Showing posts with label NaBloPoMo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label NaBloPoMo. Show all posts

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

My treasured Catherine Walker dress

I spend most of my time in a uniform of Mint Velvet jeans, black jumper and my beloved Rocket Dog plimsolls. But right now I’m trying to work out what to wear to the first posh do I’ve been invited to in ages. I’ve got a stiff-backed invitation saying “Emma Lee-Potter and guest” and my husband and daughter are both so keen to be my “guest” they've tossed a coin to decide who it will be.

After all the agonising I’ll probably end up wearing my treasured Catherine Walker dress. It’s the most expensive outfit I’ve ever bought but considering I snapped it up in 1987 and still wear it, it’s definitely earned its keep.

Mornings were a tough call when I worked as a news reporter back in the 80s. We had to be in the office by seven, ready to get cracking on the biggest news stories of the day soon after. Those were the days when Princess Diana was constantly splashed across the tabloid front pages – dancing onstage with Wayne Sleep as a birthday surprise for Prince Charles and dressing up as a policewoman for Fergie’s hen night.

One of the princess’s favourite designers was Catherine Walker, who sadly died in 2010 after a long battle with breast cancer. The French-born couturier created some of her most exquisite outfits, including an amazing pearl and sequin-encrusted white silk evening gown and matching bolero jacket that Diana called her “Elvis dress.”

When she started her business Catherine Walker modestly called it The Chelsea Design Company.  She renamed it Catherine Walker & Co in 1994 but apparently she chose the original name because “in France you would be laughed at if you opened a shop and put your name on the door as a couturier, unless you had the obvious skill to back it up.”

Sitting on the top deck of the number 49 bus at dawn every morning as I travelled from Battersea to Fleet Street I used to gaze down at Catherine Walker’s simple, white-painted shop in Chelsea’s Sydney Street and marvel at her creations. I dreamed of buying one of her dresses - and one day I threw caution to the wind and actually did. I saved up my work expenses for weeks, keeping them in a battered brown envelope till I had enough. Then, clutching the envelope in my eager hand I went into the shop and bought a stunning navy dress, made of crepe and cut on the bias. The most embarrassing moment came when I had to pay. I opened up my battered envelope and handed the surprised shop assistant  £375 in grubby-looking notes.

Twenty years on, I don’t regret my rash purchase for a minute. The dress hasn’t dated at all and I still love it. And I take an awful lot of pleasure in the elegant Catherine Walker for The Chelsea Design Company label inside.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Could you give up Twitter or Facebook?

Blimey. I thought I’d set myself a tough challenge for the New Year by giving up alcohol for January (successfully so far, but we’re only halfway through!) and resolving to blog every day for a month. But one thing I've never contemplated is relinquishing Facebook and Twitter.

But that’s what writer Tom Cox has done. Well, he doesn’t exactly say he’s given up Twitter but he’s deactivated his Facebook account and says he’s doing just fine without it. Better still, he’s got cracking with his new book and no longer wakes in the middle of the night and reaches for his iPhone.

As he writes in today’s Guardian: “No matter how positive you feel about Facebook or Twitter and the ways in which they’ve enhanced your life, it is unlikely that anyone will ever lie on their deathbed and say ‘you know what? I’m really glad I spent all that time social networking!’”

Hmmm, he’s definitely got a point. The only trouble is that I could give up Facebook and LinkedIn without a backward glance or twinge of regret (I’ve never really got the hang of either), but Twitter? Now that would be hard.

Since I signed up to Twitter two years ago I’ve had a whale of a time. I’ve discovered fantastic press articles (this month’s Vanity Fair profile of Rebekah Brooks for one), gleaned brilliant tips on writing and blogging, got advice about renovating a house in France, got back in touch with old friends (hello Constance!) and made lots of new writer pals. Admittedly I’ve procrastinated for England (and France) over my work and probably wasted hours and hours of time, but so what, it’s all been good fun.

Perhaps the answer to the social networking conundrum is to go cold turkey on the accounts that you’re not bothered about and stick to the ones you enjoy. And perhaps I should be ultra-disciplined and leave Twitter alone between nine and five. Lots of writers tell me that they’re on Twitter chatting to people at the crack of dawn but by nine they switch off and get down to their manuscripts. Well, that’s what they claim anyway…

What do you think? Could you give up Twitter and Facebook? I’d love to know.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Working mums and latchkey kids - the debate goes on

My jaw drops with astonishment when I see pictures of high-profile women just a few days after they’ve had their babies. Svelte in designer outfits and killer heels, they look like they’ve come straight from the health spa rather than the maternity unit. When my daughter was born it took weeks for me to have the oomph to leave the house, let alone contemplate getting dressed up to the nines and going to the office. By the time she was six weeks old I was still grey-faced and jabbering through lack of sleep – barely able to put her complicated, fold-up pram together and walk to the shops in Camberwell for a loaf of bread.

Now Gaby Hinsliff, the former political editor of the Observer has ignited the working mothers debate with her insightful book, Half a Wife: The Working Family's Guide to Getting a Life Back. Should we race straight back to work in double-quick time after having children or stay at home to look after them? Or is there a third way? A halfway house, where as Gaby Hinsliff herself has found, you can have both? As she wrote in Grazia this week: "I'm lucky to have picked a career in writing, which turned out to be the little black dress of professions: a versatile standby that can be dressed up or down - Fleet Street or freelance, working from home or the office - to suit. But with a little corporate and political imagination, the same could be true of other careers too."

My theory is that women study what their mothers did and do the opposite. My grandmother worked long hours in a Lancashire wallpaper and paint shop. It was hard graft for not much money and my mother was frequently a latchkey kid, arriving back from school to an empty house. When my mum had children she didn’t want to give up her job so she asked her beloved aunt to move in and help look after us. 

My mother adored her career but she sometimes wished she’d been at home more. So when my children were born I attempted to have the best of both worlds by leaving my newspaper job and working from home as a freelance writer.

All good – except now my daughter is 20 and thinking about careers she’s horrified by the very thought of being self-employed.  After years of watching me, she hates the precariousness and solitude of freelancing and yearns to work in a busy office – with other people to spark ideas against, proper lunch breaks and (fingers crossed all round) a monthly salary cheque coming in...  

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Pret A Manger goes to Paris

The most memorable lunches I’ve ever eaten have been in France.

From a posh restaurant lunch in a medieval hilltop village near Cannes to a freshly baked baguette and some brie de meaux under the plane tree at the House With No Name, le déjeuner in France is special. It’s certainly not something to be gobbled at top speed in between phone calls at your desk. When my daughter started school at the école maternelle round the corner from our house in Orléans, classes stopped for an hour at noon and virtually every child went home for a proper lunch.

Most French people I know take time over lunch They wouldn’t dream of going to a sandwich shop or takeaway – which is why I was taken aback by the news that Pret A Manger has just opened its first branch in Paris. A cheery notice on the Pret website reads: “We've opened our very first shop in  La Défense, Paris... and we're 
really very excited! So, if you're planning a trip to Paris any time soon, do pop in and say bonjour! Our second shop on Marbeuf, Paris, opens in a few weeks (our builders are on a roll!)…”

I’m a big fan of Pret A Manger – the Pret sweet potato and lentil curry soup is sublime – but I’m not convinced the French are ready to give up their traditional long lunch break to eat sandwiches. And what they’ll think of the plastic cutlery, triangular bread and indeed the name Pret A Manger is another matter (strictly speaking Pret should be Prêt after all…)

But maybe there are enough time-pressed office workers and ex-pats to make the venture a success. When we lived in France I remember making special trips to buy Cheddar cheese at Marks & Spencer in Boulevard Haussmann every time I was in Paris. My husband got very irritated. “It’s absolute sacrilege to buy English cheese in France,” he said. But I still did.

PS: The old M&S in Boulevard Haussmann closed in 2001. But M&S recently opened a new store - on the Champs-Elysées, no less. 

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Iron Lady - a tough film to watch

The Iron Lady should come with a health warning. Yes, Meryl Streep gives the performance of a lifetime as Lady Thatcher (all other contenders for the Oscar might as well give up now) but if one of your loved ones has dementia it’s a very tough film to watch.

“That was a bit hard to cope with,” whispered my husband as he left the cinema at top speed. I looked at him more closely and saw he had tears in his eyes. My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s and Streep’s performance, such an acute portrayal of this horrible illness, was simply too painful a reminder. I’m not in the least surprised that Margaret Thatcher’s family turned down an invitation to see the film. 

That said, Streep is quite extraordinary in the film. Everything – her steely gaze, deep voice, mannerisms, walk, even the way she carries her handbag – are uncannily true to life. Watching scenes of her at the dispatch box in the House of Commons is like hurtling back 25 years in time.

Incidentally, the hero of the film is Denis Thatcher, brilliantly played by Jim Broadbent. In yesterday’s Financial Times, businessman David Tang called him “the greatest non-royal consort of our age” and that’s exactly how he comes across in the film. Convivial, loyal and ever supportive, Denis was clearly the rock that Lady T depended on throughout her career and beyond. A letter he sent to my mother after she requested a newspaper interview with him in the 1980s sticks in my mind. It was charming, ultra-polite and ended with a very firm response. “The answer,” he’d written, “is, of course, ‘no.’”

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Stella McCartney and the mysteries of make-up

The February issue of Vogue lands on the doormat with a huge thump and it’s a corker. It boasts a fascinating tribute to the painter Lucian Freud by friends and acquaintances and a report on what happened when 17 Vogue editors met in Tokyo. But the most enthralling piece of all is an interview with Stella McCartney, who comes across as engaging, family-minded and refreshingly down-to-earth.

One of the most endearing and surprising revelations (considering she’s one of our top fashion designers) is that she isn’t in the least bit interested in make-up. As interviewer Christa D’Souza observes: “To prove it, she brings out a tatty black vinyl make-up bag meagrely filled with a few stubby pencils – so old, she triumphantly points out, ‘you can’t even read who they’re by… My mum only ever used an eye pencil. I tell you, the older I get, the more I seem to be turning into her.’”

I always feel that along with gardening and crosswords, make-up is one of those things that I should have mastered by now. My make-up bag consists of five lipsticks (all virtually the same shade), none of which I use, some ancient Bobbi Brown eye shadow, a blunt Chantecaille eye pencil I’ve lost the sharpener for and some Eve Lom lip gloss, but I haven’t quite got the hang of any of it.

For three months, after a scary eye operation, I didn’t wear any eye make-up at all because I was too nervous to put anything near my eyelids. Admittedly, as I ventured out bare-faced, I didn’t feel quite myself. I was so self-conscious about my pale lids and unadorned lashes that I asked my daughter about 100 times a day “do I look mad?” “No more mad than usual,” she’d say briskly. “And can you PLEASE stop going on about it?”

Actually, I think my daughter has got applying make-up down to a fine art. Her two lovely flatmates are brilliant at it and when she goes out they do her face, blow-dry her hair and paint her nails. Wow. I wonder what they’d say to an extra flatmate?

Friday, 6 January 2012

Friday book review - Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

A whole year has whizzed by since I reviewed the six books on the 2011 Romantic Novel of the Year shortlist. But I vividly remember reading The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyes for the first time and predicting in a flash that it would win. Her heartrending tale of passion, adultery and lost love was “everything a romantic novel should be,” I wrote in my review, and sure enough a couple of weeks later it was declared the winner.

Jojo’s new book is out this week and she’s done it all over again. By the time I got to the last few pages of Me Before You, I had tears streaming down my face and very smudged mascara. Not a good look, especially if you’re sitting on the train.

While lots of writers stick to familiar territory in their novels, Jojo surprises her readers every time. In the past she’s written about everything from brides travelling to meet their husbands after the Second World War (The Ship of Brides) to a businessman planning a controversial development in a sleepy Australian town (Silver Bay).

Her latest is the story of Will Traynor, a hotshot city financier whose life is shattered in a road accident. Quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair, he can’t do anything for himself and doesn’t see any point in life. He’s miserable, sarcastic and quick to take his frustration out on everyone around him, especially when his mother hires the sunny-natured, crazily-dressed Louisa Clark as his new carer. But surprisingly, the pair gradually form an unlikely friendship – a friendship that changes both their lives.

In less skilful hands, this novel could have been downbeat and utterly unconvincing. Jojo herself admits that given the “controversial subject matter” she wasn’t sure she’d find a publisher (actually, she was wrong - publishers were so keen that a raft of different companies bid for it.)

But in fact it’s an uplifting, wonderful read – a believable love story that makes you laugh, cry and think about a person’s right to live or die.

Me Before You is going to be one of the most-talked about books of the next few months. It’s been chosen as one of Richard & Judy Spring 2012 Book Club reads and many are already predicting that it could be as big as David Nicholls’ One Day. I reckon they could be right.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Michael Joseph, £7.99)

Thursday, 5 January 2012

When children struggle with reading

“If you could effect one major policy change in the governing of your country, what would it be?” That was one of the questions the writer and academic Norman Geras asked me in a profile for his excellent Norm’s Blog a few months back. Every Friday he puts interviewees on the spot by asking them to answer a pithy list of questions, from their favourite novels to their most treasured possessions.

I thought for a moment and in a flash the answer to the policy change conundrum popped into my head. “I’d increase spending massively on one-to-one reading support for early years and primary school aged children who need it,” I said.

And I meant it. Reading is such a fundamental part of life – from the day you read your first Biff and Chip book by yourself to the moment you discover an amazing new author. I’ve got a stack of books on the go right now, from the new Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford to You Before Me by Jojo Moyes, which I’ll be reviewing on the blog tomorrow.

One of the bits of journalism that most sticks in my mind was a piece I wrote about the Every Child a Reader project a couple of years back. A programme for five and six year olds (year 1 at primary school) who were struggling with reading, it gave them one to one lessons for half an hour at school each day with highly trained reading recovery teachers.

It was a brilliant idea and had spectacular results. The children progressed leaps and bounds, their confidence and self-esteem blossomed and they made four times the normal rate of progress in reading. In fact most of them caught up with the other children in their class.

Sadly, the Every Child a Reader programme funding only ran for three years and came to an end in 2011. There are other initiatives around, like the Evening Standard's Get London Reading campaign, which is giving more than 1,000 schoolchildren who can’t read properly help from special mentors. But we definitely need many more projects like it.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Laura Marling, Saunton Sands and the last day of the holidays

It’s the last day of the holidays and everyone’s feeling grumpy. So grumpy that you could cut the air with a knife. My son’s revising polymers (I’m not sure what they even are) and my daughter’s trying to write an essay on nineteenth century French philosophy.

Our Cumbrian Christmas (above) seems another world away. Tomorrow my son will be back at school and my daughter will catch the Oxford Tube back to university. We always check the dates extra carefully after the debacle of a few years ago when I put my daughter on the school bus the day before term actually started. She was halfway to Oxford by the time she realised none of her friends had got on the bus. She’s never lived it down – her pal Holly was still teasing her about it on New Year’s Eve, seven years later.

I love the holidays. The atmosphere in the house is completely different. My Laura Marling tracks get switched off (“ugh,” says my horrified son) and Radio One blares constantly in the kitchen. My son cooks bacon sandwiches every couple of hours and my daughter sits in my study and chats to me. Neither of them emerge till 11 most mornings and they both stay up for hours after I’ve gone to bed.

Their school holidays are far more relaxed and free than the ones I remember. Me and my sister often spent Easter and summer breaks with our grandparents in the wilds of North Devon. It was a lovely place but it certainly wasn’t relaxed. Most days we’d buy picnics of Cornish pasties and Kunzel Cakes at Mr Moon’s old-fashioned grocery shop. We’d go for long windswept walks across Saunton Sands and try and steer clear of my grandmother’s two yappy Dachshund dogs, who were liable to take a bite out of our ankles when we weren’t looking. Every Saturday morning we walked into the pretty town of Braunton to spend our pocket money on Enid Blyton books, tiny bottles of Devon violets and Refresher sweets. How times have changed…

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Dangerous Book for Boys - everything a 21st century boy needs to know

The New Year has arrived with 85 mph winds lashing the country, driving rain and a clutch of ultra-depressing surveys.

Why are we so addicted to surveys? The papers are full of them – and the crazier they sound the more column inches they get.

Today’s batch is as eclectic as ever. So far I’ve clocked that only one in three of us bother with breakfast these days and more than 2.5 million of us will start a diet before nightfall. Oh, and if that’s not enough, another claims that two-thirds of UK drivers are so confused by basic road signs they simply copy the driver in front.

But the most annoying survey of all (apart from one saying that today is the gloomiest day of the year) reckons there’s a strong link between being involved in sport and popularity. Apparently the more teams and clubs your children play for the more friends they’ll have.

Hmmm. It sounds like yet another thing for parents to fret about. Rather than agonising about my children getting into sports teams I was far keener to see them reading books, playing with friends, riding bikes, building dens and going for long country walks.

When my son was little all he wanted to do was emulate the creators of his favourite book, The Dangerous Book for Boys. He had no interest whatsoever in becoming the next David Beckham but saw co-authors Conn and Hal Iggulden as super-heroes. He thought they covered pretty much everything a 21st century boy needed to know (well nearly), from racing a go-kart to making paper planes.

I became a fan of the book too after reading an interview with Conn – where he expressed his fears that parents have become so terrified of letting boys be boys that we’re in danger of creating “a generation of frightened men.” He spent his own childhood constructing catapults and spud guns and thought today’s generation should switch off their Xboxes and computers for a change and go and do something more adventurous. Interestingly, Labour MP Diane Abbott takes a smilar line in today's Evening Standard: "Carrying on with the chips and PlayStation 3 culture is not an option," she says.

My son loves his Xbox as much as the next boy but he's in total agreement with such sentiments. Rather than pleading to join the local football or tennis club, he threw himself into scary pursuits like mountain-boarding and biking – and has never looked back.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Children's self portraits for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee

It’s amazing to think that the Queen is celebrating 60 years on the throne. The year's celebrations will range from a Diamond Jubilee Pageant in the grounds of Windsor Castle in May to a magnificent flotilla of 1,000 boats sailing along the River Thames in June.

But I reckon one of the most imaginative and creative tributes of all is Face Britain. An initiative launched by the Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts, it's set to be the UK’s largest ever mass collaborative art project.

Open to children aged four to 16, Face Britain is challenging youngsters across the UK to create their own self portraits. The artwork - from photographs and paintings to 3D images and graphics - will then be combined to create a massive montage of the Queen and the result will be projected on to the front of Buckingham Palace in April.

As well as providing a spectacular snapshot of how the nation’s children see themselves it’s hoped that the portrait will set a new Guinness World Record for the artwork with the greatest number of individual contributing artists.

It all sounds huge fun and thousands of Face Britain registration packs have been sent to schools and youth clubs in the UK, with a letter about the project from former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo.

Best of all, Face Britain isn’t a competition so any child can take part, whatever their level of skill and whatever medium they use. Children must photograph their finished work and then upload it to the Face Britain website before March 31.

PS. At 17 my son’s too old to join in (shame) but the picture above is a self portrait he painted in his primary school days. I liked it so much that I kept it.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Year detox - giving up alcohol for January

Christmas is well and truly over in our house. The tree’s on its way out, we’ve posted our thank-you letters and there’s only one sorry-looking Christmas clementine left.

So it’s on with the New Year and as usual I’ve gone and made my annual resolution – a resolution no one believes I’m capable of keeping and which I’m regretting like mad already. Yes, I’m giving up alcohol for January.

My four weeks of abstinence date back to the heady days when I worked as a reporter in Fleet Street. The 25-strong news team started work at dawn and by the time we’d seen the final edition to bed everyone piled out to the pub over the road for a drink. When a major story broke, the news editor would simply ring the landlord and order everyone back to the office.

Unless it was January, that is. On January 1st every year, most of us turned stone-cold sober for four weeks and could be found sitting quietly at our desks, munching sandwiches and drinking the canteen’s disgusting coffee.

So this year I’m doing it again – and I know I’ll find it embarrassingly difficult. Instead of pouring a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio after work every night I’ll be opting for a litre of mineral water or my eighth cup of Earl Grey. Neither of them quite do the trick so if anyone has got any more appealing drinks to try I’d love some suggestions.

The most annoying thing is that apart from making me feel virtuous, my annual alcohol detox doesn’t make me feel better. My skin doesn’t glow, the pounds don’t fall off and worst of all, being tee-total is just, well, plain boring.

PS. “What’s your favourite David Bowie track?” It’s not the usual question you get asked in a shop – but that’s what an assistant in In Spitalfields, a shop in Old Spitalfields Market, said to me yesterday. “Er, Changes,” I said, amazed that I could even remember the title. “Why?” “We’ve decided to have a David Bowie day,” he said, “so I’m asking every customer what their favourite track is and then playing it.” What a great retail idea in these tough economic times. I stayed in the shop a good ten minutes longer than I would have otherwise and ended up buying a card and a chic wastepaper bin for my study.

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!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Advent calendars - and the last day of NaBloPoMo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Pippa Middleton's party book deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 28 November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 27 November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 26 November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 25 November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Wearing a uniform - for school, work and London 2012

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Image: London 2012
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