Thursday, 28 June 2012

Seen & heard: June 2012


1. I'm a fan of both Joseph Gordon-Levitt (although to me, he will always be the adorable kid from 10 Things I Hate About You) and Seth Rogen.  While both play very much to type here, with Gordon-Levitt as a winsome, sensitive guy and Rogen as his crude best buddy, I enjoyed this 'cancer comedy' very much.
2. I should have loved this film - cool indie soundtrack, two of my favourite actors (the aforementioned JGL and the wonderful Zooey Deschanel) - but it just grated on me.  A real disappointment.
3. I went to see 2 Days In New York yesterday and, although I didn't like it as much as 2 Days In Paris, it was still an enjoyable film, especially Chris Rock's performance as the put-upon boyfriend of Julie Delpy's main character.

1. I've already written about how much I loved this book, so I won't repeat myself except to say READ IT NOW!
2. I've been looking forward to the Writing Britain exhibition at the British Library since I saw it advertised back in January, but felt a bit let down.  Not a patch on some of their recent exhibitions.
3. I'm a passionate and vocal fan of Wolf Hall, pressing copies upon unsuspecting friends and family members with regularity.  So I was always likely to find the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, an anti-climax.  I did enjoy Mantel's retelling of the fall of Anne Boleyn, just not quite as much as I did the first novel in the series.

1. I recently read a fabulous post on Thoughts From The Hearthfire - a (mostly YA fiction) book review blog - about female masturbation in YA novels.  Not a topic I've ever devoted too much energy to, but it was a really thought-provoking read, and made me hunt out my copy of Judy Blume's Deenie for a long overdue re-read.
2. Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series - about a soulless heroine married to a werewolf in an alternate-reality Victorian-era London - is a guilty pleasure of mine.  I know that the summary sounds awful, and really the books are cheesy as hell, but they have more than enough humour and steampunkish flair to keep me entertained.  I was sad to learn that Timeless was the last in the series.
3. I'm quite embarrassed to say that I enjoyed Eat Pray Love.  It just doesn't feel like a book I should have liked - too much banging on about God and finding yourself and so much Western privilige - but Elizabeth Gilbert writes in a very winning style, funny and touching and honest.


1. With a lead singer whose distinctive voice is definitely an acquired taste, Alt-J won't be everyone's bag.  But so far I am liking their debut album, An Awesome Wave, a lot.  Sometimes electronica, sometimes folk, sometimes alt-pop (and often all three at once), it's well worth a listen.
2. Fiona Apple is back (finally!) with another album with an unweildy title: The Idler Wheel...  I've only give it one cheeky listen on Spotify prior to buying a copy this weekend, but so far I love it.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Music Monday: Grizzly Bear

I'm back!  I had a fab week camping in Exmouth with year 8, even if it did chuck it down for two of the days (I felt like I was at Glastonbury with all the mud).  My fellow teachers went to great lengths to ensure my birthday last Tuesday was extra-special: decorating my tent with balloons and 'Happy birthday' banners; buying me a cheeky cider during our sun-drenched lunch in Dawlish Warren; buying me a variety of little gifts.  And the kids were great too, I've never received so many birthday wishes.  Meanwhile I hope you enjoyed reading the posts from my guest bloggers; I loved being able to nosy around their homes.

All in all, a lovely week but for one thing... the complete absence of music.  I hadn't realised how utterly reliant I am on listening to good tunes until I was deprived of them (and the disco on Wednesday night does not count).  From leaving on Monday morning till when I was halfway home and, with a coachload of sleeping kids, could safely unravel my headphones, I didn't turn my iPod on once.  But it did make it all the more satisfying when the first song out to shuffle on was this, About Face.  With beautiful, summery harmonies galore, I never tire of Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest album and am so excited about seeing them Nottingham at the end of August - my tickets arrived on Saturday, eek!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

My favourite space

My aunt Jenny lives in Cape Town and blogs at Jenny Just Stuff.  She's written about her favourite place in her house...

A guest post for Janet - I am honoured - and on a topic that did not require much thought on my part.  My favourite space in my house?  My kitchen and courtyard!

When Michael and I bought our new home, nearly six years ago, we did the opposite of what parents usually do.  Usually your children leave home, move overseas or buy their own homes and you carry on living in your established, now childless home.  Not this time.  We had two established homes and children who were still studying or did not look like leaving home.  So we found a new home and fled the nests ourselves. 

The house needed attention but fortunately it was solid and well built, and besides building a double garage, putting in a few extra doors and moving a few windows, most of the work was cosmetic.

We did have a budget (we had not sold our other homes) and there were a couple of small things that needed some serious negotiating.  Michael did not mind living with stippled walls but there was absolutely no way that I could.  Replastering the entire interior of the house was costly but I wanted smooth walls so badly that I was prepared to forfeit the budget for the kitchen to have the beautiful, smooth cretestone walls. 

It was a 50s house that had not not had any work done to it for years.  It had no garden, only a couple of trees and some dead grass, wall to wall mottled beige carpets which, when lifted covered the most beautiful blond narrow stripped flooring.  So there were surprises along the way.  Michael was not convinced that the existing kichen could be transformed. It was a shocker. 

The kitchen, pre-makeover

I found a painter who would paint the existing cupboards for me (he was not either convinced) and I sourced new hinges and knobs.  Granite or wooden counter tops would have broken the bank so our builder built me a concrete counter which tied in with the concrete bench he had just built for me in the courtyard.

Jenny's lovely, plant-filled courtyard

Michael had a dresser in his office, which also had a facelift and - much to his mother's horror - the dark wood was also painted "Duncan Green".  The newly painted dresser was the perfect piece to house my tin collection (and our glasses and crockery).
The gorgeous painted dresser, with vintage tin collection
I am no interior decorator and some of the units do not fit in perfectly but I am very proud of my budget kitchen.  It is the room in my home where I am most happy.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Who would buy a home like this?

Today's guest post comes from Sarah.  I only discovered her blog, sarahrooftops, recently, but it's now top of my reading list (and regularly makes me want to visit Aberdeen).  Anyway, here's what she has to say...

A friend of mine is in the process of selling of her house. I've never met a woman as clean and tidy as her; she hoovers three times a day and won't wait until her food's digested before scouring, drying and stowing away the dishes. When she told me that the instructions for preparing her home to be photographed were "impossible and unreasonable" I had to see them.

I've come to the realisation that my boyfriend and I can never sell our home.


The home which I thought had a healthy level of personality and could scrub up nice when we made the effort turns out to be completely unmarketable.

Here is a small taster of the photographer's instructions:

Remove everything but the kettle from the kitchen counters.

The bathroom should be naked but for the bath, shower, toilet and basin.

Don't store anything under the beds.

Remove all clutter and hide all pet accessories.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Best literary birthdays

As you read this, I will be camping in Devon, in a large but hopefully not too damp field with 130 teenagers.  Happy birthday to me!  I had a mini-celebration with some of my family on Sunday, and when I opened one of the presents from my mum - an empty jar ("useful to put ribbons or buttons in, I thought") - I was put in mind of my favourite literary birthday: that of Eeyore in Winnie-The-Pooh. 

If you're unfamiliar with the story (and if you are, then please read it as soon as possible, it's a wonderful book), Piglet and Pooh try to bring Eeyore presents to cheer him up because, says Pooh, "Eeyore is in a very sad condition, because it's his birthday and nobody has taken any notice of it."  But Pooh becomes distracted while carrying a jar of honey to see Eeyore, and eats the contents, and Piglet trips and falls, bursting the balloon he wanted to give.  The two gifts on their own are quite useless, but together... well, Eeyore discovers that his burst balloon fits perfectly into his empty honey pot, and spends his birthday "taking the balloon out, and putting it back again, as happy as could be..."

I also love Harry Potter's eleventh birthday, in Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone, when the orphan Harry discovers his true nature and receives a birthday cake for the first time in his life.

What are your favourite literary birthdays?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Who lives in a house like this?

As I'm off camping this week, I sent out a plea for guest posts.  Massive thanks to the people who responded.  We're starting today with a guest post courtesy of Laura, a Nottingham-based artist and blogger who writes and posts beautiful photographs and drawings at Make Do & Mend.  Laura was one of the first people to welcome me into the blogging community by letting me do a guest post when I'd just started Words..., so it's lovely to be able to host a post from her.

Feb 2011
The view from our window last winter.

When Tom and I decided to move in together last year we came across an unusual place in the listings - a flat in an old Convent, adjacent to the Cathedral in Nottingham. This was surely worth a viewing! I imagined a fusty old building with dark corridors, but I was pleasantly surprised when we found that the building was bright and newly decorated, whilst also keeping its original features, such as the beams in the corridor and stained glass windows. Plus, along the hallway from the flat was a beautiful chapel which, we were told, could be booked out to use for parties. We were sold!

So now I can happily tell people that yes, I live in a nunnery. My favourite things about our home (apart from the use of the Chapel, which makes for a great venue for Halloween parties) is the huge bookcase in our living room, which was used when the building was a Sunday school. It didn't take us long to fill it! Plus our bedroom has a gorgeous stained glass window as well. Although the flat is a little bit small (Tom has to record his music in a cupboard, quite literally!) it's cosy, and we'll be hard pressed to find somewhere else as unique.

Partying in the Chapel on my birthday last year.

The window in our bedroom

Chapel door Tom outside the Chapel doors. 

Our bookshelf in the nunnery
Our massive bookcase!

Tom painting Tom painting in the living room

Friday, 15 June 2012

Reasons to be cheerful

My friend and colleague, Trish, is actually rather pleased that I'm not going to America next year, as it means I will be teaching English to her younger daughter.  I find her glee incomprehensible, as Trish has been in far too many of my lessons as learning support, the kind of lessons where I go "oh, it's period 5 and I can't be arsed, lets just make posters/play Scrabble/watch this vaguely educational film," to truly think I'm a good teacher. 

Nevertheless, knowing that I was feeling down in the dumps, she decided on Monday that she would spend this week giving me some reasons to be cheerful...

Day one: a bag of fizzy Haribo (my absolute favourite sweet), which as you can see has already been opened and part-consumed!

 Day two: a batch of homemade cupcakes.  Not just any cupcakes, but teal blue, polka dot cupcakes!

Day three (by which point I was in a frenzy of curiosity to see what would come next): a song, written especially for me (to be sung to the tune of Golden Brown by The Stranglers).

Day four: More polka dots!  With bonus white chocolate buttons - my favourites - hidden inside the notelet box. 

What an amazing thing to do - thanks so much Trish!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Book review: The Song Of Achilles

Last week's Orange Prize winner, The Song Of Achilles by debut author Madeline Miller, is one of the most beautiful and captivating novels that I have ever read.  Based on The Iliad, the book rewrites the action of the Trojan War through the eyes of Achilles' companion (and, in this retelling, lover) Patroclus.  Sent to Phthia in exile as a child, Patroclus is chosen as companion by the Prince of Phthia, Achilles, and taught alongside him until, at the age of seventeen, they are both summoned by Agamemnon to fight against Troy. 
Miller has a remarkable knack of making these Ancient Greek tales - told so many times before - shimmer with life and vitality.  The characters of Achilles and Patroclus are vividly realised; Achilles through his friend's eyes is "like a flame himself.  He glittered, drew eyes.  There was a glamour to him, even on waking, with his hair tousled and his face still muddled with sleep."  A golden haired beauty, he entrances the reader as much as he does Patroclus.  The narrator is harder to conjure an image of; we catch only glimpses of him in a bronze mirror or in the reactions of other characters, yet we know his thoughts and feelings intimately. 

It is when the two boys reach puberty that their friendship blossoms into something else and, despite the best efforts of Achilles' goddess mother, Thetis, they remain together as companions and lovers during their education and, later, their journey to war.  This central romance is utterly beguiling; I haven't rooted for a fictional couple this much for a long time.  I think maybe Brokeback Mountain was the last?  Which is also the last time I was left so heartbroken by a piece of art.  Clearly tragic gay love stories are what ring my bell.
With seventy pages to go, I did something very strange, something I have never done before.  Unable to bear the thought of finishing the book and leaving the characters, I stopped reading, turned back to the beginning and started again.  All in one sitting, 352 pages, until midnight.  It rewards reading like this, in one gulp, if you can find the time.  I became so immersed in the book that I read the last fifty pages through heaving, gulping sobs.

The Song Of Achilles is both a beautiful romance and a violent war story: a blood-soaked, sun-drenched tale.  I intend to buy a copy for everyone I know and force them to read it.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Bargain homewares with £10 off? Oh, go on then

I’m usually fairly skeptical about designer sale websites, because they very rarely offer anything I’d actually want to buy.  Then London-based thrift blogger Eleanor from Pretty Much Penniless directed my attention to Bamarang and, despite the rubbish name, I’m impressed. 
On sale at the moment are such covetable items as these fab Scrabble cushions (I’ve already ordered two).

Or how about some Rob Ryan ceramics with 35% off?

And I also love this Korean stationary set by Katy & June.  I have a penguin-loving friend who would be very happy to receive this. 

At the moment, Bamarang are offering this voucher worth £10 off your first purchase over £20, and believe me it won’t be difficult to spend.  But be quick – both the Scrabble cushion and Rob Ryan sales end today!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

When I grow up, I want to be...

My mum came to stay a couple of weeks ago and with her help I had a bit of a clear-out.  While excavating under the stairs (how can I have acquired so much crap in the three short years I've lived here?!) I found a box of delights: my old fanzine stash!  Looking through them transported me back to being seventeen again, a time when I had two goals:
a) to be a music journalist, or
b) to be a glamourous rock star casualty, a la Courtney Love.

My fanzines were these two aims writ large; one was page after page of self-indulgent whining and nervous breakdown poetry, while the other featured really quite good music articles and interviews. 

The fanzine years were both the best and worst of my life.  I was miserable a lot of the time, as is de rigeur for a 16- and 17- year old (especially one living in Bradford), and spent rather too many nights hacking away at my arms, gazing at pictures of dead rock stars and mooning over my girlfriend.  But many happy days were spent trailing around indie record shops or trawling jumble sales for 70s shirts, satin nightdresses and corduroy flares, the best of which we'd wear and the bits left over, sell on our secondhand stall in Huddersfield Market.  Easy access to the PR companies of Britpop bands (a simple phone call introducing myself and my fanzine usually sufficed, "Hi, I'm Janet from Venus".  Took me a while to work out that that could cause misunderstandings) meant my postbox was usually bulging with promo CDs, free gig tickets and interview offers.  And so our evenings were spent in Leeds or across the Pennines in Manchester, watching every great new band the mid-90s had to offer.  And Sleeper.  It was a truly exciting time to be writing about music and I was lucky for the ease with which I gained access to my favourite bands.

When I got my A Level results I was shocked - genuinely shocked - that two years writing gig reviews and faffing around with page design didn't translate to good results.  In fact, I failed spectacularly.  When I came to Leicester to university I discovered alcohol, and boys and girls who were actually allowed to be seen with me, and clubs, and friends who didn't consider self-harm to be an enjoyable way to their spend free time.  I abandoned my ambition to be a writer and instead concentrated on my second goal: to be a rock and roll fuck-up.  My fanzines were abandoned and it wasn't until I started this blog last year that I began writing again. 

Now, 15 years on, I look back on the fanzine years with real fondness and nostalgia, so it was a surprise to me to realise, on looking through my old copies, how truly unhappy I was for much of that time. 

1. How great is this little cartoon?  Drawn by Mark, the bassist from Ash, of his bandmates when I interviewed them backstage in Manchester (and nearly passed out from fangirl nerves).
2. Does anyone still remember Strangelove?  I'm actually pretty impressed with the quality of the writing in this interview with their lead singer.  

1. My confessional zine, Release The Pressure, makes me cringe when I read it now.  Quite cool musings on riot grrrl, feminism and queer politics are, unfortunately, overshadowed by solipsistic teen angst about self-harm.
2. This page shows either the beginnings of some kind of breakdown, or a typical page from a teenager's diary: you decide.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Music Monday goes POP!

In 1930 Noel Coward wrote, "Strange how potent cheap music is."  82 years later, and the statement still holds true.  My music collection may be almost entirely beyond reproach in terms of indie girl cred - from A-Z, Abe Vigoda to Zwan - but there remains a small corner of my iTunes playlist where my guilty pleasures live; the songs that make me squeal with excitement when I hear them, then check to make sure no-one heard me. 

My number one 'cheap music' obsession at the moment is Beyonce's End Of Time.  That woman really knows how to put together a great pop song: Crazy In Love, Single Ladies and now this.  Featuring parping horns, carnival drums and dancehall rhythms that make me want to shake my bum in a manner most unbecoming of a white girl, it's a completely addictive four minutes of pure pop heaven.

Today's second fix of potent pop music comes courtesy of Taio Cruz.  I've been obsessed with Dynamite for a long time.  In fact, I have the haziest of memories of writing about it before, so I apologise if I'm repeating myself.  But you guys!  This is just the happiest and most catchy song and it cheers me up whenever I hear it.  There's something about the very simple sentiment, "I wanna celebrate and live my life," that just lifts my heart.  My friends Abby and Liv do a beautiful acoustic, Live Lounge-y cover of this which I adore.  Not so sure about Taio's dodgy and borderline misogynistic video though. 

What are the pop songs that get you singing along to the radio?  And do you agree with the concept of guilty pleasures, or should we enjoy these tunes guilt-free?

Sunday, 10 June 2012

I'll get by with a little help from my friends

After months of hard work, stress and expense, to see my exchange fall through at the last minute was devastating.  As a result, I've not really been in the mood to write.  But, never one to dwell too much, I've  had a busy week and weekend, spending time with friends and family and reminding myself of all the wonderful things England has to offer.  Which, it turns out, is mostly rain. 

I really want to get a decent camera (and learn how to use it).  I feel a bit of a crap blogger always with the Instagram pics and photos, like this, via weheartit.  But it'lll have to do for now.

Open mic nights, an evening of bingo, macaroon-making, festivals, we've done 'em all this past week and throughout them all my friends have put up with my strange moods (not helped by the fact that I've got a stinking cold).  I'm starting to feel more like myself now.  Some of my favourite things in the last few days...
- driving over the fog-bound Pennines to the small Lancashire town of Uppermill, where we stumbled across some wonderful secondhand bookshops;
- shrieking (yes really) with joy in said bookshops when I found Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (so this is your fair warning that I'm about to start banging on about US alt-rock circa 1990 again very soon!) and Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to Record Shops? which looks ace;
- going on a treasure hunt - the treasure being of the 'long stick' and 'yellow flower' variety - with my five year old niece, who I am SO glad not to be leaving for a year;
- watching my friend Abby's band Abandon Her play at The Musician in Leicester (great venue, great band: they cover One Direction, so I'm their biggest fan);
- visiting Ikea twice to hunt down things to make my house look nice.  Now I'm not moving, I can have the kitchen worktops of my dreams (every cloud...!);
- sitting in my favourite pub - Firebug - during a rainstorm with a pint of cider, a good book, and nowhere urgent to be.  Bliss, and a good reminder of how much I would have missed Leicester;
- planning my 'not-leaving' party.  I'd already booked a venue, all my friends are up for a bash, so it seems rude not to;
- pretending that I am not going back to school tomorrow...

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Guest posts wanted!

In a couple of weeks I'm off to sunny (I hope) Exmouth for a week with year 8.  Living in a field with 130 13 year olds - oh joy.  I'd love to have some guest posts scheduled for that week, ideally on one of the following topics:

1. Who lives in a house like this?  Because I'm incurably nosy, I'd like a few 'Through the Keyhole'-style posts about your favourite room or space in your house. 
2. Best recent reads.
3. Summer festival memories or festival guide to upcoming events.

Deadline for submissions is Sunday 17th June, as I'll be packing my bags first thing on the 18th.  Send ideas/posts/pictures to and include a link to your own blog, if you have one.  I look forward to reading them!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Mouthwatering macaroons

Photo via weheartit, because I am totally useless at remembering to take my camera.

I'd always thought macaroons were scary things, requiring umpteen ingredients and special baking flair.  Turns out they're not so terrifying after all! 

I've just got back from a class at Jacques Bakes Cakes in Hinckley where Annaliese ably guided us through the process, and below is the recipe for what turned out to be pretty fool-proof (the fool being me) macaroons.

210g icing sugar
125g ground almonds
3 large egg whites (or 100g)
30g  caster sugar
Colouring pastes and flavourings, as required
Measure all ingredients very precisely.

1. Using an electric mixer - tabletop or handheld - whisk the egg whites until stiff and holding their shape.
2. Gradually add the caster sugar while mixing.  If adding colour or flavour, add the colour paste directly to the beater then add the flavour.
3. Combine the icing sugar and ground almonds then carefully fold in to the egg whites, a third at a time.
4. Load into a piping bag fitted with a half inch tip and pipe onto baking parchment in small rounds.
5. Bang the tray to settle and leave to dry for at least 20 minutes, or until a 'skin' has formed and you can touch the macaroon without any tackiness.
6. Bake at 140c for 13-15 minutes, or until set with no 'wobble'.
7. Leave to cool then remove from parchment and sandwich together with buttercream icing.

This recipe made masses of macaroons: mine were pistachio but I think the most successful were raspberry flavour with vanilla buttercream.  Nom nom.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Music Monday: Beirut

I received some awful news on Thursday; namely, my long-hoped for teaching exchange to America has fallen through.  This weekend I've spent some time crying, some time sulking, quite a bit of time drinking to excess.  But it's not the end of the world.  When I found out I was moving, I began to appreciate the little details of my life that make it so good.  I wrote those things down, and thank goodness I did, because now I can look at that list and rejoice in all the wonderful people and things I no longer have to leave behind.

I spent the weekend in London, being ably distracted from my bad mood by friends.  The Field Day festival in Hackney on Saturday was hipster-central, and Cara and I enjoyed sitting in the sunshine laughing at outrageous crimes against fashion.  Highlight of the day was Beirut's performance on the main stage as the sun disappeared and the rain began to set it.  Elephant Gun was the moment when my heart began to feel just a little bit lighter.  "If I was young, I'd flee this town, I'd bury my dreams underground."