Wednesday 29 February 2012

A tasteful shade of pale grey

Most weeks I don’t give House With No Name a second thought. Friends are keeping an eye on it for us and I’m pretty sure the cheeky dormouse who moved into the attic in the summer is having a whale of a time there with his pals.

But now the weather’s getting warmer (hooray!), I can’t wait to get out to France. I’ve got a picture of my tumbledown farmhouse above my desk and can’t help marvelling at how different it looks from five years ago. It has new windows, custom-made in Germany (much cheaper) and painted a tasteful shade of pale grey, a gorgeous south-facing terrace and a new tiled roof. I never thought I could get this excited about a roof, but it really is a work of art.

Before the work started we got a message from the local mayor. Friends told us we should get round to his office double-quick. “He wants to meet you,” they said, “and he’s only there on Tuesday afternoons.” This sounded scary. Was the mayor going to put an immediate stop to the building work because we’d failed to get a crucial bit of paper? Or did he simply want to give “les nouveaux Anglais” the once-over?

It turned out to be a bit of both. The deputy mayor was in charge that day and was ultra-charming. He told us the local commune numbered precisely 222 (all French, except for us and a Dutch family who bought a small chateau 25 years ago) and invited us to a sheep-roast in June. We politely expressed regret and said we’d love to, but our teenagers would be doing exams. You never know, maybe another year.

STOP PRESS (I've always wanted to write that!): Coming tomorrow. A fascinating interview with Karen Wheeler, beauty writer extraordinaire and author of Tout Sweet, Toute Allure and Tout Soul.

Guest post by Trouble Doubled - Twins: twice the work?

Happy Leap Year’s Day! I’m not sure whether such a celebration actually exists but considering that February 29 only comes round once every four years I reckon we should be shouting it from the rooftops. 

An enterprising fellow blogger – and author of the Trouble Doubled blog - agrees. She hit on the idea of running a blog swap carnival to mark the occasion and asked a host of bloggers to write guest posts for other bloggers. So I’ve written one for Here Come the Girls and I’m delighted to say that Trouble Doubled has written one for House With No Name. Here it is:

When I announced I was expecting twins, lots of different people started offering advice. Mainly family, and mainly older generations. Now, I’m not very good at listening to advice, especially from people who are no less clueless than myself on a particular topic, so of course, I inevitably ignored them.

The one piece of advice I heard most often from people (who I hasten to add had not had twins themselves) was that having two together was not much harder work than having only one baby.  This, of course, is complete and utter drivel.

The reality is that two babies are very hard work, and there are some things which really are twice as difficult with two, and some things that are nigh on impossible. On the plus side, I have found that there are some things which are easier.

For example, getting out and about anywhere isn’t just twice the work it’s actually more difficult than that. Single buggies are usually alright to fit through pretty much any shop door, or onto a bus. But with twins it isn’t about pushing two single buggies around, it’s usually a double width one. And you can’t fold up a buggy and carry it and the baby if necessary, twice over.  Once you have a baby in each arm, it’s impossible to do almost anything. The twins are yet to have their first bus trip.

Toddler incidents increase much more than two-fold. Having an active toddler is hard work for any parent, but it’s relatively easy to keep an eye on a singleton and prevent too many accidents and injuries. With two, it’s really tough because you can guarantee while you are being distracted by one, the other will be up to something which will end in a bump or a bruise. The twins seem to have had more accidents each than either of my older children had.

But then you get things that are not quite twice as bad, like sleep. If you can get your twins to co-ordinate their sleeping, waking and feeding, you will need to get up in the night as many times as a parent of a singleton, though you will likely be up for longer each time. Of course, you’ve twice the odds of getting a bad sleeper with twins, but I have also found that my twins settle better and sleep for longer than my older children did. I think this is because the twins keep each other company in the night.

On the positive side, some things are far easier, like play time. My twins are now a year old. They play together lovely. They chase each other round the room, laughing, completely oblivious to anyone else in there. They sit and babble to each other, passing each other toys. They don’t even notice when I leave the room for a minute or two if I need to. At this age, my older children would try and follow me out, banging on the door and screaming for me to come back. I don’t feel as clung to as I did previously. Result.

So if you are expecting multiples, please don’t listen to anyone who’s never had twins or more, themselves. They don’t know the half of it. Parenting multiples is a wonderful experience, which can be hard work but rewarding in so many ways."

Thank you very much, Trouble Doubled!

Tuesday 28 February 2012

The trials and tribulations of paperwork

When I went slightly mad a few years ago and decided to try my hand at teaching (I was useless), the main thing that made me throw in the towel was the endless paperwork.

For every lesson I taught at my local FE college, I had to fill in reams and reams of forms. There were the schemes of work to plan out lessons for the whole of the academic year, the lesson plans covering every single second of every single lesson and something called “reflective practice,” where I had to analyse everything from what teaching principles my lessons demonstrated to whether the class seating plan was up to scratch.

Admittedly, I was a trainee teacher so seasoned pros probably don’t have to bother with the reflective stuff, but even so, I was delighted to read in the Huffington Post this week that teachers’ paperwork is being cut right back.

According to the HuffPo report, the government has scrapped hundreds of pages of guidance issued to teachers. Schools minister Nick Gibb said in the House of Commons on Monday: “I am aware that many teachers are doing enormous amounts of overtime and that is a tribute to the professionalism of teachers in our schools today. What is important is that overtime is not spent filling in voluminous forms or reading huge arch lever files of guidance.”

Quite. For every second I spent agonising over my forms I reckon I could have taught my A level English sets the entire works of Tolstoy. Twice over.

PS. When we lived in France, my son loved Golden Grahams (above)But when we came back to the UK I couldn't find them anywhere. But now they've miraculously appeared on supermarket shelves again. Result? One very happy teenager...

Monday 27 February 2012

Jacqueline Wilson, B*Witched and sleepovers

A wave of nostalgia sweeps over me every time a gaggle of girls in navy blue polo shirts and matching skirts walks past the house. It seems no time at all since my daughter was a wide-eyed 11-year-old who loved Jacqueline Wilson books, glittery pens and a band called B*Witched (oh dear, she’s going to be furious with me for mentioning that).
But amidst all the wistfulness, the one thing I DON’T miss are sleepovers. The custom of inviting not one best friend, but four or five, to have supper and stay the night didn’t exist in my youth. But these days sleepovers are de rigueur for girls. They involve watching DVDs like The Sleepover Club, playing raucous music till all hours, eating vast quantities of sweets, chatting till 3am and getting up four hours later. And if you reckon your daughter has dark circles round her eyes the next morning, she won’t look half as tired as you feel.
Sleepovers are most parents’ nightmare – and they get worse as children get older. When my daughter was little we’d be lucky if she and her pals went to sleep by 11pm. One friend who stayed was terribly homesick while another felt ill in the middle of the night (probably after all those sweets) and had to be driven home.
Once the girls turn into teenagers, sleepovers involve even less sleep than before. They all bed down on the floor of the sitting room, watch a load of films back to back all night and emerge at dawn for endless rounds of hot buttered toast.
The worst part of it all is that having had practically no sleep the girls are pale, weary and in a filthy temper for the rest of the day. My exasperated husband always declared we should make the Sleepover Girls sleep in different rooms and switch the lights off at ten. The fact that this would have completely defeated the object of the whole exercise didn’t bother him in the least.  

Sunday 26 February 2012

The first picnic of the year

We’ve got a bit of a thing about picnics in our family. My mum was so evangelical about them that we used to picnic in all seasons and in all weathers. From rain-lashed, windswept beaches to sunlit Dorset fields, she chose picnic spots with an expert eye and reckoned that food always tasted better when you ate it outside.

Sometimes she’d unload a wicker hamper, old patchwork tablecloth, china plates and glasses from the back of her bright green 2CV and lay it all out on the grass. Other times she’d manage to stuff a whole picnic into the capacious pockets of her blue InWear coat. My husband still talks about the time, soon after he first met her, when we decided to walk to the beach at the lost village of Tyneham (above). As we sat on the pebbly shore, gazing at the boats tacking back and forth, she promptly produced hot cheese and tomato rolls, seasoned with mustard and wrapped in tin foil, and a flask of coffee for four out of her pockets.

And now, all these years later, my children are just as enthusiastic about picnics as my mum. So when we woke yesterday to discover that the grey skies and freezing temperatures had miraculously disappeared, they suggested an impromptu picnic. We hurriedly assembled a lunch of soup, rolls, cake and coffee and strolled down the road to Oxford’s lovely University Parks.

We walked to the middle of the park, stopping to admire the spring crocuses and snowdrops and passing dog walkers, Lycra-clad runners and parents with babies in prams. We chose a picnic spot near the river and marvelled how even in the middle of a bustling city, you can still be on your own. Then we glanced to our left. On a pitch in the distance, two teams, one sporting pale blue, the other navy blue, were charging around at top speed. Hundreds of cheering spectators seemed to have materialised from nowhere and a little marquee was selling T-shirts and hoodies. We looked again and burst out laughing. I don’t quite know how we’d managed it, but we were right in the middle of the annual Oxford v Cambridge mixed lacrosse varsity match. Did you know such a thing existed? No, me neither.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Why do baby girls always wear pink?

Victoria Beckham, who dresses her seven-month daughter Harper in subtle hues of cream, navy, black and slate grey, isn’t the only mum to eschew pink for girls.

When my daughter was born, I never dressed her in girly pink colours. For her christening party she wore a chic tartan all-in-one, while for her aunt's wedding she sported a blue silk beret from a milliners called Herald & Heart Hatters. Her most stylish outfit of all was an ochre jacket with bright orange buttons and matching tights.

I’ve never understood why parents love pink for a girl. Babies and toddlers look so much better in strong, vibrant colours than in washed out shades of pink and mauve. Admittedly a woman in the supermarket once tapped me on the shoulder and said “excuse me, your little boy’s hat has fallen over his face.” I thanked her politely and adjusted my daughter’s headgear, wondering why she’d assumed my baby girl was a boy simply because she was wearing navy blue dungarees.

And even though Harper is clearly the best-dressed baby in the world, why does her mum keeps talking about wanting to do “girly” things together? In an interview before Harper was born Victoria said she could imagine “painting her nails, putting on make-up and choosing clothes” as she grows up.

With two very independent-minded children, the one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t dictate their style, interests or clothes. So it’s perfectly possible that Harper Beckham, especially as she’s got three big brothers, may turn out to be the sort of girl who loves climbing trees, riding bikes and kicking a football round the park.  Then again, maybe she won’t.

Image: Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee, CC Attribution 3.0

Friday 24 February 2012

Friday book review - The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas

I’ve been a fan of Rosie Thomas’s novels for years. I’ve read virtually all of them and reckon my favourites are Follies (set in my home city of Oxford), Sunrise and White. Those three are certainly the ones that have made me cry the most.

Rosie is a keen traveller and over the years she’s climbed the Himalayas, competed in the Peking to Paris car rally and trekked across Antarctica. Not surprisingly, her exotic travels have provided the backdrop for lots of her books, including her latest, The Kashmir Shawl, which is out in paperback next week.

Her 20th novel, it’s set in two locations - the hills of North Wales, where Rosie grew up, and remote northern India. The story begins in 1939, when Nerys Watkins and Evan, her serious-minded Presbyterian husband, set out on a missionary posting to the Himalayas. After Evan travels further afield to preach, Nerys joins a group of glamorous friends in the lakeside city of Srinagar. The women live on houseboats, dance, flirt and fall in love – a world away from life with their husbands.

Sixty years later, long after Nerys’s death, her granddaughter Mair returns to Wales to clear out her late father’s house. There, hidden in a chest of drawers, she discovers an embroidered pashmina, with a lock of silky brown hair wrapped inside. There are no clues as to whose it was, so Mair decides to travel to Kashmir and unravel the story for herself. 

Rosie, who’s twice won the Romantic Novel of the Year award, is a wonderful storyteller. The Kashmir Shawl isn’t quite as breathtaking as White (and I found Nerys’s story far more interesting than Mair’s) but I was completely captivated by the images she paints of the rugged Himalayas and Kashmir’s beguiling beauty. When she describes Nerys’s arrival in Leh, a barren town cut off by snow for half of the year, you can sense the young woman’s shock at the cold, isolation and high altitude. “It was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of her brain and her blood,” writes Rosie, “leaving her whole body as limp as string.”

The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas (Harper, £7.99)

PS. The Kashmir Shawl has been shortlisted in the epic romantic novel category of the 2012 Romantic Novel of the Year award.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

The best children's book of the last ten years

Blue Peter is running a competition to find the best children’s book of the last ten years. The ten contenders include JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, Jacqueline Wilson’s Candyfloss and Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry and the Football Fiend.

The vote is open till 4pm tomorrow (February 23) and the winner will be announced on Blue Peter on March 1 – World Book Day. You can find out more here.

But today, to mark the competition, The Times has hit on the idea of asking the ten authors vying for the accolade to reveal the books they loved as children. And it turns out that JK Rowling loved I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, The Little White Horse and E.Nesbit, David Walliams adored Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while Jacqueline Wilson plumped for Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild.

Some great choices, but my own out-and-out favourites were The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown and Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (above).

Pamela Brown was only 14 when she wrote The Swish of the Curtain, a story about seven stage-struck children who launch their own theatre company in a disused church hall. Typing her manuscript on a battered old typewriter with two fingers took her a whole year and she then followed it up with four more – Maddy Alone, Golden Pavements, Blue Door Venture and Maddy Again. Those early editions are highly sought after collectors' items now, so I clearly wasn't the only fan.

Meanwhile Madeline is the tale of a little French orphan who gets into a series of scrapes at her school in Paris. It’s written in verse and the first lines are so captivating that I remember them to this day. “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines,” runs the story. “In two straight lines they broke their bread. And brushed their teeth and went to bed. They left the house at half past nine in two straight lines in rain or shine. The smallest one was Madeline.”

What did you read as a child? I’d love to hear.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Tribute to a fine reporter - Patrick McGowan

Sitting on the Oxford Tube on the way home from London last night, I flicked idly through the Evening Standard. There, on page five, was a single column paying tribute to one of the most outstanding reporters on the paper – Patrick McGowan, who died last week at the age of 60. 

Pat was a straight-talking Yorkshireman, who joined the Standard in 1978 and for nearly 30 years covered all the major stories of the day. He was a brilliant newsman, able to turn his hand to anything the news desk threw at him without any fuss.

During my first months at the paper I was a bit nervous of him. He was so calm and unruffled about reporting, even five minutes before the edition deadline, when the atmosphere was tense and everyone’s nerves were on edge. But he was kind and funny, with a dry wit that got right to the heart of things.

I didn’t realise until I read the Standard tribute (written by friend and longstanding colleague Paul Cheston) that it was Pat who coined the famous phrase “the wrong kind of snow.” The saying caught the imagination of thousands of fed-up commuters when London train services were completely disrupted in the winter of 1991 and went down in history. Every time I hear it now I’ll think of Pat, one of Fleet Street’s finest. RIP Pat.

Monday 20 February 2012

Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery

If you live in London and haven’t seen the amazing Lucian Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, go now.

I’d bought tickets as part of my husband’s Christmas present – a nifty idea on both counts as it was a treat to look forward to and I sneakily got to go along too. Actually, I wasn’t sure he’d make it as he arrived back at Heathrow on Saturday from Kuala Lumpur – bleary-eyed after a 13-hour flight and no sleep. But he insisted he wasn’t going to miss out on Freud, so after a bracing coffee (or ten) to revive him we pitched up at the gallery.

The exhibition is, quite simply, stunning. It spans seven decades and gives a real sense of Freud’s world – his family, friends and lovers, many of whom sat for him. The paintings themselves (more than 100 of them) are a tour de force, scrupulously detailed, often very personal and not necessarily flattering. I’m no art critic but stand-out paintings for me included Girl in a Dark Jacket, a wide-eyed portrait of his first wife Kitty Garman (above left), and a series of life-sized portraits of the late performance artist Leigh Bowery (famed for his amazing costumes and body piercings, he posed naked for Freud).

And then, of course, there are the incredible pictures of Big Sue, 20-stone benefits supervisor Sue Tilley, who sat frequently for Freud in the 1990s. Tilley once described to The Guardian how the sessions would start with Freud cooking breakfast. She’d then sit for him and said: “It taught me that it is real work: each painting took nine months, and he was seeking perfection right up to the minute he finished.”

The exhibition is expertly curated and many of the details I learned as we went round have stayed in my head. It was fascinating to learn, for instance, how in the mid-1950s Freud decided to paint standing up and to use coarse hog’s hair brushes, how he used hotel linen to clean his brushes and palette knives (the rumpled white linen often appears in his work) and how paintings often took more than a year to complete.  A 2002 portrait of David Hockney took 130 hours – though when Hockney asked his friend to sit for him in return, Freud sat for precisely two and a half hours.

Freud died last year (2011) at the age of 88 and the most poignant portrait in the exhibition is the last one of all. Portrait of the Hound depicts his assistant, the artist David Dawson, sitting naked with his whippet Eli. Unfinished (it hadn’t been seen by anyone outside Freud’s immediate circle till the exhibition), it’s  remarkable and very touching. 

Lucian Freud Portraits can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery in London till May 27 2012.

Sunday 19 February 2012

London Fashion Week - guest blog by student journalist Lottie Kingdon

As a student in London, I’m living in the fashion capital of the country, some might say the world. This is one of the many reasons I was adamant I had to come and study in London. Never in a million years, though, did I dream of getting a press pass to attend London Fashion Week. But it turns out that student media is regarded as highly valued publicity for designers, and that the tightly packed rows either side of the catwalk are not just full of fashion editors, bloggers and buyers, but student journalists too.

My first London Fashion Week was last season, SS12, and took place in September 2011. I attended on behalf of Fashion Hacks, the fashion branch of Wannabe Hacks, a website for aspiring journalists. Turning up on the first day was scary. For a start, I had swapped my heels for my flats on the bus there. So at 5ft 7in I was a good few inches shorter than anyone else crossing the courtyard at Somerset House. Collecting my press pass made me feel a bit better. I suddenly felt like I fitted in a bit more (even though I wasn’t wearing vertiginous heels, a neon pleated skirt or carrying a Proenza Schouler bag).

But once I got the hang of it, attending shows wasn’t daunting at all. Sitting alongside the catwalk when the lights go up at the start of a show is so exciting. Knowing that you are among the couple of hundred people to see a designer’s creations for the first time is a privilege and I got such a buzz from running to the press room to file show reports to be published online in double quick time (you can tell I’m the daughter of a hardened reporter!)

This fashion week, AW12, I feel like I know what I’m doing. I’m here with my student publication, Cub magazine, and attending shows, tweeting, taking pictures (like Carlotta Actis Barone's show, above) and filing copy is fun. My latest challenge was being asked to interview designer Bernard Chandran, after his show. I had a slight hiccup when I had to argue my way into the show in the first place - the show was so packed that the organisers shut the doors and refused to let anyone else inside. But the show was spectacular and Chandran was absolutely lovely – I think I got pretty lucky for my first interview.

So to conclude, London Fashion Week isn’t scary. Yes, it is full of ludicrously well dressed people in heels, but looking at what everyone is wearing is great fun too. In fact, waiting for a show to start is probably one of the few times that it’s fine to stare at complete strangers. When it comes down to it, what is important is what the designers have spent months and months creating. And there is some incredible talent about.

Saturday 18 February 2012

The PR who made me feel like a museum exhibit

The PR glanced at my scribble-filled notebook and did an astonished double take. “You write shorthand?” she gasped. “Wow. You’re the first journalist in ten years I’ve seen do that.”

Her words made me feel like a museum exhibit from a bygone age. But then again, shorthand is one of the most useful skills I’ve ever learned. Before I started as a trainee reporter on a small weekly paper on the edge of Dartmoor I spent eight weeks in a shabby Plymouth Portakabin mastering the rudiments of a shorthand called Teeline. Our teacher was the delightful Ella, who must have been in her sixties and thought Teeline was the bees-knees. Only when I’d got up to a decent speed did my editor send me out to cover the local magistrate’s court, industrial tribunals and the thing I dreaded more than anything, the district council’s planning committee meeting.

Even now I use my 100 words per minute shorthand every day. It's a bit scrappy these days, with the odd word written in longhand, but when it comes to tight deadlines and interviewing people on the phone, a notebook and pen are still the best tools for the job. Far easier and far speedier than laboriously transcribing from a tape recorder. And there are still places where you can’t use a recorder, like courts for a start.

Shorthand seems to be a dying art so I was delighted to see it in the headlines this week. Why? Because a diary kept by First World War veteran Edward Sigrist has just been discovered in his family’s attic. It’s written in an obsolete form of shorthand and gives a vivid account of the dangers and discomforts of life on the front line.

Like most journalists I’ve hung on to most of my old notebooks. They’re stacked up all over the place in my office – but somehow I don’t think historians of the future will be poring over them.

Friday 17 February 2012

Friday book review - A Midsummer Tights Dream by Louise Rennison

Once described as “Enid Blyton meets Cosmo Girl,” Louise Rennison’s books are hilarious romps for teenage girls who love sparkly nail varnish, Topshop and boys.

With their fluorescent covers and wacky titles, Rennison’s stories are snapped up in their millions by fans around the world. Her last novel, Withering Tights, won the 2011 Roald Dahl Funny Prize, set up by writer Michael Rosen to celebrate books that make children laugh.

Withering Tights was the first of a trilogy about an irrepressible teenage heroine called Tallulah Casey, who enrols at Dother Hall, a performing arts college in the wilds of Yorkshire, only to discover that she can’t actually act or sing. Oh, and at first glance there don’t seem to be any boys around either.

Now the second in the series, A Midsummer Tights Dream, is out and it’s just as crazy (and strewn with exclamation marks!!!) as the first. After a barnstorming performance as a comic Heathcliff earned Tallulah a place at Dother Hall for another term, she’s determined to throw herself into the experience with gusto. The trouble is that she's worried about her gangly legs and her cousin Georgia’s “scoring system for snogging” and her feelings for local bad boy Cain Hinchcliff and whether she’ll ever “climb the ladder of showbiz.” And if all that isn’t enough, it suddenly transpires out that the future of Dother Hall hang in the balance.

Warm-hearted, with snappy dialogue and a clutch of laugh-out-loud jokes, girls aged 12 and over will love it. 

A Midsummer Tights Dream by Louise Rennison (HarperCollins, £10.99)

Thursday 16 February 2012

Hotel review - The Hoxton, London

In my days as an on-the-road reporter I used to stay in hotels quite a lot. Now my hotel stays are as rare as my trips to the gym. But this week I hotfooted it to east London to spend two days with my daughter. After scouring scores of websites we eventually plumped to check into The Hoxton in Great Eastern Street. As well as being just round the corner from Spitalfields, Columbia Road and all the places we wanted to visit, it looked good value and good fun.

And so it proved. The Hoxton, which opened in 2006, focuses on the things customers really care about. The room prices are cheaper the further in advance you book and every so often there’s an online £1 a room sale. Instead of leaving endless reams of literature in your room, they give you the basics about room service and the flat screen TV on postcards labelled the “really boring stuff.” 

Rates for the night include free WiFi (no annoying codes), tea bags, bottles of water, milk, copy of The Guardian and a Pret breakfast of orange juice, banana and granola delivered to your door in a paper carrier bag. Oh, and there’s a corkscrew so you can bring your own bottle of wine and actually open it. The twin room we stayed in was small (with an en suite shower room) but the beds were super comfortable, with fine cotton sheets and duck down duvets.

The best bit was sitting by an enormous open fire on the ground floor, lounging back on a massive leather Chesterfield with the morning papers and a skinny latte. The only drawback was that it was all so comfy that at 11.30am we had to pull ourselves together and actually go out and do something.

When we got back to the hotel that night we were so exhausted that we couldn’t summon up the energy to eat in the hotel restaurant, the Hoxton Grill – all exposed brickwork, huge wooden tables and chic lamps. So we ordered a bowl of chestnut hummus (delicious) and some flatbread, poured ourselves a glass of Pinot Grigio each and settled down in front of the BAFTAs. Bliss.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

The flower market at Columbia Road

The flower market in London’s Columbia Road has been on my “must visit” list for years. Every Sunday the narrow street in the heart of the East End is filled with stalls selling everything from hyacinths to narcissi to ten-foot banana trees. I knew it would be exactly my sort of thing.

Reading Joanna Trollope’s Daughters-in-Law a couple of weeks back reminded me it was high time I got my act together and went. In the book, graphic designer Luke lives in a flat “at the very top of a tall and elaborate brick building in Arnold Circus, a stone's throw… from Columbia Road flower market, from Brick Lane, from – oh my God – Hoxton.”

So this weekend, with my husband in the Far East and my son whizzing down an Italian mountainside on a snowboard (scary), I reckoned I had the perfect opportunity. Luckily my student daughter lives just round the corner and she sweetly agreed to come with me. Actually, her favourite clubs, bars and “the best bagel shop in the world” are in that neck of the woods so she didn’t take much persuading.

Sure enough, Columbia Road is everything it’s cracked up to be. Open from eight am till “three-ish” every Sunday, the place is alive with stallholders yelling “three bunches for ten pounds,” shoppers of all ages clutching flowers wrapped in brown paper and 20-somethings dressed in tweedy, old-fashioned outfits that look straight out of a Dickens novel.

Along with the flower stalls, the Columbia Road shops (open on Sundays) are pretty top-notch too. Between the pair of us we bought cards from Ryantown (artist Rob Ryan’s shop), homemade cakes from a delightfully-named bakery and gift shop called Treacle and two gold buttons from Beyond Fabrics for my daughter’s coat.

From there it was just a brisk walk (it was blooming cold) round to Brick Lane. Famed for its curry houses and vintage shops, the place was as busy as Oxford Street in the pre-Christmas rush. Street artists sat sketching, visitors queued up to buy curries and bagles (tucking in appreciatively as they walked down the street) and old and young alike played chess and a game called Carrom (apparently a cross between draughts and billiards) at outdoor board tables. 
Hmmm. Curry, flowers and board games – what better way to spend a Sunday afternoon?
Images: Columbia Road (top), Arnold Circus (above)

Monday 13 February 2012

Parking and coffee - the French way

I thought I was clued up about France, but thanks to Michael Wright and his brilliant C’est la folio column in the Daily Telegraph I’ve just discovered something new.

Apparently, if you invite French guests to dinner they will always turn their car around when they arrive, ready for a neat, speedy getaway at the end of the evening.

It’s a brilliant idea – and one my mother took up years ago. She got so fed up with the embarrassment of doing a complicated 36-point turn as her hosts watched that she hit on the idea of always parking her car with the bonnet facing in the direction of home.

I started copying her example after I had lunch with friends in Northamptonshire. They had a very narrow driveway and as I reversed gingerly out, I suddenly saw that their smiles and waves had turned to frantic gestures and looks of horror. But too late. I backed straight into a bollard on the pavement in front of their very eyes, destroying my bumper and most of the bollard in the process...

PS. Michael Wright also pointed out that nobody in France puts milk in their coffee. It just isn’t done. In fact if you even dare to order a café crème after midday in France you’ll get a withering look. It must be a petit café or an espresso. Nothing else will do. In similar vein, if you ask for a “well done” steak you’ll get very short shrift. I once asked for my steak to be “bien cuit” in a chic brasserie in Paris (above). The waiter looked surprised and seconds later the chef, in his cooking whites, stormed out of the kitchen and shouted his head off at me for daring to ask for such a thing. “Not in my restaurant,” he yelled at the top of his voice.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Amanda Hocking and Kerry Wilkinson - self publishers extraordinaire

Self publishing used to be the Cinderella of the book industry. Critics looked down their noses at self-published books and assumed self publishing (or “vanity publishing,” as it was snootily called) was the desperate last resort of writers who’d failed to find a mainstream publisher for their work.

But how things have changed. It recently emerged that US author Amanda Hocking makes more than £1 million a year from her self-published books. Readers, it seems, can’t get enough of her paranormal fiction and she’s selling more than 100,000 e-books a month.

On this side of the Atlantic, the latest success story is Kerry Wilkinson, a Lancashire sports journalist who’s sold more than 250,000 copies of his crime thrillers. Instead of hawking his first novel, Locked In, round the nation’s publishing houses, he decided to self publish it as an e-book - at 98p a copy. Even though he didn’t have an agent or publicist to help him, he soon realised he was on to a winner. Locked In and its two follow-ups, Vigilante and The Woman in Black, sold so well that he was declared the bestselling e-book author at Amazon’s UK Kindle store for the last quarter of 2011.

But despite sales that many better-known writers would give their eye teeth for, Kerry still sounds delightfully down-to-earth. “I’ve only ever tried to do my own thing,” he told the Daily Telegraph last week. “I wrote a book I thought I would like and enjoyed doing it enough to write follow-ups. I had no expectations for it and so this has all been terrific.”

Now other writers are fast getting in on the act. Not only that, I’ve met several authors recently who are self publishing out of print titles. Actually, I reckon I’m missing a trick. I’m definitely going to look at self publishing my first two novels, Hard Copy and Moving On (above), very soon. Watch this space.

PS. When I switched on Radio 4 soon after 7am this morning I expected the news to be full of the NHS reforms, Syria and Greece. But instead, Whitney Houston's gorgeous I Will Always Love You was playing. It seemed slightly odd - and then I realised it could only mean one thing. Such sad, sad news.

Friday 10 February 2012

Friday book review - The Soldier's Wife by Joanna Trollope

After failing to be 100 per cent convinced by Joanna Trollope’s Daughters-in-Law, I decided to give her latest novel a go this week. The Soldier’s Wife certainly sounded promising. It’s the story of a mother-of-three whose army major husband has just returned home after a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

While her husband was away Alexa Riley did everything – looked after their three-year-old twins, coped with the boarding school misery of her teenage daughter, cooked, cleaned, mowed the lawn, serviced the boiler and got offered a prestigious teaching job. But far from being the blissful homecoming she expects, her husband Dan seems unable to adjust to family life again. As Alexa observes:  “He’s back, but he’s not back, not in any sense that’s any use to me or his family. And if one more person tells me just to give him time, or that I knew what I was taking on, or that I’m so lucky to have the security, I will just… kill them.”

Trollope has clearly researched army life meticulously. Indeed, as I mentioned last week, an army wife interviewed by Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4's Woman’s Hour said she’s got every single detail right in the book.

I don’t know much about modern army life but my father was in the RAF when I was little and lots of Trollope’s observations resonated with me. The married quarters painted in magnolia, the formality of the officers’ mess, the constant moving house (between the ages of five and eleven I went to six schools) and the dilemma of how army wives can keep their own careers going when they’re never in one place for more than two years. Some women put up with it – as a brigadier’s wife says in the book “you just adapt your skills and career ambitions to the Army” – but a growing number of wives, Alexa among them, are starting to question the frequent upheavals.

With military wives (and the brilliant Military Wives choir) very much in the news these days, Joanna Trollope has cleverly captured the zeitgeist in her latest novel. A far more substantial and satisfying read than some of her most recent books, it gives a moving snapshot of what life as an army wife is really like. Warts and all.

The Soldier’s Wife by Joanna Trollope (Doubleday, £18.99)

Thursday 9 February 2012

The loveliest hotel I've stayed in

The icy weather and sub-zero temperatures are making me dream of the House With No Name. Of long, lazy lunches under the plane tree and games of boules on the dusty courtyard. I’m kidding myself of course because it’s minus six degrees in our part of France and I’m just hoping that the cheeky dormouse living in the attic hasn’t moved all his mates in.

I got to thinking about France because a brochure for one of the loveliest hotels I’ve ever visited has just arrived in the post. Twenty-five miles from Avignon, Hotel Crillon le Brave (above) is perched on a Provençal hilltop – with amazing views across tiled roofs to vineyards, olive groves and majestic Mont Ventoux in the distance.

We stayed there en route to the House With No Name one year and it was my idea of heaven. The evening began with a glass of chilled rosé on the terrace. A jazz duo played softly in the background and as darkness fell, we had dinner by candlelight, spellbound by the dark clouds gathering over 6,000-ft Mont Ventoux. The immaculately-attired Maitre D didn’t bat an eyelid. “There will be a storm in the middle of the night – not before,” he assured us. “I know Mont Ventoux well and I am confident.” His prediction was right, of course. After torrential rain overnight, we woke next morning to brilliant sunshine and blue sky.

When it opened 20 years ago Crillon le Brave consisted of one house and 11 rooms. Now it has 32 rooms and seven buildings, a mini spa and the most charming hotel staff, all bilingual. But it’s the stunning decor that’s the icing on the cake. Pale grey shutters and woodwork, blissfully comfortable beds, stylish bathrooms and cool terracotta floors. Now if only I could make the House With No Name look like that…

Wednesday 8 February 2012

David Beckham and the art of being an embarrassing parent

“Have I ever been an embarrassing parent?” I asked my son the other day. “Quite often,” he muttered with feeling. 

He then proceeded to list everything I’d done to show him up, from the day I fell off a fairground roundabout (stone-cold sober, I hasten to add) to all the times I’d insisted on staying to watch him ride his bike at the skate park. I pretended I wasn’t with him by sitting on a bench and reading the paper, but he still wasn’t best pleased.

So I felt an awful lot better when I picked up this week’s issue of Grazia and read an interview with David Beckham to mark the launch (this was the crowd that turned out!) of his new Bodywear range for H&M.

Asked what his three sons (presumably baby Harper is too little to have an opinion) make of his posing in his pants, he admitted: “They come out with remarks like ‘Oh my God, Daddy, not again,’ or ‘Everyone’s going to see you in your pants!’”

The pictures, emblazoned across thousands of billboards, are clearly working though, because Beckham’s boxers, vests and even long johns are flying off the shelves. And if it’s any comfort to Becks, embarrassing your children is part of being a parent.

I remember that when I was about 11 me and my sister went shopping in Bournemouth every Saturday with my mum. She didn’t drive in those days so on the way back we’d get a taxi home from The Square. As we turned into our road, she’d lean forward and say to the cabbie “it’s just past the fifth lamp-post on the right.” For some inexplicable reason I’d squirm with embarrassment every time she said it. “You always say that,” I’d protest. “Well it always is just past the fifth lamp-post on the right,” she’d reply.

Image © Nick Harvey

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Lost in the fog - and Jools Oliver's new children's range

For a moment I nearly panicked. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, in freezing fog, with no phone signal and not a clue where I was going. I was off to my monthly book club, with a copy of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women tucked in my bag, but it looked like I wasn’t going to make it. 

Of all the stupid things to do, I hadn’t checked where I was heading before I set off. The February meeting was at P’s new house in one of the loveliest villages in Northamptonshire. She’s only just moved in and I hadn’t visited before - but I assumed finding it would be a piece of cake. After years as a news reporter, haring off all over the country at a drop of the hat, my sense of direction hasn’t failed me very often. So all good, except I don’t have a sat nav and I’d left in such a hurry that I hadn’t phoned P for directions or printed out a map. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll just get to the village and ring P from there.”

Only it wasn’t as simple as that. The snow has vanished from Oxford as fast as it arrived but the winding country lanes of Northamptonshire are a different story. As I drove at snail’s pace along the back roads, past snow-covered hedgerows, rabbits skittering in the ice and posters emblazoned with the words “No HS2 Rail Link” fluttering from the trees, thick fog descended and I could only see about two metres in front of my nose.

Finally, half an hour late, I drove gingerly into P’s gorgeous but alarmingly hilly village. Reaching for my mobile in the pitch black, my heart sank. “No service,” said the illuminated words on the screen. I’d stupidly failed to appreciate that in the wilds of the countryside O2’s signal is patchy to say the least. I drove up the hill, peering at the country cottages, all shrouded in darkness. There wasn’t a soul about and I briefly contemplated knocking on doors, reporter-style, but was too much of a wimp. After managing a scary 28-point turn to avoid ending up on the icy verge, it seemed my only option was to concede defeat pathetically and drive the 40 miles home.

And then suddenly, for a second at the top of the hill, a tiny bit of signal miraculously appeared. Another book club friend answered my call and yes, I made it to book club after all. Late, flustered and slightly incoherent, but I made it.

PS.  I’m not usually a fan of celebrity collaborations but I reckon Jamie Oliver’s wife Jools is a great choice to design a range of children’s clothes for Mothercare. The mother of four (three girls and one boy) is ultra-stylish, down-to-earth and I reckon she’ll come up with clothes that mums want to buy and children want to wear.

Monday 6 February 2012

Why this year's snowfall made me sad

We were walking along St Giles when the first snowflakes fell. With temperatures below zero and our feet turning to blocks of ice, the snow had been threatening to arrive all day – and finally it had. With a vengeance.

My teenage son took one look and immediately walked faster, keen to get back to the warmth of home and the excitement of his Xbox. I felt a bit sad. This was the first time snow hadn’t made him leap up and down in excitement. Up until a year ago he’d take one look outside and think “sledges, snowmen, snowball fights with the boys next door.” Before I knew it, he’d be grabbing a jumble of clothes (no coat of course) and would be frantically unlocking the back door, desperate to hurl himself into the wintery world outside.

He’d be as happy as Larry all day. He’d get through four changes of clothes (all those snowballs), build a snowman taller than himself and rootle about in the garden shed for the sledge my mother gave him. I remember the year he came back inside at the end of the day, soaked to the skin, exhausted and beaming with happiness. He then rushed upstairs to post a cheery message on Facebook. “Yay, no school,” he wrote. “Thank you snow.”

But now he’s 17 he’s not interested in a paltry few inches of snow. It might make the dreaming spires of Oxford look even more beautiful, but he needs several feet of the stuff to play in. He wants to leap off mountains and do scary twirls in the air on a snowboard. Sadly, our current frosting of snow just doesn’t cut the mustard as far as he's concerned.

PS. My husband times his work trips to the Far East impeccably. While I’m gingerly picking my way along the icy Oxford pavements in my grippiest shoes and wondering whether I can get the car out, he’s on a flight halfway across the world. Next stop – Kuala Lumpur. Temperature – 25 degrees C.

Image: Oxford snow by tevjanphotos, Oxford Light

Sunday 5 February 2012

The only time you see teenagers out with their parents

At the crack of dawn next week my son will thrust a hastily downloaded Google map at me, plug his favourite Justice tracks into the car’s audio system and we’ll set off for yet another university open day (snow permitting!)

The only trouble is that after visiting a handful of universities already, they’re all starting to blur into one. Neither of us can remember which boasts 22 Nobel Prize winners, which has a library with four million books and which serves coffee that tastes like old socks.

University open days are a new and weird phenomenon in our lives. When I went I more or less stuck a pin in the map and hoped for the best. Today’s teenagers get bombarded with leaflets and letters, spend hours trawling through the UCAS website and are encouraged to visit universities all over the shop before applying. The only trouble is that when they get to open days they meet academics in tweed jackets quoting statistics like 1,000 applicants for fewer than 100 places.

Even more bizarre is the sight of thousands of 17 and 18 year olds trailing round campuses with their middle-aged parents. Some look dead embarrassed to be seen out with their mums and dads, while others are clearly livid that their parents have muscled in on the trip. I’ve scored a double. I’m in both categories.

And this year there’s something new to worry about. The newspapers are full of doom and gloom about tuition fees trebling to an eye-watering £9,000 a year and students being saddled with debt for the rest of their lives. I take one look and stuff the papers in the bin. This university lark is hard enough without worrying about that right now…

PS. Forget my hankering for a 2CV. I’ve just spotted my new dream car outside Jamie Oliver's restaurant in Islington (see above!)
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