Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year from House With No Name

Forget wild parties and tuneless renditions of Auld Lang Syne at three a.m. My idea of the perfect New Year’s Eve is strolling round the corner to share a glass or two of ice-cold champagne with friends and being home by one in the morning.

Not surprisingly, my 20 year old daughter isn’t at all impressed by plans like these, so she’s decamping to London. And even though my 17 year old son used to be happy with a Pepsi Max, chocolate fondue and Jools Holland on the telly, these days he’d far rather spend the evening with his pals.

My mum wasn’t a big fan of New Year either. Once we’d all grown up and left home she preferred to sit on her London terrace and enjoy the dazzling array of fireworks exploding across the clear night sky. She was completely appalled one year when out of the blue her very well-meaning temporary PA knocked on the front door to keep her company and stayed till dawn.

On that note, I hope you have a cracking New Year’s Eve and brilliant 2012. See you next year...

Friday, 30 December 2011

From Noddy to Coram Boy - taking children to the theatre

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a trip to the theatre. My mum always took us to the panto in Bournemouth and I’ve carried on the tradition with my two children. Over the years we’ve seen everything from the RSC’s The Secret Garden (fantastic) to Matthew Kelly in Peter Pan (not so fantastic.)

I first took my daughter to a show when she was two. We were living in a remote, windswept farmhouse in Lancashire at the time and I decided that Noddy, which was on at the Coliseum Theatre in Oldham, would be the perfect introduction to the magic of theatre.

Full of excitement, we took our seats in the stalls, the lights went down and Big Ears stomped onto the stage. “Hello children,” he roared at the top of his voice. My daughter was so overcome she burst into tears. After a few minutes of inconsolable wailing, I gave up trying to convince her that Big Ears wasn't scary and we hurried out.

But these days my daughter is one of the keenest theatre-goers around. So much so that her Christmas present to her dad is a trip to see The Ladykillers at the Gielgud Theatre, while she’s taking me to the new production of She Stoops to Conquer at the National.

Yesterday the Christmas theatre expedition was on me though when we drove to Bristol to see Coram Boy at the Colston Hall. The play’s based on the prizewinning novel (above) by Jamila Gavin and we were so bowled over by it when we saw it in London a few years back that we were keen to see Bristol Old Vic’s revival. I know infanticide in 18th Century England doesn’t sound like the most festive theme in the world but the show is a fantastic spectacle.

Sure enough, the Bristol Old Vic did it proud. By the time we emerged from the theatre three hours later we felt like we’d been whirled through an emotional wringer. We’d witnessed heart-stopping moments of cruelty and wickedness and uplifting scenes offering hope and redemption – all set against the exquisite backdrop of a massive choir singing Handel’s Messiah.

The one thing that puzzled me, though, was the number of tiny children in the audience. The theatre advises that the play isn’t suitable for the under-12s but there were loads of far younger children at yesterday’s matinee. How on earth parents explained the dark themes (often graphically portrayed) of dead babies, hanging, the slave trade and much more is beyond me. I couldn’t even reassure my tiny daughter about Noddy.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Adele and Lulu and the Lampshades at top volume

Two soundtracks dominated our Cumbrian Christmas.

The first was a stunning compilation of tracks my son thought I’d like (including several by Lulu and the Lampshades – how could you not love a band with a name like that?)

The second was a DVD of Adele live in concert at the Royal Albert Hall. My father gave it to me and it played in a loop for four days on the trot. Luckily we were in the wilds of the Lake District so there weren’t any neighbours to complain, just a few hundred sheep along the valley.
As always, Adele’s performance was sensational. This year’s biggest selling artist, she’s currently recovering from throat surgery and like all her fans I’m crossing my fingers that she gets better as soon as possible.

In between numbers like Set Fire to the Rain (my favourite) and the haunting Someone Like You she sipped warm honey and chatted to the audience about love, heartache and her “ex.”

But the most moving part came when she waved to her best friend Laura in the audience and explained that My Same, a song from her debut album, was dedicated to her pal. As Laura wiped tears from her eyes, Adele recalled how they’d made up after a falling-out. “I called Laura pretty much in tears,” she said, “telling her that I wanted her to be back in my life and that I needed her.”

The 100-minute concert (recorded back in September) was a triumph from start to finish - from Adele’s soulful voice and heartrending lyrics to her inimitable cackle and good-natured banter with her band. I loved it so much I'm going to play it again right now.

PS. Can someone tell me why the jokes in Christmas crackers are so dire? This year’s batch were worse than ever. The only one to raise a faint smile in our house was “what is an underground train full of professors called?” Answer. “A tube of Smarties.” Boom boom!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christmas in the Lake District

As we ground to a halt on the motorway for the umpteenth time I began to wonder whether our Christmas trip to the Lake District was worth it. The journey should take four hours but in 20 years of visiting the place we’ve never managed it in less than six. We usually arrive in a filthy temper at midnight and swear we’ll never do it again.

This was the first Christmas we’d ever spent at my in-laws’ holiday let in the Newlands Valley so it was a bit of an experiment. On the plus side the farmhouse has been done up in the last couple of years and boasts lovely White Company linen, an Aga and a massive roll-top bath with stunning views over the valley (have you ever seen such a great outlook from a bath? No, me neither.) On the minus side, the weather is often dire, with grey skies and sideways rain, and there’s no WiFi.
But we had four blissful days. I panicked slightly the first morning when I realised I’d forgotten to pack my children’s treasured Christmas stockings. I know they’re 20 and 17 but they still hang stockings up on Christmas Eve. I rushed into Keswick to look for replacements but couldn’t find anything. Then the lovely Emma at Temporary Measure in Main Street suggested using two of her printed canvas bags instead. What a brilliant idea – far more chic than stockings.

The highpoint came after lunch on Christmas Day when we set off on my favourite Mrs Tiggy-Winkle walk. As we meandered along the foot of Catbells and Maiden Moor we barely saw anyone, apart from a few hardy Herdwick sheep.

It’s a route that Beatrix Potter knew like the back of her hand. Although she lived further south, at Hill Top Farm in the village of Sawrey, she often stayed at Lingholm, a massive pile on the shores of Derwentwater. She was walking along the Newlands Valley when she met Lucie Carr, the local vicar’s daughter, and later wrote The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle for the little girl, complete with sweet drawings of Skelgill Farm and the isolated village of Little Town.

Despite the howling wind (so strong that it lifted me off the ground), the walk was as lovely as ever. As dusk fell, all we could see across the valley was the soaring peak of Causey Pike and the twinkling lights of Little Town in the distance. Mind you, we got our come-uppance for setting off so late when we staggered back up the hill in the dark, the night-time silence punctured by shrieks (mostly mine) as several of us went splat in the mud. But it didn’t matter a jot. A few minutes later we were back by the log fire, with festive glasses of champagne in our hands and a toast to Christmas 2011.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Happy Christmas from House With No Name

The tree is up (at an unintentionally jaunty angle), the Sainsbury's shop is done and the Military Wives Christmas song is playing full-blast.

There’s sure to be something I’ve forgotten to do but by Christmas Eve it’s too late to worry about anything – so at this stage all I can do is to thank you for reading House With No Name in 2011 and wish everyone a very happy Christmas.

Love from Emma xx

Friday, 23 December 2011

Friday book review - Four last-minute book suggestions


With two days to go till Christmas Day I’m still rushing around buying food, looking for stuffing recipes and trying to remember where I hid half the presents. So if you're like me and need a few last-minute Christmas treats, I've come up with four great books that might just do the trick.

For thriller fans
Fans of legal thriller supremo John Grisham will love The Litigators (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99), a courtroom drama about three Chicago lawyers who team up to take on one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the US. The unlikely trio – a street cop turned lawyer, a hustler with a drink problem, four ex-wives and a penchant for chasing ambulances and a smart Harvard graduate who’s just quit his high-flying law firm – show Grisham at the height of his powers. A riveting and at times very comic read.

For romance readers
I reckon The Language of Flowers (Macmillan, £12.99) is one of the most charming and original books of the year. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s first novel tells the bitter-sweet story of Victoria Jones, who after years of being in foster care, strikes out on her own in San Francisco on her 18th birthday. Broke, friendless and homeless, her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings - honeysuckle is a sign of devotion, for instance, while snowdrops represent consolation and hope. But Victoria’s life changes when a florist offers her a job and she meets a mysterious flower vendor who could unlock the secrets of her troubled past.

For crime addicts
Equally absorbing is The House of Silk (Orion, £18.99) by Anthony Horowitz. I’ve long been a fan of Horowitz’s Alex Rider stories for younger readers, but this new Sherlock Holmes mystery shows he can write for any age group. Endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, it relates the events of a “missing” Sherlock Holmes case. As the iconic detective and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson investigate the death of a teenage street urchin, they’re determined to find out why the boy had a white ribbon tied round his wrist and the significance of the mysterious House of Silk. In his acknowledgements Horowitz says writing the book was a “joy” and hopes he’s done justice to Conan Doyle’s creation. He certainly has.

For aesthetes
With its striking black and white cover, black-edged pages and end papers covered in magicians’ hats, The Night Circus (Harvill Secker, £12.99) is one of the best-looking books of the year. US writer Erin Morgenstern’s novel is by no means flawless but her story of two young 19th century magicians forced to pit their skills against each other is enchanting nonetheless. The descriptions of the mysterious night circus, which opens at nightfall and closes at dawn, are so vivid that you can almost see the twirling acrobats and smell the popcorn, caramel and bonfire smoke.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The gut instinct that made me buy the House With No Name

A new report says it’s far better to make decisions on gut instinct than dawdle too much and agonise over what to do.

The research, reported in the Daily Telegraph, issues stark warnings claiming that people who think too much before coming to a decision risk damaging their love lives, careers and even their health.

It’s not the most festive message of the week, I know, but there’s definitely something in it. The speediest decision I ever came to was to buy the House With No Name, my ramshackle farmhouse in the south of France. If I’d spent ages struggling over what to do for the best, I’d never have been brave enough to go ahead.

Actually, the main spur was having an intrepid husband and wildly enthusiastic children who egged me on like crazy.

The first time I’d heard about the place was when one of my dearest friends sent me an email saying: “Beautiful place. Great potential. Most beautiful setting. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside with some ancient oaks. Very old farm with heaps of charm. It has a very good feel to it.”

I’m the weediest person on the planet and much to my horror – and before I’d even set eyes on the place - my husband put an offer in on my behalf. The offer was much lower than the asking price so I naively assumed it would be rejected out of hand by the elderly owner and her four grown-up children. Except, er, it wasn’t.

By the time I pitched up a couple of weeks later to see it, accompanied by the estate agent and the notaire (Uncle Tom Cobley and all in fact), the owners were excitedly making plans to move into a new house with all mod cons in the nearby town. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to wreck their plans by saying “I'm sorry. This is all a horrendous mistake. I’m catching the next train home.”

So in my case, I took precisely zero minutes to decide to go ahead and buy the House With No Name. And even though my gut instinct took a little bit of persuading, I’m so glad I did.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The trials and tribulations of online Christmas shopping

Like most people, I’ve done loads of my shopping online this Christmas. Instead of flogging round the shops in the freezing cold I've sat in the warmth of my office sipping coffee and choosing presents from Amazon, Topshop and other shopping emporiums.

It’s so quick and easy that I wasn’t surprised in the least to read that online sales have doubled to ten per cent since 2000 and are predicted to rise to more than 12 per cent by 2014.

Except the one thing I’d forgotten in the midst of it all is that someone still has to deliver the blooming stuff. And that’s where I’m not so impressed.

Last week, three Amazon parcels got delivered to our house. Fine, except they were delivered on the days I was in London and were simply dumped on the doorstep. Again, it wouldn’t be a problem if we lived in the middle of nowhere but we’re on a main road in a busy city. Anyone could have hopped up the steps, nicked the parcels (luckily they didn’t) and sped off in a trice.

But I didn’t make a fuss till a third parcel arrived and was left outside in the pouring rain. I arrived home more than 12 hours later to find a sorry, sopping mess. The cardboard packaging completely disintegrated when I picked it up and the book inside was ruined. It took three phone calls to get through to the delivery company and about an hour to repackage the present and arrange for a new one to be delivered. Hmmm. In that time, I could have walked to Waterstone’s and bought it in person. Maybe online shopping isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

PS. The most hilarious piece I read over the weekend was a report declaring that the happiest moment of Christmas is at... 1.55pm. Apparently that’s the time when all the presents have been opened, lunch has been cooked and served and the children are playing happily with their new toys. I’m clearly the most disorganised parent on the planet but I can predict for sure that at 1.55pm in our house, lunch won’t have been cooked and served and we’ll only just have started opening our presents. I’m ashamed to admit that the latest we’ve sat down to lunch on Christmas Day was 5.30pm. And did it matter? Not a bit.

PPS. Just to show that there's something else to be said for shopping in person, the picture above (taken in the Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris) shows my favourite shop window of the year. A VW camper in the window? Now that's definitely the way to attract customers.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From the fabulous Military Wives to a birthday lunch in Shoreditch

With Christmas exactly eight days away there are still presents to buy, food to organise and a snowboarding course to do (no, thankfully not me, my son). He, by the way, has set off this morning in jeans and a shirt – still no coat! I may have to try novelist Veronica Henry’s approach. “I can be quite scary,” she tweeted. “... and there was money involved.”

On the plus side, the Christmas tree is up, at a slightly wonky angle, and this very second I’ve had an email from Amazon saying my CD of the Military Wives’ Wherever You Are “has dispatched.”

Anyway, as promised, here are some of the week’s highlights at House With No Name.

House With No Name’s shout-out for the fabulous Military Wives
House With No Name on the problem of where to put the Christmas cards
House With No Name on a special lunch in Shoreditch
House With No Name Book Review: Robert Harris’s The Fear Index

Friday, 16 December 2011

Friday book review - The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Virtually every journalist I know dreams of emulating Robert Harris and writing a bestseller. But few stand a chance of being as successful as the former Observer political editor. To date he’s written eight novels, sold millions and seen his books translated into 37 languages.

Harris switched from journalism to novels with the publication of Fatherland in 1992 and has never looked back. The Ghost, seen as a thinly disguised attack on Tony Blair, was made into a film starring Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams and Harris later won both the French César and the European Film Awards for best adapted screenplay.

The great thing about Harris is that as well as being a talented, intelligent writer he’s also an outstanding storyteller. He makes writing look easy but his books are expertly plotted and based on months of solid research. He once said: “I’ve always wanted to earn my living by writing. The best thing is to go into my study in the morning and put words together” - and that’s exactly what he spends his life doing.

And he’s certainly on scintillating form in his latest novel, The Fear Index. This pacy tale follows one day in the life of Dr Alex Hoffman, a brilliant physicist who used to work at CERN (home of the Large Hadron Collider).

In recent years Hoffman has developed revolutionary computer software that tracks human emotions, enabling the mega-successful hedge fund he’s launched with a partner to predict the financial markets and make billions. Then in the early hours of a May morning an intruder breaks into the Geneva home he shares with his wife and Hoffman’s ordered world starts to unravel.

This bang-up-to-date thriller is utterly compelling. If you’re looking for an extra Christmas present for someone, look no further.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £18.99).

Thursday, 15 December 2011

I'm rooting for the Military Wives' Christmas single


“All I want for Christmas is a No 1. I like the idea that a group of women singing in a church with a speccy choirmaster is Simon Cowell’s greatest threat. I’m sure he’s quaking in his boots.”

Those are the words of Gareth Malone, the nation’s favourite choirmaster, in an interview to be published in ES magazine tomorrow.

And I reckon he’s right. As Simon Cowell sits in the LA sunshine, he must be stunned that a choir of 100 military wives from two Devon army bases look set to turn the tables and scoop the top spot at Christmas.

With four days to go, everyone I know is rooting for the Military Wives’ single, Wherever You Are. It’s already the bookies’ favourite to beat X Factor winners Little Mix and Amazon says the track, a moving love song composed from letters written by servicemen and their wives during a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, is the most pre-ordered music product of all time.

Twitter is buzzing with support for the wives (you can follow them at @Milwiveschoir) and Chris Evans has been playing the song for weeks on his Radio 2 breakfast show. “We’re having to give out mascara warnings every morning – ‘it’s your five-minute mascara warning... don’t put on your mascara yet,’” he says. “It speaks love, it speaks care, it speaks magic and it speaks massive emotion, all the right things at the right time.”

Like millions of others, I’ve ordered my copy and can’t wait to get my hands on it on Monday (December 19). Because the Military Wives’ story is a triumph all round. It’s helped a fabulous group of women discover their voices (in every sense of the word), raised loads of money for the Royal British Legion and SSAFA Forces Help and shown that Simon Cowell doesn’t always get his own way.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Christmas card conundrum

Christmas is full of conundrums. How long to cook the turkey for? Whether to make bread sauce (I loathe the stuff)? What to buy the in-laws? But the trickiest puzzle by far is... what to do with the Christmas cards.

Lots of people have stopped buying cards altogether or opted for e-cards ages ago - but not me. I love sending Christmas cards and I love getting them back.

The only trouble is that I haven’t got a clue where to put them. Artistic friends hang them on scarlet ribbons from VV Rouleaux while others prop them on the mantelpiece. The problem is that we haven’t got a mantelpiece and if I cack-handedly try the ribbon thing it looks awful.

So after a few days I always opt for my mother’s tried and tested solution. It’s quick, easy and doesn’t involve any creative flair whatsoever. I get a large bowl out of the kitchen cupboard, plonk it in the middle of the table and chuck the cards in. Simple!

PS. Now the Christmas cards are sorted, the next thing on my list is to find an uplifting carol service. My children’s carol singing days are long gone and my confirmed atheist husband refuses point-blank to go anywhere near a church, so if you see a solitary, but very happy, figure sitting in an Oxford pew it’ll be me.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A birthday lunch in Shoreditch

Twenty years ago today, at 9.44am precisely, our lovely daughter was born. It seems no time at all since we were driving to St Helier Hospital in the early hours of a frosty December morning. Our good friend Alex Lester played Cry Me a River on Radio 2 and we were in such a panic we couldn’t find the hospital’s maternity wing.

Now, in the blink of an eye, our daughter’s turned into a sophisticated student sharing a flat with friends and whizzing around London.

But despite the frenetic run-up to Christmas we always put everything on hold to mark her birthday in style.

Just two years ago, we celebrated her 18th in Oxford. We sat down to a fabulous lunch with family, friends and godparents and afterwards she blew out eighteen candles on her cake. And I’m afraid, like the proud mum I am, I reminisced embarrassingly about her childhood. About her jaunty hairbands and dresses from Du Pareil au Même (the most stylish and best-value children’s shop in France – I wish it would open here) and the afternoon she stomped home in a fury from her école maternelle in Orléans, saying “I’ve been there all day and I haven’t learned to speak French yet.”

Tonight, on her 20th birthday, her three flatmates are treating her to dinner and then she’s off out with friends from the bar where she works at weekends.

But I was thrilled that she wanted to celebrate with us lot too. So on Sunday morning we drove to east London, collected some fabulous birthday cupcakes from the Spitalfields branch of The Hummingbird Bakery and watched her open her presents. She reckoned Pizza East in Shoreditch would be the perfect place for a birthday lunch – so we booked a table by the window. A vast restaurant on the ground floor of the Tea Building, the food is delicious, the staff charming and the decor a vision to behold - all vintage furniture, exposed brickwork and distressed panelling.

In fact, if I lived in London, I’d like my flat to look exactly like Pizza East. And even better, my daughter would be just around the corner...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From Christmas shopping to teenagers who hate wearing coats in winter

Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features a few of the week’s highlights – and with Christmas exactly two weeks away, the posts are getting more and more festive.

The best thing that happened this week (apart from picking up a copy of Stylist’s gorgeous and much-talked about Nigella edition) was that I wrote my first ever guest post. I met the lovely Marion Poerio at the Cosmo Blog Awards party back in October. Like House With No Name, her blog, Rust and Gold Dust, was shortlisted in the awards and I’ve been an avid follower ever since.

When Marion asked me to write a Christmas post I leapt at the chance to write about our family Christmas tree – from when we put it up (today!) to how we decorate it. You can read all about it here.

Anyway, as promised, here are some of the week’s House With No Name blogs.

House With No Name on why teenagers hate wearing coats
House With No Name on the art of haggling
House With No Name goes Christmas shopping at the best shops in the country
House With No Name on women reporters in Fleet Street
House With No Name Book Review: Martina Cole's The Faithless

PS. Like the rest of the country I'll be glued to The X Factor final this weekend - evven though Misha B is better than Amelia Lily, Little Mix and Marcus put together. In fact the Amelia we should all be talking about is Amelia Hempleman-Adams. At 16 (just a year younger than Amelia Lily), Amelia H-A has followed in her explorer father's footsteps and become the youngest person ever to ski to the South Pole. Now that is a real achievement!

Friday, 9 December 2011

Friday book review - The Faithless by Martina Cole

I’ve written about my new-found liking for crime novels before. For some reason, even though I’m ultra-squeamish, hate blood and gore in novels and avert my gaze from crime dramas on TV, I love books by writers like PD James, Ian Rankin and Jeffery Deaver.

But crime writer Martina Cole is my guilty pleasure. Why? Because she's such a brilliant story-teller. I start her novels thinking I’ll just read a few pages and before I know it, it’s 2am and I’ve finished the whole book.

Cole is fast becoming a legend in her own lifetime, with her books selling more than ten million copies to date. Gritty, fast-moving and packed with punchy dialogue, they grab your attention right from the first page. There are usually some shockingly violent scenes along the way but I grit my teeth and whizz through those bits at top speed.

Her latest, The Faithless, soared straight to the top of the bestseller lists when it was published in October and it’s easy to see why. Her 18th novel, it’s the story of Cynthia Tailor, a woman who looks like a supermodel and really should have the world at her feet. She’s got a devoted husband, lovely house and two gorgeous children (she usually gets her world-weary parents to look after them though.)

But Cynthia, who to my mind makes Cruella de Vil look like a pushover, is deeply dissatisfied with her lot - and green with envy when her younger sister walks down the aisle with the man she lusts after. She’ll stop at nothing to get him for herself, and sure enough, it’s her long-suffering husband and children who suffer the fall-out.

I’m sure Cole herself wouldn’t claim her novels, several of which have been made into TV dramas, are high-brow, but she certainly knows how to write addictive, hard-hitting fiction.

The Faithless by Martina Cole (Headline, £19.99)

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The best shops in the country

Moving out of London was bliss. Except for one tiny detail. The shopping. Years of London living, with a friendly deli down the road and the bright lights of Oxford Street just a bus ride away, had definitely spoiled me. The farmhouse on a moody, windswept hill we moved to was heaven but the local shops were dire. I could have cried the day I pitched up in the nearest town to find a long grey street flanked by a Tesco’s at one end and a store selling anoraks and sturdy walking boots at the other. This sounds clichéd, I know, but as for buying a jar of pesto or some decent olive oil, forget it.

But those days are long gone. Shopping in the sticks is chicer than chic. Here in Oxfordshire we’ve got the amazing Bicester Village a few miles away – complete with Anya Hindmarch, Mulberry, Joseph and every other designer you can think of. Emma Bridgewater and Cowshed have recently opened so that's Christmas sorted and when you need an energy boost you can dive into Carluccio's (above) for a plate of pasta.

So just to prove there are fantastic shops in the country, here are my current top three.

The Hambledon in Winchester is my favourite shop in the world. I’ve known owner Victoria Suffield since she was a teenager and she has an eye for design and detail that’s second to none. Her stunning three-floor emporium overlooking Winchester Cathedral sells a dazzling mix of clothes, china, books, children’s things and vintage furniture. The website, which boasts designs by Rob Ryan and a brilliant Christmas gift guide, is definitely worth a look too.

Next up is Carole Bamford’s amazing Daylesford Farmshop and Café, just the other side of Chipping Norton. Critics mutter that it’s like Harvey Nichols in the middle of the muddy Cotswold countryside but it’s great for organic food, china, flowers and the most stylish clothes this side of the M40.

Third on my list is the Bettys Café Tea Room chain. There are six branches of Bettys – one in Ilkley, one in Northallerton and two each in Harrogate and York – plus an excellent mail order service. Despite countless pleas from customers, the company has resolutely refused to open any outside Yorkshire. Their elegant cafés are open all day, with charming waitresses in starched white pinnies serving everything from Bettys famous Fat Rascals (a sort of giant scone with cherries and almonds) to lunch and afternoon tea. And on the way home, you can stock up with freshly-baked bread, cakes, chocolates, coffee and tea. Perfect.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Why don't teenagers wear winter coats?

Arctic blizzards are set to battle the UK this week, the north is blanketed in snow and even here in the soft south there’s a wintery chill in the air.

Bearing all that in mind, it seemed perfectly reasonable to ask my son whether he planned to wear a coat to school this morning.

“No,” he growled, hardly glancing up from his bowlful of Frosties. (At least he eats breakfast – a survey published this week said only one in two of us eat before leaving home in the morning.)

But teenagers’ aversion to coats is a mystery to me. My daughter was exactly the same when she was at school. Even on the coldest, wettest days she’d head for the bus wearing a threadbare jumper and short school skirt and insist she didn’t feel cold at all. “I’m fine,” she’d mutter, “really warm” – oblivious to the fact that her chattering teeth and blue lips gave the game away.

My son can’t protest he hasn’t got a coat either. I’ve spent a fortune on the blooming things. Last year I figured that if I bought him an ultra-chic Superdry one that he really liked, it would do the trick. My plan worked for a few days but then he met up with friends at a pizza place near Magdalen Bridge and carefully hung his coat by the door. When he went to retrieve his coat at the end of the evening it had gone. In its place was a flimsy cotton jacket – obviously left by the person who’d nicked my son’s lovely, warm coat. The following day the temperature dropped to minus degrees so, worried he was going to freeze, I went out and spent my week’s earnings on an identical one. An identical one that he never wears.

I just hope that he’ll eventually follow his big sister’s example and wake up to the wonderfulness of coats. One day my daughter announced out of the blue that she was off to Topshop to buy a winter coat. She came back a few hours later with a stylish navy number that she still loves. Result!

PS. I mentioned last week how I can’t wait to see Steven Spielberg’s War Horse when it opens here in January. But considering I cry at anything (apart from that John Lewis ad), I was worried by the Times reviewer’s verdict on the New York premiere. “If you don’t cry in War Horse, it’s because you have no tear ducts,” he wrote. We have been warned.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Why aren't there more women reporters in Fleet Street?

I’ve never met a journalist who isn’t obsessed with their byline – for the uninitiated, that's the line between the headline and the story giving the name of the person who wrote the article. Maybe it’s because hacks are an insecure bunch, or maybe it’s because we’re preoccupied with seeing our names emblazoned in lights.

It’s certainly why an article by Kira Cochrane in today’s Guardian caught my eye. Back in June, Cochrane had the gnawing feeling that she hadn’t seen a female byline on newspaper front pages for weeks. So along with a colleague and two researchers, she decided to put her hunch to the test and started counting them.

The results were alarming – well, women journalists will think so, anyway. As Cochrane writes: “There wasn’t a single day, on a single newspaper, when the number of female bylines outstripped or equalled the number of male bylines.”

When the team averaged out its figures after a month, the results were as follows: Daily Mail - 68% male bylines, 32% female; The Guardian - 72% male, 28% female; The Times - 74% male, 26% female; Daily Telegraph - 78% male, 22% female; Daily Mirror - 79% male, 21% female; The Sun - 80% male, 20% female; The Independent, 84% male, 16% female.

It's pretty damning stuff, but the trouble is that Fleet Street doesn’t make life easy for women journalists. When I started out as a reporter on the Evening Standard, I was one of six women reporters in a news team of around 24. Twenty years later, only one of us works in Fleet Street, the Guardian’s brilliant Caroline Davies, while loads of the men are still there. And of the men who aren’t, the vast majority continued to work as reporters till they retired.

There’s no doubt that working as a news reporter isn’t compatible with having young children. When I worked for the Standard, I was rung in the middle of the night once or twice a week and told to get to Manchester or Calais or a crime scene round the corner from my Clapham flat – like, er, NOW. So if you’re the mother of young children but haven’t got a live-in nanny or a saintly husband, it’s just not workable. I’m sure it's why so many women leave Fleet Street in their thirties. That’s certainly what happened to me.

Once women reporters take career breaks to look after their children, very few ever return to their old staff jobs. A few turn to feature writing, columns or reviewing but most work as freelances, with no job security whatsoever.

It’s ironic really, because I reckon that I’m a better journalist now than when I was young and green. I know a hell of a lot more about life, not to mention interviewing and writing. So could my generation of women reporters make a difference in news rooms these days? You bet we could.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The art of haggling - and a free Laura Marling CD

I like a bargain as much as anyone. My purse is stuffed with discount vouchers and cuttings snipped out of newspapers and magazines – from a Paperchase offer in today’s Observer to a handful of dog-eared Tesco vouchers.

But apparently what we should be doing in these cash-strapped times, and especially in the run-up to Christmas, is haggling. Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which? magazine, says: “Christmas doesn’t have to be cancelled. Savvy shoppers can save money with online deals, discount days and pre-Christmas sales. You should compare prices between stores and don’t be afraid to haggle to get the best price.”

Apparently everyone is doing it, including Sun columnist Jane Moore, whose husband got £3,000 off her new car by haggling. Well, lucky her, but the trouble is that in order to get a great deal in the shops you have to be a very cool, confident customer. Not only that, I reckon that shops dishing out discounts probably have a cut-off price they’d sell the goods at anyway. You only have to look at the zillions of on-line offers around right now to realise that. I’ve currently got emails giving 15 per cent off at Cologne & Cotton, Emma Bridgewater, the Conran Shop and more arriving by the day.

When it comes to haggling, though, you’ve either got what it takes or you haven’t. I remember my mother giving it a go at Covent Garden market years ago. Browsing at a clothes stall, she spotted some trousers for £15 and a top for £10 and asked the stall-holder “can you do the two for £30?” He clearly couldn't believe his ears. “Yep, I think I can,” he said, quickly wrapping the items up.

I’ve clearly inherited her bartering skills. Looking for an outfit to wear to a wedding, I spied a chic straw boater at a posh Battersea milliner’s. The price tag next to it said £75 so I went in and tried it on. It was perfect. “I’ll have it,” I said. “That’ll be £70,” said the assistant. “Er, shouldn’t it be £75?” I queried and duly paid the more expensive price. When we got outside my husband rolled his eyes in despair. “You are the only person I know who manages to barter the price up,” he said.

PS. It wasn’t just the Paperchase offer that made me buy the Observer this morning. As I mentioned a couple of months back, I’m a huge fan of Laura Marling. So I could hardly believe my luck when a Laura Marling CD featuring ten live and studio tracks (some from her recent tour of English cathedrals) came free with today’s issue. It has quite made my day. And I didn’t even have to haggle to get it!

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!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Friday book review - Catching Babies by Sheena Byrom

When my son was born 17 years ago, we lived in a remote, draughty farmhouse halfway up a Lancashire hillside. The house didn’t have any heating, just a temperamental wood-fuelled Rayburn that was hell to keep alight. We all joke that the reason my son is so tough is because he spent the first two years of his life there.

A long, bumpy track led to the house (which we rented from a charming, aristocratic landowner) and I vividly remember the day the community midwife drove up to check that my son was doing fine. In most areas midwives visit new mothers and their babies for the first ten days and in my experience, they are a brilliant source of help and advice.

Out of the car stepped Sheena Byrom, the community midwife for the Ribble Valley. Dressed in a navy-blue uniform, she was smiley, ultra-supportive and compassionate. She seemed like a friend from the instant I met her and we stayed in contact for years afterwards. Sadly we eventually lost touch – mainly, I reckon, because of the crazy number of times I've moved house.

Anyway, idly scrolling through Twitter this week, I suddenly spotted a mention of a new book called Catching Babies: The true story of a dedicated midwife. It was by, yes, Sheena Byrom. I was so thrilled that I dashed out and bought a copy straight away.

As I expected, Catching Babies is a cracking read about Sheena’s 35-year career as a midwife, from her close-knit Lancashire upbringing to her nursing training at Blackburn Royal Infirmary. The chapters I enjoyed the most were about Sheena’s decision to move from a hospital-based job to work as a community midwife. I loved her descriptions of driving “through the most fabulous scenery, rippling green hills and groups of ancient, majestic trees” to check on babies and their mums. Just reading it took me back 17 years in a flash.

Sheena’s story, which has its share of heartbreak, is a fascinating account of how midwifery has advanced over the years. If you’re interested in babies, children and a woman who's dedicated her career to helping women in childbirth, then you’ll definitely enjoy this. As Sheena herself says: “Midwives are in a really privileged position and I believe that if a woman’s birth is positive then they will go on to be positive mothers. It helps women to be better mums.”

Catching Babies by Sheena Byrom (Headline, £6.49)

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

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Handpicked Media Gets Social Part 2: Blogging Tips


The organisers of the Handpicked Media Gets Social blogging event promised wall-to-wall talks on everything today’s bloggers need to know – and they certainly delivered. The blogging industry is moving at lightning speed, so whether you’re a novice or an old hand, it’s crucial to keep up-to-date. And thanks to speakers like Garry Davis, managing director of Why Communicate?, and super-inspiring businesswoman Sháá Wasmund (above), I learned more this week than I have in months.

First up, here are some tips from Garry’s "tech boot camp" on how to get more traffic to your blog:

1. Content is king. Focus on producing quality, compelling content.
2. Blog regularly. And remember that over time and the more visitors you get, the more content you’ll need to produce.
3. Images are a great source of traffic.
4. Pay attention to blog post titles. You can increase the number of visitors by up to 73 per cent by using compelling headlines.
5. Set up an RSS feed, add social media share buttons and include a blog roll that lists the sites you rate (good for search engine optimisation too!) It’s really important to get visitors to engage with your blog. Ask them to leave comments, include questions in your posts and always reply to comments.
6. Engage in the blogging community. Comment on blogs in your particular industry. It’s a real opportunity to build up your network.
7. Set up Facebook and Google+ pages for your blog.
8. Write guest posts. By doing this, you’ll gain linkage to your site and create awareness of your blog with a new audience.

Meanwhile Sháá, an online entrepreneur and founder of Smarta.com (which offers advice and networking resources to anyone starting and running a small business), instantly endeared herself to the audience by declaring that over the years she’d “probably made more mistakes than anyone in the room.”

Dynamic, driven and fizzing with energy, she quickly ran through her route to the top. She grew up in a single parent family, was the first in her family to go to university and became one of the first ever female boxing managers before turning her hand to business.

She’s recently written a motivational book with Richard Newton called Stop Talking, Start Doing (subtitled A Kick in the Pants in Six Parts) and reckons we should all take control of our lives and do something we really believe in. “I’m not saying it’s easy,” she said, “but it’s utterably achievable.”

PS. For more about the conference, read yesterday's blog, Handpicked Media Gets Social Part 1.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Handpicked Media Gets Social Part 1 - Blogging Event


The first speaker at yesterday’s Handpicked Media Gets Social conference looked slightly stunned when he walked onstage. "The audience is usually full of grey-suited men," said Garry Davis, managing director of Why Communicate?, as he gazed out across the wood-panelled chamber.

This event, however, was packed with 200 top beauty, fashion and lifestyle bloggers, most of them women. They were a very impressive bunch - ranging from the multi-award-winning Fleur de Force, who at 23 has racked up more than 180,000 YouTube subscribers with her engaging, articulate beauty tutorials, to ReeRee Rockette, 29, who blogs about “rockabilly, vintage, tattoos, alternative fashion and lipstick.” Not only that, she’s launched an on-line beauty business selling her own Rockalilly Lipsticks in four stunning shades.

I got chatting to ReeRee, resplendent in scarlet lipstick of course, because she tweeted brilliantly right through the conference. She swears by her BlackBerry by the way – by far the speediest phone to type on, she says.

The event, held at RIBA’s HQ in London’s Portland Place, was organised by Handpicked Media and hosted by founder Krista Madden. Krista launched the highly successful Beauty and the Dirt website 11 years ago and quickly realised that independent sites and blogs were the future.

Two years ago she hit on the idea of handpicking like-minded sites and attracting advertisers to work with them as a group. So Handpicked Media was born - and now comprises more than 230 sites and blogs, which together generate well over 15 million page views a month. Impressive stuff.

I was lucky enough to get an invite and leapt at the chance to learn more about social media and blogging. I’ll blog tomorrow about some of the tips I gleaned but one of the best things about the day was the chance to meet some inspiring bloggers, all of whose sites I signed up to the instant I got home.

First up is The Women’s Room, launched by Amanda Carr and Jane Kellock. The stylish duo have worked in fashion for years and met when they both worked at WGSN, the global fashion trend forecasting website. Frequently lamenting the dearth of fashion and style publications for women over 40, they started The Women’s Room. A fantastic and eclectic mix of fashion, style, art, culture, health, happiness and much, much more, it’s my new must-read.

It was great too, to meet two other journalists. Loma-Ann Marks’s Culture Compass gives you the lowdown on the latest places to go and what to see, while Miss B is the founder and editor of Belle About Town. Billed as a blog “for stylish women who want to get the most out of their lives,” Belle About Town fizzes with interviews, reviews, celebrity news and style. I love it.

Don’t miss tomorrow’s blog: Handpicked Media Gets Social Part 2.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Twitter helps writer Maria Duffy get a book deal


I love Twitter. It makes me laugh, recommends everything from books to blogs to recipes and keeps me up to date with the news on a minute by minute basis. The only drawback is that it’s so addictive that hours can fly by without getting a stroke of work done. Lots of writers say they have to switch it off altogether between nine and five-thirty. Otherwise they wouldn’t write a word, let alone stand a hope in hell of hitting their deadlines.

But yesterday, thanks to a fascinating post by Chick Lit Club, I discovered that Twitter can even help writers get book deals. Dublin-based Maria Duffy explained how she got a message on Twitter from Curtis Brown literary agent Sheila Crowley.

“To cut a long story short, Sheila loved my Twitter voice and told me that if I could get that down into a book, I’d have something special,” said Maria.

The upshot was that Maria wrote the novel, Sheila sent it out to publishers and within a few weeks it had been snapped up by Hachette Books Ireland. Any Dream Will Do, the story of a group of people who meet (how else?) through Twitter hit the shelves earlier this month.
So next time you’re on Twitter, write the most superlative tweet you can. You never know, it could be the first step on the road to publication.

PS. Tom Stoddart, one of the best photographers in the business, was granted “exclusive, unprecedented access” to David Cameron and his family for a week. He snapped the PM sitting round the No 10 breakfast table with his family, poring over his red box, striding through rain-soaked Cannes at the G20 summit and being interviewed by BBC political editor Nick Robinson. But my favourite image by far was the picture on the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine. It showed the PM strolling at Chequers, his country retreat, with his baby daughter Florence strapped to his front. Somehow I can't see Nicolas Sarkozy following suit...

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pyjamas - what not to wear at the school gate


Mornings have never been my strong point. In the days when I took my daughter to the bus stop soon after 7am I used to rush out looking like I’d been pulled through a hedge backwards, without a scrap of make-up and my hair unbrushed. I’d then dash into Sainsbury’s to buy the papers and hope I didn’t scare the cheery man on the till or, horror of horrors, bump into someone I knew.

My lackadaisical approach wouldn’t go down well in London's Notting Hill, where yummy mummies like Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer swear by glossy hair, immaculate make-up and high heels at the school gate. If you don’t wear the right outfit, some mums have warned, your children might not get invited round to play by their friends.

My teenagers are fiercely independent now but even when they were younger they were appalled if I ever tried to escort them into the classroom.

But at least I didn’t have to worry what I looked like. I cheered up no end when I realised I was a lot more appropriately dressed than parents doing the school run in some parts of the country. Why? Because at least I was dressed. A couple of years back the head of one UK primary school was so appalled at the number of parents arriving in their nightwear to drop off their children that he appealed to them to show a little more respect. Known as the “pyjama mamas,” some were turning up in baggy pyjamas and slippers while others sported dressing gowns and curlers.

As the head wearily told his local paper: “People don’t go to see a solicitor, bank manager or doctor wearing pyjamas so why do they think it’s OK to drop their children off at school dressed like that?”

PS: On the subject of night gear, a report in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph said millions of us stay in our pyjamas till midday on Saturdays. And shock horror, four out of ten sometimes go the whole day without getting dressed. I’m guilty of the first (not the second), but I’ve got one question. Does the Telegraph know that pyjamas are all the rage as daywear these days? Fashion designer Stella McCartney included a rather fetching paisley pair in her spring/summer 2012 collection while the likes of Celine and Louis Vuitton have featured them on the catwalk too. So don’t assume that the woman wearing pyjamas in the supermarket has just stumbled out of bed. She could be the most fashionable person in town.

PPS: I couldn't resist these gorgeous tartan reindeer (above) I spotted at Bicester Village. They're the best Christmas decorations I've seen by far this year.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From the John Lewis Christmas ad to Anya Hindmarch and the art of the apostrophe


Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features a round-up of the week’s highlights.

The picture above shows the gorgeous Christmas lights that hover like mysterious planets over St Christopher’s Place in the heart of London’s West End.

While I was in the vicinity I couldn’t resist popping into H&M to see the much talked-about new Versace collection. There wasn’t a lot left in the Regent Street branch but what a disappointment. There were shocking pink patent bags, silver belts and a scary pair of palm print leggings that even Elle Macpherson would be hard-pressed to look good in.

House With No Name on grammar: Anya Hindmarch and the art of the apostrophe
House With No Name on the week’s most uplifting story: The journalist and the Afghan teenager
House With No Name on the John Lewis ad: I cry at anything, but this leaves me cold
House With No Name Book Review: India Knight’s Comfort and Joy
House With No Name Children’s Books: My obsession with Enid Blyton's Malory Towers stories

PS: Nineteen days into the National Blog Posting Month challenge and I’m nearly two-thirds of the way through!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Friday book review - Comfort and Joy by India Knight


I’m a huge fan of India Knight. She’s wise, fun and talks more sense in her Sunday Times column than most other journalists put together. In short, she sounds like the sort of best friend we’d all like to have.

If that wasn’t enough, I opened the December issue of Red magazine to find that her house boasts joyous pink walls (she says they’re “really cheering on a January morning”), huge amounts of clutter and an amazing personalised mural drawn by artist Charlotte Mann with black marker pen. She likes “books, colour and over-decoration” and, asked what she’d save in a fire, reckons she wouldn’t save anything, apart from people and her laptop. “I don’t think it would really make much difference if you had your favourite teapot or cushion,” she says. “You’d just have to start again.”

It’s for all those reasons that I knew I’d love her Christmas novel, Comfort and Joy. Out in paperback this month, it perfectly captures the chaos of a family Christmas. Knight admits that the book is “fairly autobiographical,” with lots of “mashed-up memories and experiences,” but I reckon it’s all the better for that.

Comfort and Joy is the story of a modern family Christmas hosted by mother-of-three Clara Dunphy over three consecutive festive seasons. Like most women I know, Clara is determined to make Christmas special. As she says, “I want it to be so lovely, so redemptive, so right. There’s no point in doing it craply, is there?”

But even so, it’s a tricky feat to pull off when she’s got 16 guests turning up and is doing everything single-handed. Sitting round her London table each year are her ex-husband, her about to be ex-husband, three children, eccentric mother, two half-sisters, her non-PC mother-in-law and a host of well-behaved and not so well-behaved friends.

Knight is brilliant at blending laugh-out-loud humour with real insight into the stresses and strains of a family Christmas. You’ll love her third novel if you’re hosting Christmas at your place this year (though it might make you want to book a one-way ticket to the other side of the planet) – and even if you’re not.

Comfort and Joy by India Knight (Penguin, £7.99)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The uplifting story of the journalist and the Afghan teenager


Few people, if any, have a good word to say about journalists these days. As the Leveson inquiry reveals shocking new details about deception, trickery and intrusion in our newspapers, it’s hardly surprising that us hacks are regarded as the lowest of the low.

Yet most journalists I've come across are honest, hard-working and dedicated to their profession. I don’t know anyone who’s hacked a phone or tricked someone into telling their story against their will. And in amongst the gloom, there are still examples of journalists who’ve gone that extra mile to make a real difference to people’s lives.

Jerome Starkey, the Afghanistan correspondent of The Times, is a case in point. I’ve seen his by-line loads of times but until I read his Times 2 feature yesterday I had no idea about the amazing role he has played in helping to transform the life of a young Afghan boy called Najib.

Starkey’s and Najib’s paths crossed in Helmand on August 20, 2009. Najib was cycling along an empty street with his younger brother Hamid on the back, when a rocket hit the road beside them. Starkey witnessed the attack but managed to scramble for cover. But Hamid died instantly and Najib was left badly injured.

As Starkey wrote in yesterday’s piece: “Neither of us knew it, but that rocket was to entwine our lives. It would propel Najib – the son of an illiterate cobbler – towards unimaginable opportunities that would change his life forever.”

Thanks to an American charity, Solace, Najib was eventually flown to the US, but doctors were unable to save the sight of one eye. When he returned to Afghanistan, he threw himself into his schoolwork, aided by an international charity that helps to get talented Afghan students to schools and universities in the US. He and Starkey stayed in touch and earlier this year Najib asked the journalist to help him study in the UK.

Thirty-year-old Starkey had no idea where to start but he agreed to email Anthony Wallersteiner, the headmaster of Stowe, his old school (above).

The long and the short of it is that after interviewing Najib on the phone, Dr Wallersteiner agreed to award him a sixth-form scholarship, covering the Buckinghamshire school’s £28,000 a year fees. Najib, now 17, moved to Stowe in September and by all accounts has settled in well.

Starkey is acting as his guardian and as he wrote at the end of his uplifting piece: “I could almost cry when I stop to think about how far he has come.”

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Children's books, Jack Wills and a spelling mistake


I’m busy reviewing a batch of children’s books and can’t get over the fantastic array of titles. So far I’ve whizzed through a novel for teenagers about a missing girl, a gorgeous story by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie called Rhinos Don’t Eat Pancakes and I’m now on to Jacqueline Wilson’s Sapphire Battersea.

When I was little I loved books like Richmal Crompton’s Just William and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. But Enid Blyton was my absolute favourite. I used to get two shillings and sixpence pocket money a week and every Saturday morning I’d wander down to the local book shop and buy a new Malory Towers or Famous Five story. Then I’d go home, curl up on my bed and read it from cover to cover.

Enid Blyton doesn’t get a good press these days. Some critics reckon her vocabulary is hopelessly limited while others accuse her of being elitist, racist and sexist.

Characters like the Famous Five’s prissy Anne and her liking for party frocks and dolls are a bit hard to take but there’s no doubt that Blyton could spin a great yarn. Her stories captured my imagination so much that I longed to be part of the Famous Five gang, to spend days swimming at a Dorset cove, taking a brown mongrel called Timmy for long walks and solving mysteries.

When I had a quick look at a Famous Five book recently what struck me most was the freedom children had in Blyton’s day. Julian, Dick, Anne and their tomboy cousin George are all aged between 11 and 13 but they dash out of the house after breakfast, land themselves in loads of scrapes and don’t come back till tea-time. They’re allowed to row out to Kirrin Island by themselves and camp there alone for two days. Two days! It sends me into a cold sweat just thinking about it.

PS. Thank you so much to everyone who commented on yesterday’s blog about the art of the apostrophe and students’ dodgy grasp of grammar. I didn’t even mention spelling, so I was shocked to get the new Jack Wills Christmas handbook in the post this morning and find two pages of greeting cards, diaries, notebooks and pens marked “stationary.” Ahem, Jack Wills, do you mean “stationery?”

PPS. Still on the subject of the Jack Wills catalogue, I did another double take when I spotted a gorgeous long black dress that would look divine on my daughter. She says Jack Wills, which markets itself as creating "fabulously British goods for the university crowd," is too preppy for her. But even if she liked it, there's no way she'd be tempted. Why? Because the Belford sequin dress costs a staggering £798. That's the cost of two or three months' rent for most students I know.
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