Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year from House With No Name

Forget wild parties and tuneless renditions of Auld Lang Syne at three a.m. My idea of the perfect New Year’s Eve is strolling round the corner to share a glass or two of ice-cold champagne with friends and being home by one in the morning.

Not surprisingly, my 20 year old daughter isn’t at all impressed by plans like these, so she’s decamping to London. And even though my 17 year old son used to be happy with a Pepsi Max, chocolate fondue and Jools Holland on the telly, these days he’d far rather spend the evening with his pals.

My mum wasn’t a big fan of New Year either. Once we’d all grown up and left home she preferred to sit on her London terrace and enjoy the dazzling array of fireworks exploding across the clear night sky. She was completely appalled one year when out of the blue her very well-meaning temporary PA knocked on the front door to keep her company and stayed till dawn.

On that note, I hope you have a cracking New Year’s Eve and brilliant 2012. See you next year...

Friday, 30 December 2011

From Noddy to Coram Boy - taking children to the theatre

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a trip to the theatre. My mum always took us to the panto in Bournemouth and I’ve carried on the tradition with my two children. Over the years we’ve seen everything from the RSC’s The Secret Garden (fantastic) to Matthew Kelly in Peter Pan (not so fantastic.)

I first took my daughter to a show when she was two. We were living in a remote, windswept farmhouse in Lancashire at the time and I decided that Noddy, which was on at the Coliseum Theatre in Oldham, would be the perfect introduction to the magic of theatre.

Full of excitement, we took our seats in the stalls, the lights went down and Big Ears stomped onto the stage. “Hello children,” he roared at the top of his voice. My daughter was so overcome she burst into tears. After a few minutes of inconsolable wailing, I gave up trying to convince her that Big Ears wasn't scary and we hurried out.

But these days my daughter is one of the keenest theatre-goers around. So much so that her Christmas present to her dad is a trip to see The Ladykillers at the Gielgud Theatre, while she’s taking me to the new production of She Stoops to Conquer at the National.

Yesterday the Christmas theatre expedition was on me though when we drove to Bristol to see Coram Boy at the Colston Hall. The play’s based on the prizewinning novel (above) by Jamila Gavin and we were so bowled over by it when we saw it in London a few years back that we were keen to see Bristol Old Vic’s revival. I know infanticide in 18th Century England doesn’t sound like the most festive theme in the world but the show is a fantastic spectacle.

Sure enough, the Bristol Old Vic did it proud. By the time we emerged from the theatre three hours later we felt like we’d been whirled through an emotional wringer. We’d witnessed heart-stopping moments of cruelty and wickedness and uplifting scenes offering hope and redemption – all set against the exquisite backdrop of a massive choir singing Handel’s Messiah.

The one thing that puzzled me, though, was the number of tiny children in the audience. The theatre advises that the play isn’t suitable for the under-12s but there were loads of far younger children at yesterday’s matinee. How on earth parents explained the dark themes (often graphically portrayed) of dead babies, hanging, the slave trade and much more is beyond me. I couldn’t even reassure my tiny daughter about Noddy.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Adele and Lulu and the Lampshades at top volume

Two soundtracks dominated our Cumbrian Christmas.

The first was a stunning compilation of tracks my son thought I’d like (including several by Lulu and the Lampshades – how could you not love a band with a name like that?)

The second was a DVD of Adele live in concert at the Royal Albert Hall. My father gave it to me and it played in a loop for four days on the trot. Luckily we were in the wilds of the Lake District so there weren’t any neighbours to complain, just a few hundred sheep along the valley.
As always, Adele’s performance was sensational. This year’s biggest selling artist, she’s currently recovering from throat surgery and like all her fans I’m crossing my fingers that she gets better as soon as possible.

In between numbers like Set Fire to the Rain (my favourite) and the haunting Someone Like You she sipped warm honey and chatted to the audience about love, heartache and her “ex.”

But the most moving part came when she waved to her best friend Laura in the audience and explained that My Same, a song from her debut album, was dedicated to her pal. As Laura wiped tears from her eyes, Adele recalled how they’d made up after a falling-out. “I called Laura pretty much in tears,” she said, “telling her that I wanted her to be back in my life and that I needed her.”

The 100-minute concert (recorded back in September) was a triumph from start to finish - from Adele’s soulful voice and heartrending lyrics to her inimitable cackle and good-natured banter with her band. I loved it so much I'm going to play it again right now.

PS. Can someone tell me why the jokes in Christmas crackers are so dire? This year’s batch were worse than ever. The only one to raise a faint smile in our house was “what is an underground train full of professors called?” Answer. “A tube of Smarties.” Boom boom!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christmas in the Lake District

As we ground to a halt on the motorway for the umpteenth time I began to wonder whether our Christmas trip to the Lake District was worth it. The journey should take four hours but in 20 years of visiting the place we’ve never managed it in less than six. We usually arrive in a filthy temper at midnight and swear we’ll never do it again.

This was the first Christmas we’d ever spent at my in-laws’ holiday let in the Newlands Valley so it was a bit of an experiment. On the plus side the farmhouse has been done up in the last couple of years and boasts lovely White Company linen, an Aga and a massive roll-top bath with stunning views over the valley (have you ever seen such a great outlook from a bath? No, me neither.) On the minus side, the weather is often dire, with grey skies and sideways rain, and there’s no WiFi.
But we had four blissful days. I panicked slightly the first morning when I realised I’d forgotten to pack my children’s treasured Christmas stockings. I know they’re 20 and 17 but they still hang stockings up on Christmas Eve. I rushed into Keswick to look for replacements but couldn’t find anything. Then the lovely Emma at Temporary Measure in Main Street suggested using two of her printed canvas bags instead. What a brilliant idea – far more chic than stockings.

The highpoint came after lunch on Christmas Day when we set off on my favourite Mrs Tiggy-Winkle walk. As we meandered along the foot of Catbells and Maiden Moor we barely saw anyone, apart from a few hardy Herdwick sheep.

It’s a route that Beatrix Potter knew like the back of her hand. Although she lived further south, at Hill Top Farm in the village of Sawrey, she often stayed at Lingholm, a massive pile on the shores of Derwentwater. She was walking along the Newlands Valley when she met Lucie Carr, the local vicar’s daughter, and later wrote The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle for the little girl, complete with sweet drawings of Skelgill Farm and the isolated village of Little Town.

Despite the howling wind (so strong that it lifted me off the ground), the walk was as lovely as ever. As dusk fell, all we could see across the valley was the soaring peak of Causey Pike and the twinkling lights of Little Town in the distance. Mind you, we got our come-uppance for setting off so late when we staggered back up the hill in the dark, the night-time silence punctured by shrieks (mostly mine) as several of us went splat in the mud. But it didn’t matter a jot. A few minutes later we were back by the log fire, with festive glasses of champagne in our hands and a toast to Christmas 2011.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Happy Christmas from House With No Name

The tree is up (at an unintentionally jaunty angle), the Sainsbury's shop is done and the Military Wives Christmas song is playing full-blast.

There’s sure to be something I’ve forgotten to do but by Christmas Eve it’s too late to worry about anything – so at this stage all I can do is to thank you for reading House With No Name in 2011 and wish everyone a very happy Christmas.

Love from Emma xx

Friday, 23 December 2011

Friday book review - Four last-minute book suggestions

With two days to go till Christmas Day I’m still rushing around buying food, looking for stuffing recipes and trying to remember where I hid half the presents. So if you're like me and need a few last-minute Christmas treats, I've come up with four great books that might just do the trick.

For thriller fans
Fans of legal thriller supremo John Grisham will love The Litigators (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99), a courtroom drama about three Chicago lawyers who team up to take on one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the US. The unlikely trio – a street cop turned lawyer, a hustler with a drink problem, four ex-wives and a penchant for chasing ambulances and a smart Harvard graduate who’s just quit his high-flying law firm – show Grisham at the height of his powers. A riveting and at times very comic read.

For romance readers
I reckon The Language of Flowers (Macmillan, £12.99) is one of the most charming and original books of the year. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s first novel tells the bitter-sweet story of Victoria Jones, who after years of being in foster care, strikes out on her own in San Francisco on her 18th birthday. Broke, friendless and homeless, her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings - honeysuckle is a sign of devotion, for instance, while snowdrops represent consolation and hope. But Victoria’s life changes when a florist offers her a job and she meets a mysterious flower vendor who could unlock the secrets of her troubled past.

For crime addicts
Equally absorbing is The House of Silk (Orion, £18.99) by Anthony Horowitz. I’ve long been a fan of Horowitz’s Alex Rider stories for younger readers, but this new Sherlock Holmes mystery shows he can write for any age group. Endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, it relates the events of a “missing” Sherlock Holmes case. As the iconic detective and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson investigate the death of a teenage street urchin, they’re determined to find out why the boy had a white ribbon tied round his wrist and the significance of the mysterious House of Silk. In his acknowledgements Horowitz says writing the book was a “joy” and hopes he’s done justice to Conan Doyle’s creation. He certainly has.

For aesthetes
With its striking black and white cover, black-edged pages and end papers covered in magicians’ hats, The Night Circus (Harvill Secker, £12.99) is one of the best-looking books of the year. US writer Erin Morgenstern’s novel is by no means flawless but her story of two young 19th century magicians forced to pit their skills against each other is enchanting nonetheless. The descriptions of the mysterious night circus, which opens at nightfall and closes at dawn, are so vivid that you can almost see the twirling acrobats and smell the popcorn, caramel and bonfire smoke.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The gut instinct that made me buy the House With No Name

A new report says it’s far better to make decisions on gut instinct than dawdle too much and agonise over what to do.

The research, reported in the Daily Telegraph, issues stark warnings claiming that people who think too much before coming to a decision risk damaging their love lives, careers and even their health.

It’s not the most festive message of the week, I know, but there’s definitely something in it. The speediest decision I ever came to was to buy the House With No Name, my ramshackle farmhouse in the south of France. If I’d spent ages struggling over what to do for the best, I’d never have been brave enough to go ahead.

Actually, the main spur was having an intrepid husband and wildly enthusiastic children who egged me on like crazy.

The first time I’d heard about the place was when one of my dearest friends sent me an email saying: “Beautiful place. Great potential. Most beautiful setting. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside with some ancient oaks. Very old farm with heaps of charm. It has a very good feel to it.”

I’m the weediest person on the planet and much to my horror – and before I’d even set eyes on the place - my husband put an offer in on my behalf. The offer was much lower than the asking price so I naively assumed it would be rejected out of hand by the elderly owner and her four grown-up children. Except, er, it wasn’t.

By the time I pitched up a couple of weeks later to see it, accompanied by the estate agent and the notaire (Uncle Tom Cobley and all in fact), the owners were excitedly making plans to move into a new house with all mod cons in the nearby town. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to wreck their plans by saying “I'm sorry. This is all a horrendous mistake. I’m catching the next train home.”

So in my case, I took precisely zero minutes to decide to go ahead and buy the House With No Name. And even though my gut instinct took a little bit of persuading, I’m so glad I did.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The trials and tribulations of online Christmas shopping

Like most people, I’ve done loads of my shopping online this Christmas. Instead of flogging round the shops in the freezing cold I've sat in the warmth of my office sipping coffee and choosing presents from Amazon, Topshop and other shopping emporiums.

It’s so quick and easy that I wasn’t surprised in the least to read that online sales have doubled to ten per cent since 2000 and are predicted to rise to more than 12 per cent by 2014.

Except the one thing I’d forgotten in the midst of it all is that someone still has to deliver the blooming stuff. And that’s where I’m not so impressed.

Last week, three Amazon parcels got delivered to our house. Fine, except they were delivered on the days I was in London and were simply dumped on the doorstep. Again, it wouldn’t be a problem if we lived in the middle of nowhere but we’re on a main road in a busy city. Anyone could have hopped up the steps, nicked the parcels (luckily they didn’t) and sped off in a trice.

But I didn’t make a fuss till a third parcel arrived and was left outside in the pouring rain. I arrived home more than 12 hours later to find a sorry, sopping mess. The cardboard packaging completely disintegrated when I picked it up and the book inside was ruined. It took three phone calls to get through to the delivery company and about an hour to repackage the present and arrange for a new one to be delivered. Hmmm. In that time, I could have walked to Waterstone’s and bought it in person. Maybe online shopping isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

PS. The most hilarious piece I read over the weekend was a report declaring that the happiest moment of Christmas is at... 1.55pm. Apparently that’s the time when all the presents have been opened, lunch has been cooked and served and the children are playing happily with their new toys. I’m clearly the most disorganised parent on the planet but I can predict for sure that at 1.55pm in our house, lunch won’t have been cooked and served and we’ll only just have started opening our presents. I’m ashamed to admit that the latest we’ve sat down to lunch on Christmas Day was 5.30pm. And did it matter? Not a bit.

PPS. Just to show that there's something else to be said for shopping in person, the picture above (taken in the Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris) shows my favourite shop window of the year. A VW camper in the window? Now that's definitely the way to attract customers.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From the fabulous Military Wives to a birthday lunch in Shoreditch

With Christmas exactly eight days away there are still presents to buy, food to organise and a snowboarding course to do (no, thankfully not me, my son). He, by the way, has set off this morning in jeans and a shirt – still no coat! I may have to try novelist Veronica Henry’s approach. “I can be quite scary,” she tweeted. “... and there was money involved.”

On the plus side, the Christmas tree is up, at a slightly wonky angle, and this very second I’ve had an email from Amazon saying my CD of the Military Wives’ Wherever You Are “has dispatched.”

Anyway, as promised, here are some of the week’s highlights at House With No Name.

House With No Name’s shout-out for the fabulous Military Wives
House With No Name on the problem of where to put the Christmas cards
House With No Name on a special lunch in Shoreditch
House With No Name Book Review: Robert Harris’s The Fear Index

Friday, 16 December 2011

Friday book review - The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Virtually every journalist I know dreams of emulating Robert Harris and writing a bestseller. But few stand a chance of being as successful as the former Observer political editor. To date he’s written eight novels, sold millions and seen his books translated into 37 languages.

Harris switched from journalism to novels with the publication of Fatherland in 1992 and has never looked back. The Ghost, seen as a thinly disguised attack on Tony Blair, was made into a film starring Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams and Harris later won both the French César and the European Film Awards for best adapted screenplay.

The great thing about Harris is that as well as being a talented, intelligent writer he’s also an outstanding storyteller. He makes writing look easy but his books are expertly plotted and based on months of solid research. He once said: “I’ve always wanted to earn my living by writing. The best thing is to go into my study in the morning and put words together” - and that’s exactly what he spends his life doing.

And he’s certainly on scintillating form in his latest novel, The Fear Index. This pacy tale follows one day in the life of Dr Alex Hoffman, a brilliant physicist who used to work at CERN (home of the Large Hadron Collider).

In recent years Hoffman has developed revolutionary computer software that tracks human emotions, enabling the mega-successful hedge fund he’s launched with a partner to predict the financial markets and make billions. Then in the early hours of a May morning an intruder breaks into the Geneva home he shares with his wife and Hoffman’s ordered world starts to unravel.

This bang-up-to-date thriller is utterly compelling. If you’re looking for an extra Christmas present for someone, look no further.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £18.99).

Thursday, 15 December 2011

I'm rooting for the Military Wives' Christmas single

“All I want for Christmas is a No 1. I like the idea that a group of women singing in a church with a speccy choirmaster is Simon Cowell’s greatest threat. I’m sure he’s quaking in his boots.”

Those are the words of Gareth Malone, the nation’s favourite choirmaster, in an interview to be published in ES magazine tomorrow.

And I reckon he’s right. As Simon Cowell sits in the LA sunshine, he must be stunned that a choir of 100 military wives from two Devon army bases look set to turn the tables and scoop the top spot at Christmas.

With four days to go, everyone I know is rooting for the Military Wives’ single, Wherever You Are. It’s already the bookies’ favourite to beat X Factor winners Little Mix and Amazon says the track, a moving love song composed from letters written by servicemen and their wives during a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, is the most pre-ordered music product of all time.

Twitter is buzzing with support for the wives (you can follow them at @Milwiveschoir) and Chris Evans has been playing the song for weeks on his Radio 2 breakfast show. “We’re having to give out mascara warnings every morning – ‘it’s your five-minute mascara warning... don’t put on your mascara yet,’” he says. “It speaks love, it speaks care, it speaks magic and it speaks massive emotion, all the right things at the right time.”

Like millions of others, I’ve ordered my copy and can’t wait to get my hands on it on Monday (December 19). Because the Military Wives’ story is a triumph all round. It’s helped a fabulous group of women discover their voices (in every sense of the word), raised loads of money for the Royal British Legion and SSAFA Forces Help and shown that Simon Cowell doesn’t always get his own way.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Christmas card conundrum

Christmas is full of conundrums. How long to cook the turkey for? Whether to make bread sauce (I loathe the stuff)? What to buy the in-laws? But the trickiest puzzle by far is... what to do with the Christmas cards.

Lots of people have stopped buying cards altogether or opted for e-cards ages ago - but not me. I love sending Christmas cards and I love getting them back.

The only trouble is that I haven’t got a clue where to put them. Artistic friends hang them on scarlet ribbons from VV Rouleaux while others prop them on the mantelpiece. The problem is that we haven’t got a mantelpiece and if I cack-handedly try the ribbon thing it looks awful.

So after a few days I always opt for my mother’s tried and tested solution. It’s quick, easy and doesn’t involve any creative flair whatsoever. I get a large bowl out of the kitchen cupboard, plonk it in the middle of the table and chuck the cards in. Simple!

PS. Now the Christmas cards are sorted, the next thing on my list is to find an uplifting carol service. My children’s carol singing days are long gone and my confirmed atheist husband refuses point-blank to go anywhere near a church, so if you see a solitary, but very happy, figure sitting in an Oxford pew it’ll be me.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A birthday lunch in Shoreditch

Twenty years ago today, at 9.44am precisely, our lovely daughter was born. It seems no time at all since we were driving to St Helier Hospital in the early hours of a frosty December morning. Our good friend Alex Lester played Cry Me a River on Radio 2 and we were in such a panic we couldn’t find the hospital’s maternity wing.

Now, in the blink of an eye, our daughter’s turned into a sophisticated student sharing a flat with friends and whizzing around London.

But despite the frenetic run-up to Christmas we always put everything on hold to mark her birthday in style.

Just two years ago, we celebrated her 18th in Oxford. We sat down to a fabulous lunch with family, friends and godparents and afterwards she blew out eighteen candles on her cake. And I’m afraid, like the proud mum I am, I reminisced embarrassingly about her childhood. About her jaunty hairbands and dresses from Du Pareil au Même (the most stylish and best-value children’s shop in France – I wish it would open here) and the afternoon she stomped home in a fury from her école maternelle in Orléans, saying “I’ve been there all day and I haven’t learned to speak French yet.”

Tonight, on her 20th birthday, her three flatmates are treating her to dinner and then she’s off out with friends from the bar where she works at weekends.

But I was thrilled that she wanted to celebrate with us lot too. So on Sunday morning we drove to east London, collected some fabulous birthday cupcakes from the Spitalfields branch of The Hummingbird Bakery and watched her open her presents. She reckoned Pizza East in Shoreditch would be the perfect place for a birthday lunch – so we booked a table by the window. A vast restaurant on the ground floor of the Tea Building, the food is delicious, the staff charming and the decor a vision to behold - all vintage furniture, exposed brickwork and distressed panelling.

In fact, if I lived in London, I’d like my flat to look exactly like Pizza East. And even better, my daughter would be just around the corner...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From Christmas shopping to teenagers who hate wearing coats in winter

Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features a few of the week’s highlights – and with Christmas exactly two weeks away, the posts are getting more and more festive.

The best thing that happened this week (apart from picking up a copy of Stylist’s gorgeous and much-talked about Nigella edition) was that I wrote my first ever guest post. I met the lovely Marion Poerio at the Cosmo Blog Awards party back in October. Like House With No Name, her blog, Rust and Gold Dust, was shortlisted in the awards and I’ve been an avid follower ever since.

When Marion asked me to write a Christmas post I leapt at the chance to write about our family Christmas tree – from when we put it up (today!) to how we decorate it. You can read all about it here.

Anyway, as promised, here are some of the week’s House With No Name blogs.

House With No Name on why teenagers hate wearing coats
House With No Name on the art of haggling
House With No Name goes Christmas shopping at the best shops in the country
House With No Name on women reporters in Fleet Street
House With No Name Book Review: Martina Cole's The Faithless

PS. Like the rest of the country I'll be glued to The X Factor final this weekend - evven though Misha B is better than Amelia Lily, Little Mix and Marcus put together. In fact the Amelia we should all be talking about is Amelia Hempleman-Adams. At 16 (just a year younger than Amelia Lily), Amelia H-A has followed in her explorer father's footsteps and become the youngest person ever to ski to the South Pole. Now that is a real achievement!

Friday, 9 December 2011

Friday book review - The Faithless by Martina Cole

I’ve written about my new-found liking for crime novels before. For some reason, even though I’m ultra-squeamish, hate blood and gore in novels and avert my gaze from crime dramas on TV, I love books by writers like PD James, Ian Rankin and Jeffery Deaver.

But crime writer Martina Cole is my guilty pleasure. Why? Because she's such a brilliant story-teller. I start her novels thinking I’ll just read a few pages and before I know it, it’s 2am and I’ve finished the whole book.

Cole is fast becoming a legend in her own lifetime, with her books selling more than ten million copies to date. Gritty, fast-moving and packed with punchy dialogue, they grab your attention right from the first page. There are usually some shockingly violent scenes along the way but I grit my teeth and whizz through those bits at top speed.

Her latest, The Faithless, soared straight to the top of the bestseller lists when it was published in October and it’s easy to see why. Her 18th novel, it’s the story of Cynthia Tailor, a woman who looks like a supermodel and really should have the world at her feet. She’s got a devoted husband, lovely house and two gorgeous children (she usually gets her world-weary parents to look after them though.)

But Cynthia, who to my mind makes Cruella de Vil look like a pushover, is deeply dissatisfied with her lot - and green with envy when her younger sister walks down the aisle with the man she lusts after. She’ll stop at nothing to get him for herself, and sure enough, it’s her long-suffering husband and children who suffer the fall-out.

I’m sure Cole herself wouldn’t claim her novels, several of which have been made into TV dramas, are high-brow, but she certainly knows how to write addictive, hard-hitting fiction.

The Faithless by Martina Cole (Headline, £19.99)

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The best shops in the country

Moving out of London was bliss. Except for one tiny detail. The shopping. Years of London living, with a friendly deli down the road and the bright lights of Oxford Street just a bus ride away, had definitely spoiled me. The farmhouse on a moody, windswept hill we moved to was heaven but the local shops were dire. I could have cried the day I pitched up in the nearest town to find a long grey street flanked by a Tesco’s at one end and a store selling anoraks and sturdy walking boots at the other. This sounds clichéd, I know, but as for buying a jar of pesto or some decent olive oil, forget it.

But those days are long gone. Shopping in the sticks is chicer than chic. Here in Oxfordshire we’ve got the amazing Bicester Village a few miles away – complete with Anya Hindmarch, Mulberry, Joseph and every other designer you can think of. Emma Bridgewater and Cowshed have recently opened so that's Christmas sorted and when you need an energy boost you can dive into Carluccio's (above) for a plate of pasta.

So just to prove there are fantastic shops in the country, here are my current top three.

The Hambledon in Winchester is my favourite shop in the world. I’ve known owner Victoria Suffield since she was a teenager and she has an eye for design and detail that’s second to none. Her stunning three-floor emporium overlooking Winchester Cathedral sells a dazzling mix of clothes, china, books, children’s things and vintage furniture. The website, which boasts designs by Rob Ryan and a brilliant Christmas gift guide, is definitely worth a look too.

Next up is Carole Bamford’s amazing Daylesford Farmshop and Café, just the other side of Chipping Norton. Critics mutter that it’s like Harvey Nichols in the middle of the muddy Cotswold countryside but it’s great for organic food, china, flowers and the most stylish clothes this side of the M40.

Third on my list is the Bettys Café Tea Room chain. There are six branches of Bettys – one in Ilkley, one in Northallerton and two each in Harrogate and York – plus an excellent mail order service. Despite countless pleas from customers, the company has resolutely refused to open any outside Yorkshire. Their elegant cafés are open all day, with charming waitresses in starched white pinnies serving everything from Bettys famous Fat Rascals (a sort of giant scone with cherries and almonds) to lunch and afternoon tea. And on the way home, you can stock up with freshly-baked bread, cakes, chocolates, coffee and tea. Perfect.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Why don't teenagers wear winter coats?

Arctic blizzards are set to battle the UK this week, the north is blanketed in snow and even here in the soft south there’s a wintery chill in the air.

Bearing all that in mind, it seemed perfectly reasonable to ask my son whether he planned to wear a coat to school this morning.

“No,” he growled, hardly glancing up from his bowlful of Frosties. (At least he eats breakfast – a survey published this week said only one in two of us eat before leaving home in the morning.)

But teenagers’ aversion to coats is a mystery to me. My daughter was exactly the same when she was at school. Even on the coldest, wettest days she’d head for the bus wearing a threadbare jumper and short school skirt and insist she didn’t feel cold at all. “I’m fine,” she’d mutter, “really warm” – oblivious to the fact that her chattering teeth and blue lips gave the game away.

My son can’t protest he hasn’t got a coat either. I’ve spent a fortune on the blooming things. Last year I figured that if I bought him an ultra-chic Superdry one that he really liked, it would do the trick. My plan worked for a few days but then he met up with friends at a pizza place near Magdalen Bridge and carefully hung his coat by the door. When he went to retrieve his coat at the end of the evening it had gone. In its place was a flimsy cotton jacket – obviously left by the person who’d nicked my son’s lovely, warm coat. The following day the temperature dropped to minus degrees so, worried he was going to freeze, I went out and spent my week’s earnings on an identical one. An identical one that he never wears.

I just hope that he’ll eventually follow his big sister’s example and wake up to the wonderfulness of coats. One day my daughter announced out of the blue that she was off to Topshop to buy a winter coat. She came back a few hours later with a stylish navy number that she still loves. Result!

PS. I mentioned last week how I can’t wait to see Steven Spielberg’s War Horse when it opens here in January. But considering I cry at anything (apart from that John Lewis ad), I was worried by the Times reviewer’s verdict on the New York premiere. “If you don’t cry in War Horse, it’s because you have no tear ducts,” he wrote. We have been warned.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Why aren't there more women reporters in Fleet Street?

I’ve never met a journalist who isn’t obsessed with their byline – for the uninitiated, that's the line between the headline and the story giving the name of the person who wrote the article. Maybe it’s because hacks are an insecure bunch, or maybe it’s because we’re preoccupied with seeing our names emblazoned in lights.

It’s certainly why an article by Kira Cochrane in today’s Guardian caught my eye. Back in June, Cochrane had the gnawing feeling that she hadn’t seen a female byline on newspaper front pages for weeks. So along with a colleague and two researchers, she decided to put her hunch to the test and started counting them.

The results were alarming – well, women journalists will think so, anyway. As Cochrane writes: “There wasn’t a single day, on a single newspaper, when the number of female bylines outstripped or equalled the number of male bylines.”

When the team averaged out its figures after a month, the results were as follows: Daily Mail - 68% male bylines, 32% female; The Guardian - 72% male, 28% female; The Times - 74% male, 26% female; Daily Telegraph - 78% male, 22% female; Daily Mirror - 79% male, 21% female; The Sun - 80% male, 20% female; The Independent, 84% male, 16% female.

It's pretty damning stuff, but the trouble is that Fleet Street doesn’t make life easy for women journalists. When I started out as a reporter on the Evening Standard, I was one of six women reporters in a news team of around 24. Twenty years later, only one of us works in Fleet Street, the Guardian’s brilliant Caroline Davies, while loads of the men are still there. And of the men who aren’t, the vast majority continued to work as reporters till they retired.

There’s no doubt that working as a news reporter isn’t compatible with having young children. When I worked for the Standard, I was rung in the middle of the night once or twice a week and told to get to Manchester or Calais or a crime scene round the corner from my Clapham flat – like, er, NOW. So if you’re the mother of young children but haven’t got a live-in nanny or a saintly husband, it’s just not workable. I’m sure it's why so many women leave Fleet Street in their thirties. That’s certainly what happened to me.

Once women reporters take career breaks to look after their children, very few ever return to their old staff jobs. A few turn to feature writing, columns or reviewing but most work as freelances, with no job security whatsoever.

It’s ironic really, because I reckon that I’m a better journalist now than when I was young and green. I know a hell of a lot more about life, not to mention interviewing and writing. So could my generation of women reporters make a difference in news rooms these days? You bet we could.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The art of haggling - and a free Laura Marling CD

I like a bargain as much as anyone. My purse is stuffed with discount vouchers and cuttings snipped out of newspapers and magazines – from a Paperchase offer in today’s Observer to a handful of dog-eared Tesco vouchers.

But apparently what we should be doing in these cash-strapped times, and especially in the run-up to Christmas, is haggling. Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which? magazine, says: “Christmas doesn’t have to be cancelled. Savvy shoppers can save money with online deals, discount days and pre-Christmas sales. You should compare prices between stores and don’t be afraid to haggle to get the best price.”

Apparently everyone is doing it, including Sun columnist Jane Moore, whose husband got £3,000 off her new car by haggling. Well, lucky her, but the trouble is that in order to get a great deal in the shops you have to be a very cool, confident customer. Not only that, I reckon that shops dishing out discounts probably have a cut-off price they’d sell the goods at anyway. You only have to look at the zillions of on-line offers around right now to realise that. I’ve currently got emails giving 15 per cent off at Cologne & Cotton, Emma Bridgewater, the Conran Shop and more arriving by the day.

When it comes to haggling, though, you’ve either got what it takes or you haven’t. I remember my mother giving it a go at Covent Garden market years ago. Browsing at a clothes stall, she spotted some trousers for £15 and a top for £10 and asked the stall-holder “can you do the two for £30?” He clearly couldn't believe his ears. “Yep, I think I can,” he said, quickly wrapping the items up.

I’ve clearly inherited her bartering skills. Looking for an outfit to wear to a wedding, I spied a chic straw boater at a posh Battersea milliner’s. The price tag next to it said £75 so I went in and tried it on. It was perfect. “I’ll have it,” I said. “That’ll be £70,” said the assistant. “Er, shouldn’t it be £75?” I queried and duly paid the more expensive price. When we got outside my husband rolled his eyes in despair. “You are the only person I know who manages to barter the price up,” he said.

PS. It wasn’t just the Paperchase offer that made me buy the Observer this morning. As I mentioned a couple of months back, I’m a huge fan of Laura Marling. So I could hardly believe my luck when a Laura Marling CD featuring ten live and studio tracks (some from her recent tour of English cathedrals) came free with today’s issue. It has quite made my day. And I didn’t even have to haggle to get it!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From the world’s worst au pair (me!) to Pippa Middleton’s party planning book

Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features a few of the week’s highlights – and with Christmas fast approaching, there have been plenty during the last seven days.

As I staggered downstairs this morning there were two lots of mail on the doormat. One was the gorgeous January issue of Red magazine (my favourite monthly right now) with party girl Zoe Ball looking stunning on the cover, while the second was (aaagh) my very first Christmas card. It came from a lovely school friend, but had the effect of making me feel even more chaotic than usual. I’ve got as far as buying my cards but there’s no way I’ll get round to sending them for another two weeks. AT LEAST!

House With No Name goes to the BBC
House With No Name on the art of being the world’s worst au pair
House With No Name puts up its advent calendar
House With No Name on how to throw a non-Pippa-Middleton-style party
House With No Name Book Review - Sheena Byrom’s Catching Babies

PS: The National Blog Posting Month challenge (or NaBloPoMo for short) finished in style on November 30 – and da-da-di-da, I made it. A big thank you to everyone who read and commented on my posts. I had great fun posting every day and met loads of lovely bloggers along the way, some of whom have thrown caution to the wind and are blogging right through December too. They are made of sterner stuff than me!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Friday book review - Catching Babies by Sheena Byrom

When my son was born 17 years ago, we lived in a remote, draughty farmhouse halfway up a Lancashire hillside. The house didn’t have any heating, just a temperamental wood-fuelled Rayburn that was hell to keep alight. We all joke that the reason my son is so tough is because he spent the first two years of his life there.

A long, bumpy track led to the house (which we rented from a charming, aristocratic landowner) and I vividly remember the day the community midwife drove up to check that my son was doing fine. In most areas midwives visit new mothers and their babies for the first ten days and in my experience, they are a brilliant source of help and advice.

Out of the car stepped Sheena Byrom, the community midwife for the Ribble Valley. Dressed in a navy-blue uniform, she was smiley, ultra-supportive and compassionate. She seemed like a friend from the instant I met her and we stayed in contact for years afterwards. Sadly we eventually lost touch – mainly, I reckon, because of the crazy number of times I've moved house.

Anyway, idly scrolling through Twitter this week, I suddenly spotted a mention of a new book called Catching Babies: The true story of a dedicated midwife. It was by, yes, Sheena Byrom. I was so thrilled that I dashed out and bought a copy straight away.

As I expected, Catching Babies is a cracking read about Sheena’s 35-year career as a midwife, from her close-knit Lancashire upbringing to her nursing training at Blackburn Royal Infirmary. The chapters I enjoyed the most were about Sheena’s decision to move from a hospital-based job to work as a community midwife. I loved her descriptions of driving “through the most fabulous scenery, rippling green hills and groups of ancient, majestic trees” to check on babies and their mums. Just reading it took me back 17 years in a flash.

Sheena’s story, which has its share of heartbreak, is a fascinating account of how midwifery has advanced over the years. If you’re interested in babies, children and a woman who's dedicated her career to helping women in childbirth, then you’ll definitely enjoy this. As Sheena herself says: “Midwives are in a really privileged position and I believe that if a woman’s birth is positive then they will go on to be positive mothers. It helps women to be better mums.”

Catching Babies by Sheena Byrom (Headline, £6.49)
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