Thursday, 30 August 2012

Seen & heard: August


1. I first saw Prime a few years ago, and have always liked its unsentimental, realistic ending.  Also, Meryl Streep is amazing as a therapist and mother who unwittingly discovers that her 30-something client is dating her 23 year-old son.
2. Wanderlust was one of the films on the plane and I really enjoyed it: silly, uncomplicated and very funny.
3. Much Ado About Nothing is a great summer film, best watched when the sun is shining outside and you can pretend that the glorious Tuscan scenery on screen might also be glimpsed outside your window.


I've read a huge amount this summer, but it's mostly been trash and mostly forgettable.  Three books that kept me absorbed when travelling were...

1. The Stranger's Child by Alan Holinghurst.
2. The Etymologican by Mark Forsyth, a funny and fascinating (if, like me, you're a complete etymology geek) look at where words come from.
3. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which I first read the summer it came out and enjoyed just as much on this re-reading.

I also really loved two books about life in contemporary South Africa, with all the tensions and problems that can involve:

1. Khayelitsha: uMlungu in a Township by Stephen Otter, about a white (or uMlungu, in Xhosa) South African guy who lived in Khayelitsha, a Cape Town township, for years.
2. Ways Of Staying  by Kevin Bloom, a South African journalist whose cousin was hijacked and murdered, prompting him to find out more about the violence and fear of violence that mars life there for so many.


1. I can't begin to explain how excited I was by the release of Karima Francis' new album, The Remedy.  I absolutely adore her voice, and if recordings never quite capture the magic of seeing her play and sing live, they at least let me listen to her in between jaunts around the country to see her gigs with Abby.
2. I really liked Micachu & The Shapes' first album and was really looking forward to hearing the new one, Never, and seeing them at Summer Sundae.  Neither the album nor the show were a disappiontment: the band are still as bonkers, atonal and weird as ever and I LOVE it!
3.  Finally, I've been listening to a lot of Grizzly Bear in preparation for seeing them live last night.  They were AMAZING (I might write a review, so watch this space) and I can't wait for their new album, which is due for release on 17th September.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The £100 challenge

Photo via weheartit

Last autumn I embarked on a 'Not buying it' challenge, and although in the short term it was a success (in that I didn't buy anything for the duration of the experiment), in the long term it hasn't really stuck.  Throughout October and November I was blogging about how it had changed my consumer patterns for good, but it didn't take me long to fall back into bad habits and I'm now, once again, regularly spending more than I earn each month.  On what, I'm never quite sure.  Necessities like petrol and train tickets, food and drink, yes, but also masses of clothes, CDs, DVDs, gig and theatre tickets, meals out, books, homewares... I just seem to spend and spend and at the end of each month I'm left with an empty bank account and a hefty credit card bill. 

My first job out of university was working for Waterstones, where my full time, take home pay was just over £600 a month.  Not suprisingly, I always spent every penny and more.  Eight years ago I started teaching, which put about £1100 in my bank account every month and, without fail, I would spend £1150 a month.  I now earn twice that and it depresses me that, no matter how much I make, I always live beyond my means.  I'm not helped by having debts still left over from those lower-earning days: a big chunk of my salary each month goes on paying off loans, and living alone means that there's no-one to share the mortgage and bills with.  But still, the fact remains that I am enormously priviliged to earn a good wage and I need to start being more responsible about managing my money.

So my new spending experiment is the £100 challenge.  For the next three months (with a week off for October half term) I am going to limit my spending to £100 a week.  If I can spend less that would be amazing, but I'm trying to be realistic and allow myself to still have a social life and the ocassional treat.  Some of you reading this will be thinking, "£100 a week is LOADS, what the hell?!" and they'd be right.  But compared to the £1000+ (just typing that figure makes me feel ill) I manage to waste every month, it's positively thrifty.  I'll be making a note of every penny I spend, and what I spend it on, and giving regular updates here.  Wish me luck!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Where did the summer go?

This summer has been a weird one; nothing really went to plan for me.  Instead of leaving in July to live for a year in America, I learnt I would be staying in Leicester and so I packed my bags for a holiday in South Africa instead.  The trip was a good one, but any visit to South Africa is too fraught with familial, historical, emotional and political tensions to be truly relaxing.  Since getting back to the UK a couple of weeks ago I've been busy hunting down bargains, reading a lot, spending too much time in the pub, hiking, biking, festival-going and all the other pastimes that I enjoy so much.  The summer holidays are my chance to truly be myself; to be 'Janet' instead of 'Ms Brown'.  Don't get me wrong, I (kind of, sometimes) love my job, and eight years of teaching has been a revelation, giving me the kind of respectable, steady life that my parent's probably despaired of me ever having.  BUT it does feel good to remind myself every July and August just who and what I am beneath the veneer of responsibility!

This time last year I was making a list of new school year resolutions, which I failed almost completely to keep, and beginning my 'Not buying it' experiment, which I succeeded at.  For those of you who weren't readers last year, I basically spent the whole of my first half term back at school last year buying nothing apart from the essentials (which I defined as petrol, food, drink and The Guardian newspaper).  In the spirit of 'new (school) year, new start', I'm going to be beginning a new spending experiment tomorrow, of which more later.  For now, though, I want to remind myself of the ten item 'To-do' list I compiled in July:

1. Appreciate and enjoy my city.  I haven't spent much time in Leicester this summer, but I was so glad to come home after my time in South Africa, so I guess that counts as appreciating my city?
2. Appreciate and enjoy my country.  I did intend to go on some day and overnight trips, but time and money ran out on me.  So still need to work on this one.
3. Appreciate and enjoy Europe.  See above!

4. Get my house in order.  I've finally had the shelves put up in my living room, and I love them.  Add to which a painted garden fence (a long overdue job, that one) and some new shelves in the kitchen.  There's still lots to do but I'm getting there...
5. Buy a bike and ride it.  Not yet.
6. Take more photographs.  I tried really hard to take lots of photographs when I was away, but since coming home I've been less good.  I have been carrying my camera around with me, it just never comes out of my bag!
7. Work less, live more.  I can't wait to start my nine days a fortnight timetable at work!
8. Be a better teacher.  Hmm, we shall see how this one goes in the next few weeks.
9. Get a new tattoo.  Not yet, mainly because I still don't know what I want.
10. Try and work out where to go next.  A work in progress, shall we say?

Music Monday: The xx

First time around, I didn't really get the fuss about The xx.  I mean, the album was ok but kind of repetitive.  But I am completely obsessed with, and converted, by their new single, Angels.  And... that's it.  No memories or personal story that are tenuously connected to the song, no trenchant analysis of the lyrics.  Just the video, because the song is so beautiful that it needs to stand alone.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Blogs I love: Sarah Rooftops

It's been a while since I did one of these posts, which isn't to say I haven't found any new blogs I love - I have, loads - but none have really inspired me to get writing.  Until... Sarah Rooftops.  I discovered Sarah's blog after we were both tagged in a books post by Laura at Make Do & Mend (or maybe Sarah tagged Laura and Laura tagged me... I dunno, and does it matter?  I will shut up now).   Sarah's blog appealed to me immediately, and the more I read it the more I love it.

"What's it about?" I hear you ask.  Well, it's about everything really.  Books and films and music, sometimes, but mostly lovely photographs of her hometown (Aberdeen) and Sarah's musings on a variety of subjects.  I love it because, unlike some of my other favourite blogs that present a very edited version of a 'perfect' life, Sarah seems to write about whatever comes to mind.  Erm, remind you of anyone?!  So where I will veer wildly from writing about homewares I like to an album review to discussing abortion rights, Sarah posts anything from pictures of her cats (which is totally not as sad as it sounds, and they are all labelled with the tag 'crazy cat lady', which makes me smile), to a wonderful piece in praise of the Mooncup, to her thoughts about the importance of taking risks. 

I also love her, "Why Don't You...?" series, which gives a weekly prompt or suggestion (e.g. "Why don't you do something you weren't allowed to do as a child").  I'm ashamed to say that I haven't yet tried any of them out, but they always make me think, and more often than not make me smile.  So if you haven't already discovered this lovely blog, then I suggest you have a read post haste.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Bargain hunting

Usually my trips to car boot sales, charity shops and and vintage stores end the same way: me leaving with a full wallet, an empty bag and a downcast expression (the only exception to this being charity shop books, which I buy in great quantity).  But recently I was blessed with a couple of days of bargain hunting success.

1. Suitcase, £15 from a vintage shop in Clarendon Park, Leicester.
2. Polka dot dress, £2.99 from Oxfam on Queens Road, Leicester
3. Two lovely hardback books, which must remain anonymous as they are destined to be gifts for a reader of this blog, £3 apiece from Loros Bookshop, Queens Road
4. Milk jug, 70p from Ripon Car Boot sale
5. Tea cups, 50p apiece, from the Air Ambulance charity shop in Blaby, Leicestershire
6. Pyrex dish, 50p from Ripon Car Boot
7. Vintage 70s apron, £2 from Ripon Car Boot

I think my favourite find is the suitcase as I've been after a vintage one for ages.  It looks very happy in it's new home, sitting on top of my wardrobe filled with winter woollies.  I'd love to hear your tales of bargain hunting successes, or if you know of any particularly good shops or car boots in the UK that I can put on my 'to-visit' list.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Music Monday: Red Hot Chilli Peppers

I've had My Friends by the Chilli Peppers floating around in my head for weeks now and I thought I'd use it as an opportunity to introduce you to my friends Abby, Emma, Leanne & Ruth.

 Emma, Abby & Leanne playing mini-golf on our road trip to Norfolk in 2007

Me & Ruth at Latitude Festival in 2007 (I think!)

At a very basic level, what we have in common is that we are all teachers.  We met because of school and we all teach in secondary schools around Leicestershire.  I'd worked with and been friends with Leanne for a couple of years when we met Abby, Emma and Ruth in 2006.  A shared love of indie music and a series of road trips in Abby's (sadly now sold) camper van cemented our friendship.  The four of them aren't my 'best' friends, exactly (although whether that term has any relevance past the age of 16 is debatable), but they are the friends I see the most of and, when it comes down to it, they are the friends who I can rely on to be there for me when I need them.  Something gone wrong at home?  Exciting news?  Bad day and need a drink?  It would be one of them that I would call.  They are the people I would have missed terribly, had I moved to America.

What I enjoy about my friends is that, as well as spending time as a group, I have very distinct relationships with each of them, .  With Leanne, I go on day trips and to the theatre; I share a love of baking and Strictly Come Dancing with Emma; Ruth and I hit the vintage fairs and indie clubs of Leicester together, and Abby and I have a mutual obsession with Karima Francis and go to gigs and festivals.  Emma, Leanne and I all work together and so we tend to get involved in the minutiae of each other's lives.  Ruth and Abby I see less often, but can always rely on the fact that our discussions will pick up where we last left off, moaning about school (all of us) and talking about travelling (Ruth) or music (Abby).

Now, my friends will probably kill me for reproducing those photographs, but embarrassing pictures aside, the lyrics of My Friends are wonderfully appropriate for any friendship and always make me think of these particular four friends:
"'Cause I'll be on your side / You know I will"

Friday, 17 August 2012

Last week of freedom

I may be entering the last week of my summer holidays (sob!) but it promises to be an action-packed one.  I am very much looking forward to...

... going to Summer Sundae festival tomorow.  Not the best line-up this year (although I cannot wait to see Micachu & The Shapes again), but it's always nice to have a festival up the road;
... popping into the Handmade in Leicestershire fair at Belgrave Hall before Summer Sundae;
... cycling in Derbyshire on Sunday with my brother;
... cocktails with the girls on a 'school' night;
... seeing my niece and giving her the lovely handmade doll I bought her in South Africa;
... visiting Salford Zine Library at it's new home;
... watching the Manchester Pride parade next weekend;
... the Plus Size Clothes swap in Leeds next Sunday.
... seeing Grizzly Bear in Nottingham.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

What would you save?

I read an excellent post on Sarah Rooftops while I was away, about the 3 things from each room she would save in the event of a disaster befalling her flat.  And when my suitcase went missing on the way home from Johannesburg, I was prompted to think more carefully about what is important and precious to me.  Luckily my case and it's contents made it back to me unscathed a few days later, but in the meantime I had been trying to wrap my head around the prospect that my favourite dress or my perfect jeans or the lovely photographic prints I had bought in Cape Town might be gone for good. 

Because my house is quite big, I didn't do three things from each room (we would be here all night if I had), instead choosing one thing from each room plus one extra in my front room.  You will no doubt sense the theme that develops...

Front Room

1. Stained glass window.  I might have a job taking this out in an emergency (although you will see by the light around the edge that I still haven't putty-ed it into place), but this stained glass window over my front door is very special to me.  Designed and made by my step-mother, my mum's partner Andrea, it is something totally unique and represents an enormous amount of work on her part.  I was very touched when she made it for me.

2. Pinecone.  Knysna, a small town on the South African coast, is where my grandfather was born in 1920, and I picked this pinecone up from the floor of Knysna forest when I was mountain biking there in 2001.  It's one of those silly little things that is completely worthless and completely priceless at the same time.

Living Room

Photograph on canvas of my grandpa.  Of course, I would rush to save all my photographs, but this one is special for a couple of reasons.  Obviously because it's a photo of Theo, taken just before he was banned by the apartheid government and forced into exile, but also because it was a thirtieth birthday present from my then-best friend.  We don't talk anymore, but it's still a precious reminder of our friendship.


Roberts DAB radio.  And, erm, while I'm at it can I save everything else on the shelf please?  I love my duck egg blue radio, which is permanently tuned to 6 Music.  But I also love all my bits and pieces in jars, the amazing vintage scales that Andrea found when clearing a neighbour's house after her death, my Cathy K flour shaker, my first ever homemade bunting, my lovely What Katie Did 'Food' print... in the event of fire I'd sweep everything into a box and take the whole lot.


Chair.  This somewhat battered nursing chair was an antique when my grandpa bought it for my granny when she was pregnant with my uncle in 1946, so goodness knows how old it is now.  It survived the trip to England in the 1970s and my grandpa reupholstered it.  A few years later it was passed on to my parents and when my mum sold my childhood home and had a clear out, I took it on. 

I love having something with a bit of family history to it - fairly rare when your parents are immigrants - and it has lived happily in my bedroom ever since, nestled between my wardrobe and the window, and usually with a pile of books in residence.

Spare bedroom

Mirror.  I am ashamed of what a state this mirror is in, you don't need to look too closely to this photo to see how damaged the bottom of the frame is.  To be fair, this mirror has moved house with me no fewer than thirteen times.  It was a gift from my grandparents when I was about 11, and I felt so grown up having a 'proper' mirror.  Bought at auction and then painstakingly restored by my grandpa (do you see the pattern emerging...?), is is a lovely old piece that has fallen off more walls than I care to remember (hence the damage).  One of these days I am going to have it properly fixed up, but until then it would definitely be top of the list for saving.

So what would be the first things you would save?

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

6 Songs

Rob from High Fidelity has nothing on my brother and me, who spend many a hike or car journey or drinking session compiling lists of music or books, based on arbitrary categories of our own devising.  So when I saw that The Guardian music blog is currently running a project called Six Songs Of Me, an interactive site that allows you to share the six songs which define your life, I got very excited.

The categories on the site are:
1. First song you bought
2. Song that gets you dancing
3. The song that takes you back to childhood
4. Perfect love song
5. Song you would want at your funeral
6. One last song that makes you, you

I tried to answer each one with the minimum of thought, going instead for the first song that came to mind, and what I came up with was:

1. To my utter shame, it was a 7" single called It's 'Orrible Being In Love (When You're Eight & a Half) by Claire & Friends which, if I remember rightly, was affiliated in some way with a Saturday morning childrens TV show.  Unfortunately, this groundbreaking piece of music fails to show up on the 6 Songs site, so I was forced to choose Eternal Flame by The Bangles, which more accurately was the lead track on the first album I bought.
2. Circle, Square, Triangle by Test Icicles never fails to get me onto the dancefloor when I'm down at my local indie disco.
3. Bob Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind.  My middle school assemblies must have been planned by a former hippy on the teaching staff, as in amongst the usual assembly standards like All Things Bright & Beautiful, we'd also belt out Beatles and Dylan classics.   This song in particular takes me back to those years; one listen and I'm immediately back on the hard parquet floor of the school hall.
4. With lines like, "I save your messages just to hear your voice," and, "I count your eyelashes secretly," At My Most Beautiful by REM sums up falling in love perfectly.  I've always imagined it being played at my wedding, should I have one.
5. I'm actually really rubbish at thinking of good funeral songs (I prefer thinking of wildly inappropriate wedding songs, anything by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy always being a good bet), so the only one I could think of was Asleep by The Smiths.  Wildly depressing, and only really appropriate if I kill myself (which I have no plans to do, don't worry mum) but if a funeral song can't be depressing, what can?
6. Rocket by The Smashing Pumpkins.  Because I've loved it and found it meaningful for the last twenty years. 

Take a look at the 6 Songs website and do let me know what your six songs are (my list is at,16328,16252).

Monday, 13 August 2012

Music Monday: The Chemical Brothers

I was extremely happy to hear Galvanize being used repeatedly during the Olympic Opening Ceremony a few weeks ago.  Having already been travelling for a few weeks, it was a welcome reminder of home (I am so rubbish at being away for long periods of time: how on earth did I think I'd manage with a whole year in America?!).  It's one of those songs that has meant different things to me at different times, and rather neatly illustrates the way my leisure pursuits have changed over the years.  When it was released I spent many a happy night on sweat-soaked dancefloors that reverberated to it's beat.  A few years down the line, and it became my go-to gym track; perfect for when I needed an extra burst of energy to go the final mile on the cross trainer or treadmill.  Now it tends to be my accompaniment when I finally reach the limits of my tolerance with dust and do some cleaning. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Last days

My last few days in South Africa were spent in a fog of flu medication; I caught a rotten cold somewhere in the middle of the vast Karoo desert on the train journey between Cape Town and Johannesburg, leaving me lethargic, snot-filled and probably not the best company for my long-suffering cousin, Michael.

Johannesburg; the big bad of South Africa, a city usually only glimpsed through the securely closed windows of locked cars.  This is where my parents met and married back in 1976, although it's a city that they would now barely recognise in all it's brash, rich-meets-poor, Africa-meets-West concrete glory.  A city where there are signs warning drivers of 'highjacking hotspots' at traffic lights (or 'robots' to use the local parlance).  A city where the moneyed middle classes - black and white - eat and drink in the shadow of a statue of the great man himself in Nelson Mandela Square.  A city where I wandered around in a t-shirt one day, and shivered in the snow the next after the temperature plunged by 20c overnight.

On Monday, we visited the most audacious shrine to the arrogance of white settlers, the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, built by the fervent Afrikaans Nationalists (the same people behind a little experiment called Apartheid) in the 1940s to celebrate the Great Trek of the 1800s.  It left me feeling queasy and greatly in need of the balance provided by a short journey along the aptly-named Reconciliation Road to Freedom Park, a stunningly designed monument to the untold numbers who contributed to - and sometimes died for - South Africa's long walk to freedom.

On my last day, the snow began as we walked into the Apartheid Museum.  The ticket assigned my race - Nie Blankes (Non-White) - and I entered through a seperate entrance to Michael, into a hallway lined with Apartheid-era signs and identity documents.  The rest of the Museum was a thorough guide to the policy that shaped South Africa, past and present.  Walking round one corner, I was surprised and delighted to see a photograph of my grandfather, it's presence emphasising for me the pivotal role Apartheid played in the lives of my family, as first my uncles left the country of their birth, then my mum & dad, and finally my grandparents went into political exile.

Waiting for my flight at the airport (which was to be delayed by the weather; snow being such a rare occurence that the airport possessed no de-icer, so some poor sod had to get onto the wings of the plane and use a broom to clear them) I thought about belonging.  When I came to South Africa in 2001, it was on a search for identity.  Eleven years later and rather older and wiser, I know that this isn't where I belong although, like many children of immigrants, I have never felt wholly British either.  I suppose that when your grandfather is part of the history of a country - when he becomes an exhibit in a museum, no less - then that country becomes part of you.