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The Story of Furniture

Posted on: Thursday, 28 November 2013

"After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and lustre of different woods, their colours, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents - "sometimes, when you're not sure what you have, it's easiest just to take a sniff" - spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood..."

"Downstairs - weak light, wood shavings on the floor - there was something of the feel of a stable, great beasts standing patiently in the dim. Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture, in how he talked of the pieces as 'he' and 'she', in the muscular, almost animal quality that distinguished great pieces from their stiff, boxy, more mannered peers and in the affectionate way he ran his hand along the dark, glowing flanks of his sideboards and lowboys, like pets. He was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he'd taught me how to identify a reproduction: by wear that was too even (antiques were always worn asymmetrically); by edges that were machine-cut instead of hand-planed (a sensitive fingertip could feel a machine edge, even in poor light); but more than that by a flat, dead quality of wood, lacking a certain glow: the magic that came from centuries of being touched and used and passed through human hands."

"To contemplate the lives of these dignified old highboys and secretaries - lives longer and gentler than human life - sank me into calm like a stone in deep water, so that when it was time to go I walked out stunned and blinking into the glare of Sixth Avenue, hardly knowing where I was." 


I'm still reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch

On the morning that Theo Decker is due to have a meeting with his school Principal, possibly about to be excluded for standing with his friend Tom Cable as he smoked a cigarette on school premises, an explosive device tears apart a New York art gallery. For the second time that week, Theo find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He escapes unscathed; his mother is killed. 

At his feet in the ruins of the gallery, he spots a painting his mother admired: Fabritius' The Goldfinch. Miraculously, it's completely intact. Dazed, shaking, he slips it into his bag and picks his way through the debris to the outside world. 

The good stuff thus far: well, the description of the blast is bloody impressive; and written before 9/11, h'apparently. And the grief of a teenage boy - the injustice and impossibility of it - "there had to be some way I could go back to the rainy street and make it all happen differently" - is beautifully rendered. Some days his whole body rings like a tuning fork and he watches film after film, numb. Other days, he turns the shower up to full power, gets in and howls. 

And I mean, who couldn't love passages like the above? 

Buuuut - and I'm resisting the urge to say that there IS a but, but there is - look, there it is, just there, three of them, in fact - I'm now just about 300 pages in and things are getting a bit strange. Theo, having been reunited with his dear old Pa and shipped out to Vegas to live with him, seems to have hooked up with a new friend, Boris, and is turning into a bit of a wastrel. There's been a lot of bloody fist fights and throwing up in swimming pools. 

Anyway. I shall persevere and let you know. 


In other news, the furniture passages above reminded me of a kiddies' book I bought ages ago in Sedbergh and inspired me to dig it out and make a framed print a bit like my Swimming, Swimming, In The Swimming Pool project. Guess what I'm doing this weekend? Apart from watching series 2 of The West Wing and making a voodoo doll of Donna/Dana, obvs. And Mandy, if I have the time.  

National Stress Awareness Day

Posted on: Wednesday, 6 November 2013

So, a certain lovely blogger brought this Blog Something Every Day in November challenge to my attention, and for one crazy moment I thought, I can do that, YEAH MAN, bring it ON!

And then I remembered that I'm a fan of of the Blogging Disappearing Act (see here, here and, well, pretty much every third post on this blog for further evidence). 

Foolish Laura. Overestimating your productivity once again, I see.

But then today's prompt was National Stress Awareness Day and I thought, well, surely I have something to say about that. I mean, I have a marking pile that deserves its own postcode, an exhaustion-induced twitchy eyelid and the seven worst weeks of the academic year in terms of slog-value ahead. Oh, and an ongoing IBS saga (glad you checked in tonight, eh?) 

Are you a stresshead? I am. I wrote a poem when I was eight and I can still remember one of the lines: 'I really am a worrier/I hate a telling off.' Laureate-worthy, I know. It's not so much the telling off that bothers me now, but the worrier bit's still true. I'm a people pleaser. I want everyone to be OK. I'm utterly obnoxious in the way that I believe that it's only me - no one else - who's capable of doing it, whatever 'it' is: marking the essay, putting up the wall display, whatevs. But in the meantime I'm smiling at everyone and trying not to offend them and worrying that I've trodden on their toes and....argh. It's a 'mare. I wish I didn't care so much - about an email to a parent, about my crooked teeth, about the phone charger being on the floor and not in the phone-charger-box (Hello Anal-Phone Charger-Obsessives-Anonymous, are you there?) in the drawer - but I do. 

And actually, that's a lie about wishing I didn't care so much. It's important to care. But not to the point of going completely bonkers, eh? 

So what words of wisdom do I have? Well, I'd start with DON'T follow the advice of a Deputy Head I worked with onceuponatime who said of another member of staff, "I mean, she said she was stressed. STRESSED? Pfft! I mean, every member of the Senior Leadership Team's got a prescription for beta blockers MINIMUM! It's how you get promoted in this school!" 

Um. Okaaaay. Life doesn't have to be like that, you know. 

Be strict with yourself. Have a cut-off point. Take a breath. Be appropriately selfish. Say 'no' when you need to so that your 'yes' means summat. Make a sign for your office door that reads 'DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL - GO AWAY' for when you want some uninterrupted time - you know, for marking, or staring agape at Buzzfeed. Make time to do something you want to do - paint your nails, write a blog post, go to a dogs' home and take one of those poor buggers for a walk - anything to help you come back to what you normally do with renewed vigour. 

And, in desperate times, make sure you have a well-scheduled trip somewhere - oo, say to London - to meet up with friends, go to the theatre, eat Mexican food in Soho and drink cocktails until it's the wee hours and an eye-rolling waitress tells you to DUFO*. 

And there you have my weekend plans. Eek. Can't wait. Hope you have something similarly lovely planned?

* It's an acronym. Got it?

**pictures from vhmckenzie here


Posted on: Friday, 25 October 2013

I mean holiday-ay in the manner of a Madonna singalong. Thinking about it, though, personal gusto reserves are pretty depleted after an eight-week half-term and I have a bit of a sore throat so if I were to sing it I'd probably sound more like Robbie in The Wedding Singer than Lady Madge. 

Everybody spread the word
I live in my sister's baaaaaasement....

We've had two training days (two!) Thursday and Friday this week, which was a blessed moment of inspiration on somebody's part. Nothing puts a body of staff in a collective sunny mood like wearing jeans, eating free pain au chocolat and having some time to climb down from the top of one's tree and have a bit of a tidy up. My office is spotless and the world is MINE for the taking!

We also had the obligatory pre-half-term training session, except this one was really rather good. The speaker (this guy, formerly of The Bill and Casualty, ooo) won me over pretty quickly when he began with a Hamlet quote on self-doubt - "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams" - and continued by using Henry V as an example of inspirational leadership. 

Henry V. Worrrr. The good stuff. 

Lots was learned, including the Important Soundbite that sometimes people need to unburden themselves - also known as whinging - and THAT'S OK. I mean, if they're genuinely trying to derail fundamental ways of working then it probably needs dealing with, but everyone needs a good old moan now and again. If instead you vow to hate them forever and record their spiteful words in your Little Book of Personal Grudges, you're actually being more of a Macbeth than a Henry V AND WE ALL KNOW HOW THAT TURNED OUT, DON'T WE?

So I've had two days of sort-out time and inspo and I'm currently busying myself by making a sign for my office door which reads 'DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL - GO AWAY' for when I'm having a night-before-Agincourt moment. 

We're up at 3:30am tomorrow to get a flight to Spainland. A week in the company of leathery 11am brandy-loving Brits awaits.  I cannot wait to be one of their number.  

Baby, baby, baby you should see me now

Posted on: Tuesday, 15 October 2013

So when you build your house
then call me


So no great shakes here. 

Work and that. Busy busy.

Oh, apart from I went to see Fleetwood Mac. You know, Fleetwood Mac. No big deal. The greatest band of all time (ssh, no one tell Jarvis).

Let me list the trials involved in seeing Fleetwood Mac midweek in Antwerp:

1) Getting the tram back INTO Brussels from work and getting train back OUT of Brussels to Antwerp (trial admittedly eased by a cheeky Kriek and a weirdo cassis dessert)
2) Staying in a shabby budget Ibis which smelt of fags and the lobby of which was full of men wearing knock-off sportswear carting about hundreds - hundreds - of black binliners. 
3) An ill-advised burger at midnight. Stevie does whet the appetite somewhat. 
4) Getting the 5:44 train back to Brussels the following morning after four beers and ill-advised burger to go and teach and think and work all day. 

The final verdict is, however, that all trials were completely Worth It. 

Here follows my thank you letter to the Mac:

Dear John McVie, 

You didn't say a right lot (um, that would be nothing), but you did wear a very nice white flat cap. 


Dear Mick Fleetwood,

You look more and more like Santa Claus as the years go by. 

Your drum solo was brilliant. 'Are you with me?' YEEEEEEEAH!


Dear Lindsey Buckingham, 

I thought you were rather dashing, if a bit skeletal-faced. Then you started to sweat quite a lot (I appreciated the sweat.)  

PS Tusk was wicked. 


Dear Miss Nicks,

I'm so in awe I can't bring myself to write 'Dear Stevie'. 

You blew me away with your tambourine and your ribbons and your dress like a medieval bat. 

You owned that stage like a luxe version of Goldie Hawn. 

And the hair; the impossible mermaid hair. Just wow. 

I think that bit where they take the mick out of your voice on South Park is a bit cruel, to be honest. You are a cathedral of quivering awesomeness and I bow before your greatness. 


Dear Stage Designers, 

All of the stuff in the background was brilliant. 

Spinning worlds and exploding stars and rising smoke and snarling bears and blinking eyes and swirling psychedelica. A+ for everything.

What's that? You want a poor quality video of the last 36 seconds of Landslide? Well, you've come to to the right place! Enjoy.  



Posted on: Tuesday, 1 October 2013

October! *doubleblink* October is here, and it's a palace.

This is as good a place to start as any. 

Staring at Lakes by Michael Harding

Posted on: Monday, 19 August 2013

Depression. Not exactly a topic to get people racing to the Amazon check-out button, eh? However the subtitle of Michael Harding's Staring at Lakes is 'A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking', which sounds less oppressive and a fair bit more New Age-y and, if I'm honest, probably made me linger a little longer when I first spotted it in The Gutter Bookshop in Dublin a few weeks ago. Make no mistake, though, this is definitely a book about depression: about its physical manifestations and the way it cuts a mind to ribbons; about a life spent searching for a solution in the sanitary life of the Catholic priesthood and years later in the slums of India. A pretty nasty physical illness, some fairly 'out there' therapy methods and a significant amount of navel-gazing later and Harding has his answer to the depression conundrum. 

More of that in a minute.

You see, Harding - novelist, playwright, Irish Times columnist - is depressed, and has been for a lifetime. Late in the book he comments drily that this is perhaps literally true; he started crying from the moment he exited the womb and was a maungy kid whose constant bawling cut short the family holiday in Enniscrone one year. 

But forget the crying - the crying isn't important. Unlike so many people who write about depression, Harding isn't into describing the minutiae of the chemical cocktails he's required to take or construct pages and pages of extended metaphors of the drowning/dark veil/black dog variety. Like he says on the back cover, this started out as a book about depression, but it's not a bloated, self-important work, nor - and this is important - is it actually depressing itself. Somehow along the way, everything else in Harding's life wound its way into it: his childhood, his early vocation, his writing, his marriage, his travels,  his humour, the ever-present figure of Father Fingers, the priest of his youth who called his young charges 'asses' - they're all there in a ramshackle orderlessness, popping up wherever Harding sees fit. I suppose his point might be that these things 'drop in' to the narrative in much the same way as thoughts - welcome or unwelcome, happy or depressive - sneak up on the unwitting human mind in real life.

Let me state an obvious point that struck me about Staring at Lakes: Harding is a man. He thinks like a man and he writes like a man. Sometimes his man-ness is a perhaps a bit too much (his description of his rock-hard erection as he lies in a chaste Buddhist monk's cell in Mongolia...erm, yeah. Insert eyes-popping-straight-mouthed emoticon here). But overall I found it refreshing to get a male perspective. So much of writing that is openly and honestly (and famously) about depression is by women, it seems. There's a whole litany of wearying and teenagey Girl, Interrupteds and Prozac Nations out there, and it pisses me of a bit that some of my favourite writers - Woolf and Plath - are pigeon-holed as the poster-girls of literary misery to the extent that it dominates everything we know and think of them. But that's a discussion for another day.

So Harding takes us on a wander through the years and a wander through his mind. We see the little boy who dressed up in his mother's clothes and shoes in imitation of the Child of Prague on the mantelpiece; a step that not-so-illogically led him to the frocks and fripperies of the Catholic priesthood in his 20s. He writes of the Church as being an exciting institution in the 70s, post-Vatican II and led by Paul VI ('a cross between Hamlet and Danny la Rue' - that just about wins the Best Description Of A Pope Ever competition for me) and the arrival of John Paul with his face 'like a rock carved into love' and a voice not of doubt but of certainty and authority, under whose rule Harding had to leave.  He's critical of Catholicism without being malicious or poisonous, and acknowledges the trauma involved in losing any faith - whether an individual's or in wider society - no matter how disillusioned or corrupt it may have become at the upper echelons of the hierarchy.

He recalls his joy in meeting his wife (sculptor Cathy Carman), but how the marriage started to stagnate - 'time sucked the freshness out of it, as it sucks from everything' - and how the birth of his daughter and his never-questioned love for 'the artist' was set against his restlessness, his nagging desire to be something new or something more than what he was - he loved them, but needed to be apart from them. Hence his dabbling in meditation, his years as a Buddhist, his treks to India and Mongolia and his experimentation with New Age therapies. And somewhere along the way - perhaps after being rebirthed on a therapist's couch in innercity Dublin, or perhaps by playing a corpse in a film and, yes, both incidents are as bizarre as they sound; or perhaps after the deaths of his father and mother, and the inevitability of transience and the importance of living rather than worrying in the moment is laid out in front of him - he found the answer. Fear, or more specifically fear of death. It paralyses, it instills feelings of failure and frustration and, at the other end of the scale, it encourages crazy behaviour - the likes of which Harding indulges in on a couple of occasions narrated here and his wife deserves a medal for putting up with. His debt of gratitude to Carman is obvious, for continuing to reassure him stoically that 'it will end', but also for giving him 'time to mourn and cry for all the lives (he) had never lived.' Harding, though, by the end of the book is done with clinging on to dogmas and practices and disguises and is ready to 'begin all over again.' 

I loved it: I loved the way it was written and the ideas it explored. I loved the anecdotes and the Irishness and the truths and the humour and the beauty. Read, read, read.


What's been your read of the summer? I'd love to hear about the books that've made you fold corners and kept you up till all hours.

Week Three in the School Holiday House

Posted on: Saturday, 20 July 2013

So I have just returned to Belgy after five days in Ireland on my own because that's what all the cool kids do these days - you know, go on holiday by themselves and get lost on buses and end up in Tesco Extra buying a nectarine because they need an excuse to speak to the checkout girl to ask directions. 

It was kind of an experiment because, I suppose, if in future I'm going to have two months holiday in the summer (WOE IS ME), I kind of need to sort out what I can do with all that time (DOUBLE WOE IS ME. My brain hurts from all of the mental sorting out). 

So I came to Ireland, on account of it being a bit safe and easy. I've grown up going to Ireland (though not this bit) so I sort of know the score on all the important stuff, like which flavour of Tayto crisps is the best (salt and vinegar, duh) and that Fir and Mna on toilet doors are the other way around to what you'd think. Be warned. 

Wicklow is a bit of a funny place, really; funny in that it's kind of like Cornwall or the Isle of Wight or somewhere else beautiful but not really Irish. Don't get me wrong, it's stunning. Over the last week I've walked the Bray's Head to Greystones coastal path and back and marvelled at its Riviera-esque beauty (the 30+ degree temperatures aided that comparison, admittedly). Hmm. Maybe it's the accent, which is often quite Dublin-y and perhaps to my English-attuned ears sounds a bit standoffish. Maybe I'm just feeling bitter because an American guide to Ireland that I found in the B&B doesn't even MENTION Sligo. Not a word. Gah. Dunno, it just feels different. Jeff, the B&B owner, was telling me (completely unverified fact coming up) that two thirds of Ireland's population live in Dublin and the three counties around it - so Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. So if that's true, I suppose it's not that surprising that they feel a bit different. It's all a bit less personal, more savvy, more attuned to the tourists. 

Ireland in loads-of-blue-skies-and-green-stuff-shocker.

I visited two Ancestral Homes, too - beautiful big old estate mansions and their grounds owned by influential English landowners whose titles were created for them by Queen Elizabeth I or King James. I was ready for a big Irish history geekathon; I was fully expecting lots of colour displays about the Famine and Fenian uprisings and maybe a box of dressing-up clothes where kids could don the garb of Irish peasants. So many former estate houses were destroyed in the Irish Civil War, but what was the craic here? Why did these survive? I paid my 8 euros and I wanted ANSWERS - and mebbes a cup of tea. 

But there wasn't a sign or an exhibition to be found. Not even a sniff of a leaflet. There ARE tour guide booklets with photos of Earls with non-Irish surnames smiling benevolently in open collar and tweed, but they advertise events like falconry and farmers' markets and berry-foraging and bee-keeping days. The tea rooms are painted in sherbert shades from Farrow and Ball. Given the amount of coaches that were tipping old ladies out before midday, I'd say the pensioner pound is pretty strong; the gift shops were piled with packets of flower seed and tasteful mugs and natty stationery. Beyond the carefully pruned formal gardens, the wildness looks in. The whole thing is all very lovely, but also a little...curious. They've got ultra-modern refits and wifi and wedding packages and suddenly they've been neutered. What history? Oh, this little old country pile? 

So that was a bit strange.

But then it's still Irish in lots of regards. I was staying at a delightful B&B about 2 miles from the nearest village, and the owner dropped a group of us down in the village one evening for a meal. There was an American lady and her German partner in the back (now there was an interesting pair - there must have been twenty years difference between their ages minimum, perhaps more like thirty, and she was all yoga-taut with scary Madonna arms and intense eyes and lots of very high-tech walking equipment and the first time I came across them in the communal room they were dancing - like, 'we're-oblivious-to-everyone' twirling each other around and around - and yet they were in separate bedrooms. What was this? A marriage of mutual convenience? A meeting of pen-friends? The mind boggles). American Lady was asking about food options.


Good luck with that Gwyneth Paltrow, I thought to myself, you're about as likely to get some weird LA-inspired low-carb nonsense here as you are a gilded unicorn horn. You're in IRELAND pet. There's a pub and two takeaways. It's something deep-fried or nothing. I can recommend some good Tayto crisps if you like.  

And at that I felt smug and quite at home. 

Here are some more, less political thoughts/observations:
  - Five bus journeys, only one of which was completely in the wrong direction. That's good going for me. 
- Saw Christy Moore live in a tiny venue. My mum is totes jel.
- A Dublin chav (female, completely off her tits) on O'Connell street shouting at a girl wearing a headscarf: 'Tha's not roigh'! Bein' oll covered up!', then trying to stop random passersby to ask their opinion on aforementioned lady's clearly outrageous decision to wear a HEADSCARF ON HER OWN HEAD* in an aggressive manner. 'Whaddya think? Whadda YOU think?' *deep sarcasm, obviously. 
- Had 'the best coffee in Dublin' (so says the sign) served by The Bald Barista, who has that very phrase 'The Bald Barista' tattooed onto the back of his baldy heed*. *Geordie accent. Take note.  
- 'IT'S IRELAND'S BIGGEST WATERFALL I UNDERSTAND'* *a special prize if you get this reference. 

Anyway must dash, I have raging sunburn to attend to (sad face).

Have you been on holiday on your own? Was it weird?

Also, please let me know if your sunburn is worse than mine. It would make me feel less of a penis. 

NW - Zadie Smith

Posted on: Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Oh, Zadie. I bow to your impossible coolness.

1) You use street language in your writing and don't sound like a dick (I, on the other hand, said that something was a bit of a 'saucy read' in front of some students recently and one of them urged me to never say anything like it again).

Exhibit A:

"Annie man. You give me jokes, for real."

"But is it your business, though?"

"Is it." (no question mark. Very important.)

2) You are married to a beautiful, beautiful Irishman. A beautiful Irishman who writes poetry.

He's probably doing it right now, probably in the middle of writing something really beautiful, something about families who "speak in code of what we love." Swoon.

3) You live in Brooklyn (I think. Or you used to). You teach the brightest of the bright. You wrote for the New Yorker. You are impossibly beautiful. You have a string of freckles across your nose. You can wear a Fashion Turban and get away with it. 

Must I go on?

I should like your writing. I really should. Or, more specifically and honestly, I should enjoy your books, but be intensely envious of you at the same time.

Let's do the hype first. So it's her latest novel since On Beauty in 2005 (2005! How did that happen?) and was published to rave reviews. The Observer called it 'Undeniably brilliant.' Spectator went a step further by calling it 'a lyrical fiction for our times.' A N Wilson got very excited and forgot how to use complete sentences: 'Amazing, dazzling. Really - without exaggeration - not since Dickens has there been a better observer of London scenes. Zadie Smith is a genius.'

Dickens? Crikey. Them's big boots to fill.

Rewind further. This is the woman who got a £250,000 advance on, publishing legend has it, the basis of the pretty sketchy outline of White Teeth. Who was catapulted to the status of Literary Celebrity before she was in her mid-20s. Who wrote a refreshing collection of essays (Changing My Mind - heck, even the title was refreshing: a writer who doesn't claim to be irrefutable) in which she honestly summed up her 'art' or, rather, the lack thereof. Turns out that once she gets past the intro of a new novel - which can take her a number of painstaking, drafting-riddled years - she's onto it. She doesn't plan the whole narrative (hence why that White Teeth legend rings true, I suppose), but rather lets the novel take her on its journey. Then she bashes the rest of it out and, once published, seems to try her hardest to forget about it, hating to re-read, dwell or discuss it further. Her recent Q&A with PenguinBooksUK on Twitter would seem to support this: the 140 character limit couldn't disguise her reluctance to elaborate on her 'favourite' or 'least favourite' aspects of her writing, the challenges she faces or what she considers her successes. Like Kate Moss (minus the 'e'), she seems to have cracked the interview thing, realising that the less you say the more impressive your few, carefully-chosen words become.

And so the story. Four friends, or rather two friends - Leah and Natalie (formerly Keisha, but she reinvents herself Madonna-style with a name more appropriate to her middle-class barrister adulthood) - and two associates, Felix and Nathan - grow up on an estate in NW London JUST LIKE ZADIE (formerly Sadie) did. They reach their late teens and, on a superficial level at least, branch off in wildly different directions. After a promising start Leah becomes an idle drifter, reluctant to fall pregnant on account that would mean the glorious 90s and all their thrills, pills and hangovers are very definitely in the past. Nathan becomes a nocturnal junkie depressingly familiar with the closures and relocation of North West police cells. Felix has managed to right himself after a piss poor upbringing and years of addiction only to become a depressing murder statistic. Natalie seems to fare best, making it to Uni, marrying 'well' and procreating but, despite her comfortable semi-detached existence, she can't leave NW and her sense of what she could or should have been behind. She finds straddling her old and new lives impossible and ends up no happier than the others, exploring dark avenues of drugs and anonymous sex websites. The ending is abrupt, inconclusive, unsatisfying - I'll expand on that in a second.  

But hang on: in some ways I enjoyed NW - like, really enjoyed it. Smith's fantastic at capturing speech and details of character; it's an unquestionable strength of her writing. She makes ordinary vernacular sound tragic and a touch poetic without tipping the scales into mawkish ("I was, man! I was good! You remember. Most people don't know me from then. You remember. Got them gold stars all day long," says Nathan Bogle in full-on mournful junkie mode). She chances upon occasional nail-on-the-head truths: 'At ten she would have done anything, anything! Now she sees ten-year-olds and cannot believe they have inside them what she had inside her at the same age.' That's just perfectly expressed. And what about conversations with people you used to go to school with? 'Shar is impatient with chronology. She wants to know if Leah remembers when the science wing flooded, the time Jake Fowler had his head placed in a vice. In relation to these coordinates, like moon landings and the death of presidents, they position their own times.' I guarantee that anyone who went to a UK state school in the 80s or 90s knows exactly where Smith's coming from with that one. There's also a fantastic leap of imagination in her description of what it must feel like to be stabbed: 'Warm liquid reversed up his throat. Over his lips. Yet it couldn't be oblivion as long as he could name it, and with this in mind he said aloud what had been done to him, what was being done to him, he tried to say it, he said nothing. Grace!' It's almost cinematically beautiful, that scene. But why wouldn't it be? This is Smith writing about what she knows, and all good advice about writing centres on that simple principle: write what you know. From that comes the impossible-to-imitate self-assuredness on the minutiae of NW life: the characters, the phrases, those aforementioned stunning cinematic-quality images. The difference between Camden and Kilburn? Not much, to an outsider. But give Smith the topic and she's all over it. Camden is more North than North West, and that's what matters. 'Camden things' include Baudelaire, Bukowski, Nick Drake, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, boys who look like girls....the list goes on. My grandma lived in Camden and this made me smile. She's keeping it real. 

But here's the rub. Of all the reviews I've read, a couple of words come up pretty persistently. 'Vignette' is one. 'Sketch' is another. 'Portrait' appears here and there. All shorthand for saying that we shouldn't expect a coherent plot. This is how Smith does things - experimentally, pushing boundaries, while keeping her subject matter things that she knows intimately: her beloved (?) NW London. Think Mrs Dalloway - there are numerous similarities in the content (women! marriage! control!) but the disjointed, acutely modern construction is another area where Smith's debt to Woolf is apparent. Just take a look at some of the kerrrrazy modern storytelling tools she employs. Messenger conversations. A website's bland directions from point A to point B, then the same directions rewritten in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness babble of the senses. Complete abandonment of cohesion when she starts to number individual, sometimes only vaguely connected scenes or exchanges. Scene upon scene upon scene, and the links - there are links - aren't necessarily immediately apparent (I have to admit - SPOILER KLAXON - I had to Google whether Nathan was responsible for Felix's death, and whether Shar was somehow involved. They were. Phew.) Now this is the thing: I can appreciate all of this as someone who teaches students how to deconstruct texts on a daily basis, but as a grassroots reader I generally look for more structural signposts in my 'stories'. And Smith doesn't provide. She's too keen, I think, on a) painting her sketch of London and b) pushing the limitations of the contemporary novel format than telling us what happens to the characters and why these events are important, significant. Plot becomes secondary to her Mad Scientist structural experimentation. What is this book ultimately about? Speech? Language? Technology? Relationships? Class? Don't expect to fathom it. It ain't there, man (as someone like Nathan might say). 

And this leads me to a sad conclusion: perhaps I'm just not edgy enough. In fact, I'd say that's my ultimate problem with Zadie Smith: she makes me feel deeply uncool. She's like one of those girls at school who claimed to be geeky and an outcast but was actually the most amazing social all-rounder ever - someone who could sit upstairs and smoke with the bad girls on the bus and still score straight As. While all the genuine geeks looked on wistfully wishing that they were more like Zadie/Sadie but knowing they'd be worrying about cancer and what their mums would say.

Damn you, Zadie. 


I've started reviewing more books on Goodreads; I intend to write at least a couple of sentences about everything I read and perhaps expand on a few of them in more detail here. Do you use Goodreads? If so, let me know in the comments and I'll follow you. I'm always interested in what people are reading. 

Anyone else read NW? What were your thoughts?

30 Thoughts On Turning 30

Posted on: Monday, 8 July 2013

1) The best advice I’ve ever had on relationships was from my dad. “Better to be upset once than be upset a lot,” he counselled sagely as I sobbed down the phone. I didn’t think he was right at the time, but he was. Dads know best.

2) When you find the right person it should feel like coming home and being hit by a train all at the same time. And then a big Batman-esque POW or perhaps KABOOM pops up on your mental screen. 

3) I’m so very glad I don’t need to date anymore, on the grounds of being far too prissy and awkward. ‘Date’ - pah, even the mention of it demands an eyeroll. I enjoy living vicariously through others, though. 

4) Leos get shit done. Maybe not perfectly but hey, stuff gets finished. If you need attention to detail you’d be better off speaking to my perfectionist Virgo sister. 

5) TK Maxx does my head in. There’s too much crap everywhere. I can’t be bothered with the sifting. 

6) Be nice to the admin staff, the IT geeks, the maintenance team and the cleaners at your workplace. They’re the people you’ll need to turn a crisis into a triumph.

7) On a related note, people who are rude to waiters (or anyone else on the minimum wage, for that matter) are dicks. No exceptions. 

8) Find a religion or a spiritual way of going on that works for you. Quakers is pretty interesting. It’s full of Catholics who need a rest. 

9) Hating your face or your body or your elbow or whatever is an extraordinarily pointless waste of energy.

10) Be confident. It is SO unfathomably sexy. 

11) I know; easier said than done. Fake it till you make it. 

12) Although if you have Celtic skintones and gingery-brown hair, fake tan will not work for you. Embrace your bluey-whiteness.

13) And try some exercise. I speak as a former PE note girl who discovered running and the fact that it meant you could eat what you wanted (within reason). I was sold.

14) I’ve worked in state-run and private schools and the biggest difference between them isn’t the class sizes (exaggerated) or the staff (no discernible gap overall) but rather the confidence private education instills in its young charges. I think top-quality parenting can pull off a similar feat.   

15) Don’t ring in sick if you’re not sick. That makes you a prize-winning knobhead on wheels.

16) Frame things properly. You’re an adult, ergo just take pictures to a pictureframer. Yes, it’s more expensive, but clippy frames from Ikea are an abomination. 

17)  I think that Irish speech - the syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation - is beautiful. “How’s the quare fella?” “It’s hateful, so it is.” “TheLORDsaveusandblessus.” “Vee-hi-cle.” Perfect grammar is overrated (did I just say that?)

It'll all become clear if you click on the link above

18) Listening to Christy Moore’s ‘Missing You’ blows my mind from the viewpoint that people used to leave home and not be able to go back for YEARS. ‘I’ve been missing you/I’d give all for the price of the flight,’ he sings. Even if I was in New Zealand I could slap a credit card down the check-in desk and insist I fly. 

19) There’s definitely a place in my heart for folk music. And dodgy country and western. Praise be for Spotify’s Private Session option. 

20) I’m with Caitlin Moran on the writing-about-feminism front. Treat Samantha Brick like the weird fucking post-modernist joke she is (Moran’s words) - i.e. with disdain and a bit of light-hearted banter. She’s ridiculous, yes. Therefore she doesn’t need your anger. 

21) My mother had a Childhood Of Austerity, which we rib her about occasionally when she’s making sandwiches for a car journey or stalking the yellow sticker aisle in Sainsbury’s. She would express grave doubts that her purchase-related guilt has rubbed off onto me, but it has.  

22) Class is endlessly interesting. ‘We’re all middle class now.’ Hmm. 

23) Another endlessly interesting pop-psychology topic: birth order, and birth order combined with gender. I am SUCH a middle-child-girl. 

23) When we were little (say, about eight) my brother got locked in a toilet in a convent. Several nuns tried to pick the lock and one attempted a shoulder barge. It remains one of the most surreal moments of my life. 

24) My granddad spent eighteen months in a hospice dying of cancer and my mum would bring him bags of boiled sweets. ‘But granddad’s diabetic,’ I remember saying. ‘There comes a point when you take pleasure where you find it,’ was her answer. Fair enough.

25) The power of the pen is remarkable. Not long ago I received a hand-written postcard from Alan Bennett. Write to people.  

That says 'From Alan Bennett'. Wah!

26) If you have a reasonable income, a busy life and you’re uncomfortable with the bathroom being dirty, employ a cleaner. I guarantee you, the 27 euros or sterling equivalent you’ll pay out each week is worth far, far more than the time, the resentment and the arguments you’d otherwise engage in over the situation. 

27) Spend the time you would have spent cleaning the bathroom reading a quality newspaper. Occasionally read the paper first rather than the glossy supplements. Feel cleverer.

28) As you get older, you might not make as many friends as you did in your university years and beginning at work, but when you do make a good adult friend it's bloody brilliant. You do more ‘making do’ when you’re younger. 

29) Facebook is annoying, yes. Do it or don't do it. But please don't get your knickers in a twist about it. 

30) If you’re in your 20s, get on. Whatever it is you’re doing - working, studying, having children, whatever - just push on with it. Do it well.


I had an inordinate amount of fun doing this. Basically, I saw this over on twitter and laughed my back off, and then a likeable someone retweeted this which I thought was just marvellous and I wanted to do my own version. I think everyone should have a go. 

Birthday countdown has BEGUN. 16 days to go :/ 

All Quiet On The Belgian Front

Posted on: Thursday, 30 May 2013

Except it’s not all quiet, is it? It’s bloody mental - hence the disappearing act. 

Firstly, WE NO SPEAK NO HALF-TERM. I know; an unthinkable outrage. School continues slouching towards the 28th June (yes I know, we break up in June, for two magnificent months; I need to put the ‘unthinkable outrage’ into perspective before some Gove-toady points it out). And despite missing out on my usual time-celebrated half-term traditions like, you know, watching an entire series of America’s Next Top Model in one go, I should probably acknowledge the fact that we have had forty-four billion bank holidays in May alone (hurray for Pentecost and all its friends). 

Plus things can’t be that bad because it’s May, and that means only one thing: the season of the street festival is upon us. I can barely step outside of the door without hearing the jolly rump-pump-rump of a marching band, and that kindles a certain pseudo-holiday-feeling in the soul. It was the birthday party of a local street (?) a couple of weekends ago and there was a veritable bonanza of food, drink and inflatable-related fun. There was even a medieval market at Montgomery. Apparently it’s an annual occurrence and a Bit of A Big Deal, so Bedders and I headed up there on a Friday evening to find a graveyard of sad Monk and Merry Maiden stallholders peering through the drizzle. The air was full of the smell of leather goods at highly-inflated prices and there were some quite, err, specialist stalls selling bows and arrows and mead. 

Anyway, back to contemporary Europe. So today Bedders was on his way to work - minding his own business, dragging his Ryanair-approved trolleybag - and, somewhere between Montgomery and Maelbeek, was relieved of his wallet. Several phonecalls and one frantic bank visit later and our joint Belgian account was three thousand euros lighter (thanks, guys). PLUS our HSBC account had been stripped of a grand (most of which belongs to HSBC, who didn’t seem to think it strange that we were out spending hundreds of pounds of an overdraft we don’t even have at quarter to nine on a wet Thursday morning). 

(NB If we sound we have enormous amounts of cash, we really don't. We're burrowing money away for a sickeningly enormous tax bill that'll land sometime in December) 

Parental Reaction:

My mum (she’s definitely what I’d call Crime Aware) is currently waiting for a lift to her knitting group somewhere in South Wales and muttering furiously about how she saw an episode of Crimewatch or somesuch recently that said thieves in London use flick knives to slash handbags and then buy FUR COATS and CROWNS with their ill-gotten gains. 

My dad rang me (he never rings me) and was rendered inarticulate with rage: “How in the name of Jaysus....the bastards.”

Quite a crime wave going on at the minute in Brux, it would seem. Some friends of mine from home were here for a mini stag do early this week and saw a literal and actual DIAMOND HEIST taking place. Well, they saw some plain-clothes police wrestling a bloke to the floor and extracting a gun from his back pocket, then blindfolding him in the Grand Place. Sheesh. 

But enough of this seedy underbelly of society stuff and onto more pleasant Brussels craic. Oh, I did the 20K! And didn’t die! Good, eh? I made it in a relatively comfortable 2 hours and 4 minutes and I’m now feeling all sorts of uncharacteristic and unwelcome pressure to go ‘sub-2 hours’ at the Great North Run (that’s a nauseating running phrase and I promise to never, ever use it again). And I saw Freddy Thielemans, Mayor of Brussels, at the starting line who waved us off and for one glorious moment I thought he was smoking a fag even though the whole event was heavily-sponsored by the European Commission and their ‘Ex-Smokers Are Unstoppable’ initiative that meant that there were sinister-looking black balloons everywhere (ugh, black balloons. Just ugh.) But alas no, it was merely the angle of his hand. So anyway, the race began, I successfully avoided the Brussels TV cameras (oo yeah, interview me, I look particularly beautiful today with my scraped-back hair and five hours sleep!), the open manhole (no joke) and the slippery cobbles. And afterwards I used a sweaty 10 euro note that Bedders had secreted in a pocket to satisfy a perverse post-run desire for a waffle and a Martini. Oh, it was a tremendous moment. 

So, what else has been happening? Well, a new tramp has started hanging out across the road from our apartment, and what a fine fellow he is. He has a paper cup and a brass neck and expertly weaves in and out of the cars while the traffic lights are turned to red gesturing mournfully at car windows. Then the lights flick back to green and he stands to one side, drinking a beer and occasionally pissing against a tree. 

So that’s been interesting. 

I’ve also been busy indulging my inner angst-ridden teen by reading age-inappropriate books. Despite that fact I’m hurtling at alarming speed towards a milestone birthday (clue: it starts with ‘thir’ and ends in ‘ty’), for some unfathomable reason I’ve been indulging in the latest Year 9 craze: namely, John Green. I read The Fault In Our Stars in two days on the tram and this was only because I just about managed to prise it out of the clammy hands of a thirteen-year-old girl who declared that it was THE MOST AMAZING BOOK OF ALL TIME OH MY GOD LAURA I JUST WANT TO MARRY AUGUSTUS WATERS HE IS LIKE A DREAMBOAT. Or something like that (as IF teenage girls today use the term ‘dreamboat’). Let it be known that my Year 9s are, quite literally, wetting themselves about it (ha, that’s an in-joke. The narrator of the book can’t abide it when people mis-use literality. I feel similarly). 

Seriously, though, it’s good. And miles better for a thirteen-year-old than the likes of Twilight and Bella Bloody Whatsherface who’s moody for no good reason (unlike, say, the good reason of Having Cancer) and just CAN’T UNDERSTAND WHY ALL THE WORLD FANCIES HER. The key to Hazel’s attractiveness is that she’s mad into Literature and she quotes T S Eliot at will. And the pair of them - Hazel and Augustus - are actually quite witty; although I should warn you, they do occasionally sip into Dawson's Creek philosophical-analytical territory. But back to the plusses: the title comes from an expertly-deployed Julius Caesar quote. Ultimate kudos. 

So I read it and my review to them was, ‘Well, I like it very much. But if I was thirteen I would freakin’ LOVE IT.’ Which went down rather well, I must admit. I declined to mention that if I was thirteen I would have been paralysed by awkwardness and been forced to smuggle it out of the school library because it has a cover that alludes to a romantic relationship. It reminds me of the time I went on holiday to Ireland with my parents and was reading an Irvine Welsh novel. 

Had to keep that bad boy on the Down Low.  

And finally, as I mentioned last time, I saw Gatsby. If anyone’s been waiting for a review of Luhrmann’s Ode to Excess, here’s my mother’s verdict which I received via stream-of-consciousness-style text messgae:

“Saw that Great Gatsby film it was a bit strange at the start but then it was quite good. X” (sic)

Get her Caitlin Moran’s job, people!

Read/seen/done owt good recently? 

Oh hai.

Posted on: Monday, 20 May 2013

Holy Mother of God, I redesigned the blog. 

What started as a little project - three? four? - weeks ago turned into a mammoth sweaty-palmed operation which eventually involved some head bashing against the computer, swearing and generally poor behaviour. It was a bit like the 'This shouldn't be so hard, I have a degreeeeee!' Indian visa application moment of late 2011. I am not proud. 

Credit where credit's due: Kirsty and her redesign are actual real-life inspirations not too dissimilar from the likes of ooh, Nelson Mandela or Roy Castle. I talk about her in hushed, reverent tones usually reserved by little Italian ladies for discussing Padre Pio. Even Bedders is familiar with the ins and outs of her reworking, poor sod. She also pointed me in the direction of Pugly Pixel and Blog Milk (gracias to both respectively), without which this little stationery junkie wouldn't have found lots of pretty backgrounds and textures and oh-my-God-the-photo-layouts. So merci buckets to Kirsty. Respect, innit. Your posts encouraged me to try to make sense of HTML and CSS; without them, I'd have inevitably had a big girly hissy fit. 

Please don't get me started, mind, on the bits that aren't quite right yet. Ugly 'follow me' twitter button, your days are numbered. 'About' page: you were there one minute and then disappeared the next, but you'll soon be back, don't you worry. At this current moment I would do (very) bad things for an on-hand ICT support team, so if you're that way inclined don't hesitate to contact me (at least when you click on my email to the right, there's a working link. I'll pay you handsomely in, err, biscuits or something.

So what have I actually been up to other than this little redesign adventure? Well, I've been playing around with my new 50mm camera lens. Oh, it's dreamy. And I've been writing; more on that soon. Oh, and I SAW GATSBY! I should really write a review. I'll write a review. Soon. 

Thank you for bearing with me. More LOLs, ROFLs and Shnarfs from Thundercats very soon.


Posted on: Thursday, 25 April 2013

...you don't need to buy stuff.

...you just need to move it around. 

Recommended Reading: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Posted on: Monday, 8 April 2013

Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible has been speaking to me from bookshelves for years. You need to read me, it would whisper seductively. I’m everything you love in a book. I’m published by Faber, and I know how much you love your Fabers. Barbara Kingsolver’s just your kind of writer. She’s said things like ‘Perfectionism is my disease‘ - I mean, come on! I was made for you. You know you’ll love me. But despite all of its pouting and hip-wiggling, I continued to snub it. 

Moment of surrealism over, I picked up TPB from the work library a couple of months ago. Its seductive voice was even more powerful on account of my recent move to Belgium, and the initial setting of the book being the Belgian-run Congo in the late 1950s. It’s the story of the four Price sisters, their mother Orleanna and ‘Our Father’ Nathan, who move from the US to a remote jungle village. Nathan Price, a fearsome preacher of the fire-and-brimstone variety, is on a mission in the truest sense of the word: a spiritual quest to save the souls of the primitive and pagan Congolese. 

The eldest of the Price girls is Rachel, a vacuous beauty queen who spends most of her time in the jungle dreaming of prom. Next are Leah and Adah; twins but un-twins due to random injustice in utero. The youngest is Ruth May who, in the words of another key character, Anatole, has ‘the heart of a mongoose - clever and brave.’ Between the four girls and Orleanna, the story is unravelled in chapters headed by alternating character names and told in five very different narrative voices. These voices - constantly shifting but each distinct, each poetic in its own way - support the narrative arc in a way that’s both utterly convincing and yet seemingly uncontrived. 

It’s very, very difficult to write a convincing, uncontrived child narrator, don’t you think? Kingsolver pulls it off with masterful skill. “My monkey sock monkey was named Saint Matthew,” Ruth May ponders sadly after Saint Matthew’s disappearance. Sentences later she tells the reader about the family’s domestic help, “...Mama Tataba, our cooking lady. Rachel calls her Mama Tater Tots. But she won’t cook those. I wish she would.”

Elsewhere the writing style is sumptuous, lyrical, to-die-for; paragraphs and passages of lush verdant prose that defies my usual trick of ‘fold the corner when you see a bit you like for scrawling-down-later purposes’. I could have turned almost every page. The girls’ descriptions are suffused with Biblical imagery, ranging from the hilarious (“my sisters ran out screaming like the first free pigs off the ark”) to the stunning (the inexplicable presence of a beautiful blue and white plate in their shambolic jungle hovel is likened to that of the “Virgin Mother in her barnful of shepherds and scabby livestock”). And, oh, the colours. “It is early morning now, rooster-pink sky smoky air morning,” Adah tells us. Is that not utterly alive-in-your-head deliciousness? Orleanna describes a fleeting moment of pleasure away from her husband and children: “A kiss of flesh-coloured sunrise as I hung out the wash.” 

And so the women tell the story - their own, and the Congo’s. When the family eventually disband for South Africa, for the US and elsewhere, one of the girls is left behind in the red soil of Kilanga in an unmarked grave. Orleanna spends the rest of her life atoning for her non-crime and the three girls that are left to grow into womanhood have to make their own reckoning of their past. As their mother says, “To live is to be marked...to live is to change, to die one hundred deaths.”

Kingsolver has complained of being pigeon-holed as a ‘political writer’, whatever that might mean (she seems to think the label is lazy, covering everything from ‘This is about the world’ to ‘This makes me feel uncomfortable’). But, true to her reputation, there are some big questions being asked in The Poisonwood Bible. How does one atone for a sin that isn’t one’s own? Those sins could be personal - whether it be a lack of action that leads to the death of your beloved child, for example, or gorging yourself on too many minerals in the womb, leaving your twin stunted and deformed - but also political - as an American, or even a white person, how can an inidividual atone for the gross abuse of one nation by another? And in terms of Kingsolver’s Big Questions this is barely scratching the surface. Is God a veangeful God, she wants to know? Is morality relative? In the materially comfortable Western world, can we really make a judgement about life in 1960s Africa? “The loss of a life: unwelcome. Immoral?” asks Adah. In a society where we have so much left-over protein we feed it to our pets then yes, for a child to die from hunger is probably immoral. “But this is just one place. I have seen a world.” The moral debate lingered long after I finished the book, but one thing is certain: The Poisonwood Bible is at least as much the true story of the Congo’s war-torn past as it is the story of the fictional Prices.

Kingsolver strikes me as a real, for want of a more flattering word, swot of a writer. The novel begins with a disclaimer citing the impossibilities of her getting into Zaire while researching and writing the novel but details some of the meticulous background reading and interviews she conducted nevertheless. Moreover, she ends with a detailed bibliography of novels and non-fiction texts she devoured in her preparation. I love that breed of transparency. I suppose it’s unsurprising, though, from a woman who quotes Samuel Johnson in response to a question about how she became a writer: “A man can turn over a whole library to write a single book.” She’s done an awful lot of reading and an awful lot of waiting - 30 years, apparently - to gain the ‘maturity and wisdom’ she felt she needed to write this. Believe me, it's worth the wait. 

Photos taken in the Afrika Museum in Tervuren, Brussels - I wrote something about it here

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