Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Choosing speed over style - my Rocket Dog plimsolls

“My wellies and I seldom part company, to the deep embarrassment of my daughter.” The moment I read these words in a delightful new blog called Charwood Farm (the tale of a family who’ve swapped life in London for a leaky caravan and a three-acre field in Devon), they struck a chord with me. Why? Because for the last six months I’ve worn the sparkly black Rocket Dog plimsolls I bought for £5 at TK Maxx virtually everyday.

After years of tottering about in high heels and wedges I’ve suddenly discovered the bliss of wearing flat shoes. I’d even go so far as to say they’ve transformed my life. I can whizz down the steps to the tube at Marylebone Station, instead of gingerly feeling my way at a snail’s pace, and I can keep up with my long-legged son when we walk into Oxford (well, I have to do an ungainly sort of half-run, half-walk, but it’s fine).

The only trouble is that after a lifetime of heels I worry that I’m choosing speed over style. My ultra-glam mother would have been horrified. She always wore sky-high heels to the office, although admittedly she drove her car in bare feet and never wore shoes when she walked round the garden in Dorset. “The soles of my feet are like cast iron,” she used to tell my children as they wandered round the wood picking up fir cones together. “Wow,” they said, taking her words completely literally.

Actually, I think my daughter has inherited the high heel gene. Even though she spends most of her time in biker boots and pumps, she’s got an impressive collection of teetering heels. When she got her first Saturday job in a shop she coolly blew the whole of her first month’s pay cheque on a pair of blue velvet Vivienne Westwood shoes with tiny gold crowns on the sides. She wore them devotedly till they fell to bits and even now reckons it was the best money she’s ever spent.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Victoria Derbyshire and Radio 5 Live's move up north

What is Victoria Derbyshire thinking of? After giving her boss a hard time on her BBC Radio 5 Live programme about not “properly moving” up north, it turns out that she has only broadcast 60 per cent of her shows from Salford since the station relocated there.

Most journalists would give their eye-teeth for a job like hers. Her two-hour show, a mix of news, comment and interviews, goes out every morning during the week and is every presenter’s dream.

And besides, the north west is one of the best places in the country to live and work. Not only is Manchester an exciting, vibrant city, but it’s got stunning countryside on the doorstep. If you want to live in the wilds you can drive an hour north, just beyond Clitheroe, and find the most beautiful, unspoilt landscape imaginable. If I could get a job in the north west I’d move there like a shot. Even the Queen is reputed to have said that if she could retire anywhere, it would be to the Trough of Bowland.

We lived there for three years when my son and daughter were little and it was blissful. I combined working as a freelance journalist with doing an MA in novel writing at Manchester University so I was back and forth down the M66 all the time. The schools were fantastic, we made loads of friends I’m still in touch with 15 years later (a big shout-out to Katie, Catherine and Jennie) and it was the best place to bring up children.

A year after moving there my husband got a job in France and commuted between Manchester and Paris for two years. Then, just as now, jobs were in short supply, so we just had to grit our teeth and get on with it. I reckon that’s what Victoria Derbyshire should do too…

Picture: Lancashire County Council

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.
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