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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 :/ 

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