Friday, 30 November 2012

Friday book review - The Empty Stocking by Richard Curtis

With Christmas less than a month away (eek!), I’m busy writing a newspaper piece about great festive reads for children.

One of my favourites so far is Richard Curtis’s The Empty Stocking. The prodigiously talented Curtis – director and screenwriter extraordinaire – has written an enchanting tale for children, with sweet illustrations by Rebecca Cobb.

It’s the story of seven-year-old twin sisters Sam and Charlie, who look the same but couldn’t be more different.

Sam is angelic, while Charlie is quite naughty. Or as Curtis puts it: “Not interested in being obedient. Quite often very grumpy. Not very fond of telling the complete truth. But very fond of eating sweets, making a filthy racket and having too much fun.” (Actually, come to think of it, Charlie sounds the life and soul of the party).

The little girls can’t wait for Christmas and excitedly hang their stockings at the end of their beds on Christmas Eve. But the big question is - will Santa fill both their stockings with presents this year? Or is it time he got tough?

This is a lovely picture book for small children – and as well as being an exuberant and heart-warming tale, it’s got an important message too.

The Empty Stocking by Richard Curtis (Puffin, £6.99)

Monday, 26 November 2012

The kindness of strangers Part 2

My children are both at university now – but out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind. Far from it. The fact that I don’t see them every day makes me worry even more.

I was thrilled, though, when my 18 year old son phoned at 10pm last night. Except it wasn’t for a chat. It was to say that he was on a train from Manchester to South Wales after a weekend catching up with old pals and the train had been severely delayed because of the weather. He’d just clocked that his train was due to terminate at Newport - at midnight, 50 miles from where he needed to be and with no more trains till dawn. 

To make matters worse, his credit card had been nicked a few days earlier, he only had £10 on him and his phone was about to run out of battery.

“We’re stuck at Shrewsbury,” he said. “And I don’t want to waste my battery so I’m switching my phone off now.”

Before I could reply, he rang off.

At midnight, with no news, I rang Newport railway station. But the place had shut up shop for the night. Next, I called a taxi firm close by.

“Don’t worry,” said a cheery voice at Dragon Taxis when he heard the sorry tale. “I’ll go and find out. What does he look like? I’ll see if he’s there.”

How kind was that? The man came back ten minutes later and said my son wasn’t there. But he’d asked the rail staff and in fact the train had travelled on to Cardiff. After that, they’d said, Arriva Trains were laying on taxis (free of charge) to take stranded passengers home. And sure enough, when I finally spoke to my son at 3am, that’s exactly what had happened.   

So, all I can say is: A big thank you to the wonderful Dragon Taxis of Newport. Talk about going that extra mile...

PS. I've just realised it's exactly a month till Christmas. Help!

PPS. The kindness of strangers Part 1 is here.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying themselves on their bike?

I’ve interviewed Professor Tanya Byron several times over the years and she talks more sense about children and teenagers than anyone I‘ve met. And the fact that she told me not to worry when my children refused point-blank to have anything to do with star charts was a bonus.

Tanya has been a clinical psychologist for 23 years and earlier this month I spoke to her about a keynote speech she’s giving to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference in December. Once again, her words struck a chord as she talked about her concern that today’s youngsters lack emotional intelligence and emotional resilience. A lot of them, she said, are afraid of failure, afraid to take risks and afraid to think for themselves.

“Children are being raised in captivity,” she told me. “When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying themselves on their bike?

“Children are not really encouraged, supported or taught how to assess, take and manage risk and I think it is developmentally catastrophic for them.

“Risk taking is seen as a very dangerous thing and to be avoided at all costs.

“We live in a litigious, risk-averse culture where paranoia is rife and we have an education system that is so built around targets and testing that teachers and headteachers are constrained from being innovative.

“But risk taking is important because it helps children to accept, understand and embrace failure. The times when you fail are often the most powerful learning experiences one can ever have.

“When I talk to successful people and ask them about their most cherished memories in terms of how they got to be where they are, it’s usually built around times when they messed up. But boy did that really teach them something. It got them to expand their thinking and their learning and inspired them to push on in the most impressive way.”

Wise words in my opinion. What do you think?

You can read the whole interview in this week’s SecEd magazine.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Liz Jones and her instinctive feel for dividing opinion

Liz Jones sparks more controversy than any other journalist I can think of.

She’s infuriated virtually the whole of Exmoor with her excoriating columns about the unfriendliness and the cold and shops closing on Saturday afternoons and she hit the headlines again last week with a piece about the bloggers she met at the recent Mumsnet Blogfest. Just to give you a flavour, she wrote about being in “a tangled teepee of virtual knitters, spinning yarns so they can remain inside their cupcake-scented world.” Oh dear. And completely wrong.

But despite the brickbats that get thrown at her on a regular basis, she’s just been named Columnist of the Year at the British Society of Magazine Editors awards.

Announcing the award last week, BSME chairman Kitty Finstad said she’d been chosen “for her instinctive feel for personal narrative and for dividing opinion – as a good columnist should.”

The BSME are right, I reckon. Liz Jones maddens me more often than not, and I’m a bit sick of her writing about her cats, her horses and RS, her rock star boyfriend (despite all sorts of rumours no one has a clue who he is). But, and it’s a big but, I still turn to her column in the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine before I read the rest of the papers.

Actually, this week I felt a bit sorry for her. Writing in the main bit of the paper, she said she was feeling nostalgic for Exmoor just a week after selling her stunning house. She’s now moved back to London, but is missing the country already, the wildlife, the space and the peace and quiet.

I know how she feels. I love the city, but even now there are days when I yearn to be living in the middle of nowhere once more. It’s fantastic to be able to walk into Oxford to meet a friend for a coffee or to see the latest (brilliant) James Bond movie. But I still miss the autumn afternoons when we strode up Pendle Hill (above) and saw no one at all apart from the odd fell walker and countless sheep.

PS. Back in the days when Liz Jones was features editor of the Evening Standard, she asked me to write a freelance piece about living in France. I never met her (we only spoke on the phone) but she was easily one of the most charming, appreciative editors I’ve ever been commissioned by.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Friday book review - Thursdays in the Park by Hilary Boyd

Writer Hilary Boyd probably can’t quite believe it. A month ago, her first novel had sold just 3,000 copies – a respectable number, but nothing to write home about.

Four weeks later, it’s a different story. Largely through word of mouth, Thursdays in the Park has turned into a smash hit.

The book’s fortunes changed when Amazon discounted the ebook version to 20p. I spotted the novel a couple of weeks ago and was so entranced by the title and the cover – and yes, the price – that I downloaded it straight away. I was clearly one of many because the book has now sold more than 100,000 copies. Apparently Charles Dance is interested in starring in the movie and and the foreign rights have been snapped up in France, Sweden, Finland and Germany too. Not only that, Hilary Boyd has been interviewed by scores of newspapers and even popped up on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.

But after all the excitement, is the book any good? Well yes, actually, it is. I read it earlier this week and tore through it in one go. Well-written, heart-warming and sweet, it’s the story of Jeanie, a 60-year-old woman trapped in a safe but sexless marriage. The light of her life is her little granddaughter Ellie, whom she looks after on Thursday afternoons. The pair always go to the park, and it’s there that she meets Ray and his small grandson Dylan. Ray is kind, funny and easy to talk to – everything that Jeanie’s husband isn’t, in fact – and much to the horror of Jeanie’s family the pair find themselves falling in love. 

Thursdays in the Park has been dubbed “gran-lit,” but readers of all ages will enjoy it. Boyd, who’s 62, says she wanted to write about romance and love at “a certain age” and show that these days becoming a grandmother doesn’t mean “polyester slacks and a blue rinse.” Not in Jeanie’s case it doesn’t, anyway.

Boyd’s book is far from being a great literary work, but it’s an insightful and compelling tale. There are a couple of sex scenes, but they’re tastefully done. Thursdays in the Park may be the talk of publishing circles right now but it’s nothing like Fifty Shades of Grey, I promise…

Thursdays in the Park by Hilary Boyd (Quercus, £7.99). The ebook is currently available for 20p on Amazon. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Download White Christmas for free today

Hal Benson smoothed his crumpled charcoal jacket, adjusted the livid pink tie he’d borrowed from a friend and cleared his throat noisily. His mouth was dry and he’d started to sweat under the bright studio lights. He couldn’t for the life of him work out why he was so nervous. For goodness sake, he’d performed in front of thousands of people before. He’d played Macduff at Stratford-upon-Avon without batting an eyelid, and had even appeared in a Tom Cruise movie once. It had only been a tiny part, admittedly, and his five seconds of fame had ended up on the cutting room floor, but all the same, he was a professional actor. And this, well this was just play-acting.

In eight years of acting, Hal had never worked anywhere as garish as this place. He half-wished he’d brought a pair of sunglasses with him. The whole studio was painted in an acid yellow, with a giant black clock on the main wall and a vast red curved sofa in front of it. There was a Christmas tree in one corner, covered in red and yellow baubles, and a life-sized model of Father Christmas in the other. Red and yellow were clearly the TV station’s signature colours.

At that moment a young studio manager with a bulky pair of headphones clamped to her ears took him by the arm. She guided him to the left-hand side of the sofa and instructed him to stand in front of a translucent screen.

‘You’ll see a faint image of the graphics appear,’ she told Hal. ‘The image will give you an idea of where to point and you can use the remote clicker we’ve given you to move on to the next graphic. Is that clear?’

As clear as mud, thought Hal, but he nodded brightly and said ‘sure…’

That's a short extract from my festive new ebook, White Christmas. If you’d like to read more, you can download the novella for free on Amazon today. Let me know what you think...

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Working parents - the debate goes on...

“Enough about saintly working mothers. What about me? I’m a working dad.”

That’s the headline emblazoned across the front page of Times 2 today, trailing a piece by Hugo Rifkind that sticks up for working fathers.

His gist is that society isn’t treating fathers equally. “… when she gets up many hours before going to work to deal with our children’s poos and pees and frankly unreasonable moonlit demands for Cheerios, she is a brave and selfless warrior for feminism,” he writes of his wife. “Whereas when I do, I’m just somebody who if he didn’t would be an a***hole.”

The most striking thing to me is that the parenting debate hasn't moved on at all over the last few decades. The trouble is, as each generation discovers in turn, if you’re a parent (whether you're a mum or a dad) you really can’t have it all.

Whatever anyone says, you can’t have a superstar career and be there 24/7 for your children. It’s just impossible.

In our house we never sat down and discussed how we would share the parenting. When my two were little my husband worked as a company turnaround expert, which meant being catapulted into businesses all over the place that were in trouble and needed sorting out. It sounds glamorous but it wasn’t. It was gruelling, tough and completely unpredictable. But he was self-employed and earned more than me, so no way could I say: “Hang on. You can’t go tomorrow. You’re looking after the children.”

If I’m honest, it irritated the hell out of me at the time. But then again, I knew that if he didn’t drop everything and go, then the mortgage wouldn’t get paid. OK, I could have found a live-in nanny and gone back to my old job as a news reporter but then I would have been away all the time too – which would have been terrible for the children.

So, we muddled through. I did the childcare and freelanced from home (a plus side of journalism), while my husband paid the bulk of the bills.

But suddenly everything changed. First my daughter went to university, followed this September by my son. And after all these years of wondering whether I did the right thing, I’ve stopped worrying. My children’s childhoods went by in a flash and I’m glad I didn’t miss any of it. 

Friday, 9 November 2012

White Christmas – new romantic novella out now

With Christmas just seven weeks away (help!), my festive new novella has just been published. White Christmas, the tale of two rival weather forecasters, was great fun to write – so I hope readers will enjoy it.

From Christmas trees and carols to holly and mistletoe, the story aims to get everyone in the festive mood. White Christmas is available for download at AmazonHere's the blurb...

Everyone dreams of a White Christmas.

But nobody dreams of one quite as much as Hal Benson.

Out-of-work actor Hal has been hired as a stand-in weather presenter by a ratings-chasing TV news channel. But actually, Hal couldn't care less whether it rains or not. To him it is just a job.

But then he meets rival weather forecaster Lizzie Foster. She’s bright, determined and very beautiful. Fascinated by meteorology, she can’t believe that Hal is completely clueless about the weather.

They become friends, but as Christmas Day approaches, their relationship turns out to be as unpredictable as the weather. And sometimes as stormy.

Whilst everyone else is unwrapping presents, Hal and Lizzie are looking to the skies for signs of a White Christmas. So will the pair overcome their meteorological differences - and find true love?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Movie stardom for A Street Cat Named Bob?

How brilliant to hear that a green-eyed street cat called Bob could be on the way to movie stardom.

Like thousands of other readers, I was bowled over when I read A Street Cat Named Bob. James Bowen's book describes how he found an injured stray cat in the hallway of his block of flats back in 2007. He took the cat in, nursed him back to health and called him Bob.

James, a recovering drug addict and musician, started taking Bob busking with him and the duo soon became a familiar sight around the streets of Covent Garden and Islington. Then, two years ago, they were spotted by literary agent Mary Pachnos, who encouraged James to write Bob’s story.

The ensuing book, written by James and journalist Garry Jenkins, became an instant bestseller. It has already sold more than 250,000 copies around the world, been published in 18 languages and a US version of the tale is due out next year. James is also writing a children’s version, called Bob: No Ordinary Cat, which will be published in February.

And now a report in The Sunday Times says a film could be on the cards. Apparently  the Hollywood agent who brought Marley & Me to the big screen is in talks about turning Bob’s story into a film. Bob is already the most famous cat in London. He could soon be the most famous cat in the world. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

The BBC's Nick Robinson - and the perils of working from home

BBC political editor Nick Robinson is a brilliant reporter. He always looks cool, calm and unflustered – even when he’s got scary deadlines to meet and major political stories to cover. He’s also got that rare journalistic knack of making the most complicated issues clear and intelligible. He’s particularly good on Radio Four’s Today programme, where he often pops up to detangle the political complexities of the day.

Yesterday Robinson was featured on The Sunday Times Magazine’s long-running A Life in the Day page. It was fascinating stuff (he said most politicians are “decent people doing an honourable job,” declared he'll never do Strictly Come Dancing and revealed that when he’s working he lives on crisps and chocolate). There was also one recollection that will strike a chord with all parents who work from home.

Although Robinson is based at London’s Millbank, he explained that he sometimes does interviews from his basement office at home.

“Once, when the kids were small and my wife was away, I had an important radio interview to do – about the Northern Ireland peace process – and I told the kids they needed to be quiet,” he said.

“But the minute the interview began they started shouting that a door handle had fallen off and they were locked in a room.”

So what did he do?

“Like any man faced with a choice between family and career, I ploughed on with the interview…”  

And I’m sure the listeners had no idea about the drama going on around him. What a pro.   

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Uggie, the Artist: My Story - the perfect Christmas present

Paul O’Grady’s face was a picture when he saw the Jack Russell trot smartly into the studio. The wonderful O’Grady looked like he wanted to tuck the terrier under his jacket and smuggle him home.

The adorable little dog was Uggie, taking centre-stage on Graham Norton’s TV show to promote his newly-published memoirs. O'Grady was another of Norton's guests, along with Robbie Williams, Darcey Bussell and Felix Baumgarter.

Uggie, the Artist: My Story tells the tale of Uggie’s rise from abandoned puppy to Hollywood superstar. The book relates how he was discovered by his now owner and trainer Omar Von Muller and got his big break in the film Water for Elephants, starring alongside Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. Then came The Artist – and mega-stardom.

The book is selling like hot cakes right now and I’m thrilled because one of my closest friends helped Uggie to tell (I mean woof) his story.

Wendy Holden is a brilliant writer, whose 25 books include A Lotus Grows in the Mud, Goldie Hawn’s memoir, and Lady Blue Eyes, the autobiography of Frank Sinatra’s widow Barbara. She was so entranced by Uggie after seeing him in The Artist that she contacted Von Muller and suggested writing the book. The rest, as they say, is history.

As Wendy told USA Today: “There’s just something about Uggie. He was born to be a star. The fact he ended up being a dog is sort of by-the-by…”

So if you’re after a Christmas present for dog-loving friends, then Uggie, the Artist: My Story is just perfect. Look out for the Uggie the Artist app too.

PS. Going back to Paul O’Grady, he told chat show host Graham Norton that he loves dogs so much so that when he filmed For the Love of Dogs, his series about Battersea Dogs Home, he insisted on a ultra-strict clause being inserted in his contract.

“Under no circumstances was I allowed to go home with anything – two-legged, four-legged, three-legged, anything. I knew it would be fatal,” says O’Grady.

It didn’t work, of course. At the end of filming O’Grady broke his own self-imposed rule and ended up adopting a chihuahua/Jack Russell cross called Eddie…

Saturday, 3 November 2012

School reunions - heaven or hell?

“You must be mad,” said my husband when I told him I was going to a reunion at my old school. “I can’t think of anything worse.”

He had a point, of course. The idea of meeting up with pals from your youth more than a quarter of a century later is weird - but curiosity got the better of me. That, and a flurry of emails from friends saying they’d go if I did. One put it in a nutshell. "It's so not my sort of thing and I keep looking in the mirror and wondering if I can have some Botox or liposuction or just a designer brown paper bag to wear," she said. "But if I don't go to this one I probably never will, so it's now or never - and at least I don't need to bring a Zimmer frame yet."

My sentiments exactly, so I summoned up the courage and agreed to go. My husband refused point-blank to come with me. “I hated school so why on earth should I want to go to your school reunion?” he said crushingly.

As I trundled up the tree-lined drive in the rain I felt like a nervous 16-year-old arriving at the place for the first time.

I was worried I wouldn’t recognise anyone but actually, apart from a few grey hairs and the odd bald patch (only the men!), no one had changed much. It was a bit disconcerting to find that the new school head looked younger than the rest of us put together, and that loads of the tough-guy rugby players we all worshipped had turned into besotted dads, with toddlers trailing round their ankles. But apart from that, and despite my husband’s doubts, I’m glad I went.

Friday, 2 November 2012

2012 New York City Marathon cancelled

As New York battled to cope with the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was adamant that the city's marathon would still be going ahead on Sunday as planned.

The mayor said the event would give the Big Apple a chance “to show solidarity with one another,” while New York Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg declared that the marathon "really epitomises the spirit of New York City – the vitality, the tenacity, the determination of New Yorkers.”

It was fighting talk and reminded me of the 2001 New York marathon, which took place just seven weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

My husband ran that year in aid of Mencap and it was one of the most memorable, moving events of his life. On the Sunday morning, just before the race began, he was in the crowd when the then mayor, Rudy Guilliani, told the competitors: “Freedom is going to win.”

The band played God Bless America and the whole 26-mile route was lined with cheering spectators. Many of the runners were taking part in memory of loved ones who had died and my husband was moved to tears as he ran alongside competitors with photographs of friends and relations taped to their chests.

But tonight, with more than 69 people dead, the lower half of Manhattan still without power and many homes, schools and hospitals completely uninhabitable, the 2012 event was cancelled. It was a sad, but wise decision.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Parties - from Gloria Gaynor to electrofunk

I’ve never seen my best friend look quite so stunned. It was her birthday and instead of walking into Carluccio’s for a quiet dinner with her husband she was greeted instead by a noisy crowd of family and friends. “I had no idea,” she kept saying over and over again – completely staggered that we’d pitched up from all over the place to celebrate her big day.

For some reason I’ve been to lots of birthday parties recently. Some have been very posh – one was in a marquee, complete with speeches and a fancy menu – while my favourite was held at a working-men’s club in Lancashire, with hot pot and mash and a live band.

But right now I’m agonising over my daughter’s 21st and my son’s 18th.  They want to throw a joint bash but can’t decide on the venue, let alone the music (electrofunk or blues) or the guest list. But one thing I do know is that it will be very different to my own 21st, a very sedate affair in Dorset. My dad ordered a keg of beer, we played Gloria Gaynor nonstop on my mum’s old tape recorder and most of my friends slept under the stars.

The one thing I won’t be doing is consulting Pippa Middleton’s new book for party tips. The Duchess of Cambridge's younger sister has come in for a lot of stick following the publication of Celebrate, which she was paid £400,000 to write. I haven’t got a copy but I sneaked a look at Waterstone’s and while the photography (by David Loftus) is stunning, the words leave a lot to be desired. I don’t want to be mean, because Pippa sounds lovely, but they’re along the lines of “tea bags should go in a teapot, rather than individually in mugs” and “flowers are a traditional Valentine’s token and red roses are the classic symbol of romance.”

No wonder a spoof Twitter account called @Pippatips has attracted 9,000 followers. Recent @Pippatips tweets include “a good way to keep warm when heading out into the cold weather is to wear winter clothing like jumpers and coats and hats” and “save time by doing things more quickly.” Take a look – it’s hilarious.

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