Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Advent calendars - and the last day of NaBloPoMo

On the last day of November every year I hang a faded purple velvet advent calendar in the kitchen and fill the 24 pockets with sweets. My daughter’s at university now and at 17 my son thinks advent calendars are babyish, but tough, I’m still doing it. And he’ll happily gobble up the sweets before he leaves for school every morning.

I’m not particularly keen on tradition most of the year but Christmas is different. At Christmas, tradition rules. I love searching out the decorations (I buy a new one each year so they now amount to an eccentric medley of hearts, stars, papier maché baubles, twinkling lights and tin snowmen), putting the tree up in time for my daughter’s birthday on the 13th and playing carols at top volume as I wrap presents. I never write lists and with 24 days to go my office floor is already a tangled mess of presents, wrapping paper and parcels that I ordered on-line but can’t for the life of me remember who for.

But in amongst the chaos, today feels extra special. Why? Because it's the last day of National Blog Posting Month – or NaBloPoMo for short.

The first NaBloPoMo took place in 2006 when an American blogger called M. Kennedy decided there should be a blogging equivalent of National Novel Writing Month. The idea took off in a flash and is now held without fail every November.

I'm not sure how I got involved but all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. The main thing I’ve discovered from the experience is that blogging every day is an awful lot harder than it looks. But from blogging boot camp to the mums who wear pyjamas at the school gate, I’ve somehow managed it - and made lots of NaBloPoMo friends along the way.

PS. This Saturday should have been the day my husband and two friends set off on the annual Tour de Trigs challenge, a gruelling 24-hour orienteering hike through the wilds of the Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire countryside. For 46 years it’s been held every December – when the days are short, the temperatures are freezing and the fields are at their muddiest. But sadly we’ve just heard the event has run its course and won’t be taking place any more. A look of bewilderment crossed my husband’s face when he heard the news. “I don’t know whether to be sad or relieved,” he said.

PPS. If you’re still looking for an advent calendar this Caroline Gardner one (above) is the prettiest I’ve seen. My son isn’t impressed because it doesn’t have chocolates inside but I'd rather have it than a Top Gear one any day.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Pippa Middleton's party book deal

Twitter was awash with amazement yesterday that Pippa Middleton has signed a deal worth £400,000 to write her first book.

And no, she’s not spilling the beans on growing up with her elder sister, the Duchess of Cambridge. She’s being paid to write a guide on party planning for publisher Michael Joseph. They weren’t the only ones falling over themselves to buy the book either. Apparently it was the subject of a fierce bidding war between some of Britain’s top publishing houses.

Most writers would give their eye-teeth for such a contract – but sadly deals like this are few and far between, especially in these tough economic times. Some novelists work night and day for years on their manuscripts – and end up with a few hundred pounds in their pockets. And they’re the lucky ones. Many more never even get a sniff of a publishing deal.

But envy aside, what on earth can Pippa Middleton, whose parents run mail-order business Party Pieces, say about parties that’s new? In a recent blog on children’s parties she wrote: “The key to creating a wonderful party lies not in spending vast amounts but in planning – from choice of venue, entertainer and party theme to the selection of food, decorations and the birthday cake.”

Hmmm. Talk about stating the blooming obvious. I’m afraid Pippa will have to do an awful lot better than that to get people to buy the book.

In my experience hosting children’s birthday parties is hard work, stressful and often ends in tears.

The most successful one we ever held was for my daughter’s fourth birthday. I’d got everything planned to perfection (or so I thought) – a list of party games as long as your arm, food, a cake with my daughter's name emblazoned across it and the all-essential party bags.

My daughter’s birthday is just before Christmas so the centrepiece of the party was a gorgeous tree, resplendent with jewel-coloured decorations. The one thing we hadn’t foreseen however was the exuberance of 25 four-year-olds dancing about and throwing themselves to the floor. During a particularly rowdy game of musical bumps they dived to the ground with such force that the ten-foot tree wobbled violently and crashed over, fairy, decorations, lights and all.

It was a moment of high drama (luckily the tree didn’t hit anyone) and it certainly made the event the most-talked about party in her nursery class for months afterwards.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Christmas turkey, stuffing and life as the world's most useless au pair

With less than a month to go, I’m worrying about the Christmas turkey. I know I should have cracked it by now but the truth is that I’m useless at whizzing up traditional lunches. I love cooking but can’t do gravy or stuffing. As for bread sauce, well it just sounds horrible to me.

In fact most of the recipes I cook are the ones my mum taught me when I moved to Paris (above) at the age of 18 to become the world’s worst au pair.

I was so clueless about cooking that the night before I left I hastily copied down her staple recipes for soups, flans, risottos, pasta and stuffed peppers. Actually, copied is the wrong word. My mum recited them from memory off the top of her head.

When I got to France, the recipes went down a storm with the four little girls I looked after. They were aged between one and nine years old, and apart from the cooking and making up bedtime stories, I was hopelessly out of my depth. The little girls’ mother was a nurse and she was stunned to discover I’d never changed a nappy, couldn’t drive, couldn’t speak fluent French and couldn’t make beds with hospital corners. Worse still, I didn’t even know what hospital corners were!

My own mum was a brilliant, instinctive cook who never measured ingredients (a habit I’ve copied). When anyone asked her for a recipe, which they did all the time, she’d wave her hands vaguely and tell them to add a heap of this and a few spoonfuls of that. She wasn’t into fancy kitchen gadgets either. A friend who came to stay for the weekend was so shocked by her temperamental cooker and solitary blunt knife that he promptly went out and bought her a Baby Belling and a set of sleek, razor-sharp knives.

My mum was touched, but utterly mystified. She proceeded to carry on as before, perfectly happy with the dodgy stove and duff knife.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 - and Jonathan Dimbleby's phone

Friday evenings are my favourite time of the week. I switch off my computer, pour myself a glass of Pinot Grigio and settle down to listen to Any Questions on the radio.

But this week was completely different. I jumped in the car with my son and hared down the motorway in the rush-hour traffic. We were in London by six, hopped on the number 94 bus to Oxford Circus and were just in time to join the long queue snaking round Broadcasting House (above) in the cold night air.

Everyone in the line had applied for – and got – free tickets to hear the live broadcast of Radio 4's Any Questions. Most weeks it’s hosted by schools and village halls up and down the country but this Friday it was coming from the BBC’s own radio theatre in the heart of central London.

By the time we got into the radio theatre, each clutching a cup of the BBC’s very strong tea, we were full of anticipation. “Make sure you turn off your mobile,” I told my son, who proceeded to give me a science lecture about why it was fine to have it on “silent.” After a few minutes of arguing, he gave up the battle and switched it off.

Just before eight pm, chairman Jonathan Dimbleby and the panel appeared onstage, looking surprisingly relaxed. To his right sat Tory MP Matthew Hancock and advertising boss Sir Martin Sorrell while to his left were shadow deputy PM Harriet Harman and TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.

Then they were off, sounding impressively articulate considering they were on live radio and had Jonathan Dimbleby and producer Victoria Wakely gesticulating when it was time to start and stop talking. As they whizzed through the planned strike by public sector workers, jobs for 16 to 24 year olds and inequalities in pay, Harriet Harman was by far the best panellist - eloquent, charming and thoughtful.

But then, just as Sir Martin Sorrell was in full flow about high earners, there was a faintly discernible buzzing sound from the stage. Victoria Wakely reacted like lightning. She reached inside Jonathan Dimbleby’s jacket pocket, removed his mobile phone and silently hurried offstage.

“You should have turned your phone off,” Sir Martin told Dimbleby, divulging his guilty secret to all the listeners at home. The Any Questions host had the grace to look embarrassed. “I was preparing to ‘fess up,” he said. “Thank you very much.”

At the end of the show my son turned to me. “You spent all that time telling me to turn off my phone," he said. "You should have gone and told Jonathan Dimbleby too...”

Saturday, 26 November 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From blogging boot camp to pyjamas at the school gate

Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features a few of the week’s highlights – and there have been plenty of those over the past seven days.

My best discovery of the week is a gorgeous new shop in the pretty Oxfordshire market town of Thame. Actually, I can’t take the credit at all. It was my writer friend Kate Lace, author of Gypsy Wedding (a great read, by the way), who tipped me off, so I was round there like a shot.

As always, Kate was spot on. What’s special about FROM is that everything stocked in the shop comes from a 20-mile radius of the town. There’s jam from Haddenham, soap from Hazlemere, china from the Aston Pottery , stunning screen prints from two sisters who work in Thame itself and much, much more.

The shop (above) is a vision of loveliness and the staff are super-friendly, clearly priding themselves on selling good quality, local-sourced products. As co-founder Steve Stretton says: “It’s so important to support local suppliers and craftsmen, particularly in these strained economic times. And what has been particularly rewarding is seeing the standard of talent in our area. Not only are we doing the right thing ethically, we have a shop full of lovely things.”

House With No Name goes to blogging boot camp: Handpicked Media Gets Social
House With No Name at the school gate: Pyjamas - what not to wear at the school gate
House With No Name on Twitter: Twitter helps writer Maria Duffy get a book deal
House With No Name on the London 2012 uniform: Uniforms - for work, school and the Olympics
House With No Name Book Review: The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Michael Morpurgo and Emma Chichester Clark

PS. Twenty-six days into the National Blog Posting Month challenge. I’m posting a blog every day for the whole of November – and with just four days to go I’m on a roll.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Friday book review - The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Michael Morpurgo and Emma Chichester Clark

I’ve been a fan of artist Emma Chichester Clark for more years than I can remember. When we moved house this year (aaagh - I’m still recovering) I took stacks of children’s books to a local primary school but I couldn’t bear to part with my Chichester Clark collection. I bought some of them (below) before my daughter was born – I Never Saw a Purple Cow and Listen to This for starters – and the illustrations still look as vibrant and fresh as they did 20 years ago.

Chichester Clark, who was taught by Quentin Blake in her art student days, has written and illustrated scores of children’s books. In recent years she’s also worked with former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo and they make a formidable team. The duo’s latest collaboration is a retelling of Robert Browning’s classic poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and in the aftermath of this summer’s riots, it’s a parable for our times. As Morpurgo himself has said: “We are failing our young people, who feel they are living without hope, without jobs and a sense of a future.”

The story is seen through the eyes of a young boy who describes how the rich and greedy live like kings and queens in the town of Hamelin, while the sick and poor have to scavenge for scraps of food. Mountains of rubbish rot in the streets, rats run riot and the town council promises action but never keeps its word. But all hope isn’t lost. When a tall thin man in extraordinary clothes suddenly appears in the council chamber and pledges to get rid of the rats, it looks as though life will take a turn for the better. But is it too late for the people to change their ways for good?

Morpurgo and Chichester Clark have done a wonderful job of bringing the pied piper to life on the page. Master storyteller Morpurgo describes him as “so light and nimble on his feet that it seemed as if he was walking on air” while Chichester Clark’s illustrations show a dashing figure in a stylish chequered jacket, multi-patterned trousers, dashing red sombrero and fingerless gloves.

Children of all ages will enjoy this ultimately uplifting story, which is perfect for reading aloud. And take time along the way to appreciate Chichester Clark’s gorgeous (and intricately detailed) illustrations.

PS. Speaking of Michael Morpurgo, Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated movie of War Horse is due out in January. I can’t wait to see it...

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Michael Morpurgo and Emma Chichester Clark (Walker Books, £12.99)

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Wearing a uniform - for school, work and London 2012

There are loads of arguments in favour of school uniforms. Headteachers say they help to maintain discipline, encourage pupils to focus on their schoolwork and build a sense of loyalty and belonging. Parents reckon they’re cheaper than forking out for everyday clothes and mean fewer battles in the mornings.

But even so, I’m not keen on them at all. I’ve rarely seen anyone look chic in a school uniform and some are downright dreadful. As a teenager at a (very strict) girls’ school I wore a St Trinian’s style navy pinafore, blazer, tie, beige socks and grey felt hat with a badge on the front. We had to wear black shoes outdoors and brown shoes indoors. The outfit put me off uniforms for life – which is partly why my son now goes to a school where he can wear what he likes.

Despite my antipathy towards school uniforms, I can understand the need for them in some professions – the armed forces, police, transport staff and airline pilots just for starters. And I can see that insisting the 70,000 volunteers and 6,000 staff at the London 2012 Olympics are in uniform is a sensible idea. After all, they’ll need to look smart, efficient and easy to spot in the crowd.

But given that London has more talented fashion designers than any other city on the planet, creating a super-stylish uniform should have been a piece of cake. Vivienne Westwood, Sarah Burton (creative director of Alexander McQueen), Stella McCartney, Erdem, Betty Jackson – the list of fantastic designers is as long as your arm. Surely one of them would be perfect to dream up the Olympic uniform?

But no, the job of designing uniforms for 2012 “games makers” and “technical officials” has been a collaboration between the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, adidas and Next. And I'm sorry, but the result is hideous. The games maker version consists of a purple polyester jacket with red collar and cuffs and beige trousers, while the technical officials will be clad in blue jackets with turquoise piping – not quite so bad, but nearly.

What do you think?

Image: London 2012

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Handpicked Media Gets Social Part 2: Blogging Tips

The organisers of the Handpicked Media Gets Social blogging event promised wall-to-wall talks on everything today’s bloggers need to know – and they certainly delivered. The blogging industry is moving at lightning speed, so whether you’re a novice or an old hand, it’s crucial to keep up-to-date. And thanks to speakers like Garry Davis, managing director of Why Communicate?, and super-inspiring businesswoman Sháá Wasmund (above), I learned more this week than I have in months.

First up, here are some tips from Garry’s "tech boot camp" on how to get more traffic to your blog:

1. Content is king. Focus on producing quality, compelling content.
2. Blog regularly. And remember that over time and the more visitors you get, the more content you’ll need to produce.
3. Images are a great source of traffic.
4. Pay attention to blog post titles. You can increase the number of visitors by up to 73 per cent by using compelling headlines.
5. Set up an RSS feed, add social media share buttons and include a blog roll that lists the sites you rate (good for search engine optimisation too!) It’s really important to get visitors to engage with your blog. Ask them to leave comments, include questions in your posts and always reply to comments.
6. Engage in the blogging community. Comment on blogs in your particular industry. It’s a real opportunity to build up your network.
7. Set up Facebook and Google+ pages for your blog.
8. Write guest posts. By doing this, you’ll gain linkage to your site and create awareness of your blog with a new audience.

Meanwhile Sháá, an online entrepreneur and founder of (which offers advice and networking resources to anyone starting and running a small business), instantly endeared herself to the audience by declaring that over the years she’d “probably made more mistakes than anyone in the room.”

Dynamic, driven and fizzing with energy, she quickly ran through her route to the top. She grew up in a single parent family, was the first in her family to go to university and became one of the first ever female boxing managers before turning her hand to business.

She’s recently written a motivational book with Richard Newton called Stop Talking, Start Doing (subtitled A Kick in the Pants in Six Parts) and reckons we should all take control of our lives and do something we really believe in. “I’m not saying it’s easy,” she said, “but it’s utterably achievable.”

PS. For more about the conference, read yesterday's blog, Handpicked Media Gets Social Part 1.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Handpicked Media Gets Social Part 1 - Blogging Event

The first speaker at yesterday’s Handpicked Media Gets Social conference looked slightly stunned when he walked onstage. "The audience is usually full of grey-suited men," said Garry Davis, managing director of Why Communicate?, as he gazed out across the wood-panelled chamber.

This event, however, was packed with 200 top beauty, fashion and lifestyle bloggers, most of them women. They were a very impressive bunch - ranging from the multi-award-winning Fleur de Force, who at 23 has racked up more than 180,000 YouTube subscribers with her engaging, articulate beauty tutorials, to ReeRee Rockette, 29, who blogs about “rockabilly, vintage, tattoos, alternative fashion and lipstick.” Not only that, she’s launched an on-line beauty business selling her own Rockalilly Lipsticks in four stunning shades.

I got chatting to ReeRee, resplendent in scarlet lipstick of course, because she tweeted brilliantly right through the conference. She swears by her BlackBerry by the way – by far the speediest phone to type on, she says.

The event, held at RIBA’s HQ in London’s Portland Place, was organised by Handpicked Media and hosted by founder Krista Madden. Krista launched the highly successful Beauty and the Dirt website 11 years ago and quickly realised that independent sites and blogs were the future.

Two years ago she hit on the idea of handpicking like-minded sites and attracting advertisers to work with them as a group. So Handpicked Media was born - and now comprises more than 230 sites and blogs, which together generate well over 15 million page views a month. Impressive stuff.

I was lucky enough to get an invite and leapt at the chance to learn more about social media and blogging. I’ll blog tomorrow about some of the tips I gleaned but one of the best things about the day was the chance to meet some inspiring bloggers, all of whose sites I signed up to the instant I got home.

First up is The Women’s Room, launched by Amanda Carr and Jane Kellock. The stylish duo have worked in fashion for years and met when they both worked at WGSN, the global fashion trend forecasting website. Frequently lamenting the dearth of fashion and style publications for women over 40, they started The Women’s Room. A fantastic and eclectic mix of fashion, style, art, culture, health, happiness and much, much more, it’s my new must-read.

It was great too, to meet two other journalists. Loma-Ann Marks’s Culture Compass gives you the lowdown on the latest places to go and what to see, while Miss B is the founder and editor of Belle About Town. Billed as a blog “for stylish women who want to get the most out of their lives,” Belle About Town fizzes with interviews, reviews, celebrity news and style. I love it.

Don’t miss tomorrow’s blog: Handpicked Media Gets Social Part 2.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Twitter helps writer Maria Duffy get a book deal

I love Twitter. It makes me laugh, recommends everything from books to blogs to recipes and keeps me up to date with the news on a minute by minute basis. The only drawback is that it’s so addictive that hours can fly by without getting a stroke of work done. Lots of writers say they have to switch it off altogether between nine and five-thirty. Otherwise they wouldn’t write a word, let alone stand a hope in hell of hitting their deadlines.

But yesterday, thanks to a fascinating post by Chick Lit Club, I discovered that Twitter can even help writers get book deals. Dublin-based Maria Duffy explained how she got a message on Twitter from Curtis Brown literary agent Sheila Crowley.

“To cut a long story short, Sheila loved my Twitter voice and told me that if I could get that down into a book, I’d have something special,” said Maria.

The upshot was that Maria wrote the novel, Sheila sent it out to publishers and within a few weeks it had been snapped up by Hachette Books Ireland. Any Dream Will Do, the story of a group of people who meet (how else?) through Twitter hit the shelves earlier this month.
So next time you’re on Twitter, write the most superlative tweet you can. You never know, it could be the first step on the road to publication.

PS. Tom Stoddart, one of the best photographers in the business, was granted “exclusive, unprecedented access” to David Cameron and his family for a week. He snapped the PM sitting round the No 10 breakfast table with his family, poring over his red box, striding through rain-soaked Cannes at the G20 summit and being interviewed by BBC political editor Nick Robinson. But my favourite image by far was the picture on the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine. It showed the PM strolling at Chequers, his country retreat, with his baby daughter Florence strapped to his front. Somehow I can't see Nicolas Sarkozy following suit...

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pyjamas - what not to wear at the school gate

Mornings have never been my strong point. In the days when I took my daughter to the bus stop soon after 7am I used to rush out looking like I’d been pulled through a hedge backwards, without a scrap of make-up and my hair unbrushed. I’d then dash into Sainsbury’s to buy the papers and hope I didn’t scare the cheery man on the till or, horror of horrors, bump into someone I knew.

My lackadaisical approach wouldn’t go down well in London's Notting Hill, where yummy mummies like Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer swear by glossy hair, immaculate make-up and high heels at the school gate. If you don’t wear the right outfit, some mums have warned, your children might not get invited round to play by their friends.

My teenagers are fiercely independent now but even when they were younger they were appalled if I ever tried to escort them into the classroom.

But at least I didn’t have to worry what I looked like. I cheered up no end when I realised I was a lot more appropriately dressed than parents doing the school run in some parts of the country. Why? Because at least I was dressed. A couple of years back the head of one UK primary school was so appalled at the number of parents arriving in their nightwear to drop off their children that he appealed to them to show a little more respect. Known as the “pyjama mamas,” some were turning up in baggy pyjamas and slippers while others sported dressing gowns and curlers.

As the head wearily told his local paper: “People don’t go to see a solicitor, bank manager or doctor wearing pyjamas so why do they think it’s OK to drop their children off at school dressed like that?”

PS: On the subject of night gear, a report in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph said millions of us stay in our pyjamas till midday on Saturdays. And shock horror, four out of ten sometimes go the whole day without getting dressed. I’m guilty of the first (not the second), but I’ve got one question. Does the Telegraph know that pyjamas are all the rage as daywear these days? Fashion designer Stella McCartney included a rather fetching paisley pair in her spring/summer 2012 collection while the likes of Celine and Louis Vuitton have featured them on the catwalk too. So don’t assume that the woman wearing pyjamas in the supermarket has just stumbled out of bed. She could be the most fashionable person in town.

PPS: I couldn't resist these gorgeous tartan reindeer (above) I spotted at Bicester Village. They're the best Christmas decorations I've seen by far this year.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From the John Lewis Christmas ad to Anya Hindmarch and the art of the apostrophe

Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features a round-up of the week’s highlights.

The picture above shows the gorgeous Christmas lights that hover like mysterious planets over St Christopher’s Place in the heart of London’s West End.

While I was in the vicinity I couldn’t resist popping into H&M to see the much talked-about new Versace collection. There wasn’t a lot left in the Regent Street branch but what a disappointment. There were shocking pink patent bags, silver belts and a scary pair of palm print leggings that even Elle Macpherson would be hard-pressed to look good in.

House With No Name on grammar: Anya Hindmarch and the art of the apostrophe
House With No Name on the week’s most uplifting story: The journalist and the Afghan teenager
House With No Name on the John Lewis ad: I cry at anything, but this leaves me cold
House With No Name Book Review: India Knight’s Comfort and Joy
House With No Name Children’s Books: My obsession with Enid Blyton's Malory Towers stories

PS: Nineteen days into the National Blog Posting Month challenge and I’m nearly two-thirds of the way through!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Friday book review - Comfort and Joy by India Knight

I’m a huge fan of India Knight. She’s wise, fun and talks more sense in her Sunday Times column than most other journalists put together. In short, she sounds like the sort of best friend we’d all like to have.

If that wasn’t enough, I opened the December issue of Red magazine to find that her house boasts joyous pink walls (she says they’re “really cheering on a January morning”), huge amounts of clutter and an amazing personalised mural drawn by artist Charlotte Mann with black marker pen. She likes “books, colour and over-decoration” and, asked what she’d save in a fire, reckons she wouldn’t save anything, apart from people and her laptop. “I don’t think it would really make much difference if you had your favourite teapot or cushion,” she says. “You’d just have to start again.”

It’s for all those reasons that I knew I’d love her Christmas novel, Comfort and Joy. Out in paperback this month, it perfectly captures the chaos of a family Christmas. Knight admits that the book is “fairly autobiographical,” with lots of “mashed-up memories and experiences,” but I reckon it’s all the better for that.

Comfort and Joy is the story of a modern family Christmas hosted by mother-of-three Clara Dunphy over three consecutive festive seasons. Like most women I know, Clara is determined to make Christmas special. As she says, “I want it to be so lovely, so redemptive, so right. There’s no point in doing it craply, is there?”

But even so, it’s a tricky feat to pull off when she’s got 16 guests turning up and is doing everything single-handed. Sitting round her London table each year are her ex-husband, her about to be ex-husband, three children, eccentric mother, two half-sisters, her non-PC mother-in-law and a host of well-behaved and not so well-behaved friends.

Knight is brilliant at blending laugh-out-loud humour with real insight into the stresses and strains of a family Christmas. You’ll love her third novel if you’re hosting Christmas at your place this year (though it might make you want to book a one-way ticket to the other side of the planet) – and even if you’re not.

Comfort and Joy by India Knight (Penguin, £7.99)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The uplifting story of the journalist and the Afghan teenager

Few people, if any, have a good word to say about journalists these days. As the Leveson inquiry reveals shocking new details about deception, trickery and intrusion in our newspapers, it’s hardly surprising that us hacks are regarded as the lowest of the low.

Yet most journalists I've come across are honest, hard-working and dedicated to their profession. I don’t know anyone who’s hacked a phone or tricked someone into telling their story against their will. And in amongst the gloom, there are still examples of journalists who’ve gone that extra mile to make a real difference to people’s lives.

Jerome Starkey, the Afghanistan correspondent of The Times, is a case in point. I’ve seen his by-line loads of times but until I read his Times 2 feature yesterday I had no idea about the amazing role he has played in helping to transform the life of a young Afghan boy called Najib.

Starkey’s and Najib’s paths crossed in Helmand on August 20, 2009. Najib was cycling along an empty street with his younger brother Hamid on the back, when a rocket hit the road beside them. Starkey witnessed the attack but managed to scramble for cover. But Hamid died instantly and Najib was left badly injured.

As Starkey wrote in yesterday’s piece: “Neither of us knew it, but that rocket was to entwine our lives. It would propel Najib – the son of an illiterate cobbler – towards unimaginable opportunities that would change his life forever.”

Thanks to an American charity, Solace, Najib was eventually flown to the US, but doctors were unable to save the sight of one eye. When he returned to Afghanistan, he threw himself into his schoolwork, aided by an international charity that helps to get talented Afghan students to schools and universities in the US. He and Starkey stayed in touch and earlier this year Najib asked the journalist to help him study in the UK.

Thirty-year-old Starkey had no idea where to start but he agreed to email Anthony Wallersteiner, the headmaster of Stowe, his old school (above).

The long and the short of it is that after interviewing Najib on the phone, Dr Wallersteiner agreed to award him a sixth-form scholarship, covering the Buckinghamshire school’s £28,000 a year fees. Najib, now 17, moved to Stowe in September and by all accounts has settled in well.

Starkey is acting as his guardian and as he wrote at the end of his uplifting piece: “I could almost cry when I stop to think about how far he has come.”

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Children's books, Jack Wills and a spelling mistake

I’m busy reviewing a batch of children’s books and can’t get over the fantastic array of titles. So far I’ve whizzed through a novel for teenagers about a missing girl, a gorgeous story by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie called Rhinos Don’t Eat Pancakes and I’m now on to Jacqueline Wilson’s Sapphire Battersea.

When I was little I loved books like Richmal Crompton’s Just William and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. But Enid Blyton was my absolute favourite. I used to get two shillings and sixpence pocket money a week and every Saturday morning I’d wander down to the local book shop and buy a new Malory Towers or Famous Five story. Then I’d go home, curl up on my bed and read it from cover to cover.

Enid Blyton doesn’t get a good press these days. Some critics reckon her vocabulary is hopelessly limited while others accuse her of being elitist, racist and sexist.

Characters like the Famous Five’s prissy Anne and her liking for party frocks and dolls are a bit hard to take but there’s no doubt that Blyton could spin a great yarn. Her stories captured my imagination so much that I longed to be part of the Famous Five gang, to spend days swimming at a Dorset cove, taking a brown mongrel called Timmy for long walks and solving mysteries.

When I had a quick look at a Famous Five book recently what struck me most was the freedom children had in Blyton’s day. Julian, Dick, Anne and their tomboy cousin George are all aged between 11 and 13 but they dash out of the house after breakfast, land themselves in loads of scrapes and don’t come back till tea-time. They’re allowed to row out to Kirrin Island by themselves and camp there alone for two days. Two days! It sends me into a cold sweat just thinking about it.

PS. Thank you so much to everyone who commented on yesterday’s blog about the art of the apostrophe and students’ dodgy grasp of grammar. I didn’t even mention spelling, so I was shocked to get the new Jack Wills Christmas handbook in the post this morning and find two pages of greeting cards, diaries, notebooks and pens marked “stationary.” Ahem, Jack Wills, do you mean “stationery?”

PPS. Still on the subject of the Jack Wills catalogue, I did another double take when I spotted a gorgeous long black dress that would look divine on my daughter. She says Jack Wills, which markets itself as creating "fabulously British goods for the university crowd," is too preppy for her. But even if she liked it, there's no way she'd be tempted. Why? Because the Belford sequin dress costs a staggering £798. That's the cost of two or three months' rent for most students I know.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Anya Hindmarch and the art of the apostrophe

During my short-lived teaching career I was taken aback by my students' poor grasp of basic grammar. Many of them avoided capital letters like the plague, used commas instead of full-stops and as for semi-colons, well, forget it.

So maybe St Paul's School for Girls, one of the most successful schools in the country, is on to something with its decision to run traditional grammar lessons for pupils aged 11 to 14.

"You would think that we might be attracting pupils who already have a pretty strong command of English grammar given that we're very strong academically and that we expect a very high standard from the pupils that we test for admission," headmistress Clarissa Farr told the Daily Telegraph.

"However, the reality is that a lot of our students don't even have a basic command, as we would see it, of the rules of conventional grammar when they arrive."

I don't know what she'd think of the bag above. I'm a huge fan of Anya Hindmarch, who's a brilliant businesswoman and fantastic designer. But I nearly fell off my chair yesterday when I spotted this £165 Anya Hindmarch bag on the Net-a-Porter site.

I reckon that whoever came up with that slogan should sign up for a grammar lesson immediately. Urgent apostrophe classes needed.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Chipping Norton Literary Festival, James Corden and bike helmets

A dynamic writer friend called Emily Carlisle is one of the organisers of a brand new literary event due to launch next year. The Chipping Norton Literary Festival takes place in April 2012 and promises to be a treat, packed with writing workshops, author talks, book swaps, readings, signings and debates.

Over the weekend I’ve been helping (in a minuscule way) with the website and as I worked I got to thinking about some of the very best literary talks I've been to over the years. Two instantly came to mind. One was the late Sir John Mortimer, the beloved creator of Rumpole, who spoke at the Kings Sutton Literary Festival in 2008. I’ll never forget my teenage son’s engrossed face as Sir John regaled the audience with memories of Laurence Olivier playing his dad in A Voyage Round My Father, tales of Harold Wilson’s jollity and the fact that QCs keep their silk stockings up by wearing suspender belts designed for outsized hospital matrons.

My other favourite was hearing Martin Amis at the Oxford Literary Festival last year. He was interviewed by the poet and critic Craig Raine (who as a postgraduate student taught Amis at Oxford). I loved the way Raine dumped his bag on the floor, unravelled his scarf and then admitted cheerily to the audience that the pair had rehearsed “very little, if at all.”

But the friends’ hour-long conversation was enthralling. They covered everything from Amis’s view that for women, “having it all suddenly became doing it all” to his realisation that age is “very comic and tremendously humiliating.”

The most fascinating part of the discussion came when Amis spoke about his early novels. He said his writing style had “changed unrecognisably” and that he’d been “aghast” when he’d recently re-read three or four pages of his first novel, The Rachel Papers. “A first novel is about energy and originality,” he said, “but to me now it looks so crude. I don’t mean bad language – it’s so clumsily put together. The sense of decorum, the slowing a sentence down, the scrupulousness I feel I have acquired, aren’t there. As you get older, your craft, the knack of knowing what goes where, what goes when, is much more acute.”

I’m sure the Chipping Norton events will be just as illuminating. If you’re keen to hear the likes of Joanna Trollope, Sir Andrew Motion, Susan Hill, Jill Mansell, Katie Fforde and many more, you can sign up to the mailing list here.

PS: James Corden is one of the funniest men on the planet but my admiration for him soared today when I read an interview with him in the latest ES magazine. Asked what he would do if he was Mayor of London for the day, he replied: “Make sure that Boris bikes came with helmets. It’s terrifying that they don’t.” I’ve been thinking the same since the cycle hire scheme began. We urge everyone to wear helmets when they’re riding their own bikes, so why not when they ride Boris’s?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

That John Lewis Christmas ad - and interviewing Morrissey

It seems another world now but my first job in journalism was as a reporter for a small weekly newspaper in the West Country. Golden weddings, flower shows, parish councils, you name it, the news team had to turn the comings and goings of country life into scintillating copy. Well, do our best, anyway.

After two years I escaped to London and became a feature writer on a women’s magazine. Friends assumed this would involve writing cosy stories about shopping, cooking and babies, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. The magazine was keen to attract a younger, hipper audience and I was instructed to interview as many up-and-coming rock stars as I could. While other writers rushed round the world meeting the likes of Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise, I set off in pursuit - metaphorically speaking - of stars like George Michael, Paul Weller and Morrissey.

The reason I’ve been thinking of those heady days was that Morrissey is back in the news again this week. Why? Because he has allowed John Lewis to use a cover version of Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want for their Christmas advertising campaign. One outraged fan complained: “Please, Please is our hymn about longing and unrequited love. No way on earth should it be used to sell household goods or clothes.” Incidentally, the ad, which features an angelic young boy counting the days in the run-up to Christmas, has reduced thousands of viewers to tears. For some reason, even though I cry at virtually anything, I don’t find it heart-rending in the least.

But to get back to Morrissey, my abiding memory of him is his wonderful turn of phrase. I interviewed him over lunch at J Sheekey in Covent Garden and despite his dour, tricky image, he was charm itself. He told me how his mum always believed in him (even when he decided he wasn’t cut out for work) and that as a child growing up on a Manchester council estate he far preferred staying in listening to Billy Fury records than going out to play with the other kids. And even then, he refused point-blank to settle for mediocrity.

“It sounds quite dramatic but I would never be content to straggle midstream,” he told me. “I always felt that if I couldn’t have what I wanted, I would rather have absolutely nothing at all. Perhaps that’s why I always thought that I would be impossibly successful or incredibly inconsequential.”

PS: As The X Factor gets more annoying by the week, 15 year old singer Jasmine van den Bogaerde, alias Birdy, shows the rest of them how it should be done. The great niece of actor Dirk Bogarde has just released her debut album (above) and it’s stunning. Her version of Fleet Foxes’ White Winter Hymnal sends shivers down my spine.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From tooth fairy inflation to a new murder mystery by PD James

Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features some of the highlights of the week. The picture above, by the way, is the cover of Lauren Kate's eagerly-awaited novel, Fallen in Love, which will be published in January 2012. If the gorgeous jacket is anything to go by, her legions of fans are in for a treat.

House With No Name on tooth fairy inflation: How much does the tooth fairy pay at your house?
House With No Name on Liz Jones: Columnist is unfair to slate hard-working young women
House With No Name Education: What 21st century teaching is all about
House With No Name Book Review: PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley
House With No Name Film Review: Page One: Inside the New York Times

PS: Twelve days into the National Blog Posting Month challenge and I’m battling on. A friend asked me why I was doing it, and for the life of me, I can’t remember!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Friday book review - Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James

Formidable – that’s the best word I can think of to describe PD James. She’s written 19 novels, created the much-loved Inspector Dalgliesh and two years ago hit the headlines when she gave BBC director general Mark Thompson a grilling about the large salaries paid to executives.

She's now 91, yet she still has the capacity to surprise her fans. Instead of producing another Dalgliesh story, her latest novel is a murder mystery set in the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

James’s new book opens in 1803, six years after Elizabeth Bennet walked down the aisle with Mr Darcy. The couple and their two young sons are happily ensconced at Pemberley, Darcy’s grand country house, and Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband Bingley live nearby.

But their blissful idyll is shattered the night before the Pemberley autumn ball, when a horse-drawn coach races down the drive and out tumbles Elizabeth’s drama queen younger sister Lydia. To the Darcys’ horror, she shrieks that her husband has been shot in the woods.

A plot that plunges Elizabeth and Darcy into the midst of a murder investigation might sound preposterous, but James, with her fine writing skills and expert knowledge of Jane Austen’s work, takes the challenge in her stride. The end result is a pacy detective story that displays an eagle eye for period detail (especially when it comes to 19th century forensics).

It’s fascinating to learn, for instance, that 200 years ago detectives couldn’t distinguish one person’s blood from another’s and that night-time autopsies had to be conducted by candlelight.

In her author’s note, James observes that Jane Austen avoided dwelling on “guilt and misery” in her writing and apologises for involving "her beloved Elizabeth” in a crime story.

She adds that if Jane Austen had written this book she would have done it better. I’m not so sure. Death Comes to Pemberley is an elegant and quietly compelling read.

Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James (Faber and Faber, £18.99)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Liz Jones moans about young women

Over the last few months I’ve stuck up for Liz Jones left, right and centre. I even defended her in this blog back in June, saying “...she writes so well and with such disarming frankness that her diary is a must-read.”

But this week she’s gone a step too far. Even for me. She’s hit out at a whole generation of young women, castigating them for everything from taking maternity leave to not answering their BlackBerrys when they are off sick. She compares maternity leave to a “holiday” and clearly thinks no one should ever be ill. She rounds off her Daily Mail piece by raging: “Personally, I think you should crawl to work if you have to. No wonder the number of women who are unemployed is rocketing. If ever I employ a woman again, I’ll make jolly sure she’ll have already gone through the menopause.”

Liz Jones makes her living by being outrageous, but today’s rant is ridiculous. For a start, she reckons looking after a baby is a doddle, that you stick your infant in the pram, put your feet up and watch daytime TV. As all mothers know, the first few months are wall-to-wall hard graft. I went back to work at a magazine when my daughter was nine months old – and it was easy in comparison. I did endless phone interviews, wrote a couple of articles a day and even had time for a sandwich at my desk – all impossible (maybe I was just a hopeless mother) with a young baby.

But her criticism of “the lack of work ethic in young women today” is even more bizarre. At 19, my daughter and her friends are far more industrious than my generation ever were. They juggle university studies with jobs, start their own businesses and are 100 times more capable than their parents. With the recession starting to bite and employment hard to come by, they know they’ve got it tough and have to be equipped with the skills to succeed. The last thing they need is one of the best-known columnists in the country slating them so unfairly - and with so little cause.

PS: I’ve just discovered my new favourite clothes shop – Mint Velvet. Launched by three ex-Principles employees two years ago, it now has four stand-alone stores (Marlow, Tunbridge Wells, Chichester and Windsor – they should open one up north soon) and concessions in House of Fraser stores across the country. The designs range from soft leather biker jackets, flattering trousers and chic dresses to a gorgeous grey suede cross-body bag I fell in love with. I popped into the Marlow store (above) yesterday and it’s stunning. Best of all, the assistants were helpful, charming and knowledgeable. I’ll definitely be back.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The tooth fairy - and GlossyBox

It’s a much-loved custom, passed down through the generations. When children’s baby teeth fall out they tuck them under their pillow at night, then wake in the morning to discover the tooth fairy has left some money.

How exciting, only it turns out that the tooth fairy is an awful lot more generous in some parts of the UK than in others. In London a child receives an average of £5.10 per tooth, an amazing sum that would add up to £100 for a full set of milk teeth. In Portsmouth, however, children get 10p a tooth while in Hull it’s only 5p.

In these bleak economic times it’s clear the credit crunch is hitting everything – even the tooth fairy. As Mark Pearson, chairman of MyVoucherCodes, the company behind the survey, says: “Even the tooth fairy is feeling the pinch.”

Looking back, I got off lightly in the tooth fairy stakes. I paid a Scrooge-like 50p for my daughter’s baby teeth and when it came to my son I didn’t pay a penny. Why? Because in his down-to-earth and logical way he announced at the age of five that he didn’t believe in the tooth fairy at all. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “How can a fairy arrive in the middle of the night and leave money under your pillow? How do they know I’ve lost a tooth?”

He was so unconvinced by the fairytale that I didn’t even bother to argue. Except a year or so later he suddenly realised he was missing a trick and that thanks to the tooth fairy his schoolfriends were coining it in while he was getting nothing.

“You know the tooth fairy,” he said. “I’ve changed my mind. I think there's something in it after all.”

PS: I know lots of people ask for specific Christmas presents, but I prefer surprises. Which is probably why I love the idea behind the GlossyBox. The idea is that you sign up, pay £10 per month (plus £2.95 p&p) and in return get sent a chic pink and brown box (above) containing what the company describes as “five high-end luxury samples from exclusive brands.” I’ve just been sent one to try and it’s absolutely gorgeous. As it was the sixth box, it contained six items - a Dermalogica pouch with three product samples (one is a “multivitamin thermafoliant” - I don’t even understand what that is!), a pack of Robert Piguet perfume samples, Stila smudge stick waterproof eye liner (brilliant) and some Leighton Denny nail varnish (I’d describe it as pink but it’s called Babydoll and it's lovely). So if you know someone who's keen on trying new beauty products and loves surprises, it could make a great (surprise) present.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Sleep deprived parents and Christmas shopping

My teenage daughter arrives home for her university reading week laden with history books, files, an enormous bundle of washing and these sky-high Topshop shoes.

“Try them - they’re really comfy,” she says. So I do, and amazingly they are. Well, until you wobble and fall off, when you’re liable to be carted off to hospital with a broken ankle. And as for hobbling round London on the tube or walking into Oxford, forget it.

But the main reason she’s back home for a few days (well, apart from seeing us lot) is to catch up on her sleep. A full-time student, she spends her spare time working three nights a week in a chic Shoreditch bar, running the university art society and partying with her friends. Wow - I’m not surprised she’s tired.

It’s ironic that she’ll happily doze till lunchtime these days, considering she was a very wide-awake baby who slept for five hours at night if I was lucky – and never in the daytime at all. Her sleeping was so dire that my South London GP referred us to a sleep clinic but that didn’t do any good either. It was years and years before she changed her mind and decided she liked sleeping after all.

But despite the solitude and profound lack of sleep I wouldn’t swap those days for anything. She laughs when I tell her about the endless nights of playing soporific Enya tracks to her and about the way I used to climb into her cot and lie beside her in a desperate attempt to get her to nod off. At least I don’t have to do that now.

PS: A new Good Food magazine survey says that in these dire economic times one in three of us are planning to “make or bake” our Christmas presents. Not for the first time in my life, I feel completely inadequate. I can’t think of anything I can "make or bake" that anyone would actually want. Suggestions gratefully received...

Monday, 7 November 2011

What 21st century teaching is all about

“I wouldn’t last very long here,” admitted Sandy Nairne, director of London’s National Portrait Gallery after spending the morning at a primary school in Hackney, east London.

Nairne was visiting Jubilee Primary School as part of a “job swap” organised by the Cultural Learning Alliance, an initiative where senior staff working in education and the arts spend a day shadowing each other to see what different jobs entail and to discuss new ways of introducing children to culture.

The minute-by-minute demands of headteacher Jacqueline Bruton-Simmonds’ working day clearly made a huge impact on Nairne. As Lucy Kellaway wrote in her Financial Times piece about the swap (above), the head’s day began with an 8am staff meeting, then continued through a whirlwind of teaching, observing classes, discussing everything from teacher training to school heating and talking to parents. “Headteachers have two jobs,” she explained. “We are managers and we teach children. We have to squeeze it (all) in.”

I’ve long thought that if politicians, business leaders and celebrities tried their hand at teaching they’d soon discover that it’s an awful lot harder than it looks. I’ve taught in schools and colleges in the past and it’s the trickiest thing I’ve ever done. For a start, today’s children, the internet generation, are very demanding pupils. As a teacher, you can’t simply stand at the front and deliver a “chalk and talk” lesson – or you’ll bore your class to tears and they’ll switch off. You have to devise interesting lessons, keep the students’ attention and ensure they actually learn something along the way.

When I interviewed teacher Oenone Crossley-Holland about her book on the stresses and strains of working at an inner-city school, she told me: “When you’re working in a school in a challenging area there are no quick fix solutions. You have to have a whole toolbox of different methods you use every single day, every single lesson and every single minute.”

And as the brilliant Channel 4 series Educating Essex showed, teachers juggle so many different roles. As well as helping teenagers to achieve at least five A*-C GCSEs, teachers like the wonderful Mr Drew, deputy head at Passmores School in Harlow, Essex, also have to support them through problems like bullying, family breakdown, friendship issues, teenage pregnancy and many more.

Headteacher Vic Goddard stressed that his teachers refuse to give up on their pupils. “If we just permanently exclude students when the going gets tough, who is going to redirect these young people to avoid them becoming the underbelly of our society in the future?” he said. “Being a headteacher is about moral purpose and ensuring I can look myself in the eye in the morning when I do up my tie, knowing that we have done all we can to ensure that every student has a future that can contribute to society positively.”

It's an approach that clearly works.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Page One: Inside the New York Times - A movie every journalist should see

“Journalism is alive and well and feisty, especially at the New York Times.” Those were the upbeat words of journalist John Lloyd after a special screening of Page One: Inside the New York Times at Oxford’s Phoenix Picturehouse last week.

With the hacking scandal still unfolding and journalists universally unpopular, many critics would take issue with his view. But there’s no doubt that Page One shows journalism at its very best. Some have compared it to The September Issue, the brilliant film-documentary about Vogue – and I loved it just as much.

Film-maker Andrew Rossi followed journalists on the NYT’s media desk for a year and the hacks emerge as a sparky and determined crew, dedicated to getting their stories right. Two writers who stick in my mind are Brian Stelter, a go-getting young reporter who juggles phone, two computers and Twitter-feed at lightning speed, while the maverick David Carr, a gravelly-voiced ex-drug addict who’s been writing about the media for 25 years, comes across as a larger-than-life character devoted to his craft.

Several things were puzzling though. As Lloyd, a contributing editor at the Financial Times as well as director of journalism at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, pointed out at the lively debate after the Phoenix screening, hacks in the UK would be astonished at the amount of time Carr gets to produce his reports. At one point he tells his boss that he’s got two more weeks of interviewing and research on a story he’s covering, followed by a week of writing it all up. That’s a luxury that doesn’t happen on this side of the Atlantic any more.

I was surprised, too, that none of the reporters seemed to use shorthand and that when they conducted phone interviews they typed their material straight on to their computers. Not a notebook in sight.

Set against a backdrop of the Wikileaks revelations, charging for news online and the demise of many fine newspapers, this is a movie that every journalist should see. But even if you aren’t a hack and you don’t even buy newspapers any more (shame) it’s definitely worth a look. You never know, it might even make you see journalists in a different light.

PS: Today is Day Six of NaBloPoMo - a fifth of the way there!

Saturday, 5 November 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From Laura Marling in concert to Nicolas Sarkozy’s kind gesture to David Cameron

Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features some of the highlights of the week. I took this picture, by the way, as I walked along London's Marylebone High Street and spotted Emma Bridgewater's gorgeous shop window.

House With No Name Book Review: David Walliams’s Gangsta Granny
House With No Name Music Review: Laura Marling plays Birmingham Cathedral
House With No Name Culture: Where you can buy a work of art for £45
House With No Name on No 10: Nicolas Sarkozy’s kindness to David Cameron
House With No Name Lifestyle: Who does the school run in your house?

PS: Five days into the NaBloPoMo challenge and I'm still going. But a friend from my days as a trainee journalist made me stop and think yesterday. She writes a lovely blog called The World from My Window, about life in rural Dorset, but she's dubious about blogging so often. "I find it self-indulgent inflicting my blog on people twice a week, let alone every day," she wrote. Hmmm. She's definitely got a point, especially as in our early hack days we were instructed not to use the word "I" in news stories. What do you think ? Is blogging every day self-indulgent? I'd (sorry) love to know.

PPS: The most uplifting story in the UK this week was Adam King's proposal to his girlfriend Lucy Rogers on the 19.57 commuter train home from London Euston. If you haven't seen the YouTube video yet, you can watch it here.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Friday book review - Gangsta Granny by David Walliams

I used to find David Walliams (and Little Britain too) plain annoying. But now I’m going to have to eat my words. Firstly because he did that amazing swim for charity along the murky River Thames and secondly because he’s fast becoming a writer to be reckoned with.

I adored Billionaire Boy, his third children’s book, which I picked as one of my Christmas reads last year. Sweetly dedicated to his supermodel wife Lara Stone, it’s the story of Joe Spud, the richest 12-year-old in the world. He’s got 500 pairs of Nike trainers, a grand-prix race track in his garden and a house that’s visible from outer space. In short, Joe has everything a boy could want – except, sniff, a friend.

Now Walliams’s new book, Gangsta Granny, is out – and even though I didn’t love it quite as much as Billionaire Boy it’s hugely entertaining. This one’s the story of 11-year-old Ben, who thinks his granny is the most boring person on earth. All she wants to do when he stays the night is play Scrabble and, even worse, she serves up disgusting cabbage soup, cabbage pie and cabbage mousse for his tea. When he tips one gigantic portion of soup into a pot plant and hurriedly tells her it was “yummy,” she's so pleased she immediately serves up a second bowlful.

In this funny, touching and at times sad story, Walliams cleverly reminds children that just because their grandparents might be old doesn’t mean they haven’t led exciting lives.

As he says: “Ben couldn’t imagine what Granny would have been like young. He had only known her as an old lady. He even imagined she had been born an old lady. That years ago when her mother had given birth and asked the midwife if it was a boy or a girl, the midwife might have replied, ‘It’s an old lady!’”

But even though Ben’s granny has white hair, false teeth and used tissues tucked up her sleeve, it turns out that she has a deep, dark secret he would never have guessed in a million years – one that plunges him into an amazing adventure. You’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

Brilliantly illustrated by Tony Ross, Gangsta Granny would make a great Christmas present for boys or girls aged nine to 12.

Gangsta Granny by David Walliams (HarperCollins, £12.99)

Thursday, 3 November 2011

David Cameron on doing the school run once a week

Soon after the coalition government was formed David Cameron and Nick Clegg announced their intention to delay morning cabinet meetings so they could help with the school run.

But in this week’s Grazia interview the PM said he doesn’t take his two school-aged children to school as much as he used to, though he does try and do it once a week. “...every morning there are priority meetings and phone calls,” he told interviewer Jane Moore, “so you’re endlessly being squeezed...”

Well, welcome to real life. David Cameron is far luckier than most of the working population because he lives “above the shop” and can dash upstairs to the flat above No 10 for a cuddle with baby daughter Florence in between meetings. If you’re running a small business or working as a teacher (don’t forget, it’s the last episode of Channel 4’s fantastic Educating Essex tonight) there’s no way you can break off during the day and pop home.

For most of us, working means a lot of hard graft and endless compromises. Six years ago my husband was working on his computer in our freezing cold attic. He was in between jobs at the time and suddenly came rushing downstairs at top speed. He’d had an amazing new idea for an ingenious hi-tech system that helps to reduce water leakage. Not the glamour end of the market, but pretty damn smart all the same.

All this time later, his eureka moment has resulted in a fully-fledged company 70 miles from home that’s helping to save vast quantities of water around the world. There’s still a long way to go, but to get this far at all he’s had to work flat out seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. He’s missed parents’ evenings galore, cancelled holidays at short notice and hardly ever took our children to school. But then again, if he had helped with the school run, his company wouldn’t exist at all – let alone be employing anyone or making a major contribution to saving water.

I’m sure he’s not the only parent who’s made sacrifices. In fact he’s probably very typical of so many working parents.

Nick Clegg said last year that children often miss out on time with their dads and highlighted research showing that “where fathers are involved in their children’s lives they develop better friendships, they learn to empathise, they have higher self-esteem, and they achieve better at school.” Well yes, but this isn’t something you can fix through legislation or by insisting fathers (sorry, but it is usually the dads) get home in time to put the children to bed. Working parents simply have to make time for their children when they are at home.

PS: After reading my blog about the forthcoming RCA Secret exhibition yesterday, a reader asked what I’d bought in previous years. I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember who the artists are but the two prints we bought are pictured above, in their full glory. Sad to say, they are not by Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

RCA Secret - how to buy a work of art for £45

The Royal College of Art invitation sits tantalisingly on the shelf. This year’s RCA Secret sale takes place on November 26 and looks set to be as good as ever, with original postcard-sized works by superstar artists alongside up and coming art graduates. Last year's show featured art by Tracey Emin, David Bailey, Peter Blake, Maggi Hambling and many more.

RCA Secret was launched back in 1994 and is now an annual event. Each year hundreds of artists, from penniless students to household names, create a one-off work of art on a postcard. The public can then buy one of the 2,800 cards on display for £45 (all proceeds go to support student artists training at the RCA). But the catch is that you don’t know who designed your card till you’ve handed over your money.

The first year I went I queued for three and a half hours and failed to buy anything. So the following year we set the alarm for the crack of dawn and arrived at 6.30am. Big mistake. By the time we got to Kensington Gore the queue snaked right round the college and back again. Some intrepid art fans had pitched sub-arctic style tents on the pavement outside and rumours were flying around in the darkness that they’d been there for three days.

We thought we were well-equipped for the wait with coffee, iPods and thermals but our efforts paled into insignificance next to our fellow queuers. Most had sleeping bags, blankets, chairs and ski gear.

When the queue hadn’t moved an inch after 90 minutes my son whispered in my ear. “Shall we go home?” he said. Freezing cold and fed-up, I agreed. But my daughter wasn’t having any of it. “Don’t be so feeble,” she instructed firmly.

It was an agonising five hours till we reached the front of the queue. By the time we got inside the RCA building we were so numb with cold we could barely speak. And just like the year before, when we made it to the basement saleroom virtually all the cards we liked had gone. Electronic score boards flashed green for cards that were still available, red for ones that had sold. My daughter gave a running commentary as we inched closer and closer to the sales desk. “There’s one of your choices left, and one of mine,” she told us cheerily.

“Numbers 113 and 1898,” she told the saleswoman, when we finally made it to the front. And guess what? They were still there!

“You were right to make us wait,” I said as we trudged out, clutching our precious postcards. “But I’m not coming again.”

Except now it’s nearly time for the 2011 event… and I’m wavering.

You can view the postcards at the RCA from November 18.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

From Victoria Beckham to David Cameron - the new Grazia

Tuesday is my favourite day of the week. Why? Because a loud thump on the doormat signals the arrival of the latest issue of Grazia. I subscribed to the magazine a few years back, ostensibly for my student daughter. But in truth I love its heady mix of news, reviews and fashion just as much as she does.

I’m supposed to be writing a book review right now but couldn’t resist a sneaky look at today’s edition. It’s a cracker, featuring news that Victoria Beckham’s “in torment” over David’s possible move to play for Paris St-Germain (what are you thinking, Posh, Paris is the most fashionable city in the world), claims that the scar on Kate Middleton's head was caused by a sporting accident at school and an exclusive at-home interview with David Cameron.

The chat with the PM, conducted at No 10 by Sun columnist Jane Moore, is clearly designed to head off criticism that he’s sexist following his “calm down, dear” remark to shadow treasury chief secretary Angela Eagle during a House of Commons exchange. Not only that, a recent YouGov poll found that one in three female voters regard him as the “greatest male chauvinist” of the three party leaders.

Today’s interview runs to five pages but I’m not convinced it will make much difference. Revelations include the fact that romantic dinners with wife Sam are tricky when the protection team is sitting close by, that Sam often tells him to “calm down, dear,” that the couple’s elder two children like taking Fox’s Glacier Mints from the cabinet table and while his daughter Nancy loves The X Factor he tends to wait till near the end of the series because he “can’t be dealing with the man in the silver suit.” Does he mean Johnny Robinson? I’m not sure...

The most touching disclosure is that whatever differences the PM has with Nicolas Sarkozy, he’ll always be grateful to the French president for his kindness before his father’s death on holiday in France last year.

“We didn’t really know how bad it was,” says Cameron. “I was going to do PMQs, then get a flight a bit later, but in the meantime someone told President Sarkozy I was coming to France, and he’d got his own doctor to call the hospital and had found out things were really bad. So he rang me in the car to say ‘you must get on a plane now.’ So I did, and when I landed, he got me to the hospital... Whatever row I ever have with President Sarkozy, I will always remember that he got me to my dad before he died.”

PS: It’s probably mad, but I’ve signed up to NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), which challenges bloggers to post every day for, yes, a whole month. Can I do it? Watch this space!
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