Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Boy on a bike - and the film of One Day

I wrote my very first blog in March 2006, sitting on a bench at the local park while my intrepid son performed scary stunts on his skateboard. Five years on, I’ve spent today doing pretty much the same thing. Well, my son’s a strapping 6ft 4 now and rides bikes instead of skateboards - but he still loves wheels, heights and the inexplicable thrill of jumping off a ramp into thin air.

In those days I used to stay and watch, ignoring his pleas that I was completely damaging his street-cred. He reckoned the older teenagers on skateboards, roller-blades and BMX bikes would laugh if they knew his mum was there so after a while I resorted to sitting 50 metres away and pretending I was nothing whatsoever to do with him.

In fact the teenagers I thought looked scary turned out to be the complete opposite. They were endlessly patient, offering my son advice on how to improve his skateboarding technique and teaching him tricks like how to twirl 360 degrees in mid-air before landing. They were such a close-knit bunch that when the brother of one of them died the whole gang rode their bikes behind the funeral cortege as a mark of respect. All dressed in black and riding in a slow, solemn procession to the church, it was one of the most moving tributes I’ve ever seen.

Today, with the holidays drawing to a close, my son was desperate to ride his new bike at Bugsboarding, a mountain boarding centre in the wilds of Gloucestershire. He’s spent half the summer building the bike from scratch – spoke by spoke in fact – and he wanted to put his gleaming new machine through its paces. This time round, he actually asked me to take pictures of him in action, a huge honour. And as I watched him whizz down the hills, leap high into the air and land elegantly on two wheels, I felt incredibly proud. Anxious, alarmed, terrified - but yes, proud too.

PS: You know the feeling when you really want to like something – and you just don’t? I’ve been longing to see One Day for months, ever since I heard David Nicholls talk about the film adaptation of his brilliant novel at the Oxford Literary Festival. It’s had mixed reviews – especially about Anne Hathaway’s casting and her very patchy Yorkshire accent – but lots of people on Twitter adored it. I didn't. Anne Hathaway wasn’t half as bad as the critics said but sadly she wasn't the complex, insecure Emma Morley we all loved in the book either.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The day I'd been dreading

The day I’d been dreading for months finally arrived. When my flying-obsessed husband bought a tiny scarlet bi-plane a couple of years ago I knew it wouldn’t be long before my teenage children were clamouring to go up.

Actually, I managed to put off the dreadful prospect for ages, arguing that they weren’t old enough and my husband needed more practice at the controls.

“But I’ve got hundreds of hours of flying experience,” he protested.

“Yes, but surely you need a bit more training in this plane?” I said, and amazingly he agreed.

With the weather so dismal and grey this summer, I hoped I might have managed to put everyone off till next year. But yesterday dawned annoyingly bright and fair – one of those summer days when the sky is blue and there’s not a breath of wind. Sure enough, my husband brewed me a strong coffee to calm my nerves, my daughter turned on the mega-watt charm and they both got to work persuading me.

So I caved in. I made my husband promise to give her a safety talk worthy of British Airways, fasten up Lottie’s straps so tight that she couldn’t move and “not,” I repeated, “not” to do any scary loop the loop stunts.

I hardly saw them for dust as they both raced out of the door, clearly terrified I might change my mind. An hour later there was a familiar roar overhead and running outside, I could see a little red plane streaking across the cloudless sky.

When they finally arrived back, my daughter was beaming. “Were you scared,” I asked. “No,” she replied with a hint of pride in her voice. “Not even when he did an emergency landing at Leicester.”

My heart nearly stopped. “Emergency landing?” I asked. “What was all that about?”

“Oh nothing,” she said airily. “It was only because he needed the loo.”

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The joys of walking - and the Tour de Trigs

Oh dear. It’s that time of year again. With the leaves already turning brown (very early this year) and our teenage son grumbling about going back to school, my husband’s begun training for the Tour de Trigs. If you haven’t heard of this extraordinary event, it’s a gruelling 24-hour orienteering hike through the wilds of Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. Just to make it extra-challenging, it’s held every December – when the days are short, the temperatures are freezing and the fields are at their boggiest. Entrants compete in teams of three and it’s so tough that most years only a third complete the top-secret 50-mile route.

My husband’s done five Tours de Trigs already and until a few weeks ago swore he wouldn’t attempt a sixth. But time is a great healer and a year’s long enough to forget what it’s like. When his GP friend Tim rang to suggest their team might stand a chance of winning a prize this year, I couldn’t believe my husband’s jaunty response. “Great idea,” he shot back.

Three months ahead of the event, I can predict exactly what will happen. On the morning of December 3, the intrepid trio will start the big day in high spirits. After a slap-up breakfast and quick kit-check, blister plasters, head torches and maps will be flung into rucksacks amid jokes about the horror that lies ahead.

Nonetheless, they’ll stick to their guns. As long as they keep eating high-energy bars and drinking strong black coffee, the walk is mostly fine till nightfall. Then the rot sets in. One year my husband felt so sick he had to quit halfway. Another year he trudged on through wind and rain, unable to speak or map-read. At one point he got in such a muddle that just like the Grand Old Duke of York he repeatedly led the team up and down the same hill. It still gives him a funny turn when we drive past the village of Brailes en route to the Cotswolds.

If previous years are anything to go by, the morning after the night before a weary-looking walker will stumble up our garden path. His face will be bright red, pummelled for hours on end by the elements, he’ll be covered in mud from head to toe and he’ll be barefoot because his feet are in agony. As he staggers through the front door, dropping his rucksack, first-aid kit, fluorescent armbands and great clods of earth everywhere, there’ll be just one thing on his mind.

“I’m never doing it again,” he’ll splutter. “Never. Ever. Do you hear me? Never.”

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Don't go into journalism for the glamour

Journalism can be exciting, nerve-racking, mind-numbingly dull and, at times, very very annoying. But unless you’re a film critic or showbiz correspondent, it’s rarely glamorous. One minute you’re reporting a murder trial at the Old Bailey that gives you nightmares, the next you’re up to your knees in mud writing about an eccentric recluse living on a Thames houseboat.

When I worked in hard news I’d arrive in the news room at 7am knowing full well that by the end of the day I could be anywhere – Paris, New York, Scunthorpe, you name it. Actually, if I’m honest, it was Scunthorpe more often than Paris.

It’s hardly surprising that there are barely any women news reporters with young children working on national newspapers. I’d leave home at the crack of dawn and was often on the tube to Euston or Heathrow by 8am. My husband still quotes the time I left a note on the kitchen table saying “gone to Nairobi. Don’t know when I’ll be back.” A British doctor had set out to climb Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa, six months earlier and had vanished into thin air. My news editor decided I was the person to find him – a tall order considering the police had totally failed in their attempts. Not surprisingly, I returned home a complete and utter failure ten days later.

Now I’m a freelance writer, journalism is still full of surprises. I recently had to write a piece about a school in the wilds of Northamptonshire. I spent the morning chatting to the head, was shown round by two delightful pupils, who proudly insisted on showing me the contents of every single cupboard, and then got invited to stay for lunch. I haven’t had a school dinner in nearly 30 years so, curious to see what they’re like post Jamie Oliver, I agreed.

As I walked in, the head directed me to the end of a long wooden table that looked like something out of Hogwarts. Grace was said and we all sat down. But as I gazed along the table I noticed lots of expectant faces staring back at me. And then I realised why. I was sitting at the head of the table – so it was my role to be the dinner lady and dish up the roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and watery cabbage. As I said before, you don’t go into journalism for the glamour…

PS: I reckon this gorgeous vintage table (above) I bought in the Pedlars sale is one of the best travelled pieces of furniture around. Originally from France, I spotted it on the Pedlars website and reckoned it would be perfect for the House With No Name. It’s crossed the Channel more times than I have this summer!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The agony of waiting for GCSE results - and Mark Billingham's new book

Thirty years on, I can still remember the horrible moment when my O level results dropped through the letter box. I am old enough to have sat O levels rather than GCSEs and to have received my grades by post rather than email, but my memories of that day are crystal clear. I grabbed the envelope, tore it open and immediately spotted the distinctive handwriting of Dr Mac, my intimidating headteacher. “Congratulations - a pity you missed physics,” she’d scrawled. Her words have stayed with me ever since and even though I’ve never needed to know about reflection and refraction or forces and motion, the shame of failing physics remains.

Getting your exam results is a heart-stopping moment so I feel for the thousands of teenagers due to get their GCSE grades on Thursday (fingers crossed all round). My son got his AS results last week and I was so nervous that I spent the morning pacing up and down waiting for him to ring. He, on the other hand, got up at nine, ate a hearty breakfast and wandered off to school looking as laid-back as usual.

But what most irritates me at this time of year are the so-called experts who pop up to grumble about “dumbed-down” and “easy-to-pass” GCSEs. Of course they’re entitled to their opinions but why do they insist on droning on about it just as a generation of teenagers are anxiously awaiting their results? Students, after all, can only sit the exam papers in front of them.

As Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this week: “We should be preparing to celebrate the achievements of our students and offering them compelling reasons to continue their education... Everyone knows that there is more to do but that is no reason to denigrate and undermine what has been achieved so far.”

Wise words. And yes, I know there’s a lot of talking to be done about how we equip our teenagers with the right skills for the future – but not this week.

PS: I’ve blogged before about my new-found passion for crime novels. If you’re looking for inspiration and haven’t tried Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne novels you’re in for a treat. The latest, Good as Dead (Little, Brown, £16.99), is just out (see above) and confirms Billingham’s status as one of the finest crime writers around. Set over three days, the drama begins when police officer and working mum Helen Weeks pops into her local newsagent’s to buy chewing gum and chocolate. In the space of a few terrifying minutes she’s taken hostage by a gunman who’ll stop at nothing to solve the mystery of his teenage son’s death in prison. It’s absolutely gripping.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Tikka masala cheese, anyone?

Alex James’s hilarious account of life behind the scenes of Nineties’ Britpop is one of my favourite non-fiction reads of recent years.

In Bit of a Blur the irrepressible James (above) recounts how he was catapulted to fame and fortune as bass guitarist of the rock band Blur. One minute he was a university student living in a slug-infested squat in Camberwell. The next he was living the high life – hanging out at the Groucho Club, driving around in a cab festooned with spots painted by Damien Hirst and generally being, as he describes it, “the second drunkest member of the world’s drunkest band.”

Those days are long behind him now. He’s moved to the wilds of Oxfordshire, where he lives with his wife and children, waxes lyrical about the countryside and makes cheese. But I think his latest creation could be a step too far. His Alex James Presents cheese range goes on sale in Asda on Monday (August 22) and boasts flavours like cheddar and tomato ketchup, cheddar and tikka masala and cheddar and sweet chilli. Are you convinced? No, me neither.

PS: David Cameron has just set off on his fifth holiday of the year. After a jaunt to Granada in April to celebrate Sam’s 40th birthday, an Easter trip to Cornwall, a week in Ibiza in May and a recent holiday at a Tuscan villa (cut short when he flew back following the riots), he's heading to Cornwall again with his family.

Even though lots of families can’t afford to get away at all this year, I don’t begrudge the Camerons the occasional break. But five is overdoing it – and sends out a terrible message to the millions struggling to make ends meet. Long hours and interrupted holidays go with the territory when you've got a high-powered career. If you want an easier life and a job that gets you home by 5.30 every night, then top-flight politics probably isn’t the right choice.


Thursday, 18 August 2011

New York - the perfect holiday for parents and teenagers

A message has just popped up on Facebook reminding me that a year ago I was on holiday in New York with my children. Looking back, I reckon it’s the perfect place for a city break with teenagers – so if you’re looking for ideas, here are some of mine.

After weeks of debating where to go it was clear that finding a holiday to suit both my fashionista daughter and bike-mad son was going to be tricky. She craved sunshine, art galleries and shops while he wanted high-octane action and wall-to-wall excitement.

In the end there was only one place that fitted the bill. New York – the city that never sleeps. Even so, the pair of them had to agree to compromise. My son promised to be calm while his big sister gazed at clothes in Forever 21 and she said she’d put up with him spending hours at the Empire State Building, viewing Manhattan (above) by telescope from every possible angle.

It was a flying visit but we were so determined to make the most of every second that our feet barely touched the ground. Even though the weather was blistering, with thirty-degree temperatures and stifling humidity, we packed a week’s worth of sight-seeing into four days. We walked miles and never resorted to the subway once. The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) was breathtaking, Central Park surprisingly hilly and I still haven’t got over the dazzling array of Proenza Schouler bags on sale at Barney’s, the up-market Madison Avenue department store. I longed to buy a lime-green PS1 satchel. The only problem was the eye-watering price tag.

We stumbled across some of our best discoveries quite by chance. Bryant Park, a tree-lined sea of green just off 6th Avenue, was one. The park, surrounded by towering skyscrapers on all sides, hosts a mass of free events throughout the summer months. One night we sat and listened to a fantastic jazz concert while the next day we watched a stunning lunchtime performance by the casts of five Broadway musicals. West Side Story, Mamma Mia, La Cage Aux Folles, they all featured, but one of the best performances came from Laura Michelle Kelly, the Isle of Wight-born star of Mary Poppins. Her cut-glass English tones and storming performance of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious stopped the whole audience in its tracks.

Another day, much to my teenagers’ horror, I booked a sightseeing tour. They were desperate not to be regarded as tourists but in the end our tour guide won them over with his wit and street-by-street knowledge. A film extra by trade, Brooklyn resident Dane took up his new role after his daughter got fed up with him boring her to death with the facts and figures he knew about New York and told him to tell other people instead. From the history of the Statue of Liberty to the day he bumped into Sarah Jessica Parker (“she’s a very nice lady,” he confided), he kept us entertained all day.

Most days we couldn’t resist stopping off at the legendary Dean & DeLuca on 56th Street for a cup of their delicious coffee. As we watched New Yorkers whizz in and out, we could pretend, just for a second, that we were one of them.

On the last afternoon we visited MoMA, where my daughter was entranced by the Cézanne masterpieces and my son was gripped by Vietnam war footage. Finally we sat for a while in the lovely courtyard, admiring the Wish Tree donated by Yoko Ono. As we duly lined up to write our wishes on luggage labels and tied them to the tree, I took a quick, surreptitious glance at my daughter’s tag. “I wish I could live in New York,” she’d written.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The first freelance journalist to take on an apprentice

After a decade of working in Fleet Street news rooms I went freelance when my daughter was born. Working from home, I juggled looking after her with writing features for newspapers and magazines. There were a few tricky moments when I had to bring telephone interviews to a close in double-quick time because she’d woken up from her nap, but mostly it worked fine. And these days, when my children are fiercely independent teenagers and I can write full-time, I’m so glad I persevered with my career.

The one thing I never considered, though, was employing a trainee journalist to help run my business. But that’s what freelance education journalist Jan Murray has decided to do. Two days before this year’s A level results (fingers crossed for everybody), she’s written a piece for The Guardian, outlining her decision to become the first freelance journalist to take on an apprentice.

“I’ve decided to recruit an apprentice to assist me with research, transcription, developing story ideas and – once they have enough experience under the belt – possibly even the writing of articles,” she says.

“They’ll work for me four days a week and spend a day a week working towards a business administration apprenticeship at Harlow College... I want to give them as much hands-on experience as possible, so I’ll be taking them along when I go out to cover stories and, where appropriate, getting them to do some interviewing.”

Jan’s idea is an innovative one, and I’m sure loads of ambitious youngsters will apply, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to train journalists. As she says, trainee hacks need to be accurate writers, possess good research skills and have “plenty of initiative and determination.” But I reckon these skills are best learned in the news rooms of local papers.

I did my training with a group of weekly newspapers in Devon, where I spent two years writing about flower shows, parish council meetings, golden weddings and village fetes. It wasn’t exactly cutting edge stuff but it taught me a lot of skills that I still use today. After eight weeks of learning shorthand (still essential for journalists), public administration (how local government works) and law (so we knew what we could and couldn’t report in the local magistrates court without committing contempt), we were let loose in the news room to do the job for real.

My worry with Jan’s idea is that her apprentice will spend most of his/her time doing general admin, like transcribing interviews, printing out cuttings and sending out invoices. But in my view it’s the buzz of working in a busy news room, seeing a variety of experienced reporters in action and crafting a great story from an initially unpromising interviewee that teaches you how to be a journalist.

I hope Jan’s initiative is a brilliant success but I’m not convinced it’s the way journalism training should be going.

PS: Thanks to Liberty London Girl's entertaining and informative blog I've just discovered this lovely Anthony Burrill poster (above), which I'm going to order for my office wall. Work hard and be nice to people - I can't think of better advice for us all, trainees or otherwise.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Creative writing courses - is there any point in doing one?

Creative writing courses have sprung up all over the place over the last 20 years. I still can’t quite believe this but apparently there are a mind-boggling 10,000 short creative writing courses and classes currently on offer in the UK.

Lots of people sneer at the notion that creative writing can be taught but I totally disagree. I was one of the first batch of students to do Manchester University’s MA in novel writing 18 years ago and it inspired me from start to finish. Launched by novelist and academic Richard Francis and Michael Schmidt, the founder and editorial director of Carcanet Press, it gave me the time, space and confidence to write Hard Copy, my first novel. It also encouraged me to study writers I would never have read in a million years otherwise - Ismail Kadare and José Saramago for starters.

Richard, who's had ten novels published, has always been a firm advocate of creative writing courses and was professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University till 2009. “You may not be able to teach people to write,” he once said, “but you can take people who are capable of writing and provide them with the space and structure within which they have to write.”

It was certainly true of my intake. We were a very eclectic lot, some producing literary fiction, a couple dreaming up hard-bitten thrillers, one working on a comic novel about a game-show hostess and one (me!) writing about a Fleet Street hack whose career was on the slide. Each week we read and commented on each other’s work, making suggestions and encouraging our fellow writers along the way.

The upshot was that out of the 12-strong group, at least five became published writers. The most successful is the highly acclaimed Sophie Hannah, who’s not only a brilliant poet but has also written a string of bestselling psychological thrillers. Meanwhile TV scriptwriter Sam Bain has a list of credits as long as his arm (including Channel 4’s Peep Show) and Anna Davis, the author of five novels, is now director and tutor of Curtis Brown Creative, the first literary agency to run its own creative writing courses.

So if you’re an aspiring author who’s thinking of doing a creative writing course my advice is: ignore the cynics and get that application form off in double-quick time.

PS: I've decided that the washing line at the House With No Name (above) is the most scenic in the world. Hanging washing out is the dreariest chore but over the last two weeks I've done it with a spring in my step. As I pegged basket-loads of laundry on the line I stood in the sun and gazed across at this amazing view. Blissful.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Lunch under the plane tree in France

French shops pride themselves on their service. Shop assistants always greet customers when they arrive, check whether your purchase is a cadeau and wish you a cheery au revoir, bonne journée when you leave.

My favourites are the amazing patisseries, where the displays look like a work of art. At Anne’s, in Dieulefit, the lovely proprietor is so charming that her customers don’t mind how long they wait to be served. Her pizzas and tartes aux framboises are so renowned that the queue often snakes out of the shop and down the pavement.

When we get to the front she always greets us personally, compliments my teenagers on their French and waits patiently while we fumble to find the right number of euros. She packs everything up into exquisite paper parcels, tells us a bit about her time working in a London hotel and says she looks forward to seeing us soon.

My latest discovery is the amazing D.Cochet (above) in the town of Crest. Yesterday we bought a tarte aux poires there. The smiley assistant wrapped it in a dashing purple box and we hurried home. An hour later we sat with friends under the plane tree at the House With No Name, the terrace where generations of local farmers have sat and put the world to rights over a glass of Pastis. My teenage daughter brought out a home-cooked red pepper and courgette flan, rosemary potatoes (a la Jamie Oliver) and salad, then cheese (always served before the dessert in France) and finally the tarte aux poires. And yes, it was every bit as delicious as it looked.

PS: On the down side, the rodent problem at the House With No Name continues. My daughter rushed downstairs two days ago to report that she had actually spotted the noisy loir (a dormouse). Most nights we’ve heard it scratching and scurrying about busily in the roof but this time it had been brave enough to sneak through the roof insulation and into her room. She’d woken up in the middle of the night to see its bushy tail disappearing back into the tiles. Eeek. Monsieur Noel, the amiable pest man from Montelimar, arrived promptly that afternoon in his immaculate white van, and got cracking on the problem. Whether the loir dares to show his face (or tail) again remains to be seen…

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London reflects - the view from France on the riots

When I wrote in my last blog how our pretty sunlit café in the south of France seemed “the best place in the world” I had no idea how prescient those words would turn out to be.

While we were happily sipping coffee, worrying whether the mysterious scratching sounds in the roof were coming from a loir or a fouine (both rodents and both equally alarming) and planning a housewarming party, London had turned into a war zone overnight.

The French rarely take much notice of UK news but even here, in the middle of nowhere, everyone’s talking about the riots. The story features on page four of today’s Le Figaro under the headline Londres s’interroge après une nouvelle nuit de violences (London reflects after another night of violence) and the man in the local boulangerie asked my husband for an update when he popped in to buy croissants this morning. 

The best piece I’ve read so far is by Mary Riddell in today’s Daily Telegraph. “London’s riots are not the Tupperware troubles of Greece or Spain, where the middle classes lash against their day of reckoning,” she says. “They are the proof that a selection of young Britain – the stabbers, shooters, looters, chancers and their frightened acolytes – has fallen off the cliff-edge of a crumbling nation.”

She’s so right. I can’t remember a time when the divide between haves and the have-nots has been so terrifyingly wide.  A whole generation of teenagers in our most disadvantaged areas have next to no hope in their lives.  They may possess the latest smart phones and coolest trainers on the block but a large proportion of them don’t have caring families, skills, qualifications or any passions in life.

PS: On a lighter note, the first party at the House with No Name went with a swing. As the sun went down over the Roche Colombe we drank Clairette de Die, the local sparkling white wine, and toasted everyone who has helped bring the house back to life. When one of my dearest friends first spotted the tumbledown house six years ago she emailed me to say it was “a very old farm, with heaps of charm.” And do you know what? It is.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Breakfast at a sunlit café in France

My lovely teenage daughter has arrived from London, laden with treats. From the depths of her suitcase she produces a mauve box of M&S Empress Grey tea bags (they’re simply the best), three mosquito nets, some Rococo fudge for her brother and a copy of last night’s Evening Standard. Even though I left my reporting job on the paper years ago, I’m an Evening Standard addict and the thought of reading it in deepest rural France is one of life’s little luxuries.

I take the paper to the Café de Globe to read in the sun over a coffee. After years of getting the etiquette of French coffee completely wrong I now know it’s essential to order a café crème. If you ask for a café au lait the waiter (with a very withering look) will present you with a bowl of coffee topped with an alarming mass of whipped cream. On the same note, never ask for a café crème after midday in France. It must be a petit café or an espresso. Nothing else will do.

My teenage son dashes across the street to buy croissants from the boulangerie and we sit and eat them with our coffee. I can’t imagine Starbucks being impressed by customers arriving with breakfast from another shop but it seems utterly normal in France.

The pavement outside the Café de Globe is so hot that the waiter hurries out to extend the awning and give us a little more shade. The café is packed with old men drinking Pastis and poring over Le Figaro and workers from the Crest Jazz Festival (see above) chatting about last night's storming performance by pianist Chucho Valdes. When I open my Evening Standard. I’m stunned by the terrible news from home. While we have been merrily painting, decorating and rearranging furniture at the House with No Name, stock markets across the world have plunged into turmoil, an Eton schoolboy has been killed by a polar bear in Norway and there's been a riot in Tottenham.

Suddenly our pretty sunlit café in the south of France seems the most peaceful place in the world to be.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The alarming rise of SMOGs and why boys are brilliant too

I know it’s the silly season but this week’s newspaper stories about mothers who only want daughters really take the biscuit.

The papers are reporting a rise in the number of mums who are horrified by the thought of raising boys and reckon girls rule. First spotted by Mumsnet last year, they’ve been dubbed the Smug Mothers of Girls (or SMOGs for short).

One mother (presumably of boys) was so horrified by the SMOG phenomenon that she wrote: “I find that some mums who only have girls find boys annoying and are alarmed and judgmental about their behaviour. They tut when boys chase pigeons in the park or shout nearby.”

My lovely son (and no, I’m really not biased) celebrated his 17th birthday yesterday so for what it’s worth, I thought I’d throw in my opinion. He’d be the first to agree that he’s slightly chaotic but he’s also incredibly kind, funny, independent-minded and a mine of quirky information. Yesterday, thanks to him, I learned about the intricate detail that goes into constructing a BMX ramp, discovered a website called Cracked (he calls it “an exciting menagerie of factual articles”) and debated the pros and cons of Aerogel, a new insulating material.

Over the years he’s terrified the living daylights out of me with his scary biking exploits (one of which resulted in a collar bone broken in three places and several stints in hospital) but I couldn’t be prouder of him. Hmmm. Reading back over this, I’m definitely in danger of turning into a DMOB (Defensive Mother of a Boy).

PS: We’d planned to celebrate my son’s big day with a special breakfast on the half-built terrace at the House with No Name. My husband rushed off at dawn to buy croissants and pains au chocolat but when he got back the removal man had arrived from Oxford. He was supposed to be joined by a local monsieur called Remy – but Remy never showed up. So we all pitched in to help, my son marking the first few hours of his anniversaire by lugging sofas, tables and beds in the scorching sun. Did he utter a word of complaint? He's a boy. Of course he didn’t.

PPS: He’s given me his permission to write this!  

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

How to dress in summer

Looking summery and stylish when the temperature soars is a tricky feat to pull off.

Suddenly exposed to a few sunrays after months of drizzle and cold, most of us look as though we’ve never encountered summer before. Apart from a handful of style icons like Alexa Chung and Natalie Portman, we haven’t got a clue what to wear during the summer months. I certainly haven’t. I’ve worn black tights till the end of July, horrified at the thought of exposing my pale legs.

When I headed into London recently I looked around at my fellow commuters and realised I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clue. Some were in skimpy frocks more suited to Ibiza nightclubs, some had opted for those horrible flouncy skirts that don’t look good on anyone and a few were still buttoned up to the neck in winter outfits.

Judging by this week’s pictures of David Cameron and George Osborne, it’s doubly hard for holidaying politicians. Forced to cast aside their slick city suits and polished brogues, their attempts to go into relaxed mode go horribly wrong. First the PM was snapped sipping cappuccino in a Tuscan café wearing wintery black loafers and no socks. Then the Chancellor was seen in LA sporting loose-fitting jeans, grey jacket and a very unchic red and black mini-rucksack.

But the worst offenders in hot weather are the men who emerge in too-short shorts, open-toed sandals and beige socks (a combination that should have been thrown in the bin years ago) and pudding-basin sunhats that even David Beckham would be hard-pressed to look good in. The British as a nation, I reckon, are in need of an urgent summer makeover.

PS: If, like me, you dream of escaping to a new life in France, do read Karen Wheeler’s accounts of her decision to hang up her high heels and move to rural Poitou-Charentes in western France. Or as she calls it, “the land of the long lunch." When I reviewed her first book, Tout Sweet, a couple of years ago, I wrote: “I’m loving former fashion editor Karen Wheeler's new book... If she can do it, I keep thinking, then so can I.” I still stand by every word. And today it’s being published in the US (the American cover is shown above), so I hope it sells stack-loads of copies.

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