I'm not returning to Red or GlamourMollie Makes, Fat Quarter and Bitch will be allowed but magazines that exist purely to fuel consumerism are still out.
2. There are a limited number of clothes that I genuinely do need.  New bras, a new pair of jeans (my old one have holes in the thighs that are becoming obscene) and, because I just can't quit my spot habit, a polka dot dress will be allowed.
3. Bearing in mind the time of year, Christmas presents are of course allowed.
4. Anything secondhand is fine.  The local charity shops, vintage markets and secondhand bookstores can rejoice at the return of a reliable customer.
5. Buying CDs from an independent record store is fine.  Despite usually being more expensive than Amazon, I try and buy from the wonderful Rockaboom in Leicester, because I would feel terrible if they ever went out of business.
6. The thing I missed most last term was my little Saturday trips to nearby towns like Stratford, Melton Mowbray and Ashbourne.  So in a contentious move, purchases out of Leicester will be allowed within reason (so no trips up the motorway to Meadowhall: that's cheating).
7. No internet shopping.  At all.
8. Craft supplies are an essential: I nearly went mad last term, not being able to buy new fabric when I saw lovely bits and pieces.

Last time around, knowing that I had the blog to report to made me much better at sticking to my rules.  This time around I don't intend to blog much about the details because I hope it will have longevity and it would become pretty boring to write about the same thing every week.  However I know my local readers (especially Leanne, who is very good at reminding me of my rules!) will be keeping a watchful eye on any purchases.  Wish me luck!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Music Monday: Sigur Ros


Who else could it be this week apart from Sigur Ros?  While I've always quite liked them (if found some songs overexposed by countless adverts and soundtracks), I've never got it like I did when I was in Iceland.  Listening to Takk as I walked around Reykjavik was a moment of musical perfection. 

Se Lest's chiming glockenspiels and parping brass bands combined with Jonsi's ethereal and otherworldly vocals sound how Iceland looks.  If this video - taken from their DVD release, Heima, and featuring a combination of footage from the band's 2006 tour of Iceland and shots of Icelandic scenery - isn't enough to make you want to get on the next plane to Keflavik then you are very possibly dead inside.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Music Monday: One Direction


As much as my CD collection shouts 'indie purist' and my festival- and gig-going habits are unimpeachable, every so often a pop song comes along that I fall for.  Biology by Girls Aloud, Dynamite by Taoi Cruz, Three Colours In Her Hair by McFly are all songs that I happily rate as some of my favourite singles of all time.  In fact, I think the single is where pop music comes into it's own.  Bands like Midlake or Bonnie Prince Billy might release album after album of amazing songs that work as a coherent whole, but can they write a three minute pop gem that gets everyone dancing at weddings?

My latest pop obsession is about as wrong as it gets: a group manufactured by evil overlord of pop, Simon Cowell, and managed by his ever-so-aptly-named Syco company.  But if this is wrong, I don't want to be right.  From the opening bars which blatantly rip off Summer Nights to the McFly-like "nah nah nah"s in the bridge, I love You Don't Know You're Beautiful by One Direction and I defy you to listen to it and not feel a grin spread across your face.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Music Monday


Jeffrey Lewis is proof positive that, if at first you don't succeed (in this case, succeed to like a band), then try again.  When I saw him play with his band, The Junkyard, at Summer Sundae festival in 2008 I was underwhelmed to say the least.  I didn't enjoy the music, nor understand the relevance of his illustrations (which were projected onto a screen behind the stage).  When it came to the end of his set and a song called Creeping Brain, accompanied by a full-on animated film about, well, a creeping brain, I'd had enough of what I felt was self-indulgent, Brooklyn hipster shit.

Fast forward a year, and I'm sitting in the film tent at Latitude having dragged myself out of bed early to catch a special performance by Lightspeed Champion.  The audience waits, and waits... and finally an annoucement comes on that they (he?) are not going to make it and replacing them (him?) is none other than Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard.  Well, it was raining outside and I was somewhat hungover, so despite hating them at Summer Sundae I stayed put.  And was I ever glad I did.  Something in their performance just clicked for me.  It might have been their cover of Nirvana's Sifting illustrated with cartoons that this time I found delightfully whimsical and amusing instead of contrived and confusing.  It might have been the more accessible songs from his then-new album, Em Are I, such as Roll Bus Roll and Slogans, which have since become favourites of mine.  Or it might have been his, and brother Jack's (the bassist in The Junkyard), engaging banter with the audience.  Whatever it was, I was converted and have since seen him live a couple more times. 

So today, in honour of the silly little dance I did when I discovered that not only is Jeff touring the UK later in the year but coming to Leicester too (no-one comes to Leicester!), Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard are my Music Monday choice.  I've gone for the video for To Be Objectified, a rather lovely little acoustic song from the last album that has the most fantastic video, drawn and directed by Jeffrey Lewis himself.  He is truly a man of many talents, and I kick myself for not seeing it sooner.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Karima Francis @ The Glee Club, Birmingham 30th September 2011

In July 2007 I was at the Latitude festival in Suffolk and happened upon a singer called Karima Francis at the In The Woods stage which, as the name suggests, is a small stage in a clearing in the middle of the woods.  The entire tent was silent, focused on this incredible-looking musician playing acoustic guitar and singing with a voice the size of which belied her tiny frame.  I only saw her final song, but it was nevertheless the highlight of my entire festival.  Fast forward 18 months and Francis released her debut album, The Author, appeared on Jools Holland, and promptly disappeared off the face of the earth due to mysterious "health issues".

Well, two years later and Karima Francis has "come back from the dead", in her words, been back in the studio recording a new album (with PJ Harvey producer Flood, no less) and just embarked on a tour of the UK.  Tonight she begins with a couple of new tracks, including the lovely Remedy (which is to be the title track of the next album) and quickly demonstrates that a couple of years away from music have done nothing to dull her passion nor alter her remarkable voice.

And what a voice it is: on The Author she effortlessly moves across almost two scales within the space of one word and there is a richness to her singing that gives texture and depth to songs which might otherwise be mere 'radio friendly unit shifters'.  Yet for all the strength of Francis' voice, there's a fragility about her that makes you want to give her a cuddle.  Her query, "Are you not bored yet?" raises chuckles the first time, but becomes rather plaintive when asked again.  Happily the rest of her between-song chat is more confident (and extremely funny: a rumination on Blackpool rock littered with innuendo being a highlight) although at times she seems overwhelmed by the enthusiastic audience response, which borders on the adoring.

Each song is simple, performed on acoustic guitar, and her lyrics deal with love and, more often, the loss of love.  Nothing terribly earth-shattering there, but the frankness of her words and the vulnerability in her voice makes the songs sound terribly intimate.  They take the listener into the heart of the relationship and even into the bed, as in gig closer Stay, when she sings "asleep on my chest you lay," with such longing that it rises above cliche to become something far more moving and special.

Check out her Facebook page for upcoming gigs and to take a listen.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Music Monday


Short and sweet today as I'm at work and will be until gone 8pm, but in honour of my upcoming trip to Iceland here's Joga from Bjork's Homogenic album.  Amazing video by Michel Gondry.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Not buying it: week # 4

The first week was easy; I enjoyed the challenge in the second week; last week I had Ofsted to worry about.  But this week I have started to struggle.  The thing is, I like shopping.  I enjoy spending a lazy afternoon wandering round the bookshops in Clarendon Park or oohing over the dresses in H&M.  I'm one of those strange people who actually enjoys supermarkets and can quite happily while away hours browsing the aisles in Tesco, popping bargain clothes and kitchen implements I don't really need into my trolley.  Making it even harder is the fact that some of the clothes in the shops at the moment are so lovely.  Polka dots are everywhere this autumn and I adore polka dots.  I love cardigans and woolly jumpers and brogues and thick tights and everything else that's just hit shop floors. 

However, my self-control has surpassed anything I could have anticipated.  This afternoon I found myself at Leicester's out of town shopping centre (to return a broken vacuum cleaner, so totally allowed), and having had a shitty lesson last thing this afternoon was even toying with the idea of treating myself to something.  "Who'll know?" I thought.  After all, I live on my own so smuggling something into the house wouldn't be a problem.  I walked into Dotty P's, looked at the lovely dresses on display longingly and... walked out again.  I just couldn't do it.  Even an utterly gorgeous dress (with - what else? - polka dots) in Sainsburys couldn't tempt me.  "Three more weeks," I repeated to myself as I scurried back to the car.

A few years ago (even, perhaps, a few weeks ago) there is no way I would be able to walk away without buying something I wanted.  I was totally in thrall to the 'must have it, and must have it now' mentality that is so pervasive in modern society.  I'm frankly amazed that in the space of four weeks I have managed to reprogramme myself so effectively.  Whether it will last when the experiment, with it's clear rules, has finished is another matter.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Music Monday


I was walking into Leicester to meet someone for a second date, my iPod playing on shuffle.  It slowly dawned on me that perhaps this guy wasn't 'the one' when Lone Wolf began.  If you're on the way to a date and the song that strikes a chord includes the lyrics "I am a lone wolf/Nobody needs to get too close to me", then you have a pretty good clue of where the relationship might be heading. 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

jbistheinitial














A bit of background first: JB actually are my initials.  J for Janet, a name I was never too fond of, carrying with it a whiff of school dinner ladies or golf club wives.  As a child surrounded by Sarahs, Emmas and Nicolas, I felt my name stood out (and not in a good way).  Now I quite like the fact that no-one else between the ages of 0 and 45 shares my name.  B for Brown, my surname, a name so dull and workaday it makes me yawn. 

jbistheinitial has been my online persona for years after it became a nickname of sorts.  When I was in my late teens I worked at a rock/indie club in Leicester (then called Alcatraz).  Around this time American hop hop duo The Jungle Brothers released a track which featured the repeated refrain of "JB is the initial...".  After one play by the DJ on my birthday it became my anthem, often played by other DJ friends when I arrived at a club or bar.  I have to say, after years of disliking my name, having my initials turned into something to herald my arrival (in fact, having my arrival being something that was worth heralding at all) felt pretty good.


All of which is a looooong way of explaining my username.  And also of explaining why my house is a veritable riot of Js and Bs, such as this mug I found in Anthropologie in New Orleans, and was convinced would be in pieces by the time I came home a month later.  That it survived intact in my rucksack is a miracle.  That it cost only $6 is even more of a miracle, Anthropologie goods being only slightly less expensive than pure gold.


Or this intricate metalwork J that I picked up in Urban Outfitters in Seattle, and which hangs on my landing.

My love for typography is well documented here, but my Js and Bs are particularly special.  Because JB is the initial...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Not buying it: day # 8


Yesterday I completed week one of seven in my experiment and so far, so good.  With rather fortuitous timing, the post on Friday yielded up my yearly bank statement, a terrifying/brilliant (delete as appropriate) new idea from my bank.  It's an A4 booklet full of charts, diagrams and lists showing where, when and how I spent my money over the past 12 months.  Well, considering in 7 of those months I spent more than I paid in, this experiment is definitely long overdue.  The thing is, I earn a good salary, certainly compared to my days as a wage slave at Waterstones when my take-home pay was just over £600 a month.  But I've always been profligate with money and have always struggled with deferring a purchase, subscribing more to the Veruca Salt school of acquisition: I want it, and I want it now.  But looking at that yearly statement I realised that some months I was happily spending upwards of £500 (so about what my entire salary was a decade ago) on travel deals, Amazon sprees, eBay bargains and endless new dresses and cardigans.  Not good.

The past week has been something of a revelation.  Walking into the supermarket this afternoon, I turned right towards groceries instead of left towards clothing and in doing so managed to finish the shopping within 15 minutes.  Every marketing email from internet retailers goes straight into the 'Trash' file, freeing up at least 10 minutes of extra work time first thing in the morning.  And instead of whiling away my evenings on Asos or the Dotty Ps website I have been baking cakes, writing to friends and crafting like mad.  Would I want to extend this experiment past 7 weeks?  Hell no, but so far I'm pleasantly surprised at how easy I am finding it.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Music Monday


Not really a memory or even a proper story this week, but just an awesome coincidence which affirms my love of 6 Music. 

One evening last week after work I was sitting at the kitchen table on my laptop while listening to the Steve Lamacq show.  Writing an email to my brother, I mentioned the band Belly.  As the word appeared on the screen, as I entered the final 'y' in fact, Gepetto started playing on the radio.  WHAT?!  I was so excited I did a little dance around my kitchen.  This version is from The Late Show 'No Nirvana' special in 1993.  I'm all about the 90s at the moment.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Not buying it


I have just finished reading How To Be Free by Idler editor Will Hodgkinson and would heartily recommend this book as food for thought.  While I didn't always agree with his ideas, he certainly puts his opinions forward in an entertaining way and the book is extremely well-researched, covering philosphers and thinkers from Neitszche to de Beauvoir.  One of his central theses is that the consumer treadmill - buy stuff that adverts tells us we need, get into debt, work to pay the debt off - is damaging, that "We desire things, we are attached to things, we believe that things will make us better" but that to find happiness (or, at least, freedom) we should step off the treadmill.

Well, with a credit card debt the size of a small country's GDP and a sneaking feeling that the path to true happiness does not lie in Topshop, I've decided to try an experiment.  Loosely based on Not Buying It, a book about journalist Judith Levine's year-long abstinence from consumerism, I've decided to buy nothing this half term.  Which is to say, I will still be buying food and other essentials (the Guardian, painkillers and wine-type essentials, not my usual idea of an 'essential', which tends to be yet another dress).  But apart from that, nothing.  No books, no clothes, no CDs, no random bits of crap for my house.  Until school breaks up on October 14th I will endeavour to spend as little as possible.

Why?  Well, getting rid of some of that debt will be nice.  I'm interested to know whether I can find different ways to occupy my time, so that weekends don't revolve around a trip into town and my evenings aren't spent shopping on the internet.  And let's face it, I can hardly close my dress wardrobe (yes, I have a whole wardrobe just for dresses) and my books are beginning to spill off the shelves and onto the floor.  I don't actually need anything new.

How many times do we say to ourselves, "I need that cushion/t-shirt/CD," when we already have cushions on the sofa, many unworn t-shirts in the chest of drawers and piles of CDs that are never listened to?  We become convinced that without the item in question, our lives won't quite be complete.  That the pretty dress will make us happy forever and ever, rather than sit lonely and abandoned in the cupboard a few months later.  And of course stores collude in this.  My inbox is constantly clogged with 'Free delivery: ends soon!' or '20% off, shop now!' emails.  I subscribe to Groupon, Vouchercodes and Moneysavingexpert emails, all of which promise bargains if you buy now, without hesitating to consider whether you really need the product or service they're offering.

My 'Not Buying It' rules will be:

1. Food and drink are essentials and as such are allowed.
2. The Guardian counts as an essential but magazines do not (and anyway, most magazines only exist to point out how rubbish your life/house/wardrobe is and make you want to buy new things).
3. Replacing something that has run out (e.g. deodorant, face powder or tin foil) is allowed, stocking up on random things just because they're on special offer is not.
4. Buying birthday presents is allowed.  Not Christmas presents though (I know it's only August, but I start my Christmas shopping in January and carry on throughout the year so it's not as weird as it sounds).

I will be regularly updating on my progress.  I don't think for a minute that this will be easy: I'm a borderline shopaholic and shopping (whether it's for clothes, books, food, whatever) is one of my favourite pasttimes.  But it will certainly be interesting to find out how I manage.  Wish me luck!

Monday, 29 August 2011

Music Monday


The actor Jason Schwartzman (of Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited and I Heart Huckabees fame, amongst others) has a musical side project called Coconut Records.  Quite how I came across it, I can't recall - perhaps from last.fm? - but I spent a lot of time a few years ago trying to get a copy of the first album, Nighttiming, which hadn't been released in the UK.  Anyway, one of the tracks from that album, West Coast, became the unofficial anthem to the latter part of my trip.  Is there anything more perfect than sitting in a great bar on the west coast of America, drinking cider and having West Coast come on the stereo?  The answer is no, there really isn't.  I also heard the song in a shop in San Francisco, a couple of places in Portland and finally, on my last day, on the radio in Seattle.  Perhaps it's actually an official anthem of the west coast?  It really was a close-run thing as to what would be the sound of the summer - Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear were on constant rotation on my iPod and the former are of course a Pacific Northwest band - but ultimately it's all about the serendipitousness of hearing a great song out of nowhere.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A week in England

I can hardly believe I've been back in England for a week.  My US trip seems like another world now, and I've been trying really hard to not succumb to post-holiday blues (efforts not assisted by the fact that I've been suffering from a horrible cough & cold).  But what a busy week it's been: I've hardly had time to feel sad.

I spent two days sleeping and washing endless loads of laundry, then the weekend found me in London.  I went to see Anne Boleyn at The Globe, which was superb.  A very funny and, for a Tudor history geek like me, fascinating look at the rise and fall of Boleyn but also at James I and his attempts to unite the church with a new translation of the Bible.  I would recommend you go and see it, but sadly it finished it's run on Sunday. 

Usually when I go to London I spend my time rushing from one thing to another, feeling stressed and panicked.  On Monday I deliberately took things easy and planned just one thing: a trip to the British Library.  I visited the excellent Out Of This World exhibition, which is filled with sci-fi memorabilia.  I'm not an avid fan of the genre but found the exhibits really interesting and appreciated the focus given to female authors and feminist science fiction writing.  I whiled away a gorgeous sunny afternoon reading in the library courtyard, before wandering up to Islington, where I was booked into a sewing workshop at The Make Lounge.


Now, a confession: since sewing my school jumper to my work during Home Economics in year 9, I haven't been near a sewing machine.  I can sew reasonably well by hand and use fabric glue for bigger projects, but was keen to overcome my fear of sewing machines.  The beginners class focused on making a simple cushion cover with detachable corsage.  I found choosing the fabric the most difficult part, eventually plumping for a pink & white Eiffel Tower print.  The tutor took us through each step of the project slowly and gave plenty of support.  I spent most of the class in a state of panic but by the end felt incredibly proud of my straight seams and relieved that my top was unattached to the cover.  I'm already planning which workshop to sign up for next... lampshade making?  Book-binding? 

The finished product, taking pride of place in my study

The last few days have been very productive, getting little jobs done around the house and garden.  I have planted lots of bulbs and bought some autumn-flowering annuals for the pots which had died off after being neglected when I was away.


When I stayed at Sarah's house in Eugene I was extremely envious of her gorgeous larder, filled with jars and jars of dried goods.  A trip to Ikea later and I too am the owner of numerous jars for my baking cupboard.


I've been crafting like mad, making two pinboards (of which more later) and working on some brilliant bunting.  I've rearranged some pictures on my walls and finally framed the vintage world map I found at Baileys Home & Garden in Ross-On-Wye.  I've cleaned my woodburning stove and hearth in preparation for log fire season (getting soot all over my sofa in the process, oops).


I've assembled - with suprisingly little swearing - a chest of drawers and painted it a very pale grey eggshell to match my bathroom.


And now I am going to sit down with a good book, a cup of tea and a well-deserved crumpet.

Friday, 19 August 2011

About a girl

At the Nirvana exhibition in Seattle there was a booth in which you could be filmed sharing your personal 'Nirvana story'. Unfortunately, as my camera phobia extends to video cameras, I didn't go in, but my story's been buzzing round my brain ever since, so here it is.

Me at 16.  As you can see from the pissed-off look on my face, I was pretty camera phobic even then.  This was pretty much my go-to outfit for a whole summer: band t-shirt, grandad cardigan from M&S (but actually from a charity shop), satin nightdress from a jumble sale that I wore as a skirt, handmade bead necklaces and dyed red hair (a la Angela Chase from My So-Called Life).  Just off-camera: Doc Martens with rainbow laces.

I was thirteen and living in an insular working class suburb of Bradford when Nevermind was released.  I was the oldest child, so no elder sibling to pass on tapes to me.  Bradford was lacking any alternative culture, so no band t-shirts to spy on the streets. And my school was utterly filled with what we later termed 'sheep'  or 'townies'; kids who listened to house music and for whom a couple of years on the dole followed by a stint in Armley jail was about the best to hope for.  So it was about two years later, just prior to the release of In Utero, that I first actually heard Nirvana. 

Remember The Chart Show?  If you do, you're showing your age.  But it was on this Saturday morning ITV show that I was first exposed to The Breeders, Belly, The Lemonheads and, of course, Nirvana.  Already an outcast for so many things - my southern accent that eight years of living in Yorkshire hadn't softened, my habit of coming top of the class in every subject, the shyness I couldn't shake and which came across as aloofness - I had reached the point of deciding to stop trying to fit in.  Grunge music was the music that said it was ok to be different, ok (desirable, even) to be an outcast.  I began listening to Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and, on constant repeat, the Nevermind and Bleach albums.

Out went my baggy denim shirts and leggings and in came long floral skirts, Doc Marten boots and flannel shirts.  I kid you not, the first day I went into school with my 'new look' (the day we went for sixth form induction in August 1994) was like a scene from a film.  Jaws dropped, insults were shouted in the corridor but the comments didn't hurt like they used to.  I felt insulated from the bullies because now I knew how lame they were and how cool my music was.  Even coming to it late, grunge changed my life because it empowered me to be myself and revel in my differences.

Interestingly, of all the bands from that time Nirvana are probably the one I listen to least now.  Smashing Pumpkins are still my all-time favourite band and on constant rotation on my iPod and CD player.  The Lemonheads and The Pixies get regular plays, as do Hole.  But Nirvana, who meant so much to me then, barely get a look-in.  In some senses, their music was so of it's time that it hasn't stood the test of time, but as the press-appointed figureheads of the 'grunge' movement they will always be important.  And when I hear Breed I still feel like that 16 year old, screaming along in her Bradford bedroom to the one thing that made being in that godforsaken town feel ok.

What about your Nirvana memories?  Or is there another band who were key to your development as a teenager?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Top ten of the trip

We fly home tomorrow and as sad as I'll be to see my trip end (mainly because it means it's less than a fortnight till school starts, boo) it will be good to be home and in my own bed, with my own closet of clothes and a washing machine close at hand.  So I thought this was a good time for a quick top ten.

1. Eugene, Oregon.  Partly because it was nice to be staying in a house rather than a hotel and to get a native's perspective on things, partly because Sarah and Seamus were such fantastic hosts and partly because I just really liked Eugene and environs, the two days spent there were definitely the best two days of the whole trip.  A HUGE thank you to Sarah for her hospitality.

2. The NYPL at 100 exhibition at the New York Public Library.  From Jack Kerouac's travel notebook to the Declaration of Independence; from anti-apartheid posters to a Klansman hood; from a draft of Eliot's The Wasteland with amendments by Ezra Pound to Virginia Woolf's diary.  This exhibition had it all and I walked from case to case with an increasing sense of breathlessness and awe.  To top it all, it was free and (so important in 42c heat) air-conditioned.

3. The train journeys, as much for the fascinating characters I met as for the incredible scenery.  Chuck and Denise, travelling with their seven year old Anthony for his brain surgery, stoic and warm in the face of the fact that they could potentially be taking their return journey without him.  Bunny who gave me pages of tips for New Orleans and has stayed in email contact with me since.  Chad with whom I talked about literature.  So many people and so many stories on those 4000 miles across the country.

4. My first walk through the French Quarter in New Orleans, gawping at the beauty and swimming through the thick, humid air.

5. Today's visit to the Nirvana exhibit in Seattle.

6. Shopping and hanging out in Portland: Powell's bookstore, great independent shops in the Hawthorne District, cool people everywhere.  I loved this city SO much.

7. The incredible natural beauty of Yosemite Valley, especially when Richard and I had the good luck to find an entirely empty trail to hike. 

8. Reading my way around America: Poppy Z Brite, A Confederacy Of Dunces and books about Hurrican Katrina in New Orleans, Strangers On A Train, a book about crossing America by Amtrak whilst on the train, Tales Of The City in San Francisco, a book about the riot grrrl scene in the Pacific Northwest whilst in Portland... reading books about the places I'm in has immeasurably enhanced my experiences. 

9. Biking along the waterfront, over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito whilst in San Francisco.  A lovely sunny day and an exhilirating ride coupled with stunning views.

10. My trusty black rubber flip flops and tatty denim skirt.  Pretty much all I've worn the whole trip (apart from days that the skirt was in the wash).  I now have black feet, aching calves from walking miles in crappy sandals and the first vestiges of a tan on my pale English legs.