Tuesday 31 January 2012

Nails Inc and the rise of the nail bar

It's not just the weather that's chilly right now. The economic climate is bleak too, and shopkeepers are struggling to make a living.

But there’s one bright spot on the horizon – and that’s nail bars. Apparently we can’t get enough of them.

Up and down the country they’re among the fastest-growing businesses on the high street. Sales of nail varnish soared to a staggering £179 million in 2010, while in the last three years nail bars have accounted for a sixth of all new retail outlets. Actually, I can vouch for that. A local town near us boasts four nail bars in one short street!

Former Tatler fashion editor Thea Green spotted the trend way ahead of the crowd. She set up Nails Inc in 1999 after visiting nail bars in New York and realising that customers on this side of the Atlantic would love them too. Nails Inc now has 59 stores across the UK and is making plans to expand abroad.

I’m a big fan of Nails Inc (especially the witty London-themed names of their polishes). My idea of a real treat is to walk into Oxford, sit at the sleek white Nails Inc desk on the first floor at Debenhams and have my nails painted a chic grey shade called Porchester Square. For next time I’ve got my eye on a silver-blue glittery one called Maida Vale or Portobello Polish, which is bright orange. You can even buy an aptly-named base coat called Harley Street and hand cream called Kensington Caviar.

I was a nail-biter as a child and even now, seeing my nails buffed to perfection and expertly polished feels special. Even better, it doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, fat or thin. You can still have style at your fingertips for a fraction of the cost of a new outfit or hamdbag.

PS. If having your nails painted one colour is old hat, try Wah Nails. Founded in London’s East End in 2008 by Sharmadean Reid (who wanted to open a salon where you could have “whatever you wanted on your fingertips”), it turns nails into work of art. You can have everything from gold glittery leopard print nails to miniature stars and stripes. I might just give it a go…

Picture:  SFriedbergPhoto on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Monday 30 January 2012

Snow - and my embarrassing attempts to learn how to ski

Snow is on my mind. The far north is blanketed in the stuff and there's a cold weather alert for the next couple of days, with temperatures predicted to drop to minus ten degrees. Brrrr. 

Further south there have only been a few flakes, but I saw loads of snow yesterday when my son asked me to drive him to Milton Keynes for a snowboarding session. 

SNO!zone (above) boasts an indoor ski slope made of 1,500 tonnes of real snow and he reckoned it would be the perfect place to hone his skills for his forthcoming school trip. He could hardly contain his excitement as he hired his salopettes and board. But I was distinctly underwhelmed. Why? Because just watching the scores of skiers and snowboarders whizzing stylishy down the slope at SNO!zone reminded me of my ultra-unsuccessful attempts to learn to ski.

The first time I tried was at Aviemore, when my mum’s best friend Sally sweetly took me and my sister on a skiing holiday. We travelled overnight from Victoria station on a Wallace Arnold coach and the moment we arrived we headed straight for the beginners' slope.

The biggest ignominy was that neither of us had any proper skiing gear. We’d learned to sail that summer and for some reason everyone thought sailing waterproofs would be fine to ski in. I’ll never forget the horrified look on our ski instructor’s face as we pitched up in bright yellow oilskin trousers and tops (mercifully we left our matching souwesters at home). Worst still was the fact that the oilskins had no grip at all – so every time we fell over (which was a lot in my case) we slid embarrassingly to the bottom of the mountain.

As well as having no aptitude whatsoever for skiing, I couldn’t get to grips with the dreaded T-bar lift at all. Almost every time I used it I fell off halfway and couldn't scramble out of the way fast enough with my skis on. The upshot was that the whole system had to be stopped countless times as irritated instructors hurried across to disentangle me.

As I watched my son zig-zag elegantly down the slope at Milton Keynes I sat in the café and read my book. Skiing and snowboarding are clearly great fun – but they're not for me. 

Sunday 29 January 2012

The glorious David Hockney exhibition - A Bigger Picture

My serial moving habit is something I’ve written about before. We’ve moved house (take a deep breath here) an embarrassing 12 times in the last 25 years and I’ve got a sneaking feeling that we might do it again one day. 

But one of the places we lived when my children were small was Yorkshire, in a sweet redbrick cottage with horses that popped their heads over next door's fence and views over the rolling fields. They were happy days – days that came flooding back to me last week when I pitched up at the glorious David Hockney exhibition at London's Royal Academy of Arts.

Hockney is a Yorkshireman through and through. Now 74, he was born in Bradford, studied at Bradford Art College and seven years ago swapped the delights of sunny LA for life near Bridlington on the East Yorkshire coast. "On the road to nowhere," he told Andrew Marr when the broadcaster visited him in Brid for BBC Radio 4's Start the Week.

His new show, which includes oil paintings (many of them massive), charcoal drawings, sketchbooks, iPad paintings and short films, is a breathtaking tribute to the Yorkshire landscape. 

Hockney loves to observe the same place at different times of the day and during different seasons of the year. One of the most stunning collections of paintings is his 2006 Woldgate Woods series - he placed his easel at a fixed point and returned to the same spot countless times to capture it. Another room is devoted to paintings of hawthorn blossom, while the largest gallery features The Arrival of Spring on Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty-Eleven), a huge installation made up of 32 oil paintings and 51 iPad drawings printed on paper.

The colour in many of his paintings is vibrant and bold, with purple roads winding through the countryside, stripey orange hayfields, violet tree trunks and turquoise hills. Some critics, including his own former art teacher, have found them “too garish,” but I adored them. Their zinging colours are a dramatic contrast to the more muted hues of his earlier work but bring the landscape he loves dazzlingly alive.

The tiniest details rekindled memories of our far-flung Yorkshire days. A small, red-roofed farmhouse sitting squarely in a field, a tunnel of trees near Kilham and handsome Salt’s Mill – all these and more were the perfect tonic to a chilly midwinter's day.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture is at the Royal Academy of Arts till April 9 2012.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Queuing for a free Hummingbird Bakery cake

The queue of expectant customers snaked out of the shop, along the pavement and right round the corner. The occasion was the opening of The Hummingbird Bakery’s fifth London shop and they were giving free cupcakes to the first 1,000 customers to visit. News had spread fast via Twitter and Facebook and the mood was very party-like for a chilly Friday morning in January.

I had a meeting near Angel tube station so I jumped at the chance to line up in the sunshine and get my brilliantly named red velvet cupcake (plus buy three more for everyone at home – they’d be furious if I’d arrived back empty-handed). 
When I reached the front of the queue the staff were charm personified – and impressively smiley considering they’d been handing out cakes at the rate of knots. A couple of hours later the shop posted the following message on Facebook: "Islington, you managed to munch your way through 1,000 cupcakes in just over two hours! That's some incredible cupcake love."

Judging by the turnout, I’m not the only one partial to a freebie, especially in these bleak economic times. Actually, I’ve been really lucky this week. First my local cinema, the Phoenix Picturehouse, offered members the chance to see a free preview of Carnage, the new film starring Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet. Then my daughter, now a Friend of the Royal Academy (a great birthday present from my sister) sweetly took me to see the fabulous David Hockney exhibition as her guest. 

Like everyone I know, my wallet is stuffed full of bits of paper offering discounts and bargains. I’ve got a coupon from Marks & Spencer offering £5 off if I spend £25 by Tuesday and a £2.50 one from Tesco. The only voucher I’m mystified by is the Sainsbury’s Brand Match one promising me the princely sum of 7p off my next shop.  Still, as the Tesco’s saying goes, every little helps...
The Hummingbird Bakery, 405 St John Street, London EC1V 4AB

Friday 27 January 2012

Friday book review - Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo

My husband’s the only person I know who didn’t cry at War Horse. Everyone else wept buckets - during the play, during Steven Spielberg’s lavish, Oscar-nominated movie or (in my case) both. Actually, I think the Times reviewer who reported on the New York film premiere got it just about right when he said: “If you don’t cry in War Horse, it’s because you have no tear ducts.”

But up until this week I didn’t realise that Michael Morpurgo wrote a sequel to War Horse back in 1997. It’s called Farm Boy and HarperCollins Children’s Books, who published a new edition ahead of the film release, kindly sent me a copy.

Farm Boy is set in the same Devon village as War Horse and continues the tale of heroic horse Joey ("strong as an ox, and gentle as a lamb") and Albert, his owner.

The story is narrated by Albert’s teenage great grandson, who lives in London but spends most of his holidays in the countryside with his beloved grandfather, Albert’s son. He loves hearing tales of how Joey was sold to the cavalry and sent to the warfront in France and how 14 year old Albert was so distraught he joined up to find him.

“Now there’s millions of men over there, millions of horses, too,” writes Morpurgo. “Needle in a haystack you might think, and you’d be right. It took him three years of looking, but he never gave up. Just staying alive was the difficult bit.”

Former children’s laureate Morpurgo movingly portrays the bond between grandson and grandfather, particularly as the old man reflects on the past and reveals a secret he’s kept to himself for years. He’s wonderful too at evoking rural life – hay in June, wheat in July and potatoes and cider apples in October. Add in Michael Foreman’s illustrations of the rolling Devon landscape and it’s an irresistible mix. Children who loved War Horse will enjoy finding out what happened to Joey when he returned from the war – and I reckon their parents will too.

Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo (HarperCollins, £5.99)

Thursday 26 January 2012

World Book Night 2012 - one of my favourite novels is on the list

Realising that one of my favourite books is one of this year’s 25 World Book Night titles has made me rush to read it all over again.

World Book Night takes place in the UK and Ireland on April 23 (the same day as Unesco’s International Day of the Book and Shakespeare’s birthday) and will see one million books being handed out across the country in a bid to boost reading. The organisers are looking for 20,000 volunteers to give out 24 copies each of the 25 books (the additional books will be given to libraries and schools) but you must apply before February 1.

The 2012 list includes classics like Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities and Rebecca, as well as more recent titles like The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, Small Island by Andrea Levy and (hooray!) How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

It’s seven years since my daughter suggested I read How I Live Now. Knowing how much I adore I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (another World Book Night title) she kept telling me to read Rosoff’s modern-day “coming of age” novel. I cheated and bought the audiobook and on a long drive back from a holiday in Cornwall we listened to it together. The journey took five hours and for most of that time we were so mesmerised neither of us uttered a word. The moment we got home I borrowed it to read for real.

Rosoff’s debut novel (published in 2004) can be read, and appreciated, by teenagers and adults alike. Not only that, but like all my favourite books, it’s a novel you can read countless times and always discover something you hadn’t spotted the first time round.

From the novel’s arresting first sentence – “My name is Elizabeth but no one’s ever called me that” – I was gripped. The style is raw, edgy and quite unlike anything I’d ever read before. Writing in the first person, often in the present tense and with scant punctuation, Rosoff gets inside the head of 15-year-old Daisy (as Elizabeth is always called) so convincingly that it’s hard to believe Rosoff once admitted her experience of that age group was “zero.”

The novel is set during wartime in a future England. Rich, spoiled, anorexic New Yorker Daisy arrives to stay with her four beguiling cousins at their dilapidated country farmhouse and inadvertently gets caught up in a terrifying war that changes all their lives. 

One moment I was marvelling at the eccentricities of Daisy’s cousins – 14-year-old Edmond, with a  cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a haircut that looks “like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of the night,” drives her home from the airport by himself in a battered old jeep - and enjoying the bitter-sweet account of the burgeoning love affair between Daisy and Edmond. The next, the reverie ends as the country is suddenly plunged into a shocking and depraved war. 

Rosoff’s writing flows with such assurance that it’s easy to rush through this short novel without stopping to admire its skill. But each time I put this book down I can still hear Daisy’s sharp voice in my head. I can still feel her agony at her separation from Edmond and I still want to know if the cousins can ever put the damage inflicted by the war behind them. To me, that shows what a fine book it is.

PS. You can find out more about World Book Night in the UK and Ireland here. There’s a World Book Night in the US on April 23 too. The books are different but you can find more information here.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Andrew Miller wins 2011 Costa Book of the Year

A star-studded party, buckets of champagne and some of the most talented writers in the business vying for the prestigious Costa book of the year prize.

The presentation ceremony for the 2011 Costa Book Awards was never going to be any old bash. Held at Quaglino’s, the chic London restaurant, hosted by TV presenter Penny Smith (looking resplendent in a long silver dress) and with guests including Maureen Lipman, Esther Rantzen, Natasha Kaplinsky, Jacqueline Wilson, Simon Mayo and Fiona Philips, the party totally lived up to expectations. Even better, Andrew Miller’s brilliant novel, Pure, scooped the top award.

When I reviewed the five Costa category winners (novel, first novel, biography, poetry and children’s book) for a newspaper last week I wrote: “If it was down to me, I’d be hard-pressed to choose between Andrew Miller’s novel and Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas – two captivating books that both deserve a wider audience.”

The judges, who included comedian Hugh Dennis, actress Dervla Kirwan and broadcaster Mary Nightingale, clearly thought the same.

Announcing the winner, chair of the judges Geordie Greig admitted that the 90-minute judging session that afternoon had been a “tussle” between two books - Miller’s Pure and Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas. “There was quite bitter dissent and argument to find the winner,” he said. “The debate was prolonged with passionate views over two books.”

But in the end Pure triumphed and a slightly stunned-looking Miller stepped on stage to accept his prize – a £30,000 cheque to add to the £5,000 Costa novel prize he’d already won. “You spend three years in a room on your own,” he said, “and by the time you give a book to your publisher you never really know what it is any more.”

Andrew Miller caused a stir earlier in the year when he beat Booker prizewinner Julian Barnes to take the Costa novel prize. But his book is one that stays in your head long after you’ve finished reading. Stylish, compelling and beautifully written, it’s the story of an 18th century engineer charged with the “delicate and gross” task of demolishing an ancient, crumbling cemetery in the heart of Paris.  

Even though Matthew Hollis didn’t take the overall prize, his biography is one of this year’s must-reads. Engrossing and impeccably researched, it's the account of the five years leading up to Edward Thomas’s death at the war front in 1917 – including his inspirational friendship with American poet Robert Frost, his tricky marriage and his move (encouraged by Frost) from writing prose to poetry.

The other three category winners are remarkable books too. I was one of the judges for the Costa first novel award and out of 87 contenders we chose the gripping Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. Written by paediatric nurse Christie Watson, it’s the tale of Blessing, a 12-year-old Nigerian girl who swaps a privileged upbringing in Lagos for an impoverished life in the Niger Delta following the break-up of her parents’ marriage. At times hilarious, it's an uplifting and moving novel from a writer to watch.

The winner of the Costa children’s book prize was Moira Young’s stunning Blood Red Road, which I reviewed on the blog a couple of weeks back, while the poetry prizewinner was poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy for The Bees, a vibrant collection of love poems, political poems and the moving Last Post, written for the last surviving soldiers to fight in the 1914-1918 war.

PS. As if all this wasn’t exciting enough, Costa managing director John Derkach announced at the party that the the Costa Book Awards are to introduce a new short story award (it won’t be judged alongside the five other category winners.) More details will follow later in the year. 

PPS. Andrew Miller and Christie Watson are both University of East Anglia creative writing graduates – proof once again that creative writing courses really do work! 

Tuesday 24 January 2012

The rise of the lawnmower parent

Helicopter parents are a well-known phenomenon these days. You know, they're the mums and dads who micro-manage every single aspect of their children’s time. They hover overhead, watch every move their children make and constantly check that their lives are going according to plan (the parents’ plan, that is).

I didn’t realise though, that the trend has moved up a gear, with parents and even grandparents of university students meddling in youngsters’ lives.

In a fascinating blog for The Guardian’s Higher Education Network, academic Afshan Jafar writes: “Some colleges and universities are now calling this breed of parents ‘lawnmower’ parents as these are parents who vow to mow down any and all obstacles and challenges in their children’s paths.’”

Apparently these parents ring university tutors to fix extensions on essay assignments, protest if their children don't get on the courses they want and even dispute their exam grades.

I’m starting to feel like a laissez-faire mother. Actually, I’d love to interfere in my student daughter’s life but she won’t let me. If I dared ring her tutor about anything she’d be completely apoplectic. I’ve learned the hard way that if I make a suggestion about what to study or where to live she generally goes and does the complete opposite. So now, I keep quiet, let her work it out for herself and do you know what? Sometimes she actually does what I reckoned she should do in the first place.

PS. My daughter’s off to Paris (above) in September (not because I’m a lawnmower parent, I hope) and has been swapping notes with a French girl who’s studying in London this year. “But I’m having a bit of trouble learning the slang  people use here,” the delightful Clemence told my daughter. “I can't even attempt Cockney rhyming slang and the only word I’ve picked up so far is ‘innit.’"

Monday 23 January 2012

Coriolanus - a double triumph for Ralph Fiennes

Third time lucky. That was how I felt at the weekend when I took my husband to the cinema. Two weeks ago I’d booked tickets for The Iron Lady. His verdict? Two out of ten, largely because he found the portrayal of Lady Thatcher’s dementia too upsetting to watch. The following week I tried War Horse, figuring he couldn’t possibly object to Steven Spielberg’s latest movie. Wrong. He rolled his eyes and said it was like watching “Lassie the Super Horse.”

But refusing to be beaten, I had a third attempt this weekend and booked to see Coriolanus. And bingo, he loved it.

This powerful film represents a double triumph for Ralph Fiennes, who not only stars as Coriolanus but directs for the first time too. Shot in Belgrade and the Serbian countryside, the action is set in the present day but uses Shakespeare’s text to electrifying effect.  This could be a tricky feat to pull off but it brings the play alive for a 21st century cinema audience. 

In the past theatre-goers have often found Coriolanus, a brilliant but flawed general who falls foul of his people and eventually flees into exile, an unsympathetic character. But Fiennes’s extraordinary portrayal makes sense of this intensely proud man who’s so affronted by the way the mob turns against him that he joins the opposition and leads them into battle against his former side. Vanessa Redgrave, by the way,  gives a stunning performance as his ultra-controlling, ambitious mother.

The promotional posters for the film, showing Fiennes’s face dripping in blood, are a clear sign that this movie isn’t for the squeamish. The battle scenes are definitely the most realistic I’ve seen in a long time. Actually, there was a bit too much blood for my liking but then again, it must have been the job of a lifetime for the make up artists. 

Sunday 22 January 2012

Cotton wool kids don't climb trees

My teenage son’s bike is his pride and joy so he was even more stunned than me by a new report that says one in ten of today’s children can’t ride one.

And that’s not the only shocker. The survey (conducted by charity Play England) reveals that parents are so over-protective that only one child in five plays outside every day while a third have never climbed a tree or built a den.

“Playing outside, chalking on the pavement, climbing trees and riding your bike are simple pleasures that many of today’s children are missing out on,” says Catherine Prisk, director of Play England.

If we carry on like this, our generation of parents are in danger of turning children into mollycoddled wimps. We drive them everywhere, monitor their every move and wrap them in cotton wool. We worry about everything from the dangers of online chatrooms to the risks of climbing trees. Some schools have even banned conkers because they could be used as “offensive weapons,” while others say games like Stuck in The Mud and British Bulldog are too dangerous for the playground.
My own childhood was far more carefree. When I was little, I was out every day of the holidays – building dens in the woods with my friends, biking hands-free round the block and playing on the swings down the road.
But times have changed and protecting our children while giving them the chance to have fun and play outside is a tricky balance to strike.
I definitely veered on the over-protective side when my two children were little but as they grew up they wouldn’t have it. My daredevil son ended up in casualty several times every summer after attempting manoeuvres on his bike that would make a grown man tremble - let alone his mum. He got stuck up more trees than I’ve had hot dinners and when I took him for his first riding lesson at the age of five he emerged saying “I was the only one in the class who dared put my hand in the horse’s mouth!”

Saturday 21 January 2012

Write to be published - tips from Nicola Morgan

Nicola Morgan doesn’t mince her words. An ex-teacher and the author of 90 books (ranging from teen novels to non fiction), she’s known as the Crabbit Old Bat for her forthright views. She writes the popular Help! I Need a Publisher! blog and offers such constructive and honest advice that best-selling novelist Joanne Harris has described her as “the tutor I wish I’d had when I was starting out…” 

So as soon as I spotted that Nicola was running a Write to be Published workshop in my neck of the woods I snapped up a ticket like a shot.

The evening, hosted by Blackwell’s in Oxford, proved worth its weight in gold. During the course of Nicola’s two-hour talk she outlined everything from the importance of knowing your genre inside out to the nuts and bolts of writing a submission letter. As Nicola said: “I had 21 years of failing to get a novel published, then ten years of success. This is what I wish I had known when I was trying to get published.”

The 25 or so writers at the session scribbled her advice down intently, particularly when it came to the art of drafting a submission letter for prospective agents and publishers. When Nicola heard that most of us were writing novels she advised that fiction submissions must comprise a covering letter, synopsis and the first three chapters of the book (you must, by the way, have finished the book before you approach anyone).

Novel chapters obviously vary in length, so as a rough guide, said Nicola, you shouldn’t send more than 10,000 words or 50 pages. Your manuscript should be double-spaced, typed in a “sensible” font and have reasonably-sized margins.

Next, Nicola offered advice on covering letters, which should be limited to one page. The first paragraph should introduce the book, its title (typed in capital letters at the first mention and lower case after that), its length and its genre. The second paragraph should be your “pitch.” This should be objective, give a specific (not general) outline and include the elements that will make readers sit up (in other words, the must-read factor).

The third part of your letter should be about you, giving relevant information about what you’ve had published and showing that you are serious and professional about your writing (without saying exactly that, of course).

As for writing a synopsis, Nicola's e-book about that very subject is out this week. I’ve ordered a copy and if it’s anything like as informative as her workshop it’ll be essential reading for writers. If you order in January, by the way, it will only cost £1.

Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan (Snowbooks, £8.99)

Friday 20 January 2012

Friday book review - Embassytown by China Miéville

Science fiction isn’t a genre that usually appeals to me – but the wonderfully-named China Miéville is an exception.

If you haven’t come across him before, Miéville is rapidly making a name for himself as a brilliant fantasy storyteller. He’s won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award for best sci-fi novel of the year three times and his writing, described by some as “weird fiction,” has even been compared to that of Kafka and Orwell.

His ninth book, Embassytown, is out in paperback this month (January) and if you’re looking for a book that’s completely unique, give it a go. Complex and awash with radical ideas and linguistic wordplay, it’s a book that requires 100 per cent concentration, but once you get to grips with the setting and the characters, it’s compelling.

Embassytown is a “small and crowded” ghetto on Arieka, a planet on the edge of the universe. It’s part of a much larger city inhabited by a mysterious alien race known as the Hosts - bizarre creatures who look like a cross between winged insects and horses and have two mouths. They talk by using both at once and their language is so difficult to master that few humans can speak it.

The story is narrated by Avice Benner Cho, a feisty young woman who has recently returned to her childhood planet with her new husband, an outsider who’s fascinated by the Hosts’ language.

Apart from a few spats, the humans and Hosts have lived alongside each other for years, but everything changes when a new ambassador arrives in Embassytown. Conflict looms and with the humans vastly outnumbered, Avice realises the only hope is for her to speak directly to the Hosts. But how can she possibly do that? 

The beauty of Miéville’s books is that he combines pacy storytelling with ingenious plots and deft characterisation. Even here, when he’s writing about space, time and planets where humans aren’t the only intelligent life, he manages to explore age-old themes like power, language, friendship and love. It's a great and highly original read.

Embassytown by China Miéville (Pan, £7.99)

Thursday 19 January 2012

What to drink in Dry January

“Are you trying out every soft drink that’s ever been made?” asked my son as I arrived back from the supermarket carrying an embarrassingly large bag of clinking bottles. His eyes gleamed as I unloaded Diet Coke, orange juice, ginger beer and elderflower cordial on to the kitchen table.

Yes, it’s Dry January and, as usual, I’m struggling to find anything I fancy drinking. Giving up alcohol is the easy part. The tricky bit is coming up with an alternative. Diet Coke gets boring after a few days, orange juice is too rich and as for Marks & Spencer's Fiery Ginger Beer, the taste is so strong that lightweight that I am, I can only manage half a glass. The best drink of all and the only one that I keep on buying without getting sick of it, is Bottlegreen's Ginger & Lemongrass.

Other drinks manufacturers are definitely missing a trick. So many people have stopped drinking alcohol this month that if they could come up with a delicious, non-calorie-laden substitute they’d make a fortune.

In desperation I turned to my writer friend Wendy for suggestions.  Like me, she and her husband Chris give up alcohol every January and I knew she’d be full of ideas. Sure enough, she had plenty. “Pomegranate juice with soda is lovely,” she wrote. “Tonic and fizzy water with a slice of lime. Lots of fresh mint tea (hot and chilled) plus that old Middle Eastern favourite - a jug of iced water flavoured with lemon and cucumber. Teetotaller's Pimms!”

Teetotaller's Pimms. It sounds like a winner. I reckon drinks companies should get to work on it straight away.

PS. I’ve just discovered that some crafty pals go for Dry February instead. Why? Because they only have to get through 28 days (or 29 this year), not 31… 

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Tanya Burr - the beauty blogging superstar

How times have changed. Six years ago Tanya Burr was a shop assistant on the beauty counter at Jarrold, the Norwich department store. Today she’s a YouTube sensation, with her online make-up tutorials attracting two million visitors a month and invitations to starry parties flooding in from around the world. Her style tips are so eagerly followed that a Mulberry handbag seen on her blog prompted a massive surge in hits on Mulberry’s own website.

But the most endearing thing of all about Tanya is that success doesn’t seem to have gone to her head. Not in the least. She still sounds down-to-earth and self-deprecating, insists she has no intention of swapping her Norfolk home for the bright lights of London and says her transformation from shop girl to international beauty guru was “totally unexpected.”

Her most recent video shows her sitting at her kitchen table with her angelic-looking little brother. Rosy-cheeked, wearing an apron and without a scrap of make-up, she says the pair of them have just spent the afternoon walking along the beach at Southwold and baking banana bread.

The best thing about Tanya’s make-up videos is that as well as being inspiring and professional, they are ultra-easy to follow. I’m the most cack-handed person when it comes to make-up but watching Tanya explain how to create this year’s stunning smoky eye look made me think that even I could do it.

“I really want to remain someone people can relate to and keep my tutorials professional and full of instructions,” she says. “The most important thing is to give viewers what they want and to keep the videos unique and professional.”

PS.  This year’s deadline for university applications in the UK has been and gone and thousands of teenagers are on tenterhooks as they wait for offers. I couldn’t help laughing, though, when I heard about the tongue-in-cheek rejection letter one student sent to Oxford University after her interview. “I have now considered your establishment as a place to read Law,” wrote 19-year-old Elly Nowell. “I very much regret to inform you that I will be withdrawing my application. I realise you may be disappointed by this decision, but you were in competition with many fantastic universities and following your interview I am afraid you do not quite meet the standard of the universities I will be considering.”

Tuesday 17 January 2012

My treasured Catherine Walker dress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 16 January 2012

Could you give up Twitter or Facebook?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 15 January 2012

Working mums and latchkey kids - the debate goes on

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 14 January 2012

Pret A Manger goes to Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 13 January 2012

Friday book review - Blood Red Road by Moira Young

I’m a huge fan of the Costa Book Awards. They’ve helped me discover loads of fantastic books over the years and when the organisers asked me to be a judge for the 2011 first novel of the year prize I was so excited I could hardly speak. The five 2011 category winners (novel, first novel, poetry, biography and children’s book) were announced last week and I can’t wait to discover the overall winner at the award ceremony in London on January 24.

But in the meantime I was thrilled to see that the winner of the children’s category is Blood Red Road by Moira Young.

I read the book last year and was so stunned by it that I immediately chose it as one of my top reads for teenagers in a Christmas round-up I wrote for a newspaper. As I said at the time: “The writing in Blood Red Road is so assured that it’s astonishing to find that this is Moira Young’s first novel.”

The Costa children’s book judges were similarly impressed, remarking that “she kept us reading and left us hungry for more. A really special book.”

So if you’re looking for a gripping read for a teenager (or yourself in fact), this is an amazing story, with hints of Cormac McCarthy. Set in a strange future world, it’s the powerful tale of Saba, a headstrong 18-year-old girl who sets out across the barren landscape beyond her remote desert home to find her kidnapped twin brother.

The first of a trilogy, the epic adventure is told in Saba’s own (and very unique) voice and will appeal to girls and boys alike. Saba, who’s accompanied on her quest by a clever crow called Nero, is a tough cookie, but as she encounters violence, cruelty and death, she refuses to give up hope.

Young, a former actress and singer who was born in Canada and now lives in Bath, used to be PA to the editor of the Bath Chronicle. She’s now a full-time writer and is working on her second book (I can’t wait for the next instalment!) Not only that, the film rights for Blood Red Road have already been snapped up by Ridley Scott’s production company. I’m not surprised – it really would make a great movie.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young (Marion Lloyd Books, £7.99)

Thursday 12 January 2012

Christenings - and my son's promise to his godmother

We’re not even halfway through January and my son’s stressed about exams, my daughter’s up against an essay deadline and my husband’s in Malaysia.

But my spirits rise when two thank-you letters arrive in the post. Coincidentally, they’re from each of my god-daughters – Kitty, a sophisticated 24-year-old Londoner, and Maddie, 11, whose gymnastic talents are a joy to behold. They live at opposite ends of the country and I don’t get to see them that often, but I’m a very proud godmother.

Christenings seem to be going out of fashion – around a third of babies born each year are christened – but even so, I love the idea of a special event (christening, naming ceremony, welcoming party, whatever) to celebrate the birth of your children. And choosing godparents to keep a weather eye out for them is even better.

One of my closest friends, my ex-Evening Standard pal Wendy Holden, is my son’s godmother and she’s a brilliant inspiration to him. He’s so devoted to her that he even deigned to accept her as a friend on Facebook (he ditched me long ago, I’m sad to say).

One of the things (and there have been many over the years) that most endeared her to him was the time he stayed at her house in Suffolk at the age of eight. She sat him down and explained that being a godmother wasn’t just about her sending him presents – it was a “two-way thing.” She jokily asked him what he was going to organise for her as a treat. He thought hard for a moment and declared that when he was 21 he’d collect her from her house on a motorbike and take her out to tea at the Ritz.

She stared at him in astonishment. “Hmm… I’m definitely holding you to that one,” she said.
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