Monday, 31 March 2014


READING so much this month.  The new issues of both Bitch and Bust arrived within days of each other last week and both are really at the top of their game in terms of brilliant content.  I've also been racing through books, as mentioned in my March Reads post yesterday.

BUYING a very cool mid-century modern mirror from Vintage Utopia in Clarendon Park, Leicester, for the bargain price of £15.  Plus a new camera, hooray!  I've been using an ancient point-and-shoot for years, so it's going to be fun learning how to use a more complex model.  Question for camera owners: do you have a special camera bag, or just a bigger handbag?  I'm loathe to carry around more than just one bag, but I don't particularly want my camera getting bashed about in my satchel either.  Any recommendations?

RELEASING my first book-crossing book into the wild.  I picked up The Snow Child when I was in Nottingham last month and, after reading it, released it here in Leicester.

WATCHING lots of good films at our local indie cinema, Phoenix.  I am obsessed with this place, and for good reason: their programme is consistently excellent and oh, the joys of being in a cinema screen where everyone is silent and no-one is crunching popcorn!  If you have an independent cinema near you, I would wholeheartedly recommend supporting them.  We are lucky that Phoenix also has a nice cafe/bar with vegan food, and our date nights almost always end here.  

WEARING sunglasses and t-shirts.  And then a winter coat and boots.  And then my raincoat and wellies.  And now sunglasses again.  I do love spring (is there any better sight than daffodils nodding in the wind?), but the changeable weather can be difficult to dress for.

BOOKING an appointment for my next tattoo, yippee!  Also, lots of test drives as I am looking for a new (to me) car.

LEARNING yoga, after my GP suggested it might help with my stress-related jaw pain.  So far, it's causing me more stress because I'm so bad at it, but I do enjoy it.

EATING out far too much.  It's the bad influence of The Boy (ok, it's the novelty of having someone to eat out with).  But there are so many great options in Leicester, places where he has remarkably little trouble finding vegan food, that we feel we should take advantage.  That, and we're lazy and enjoy not having to cook .

FEELING remarkably well, actually.  Thanks to some great advice from friends and readers after February's post about my ill-health, my IBS has been better than it has for months.  I also got some new medication to ease the pain in my jaw, which seems to be working, and it's been wonderful to have some completely painkiller-free days.  Even better, it's also recommended as a treatment for IBS (randomly!) so I'm sure that's also helping my digestive system settle itself.

PLANNING a meet-up with Laura this Saturday - I'm looking forward to finally meeting after years reading each other's blogs.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Seen & heard: March

Three equally stylised but extremely different new films this month, plus an oldie-but-goodie and a great stage show.

1. The new film by Spike Jonze, Her, is also very lovely to look at and full of stylish touches, but I found it said rather more: about modern life and love, about loneliness, about relationships ending and beginning. I really enjoyed it, and thought Scarlett Johansson was brilliant as the voice of Samantha.

2. Still with Johansson, unfortunately the best I can say about Under The Skin is that her performance was good, considering what she was given to work with. I found it stunningly boring and although to begin with I thought perhaps the only redeeming feature of this film would be the fact that it reveresed the usual trope of a predatory male stalking women victims, but no. Ultimately it's the female body which is most violated in Under The Skin.

3. I have a confession to make: I'm not the biggest Wes Anderson fan.  I know, I know, that's practically enough to get me excommunicated from the cool club but still, I find his films rather reliant on style over substance.  And true to form, The Grand Budapest Hotel was lovely to look at and had some rather nifty visual jokes, and I liked it fine but I can't imagine wanting to rewatch it in years to come.

4. Can you believe that The Boy had never seen Juno? After becoming rather tired of me referring to Ellen Page as "my girlfriend Ellen Page," he decided to see what the fuss was about and we watched it during a cosy night in. I think it must have been about my tenth viewing and I still love it as much as ever, and still get weepy over the lovely final scene with Page and Michael Cera.

5. Curve in Leicester currently have a barn-storming stage version of Hairspray.  Slowly but surely - a cinema date to watch Les Miserables here, a trip to see Hairspray there - I am making sure The Boy becomes as much a fan of jazz hands and musical theatre as I am.


I'm rather enamoured of Belfast quartet Wonder Villains at the moment.  Chiming Britpop-era guitars, pretty harmonies and a rather wonderful keytar in the video to new single Marshall all combined to make me fall a bit in love with them.  They remind me of being 18 and listening to bands like Kenickie and Bis, and that's always a good thing.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

March reads

Brace yourselves, because I've read a lot this month, and I've got plenty to say about it too!

The publication of the final book in the Tales Of The City series prompted me to return to the previous two books that make up the recent trilogy (the wholes series runs to nine books, forming three trilogies).  I've loved these books since I was a confused queer girl growing up in Bradford, when reading them was like an insight into another, better, world.  As tempting as it is to launch into a long and detailed treatise about why the Tales are some of the best books you'll ever read, instead I'll just point you in the direction of this excellent article from Guardian Review about being a Tales fan, this profile of author Armistead Maupin from The Observer, and the wonderful interview that Maupin did with Graham Norton on the latter's Radio 2 show, which together should tell you all you need to know.

1. Michael Tolliver Lives is perhaps my favourite of the entire series.  Perhaps because it was such a wonderful surprise, being published almost twenty years after the previous volume, Sure Of You.  But also because there is such lightness and hope and humour to it; you can clearly tell how much of the title character comes from Maupin himself, who had recently met and married his husband when he wrote the self same happy ending for Michael.

2. Mary Ann In Autumn was the eighth in the series and, like earlier volumes, tends towards the melodramatic and far-fetched (there's a reason Maupin has been compared to Dickens).  But, as always, you forgive any and all flaws because the characters are so brilliantly drawn and the writing so witty and sharp.

3. And so it was with some excitement that I finished the first two books and launched into the last in the trilogy, the ninth in the series: The Days Of Anna Madrigal.  Like anything that has been anticipated for a long time, it was perhaps a slight disappointment.  I felt it suffered for shifting much of the action from San Francisco - which has always been as much an extra character in the novels as a setting - to Nevada (where the large cast of characters decamp for the Burning Man festival).  Ultimately, though, it won me over with an ending that was perfectly unsentimental yet heartwarming.

4. Boston Noir is not a book I'd have picked for myself but was a gift from my (Boston-dwelling) aunt.  A collection of short stories, all with a noirish, thriller element, I actually really enjoyed it and am now putting two volumes set in my two favourite American cities - New Orleans Noir and Portland Noir - on my wishlist.

5. Curtis Sittenfield's debut novel, Prep, is one of my favourite books, and I also loved the follow-up The Man Of My Dreams, and her novel based on the life of Laura Bush, American Wife.  So imagine my disappointment when I read Sisterland and hated it.  The story of identical twins Kate and Violet and how having 'senses' (their word for their apparent psychic abilities) impacts on their lives was severely hampered by narrator Kate being unsympathetic and even downright unlikeable.  She shares the most banal details of everyday life with the reader - I really didn't need nor want to know each specific dish in a Chinese takeout order - and I found myself skim-reading over parts of the book because of this.  Kate is also full of the worst impulses and thoughts - sometimes racist or homophobic, more often just unkind - that I really didn't feel the reader benefited from being given an insight into.   Of course, you don't always need to like book characters but, because she's the narrator and because she often actively asks for sympathy, I think in this instance you do need to like Kate.  And I just didn't.  The earthquake (the apparent premonition of which forms the basis of the narrative) was a clever twist, but not as clever as Sittenfield seems to think it is, and the events of the final, rather rushed, chapters stretch credulity further than even the most melodramatic soap opera.

6. I picked up The Snow Child as a Book-Crossing book in a cafe, and I'm so glad I did because I loved it. A touching portrait of a marriage strained by difficult circumstances, of a couple made vulnerable and desperate by grief, I loved the Alaskan setting and, in contrast to Sisterland, the vivid and hugely sympathetic characters.

7. After loving Fangirl last month, I excitedly downloaded Attachments and was not disappointed. An adult rather than YA novel, the action takes place at the turn of the century as a smalltown newspaper prepares itself for the millenium. It takes a partly epistolary form as two friends who work for the paper, Beth and Jennifer, communicate via email. Meanwhile IT worker Lincoln has been employed to check the email filter, resulting in him having to read what they write. While Lincoln does come across as a little pathetic at times (nine years and multiple college degrees to recover from being dumped by a high school girlfriend, really?), I found myself wholeheartedly rooting for him and for Beth and Jennifer. A delightful love story.

8. Meat Market is an extremely readable book by journalist Laurie Penny, a collection of four essays on the female body and its commodification under patriarchal capitalist models.  In the words of the blurb, it is "designed to counter the voice that tells women and girls everywhere to shrink ourselves, silence ourselves, be small, be sexy, be nice...".  I, of course, loved it. 

9. I'd only been vaguely aware of blogger Allie Brosh's book - part-memoir, part graphic novel Hyperbole & A Half - until I read a short review on Siobhan's blog that convinced me to use my Waterstones voucher on it.  Best decision ever.  It had me in fits of laughter from the first page; her drawings look simple on first glance but she's able to convey so much meaning (and humour) with a single line, and the accompanying text is equally wonderful.

List #13: My spring to-do list

1. Buy a new car and sell my old, breaking down one.

2. Book the appointment for my next tattoo - done yesterday!

3. Buy a new camera.

4. Book flights and trains for our European adventure this summer (this is shaping up to be an expensive spring!)

5. Weed the garden and get it ready for summer with some new bedding plants and pots.

6. Start making practice cakes ahead of my friend's wedding.

7. Frame some of the many pictures currently stored in the spare room.

8. Have another 'Week of Making'.

9. Buy new kitchen worktops and flooring and get them fitted.

10. Catch up on the hideously huge piles of marking at work.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why I'll be striking next week

First, something to think about: under this government, teachers have gone out on strike four times.  Are we getting a taste for disrupting the education of innocent children?  Do we relish the inconvenience caused to families?  Rub our hands with glee at the thought of losing a day's pay for our strike action?

No, and no, and no.

We are striking because, contrary to what you may think based on the words of Gove, Wilshaw and Hunt, we care deeply about the education of children and we care deeply about our ability to do a good job.

No one would be a teacher if they didn't want to do the very best for the children and teenagers in their care.  The long hours, heavy workload and astronomical levels of stress are not conditions that anyone puts up with for long if they don't - at heart - love their job and want to do it as well as they can.  And currently we are struggling to do the best job we can as we struggle to cope with wave after wave of educational reform and to minimise the negative impact of those reforms on our pupils.

The people currently in charge of state education don't care about the education of the majority. They are obsessed with a narrow and archaic view of education, one which benefits a small minority: those who are successful in the traditional academic disciplines, those who do well in exams, those who have support at home from parents.  The rest of them - children and teenagers with special educational needs, pupils who excel in practical subjects but not in the classroom environment, kids who want to learn a trade - are being dispossessed and abandoned by an education system designed by (and for) privileged, privately educated white men.

The sharp, funny, brilliant kids I work with every day deserve better than to be pushed through an ever-narrowing curriculum, one which - with its focus on rote learning and exams over coursework - bears little resemblance to the demands of either work or university. A curriculum which has effectively abandoned the arts, drama and music; any subject that might have allowed a hint of independence of thought to shine through. A curriculum that is almost xenophobic in its promotion of archaic attitudes.  For example, the inclusion on the history curriculum of the (uncritical) study of The British Empire or the abolishment of any literature not from the UK in the new GCSE English course (so goodbye American literature - To Kill A Mockingbird, the plays of Arthur Miller, The Catcher In The Rye - which has long been a standard of the Key Stage 4 curriculum, or the study of poetry from other cultures and traditions, which allowed pupils from a background other than White British to read something that perhaps began to reflect their own experiences).

Of equal concern is the fact that parents are now being encouraged to see schools as existing for their benefit, rather than the benefit of their children. There is much talk of extending the school day or term to better fit their needs (which really just means the needs of their employers). While mouthing platitudes about, "what's best for pupils", the government is trying to remake the education system as free childcare, there to make things easier for employees to work ever-longer hours.  An education system arranged for the convenience of parents and employers does children no favours. Rather, it needs to take into account what the best possible learning environment is for children to flourish.  There is plenty of evidence that children need time out of the classroom to develop family relationships, play, pursue outside interests... even be bored.  Any parent who has dealt with their child's increasing exhaustion as the end of term approaches knows that very well.

Not to mention the fact that a teacher's work doesn't end when classes finish, as so many people seem to think, nor does it cease when the holidays start.  The image of the 'lazy teacher', working 9am-3pm with 13 weeks holiday a year, is a fallacy.  The planning, paperwork, marking and meetings that every teacher undertakes would be a full time job on its own, without ever having to stand in front of a class.  But we do all of that, working early mornings (I start just after 7am) and well into the evenings, taking work home at weekends and during the holidays, because the standing in front of classes makes it worthwhile.  It's seeing the lightbulb moment, getting the best out of pupils who doubt themselves, contributing to the growth of delightful children and teenagers, that keeps us doing this job.  But for how much longer can we go on under current conditions?

I am striking because the UK's young people are some of the most stressed in Europe, being made to jump through hoops as they take exam after exam, learning only how to pass tests, not how to be independent thinkers or fully rounded, empathic individuals.

I am striking because it breaks my heart to see the impact of this government's reforms on the pupils I teach. 

I am striking because teaching is a bloody hard job and I'm sick of being derided by people who have barely stepped foot inside a classroom since they left school. 

And no, strikes are not convenient (that's sort of the point) and they make service-users' lives more difficult (again, sort of the point), and believe me when I say that no-one in my profession goes on strike without a good deal of soul-searching, but our right to strike is enshrined in law and, until the government takes on board our concerns, I and thousands of other teachers will continue to strike.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

List #12: What's beside my bed

A fortuitous coincidence, this list, as only last week I undertook a makeover of the area next to my bed.  Inspired by Lisa of Mathilde heart Manech's recent overhaul of her bedside table, I decided I'd had enough of the tatty old table and the fact it had become a dumping ground for all manner of rubbish - old receipts, fistfuls of medication due to my recent ill health, toiletries that would have been better off in the bathroom.

My new, improved bedside area (I just moved the much nicer table from the spare room into our room and then tidied away/threw away most of the excess 'stuff'') is cleaner, tidier and makes that dark corner of the bedroom feel so much more spacious and light, and features:

1. Table lamp from Homebase
2. Homemade book hearts in a frame (what do you mean, you'd expect me to have a photograph of The Boy?  Books are my first love, it's only right they should have pride of place)
3. A glass of water
4. Burt's Bees honey & almond hand cream
5. Alarm clock
6. Q&A a day diary
7. Books I'm currently reading (I've just finished the two pictured, their place now taken by The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey)
8. Kindle & iPad
9. Stack of craft books and magazines for browsing
10. And on a floating bookshelf above the table: stack of half-read books and a wooden letter J

Monday, 17 March 2014

What it's like being a fat woman

Image source here

Hanging out on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I saw that Bethany from Arched Eyebrow had linked to an article on the Cosmo website about the realities of being a fat woman.  I gave it a read and, like her, was impressed that a mainstream womens media outlet was publishing something so, well, un-fat-phobic.

I have my own issues at the moment around fatness.  I waver between believing everyone should be able to self-identify how they want, and believing that perhaps I'm just not fat enough for the label.  I'm a 14/16/18 depending on where I shop - on the lower reaches of what's considered plus size, but still definitely plus - but because I have a pretty classic hourglass figure (insanely out of proportion huge boobs aside) I can 'pass' as being skinnier than I actually am.  I acknowledge that I do have a huge degree of thin privilege compared to a lot of fat women so  I sometimes wonder if I am 'allowed' to claim that label.  But when I started thinking about these questions I realised that they felt very relevant to my experiences and life.  So here are my answers.

How do you feel when other women around you complain about feeling/being fat?
When it happens at all, I tune it out, but I tend not to spend much time with women who say anything like that.  I generally feel bad for women who feel that way, because they've been so brainwashed into believing that it's their bodies which are wrong rather than society's perceptions.  But I also get annoyed about the implication that fat = bad/ugly, especially as it's often someone slimmer than me complaining.  If they think they are bad/ugly then what must they think of me?

How has your body image changed since high school? College?
My body image as a teenager was shocklingly bad.  I used to drape myself in baggy t-shirts, because I thought that would disguise my size.  Of course, what it actually did was make me look far more enormous than I actually was.  When I was about 17 I started to figure out that maybe tighter-fitting clothes would look better and, once I worked that out, I began to like my body a bit more.  If you can't already tell, my body image is closely tied to fashion and what I wear; my path to true body positivity really began when I found my style groove in my late twenties and then, a couple of years later, when I read my first fatshion blogs and saw bodies that reflected my own.  I can't emphasise how important this was to me, and how much it helped me accept and love my body.

Have you tried dieting? What happened?
Not with any real effort behind it.  I tried Weight Watchers for about a week in my mid-20s but realised pretty quickly that, actually, I prefer being fat and full to slightly less fat and hungry.

Do you think in your case your weight is partly or entirely genetic?
Honestly, I don't think it matters either way.  Framing fat as a genetic issue implies that the fat person is not to blame, and that in turn implies that there is blame to be attached to being fat; that it's something to be ashamed of.

Do you consider yourself healthy? Have there been instances where people assumed you were unhealthy?
I have perfect blood pressure, normal cholesterol and blood sugar, I'm active and fit.  So yes, I'd consider myself healthy.  Could I do more?  Sure.  But so could almost everyone I know, regardless of their size.

Are your parents both supportive of you at the weight you’re at? Have they always been?
I can only recall one time when either of them mentioned my weight - I must have been about 12 or 13, just hitting puberty, and although it was a throwaway comment it haunted me for years and made me feel pretty shitty about myself.  However as an older teen and an adult, neither of them have ever been anything other than supportive.

How do you think retailers can improve clothes for plus-size people?
I went on an epic Twitter rant recently when I discovered that H&M have stopped doing any size above 16 in their main range (which, as anyone who shops at H&M regularly will know, is more like a size 12 or 14 in actual sizes).  Why a retailer would decide to limit their customers so significantly is beyond me - they used to go up to a 22 in their main women's line, so this must surely have a massive impact on their sales.  So retailers actually selling clothes in plus-sizes would be a good start.

Do you think plus-size women are judged differently than plus-sized men are? How?
Inevitably, because plus-size women are working against the twin oppressions of fat-hate and misogyny.  There was a great passage in Hadley Freeman's new book, Be Awesome, where she is addressing the seeming contradiction of the tabloids' approach to the female body (which must always be, in their parlance, either 'scary skinny' or 'flaunting curves'): "There is always going to be something wrong with your body... because it is a grown-up woman's body... The constant criticism of the female body proves that its critics aren't trying to alter the female body - they just don't want a female body at all."  I think if more women could recognise this truth, there would be a good deal more of us who were happy in our own skin.

Do you think there’s ever a right way or time to express concern about someone’s weight?
Nope, not at all. The only person who has a right to express concern about someone's weight is their doctor.

What are the worst things people have said to you about your body?
I work hard to forget them so I won't mention them here.

What have people said (or do you wish they’d say) that would compliment your body or appearance?
I have almost no hang-ups about my body and so compliments about it aren't something I need to hear because I already think it's fine.  But on the flip side, I really hate being asked, "Have you lost weight?" because what the hell am I meant to say?  Clearly the answer they're looking for is, "Yes, thank you!" but the honest answer would be, "Yeah, maybe, because my IBS has been terrible lately and I'm struggling to eat without being very ill.  It sucks, right?"

Do you find yourself hanging out with women who are closer to your size?
No, not at all, most of my friends are skinnier than I am but it's rarely an issue for me.  In fact, a real watershed moment in accepting my body was during a discussion with a very slim friend about thigh rub in summer.  I'd had this weird reserve of self-hate about it and realising that she - at size 8 - had exactly the same issue as me did so much for my self-esteem.  I think it's important to recognise that everyone, no matter what their weight or shape, has hang-ups about their body.  Media coverage of the female body (back to that scary skinny/flaunting curves dichotomy again) makes it clear that it's impossible for anyone to meet their standards.  For me, though, there is a liberation in the idea: if everyone's bodies are wrong, that means no-one's is.

How has your weight affected your sex life, if at all?
Bearing in mind the fact that my parents and brother read this blog, I might need to be careful what I say here!  Essentially my answer is, not at all.  I've always been sexually confident - my theory being that if they've taken their clothes off already, they're not going to run screaming at the sight of my belly or thighs - but being extremely well-endowed in the chest can lead to some comic jiggling.  Aaaand now I feel awkward.  Apologies all for the mental image.

When you’ve been single, has your weight affected your dating life?
No, the only thing that's affected my dating life is my extreme introversion and terror of meeting new people.

Do you feel weird if the guy you’re with only dates larger women?
A couple of the guys I've dated have definitely had a type, but so do lots of people and who am I to judge that?  That being said, I've never felt fetishised, which would be more problematic for me.

Do you feel weird if he’s only dated slimmer women before you?
I actually did feel a bit weird when I realised that my boyfriend had only dated slimmer women before meeting me.  I had a fleeting thought of, "What the hell does he see in me?".  But then I reminded myself that I'm awesome, and he clearly thinks so too, so I didn't stay worried for long.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

We are not graffiti artists

Round the corner from my house, some very creative people (not graffiti artists) were at work last night.  Either my neighbourhood has a budding David Shrigley or there were some kids with an excellent sense of humour getting busy with the chalk.

I didn't take photographs of everything, and now it's dark I'm regretting that. Other favourites included a paving stone with a huge cross on it and "Don't stand here" on the next slab and, after a row of "I am not stolen..." arrows pointing to parked cars, a massive, "I WAS stolen!  Phone 999!" on the last car.  Seriously, the whole thing was genius and made me very very happy this morning.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

List #11: The things I want to make

Image from Oh Gosh

1. This bunting quilt. It's been on my to-make list since I first saw it on Em's blog last May. If anyone of my acquaintance (in possession of a small person or not) would like one as a gift, let me know. I think it would give me the impetus to actually get started if I was making it for someone.

2. Plans for the future.  It's difficult at the moment because, with The Boy finishing his PhD in 18 months time, we have no idea where he will find work once it's completed.  So at the moment there are just lots of hopes and dreams* but no real plans or decisions.

3. Some practice cakes before I embark making my friends' three tier wedding cake this summer.

4. Travel bookings for the summer.  We're hoping to have a train-based adventure: Eurostar to Amsterdam and a couple of days there, followed by a weekend seeing friends in Nijmegen (where The Boy used to live), and finally an overnight train to Copenhagen for a few days exploring Denmark.

5. Pancakes, as we didn't manage to make them last Tuesday (due to being in the pub, ahem).

* Hopes - to both find jobs either in the North of England so we can move to Hebden Bridge, or in the Netherlands.  Dreams - for him to get a job that is so fabulously well-paid that I can afford to go back to university and study for a Masters.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

My 10 wardrobe essentials

Could you survive with just ten items in your wardrobe?  Or manage on holiday with only ten things in your suitcase?  When I sat down to think about my clothing essentials, I realised that actually, I probably could.

I have a very clearly defined personal style, variously described by friends as 'indie chic', 'dress, fringe & eyeliner', and 'that cute indie thing you have going on' (I worry slightly that perhaps the adjective 'cute' should not be applicable to a nearly-36 year old, but hey).  But the benefit of having a clearly defined look is that it makes choosing my fashion essentials super easy: the entire contents of my wardrobe are essentially just variations on these ten items.  And it also makes packing a breeze too (not least because, as these pictures will show, I'm pretty slavish in my devotion to black and navy blue, whichs means everything matches).

1. Skinny jeans
The skinnier the better, and preferably in black. I used to love New Look's supersoft skinnies, but they seem to have changed their 'recipe', so now it's all about Topshop's Baxters.

2. A striped Breton top
This is a wardrobe classic for a reason: I always feel stylish without feeling too fashion-y when I wear one.

3. A slouchy tee
This new H&M one is perfect - sleeves that aren't too short, there's a scoop neck that's neither too low nor too high, and I like the breast pocket detail.  At only £6.99, it was my weekend bargain.

4. A pair of ballet pumps
Dorothy Perkins seem to have discontinued my favourite leather ballet pumps, and I'm devastated. They were perfect: totally flat, completely plain, with no bling or bows or faff (the only issue was that they did tend to let in rain).

5. A plain cardigan
A black cardigan is a classic (this one is H&M - again!) and I also find a neutral, beige colour very wearable.

6. A skater dress
Preferably with a Peter Pan collar, with extra points awarded if said collar is crochet, like on this dress from Topshop.

6. An LBD
My favourite black dress is the most wonderful item of clothing I own: kinda baggy and relaxed but fitted at the waist, with pockets (!), it's perfect in winter with tights & brogues and also looks good in summer with sandals.  Casual enough for the pub, smart enough for dinner.  I kick myself that I didn't buy multiple copies when it was still available at H&M.

8. A patterned dress
Generally either polka dots or floral print, with a recent foray into stripes. This pretty tea dress is a very, very old Primark number.

9. Brown leather brogues (winter) or brown leather sandals (summer)
After 34 years of wearing the most inappropriate and rubbish shoes (cheap ballet pumps in autumn rain, flimsy Primark sandals for walking ten miles on holiday), last year something clicked for me. Realising that spending a bit more money + buying from somewhere other than Primark or Dotty P's = dry, cosy and non-blistered feet is not exactly rocket science, but it took me a while to work out. These Clarks brogues are my single most favourite thing when it rains because keeping my feet nice is such a novelty to me.

10. A pair of thick black tights
A wardrobe staple year-round: I wasn't quite sure if these counted as an item of clothing, but they're such a central part of my look that I had to include them.

So, I would love to know what your wardrobe essentials are.  Could you pack just ten items and have enough to see you through a week away?  Or are you a maximalist?

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The moment I knew I was a feminist

I've read a couple of books lately - Reclaiming The F Word: The New Feminist Movement and Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists - both of which posed the question, What made you a feminist?  So of course, that got me to wondering what my own 'click moment' was: what was the moment when I knew I was a feminist?  But the thing is, I don't think I've ever had one.  As weird as it may sound, I don't remember ever not being a feminist.

Born into a left-wing South African family in which political activism was as natural as breathing, I grew up with parents who were vigilant about limiting discriminating behaviour.  Not to mention that childhood thirty years ago was rather different to now.  The tyranny of pink for girls hadn't yet taken hold (most of our childhood photos show my brothers and I all wearing varying shades of brown or blue), and gendered marketing to children barely existed.  This meant that, for a long time, I never questioned the notion of feminism because it was so ingrained in me.  From the moment I could talk, I knew what was bad - racism, sexism, homophobia, disabilism - and I knew that I was therefore a supporter of anything that was anti- these things.  I was one of those terribly self-righteous children who wrote poems about the horrors of racism and gave class presentations about apartheid (I fit in really well at my school in Bradford, let me tell you).

As a pre-teen, I would spend International Women's Day (which is this Saturday: put it in your diaries) with my mum at slightly hippy-dippy workshops, or with my friend Anya at all-girl events put on in local community halls.  In between henna hand painting and trampolining classes, I would reflect on how much luckier I was than my brothers, who had to stay at home and play football.

I can remember reading my mum's copies of Ms and Spare Rib when I was barely into my teens.  By this time, she was embarking on an MA in Women's Studies and the house was even more full of feminist texts than before. 

At school (and later, at university), I was the person who brought every discussion back to feminism or queer theory.  Whether discussing the works of Charlotte Bronte in English or the sociology of the city in Geography, my preoccupying thought was always, "what's the feminist perspective on this?".  For all that, I was astonishingly poorly read when it came to, y'know, actual feminist theorists.  I've always been one for soundbites above reasoned intellectual argument, and slogging through The Female Eunuch was not appealing to 19 year old me*.  Instead, it was in Riot Grrrl fanzines that I found feminist voices I could relate to.  Girls who wrote about the pressure to be thin and beautiful, and their efforts to resist it.  Girls who wrote about sexism and homophobia at school or in the workplace.  Girls who wrote about assualt and fear or the ways in which we harm our own bodies.  I started my own ranty, feminist fanzine and briefly felt like I was contributing to a dialogue.

However, by the time the new century began and I was in my mid-twenties, feminist activism - for me personally, and for many many other women of my generation - seemed to fizzle out.  Maybe because we were trying to cope with the mid-twenties crisis of, "When does my 'real' life start/How do I get the career I want/When will I ever be able to afford to do the things I want to do?" or maybe because the fire lit by Riot Grrrl had died down, but have to admit that I, and many other young, late-90s feminists, let the cause down.  Although I still identified as a feminist, I felt disheartened.  I knew that feminism was still as essential as ever, but as the term post-feminism started being bandied about - the idea that, now women have equality in law, feminism is an obsolete movement - it started to feel like I was on my own, when really I just wasn't doing a good enough job of seeking out other dissenting voices.

For me, it was the growth in internet-based activism found on blogs, Tumblr and Twitter that re-lit my passion for feminism as a truly vibrant movement.  Seeing other women, many almost a generation younger than me, ensuring that their voices in the fight against patriarchy was like a lightning bolt to me.  From high-profile Twitter campaigns, such as the one to get the Bank of England to include women on banknotes (and the disgusting, deep-rooted misogyny that such campaigns exposed), to huge media outlets such as Jezebel, feminism has remerged as a vibrant and powerful force. 

Do I think the new era of feminism is perfect?  Hell no.  I wish that women would stop complaining that other women aren't doing feminism 'right' because I'd like to think that any activism is better than no activism, and our ire is better directed at the real target: the widespread misogyny borne of a patriarchal society.  That being said, the tendency of some popular feminist writers to focus on a narrow - often transphobic and heterocentric - view of women's experience is extremely damaging, and there is often a lack of understanding of how racism can intersect with sexual oppression for non-white women.  Because of this, mainstream feminism continues to be alienating to many women, and that must be recognised, but I can't help but feel excited when I read Laurie Penny in New Statesman, or Kira Cochrane in The Guardian, or the many bloggers out there who write passionately about being a feminist.  To see young women engaging with feminism in a way that previous generations never did gives me hope for the future and gives me the energy and inspiration to continue my own activism through writing, teaching, learning and reading.

I'd love to hear your stories: what was the moment you became a feminist?

*I've actually still never read it, although a course on Feminism at university did finally force me to read - and love - Greer's The Whole Woman, bell hooks, Naomi Wolf, and many others.

List #10: The ways I could love myself more

1. Be better at taking time to heal.  A five day migraine over the weekend made me realise that sometimes, the only thing that will help with the chronic pain I'm suffering at the moment is cancelling all plans and staying in bed for a day.

2. Listen to the compliments people give me rather than focusing on the negative.

3. Start taking more regular exercise.  Finding time in my day for a walk or a visit to the gym is not always easy, but I know it would help with my current health issues.

4. Spend less time messing about on the internet and more time doing truly enriching things, like reading or baking or sewing.

5. Leave my work at school rather than bringing home the stress of things that have bothered me over the course of a teaching day.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

What to buy the bibliophile in your life

In honour of World Book Day tomorrow, I thought I'd come up with some gift ideas for the book lover in your life.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but one thing a lot of avid readers won't appreciate is actual books.  This might not apply to all bibliophiles, but my friends and family have long ago given up buying books for me, because I read so much that there's a very real risk I'll already have the book they want to give me.  So I'd avoid books as a gift unless you've heard the recipient specifically mention the book you want to buy, or you are completely and totally sure they have not read it and will want to read it.

So, if books are out, what should you buy a bibliophile?

1. The shelves may be full, but there's usually space on the walls for book-related art.  The prints by Claudia Varosio are a bargain at only £12, and would be very welcome in a bookish household. 

2. Anything featuring upcycled books, like this clock.  However, you do need to be careful - some bibliophiles think anything made from actual books is nothing less than a desecration (my mum nearly had a heart attack when I gave her some homemade book bunting a few years ago), so ensure that your chosen gift is made by someone who rescues damaged books.

3. Anything that proclaims their love of books to the world, such as this tote bag, which would be perfect for lugging around their latest haul from the library. 

4. Book-related homewares are always a hit, such as these wonderful pillowcases, perfect for anyone who's ever fallen asleep while reading and woken to found a book stuck to their cheek.

5. I've never met a book fan who doesn't love the Penguin Classics designs, which are available on a variety of products from mugs to notebooks to deck chairs.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Made: Screenprints at Atelier Crafts

Back in the autumn, I was lucky enough to win a giveaway on Em's blog, Oh Gosh.  The prize: my choice of workshop run by designer/maker Georgina Bell of Atelier Crafts.  Considering I never win anything, and considering I was desperate to give screenprinting a try, I was over the moon!  So on Saturday morning off I toddled, up the M1 to Worksop, to learn how to screenprint.

After a short but thorough introduction from Georgina, the five of us taking part in the workshop were set free on the screens, inks and paper. Now, although I'm reasonably crafty (in that I can recreate something when I have a pattern or model to work from), I completely lack the creativity to come up with new designs, so I struggled with thinking of a concept for my screenprint.

In the end, I just got printing and started playing around with the pre-made line and bird screens.  After some testing, I decided to do a roughly travel-themed print, in blues and teals to match our spare room, which is full of map art and framed travel posters.  And of course I couldn't have any artwork without words, so then I made a stencil with which to print some text. I was reasonably pleased with my final piece, but especially so with the fabric panel I printed up to match.

Georgina was a very patient teacher, despite me making some very idiotic mistakes, and I was chuffed with how quickly I was able to pick up the basics.  By the end of the day I was exhausted by all the learning I'd done: now I know how my pupils feel after my lessons!

Stupidly, I left my camera at home so all I had to record proceedings was the less than stellar camera on my phone. But hopefully these photographs capture some of the magic of Georgina's studio, which is crammed full of her incredible designs.

Georgina's studio is located on the gorgeous ducal Welbeck Estate, which is within easy reach of Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and Lincoln (even from Leicester it only took me just over an hour). Do take a look at her website to find out about upcoming workshops: I can heartily recommend a day spent with her learning new skills.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

February reads

1. I was persuaded to read Cold Comfort Farm after its mention in How To Be A Heroine and subsequent comments here and on Twitter in support of it.  I suppose that led me to expect too much, as I didn't totally love it: I found the small futuristic touches bizarre and the mock-pastoral language a bit of a grind to get through.  That being said, there's no doubt that Flora is a very good heroine.

2. Oh my gosh, I loved Fangirl so much. I'm a sap for a hapy ending and the reason I love a lot of YA fiction is because, although (like Fangirl) it often deals in tough realities like mental illness, it tends to also work towards an uplifting finish.  I fell hard for all the characters, who are so well realised that they felt like friends by the end of the book, but especially heroine Cath, a writer of fan fiction who is trying to navigate her first year at college without her identical twin sister.

3. The Rosie Project is my latest book group choice and I raced through it. I'd read so many glowing reviews on the blogosphere and was happy to learn that they were all completely accurate.  When genetics professor Don decides, at the age of 39, to embark upon a hunt for a wife (he has, up to this point, been chronically single largely due to - the reader realises, although Don doesn't - undiagnosed Autistic Spectrum Disorder), he comes up against a most unsuitable match, the Rosie of the title.  Although in many ways this is a predictable boy-meets-girl romance, it is also laugh out loud funny and very sweet and true.  I loved the character of Don and found his journey towards understanding how love and relationships work very moving. 

4. I'm a massive fan of American YA writer David Levithan, so when I saw his new novel, Every Day, in the Waterstones buy-2-get-1-half-price offer I was pretty excited.  This is the story of A, who wakes every morning in a different sixteen year-old body, takes over that person's life for a day, and moves on the following night.  My favourite element of the novel was A's musings about body and belonging, which is heightened when he lands in the body of a transgender teen, and his various misadventures as he tries to get to grips with a new life every day.

5. I wrote a full review of How To Be A Heroine a week or two ago, because I loved it so much.  See here for my thoughts (which the author of the book, Samantha Ellis, only fricking well retweeted!).

6. At the time of writing I haven't quite finished Be Awesome, a collection of pieces by Guardian writer Hadley Freeman.  So far, though, I've enjoyed the chapters about film and culture but found her brand of feminism to be annoyingly heterosexist: there is no recognition here that a woman might have sex with anyone other than a cis man.

7. How England Made The English was an interesting read - I think I annoyed The Boy by constantly interrupting his own reading to tell him fascinating facts - about how the geology, geography and architecture of England have shaped its inhabitants.