Friday, 7 November 2014

Happy bloggy birthday - a year of blogging and what exactly have I achieved? Funny you should ask..

There’s no easy way to write this but I am just going to say it - in the basic art of blogging, I have failed. By setting up a blog you have then to care for it, feed it.. even if it’s just the odd snack - a link to some amusing cat photos or any other little tit bits to keep it looking in good health, maintained and, most importantly, loved. And apart from the odd book review I have let this blog fall into neglect 

I began with such good intentions. I made a vow, a contract. I blogged every day for a month and in this intensely close time I realised my love for this blog, I even published my new year's resolutions confirming my commitment to tending my own virtual garden (I am referring to this blog- not some bizarre euphemism for something else).  I am fortunate it is virtual and quite sympathetically doesn't tell anyone it has been left unattended and, other than showing the date of my last post, it doesn't demonstrate it's dire situation by sprouting moss, weeds or becoming coated in dust or displaying signs of decay. Why have I been so shameful in my actions, letting this once beloved space fall by the way side? It gets worse - because I have strayed and there is another blog in my life ( 

This is not some elaborate story to put off the inevitable revisiting of my new year’s resolutions, so lets get it over and done with. Up for a laugh? Lets see exactly how badly I got on.

I will begin quite unashamedly with my failures - those ones that I didn’t even come close to achieving: a short story a day for a week. I didn’t even give this any thought - I blame the rejection letter I received from the People’s Friend among other excuses. I also failed to find a local writing group or even consider setting up one of my own. The only resolution I feel quite genuine in my shame over failing to achieve is that I did not even pursue a good cause in need of support be it through social media or mentoring. My wet suit hasn’t yet emerged from it’s packaging and certainly hasn’t been near my local reservoir where I planned to go open water swimming. On the one occasion I came close to googling the swimming times I was plagued by a bizarrely irrational fear of developing Weil's disease. The half hearted award goes to my vow to go indoor rock climbing. I did attempt this once but didn’t quite anticipate the resulting toe ache and so haven’t revisited it since.

So what exactly did I manage during this sizeable chunk of 2014 that is now past tense? I stupidly set these resolutions to provide a little writing material, so whilst I may have achieved these about to specified, I am still ultimately missing a trick compounding them all into one post but there is a good ending I promise, in the style of Jane Austen to boot. I completed the Sarah Wilson ‘I quit sugar’ detox and learning about refined sugar and fructose was terrifyingly informative. I also blogged every day for the month of February which again was another out-of-my-comfort-zone but in a good way experiences of the year. 

However, as I have it, I am now going to play the card to redeem all failed resolutions as there was one that I did achieve that eclipsed all others. It was all encompassing, once in a life time and at one point occupied my every waking minute of my life. I promised you Jane Austen and yes reader, I got married. 

Had I any notion of quite how much of my life would fall by the wayside in the process of wedding planning I may well have re-ignited my original plan just to elope to Vegas. But kids and casinos are 2 words that should never appear in the same sentence and I’m not sure they would have forgiven me had I eloped without them. So, having allowed this creative space to fall into disarray surely it would only now be fair to make a vow not to let it happen again. However, having demonstrated my flawed track record I think it would be more positive to keep away from social contracts for now and just focus on the important part  - some actual writing, coming soon, I promise.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Book Review time - 'The One Plus One' by JoJo Moyes

I am one lucky blogger, being given another book to review by Mumsnet. This time it’s JoJo Moyes *chick-lit-fest ‘The One Plus One’ 

An extract from the back page:

'One eternal optimist…
Jess Thomas, with two jobs and two kids and never enough money, wears flip-flops in the hope of spring. And when life knocks her down she does her best to bouce right back. But there are some challenges even she can’t meet on her own. 

Plus one lost stranger…
Ed Nichols is the good guy gone bad. He had it all, then one stupid mistake cost him everything. Now he’ll do anything to make it right. 

Equals a chance encounter…
Ed doesn’t want to save anyone and Jess doesn’t want saving, but could Jess an Ed add up to something better together?'

This is the warm hearted tale of hard up single mum Jess, her mathematical genius daughter and her troubled step son who are forced to embark on a calamitous road trip with Ed Nichols, an about-to-be-disgraced business owner wrongly framed for insider trading. 

Usually when reading anything from the ‘chick-lit’ genre I do this concealing numerous yawns accompanied with sporadic fits of eye rolling. However, I am very pleased to report that on this occasion I was entranced without issuing so much as a sneer. Of course the premise of 2 unlikely characters pitched together to witness tumultuous episodes in each other’s very different lives, virtually screams the ending to you just a few pages in, but this didn’t detract from the story at all. 

The plot is so neatly patchworked together with hilarious obstacles between our 2 protagonists cropping up on every page it is automatically a boldly captivating and pacey read. At numerous points it reminded me of John Cleese’s hysterically ill fated journey in the film ‘Clockwise’. It also sensitively and humorously tackled some tough subjects such as poverty, single parenting and bullying with delightfully gratifying outcomes starring affable and genuinely likeable characters. I am positively loathed to go into any more detail as I refuse to spoil any of the story of this gem of a book. 

JoJo Moyes - I salute you. This is a beautifully sophisticated yet effortlessly lighthearted read that I guarantee will have you transfixed. If this hasn’t already been optioned with a  cast lifted from Richard Curtis film already on queue, then call me Beryl.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

What did I know about Woodstock? As it turns out not very much.

Looking at photos taken at a music festival depicting mud coated revellers standing in torrential rain, mountains of rubbish, lines of portaloos, food stalls and film crews you would think I was looking coverage of last weekend’s Glastonbury festival. In truth this was an exhibition of previously unseen photos taken in 1969, of Woodstock, at an unveiling I was lucky enough to be invited to at Forge & Co in Shoreditch last week. This previously unseen collection of pictures was taken by Rolling Stone photographer Baron Woolman who, accompanied by one of the original Woodstock organisers Michael Lang, kicked off the evening giving a talk about their experience of one of the most iconic music events of all time. 

As a seasoned festival goer I thought I knew quite a lot about Woodstock - a spontaneous, natural coming together of free music and love, an oasis in the mud filled desert of festivals where Hendrix serenaded a sunburnt crowd. I was about to find out how sharply inaccurate my Woodstock knowledge really was. Firstly it didn’t take place in Woodstock. It’s intended site on an Industrial state in the town of Wallkill had to be hastily relocated after the local council blocked the festival application, citing concern about the crowds. However, this was a time when the town of Woodstock had iconic status hosting the recording studio of Bob Dylan and so the festival organisers kept the town’s name but in fact it took place 43 miles away on a dairy farm outside the town of Bethal.
Hearing Lang talk about the planning and organising of something that, at that time, was such a new and risky concept, truly confirmed how Lang and his team were innovators of their day. After all it is hard to deny that when you contemplate the basic premise of a music festival it is fundamentally bonkers. Grouping large crowds of people together under the influence of alcohol and other more questionable substances, most of them kids who’s parents were unaware of their activities for a whole weekend, is a crazy notion with little room for error should things go wrong. However, Woodstock wasn't some half baked idea scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet. Lang, who was 24 at the time, had intricately studied the logistics.

He and his partners John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Artie Kornfeld had worked out the volume of people within walking distance and therefore likely to attend (a figure underestimated by 200,000). They had attended other large events and not only counted the toilets but timed how long it took people to use them to ensure they were able to provide sanitation of epic proportions. They effectively came up with their own blue print that could have been utilised to sustain a refugee camp.
Woolman, who's career as a photographer started when demarked from the US army he submitted his photographs of the Berlin Wall going up to his local newspaper, likened Woodstock to the Normandy invasion.  The event was originally ticketed however it was the mass influx of revellers that made Lang and his associates take the last minute decision to cut the fences to make Woodstock free.

Another fact about Woodstock: it rained. I don’t just mean a shower, on the Sunday afternoon there was a full on electrical storm causing music to be postponed and the sound system needing to be dried out.

So what can I share about this festival that you won’t find on Wikipedia? Santana, thinking he wasn’t due on stage for several hours, dropped acid only to be immediately called to play his set. Apparently he spent the whole time on stage thinking his guitar was a snake and didn’t recognise a single note he played. The act deemed as the biggest pain in the backside were The Who (unsurprising as it was at Woodstock that Pete Townsend said ‘f**k off my f**king stage you f**king f**k) and Jimi Hendrix’s manager insisted that Jimi ‘closed’ the show. This meant, due to it running over, Jimi’s set took place at 9 o’clock on the Monday morning to a crowd of just 60,000 as most of the festival goers had already left. One of the photos in the exhibition of a group of people climbing a camera rig included a naked man, was used in the American encyclopaedia where this liberated individual was gifted a pair of airbrushed underpants.

So of all these pictures which was Woolman’s favourite? A photo capturing 2 men who quite obviously didn’t mind being photographed dealing drugs, as it epitomised how at Woodstock it was natural, no one cared. This placid ethos described is probably the only one of my rose tinted ideas of Woodstock that I actually got right. 

The exhibition is free of charge and runs until the 8th July. For more information click HERE


Friday, 20 June 2014

Can Sports Direct command respect? Stoke Newington branch certainly can!

So having had a slight hiccup in childcare arrangements my quest to convince my local branch of Sports Direct to become breastfeeding welcome was temporarily and frustratingly on pause. However, I am pleased to report that on the 22nd May I finally collared the manager of my local branch, having already left my number and email address on my previous visit (which I wrote about HERE) and heard nothing. I couldn’t help feel deflated when I asked if the Assistant Manager had passed on the breastfeeding welcome pack I left for him and he just looked at me blankly. Fortunately I expected it to have been ‘misplaced’ and so swiftly presented him with another one. He apologetically explained that he hadn’t spoken to the Assistant Manager as they had recently been working across 2 stores and he had barely seen her. 

So off I went again, with my spiel explaining the bad press Sports Direct had received regarding an incident where a mother was ordered out of one of their stores for feeding her baby (click HERE if you would like reminding). I can honestly say I was stunned by his response. ‘Women breastfeed in here all the time, there was a lady here a few hours ago feeding her baby. We are fine with customers breastfeeding’ I wasn’t expecting that. I asked him if he was happy for that to go on record along with his name and he said absolutely. 

So Lorenzo, Manager of Sports Direct Stoke Newington I salute you. I then asked if I could sign his branch up to the breastfeeding welcome scheme but he said he would have to check with head office and he’d come back to me. I am yet to hear back from Lorenzo and am not overly optimistic but I can certainly log this as a small but positive move in normalising the basic act of giving your baby food, whilst possibly browsing trainers and/or sportswear. I’ll keep be catching up with Lorenzo in a couple of weeks, do watch this space. 

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A few little gems from the Stoke Newington Literary Festival

As someone who has totally embraced the phenomenon of listening to book readings whilst consuming cider since Latitude 2006, it was with great delight I attended to the annual Stoke Newington Literary festival last weekend. Having been a regular here since moving to Stokey in 2011 (apart from 2012 where possibly ill judged scheduling meant  it clashed with the jubilee celebrations), I have a shopping list of delightful experiences: witnessing David Walliams doing an impression of Wonder Woman; Howard Marks apologetically explaining why he couldn’t bring himself to jeopardise the future of the festival by sparking up a spliff on the stage of the town hall; Irvine Welsh being asked why exactly he’d chosen to do such an agonisingly long reading (I am paraphrasing but it was agony); Cailtin Moran and Suzanne Moore pausing mid interview to order more gin and tonics and Cleo Rocos talking about the time when she teamed up with Kenny Everett and Freddie Mercury to smuggle Princess Di into their local gay bar.

This year did not fail to disappoint. The first talk featured Laura Bates, creator of the Everyday Sexism Project accompanied by journalists Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Cosslett of ‘The Vagenda’ (humorously targeting the media’s portrayal of women) located within the Unitarian Chapel on Newington Green. It’s not often you can attend a talk on feminism sitting beneath a plaque declaring that your seat once held the derriere of Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of British feminism  (oh alright I wasn’t directly under the plaque, I didn’t get there early enough). 

So what can I share here that I think you would appreciate that doesn’t involve me going off on a (hopefully) well informed rant? Well, my question was 'do palatable glossy magazines written for women, by women, exist without lecturing you on diets and bashing celebrities?' Apparently so. ‘In Style’ magazine has pledged not to criticise celebrity looks nor will they feature any diets. Likewise the Vagenda girls also confirmed they had consulted with Editors of Elle magazine about how they could positively promote feminism. Also the #everydaysexism project which so far has received in excess of 60,000 accounts of ‘everyday sexism’ detailed on their website and twitter feed, has resulted in Laura now being able to take her campaign to schools and universities, contributing to the retraining of 2,000 British Transport police officers and raising the reporting of incidents by more than 25 per cent. Not to mention Laura being the youngest member listed on this years Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Game Changer Power list.  

From feminism and onto the Miner’s Strike where Owen Jones interviewed Seumas Milne about the shocking persecution of the striking minors by MI5. A talk which could have quite easily have been the chilling premise of a Spy thriller blockbuster rather than real live events instigated by a Western, ‘democratic’ government. I learned how at the time the BBC, unable to show footage of the Police attacking the peacefully protesting minors, broadcast this film backwards, to show the Miners attacking the Police, amongst numerous other injustices.

A few other quick gems include: Joanne Harris, author of ‘Chocolat’ among other titles, who regularly tweets her short stories to her followers; food writer and Times Journalist Rachel Cooke expounding the wonders of salad cream and apparently the best recipe for this retro-condiment was created by chef Simon Hopkinson. She is also an authority on incredible women from the 1950s including raleigh car driver Sheila Van Damme, who was faster than Stirling Moss; festival ‘headliner’ Lynn Barber talked about when she tackled Jimmy Saville about the rumours about him liking little girls and her being blacklisted by Hollywood as a result of a disastrous interview with actor Nick Nolte; A L Kennedy having to hastily change her choice short story about an experience in a sex shop because at the last moment an apologetic mother in the audience piped up that it might not be suitable for her young daughter sitting next to her.

The highlight for me though was Professor Tanya Byron who, years ago, presented the BBC’s earlier version of Supernanny: ‘The House of Tiny Tearaways’ and is now a leading expert in adolescent psychology. When she was asked, as a mother of 2 teenagers, if she had amazingly behaved children, she recounted an occasion when, at the height of her TV fame, she found herself being recognised in a busy coffee shop at the precise moment her 3 year old son descended into an uncontrollably riotous tantrum that involved him rolling around on the floor. Her solution to this was provided by her friend who offered to briefly claim ownership of her son whilst she made her escape, which of course she accepted. Was it reassurance that when it comes to parenting even the experts get it wrong that made me feel better? Possibly. 

My Stokey Litfest 2014 reading list 

Everyday Sexism - Laura Bates
The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media - Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Cosslett
The Skeleton Cupboard - Tanya Byron
We Made a Garden - Margery Fish
The Enemy Within - Seumas Milne
On Writing - A L Kennedy
Instyle magazine
‘Kitchen essays’ - Agnes Jekyll 
'Plats Du Jour' - Patience Gray

Thursday, 5 June 2014

A review of Gill Hornby's 'The Hive' - courtesy of Mumsnet

I was given a complimentary copy of ‘The Hive’ by Gill Hornby to review for Mumsnet. There is one spoiler here in the 5th paragraph however, I do give you a warning that it's coming. 

So to summarise the story an extract from the back cover: ‘Welcome to St Ambrose Primary School. A world of friendships, fights and feuding. And that’s just the mothers’. Maria Semple said ‘If you loved Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Hive is the book for you’ 'Well I don’t mind saying that I loved Bridget Jones - as a character her bumbling self deprecation made her instantly likeable - so I looked forward to getting stuck in.'

The first hook for me was the beautiful little early twist in the story where the first few pages appear to be describing a couple of school girls in the playground however it swiftly transpires to actually be about the mothers. This was a great little touch that I thought boded well for the rest of the story. Sadly I was disappointed. As we follow the politics of the small group of mums we witness their crumbling allegiance to their Queen Bee (who’s name is Bea). However, I failed to understand how Bea achieved her Goddess-like status in the first place as she was openly and abruptly unpleasant.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all bad and there were some amusing moments: Georgie, desperate to tidy her kitchen shovels her family’s breakfast wreckage swiftly into her dishwasher; to impress her status as chief organiser of a car boot sale, Bea wears a headset. There is also a pleasing commentary of the functions of an actual bee hive that crops up throughout the book, from Rachel’s bee keeping mother. There are numerous appealingly insightful and often heartwarming observations but frustratingly not much in the way of a plot to knit these all together (‘Heather was a tea cup, life was the storm’)

Ironically when writing this review I felt like a teacher summing up the story as having 'so much potential yet poorly executed'.  There were so many opportunities that weren’t explored and some horrific life changing events the characters experienced that were simply glossed over. These notable events (I won’t spoil) are shown little respect as they are simply shoe horned awkwardly in around a group of unconvincing and distinctly unlikeable characters.

Spoiler alert in this next sentence. I was extremely dissatisfied that whilst it was fitting that our Queen Bea met her demise part of this included her gaining weight. I’m not sure what Gill Hornby was trying to articulate here but for me I found it stereotypical and frankly unimaginatively shallow. 

I’m sure it was written with a lazy beach holiday in mind as it's swift and untaxing read. However, if I am being honest if I wasn’t given this book to review, I’m sorry to say, I wouldn’t have finished it. 

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

So did Sports Direct reject?

So as promised, here is how I got on with asking my local branch of Sports Direct to join the ‘Breastfeeding Welcome’ scheme. Their Stoke Newington branch is located on the high street and so this afternoon I headed up there armed with my ‘Breastfeeding Welcome’ pack. This consists of a leaflet titled ‘Becoming Breastfeeding Welcome, a step-by-step guide for family friendly businesses and community venues in Hackney’ An A4 poster stating ‘This is a breastfeeding welcome place’ which also states ‘Remember: you have the right to breastfeed anywhere’, a check list for the venue of all the things they need to do to welcome mothers which includes ‘Babies can be breastfed in any public area of our venue’ among other points and 2 window stickers to show passers by that the business has signed up to the scheme. 

Was I hopeful? In all honesty, not really. I expected that, even if I did get to speak to someone, I would be treated with disinterest. Admittedly also I hadn’t done my homework, I had no idea if Sports Direct were a franchise or controlled by a central office but either way I didn’t see this as an obstacle. 

 I don’t mind saying I shop quite frequently in Sports Direct and so confidently walked up to the nearest sales assistant and said I was a regular customer and would like to talk to their Manager about their recent negative press. The Manager came over and I introduced myself and asked if they knew about the incident as reported by Mumsnet. 

It transpired that the Manager was off that day and I was in fact talking to the Assistant Manager who was nevertheless personable and astute. She wasn’t aware of the incident where the Manager of their Nottingham branch had asked a customer’s wife to leave the branch because she was feeding her baby and she was very keen to know where she would find this information. I went on to tell her about how ‘Breastfeeding Welcome’ works and how actually Sports Direct would benefit greatly to signing up to the scheme. The Assistant Manager explained that anything like this would have to be run past head office and so we agreed that I would leave the pack with her to speak to her Manager. I also wrote down all my contact details along with mumsnet website link so she could find the article I was referring to. I could see that she hadn’t ever encountered Mumsnet and so immediately reeled off it’s terrifyingly impressive viewing stats of 4 million new visitors and 50 million page views a month. At that moment I sensed that I might have caught her attention.   

So I didn’t get a ‘We are Breastfeeding Welcome’ sticker in the window of Sports Direct BUT I also wasn’t sent packing and will now be following up with the Manager to see what their head office’s response is. I hope at least that within Sports Direct I have started a conversation. I will keep you updated.

I didn't think it would take long for someone to set up a petition - please click HERE to view.

Also another great petition to change NHS Breastfeeding Guidelines to match WHO Breastfeeding guideline - click HERE

Monday, 28 April 2014

Milking it for all it's worth

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know how much I have to say on the subject of breastfeeding, breast milk and anything boob related in general (click here, here, here OR here for a further lady chest-related reading) 

So obviously I jumped at the chance of signing up to volunteer for my local ‘Breastfeeding Welcome’ scheme. I have mentioned this admirable organisation in previous posts whilst venting my frustrations around the squeamishness and general lack of normality that surrounds the notion of breastfeeding in England today. So can you legally ask a mother to stop feeding in your bar/restaurant/gym? Of course not. By law you can feed your child anywhere you like, as long as it doesn’t pose a health and safety risk (should you be tempted to conduct a feed on a building site I’m guessing) 

The very thought of someone being asked to leave somewhere because they were…wait for the outrage.. feeding their baby (am I really writing this?) is the type of thing that would have me aboard my soapbox faster than you can say lactation. However, I need to calm down, even I recognise it would be unfair to write off a venue purely because it’s proprietor isn’t aware of what exactly is considered lawful. There is undoubtedly still considerable confusion on the subject. This is demonstrated beautifully by an experience relayed to me by one of the volunteers I met at the ‘Breastfeeding Welcome’ training. At the local swimming pool, she was told she could not stand at the water’s edge whilst her husband and their daughter were in the pool, as it posed a health and safety risk. She pointed out that she might be needed to breastfeed but the Supervisor said even if her baby needed feeding, it wasn’t like she could do it in public anyway. (Clissold Leisure Centre -hang your head in shame!)

However, it isn’t just about reminding business owners that it is perfectly legal to feed your baby in a cafe or at a swimming pool. If you’ll allow me to take a moment to recall my lactating years where there were many occasions I found myself in unfamiliar surroundings, with a screaming, hungry baby and, unless I was prepared to sit down on the pavement, nowhere to go to feed him. A cafe with a sticker on the window that read ‘Breastfeeding Welcome’ would have been my saviour (and a far warmer option then the bus stop!) It was remembering these panicked moments that I realised the purpose of the ‘Breastfeeding Welcome’ scheme is also to provide reassurance to the ladies out there who might hesitate before breastfeeding their baby in public. 

So feeling motivated and inspired leaving the training session I walked home taking a detour to one of my favourite child friendly haunts, The Russet on Hackney Downs who without hesitation enthusiastically signed up to the scheme. I didn’t even need to dangle the carrot of free publicity that comes with being registered on the ‘Breastfeeding Welcome’ website.

However, I then came home to see THIS on Mumsnet 

When it comes to spreading the word on breastfeeding it seems there is much to be done.

This has spurred Mumsnet to build a map of where Mumsnetters have fed their babies (click here to have a peek). As someone who took some family sightseeing round London with my youngest in tow I am pleased to say when it comes to breastfeeding: St Paul’s Cathedral, Madame Tussauds and Fortnum and Mason’s were all very accommodating. 

So who can I next convince to place a ‘Breastfeeding Welcome’ sticker in their window? Sports Direct Stoke Newington High St here I come. Watch this space. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

A microblog dedicated quite simply to Strong Women

This week saw Woman’s Hour vote Baroness Doreen Lawrence as no1 game changer for 2014, who since the brutal murder of her son in 1993, where no convictions were made as a direct result of institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, has tirelessly campaigned  for justice and equality. 

Today I would like to dedicate this blog to another incredibly strong woman who I was privileged to know who, had she not lost her battle with breast cancer in 2008, would be celebrating her birthday today. My friend Karen Watts. If I were to become ill, if I could deal with it with just a fraction of the courage, dignity and fearless defiance she demonstrated on a daily basis then I know that whatever the outcome, like Karen, I would be at peace. I could so easily eulogise about Karen’s beauty and inspirational determination however anyone who was lucky enough to know her will know all of this already. So all I will say is happy birthday Karen, your star still burns bright and reminds us all that time is precious. 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Comically beyond convention...

So It was only going a matter of time before I wrote something about comic conventions. They are a ludicrously wondrous thing of beauty which, without fail, every time provides me enough material to write a sit-com series, well perhaps not a series but at least one amusing pilot that radically drops off after episode 2. Having just attended the London Super Comic Convention (LSCC) at Excel, last weekend and come away from it thoroughly buzzing from the enthusiasm of the creators I met, I felt like the time to share this vibrance is now (please be prepared for further cliched, comic-book style one liners)

So a quick bit of history, I consider myself very fortunate to have quite an intimate experience of these occasions that spans exactly 10 years starting with Bristol con 2004. Initially I attended on the payroll of a comic publisher (AP Comics) as an irritatingly enthusiastic book seller and then the following year was very fortunate to add comic book writer to my CV. I must confess that I have been riding on the success of this same publication ever since. I’m not complaining, if people still come to conventions and want to buy my book, I will very happily attend to assist in promoting book sales. I hastily add that I have written more books and that they are very much in the pipeline, however, due to various industry constraints the process is just a little slower, although every bit worth waiting for. 

Things have changed though, if you had you asked me about conventions back then, I would have pulled a face. I would have told you that they were just a communion of middle aged men attempting to recapture their youth. I remember seeing children at a convention was a rarity, which felt wrong. The venue should have been infested with gangs of grotty boys chasing a Dennis the Menace mascot, whilst their Dads eyed up the Desperate Dan impersonator who was eating an actual giant cow pie.  I knew that as a young woman attending this testosterone filled and sadly also un air-conditioned event, I was a rare commodity. I recall one bookseller giving me a £2 discount off my Stars Wars trade paperback, £1 for each of my fine breasts. Enough of this though, this isn’t a rant about sexism, I haven’t got time. 

However, more recently thanks to the influx of manga and anime, we now have the delights of cosplay (short for costume play) where mainly kids but delightfully lots of adults too, painstakingly recreate their favourite character’s outfits, wigs, makeup and props to wear to the convention. Never will you see such a stunning array of bespoke costumes, the good, the bad and the frankly blue peter in their efforts. Anyone who is familiar with any manga book knows that the girls wear giant high heels, wear few clothes and carry ginormous weapons and these are slavishly recreated. At a convention you will find yourself queueing for the ladies with Supergirl, Emma Frost, Wonder Woman and Xena: Warrior Princess. You will observe Lara Croft desperately attempting to dislodge the paper mache machine gun rather unfortunately stuck in her tights.

I recall one year at Excel in London, the centre security staff felt the need to repeatedly make the following announcement: ‘As you leave the centre please cover your imitation weapons or you will be arrested' 

One year, Hammer horror star Christopher Lee attended, however to obtain his autograph it was compulsory you purchased a copy of his album of music, that he had conducted. You cannot make this shit up. 

It was the same year I came across the ‘free hug’ phenomenon that involved wearing a sign around your neck that read, you guessed it, ‘free hugs’ and consequently there were lots of strangers having an impromptu cuddle. I remember initially finding it a delight to behold but after being accosted by several individuals of questionable hygiene wanting hugs, the novelty swiftly wore off. 

I witnessed grown men having heated arguments over who would win a fight: Captain America vs Iron Man. Ridiculous. Everyone knows it would be Iron Man, because he’s made of iron obvs!

Last year The Baby Show was running alongside in one of the other exhibition rooms, so there were a barrage of rather confused looking pregnant ladies warily eyeing up the Storm Troopers and Power Rangers attempting a conga line down the central hall way. 

My favourite site is always when an entire family have dressed up. I saw one family that came as The Incredibles in immaculately created costumes. This is just a tiny glimpse of the random beauty you will observe at a comic convention.

So not only has the demographic of comic lovers appropriately widened in terms of age, but also there are lots and lots of WOMEN and not just dressed as Trinity from The Matrix (or was she Cat Woman?) but actual creators, artists, colourists, writers and comic book lovers.

Generally in the UK, comic book sellers and therefore the readers tend to shy away from the brilliant Indy publishers out there favouring Marvel and DC before anything else. However, in this new digital age, talking to some of the artists to finally to hear the words ‘level playing field’ was a breath of fresh air. Finally a real platform to transport some of the incredible British comic book talent is being created via the forums of digital media. 

So now I can tell you with pride about the how comic conventions will always hold a place in my heart, with no face pulling or comments about testosterone levels. I am also pleased to say I have got my hands on some beautiful and innovative new titles which I will be reviewing here soon. Watch this space.

A photo of the turnout for my book signing *tumbleweed*

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Review of 2013 Man Booker Shortlisted 'Harvest' by Jim Crace (my first mumsnet book review)

A beautifully crafted tale where 'Lark Rise to Candleford' meets 'Heart of Darkness'.

Our protagonist is a well meaning day dreamer, widower Walter Thirsk, who narrates the story of how, in their harvest week, a feudal village is slowly dismantled through misadventure and false retribution.

The story begins in a tiny, timeless village, it could be medieval or Victorian, which already hints at deeper allegorical meaning then this simple story first suggests. The villagers are awoken by smoke and fearfully discover that their Lord of the Manor’s dovecote and stables have been set alight. At the same time they also discover some visitors have arrived on their land and, in an abandoned dwelling, have also lit a fire, in order to cement their common law right to remain on the land.

Thirsk swiftly identifies the arsonists as a few of the village lads he had observed the previous evening under the the influence of 'fairy caps’ (mushrooms). However, when the Lord of the Manor, Master Kent, arrives to observe the damage all the villagers are quick to point the finger at the smokey trespassers, who turn out to be a father, daughter and her husband. The daughter, who is captivatingly beautiful, is given the nickname of Mistress Beldame by the villagers.

Master Kent issues ‘lenient' punishment to the father and son-in-law that involves them being hung in the village Pillory, by their hands, for a week. However, they are sloppily tied  up which results in the death of the father. As Thirsk and Kent realise what’s happened they are descended on by usurper of the Manor, cousin Edmund Jordan. He is accompanied with an entourage of thugs and swiftly confirms their suspicions that change is afoot. Jordan has plans to revolutionise the land and upgrade it from arable farming, to graze sheep on for wool, thus making the villagers both redundant and homeless.

Immediately things begin to unravel in this nameless and Godless village, where despite being supplied with the materials, the church remains unbuilt. There is a strong ‘us’ and ’them’ between the villagers and the Lord and his cousin. Also we suspect Mistress Beldame, like a ghost, haunts the village at night, carrying out brutal acts to avenge the death of her father. 

Thirsk, despite having been resident in the hamlet for 10 years, is still considered a newcomer. He has dark hair in a place where everyone is fair and joined the village whilst under the employ of Master Charles Kent, who through his marriage acquired the Manor and it’s estate and thus control of the village. This is where Thirsk met his wife, Cecily Saxton and he fully embraced his new life, moving from the servants quarters of the Manor to living in a cottage and farming the land. 

Ironically, despite his devotion to the village folk, when things start to go wrong Thirsk is spurned by his neighbours and feels like an outsider, resulting in him returning to his Master’s side. There are several other ironic twists throughout the story. The villagers are desperate to remain on their beloved ancestral homeland, which causes them to act impulsively and thoughtlessly which instead requires them to up and leave or face the lawful consequences of their actions. 
There is also a recurrent theme of often needless finger pointing and re-apportioning of blame, an act of subterfuge which is carried out by nearly every lead character. 

Crace’s beautifully crafted meandering prose takes you on a gentle journey through simple English rural life. Just his sentence structure and verse-like paragraphs, are to any poetry lovers a wondrous delight to read. ’The awns and whiskers of the barley’s ears were brittle and dry enough to chit-chat-chit every time they were disturbed, nattering with ten thousand voices at every effort of the wind or every scarper of a rabbit, mouse of bird'

I also started noting down some examples of sententious verse and swiftly had to stop as there were so many. ‘Dissent is never counted; it is weighed. The master always weighs the most’

Another example of Crace’s immaculate summation of Thirsk’s feelings about his deceased wife Cecily: ‘There’s solace in the thought I will never finish missing her’ For me this sentence captured beautifully that feeling that I think anyone who has lost someone close can relate to, that their memory will never die. 

Crace also doesn’t just describe the warm glow of the English countryside on the brink of Autumn but also it’s aroma, it’s texture and the feelings these sensations evoke within. 

It’s also hard not to like our sensitive, bumbling protagonist, who wears his flaws on his sleeve and wrestles with good intentions versus his self-motivation. He plans to provide a platform for the pilloried father to stand on, but doesn’t get round to it and so the man slips and dies. Throughout the story he comes across as more of a thinker than a doer. When he ends up deciding to take what he deems as revolutionary action against the new Lord of the Manor, this purely involves ploughing a couple of furrows over a field.  However, he does redeem himself at the end with the most passionate of acts. 

Personally, I would have preferred more of a rounded story, as I felt it was like a whodunit and so was expecting some explanation of the various atrocities that take place throughout, in a slightly more satisfyingly spoon-fed ending. However, I appreciated Thirsk's sometimes frustratingly random apparition-like daydreams (including a brief ‘fairy cap’ induced experience), as this created an almost tantalising crescendo as the events slowly unfold that brings about this village’s downfall. 

A deceptively dark read disguised as a gentle story of life in the English countryside; Harvest is articulate, expertly archaic and Crace adeptly demonstrates his abilities as a wordsmith and poet in this accomplished allegorical tale. If you are in love with the English language, especially when it is written by the most skilled of hands, then this book is a joyous must read. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

A note from a converted horse racing fan

Last Friday I was very lucky to wangle a day at the races at the Cheltenham festival, on Gold Cup day no less. As a former desperately avid, if slightly rubbish, horse rider I have had to keep my horse fixation at bay (forgive the pun) for many years through lack of time and knee cartilage. So at this point you would expect me to gush about how delighted I was to enjoy a full day of pure horse admiration. However, I have to confess that it was with some initial reluctance I joined the thronging masses pouring into Cheltenham race course last Friday morning. 

I can’t remember when my equine obsession started exactly, but horses were almost a full time part of my life from the age of 12.  When leaving my country bumpkin life in West Sussex to go off to the bright lights of university (in Watford), as a student I would often, after Quincey had finished, put on Channel 4 Racing, just to watch the parade of beautifully turned out horses. At the time, it was the closest I could get to the real thing and was a tiny, warm reminder of home. It was also at this point that I formed the belief that were it not for the huge array of bookmakers out there, then no one would bother with horse racing. This is not me making a comment on bookmakers, I have no issues with sensible gambling.  This is to do with the sheer lack of lovers of horse racing in its purest form, with no money involved. Generally speaking I don’t think I class horse racing as a sport and jockeys as athletes and I put this down to the seedy, money motivated edge that, for me, holds it back from its status alongside say show jumping or dressage. I felt like race horses were disposable and only fit for purpose.  

I am very pleased to say that my experience last week, delightfully, blew these beliefs to splinters. 
So what was the detonator responsible for the destruction of my underlying sadness about the prospect of a day at the races? Firstly the fantastic array of people I met. It’s hard to describe the Cheltenham crowd. Having previously once been to Ascot it’s easy to try and compare these 2 bigs horse racing events however, they are very different animals indeed and I don’t just mean the horses (sorry again). The fact that Cheltenham racecourse is situated in a natural amphitheatre and that the festival takes place in very early spring means the high winds have a huge effect on the potential fashion show. Namely that, for most of the ladies, decorative hats and fascinators are shelved in favour of a more practical uniform of tweed, felt hats adorned with pheasant feathers and barbours. 

So firstly I encountered some living, breathing, passionately hardcore, if a little worn out, race fans, who had been at Cheltenham all week and had been coming for years. They couldn’t get enough of the horses and the atmosphere. I immediately felt foolish that my preconception was that people would turn up for one day with the sole intention of gambling their entire net worth. I got talking to one of the many racing pundits who stroll around, dispensing tips, and asked who was his favourite for the Gold Cup. I was stunned at his response that, for him, it was a race to watch and believe it or not to enjoy, not to bet on.
It would also be pertinent to point out here that British horse racing as an industry is supported financially by one of the most prolific horse breeders in the world, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, of Dubai, a country where gambling is illegal. 
It was a pleasure to bathe in the rugged electricity of the atmosphere at the race course despite the constant icy breeze. Everyone is infectiously friendly and quick to tell you who their favourite horse is. Conversations start with the same ‘how’s your day, up or down?’ and always get the same response of ‘about level’. Gold Cup day was predictably eventful. Jockey Daryl Jacob, within minutes of having won his first race (he had already taken part in 14 that week) whilst riding to join the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (a race that has amusingly acquired the nickname 'the potato race' thanks to its sponsor) was thrown from his horse so forcibly he broke his leg, knee and elbow. The highlight of the day, if a little controversial, was when, in the Gold Cup race, an outsider, Lord Windermere, appeared from nowhere and, after a stewards enquiry, was named as winner of the Gold Cup. 

What can I say, I am converted, if a little bitter. Having always held the nickname of Annie, 3 guesses who I lost all my money on, a horse that didn’t prove quite so powerful on the day. 

Actual decorations in the hotel foyer where we stayed (our room was up 5 flights of stairs and there was no lift!)

A couple of before and after shots of Cheltenham racecourse..

Monday, 17 March 2014

The milk of human kindness?

Last week a mother was photographed sitting on the steps of a restaurant in the Staffordshire town of Rugeley, breastfeeding her baby and consequently had her photo posted on a public Facebook page, along with the label of ‘tramp’. (Read the story HERE) I know I am one of many who will have taken to their soapboxes about this ridiculous turn of events, but seriously? 

As a mother who struggled to breast feed my first son, I felt hugely lucky that second time round I succeeded. I don’t consider this an achievement, nor do I congratulate myself in any way, as it all felt rather out of my control and more down to the good fortune of biology working in my favour. However, once I had nailed it I realised there was another obstacle I needed to overcome: the first feed in public. I couldn’t deny, even after completely embracing the indignity I felt around the experience of giving birth, that I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect or whether I would be able to do it, let alone the reaction of others (although I did always wonder what business was it of theirs). Even the thought of doing it round a friend’s house filled me with dread. I had watched the BBC3 programme with Cherry Healey about breastfeeding, where the only mother she could find to follow who was able to breastfeed was so terrified of doing it in public she would decamp to the nearest toilet to feed her baby.
I remember deciding that I would just go out and when the situation arose I would just have to get on with it. I also had one of those rather lovely feeding shawls so had no worries about protecting my modesty. I recall it was overlooking the ice rink in London's Bishopsgate circle, swarming with suited city workers on their lunch breaks, that I conducted my first feed outdoors. In retrospect I can't think of a more child unfriendly place, but actually it was perfect, no one batted an eyelid or even gave me a second glance and my confidence soared. 

Suddenly I realised I could go anywhere without any preparation or organisation and possessed the powers to pacify my baby wherever I was, be it on a tube train or Madame Tussauds (I did it on or in both of these places). If I could sit down then I could feed my child. I quickly also realised that my worries about people being able to see my boobs were pointless. Once a baby has latched on there is nothing to see. So I quickly abandoned my feeding shawl in favour of a scarf, but only if it got cold, to keep out the draft.  

I am pleased to say I never had a bad reaction from anyone (although I did have a rather hilarious pervert attempt to loiter too closely in Westfield - I remember laughing in his face, as it was genuinely hilarious). However, in those early sleep deprived days, things were very different especially my sensitivity to the reactions of others. A scornful sideways glance from someone, who was being held up as a direct result of my buggy wheel becoming wedged whilst I was getting off a bus, meant I, quite irrationally now I realise, avoided buses for months. I don't like to think what I would have done if someone had reacted badly to me feeding my baby, despite the laws in place to legally allow mothers to breast feed wherever they like, unless it poses a health and safety risk. (for clarification on this read HERE

So fair play to all those ladies who on Saturday showed their support the mother in question: Lucy Slough, by taking part in the giant public breast feed (read about it HERE). If I was still lactating I would have proudly joined them. 

When it comes to breastfeeding, mothers need all the help and support available and this atrociously ignorant behaviour by this spiteful individual purely highlights how brainwashed a nation we are when it comes to breastfeeding. I would put money on the fact that whoever was responsible for this abuse has no issue with drinking cow's milk. Having a baby is meant to be the most natural thing in the world, yet feeding your baby calls for public vilification? 

To think I raised my eyebrows at the government's scheme to incentivise mothers to breastfeed for longer by offering vouchers. The stupidity of this rogue photographer last week demonstrates that we clearly need all the help we can get.