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In defence of the 24 hour holiday

Have you ever found yourself looking at a weekend to-do list and feeling completely overwhelmed by life in general?

That was how I felt last weekend.

Confronted by a list of life admin, household chores, budgeting tasks and wedding to-dos, I felt a clammy weight settle in my stomach, and a heavy fog of despair descend. Life is busy at the moment. And not entirely easy. It feels like a bit of a constant juggle where nothing ever gets done properly, just as well as can be in the time we have. Time gets stretched here, a food shop lasts an extra few meals there, a quick wipe around the sink serves as a sticking plaster for our hideous bathroom, and I feel like I’m constantly late for everything.

The sensible thing of course, is to make yourself a list, and methodically work your way through it, striking off tasks and replacing the dread with a warm glow of satisfaction at how you’ve managed to transform your tangled, sweaty cobweb of a life into an organised, peaceful sanctuary so slick you’re considering instagram-ing your (empty) dish rack.

I’ve got another solution. OK, it’s not so much a solution in that we still need to do a food shop. But it did help me get a bit of a perspective, a much needed rest and a break from the pressures that from time to time can mount up on us and make us feel like we’re crumbling under the weight of us.

The 24 hour holiday. As far away as you can reasonably get in a few hours. I promise, it’s worth it. And it’s amazing what you can cram in.

At 3.30pm last Saturday I was calling round places in south Devon, trying to find somewhere with a dog-friendly, last minute room available. At 4pm I’d found a yurt in a field near Totnes, with availability, but no dog friendliness. At 4.15pm I’d burst into grateful tears when my parents said they’d look after the dogs, at 4.30pm we’d dropped our two hairy hounds off for their night away, and by 5pm we were on the road, overnights packed, and on our way to Devon. At 3.30pm on Sunday, feet coated with sand, faces tinged with sun, tired, happy, more relaxed than I can remember, we got in the car to head home.

In a mere 24 hours we’d:

  • Got ourselves down to a Mongolian yurt in an idyllic buttercup-filled meadow in south Devon, overlooked by a Shetland pony and visited by a springer spaniel/collie named Grace.
  • Munched on delicious, hearty vegetarian food at Totnes stalwart Willow, washed down by organic English ale
  • Lit a fire in the brazier by our yurt, opened a bottle of red, and sat chatting and stargazing, enjoying the peace of the Devon countryside – and actually spending time together that wasn’t working out finances or delegating chores.
  • Woken up to the sound of birdsong, sunshine streaming into our cosy little circular yurt-bedroom. Opening the door to let some air in meant being greeted by a sea of sunlit buttercups, and a confused swallow who flitted in and then out again.
  • Explored the quirky little town of Totnes, eaten freshly baked slices of pizza, sipped delicious coffee, people watched, visited the beautiful Bowie gallery and discovered the Own Art scheme (which everyone with an interest in art, but non-sympathetic bank balance should know about)
  • Rambled round a charity shop and bought books to take to the beach (and some £1 records)
  • Trotted down to Bantham Beach (on the recommendation of the super friendly lady in the Bowie gallery) – a wide stretch of holiday-worthy sand with its very own Gastrobus selling delicious-smelling burgers, cakes, snacks and drinks
  • Paddled in the warm water, collected shells, walked down the beach and flopped down with our charity shop books for a peaceful beach read

Not bad for 24 hours. And nothing like getting as far away as possible from the grinding pressure of everyday life to give you a bit of perspective on it all.

Oh, and it cost us a grand total of £150 all in. Accommodation, food, parking, the lot. Top tip – set your budget and get it out in cash to stop yourself accidentally going over…

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Why can’t we just celebrate the first British man in space – instead of airbrushing history?

My take on the weird (and sexist) media rhetoric around Major Tim Peake’s momentous journey into space, in which I wonder why we have such a problem celebrating the first man to do something amazing, when the first person was a woman. There’s no shame in coming second chaps, or in being the first man in space under the Union colours rather than the first person.

Spoiler alert: does not denigrate his (awesome) achievements.

We’re all proud of Tim Peake – but we shouldn’t have to denigrate a woman’s achievements at the same time – The Independent

‘Vulgar’ and proud. Why talking about the gender pay gap is anything but unseemly

“We have today far more practical sympathy amongst the shopkeepers of London than we ever had when we were quiet, gentle, ladylike suffragists asking nicely for a vote,” said Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913, defending the smashing in of shop windows to attract attention to the suffrage cause.

In dismissing talk about it as ‘vulgar’, Kate Winslet accidentally revealed why we have a pay gap in the first place – The Independent

I’m not suggesting we need to smash up shop fronts, slash paintings in the National Gallery or throw ourselves under the hooves of racehorses to draw attention to the scandal that is the gender pay gap (14.2 per cent in Britain, according to the Fawcett Society). But it’s true that you don’t get change by silently hoping things will change while retaining a ladylike composure.

Language has long been a weapon of those who’d prefer women to quietly accept things as they are. And a particularly powerful approach is the kind of language that de-feminises its targets. In a society where youth, beauty and femininity are idolised, it’s no wonder that language that depicts those who want to see change as ugly, bra-burning, man-hating ‘feminazis’ has an impact. So when Kate Winslet this week described public conversations around the gender pay gap as ‘vulgar’, it really rankled with me. Whether she meant to or not, she was using the same tactics as those who preferred to keep women from having the vote adopted when they created posters depicting suffragettes as mannish, unloved spinsters. It’s the same tactic that obscures debates around feminism now – language is powerful. Labelling those demanding equality as ‘vulgar’ is just another way to make women feel that in fighting for change, they’re doing something rather unseemly, embarassing and innapropriate.

So if it’s vulgar to talk about the gender pay gap, then I’ll proudly adopt that label. Because it needs to be talked about. Change doesn’t come from within the comfort zone – it requires bravery, and the confidence to call out inequality where we see it. These are the conversations we should be having in public, and flagging as unacceptable. I wrote a piece about it for the Independent – read more here.

suffragette plain things

Can we stop with all the gender labels?

It can be challenging trying to align your identity as a woman with society’s expectations of what that means.

Modern feminism calls me ‘cisgender’ – but my identity is so much more complicated than that – The Independent

We’re debating gender and identity a lot at the moment. But sometimes the labels we come up with can be just as oppressive as they seek to define us. Cisgender is one of those labels – and I wrote a piece for the Independent about why I find it a tricky description to identify with.

While I identify comfortably as a woman from a biological point of view, as long as women continue to face the weight of expectation to behave a certain way and accept a sexist society’s boundaries and rules, it’s hard to accept everything that being a woman means in terms of social constraints.

Oscar Pistorius is released from prison ‘in need of healing’ and another woman’s life is conveniently forgotten

For 49 days last year, the eyes of the world’s press were focused on a courtroom in South Africa as the distressing, complex trial of Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius.

Oscar Pistorius is released from prison ‘in need of healing’ and another woman’s life is conveniantly forgotten – the Independent

Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, after firing four shots through a locked bathroom door. His defence rested on the fact that he believed the person behind the door to be an intruder.

At the time, I was working as a digital editor at the Telegraph, and through manning live blogs for long chunks of the trial, coordinating headlines to match the updates coming in from South Africa, I became immersed in the visceral, upsetting detail.

This week, Pistorius was released, less than a year into his already short five year sentence, having been found guilty of culpable homicide – the South African equivalent to manslaughter. I wrote this piece for the Independent, reflecting on the message a decision like this send out to women. Writing the piece brought back memories of the problematic way the case was covered by many of the tabloids in this country, probably others. Pictures of Steenkamp in a bikini – she worked as a model as well as a paralegal – were plastered over front pages, when her real body was lying in a morgue, so badly injured that images caused Pistorius to sob and vomit repeatedly into a bucket while in the dock.

This time round however, she’s more conspicuous by her absence. There are pictures of the elegant, spacious mansion, a regal redbrick building, where Pistorius will reside, and compassionate news pieces proclaiming Pistorius ‘in need of healing’, but Steenkamp has been edited out of the story, a footnote to the drama.

Tomorrow, Steenkamp’s mother June will give a speech her daughter had been due to give the day she died. Steenkamp often gave motivational talks at schools to highlight issues faced by women and  victims of abuse. While her mother’s heart must be broken, that seems a good way to remember #HerNameWasReevaSteenkamp

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National poetry day – a Robert Frost-inspired meeting

One looked at one

October seems to have remembered its purpose at last. A damp, compost scent is in the air, a thin veil of drizzle coats my face in the grey mist of morning and a distinct chill has replaced our mild September. Leaves that in recent swathes of autumn sunshine glowed red and burning are battered to the ground, where they lie; ragged, brown and already decomposing.

A walk home takes me past a field, cordoned off from my path by a ditch thick with overhanging brambles, heavy fruit hanging dark and wet among the broad leaves, which glisten with the mizzle of the day. It’s a mizzle which has flickered indecisively between open throated downpours and milky attempts by a pale sun to penetrate the clouds. A barbed-wire binding hangs above the ditch and the feeble sunlight catches strings of diamond-like drops outlining and revealing clusters of cobwebs, previously hidden from a casual glance by their frailty.

I pause for a moment beside the field, and my eye catches movement along one of the edges. A gentle bustle among the leaves, and a blunt-snouted doe treads lightly into the field. As she emerges from the hedgerow which marks the field’s boundary she turns her head from left to right, poised and perfect as a ballerina stepping out onto the stage, liquid eyes high as she scents the air, nostrils dilated. I stand still, trying to look as if I am carved out of her natural landscape and she doesn’t see me, or if she does, she is not afraid. I am at a distance and perhaps she decides I am not a threat. She calmly bends her head and grazes as I watch, her back a gentle, furred curve, elegant neck stretched long. She is a Roe deer, alone, beautiful and unfazed. Her coat is just beginning to tuft, switching its smooth summer reddish brown for a longer, winter-appropriate shade of grey.

A pheasant cackles an alarm and she glances up, ears flickering from side to side like leaf-shaped satellite receivers. But she perceives no danger and returns to her grazing until he calls once more, his clucked and frantic warning rudely sounding from somewhere deep within the hedgerow. I shift my weight quickly from one foot to the other, and this time she does see me. We calmly return each other’s gaze. I am reminded of the Robert Frost poem, Two Looked at Two:

“She saw them in their field, they her in hers.
The difficulty of seeing what stood still,
Like some up-ended boulder split in two,
Was in her clouded eyes; they saw no fear there.”

In unknowing mimicry of Frost’s doe; as if I were something that, though strange, she could not trouble her mind with too long, she sighed and passed unscared back towards the nick in the hedge through which she had entered the field. Although invisible to my eyes, she slipped through it, unhurried.

And like Frost’s couple, I turned for home, feeling as if the earth in one unlooked-for favour, had made me certain it returned my love.

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Helping boys by making them think differently about girls

I really love this initiative! Working with male volunteers, Great Men goes into classrooms and provides a brilliant, engaging space for teenage boys to talk all things gender equality – whether its porn, relationships, anger and emotional issues, there are no limits. It opens up an opportunity for them to think, talk and debate about issues they may never have given thought to before. I met two volunteers, Guy MacInnes-Manby and Folarin Akinmade, both positive, articulate, funny and generally amazing chaps.

Thanks to the Telegraph for running the piece, and spreading the positive message.

Helping boys by making them think differently about girls – The Telegraph

You can read the piece here: Great Men

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I get my research on, and an interview with Shami Chakrabarti

At the moment I’m balancing regular web editing shifts at the Telegraph with my own writing and a digital archive project at Oxford Brookes University.

For a hack who’s spent her whole career on newspapers, higher education is a whole new world. Not only is Brookes not on an industrial estate with a kebab van as the nearest source of sustenance if you forget your lunch (fresh deli salad counter anyone? Starbucks? Menu put together by Leon co-founder Allegra McEvedy?), but its newest building won a RIBA award and it has stuff like a gym, dentist and its own bus service. It’s pretty fancy compared to newsroom life.

I’ve been curating, collating, writing, researching and generally putting together content for a digital archive of the university’s history. It’s really exciting to be working on something so different to what I’m used to, and it should launch later in the year to mark Brookes’ 150th anniversary. While Brookes only became a university in 1992, it’s been going in various incarnations since 1865, when it opened as a tiny art school operating out of just one room in the Taylorian, right next door to the well known Ashmolean.

My feature writing skills were called upon recently to do the main interview for Brookes’ annual magazine, with the university’s Chancellor, Shami Chakrabarti.

I dare you not to be impressed by Chakrabarti. The five-foot-nothing director of Liberty started out as a barrister before taking over as head of the human rights organisation when she was just 34. A regular on Question Time, she’s no stranger to fending off brickbats and wading into political debates, and in 2005 Radio 4’s Today Programme named her one of 10 people who ‘may run Britain’.  In person, she’s calmly spoken with a warm manner, but a core of steel. We did have a giggle, and it was a fascinating interview, but I was struck by her almost feline-way of calmly watching, listening and absorbing before responding.

Anyone who fancies a read can click on the link below for a PDF:

Interview with Shami Chakrabarti

And if you need a taster, here’s her on the concept of liberty:

When I say the word liberty, I’m talking specifically about post-war human rights. It’s not about unfettered freedom – freedom for the wolf would be tyranny for the lamb – but the underlying human rights values; dignity, equality, security, protection from torture and unfair trials, the bundle of rights and freedoms that harness everything you need to flourish as a human being. 

“Perhaps most of all, it’s equal treatment, that’s what makes us protect other peoples’ rights and not just our own. You could call it empathy, and without it there is no liberty.”

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Feather-footed? He really was

There are moments of quiet sadness as a journalist when you read of the death of someone you once interviewed.

It sounds like a funny thing to say, but when you sit down for a one-on-one interview with someone you can bond quite deeply, probing with your questions to unlock someone’s story, and then carefully attempting to recreate your impression of them with words. When you manage to connect with someone, it can be quite an intimate human experience.

And some imprint themselves on your memory more deeply than others.

You’ve probably never heard of Will Gaines. But you’ve heard of the people he routinely shared a stage with as the last of the true jazz hoofers – or tap dancers – who opened for big names and danced alongside them in the Thirties and Forties.

Sammy Davis Junior, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong are just a few – he really was a link to another age. And to sit down with him in a pub in Old Leigh, the small Essex fishing town where he lived for the last few years of his life, and hear his tales (of which there were plenty!), was one of the few jobs I count as a real privilege to have undertaken.

I read his obituary yesterday, and in my mind’s eye was the shuffling, stooped but still amazingly fast-footed hoofer that I met for a drink, a chat and some tap tips on a wintery day among the cobbles of Old Leigh. Dwarfed by his enormous leather jacket and still muttering fast in a strong Detroit accent, he was a character and a half, and I think he enjoyed spinning his tales as much as I enjoyed hearing about them.

I still need to dig out the paper version of the interview I did with him, which is tucked away in a box somewhere with other precious pieces, but I managed to find an online version to for anyone interested in a few memories of a man who once shared a stage with jazz royalty.

Interview with Will Gaines for the Southend Echo

Dance, dance, dance, little lady...

Dance, dance, dance, little lady…

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A Mexican adventure in…Camberwell? Yes, really!

Camberwell…it’s not exactly high on the list of London tourist areas.

But I came across such a gem recently, that I couldn’t resist doing a writeup.

Everyone knows that London isn’t exactly cheap when it comes to spending the night among the hustle bustle of the bright lights.

So when I came to be on the hunt for somewhere that A. Didn’t break the bank. B. Had more personality than a TravelLodge/Holiday Inn and C. Wasn’t quite clearly an absolute fleapit or possibly a brothel, I knew it would be an ambitious ask.

I browsed rooms with grim looking shared bathrooms (no) and reviews that warned of stained sheets, hairy plug holes and stinking pillows (NO!), but eventually I came across the Church Street Hotel.

The price was right, and amazingly, when I put the name through the search engine, it came up favourably on everything from TripAdvisor to national newspapers. So I took a gamble.

And how it paid off.

A charmingly eccentric hotel, tucked in among grocers and betting shops just off Camberwell Green, it’s decked out in the jewel-bright hues of a Mexican casita.

The lady on reception couldn’t have been more helpful – and joy of joys, she had an upgrade waiting for us! Are there any holiday-related words better than ‘you’ve been upgraded”?

Our casita-style bedroom

Our casita-style bedroom

Showing us upstairs, our room’s walls were swished with glorious greens, an iron-framed bed overhung with a painting of a vintage Mexican señorita posing coquettishly with her guitar. A dark wood-framed doorway led into a brightly tiled bathroom, complete with delicious L’Occitane toiletries, books that you might actually want to read sat on a shelf, and top of the list (for us anyway) – as well as a munchy bar of Green and Blacks chocolate was a little pot of their fiercely hot trademark chilli sauce for us to take home.

Our prettily tiled bathroom packed full of soft towels and L'Occitane goodies...

Our prettily tiled bathroom packed full of soft towels and L’Occitane goodies…

The hotel is stuffed to the gills with quirks, charm and gorgeousness.  Where else, for example, would you find a 24-hour honesty bar (with a fine selection of complimentary tea and coffee to boot) where you help yourself to drinks and write what you had in a pad so you can settle up on your way out?

The bed was like sleeping on a cloud, the linen was soft and the room practically silent, despite facing out onto the main road. The shower was powerful, and there was really nothing else we could have asked for in terms of comfort and cleanliness.

Breakfast is a steal at £5, and served next door (although you reach it through the hotel) at the hotel’s sister-business, tapas joint Angels and Gypsies, which we will without a doubt be sampling on our next visit (and there will be a next visit!) The last time we paid £5 for a breakfast at a hotel, we were served a couple of slices of cold, overdone toast by the most sullen-faced man in London which we washed down with a cheap yoghurt  and a crap coffee having been kept up all night by the fact that our cramped room was above a noisy pub beer garden. But having been greeted by our effusive restaurant host, we were seated at a rustically decked out table with hand painted glass jars for our condiments, presented with the newspapers and brought delicious coffee before tucking into fresh smoothies and juice, flakey croissants, free-range eggs with in house-baked organic sourdough, Neil’s Yard yoghurt and organic muesli.

And if we’d been seriously hungry, we could have paid a very reasonable excess to pick off the bigger breakfast menu and made our choice from huevos rancheros, sourdough pancakes or a full English (with a Mexican twist of course). And of course, we smeared out perfectly cooked eggs with lashings of the house special chilli sauce (which has its own section on their website, and is utterly, utterly delicious).

It’s always a pain when you have to rush your checkout, but the lovely staff couldn’t have been more relaxed and accommodating. They even let me sit for a couple of hours in their lounge as I had some work to do and a later work appointment.

Seriously, you won’t top this place in London at these prices. We paid £145 for a superior king ensuite, although I notice prices have crept up slightly this year since our visit in December (I also notice breakfast seems to be included now though). You can get a single ensuite from £90 or if you’re not bothered about having your own bathroom, a single with a (very clean, I checked) shared one comes in at an unbeatable £70.

My one worry was transport, as its not exactly smack-bang central, but it’s still Zone 2 and Camberwell Green is so well-connected with buses, I don’t think it took us any longer getting into central London than it would from many other, pricier locations.

You can find all the details on the Church Street Hotel on their website here. 

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