Monday, 30 April 2012

A parents' guide to bringing up teenagers - by teenagers


What a brilliant idea. As parents scratch their heads in puzzlement about their teenagers, two 17 year old girls have written a new guide to help them navigate their way through the tricky teenage years.

Louise Bedwell and Megan Lovegrove (above), who are both sixth formers at Nonsuch High School for Girls in Cheam, spent six months researching their book. It’s called Teenagers Explained: A Manual for Parents by Teenagers and not only is it full of sage advice, but it tackles everything from social networking and mobile phones to friends, clothes and messy bedrooms. All the things that make parents tear their hair out, in fact. 

Above all, the two girls reckon that three things are crucial when it comes to understanding teenagers - communication, understanding and compromise.

“We wanted it to be a real ‘tell it like it is’ manual from teenagers’ perspective,” says Louise. “Teenagers can feel awkward and self-conscious and that can make it difficult for them to talk about sensitive issues so they end up bottling things up, which makes them stressed and moody.

“It can lead to those awful tense moments and stand-offs, usually followed by big emotional explosions which end up in blazing rows. Parents need to read the signs – there are times to talk and times not to. But teens also have to realise that their parents are usually only asking out of concern and in your best interest.”

So, if you’ve got a teenager in the house, here are some tips from Louise and Megan:
  1. Listen to us. Pay attention to what we say. Don’t ask questions about stuff we’ve just told you as it feels like you don’t care.
  2. Chat a lot. It doesn’t matter what it’s about.
  3. Bribery by means of food (brownies always go down well) is a good idea, from encouraging to talk with you or to reward them for doing schoolwork.
  4. Don’t patronise. Treat your teen as a fellow adult (when we deserve it).
  5. Support us emotionally, whether we need a big bear hug or someone to moan to.
  6. Don’t try and dictate our lives. Be there to guide us through.
  7. Don’t laugh at your teen, whether at their choice of clothes, the way they act or the fact that everything is one big drama. Try to see things from a teenage perspective.
  8. Pretending to be “down with the kids” is not funny, especially in public or in front of our friends!
  9. Don’t pressure your teen to bring their boy/girlfriend home (it will make us more likely not to).
  10. Lastly, cliché, but it will get better. Every nice, civilised person you know was once a moody teenager.
Teenagers Explained: A Manual for Parents by Teenagers by Louise Bedwell and Megan Lovegrove (White Ladder Press, £9.99)


Saturday, 28 April 2012

A round-up of writing tips from top authors

Over the past week, I’ve collected some brilliant tips on how to write from novelists at the top of their game.

Jill Mansell says she doesn’t write in chapters. She writes her novels first, then goes back and looks for natural breaks afterwards. Veronica Henry declares all writers get writer’s block at some point and if it happens to her, she goes for a walk along the beach or takes a nap. And Rachel Joyce says that if a brilliant idea strikes her when she’s driving she asks one of her children to write it down for her – she never simply assumes she’ll remember it.

If you’d like to read more of their tips, here are my three writing posts from this week – and good luck!


PS. My absolute favourite comes from a Robert McCrum piece in The Observer I stumbled across this morning. “Put a body on page 1,” is his advice.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Friday book review - Silver by Andrew Motion

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel to countless movies, we all know the Treasure Island story. There’s something timeless about the tale of Jim Hawkins, who sets sail across the world with the devious one-legged Long John Silver and a mutinous crew in search of buried treasure.

Stevenson intended to write a sequel but never did, so now Motion has taken up the challenge. His book starts in 1802, 40 years after the events of Treasure Island, and this time round it’s the story of Jim Hawkins’ son, confusingly also called Jim.

Young Jim’s mother died in childbirth and he lives with his father at an inn called the Hispaniola (after the ship that sailed to Treasure Island) in the Thames marshes. He spends his days roaming the estuaries, running errands and listening to his father’s memories of life on the high seas.

But one night, Jim spots a mysterious stranger beckoning to him from her rowing boat. The girl introduces herself as Natty, daughter of the infamous Long John Silver, and persuades him to go and meet her father. Long John Silver’s a bedridden wreck of a man now but even so, when he instructs the young pair to sail to Treasure Island and find the remaining treasure they jump to his command.

Jim steals his father’s original map and the duo set off across the Atlantic on a ship chartered by Long John Silver. But their voyage turns into a nightmare when they finally drop anchor and discover that Treasure Island is not as uninhabited as they expected.

Motion originally set out to write a children’s book but Silver is a novel that will appeal to readers of all ages. Beautifully written and genuinely exciting, it features noble seamen (including a sailor amusingly called Stevenson), murderous pirates and stories of love, heroism and mind-numbing cruelty.

Best of all, Motion’s novel stays true to Stevenson’s original. His descriptions of the Thames marshes and the bizarre island landscape are outstanding - as is his depiction of Jim’s realisation that he’s never going to be the same innocent boy again.

Silver by Andrew Motion (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Rachel Joyce in conversation about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is one of those special books that only comes along once in a while. Male or female, young or old, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t love it.

Rachel Joyce’s debut novel has inspired such devotion that on a drizzly Monday night (World Book Night, in fact) scores of us grabbed our umbrellas and dashed off to Abingdon Library in Oxfordshire to hear more about her writing.

Rachel was introduced by Alison Barrow, director of media relations at publishing house Transworld, who confided that during the course of her 25-year publishing career she has never experienced “such love for a book” from readers.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the touching, uplifting story of a man in his sixties who leaves home one morning to post a letter to Queenie Hennessy, a friend he hasn't seen for 20 years. She's dying, and on the spur of the moment he resolves to walk from one end of the country to the other to see her. He has no walking boots, no map, no compass and no mobile phone, but he’s adamant that he’s going to keep on walking till he gets there.

Rachel, a tiny figure with a mass of dark hair, started her career as an actress. Over the past 16 years she’s written more than 20 original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4 and, as she told us this week, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry began life as a radio play. She starting writing it for her father when he was dying of cancer - "but I'm not sure he knew." After it was broadcast she realised that there was a lot she hadn’t said in the play “that I wanted to say” and decided to turn the 7,000-word drama into a 100,000-word novel. Best of all, it meant she could write about what was going on in her characters’ heads, which she couldn’t do in a play.

It took her a year to write the book and she had no idea if anyone would ever read it. As she explained: “Just as Harold’s walk was a leap of blind faith, so writing the book was for me.” She'd throw herself into writing the moment her four children left for school each morning and was completely taken over by it. Sometimes, when she got ideas while she was driving, she’d ask her children to jot them down for her. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “It was like having knitting in my head. You know you won’t have any peace till it’s done. I felt I had to write a book with my heart in it – true to what I feel, true to what I see, true to what I love.”

Rachel is ultra-disciplined when she’s writing. She works in a shed (now painted “an aesthetically pleasing pale blue”) in the garden of her Gloucestershire home. “But sometimes I have to be at the kitchen table,” she said. “And I have sometimes been known to write at the cinema while my children are watching a film.”

From Harold Fry’s starting point in Devon to his Berwick-upon-Tweed destination, Rachel writes beautifully about the English countryside.  A Londoner by background, she moved out of the city when, pregnant with her third child, she suddenly found herself pushing a buggy across the South Circular to get to “a tiny green patch.” Now she and her husband live on a farm in a peaceful valley - she’d left her children at home that evening feeding four orphan lambs. “When I was writing the book I was writing about my feelings about the land and the sky,” she said. “I increasingly don’t want to be inside.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday, £12.99)

PS. A huge thank you to the lovely staff at Abingdon Library for saving me a ticket.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Veronica Henry on Discipline, Displacement and Dipsomania at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

It’s all very well having a stack of ideas, but how on earth do you carve out the time and space to get cracking with your book?

After hearing the brilliant Contemporary Women’s Fiction discussion at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival I blogged about yesterday, I hared down the street to hear novelist Veronica Henry’s talk on Discipline, Displacement and Dipsomania.

Veronica – known to everyone as Ronnie – is well-placed to talk about the day-to-day reality of writing for a living. She lives in north Devon with her husband and three sons and for the last 20 years has combined her hectic family life with a hugely successful career as a scriptwriter and novelist. Her latest book, Marriage and Other Games, is out in paperback and her new one, The Long Weekend, will be published in July.

First of all, she told us, “writing is a business and you have to treat it as a business. It’s not just about floating around with a pen and a notebook.”

But how do you go about combining “creativity and real life?” Well, for a start, said Ronnie, you need “head space” - the time and space to get on with your writing. That means no distractions – no mobile phone, no TV, no internet. She sometimes negotiates three days away in a rented cottage or hotel by herself so that she can write without any interruptions. “Your productivity shoots up,” she said. “I can write 10,000 to 15,000 words in three days.”

Personal space is vital too. Ronnie writes on the dining table in her open-plan house and uses a Mac PowerBook. She backs everything up on Dropbox and has an inspiration board where she pins pictures of what her characters look like, where they live, even their wallpaper, and “a smallish library” (dictionary, thesaurus, book of names, brochures, index cards).

She also reckons writers have to be ultra-disciplined about how they manage their days. She works office hours and has a target of when she is going to finish a book – “a mental meter about where I am aiming to be.”

Ronnie mentioned a few apps she finds useful. Pomodoro (Italian for tomato!) is a timer that sits in the corner of your computer screen. Apparently 25 minutes is the perfect time to complete a task so Pomodoro sets the timer for 25 minutes and at the end of it you can allow yourself a five-minute break.

And what about Twitter? Ronnie agreed that on the one hand it’s “an amazing tool for writers” and “just like having all your mates in the room with you,” but there’s no doubt it’s a massive distraction too. It was news to me but there are apps available (Freedom is one) to stop you sneaking on to Facebook and Twitter.

When it comes to writer’s block, Ronnie told us that “everyone gets it, and if they say they don’t, they are lying.” Her strategies to combat it include going for a walk on the beach or taking a power nap. “Don’t let it paralyse you,” she declared.

Finally she had a word of warning about writers’ clothes. She confessed to wearing “skanky leggings, my brother’s old rugby shirt and a pair of tights to tie up my fringe” while she works. But, she said, “try and dress up sometimes. Treat yourself as a real person and dress for success.” Dress for success - my new mantra. 

Monday, 23 April 2012

Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell, Veronica Henry and Fiona Walker at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

Hail, sunshine, a myriad of the nation’s top authors and some delicious cakes – the inaugural Chipping Norton Literary Festival had all these things, and much, much more.

Held in one of Oxfordshire’s prettiest towns, this was one of the best literary festivals I’ve been to. Fun, inspiring, friendly, and superbly organised by Emily Carlisle (who only had the idea for the event last August) and her team. 

I booked for two events, one on Contemporary Women’s Fiction and the other on Discipline, Displacement and Dipsomania (great title), so I’m going to write about them both this week.

The Contemporary Women’s Fiction panel kicked off bright and early on Saturday morning and featured four of our bestselling novelists – Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell, Veronica Henry and Fiona Walker. They know each other well and for a riveting hour the conversation, chaired by writer Jane Wenham-Jones, flowed. The quartet, who have written more than 70 books between them, covered everything from how many words a day they turn out to where and when they write.

Jane began the discussion by asking the secret of their “phenomenal success.” “I have no idea,” said Jill candidly. “I love spending time with my characters because I love them and I think the readers love them as well. After all, if you’re reading a book and you don’t care about the characters why would you carry on reading the book?” Katie said she wouldn’t want to write about unpleasant characters – “life is quite tough and our books are like time off from real life.” Veronica revealed she writes “from the heart” and about the life “I want to lead,” while Fiona declared that “if I don’t have that desperate urge to get back to my imaginery characters, then why would anyone else?”

Next it was on to the thorny question of how they all write. Katie likes to start writing before anyone else is up and about and before the phone starts ringing. She also pointed out the importance of “thinking time” and said 2,000 words a day is her “absolute maximum.” But conversely, Jill Mansell said she “couldn’t begin to write first thing.” Unlike the others, she writes all her books by hand in fountain pen and her daughter types up her manuscripts for her. She writes in bed or sitting on the sofa with the TV on and does 1,000 words a day.

The whole audience sat up in astonishment when Fiona said she sometimes manages 5,000 words a day. One day she even wrote 10,000 (wow!) The reason is that she works “in binges.” She writes very long books and sets herself three or four months a year to write her first draft. She avoids the radio and TV and doesn’t like any distractions, apart from her two small children, who peer through the glass door of her office and come dashing in to talk to her. 

Meanwhile Veronica works in her north Devon dining room, looking out across the sea. She writes 1,000 to 2,000 words a day – “1,000 is satisfactory, 2,000 is fantastic,” she said. “But writers can be working all the time. You can be thinking about your characters as you walk round Sainsbury’s.”
It was fascinating to hear how they all began their writing careers – a question that elicited four very different answers. After working in a hospital for 18 years, Jill Mansell picked up a magazine and read an interview with a woman whose life had been transformed by writing a string of bestselling novels. She tried her hand at writing a Mills & Boon novel – “but they kept saying there wasn’t enough romance and too much humour.” She astutely decided to carry on in that vein and has now written 23 novels.

Katie took eight years to get published (now look at her - she's written 19 bestsellers and Summer of Love recently won this year’s Contemporary Romantic Novel award). Veronica began her career at The Archers before becoming a scriptwriter for TV series like Heartbeat and Holby City. And Fiona wrote her first novel straight out of university. She moved back home to her parents’ house in Berkshire, worked part-time in a saddlery and, when she’d finished her book, sent it to five agents. The agent who snapped her up sold her novel in three days.

Last of all, Jane Wenham-Jones asked them for their top tips for wannabe novelists.

Veronica Henry – “Get on with it – it’s no good just keeping it in your head.”
Fiona Walker – “Finish it. There are so many half-finished novels languishing in drawers.”
Jill Mansell – “Use a timeline – it works brilliantly for me. And I don’t write in chapters. It’s far easier to write your story and then look for the natural breaks afterwards.”
Katie Fforde – “Read a lot – and persevere. If you want something enough you’ll achieve it.”

Sunday, 22 April 2012

It's London Marathon day

It’s the London Marathon today and crowds of brave runners are limbering up in the spring sunshine. In our house we all feel a bit sad not to be there. 

My husband’s competed in the race six times and the rest of us always pitch up to cheer him on from the sidelines. 

We start at Deptford, scoot across to Canary Wharf and then hop on the tube to watch him as he staggers to the finishing line in the Mall, usually (hopefully) in just under four hours. We shout ourselves hoarse for everyone – from the world’s elite athletes, running like gazelles and making 26 miles look like a piece of cake, to the thousands sweating it out at the back. While we scour the crowds looking for him, it’s fun to spot the runners dressed up as Tarzan or Elvis Presley or assorted fruit and vegetables.

It’s always such an inspiring day, with people running for a multitude of different reasons. Some run in memory of loved ones, others to achieve a lifetime’s goal. Virtually all of them do it to raise money for charity.

One year my husband ran the 26 miles in honour of my wonderful mum, so it was especially moving. He wore a T-shirt with her smiling face on the front and raised £7,500 for the NSPCC, her favourite charity, along the way. She would have been very proud.

But for the last couple of years he's sat it out, reckoning he hasn't done enough training to compete. So this morning he's set out on a seven-mile jog through Oxford with our teenage son. The trouble is, he looks a bit glum not to be waiting for the start at Blackheath. “I’m definitely doing it next year,” he says.

PS. Good to everyone running today!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Giant image of the Queen beamed across Buckingham Palace

The best-read blog I’ve ever written was about Face Britain, a stunning initiative that challenged children and teenagers across the UK to help create a giant image of the Queen.

Well, I thought I’d better bring the story up to date. On Thursday night, the artworks – more than 200,000 photographs, paintings, 3D images, graphic designs, you name it – were put together and beamed right across the front of Buckingham Palace. They formed two pictures of the Queen and covered the whole of the front façade. How cool is that?

If you want to see the image for yourself, you can see it tonight (Saturday, April 21), but if you can’t nip along to Buckingham Palace, here it is in its full glory.

Face Britain was launched by The Prince’s Foundation for Children & The Arts, an educational charity established by Prince Charles. The aim of the project was to celebrate the achievements of children and young people in the lead-up to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Oh, and in the process the organisers are hoping that the giant portrait will set a new world record for “the most artists working on the same art installation.”

Later on, the self portraits are going to be stored “in perpetuity for the nation” by the British Library. But as well as the children’s artwork, loads of well-known names (including Adele, Michael Morpurgo, Jamie Oliver and Fearne Cotton) have donated their own self portraits and these will be auctioned on eBay from May 3 in support of the work of The Prince’s Foundation for Children & The Arts.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Friday book review - The Parisian's Return by Julia Stagg

Ever since I first set eyes on the House With No Name, I’ve been addicted to reading books about France. Recently, as well as re-reading Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, I’ve whizzed through Je t’aime la Folie by Michael Wright and, of course, Karen Wheeler’s wonderful trilogy about hanging up her high heels and moving across the Channel.

And this week I’ve discovered another author who’s brilliant at bringing the intricacies of rural France to life. Julia Stagg lived in the mountainous Ariège-Pyrenees region for six years, where she ran a small auberge and “tried to convince the French that the British can cook.” Now based in the Yorkshire Dales, she’s written two novels about the inhabitants of a tiny French village – L’Auberge and The Parisian’s Return.

I’ve just read The Parisian’s Return and even though it’s set the opposite side of France to House With No Name country, it evokes the French way of life so vividly it made me want to hop on the Eurostar right away.

The character at the centre of Julia’s novel is Stephanie Morvan, a single mother who’s moved to the village of Fogas to make a new life for her and her daughter. She works at a local restaurant and dreams of launching her own organic gardening centre. But the whole community is thrown into turmoil when Fabian Servat, the tricky nephew of the couple who own the village grocery, returns from his hotshot job in Paris to take charge of the store. Worse still, Stephanie almost kills him twice in quick succession – once by braining him with a stale baguette and then by crashing into his bike on a lonely mountain road.

Charming, funny and authentic, the novel covers everything from inheritance law in France (complicated!) to wine (thanks to Julia I now know that if I ever come across a 1959 Bordeaux it’s worth a lot and I should sell it, not drink it). But the bits that resonated most were her wise words about the people who move to isolated villages in France to “get away from it all.” As she perceptively points out, the newcomers who make it work are the ones who keep their feet firmly on the ground, speak French and become friends with the locals.

“… those who eventually called this place home arrived with their eyes wide open and not a rose-tinted lens in sight,” she writes. “They appreciated the distinct seasons which made the mountains so beautiful to live in but sometimes so hard to live with. They understood the vagaries of the weather and the curses and blessings they bestowed. And they didn’t fight the pace of life, where there was no such thing as a quick hello, only a slow goodbye.”

The Parisian’s Return by Julia Stagg (Hodder, £7.99)

Thursday, 19 April 2012

London 2012 - and a day out in Greenwich


With London 2012 less than 100 days away now, there’s a real buzz in the capital. After the Orange Prize shortlist breakfast on Tuesday I hared across east London to spend the day with my student daughter in Greenwich. When we hopped off the Docklands Light Railway train the very first thing we spotted was the newly restored Cutty Sark, which reopens next week after a £50 million transformation. The 143-year-old tea clipper, due to be unveiled by the Queen on April 25, has been lifted 11 feet off the ground and looks utterly breathtaking.

Then we walked through the rain-soaked streets to the Old Naval College and suddenly stumbled on an extraordinary scene.  Piled up behind a giant stone elephant was a massive and incongruous mound of old wood, furniture and sundry rubbish. It looked like an art installation by an up and coming Brit Artist but it turned out that we were in the middle of a  film set. When I asked a grumpy man in a fluorescent jacket he told me they were filming a scene from Les Miserables the following day.

Next it was on to Greenwich Park, where even more preparations were taking place. Not for a film this time, but for the London 2012 equestrian events. An area of the park, right next to the elegant stone façade of the National Maritime Museum, is being transformed into the arena where the show jumping and dressage events will be staged. Talk about a showstopper of a location. You can see Canary Wharf to the north and the historic Royal Observatory to the south. But then again, the 200 Olympic riders will probably have other things to concentrate on than the stupendous views.

Like thousands of others I applied for countless tickets for London 2012 (I really wanted to take my bike mad son to a cycling event) and got precisely none. So up until this week I felt distinctly underwhelmed about the Olympics. But after spending the day in east London and seeing the amazing transformation taking place, I’ve changed my mind. It’s exciting all right…

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 shortlist announced at the London Book Fair


Two ultra-distinguished writers welcomed guests to the announcement of the 2012 Orange Prize shortlist at the London Book Fair yesterday morning. First up was Kate Mosse, author of the phenomenally successful Labyrinth and co-founder of the prize, who was wearing the grooviest black lace-up platform shoes I’ve seen in a long time. Then came Joanna Trollope, who’s written 17 bestselling novels and is this year’s chair of the Orange Prize judges, tall and elegant in a pink jacket and black jeans.

It was a rainy morning in Earl’s Court, with commuters queuing under dripping umbrellas to get into the book fair. But once we were inside the PEN literary café and sipping copious cups of coffee, the excitement about the shortlist was palpable.

Announcing this year’s shortlist, Trollope paid tribute to the judging panel of Lisa Appignanesi, Victoria Derbyshire, Natalie Haynes and Natasha Kaplinsky. She described the judging process as “very amicable” and noted the “incredible quality of submissions.” The Orange Prize celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing throughout the world, but she said that she would add another element this year – “distinction.”

“This is a shortlist of remarkable quality and variety,” she said. “It includes six distinctive voices and subjects, four nationalities and an age range of close on half a century. It is a privilege to present it. My only regret is that the rules of the prize don't permit a longer shortlist. However, I am confident that the fourteen novels we had to leave out will make their own well-deserved way.”

The six shortlisted books for the Orange Prize for Fiction, now in its 17th year, are:

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

This year’s shortlist includes both new and well-established authors, including debut novelist Madeline Miller (can she emulate last year’s winner, Téa Obreht, who won the prize with The Tiger’s Wife, her first novel) and previous winner Ann Patchett, who scooped the Orange Prize in 2002 with Bel Canto.

The award ceremony takes place in London on May 30, so to quote Trollope from yesterday: “Go forth and enjoy six perfectly astonishingly good books.” I’ve only read one of them so far, so I can’t wait to get cracking.

PS. If you have a flair for writing and dream of becoming a novelist, buy this week’s Grazia. The magazine has teamed up with the Orange Prize for Fiction to find a new star female writer. Rosamund Lupton, author of Sister and Afterwards, has written the opening paragraph of a new story called The Journey. All you have to do is complete the first chapter in 800 to 1,000 words…

Monday, 16 April 2012

Slippers - this season's most sought-after shoes. Really?


It was kind of inevitable. First the glossy magazines tried to convince us all that floral pyjamas are THE thing to wear this season (and not just when you’ve got out of bed too late to get dressed for the school run). Now the fashion editors are busy telling us that slippers are, as Hilary Rose wrote in Saturday's Times Magazine, “this season’s It shoe.”

Apparently the most sought-after slippers are by Charlotte Olympia (they come with an eye-watering £375 price tag), made of velvet and with a cat’s face sewn on the front. When I had a quick look online, they reminded me of a pair of slippers I wore as a child in the 1970s. But what do I know about cutting-edge fashion?

The article said that everyone from Alexa Chung (who’d look good in anything) to Beyoncé is wearing slippers out and about these days, but I can’t say I’ve spotted anyone in my neck of the woods in them yet.

But then again, they do look blissfully comfy – and effortless to walk in. I wonder if I should pop into the shoe shop up the road and buy a cheap pair there? So if you see me wearing slippers at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival next week, don’t assume I’ve completely lost the plot. You never know, we could all be wearing them soon.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Friday book review - The Bumper Book of London by Becky Jones & Clare Lewis


The biggest treat when I was little was a trip to London to stay with my mum’s great friend Sally. At the time Sally was editor of She magazine and lived in a top floor flat in Stafford Terrace, just off Kensington High Street.

In the evenings we listened to Daydream Believer by The Monkees (RIP Davy Jones) and learned a mad card game called Spit that we still play to this day.

But during the daytime Sally always had an action-packed itinerary planned. She encouraged me and my sister to run round the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens and race up the tube escalators at top speed (full of energy and pzazz, she didn’t believe in just standing there doing nothing). She took us to the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds and Kew Gardens, to cool shops like Biba and Mr Freedom and was furious if we ever said anything was boring. “It’s only boring if you make it boring,” she’d retort.

London is the most brilliant place for children, and if you’re looking for ideas about where to go, The Bumper Book of London is the perfect guide. Written by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis and subtitled “everything you need to know about London and more,” it’s stuffed full of history, folklore, funny street names, the modern skyline, London lingo, the best free and fun things to do, the best places to buy sweets, ice creams and toys, recipes, songs and much much more. I particularly liked the lists of children’s stories set in London – from Madeline in London by Ludwig Bemelmans to Mary Poppins by PL Travers and Beverly Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth. 

For children (and adults) who love random facts, there are plenty to chew over. Thanks to the book, my favourite new discoveries are that all black cabs have a turning circle of only eight metres because of the narrow roundabout at the entrance to the Savoy Hotel, that the sphinxes at the base of Cleopatra’s Needle are positioned the wrong way round and that the London 2012 Velodrome has been nicknamed the Pringle – because it’s the same shape as the crisp.

The Bumper Book of London by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis (Frances Lincoln, £9.99)

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Satchels, blazers and ties - what's the point of school uniform?

The fixation with school uniform is a mystery to me. Education secretary Michael Gove clearly believes blazers and ties are the key to success in schools while lots of commentators reckon uniform improves students’ behaviour, encourages loyalty and belonging and means pupils don’t compete to look cool. But as I’ve written in a previous blog, I don’t see why children can’t wear what they like – as long as it isn’t inappropriate, too revealing or covered in offensive slogans.

I vividly remember the dramatic moment when my daughter stopped wearing uniform and started wearing exactly what she wanted.

Just before her GCSEs, in a bid to mark the last school uniform day in style, she and her pals set about customising their outfits. Even Stella McCartney would have been impressed by their efforts.  Some girls accessorised their school clothes with fuchsia-coloured tights and towering platforms while others wore Ninja Turtle shells they’d constructed from cardboard.

My daughter made a typically bold decision. First she chopped up her navy school polo shirt, closely followed by the kick-pleat skirt she’d worn every day for five years. She then hit on the bright idea of sewing all the ripped-up bits of her uniform back together again and transforming them into a fetching halter-neck and hair-tie. With a final flourish, she painted shiny white stars all over her skirt and wore the whole outfit to her school’s traditional “muck-up” celebrations – the last uniform day before exams began.

When my son arrived home that night, he was far from impressed. He took one appalled look at his big sister and declared: “That’s the silliest school uniform I’ve ever seen...”

As I watched my daughter rip her school uniform to ribbons (it was falling to bits anyway), I couldn’t believe that 12 years had flown by since her first day at primary school. It seemed no time at all since she was excitedly setting out for her reception class in a grey pinafore, purple jumper and matching socks. At four, she was so proud of her old-fashioned leather satchel that she insisted on taking it everywhere she went – even on Saturdays and Sundays. It made a brief reappearance a couple of years ago when, thanks to Alexa Chung and Mulberry, satchels came back into fashion again. Now sadly, it’s been consigned to the depths of the cupboard once more.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Alexandra Shulman's debut novel - and how my 80s began

Alexandra Shulman, the brilliant Vogue editor-in-chief, has just written her first novel. Can We Still Be Friends is set in the 1980s and relates the lives and loves of three female friends. I’ve ordered the book from Amazon and can’t wait to see how her memories of the decade compare with mine.

Shulman gave readers a vivid snapshot of her 80s in a first person piece for The Times Magazine at the weekend. “My 80s began in the summer of 1980 when I was dumped by my boyfriend,” she said. “He chucked me the day I learnt my university degree – a 2.2 – so I began my 80s walking the streets of London in floods of tears.”

The image Shulman conjured up was so striking that I got to thinking about how my own 80s began. In the summer of 1980, I’d just graduated too – with a degree in history and politics that I’ve never used to this day.

I spent the long summer holiday driving through France in a bright green (and very temperamental) 2CV with my boyfriend of the time and arrived back in September to start training as a journalist.

I nervously drove the highly-strung 2CV from my parents’ house in Dorset to Plymouth, where the Mirror Group Newspapers training scheme was based, and booked into the YMCA for the first few nights. After teaming up with fellow trainees Fiona Millar and Jenny Craddock, we looked for somewhere more permanent to live together and ended up in a tiny ground-floor flat in a place called Mutley. Within a couple of months, though, Fiona moved to the Tavistock Times with Alastair Campbell, while Jenny and I were dispatched to the Mid-Devon Advertiser in Newton Abbot. We moved to a house in the wilds of Dartmoor, where it rained so much I had to start the 2CV with a liberal dosing of WD40 every morning to stand the faintest chance of getting to work.

My starting salary was the princely sum of £3,300 and mostly went on rent, petrol, the pub and trips to London to catch up with university friends who I thought were leading more glamorous lives. My favourite clothes came from French Connection, In-Wear and a shop in York called Sarah Coggles. I whiled away lots of evenings playing Elvis Costello, The Pretenders and Carly Simon on my (oh dear) record player. It wasn’t quite a wind-up gramophone, but not far off…

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I love France - but I can't actually speak French

I had an inspiring French teacher at school called Miss Burgess. She drilled me so well that more than 30 years later I can still remember the words for an armchair (un fauteuil) and a spoon (une cuillère).

The problem is that even though my brain is stuffed full of Miss Burgess’s vocabulary and I can read French pretty well, I can’t actually speak the language. When I’m in France I understand the gist of what everyone’s saying but by the time I’ve worked out how to reply, it’s five minutes too late and the conversation has moved on. I’m far too hung up on getting my verb endings right when I should be gabbling away regardless.

One of my most embarrassing moments came when the painter arrived to decorate. The moment I shook his hand my mind went completely blank and I couldn’t think of any French words at all. It took a few second before something popped into my head. “Au revoir,” I spluttered. Oh dear. It didn't go down well.

I reckon the best way to learn French is to concentrate on speaking it from the word go. I’ve just received a copy of a brilliant new book for children called My First 100 French Words and wish it had been around when I was little. Written by Catherine Bruzzone and Louise Millar and illustrated by Clare Beaton, it lists 100 basic words – from numbers and colours to toys and transport – and gives a simple pronunciation guide for each one.  It’s a fun way to introduce young children to speaking a new language – and great for grown-ups too in fact!

My First 100 French Words by Catherine Bruzzone and Louise Millar (b small publishing, £5.99)

Monday, 9 April 2012

Bettys - the top tea place in the land

When my children were younger we always spent Easter in the Lake District – an idyllic place for fresh air, bracing walks round Derwentwater and Easter egg hunts overlooking the Newlands Valley. The last Easter we spent there, two years ago, was just a few months after the terrible Lake District floods, when towns and villages were cut off from the outside world and the whole area was turned into a mud swamp. But spring seemed to mark the start of a new beginning. The sun came out, the daffodils danced in the breeze and even the sheep looked like they had a spring in their step.
One day we’ll go back, but these days Easter revolves around revision for the dreaded impending exams. My son’s up to his eyes in chemistry papers, while my daughter’s pouring over endless books about the history of American capitalism. Eeek!

But the one thing that hasn’t changed about Easter is Bettys. My in-laws live in north Yorkshire and when my husband whizzed up to see them on Good Friday he popped into Bettys in Northallerton to buy three of their amazing Easter eggs.

If you’ve never been to Bettys Café Tea Rooms you’re missing a treat. There are only six branches– one in Ilkley, one in Northallerton and two each in Harrogate and York – plus a very good mail order service. Despite countless pleas from customers, the company hasn’t opened any outside Yorkshire. Their elegant cafés, staffed by smiley waitresses in starched white pinnies, serve everything from Bettys famous Fat Rascals (a sort of giant scone with cherries and almonds) to lunch and afternoon tea. But their Easter eggs are works of art. Made from the best quality chocolate and hand decorated with delicate spring flowers or chocolate buttons, they are so stunning that I haven’t dared eat any of mine yet. I won’t hold out for much longer though!

PS. I was thrilled to see that Bettys in Northallerton has just been named the best place in Britain to have afternoon tea. The Top Tea Place accolade was given by The Tea Guild, which has been running the awards for nearly 30 years. As Irene Gorman, head of The Tea Guild, said: “The attention to detail, quality of food, lovingly prepared by their team who strive to ensure, where possible, that all food is sourced locally, and whose excellent knowledge and service of teas served, is second to none.”

The award is SO deserved. For three years we lived in a tiny village just four miles outside Northallerton and every Monday afternoon, after I’d collected my children from school, we’d drive to Bettys for tea. My son always had a tea cake, my daughter a pink fondant fancy, and we’d drink lashings of Earl Grey tea. It was perfect in every way. WELL DONE BETTYS!

Friday, 6 April 2012

Friday book review - Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

Snow, gridlocked traffic, hosepipe bans – the lead-up to Easter hasn’t exactly been cheery this year. In lots of ways I’m quite pleased to be hunkering down at home for the weekend with (hopefully) a stash of chocolate eggs and a pile of good books.

If you’re doing the same in your neck of the woods and are looking for a great read, I can’t recommend Alys, Always highly enough. I’d been interested in Harriet Lane as a writer for a while, ever since I read a moving Daily Telegraph piece about her sight problems. A former staff writer for Tatler and The Observer, she suffers from a rare auto-immune disorder affecting her optic nerve and has lost the sight in one eye.

After losing the journalistic career she loved, Lane decided to turn to novel writing and joined a creative writing class. It was a wise move. In May 2010, the germ of an idea for her debut novel appeared in her head and she began writing. Five months later she’d found a publisher.

Alys, Always is the story of Frances, a lonely, 30-something sub editor on a paper called The Questioner. At work, the literary editor and her bumptious 23-year-old deputy treat her like a skivvy, and at home she leads a colourless, solitary existence where nothing much ever happens.

But one winter evening, as she heads back to London after a visit to her parents, she spots an illuminated shape through the trees. A car has crashed off the road and inside the crumpled wreck a woman is dying. Weeks later, the woman’s family contacts Frances “to meet the person who was there” and she is drawn into their brittle, privileged world - with life-changing consequences.

Alys, Always is a subtle, beautifully observed and exquisitely written novel – the sort of book you read in one beguiling go. I can’t wait for Lane’s next.

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane (Orion, £12.99)

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Dear Virginia Ironside - Hell is NOT a room full of other women

It’s been a bad week for women, I reckon. First we had Samantha Brick wailing how other women hate her because she’s so beautiful and today the usually astute agony aunt Virginia Ironside has written a piece in the Daily Mail titled “Hell on earth is a room full of other women!”

Ironside claims: “I have dozens of female friends and I’m deeply fond of them all. But if you put a load of women together, a toxic chemical change seems to occur – one that turns them into bitchy, gossiping harpies, and produces an explosive reaction to me. And I’m not the only person to feel this way.”

Well, I’m sorry, I don’t know ANY women who feel this way. I’ve worked in loads of offices where women have been in the majority and have encountered nothing but professionalism, support, friendship and fun.

Ironside mentions that she used to work at Woman magazine, where she says, she found “how bitchy and cruel women can be when they’re in a group – women, who on their own, are perfectly nice and friendly.”

Funnily enough, at the time Ironside was writing for Woman, I worked as a feature writer for the opposition, Woman’s Own. The two weekly magazines were in the same South Bank tower block, two floors apart, and I’m sure the offices were pretty similar. The Woman’s Own features department consisted of one man and around ten women, and I can’t remember any bitchiness at all. Deadlines were tight and the pressure to get the best interviews intense, but we worked hard and had fun. I made lifelong friends there – in fact if my best pals Lesley and Daff phoned right now and suggested lunch I’d drop everything and go like a shot.

I’m a freelance writer now and mostly work from home so I wondered if I’m perhaps out of touch. But over the last five years I’ve worked closely with an international PR company, writing newsletters about apprenticeships, skills and training. All my colleagues there are high-flying women in their 20s and 30s and I’ve found exactly the same environment of hard work, courtesy and respect.  No back-biting whatsoever.

And then there’s the fabulous (mainly female) Romantic Novelists’ Association. From providing advice and support to up and coming authors to throwing ultra-glam parties to celebrate the achievements of their top names, the RNA proves once and for all that hell is NOT a room full of other women…

Teenagers, cars and insurance

When my teenage daughter celebrated her 17th birthday I rashly promised that I’d buy her a car once she’d passed her driving test. We lived 20 miles from her school at the time, a journey that took more than an hour as the number 59 bus wove its way through the pretty villages of north Oxfordshire. Not surprisingly, she couldn’t wait to ditch her bus pass and drive her own car.

It took her nearly a year to do it but she passed her test first time (thank you to BSM’s wonderful Tracey). So despite my misgivings I threw caution to the wind and bought her a second-hand Renault Clio. That’s when, like many other parents, I discovered how expensive it is to insure a car for a teenager. So when the Sainsbury’s Bank Family Bloggers Network asked if I’d like to run a guest post on car insurance for teenagers on House With My Name, it seemed like a pretty good idea. Here it is:

Will you be paying for your teenager’s car insurance?

Most teenagers can’t wait to pass their driving test and discover ultimate freedom with their first car. Before you know it, a savings account will be empty and a new motor will be parked outside, waiting to be driven by an ecstatic teenager. Only trouble is, it could cost them thousands of pounds to insure. 

Cue an intervention from loving parents, who are only too happy to help out. Is there any harm in lending a helping hand? Well, that’s the question. So to avoid any major headaches, it’s important to be aware of the pros and cons.



Risk



First things first – if the new driver is to have their own car, it will be worth their while choosing one with a small engine. Anything sporty or with modifications will add to an already large insurance bill. 
Some insurance companies won’t even insure 17 to 20-year-olds, even with a small car. This is mainly due to the high risk posed by younger drivers, especially 17 to 19-year-old males, whose average claim according to 2010 figures is £3,433 – almost three times more than a male over 50. 

Now, that’s not to say all teenagers are dangerous drivers, but it explains why insurance providers are wary.


‘Fronting’ the policy



Many parents choose the option of adding their teenager as a named second driver on their own policy, and this can be a good way of saving money. However, deliberately ‘fronting’ a policy for a teenager when they are in fact the main driver of the vehicle is considered fraudulent. If the young driver was to have an accident, the insurance company could refuse to pay out, and might even prosecute. 



Insurance providers have methods of discovering who the main driver of a vehicle is – they might examine the contents of the car or trace who’s been paying for the fuel bills. So if you’re going to name anybody on your own policy, make sure they remain the second driver – and that they drive safely, of course.



Protect your no claim discount



So adding a teenager to your own car insurance can save you money, but there are also disadvantages. For example, they might not be able to build up their own no claim discount this way, and that could be important in reducing their insurance bills in the future. So consider choosing a policy that offers a no claim discount to second drivers, as well as the main policy-holder.

Another disadvantage is that your own insurance premium could increase with a young driver added, plus you may risk losing your own no claim discount if the second driver has an accident.

Every teenager is different

As a parent, you’ll know your teenager the best and make your decisions accordingly. Some might feel it best to delay the age their offspring starts their driving lessons, until they’re older and in a better position to pay their own way – and their insurance bills might be cheaper by then too!

Some parents might consider lending their teenager a percentage of the insurance premium, on the condition they’re prepared to earn the remainder. This option allows them to appreciate the responsibilities of being an adult – surely an important lesson.

Whatever option you choose, it's essential that you and your family pick a car insurance policy that meets your needs.

Guest blog written by Jules Anthony. 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A winter let in Sandbanks

Sandbanks in Dorset is famous for its eye-wateringly high house prices. A narrow peninsula jutting into Poole Harbour, it boasts golden sands, vast mansions, stunning views across Poole Bay to the Purbeck Hills and a plethora of luxury yachts sailing by. A chain ferry clanks across the harbour mouth to Studland all day long, so within a few minutes you can be strolling along glorious Shell Bay, one of the loveliest beaches in the country. 

Houses at Sandbanks don’t come up for sale very often but there’s bound to be loads of interest in the latest, a five-bedroom beauty that’s right on the beach and has been in the same family for 44 years. The only downside is that it costs £5 million.

If I owned a house at Sandbanks (if only) I’d never move. My family lived there for six months when I was 11 and it was completely glorious. Our garden backed straight on to the beach and me and my sister spent hours building sandcastles on the shore, skimming stones and leaping into the waves. We could see the sea from our bedroom and watch dinghies tack back and forth as we did our homework.

Our house was a very ordinary-looking white-washed bungalow called Flintshore. We rented it over the winter, when the beach was deserted and rents were low. Sadly, when Easter came and the summer rental season burst forth, our short, blissful sojourn at Flintshore was over.

Funnily enough, Flintshore hit the headlines a few years back when it went on the market for a cool £4 million. With a location like that, I’m sure some billionaire or other snapped it up in a trice.


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