It may be the world's greatest tennis tournament but I couldn’t care less about Andy Murray’s quest to snatch the men’s title or Rafael Nadal’s foot injury.
The two-week championships were ruined for me when I covered them as a news reporter. Instead of watching matches that kept me on the edge of my seat I regularly spent Wimbledon fortnight chasing news stories. The sillier they were, the better show you got in the paper. One year an American player called Anne White dominated the front pages of the tabloids for days. Not for her serving prowess or backhand skill, but because instead of wearing a modest white dress she wowed the crowds in a skin-tight white cat-suit. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club were not at all impressed.
When nothing much else was happening, the press pack would resort to old favourites like royal visitors, ticket touts, corporate hospitality (yawn), rain (this was before that swanky new sliding roof) and the price of a punnet of strawberries.
If three or more journalists requested a post-match interview with a player the tennis stars had to talk to us. They'd pitch up at an unprepossessing bunker beneath the Centre Court and while the hacks from the red tops quizzed the players about their sex-lives, the more serious-minded American press retaliated with questions about why they’d hit a volley at break point in the third set.
After four or five years of this I was so exasperated with the game that I pleaded for a change of scene and got switched to court reporting at the Old Bailey instead. I’ve never watched a single Wimbledon match from that day to this, and I don’t intend to in the future. The rest of the country may be glued to action on the Centre Court, but count me out.
Tuesday, 28 June 2011
Sunday, 26 June 2011
She’s forever complaining she’s broke, yet buys Prada, Bottega Veneta and most recently a top-of-the- range facelift. She splashes out on a rambling Victorian pile on Exmoor, complete with 46 acres, then gets fed up and puts it back on the market, saying: “It’s too big. I’ve got seven bedrooms and six bathrooms and about 400 animals.” She finds the men in her life exasperating, especially ex-husband Nirpal Dhaliwal, but is now canoodling with an ageing rock star. Incidentally, she refers to him as RS but he’s widely thought to be Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr.
As a result of her foibles (chronicled meticulously each week in You magazine) the 52-year-old writer comes in for more stick than virtually any journalist on the planet.
But even though she’s definitely high maintenance and at times slightly flaky, I’m a big fan. I’ve cut down massively on the Sunday papers over the years (just too much to wade through) but I turn to her page before anything else.
I occasionally get fed up with accounts of her huge menagerie of animals but even so, she writes so well and with such disarming frankness that her diary is a must-read. Apart from India Knight and Caitlin Moran, I can’t think of any other women columnists I can say that about these days.
PS: It was my birthday last week (coughs quickly when asked which one) and my lovely teenagers cooked an amazing family lunch. “I’d love Ottolenghi sort of food,” I told them beforehand, but never thought for a moment that they’d take me literally. My 16 year old son cooked chilled red pepper soup and my 19 year old daughter did roast chicken with saffron, hazelnuts and honey. Afterwards they turned to Nigella and made me these Happy Birthday cupcakes (above). They looked – and tasted – amazing.
Thursday, 23 June 2011
At least it was Thursday, so she had 7B, her favourite class, first lesson. Unlike some of the older children, the eleven and twelve year olds she took for English were a pleasure to teach. They still hung on her every word. And handed in their homework on time. In a year or two they’d no doubt be back-chatting, texting under the desk and mumbling “whatever” when she quizzed them about Romeo and Juliet. But right now they were lovely – all bright-eyed and eager to please. As opposed to classes 8D and 9E, who were – and she knew teachers weren’t supposed to say this – a complete and utter pain in the ass.
Jess barely noticed the stunning landscape as she walked. The hike across the fields to majestic Pendle Hill was usually enough to banish all her worries instantly but right now she was too deep in thought to appreciate its beauty.
These are the first three paragraphs of my new novel, which I'm halfway through writing. For the last few years the day job - freelance journalism - has taken precedence, but I'm determined to finish it by the end of the summer.
What really spurred me on was meeting novelist MG Harris - http://www.mgharris.net/ - in Oxford this week. She's the author of The Joshua Files - the hugely successful children's series about a boy searching for a lost Mayan codex. With their tightly-plotted storylines and distinctive covers, MG's books have sold all around the world. The first in the series, Invisible City, was the UK's fastest-selling children's fiction debut for 2008. As we chatted I told MG I'd had four novels published but hadn't finished my fifth. "Why not?" she asked. "You need to get on with it." So that's exactly what I'm doing. And if anyone's got any comments, I'd love to hear.
PS: The first chapter is set in one of my favourite places in the world - Pendle Hill, in the wilds of Lancashire. It looks gorgeous in summer (see above), but in winter it's windswept and desolate. For three years we lived in a farmhouse on the side of Pendle and were snowed in on a regular basis. There was no central hearing, a temperamental solid fuel stove that went out if we left it for more than a couple of hours and a biting north wind that whistled round the eaves all year round. And yes, I was happy as Larry.
Tuesday, 21 June 2011
When I was nineteen I didn’t have a clue about anything. But my daughter’s far more clued up. Even when she was at school she had a part-time job, passed her driving test first time and studied hard for exams (I didn’t manage any of those things). She can troubleshoot my computer problems in the blink of an eye, bakes the most stylish cupcakes (see above) and knows the coolest fashion bloggers on the planet. http://www.manrepeller.com/ and http://seaofshoes.typepad.com/ are her current must-reads, by the way.
I’m loath to give her any advice because she doesn’t need it. But what the hell, I’m an annoying mum, so I’m going to anyway.
So here are my top ten tips for university and beyond:
1. Be confident – in your looks and your abilities. You’re lucky – you’ve got both!
2. Seize the most exciting opportunities that present themselves. You don’t want to look back and regret the things you didn’t do.
3. Travel as much as you can while you’re still young (and don’t wait till you’re my age to go to New York.)
4. You’ll meet loads of exciting new people during your university years but be sure to stay in touch with your old friends too.
5. Don’t ever settle for second best – in your career or your love life.
6. Go to lots of parties – but get masses of sleep too.
7. Don’t drink too much (and definitely say no to the vodka teapots.)
8. Keep fit, take care of your health (skin, eyes, teeth, you name it) and buy the best moisturiser you can afford. When you’re as old as me you’ll be very glad you did.
9. Keep on being kind.
10. Be happy. Don’t roll your eyes but this is the most important rule of all. Happiness is a state of mind, I reckon, so if it doesn’t sound too Pollyanna-like, if you decide to be happy, you will be.
PS: It’s cheating a bit, I know, but there are two extra rules. Please ring your mum lots and come home as much as possible. I miss you!
PPS: If anyone’s got any more tips for teenagers, I’d love to hear them.
Saturday, 18 June 2011
So when I clocked that she was running a workshop on social media for writers at this year’s Witney Book Festival I hopped in the car and was round there like a shot.
I learned so much about blogging in the space of 90 minutes that I couldn’t wait to put Emily’s tips into action. The rest of the audience, who included an accountant keen to launch her own blog, authors, marketing consultants and journalists, were equally enthused. “I’m going straight home to get started,” one of them told me in the car park.
The key component of a cracking blog, says Emily, is “great content.” This could range from amusing anecdotes and “a day in the life” posts to reviews, interviews, vlogs, excerpts from a novel in progress, background research and hobbies. Your blog can be specialist, generalist or a mix of the two (or “having your cake and eating it,” as Emily describes it.) But, whatever you choose to write about, it must be a good read.
It’s absolutely crucial to post regular updates. Emily reckons bloggers should post two or three times a week – both to keep readers’ interest and to attract the attention of search engines. Blogs should be “short and snappy” (between 500 and 800 words is perfect), the design should make the blog “pleasant to read,” the text should be broken up by an image or two and posts should feature internal links to relevant previous items.
Other advice from Emily (which I’m following to the letter from now on) includes putting links to your most popular posts high up on your blog, tagging the themes you regularly write about (mine are books, France and teenagers) and resisting the temptation to choose wacky titles. As she wisely points out: “Use clear words. If you’re blogging about the best walks in the Cotswolds, then call it that. It’ll be far more likely to be picked up by search engines.”
When it comes to the conundrum of how to build up a readership, Emily says Twitter, Facebook and word of mouth are excellent ways to tell people what you’re doing. She reiterates, however, that 90 per cent of your tweets should be social and ten per cent “business.” Followers soon get fed up and drift away if all you ever do on Twitter is blow your own trumpet. Other tips are add a link to your blog in your email signature, mention it on your business card and consider joining specialist forums where people can click through to your blog.
If you’d like to find out more about the social media workshops Emily runs, go to http://www.allaboutemily.com/ She also writes a laugh-out-loud blog on parenting called http://www.morethanjustamother.com/ - or as she describes it: ”If you’ve ever put the children to bed early just so you can open the wine, this is for you.”
PS: I’ve just bought this fabulous poster (pictured above) from Pedlars. It’s called HAVE THE VERY BEST TIME and is part of a series of limited editions from final year Chelsea College of Art students. Mine's by Jowey Roden - http://www.joweyroden.com/ - and I love it!
Thursday, 16 June 2011
But the newly ennobled Dame Jenni Murray is definitely an interviewer at the top of her game. And last night (June 15) the Woman's Hour presenter gave a studio audience at Broadcasting House an insight into how she does it.
Interviewed by BBC news correspondent Nick Higham (no slouch in the interviewing stakes himself) she revealed that Margaret Thatcher and Catherine Deneuve were two of her most terrifying interviewees, that solid research beforehand is vital and that one of her strengths as an interviewer is, to put it bluntly, that she’s “nosey.” Along the way she said the first thing her husband David asked when he heard she was being made a Dame was “what does that make me?” and that she’d love to interview George Clooney. A night owl, she’s such a fan of ER that on Saturday nights she often watches three episodes back-to-back.
The Art of the Interview is a series of master-classes the BBC College of Journalism is running this year. Names like Libby Purves, Mark Lawson, Jane Garvey and Lyse Doucet have already taken part so watch out for their interviews (and Jenni Murray’s) on the BBC College of Journalism website - http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/
One of the wisest people I’ve talked to about interviewing is award-winning journalist Emma Brockes, a former staff writer for The Guardian who is now based in New York. A highly skilled writer who has interviewed everyone from Liza Minnelli to Madeleine Albright over the years, she spoke to me for a book called “Interviewing for Journalists.”
Rather than preparing a long list of questions, for instance, Emma concentrates on plotting a route through an interview. She works out “key turning points” in advance – moments in the interview where she aims to move “from the publicity guff that celebrities want me to talk to them about... to the juicy stuff.”
But what stuck in my mind long after the interview was her passion for the job. As she explained: “It is the most extraordinary privilege to parachute in, go straight to what you think is the most interesting part of someone’s life and be able to ask the most impertinent questions they may ever have been asked.” I reckon Jenni Murray would agree.
PS: Now the exams are over my son's back on his bike (see above) - and I'm terrified!