Category Archives: Lifestyle

Autumn Comforts

As the nights are drawing in, the weather gets – by turns – chillier and wetter, my thoughts inevitably turn to home comforts. I’ve been stocking up on snuggly pyjamas and bedsocks.

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Last year – as mentioned in a previous blogpost – I discovered the wonders of an electric blanket, and this item, on its own, transforms the entire season from one of discomfort to one permitting an overdose of comfiness.



I got mine from Amazon (£49.99), and I am officially smitten. I feel slightly foolish for not having tried one out in the past. I blame the public education films I was exposed to as a small child which left me with (in addition to a lasting phobia of striking matches, thankfully since shaken off) an association of electric blankets with house fires. I somehow internalised the notion that they were as dangerous as smoking in bed, and was therefore reluctant to adopt one. Luckily, I have now realised that was the stuff of childhood nightmares, only relevant to elderly or shoddily made blankets.

I am enamoured of the environmentally friendly aspect of them. I haven’t done a study of it, but I’m pretty sure the use of an electric blanket (together with jumpers/duvet on the sofa for television marathons) can hold off the switching on of the central heating for a little while. It makes the bed so cosy, and raises the background temperature of the bedroom, I’ll warrant.

I’m particularly impressed with the model I’ve got, which has dual controls for a double bed. This results in my heating of only one side of the bed, and let me tell you, the heating is quite targeted. The other side of the bed is distinctly chilly. I imagine this could appeal to many couples out there with differing attitudes and/or experiences of night time temperature. However I came a cropper of this feature last night when both my boys, Oscar and Toby, set up shop during the night on the heated side, pushing me over to a cold bed. I retook possession, I assure you, but it was a salutary reminder of the heavenly nature of the electric blanket.

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Oscar (l) and Toby (r)


Ye Olde Literature

It just occurred to me today that I have spent a significant amount of this year in Tudor England. No, I am not in possession of a time machine – except in the most allegorical way. But the books I have been reading over the last few months are, in large proportion, set in Tudor England. This is largely because I have been catching up on various book series.

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First, I finally got around to reading Bring Up The Bodies (BUTB) by Hilary Mantel – the sequel to Wolf Hall (WH), which I read when it won the Booker Prize. I have no excuse for why it took so long to get to the sequel, except that I found some of the linguistic techniques she used in WH quite hard-going, and so the sequel had failed to be the first to my hand when looking for something to read. When I finally did pick it up, I sped through it; Mantel appears to have dropped the conceit for the second book which caused me the most difficulty with the first (not using quotation marks, or a new line, for dialogue; together with marking it only with “he said” or “she said”, rather than the name of the character). It made BUTB a much easier read, but a contrary bit of me misses the literary device. I read very quickly, almost too quickly, as I can miss a lot of the detail. Proof of this is the fact that I can often go back and read a book again, straight after finishing it, and pick up new things on the second read. So it was a useful discipline, having to read more slowly (or rather, to be accurate, read the same paragraph a couple of times) so I could follow the dialogue correctly.

Both books (and there is, I believe, the promise of a third to complete the trilogy) focus on the life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from humble origins to become Henry VIII’s chief minister. WH is set during the years of Henry’s wrangling with the Church to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, which resulted in the split from Rome and the establishment of the Church of England with Henry at its head. I trust that doesn’t represent spoilers for anyone reading this! BUTB is set during the period of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII, and documents her fall from grace.

I am embarrassed to admit that I was barely aware of Thomas Cromwell before embarking on WH. Since then, both from reading Mantel’s books, and some of the others listed below, I have realised quite how influential he was – which, given the times he lived in (where, for instance, your class dictated what you could wear, and to flout the ”sumptuary laws” was a criminal offence), was quite a feat – but at the same time, humanises a historical figure considered by some to be a monster.

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I am currently reading the sixth in the Shardlake series, Lamentation, by C.J. Sansom, also set during Henry VIII’s reign. The first five – Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and Heartstone – were interesting companion pieces to WH, as Thomas Cromwell appears as a character in some of them. Indeed, I read the one in which Cromwell dies (I forget which one that is) just before reading WH, which confused me greatly! The series are, broadly, whodunnits with Matthew Shardlake, a (fictional) hunchbacked lawyer as the central character. But the richness of atmosphere Sansom creates gives a wonderful insight into the social, religious and political culture of the times the books are set in, together with the “sightings” of real historical personages within Shardlake’s narrative. As well as standing up well on their own within their genre, these books are a real treat for anyone with some knowledge of the history. Skip the next paragraph if you haven’t read all of this series and don’t want to read spoilers.

SPOILERS! I think I whooped out loud when I read Shardlake’s description of “the Lady Elizabeth”, and realised this was the adolescent future queen (sorry, I’ve forgotten again which one this was in). And Heartstone features Shardlake taking a trip to Portsmouth, culminating in him finding himself on board the Mary Rose as she sinks! This may not sound all that impressive to some of you, but I have a vivid memory of being pulled out of my primary school class to watch the raising of the very same Mary Rose, which had been lying at the bottom of the Solent ever since. That’s how to bring history to life (not making schoolkids watch interminable hours of not very much happening, but establishing a personal connection between the reader and subject)!

Spoilers over! Lamentation is set near the end of Henry’s reign, but the political and religious intrigue is as fierce as it ever was. I’m really enjoying it, not least because I have come to really like Matthew Shardlake, who Sansom brings to life as a complete human being, with successes and failings both.

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Another couple of series as well, albeit different from the first two for a couple of reasons: they are set in Elizabethan England, rather than the earlier Tudor times I have been reading about, and they involve – to varying degrees – one of my guilty pleasures, the supernatural. I have read all of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, about a woman vicar in Herefordshire who has taken on the role of diocese exorcist (or “deliverance consultant” as the modern church would have it – although that just makes me think of rednecks duelling with banjos, which is unfortunate). So I was pleased to discover a couple of other books by Rickman, about Dr John Dee, again a historical figure who was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. The Bones of Avalon and The Heresy of Doctor Dee are, like Sansom’s Shardlake series, whodunnits but with a bit of a supernatural twist.

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I was on tenterhooks waiting for the final instalment of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, The Book of Life (BOL), to come out in July, and filled in the anticipation of that event by rereading A Discovery of Witches (DOW) and Shadow of Night (SON) to prepare. I am a big fan of the fantasy sub-genre that has many names but I like to call urban gothic, i.e. set in a recognisably modern world, but with vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night. A wider discussion of my love of this sub-genre shall be reserved for a possible future blogpost, but Harkness’ trilogy deserves an honourable mention for anyone interested in the genre but wants to draw the line at teenage angst. These books are about grown ups.

DOW is set in present day Oxford, where an American historian can’t escape her witchy heritage when she discovers a strange book in the Bodleian library and meets a mysterious vampire. The first book establishes the mystery that our main protagonists, Diana (the witch) and Matthew (the vampire), investigate throughout the trilogy, and leads us from Oxford, to southern France, to New England. SON has Diana using her magic to take herself and Matthew back to Elizabethan England (with a trip to Prague) in search of more clues; a tricky visit, not least because Matthew has already lived through this period once. BOL brings us back to the present day, with a whirlwind of cities as Diana and Matthew race to solve the mystery, and save themselves from persecution for their forbidden relationship.

It may seem odd to include this series under the Tudor England category, when only one book is set there. But when you have a book about vampires who have lived through that time, the series continues with an Elizabethan flavour despite the setting. Plus SON involves so many walk-ons by historical characters (including a certain Dr Dee) that it is a joy to turn the page.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how important Audible has been, during my immersion in ye olde England. I first started listening to audiobooks in my teens, primarily to help me get to sleep. At that time, it was well nigh impossible to get anything but abridged versions on cassettes (then later, CDs), so it was with untrammelled joy that I discovered Audible – whose catalogue is increasing all the time and are now primarily unabridged versions. There is nothing worse than looking forward to a favourite passage of a book, only to find the abridger has cut it out! Whilst there is still the occasional misstep, particularly with unusual names or specialist vocabulary (as an Oxford graduate, I winced at the American narrator’s pronunciation of “viva” and “Magdalen” in the Harkness books), I can rise above that to enjoy the luxury that is being read to.

Knitting myself up in knots

I’ve been knitting all my life, on and off. But there has been a lot more “off” than “on”. I learned to knit as a child, taught by my grandma – although I barely remember it and certainly can’t call to mind anything I actually completed.

I took it up again in my mid-twenties and completed a jumper and was halfway through a cardigan when I got two kittens and decided that kittens and balls of wool don’t really mix. So I put the cardigan away, intending to pick it up again when the cats were a little older.

Last year, eight years on, down one cat and up one dog, I suddenly had an urge to wield the needles again. However I couldn’t find the half-finished cardigan (it’s somewhere in the flat, I’m convinced…), so embarked on a happy wool-buying spree for new knitting projects. I finished my first hat pretty quickly –


And managed to complete another couple of hats and a scarf in time to give them as Christmas presents last year. The sprint to meet that deadline clearly took the fun out of it, as I have had another lull. But I have picked up the needles again over the last fortnight with a passion.

I am continuing to knit squares for an afghan blanket I started last year.


Left to right from top – the first four, I knitted last year, and the final two I have completed in the last fortnight (and I am halfway through another square). Just don’t remind me that the blanket involves 121 squares! [Update: my maths went wrong in all the knitting enthusiasm; it’s 111 squares, but that is still a heck of a lot more than six!]

I have also – tempting fate – begun a jumper for myself.

rowan pattern


So we will see how that progresses; as I’m only 2 cm in so far, there is quite a way to go.

I find it interesting, though, to muse on the waxing and waning of my knitting enthusiasm, and what it says about my temperament more generally. I do have a tendency to throw myself in to projects, only to get bored with being immersed in them and then leaving them alone for months. What would really improve my quality of life is if I could figure out a way of adopting hobbies without an all-consuming passion, so I could always have a variety of things on the go. But I wonder if that is a feasible objective, and whether I should just revel in my enthusiasm for pastimes, rather than seeing it as a character flaw. After all, I do keep returning to the knitting, don’t I? I just wish I could figure out where I’ve put that cardigan…


Strictly Come Dancing – one feminist’s perspective

If you have come here for a feminist critique of sequins and fake tan, you’ve come to the wrong place (or possibly the wrong time – there may need to be another post on the SCD phenomenon more generally in the future). I want to have a little chat about the news that Bruce Forsyth’s replacement as presenter for autumn 2014 (still some way away, yet) will be Claudia Winkleman.

I am overjoyed. She was my first choice when I heard that Bruce was retiring (if I’m being honest, quite some time before that, as Bruce has been showing signs of impending retirement for some time – and I wasn’t that keen on him anyway – but let’s be gracious in victory). But I was concerned that the BBC would disagree. It is for this reason that I think Claudia’s appointment represents a turning point – it is, arguably, the first genuinely gender-blind appointment of a presenter in the BBC’s history. Puzzled? Let me explain.

Back in the distant mists of time, presenter roles were given to the best man for the job. And, with the very rare exception, it was always a man. The only way to demonstrate you are qualified is by doing similar things well. So, in the past, all jobs were awarded on merit. Unfortunately, the only people given the opportunity to demonstrate their ability were white, (seemingly) straight, (seemingly) middle class men. And so, all the jobs went to the best men.

Of course, those of you who remember those days will be saying “Cath, hang on a minute, surely the role “presenter” is a newfangled phenomenon”. And you would be correct. But the role’s precursors – newsreaders and light entertainment hosts – still fit this pattern. Newsreaders were drawn from journalists, and light entertainment was peopled by comedians. Neither profession – even if you’ve watched His Girl Friday – was teaming with women.

All the surveys said that the general public were happy this way. Women could not deliver serious news authoritatively, and could not deliver a punchline at all. No one queried how the public knew this when they had never seen it tried. Strangely, women were allowed to be funny in television and film comedy, but presumably that is because men had written all the words. No one asked if the same could be true of female newsreaders, but you shouldn’t expect sweeping generalisations to be logical.

Then came Angela Rippon. Reading her Wikipedia entry is a bit of an eye-opener; she presented the first two series of Top Gear (for non-British readers, a programme about cars generally perceived by British viewers as the archetype of lad television). She also presented Come Dancing (again, for non-Brits or those under 30, ballroom dancing competitions before the celebrities and irony), which we may come back to. But my point is that, in being the first woman to regularly read the news on television, she was groundbreaking. It is important to remember how worried about this decision the BBC were; they so downplayed the fact she was female (and human), that she appeared on a Morecambe and Wise Christmas special and apparently shocked the nation by demonstrating she had legs (and a sense of humour). I can’t find the right clip on YouTube, but here’s a similar one – let me know if you have a link to the right one, “Let’s Face The Music And Dance”.

If there had been any doubt that women could read the news authoritatively and professionally, I suspect Sue Lawley’s approach to a studio invasion scotched it once and for all (the invasion was by lesbian activists protesting against Section 28, but that is – as they say – another story). Nicholas Witchell (the other presenter) allegedly sat on one of the activists and was rewarded by becoming the BBC’s royal correspondent in perpetuity, regardless of how much Prince Charles dislikes him.

So it was amply demonstrated that women could read the news without the public laughing at them. And the self-styled alternative comedy (heralding the likes of French & Saunders, Victoria Wood, Jo Brand, Linda Smith and Ruby Wax to name a few, with a variety of approaches) was swiftly proving that women could be funny without reading words written for them by men.

This left institutions like the BBC with a problem, although it took them a while to notice it. This was, if the women have proved they can do it (and they clearly have), why do all the plum jobs still go to men? They got round it for a while, by arguing seniority. But this was not going to convince forever.

Then someone came up with a fab idea; get rid of solo presenters everywhere you can, in favour of duos. That way, a man-woman team redresses the embarrassing statistics, doesn’t humiliate the men who’ve served their time and gives the audience some eye candy. Because this is where it went a little wrong; the teams were almost always senior man, junior woman (if anyone can think of an exception, please let me know). At first this was pure demographics, but somewhere along the line, it became the orthodoxy. So much so that Michael Buerk was able to sound forth recently that female presenters should not complain when… do you know what, I’m incapable of fairly representing his view without thinking about it for longer than I’m prepared to spend, here’s the link:

So, within a very short amount of time, we went from “women can’t do it”, via “let’s give women a leg up by pairing them with a man” and “the man is getting on, so let’s have some balance with a young woman”, through “only pretty women can do it”, to “formerly pretty women can’t do it any more” (I’m not even going to explore why purely the act of ageing makes you less “pretty”, because there are about 100 premises to explode before we get there, and I will get led even further from my tangent).

And then Bruce resigned.

I’m not comparing SCD with presenting breakfast news (even though it’s obvious a number of people in BBC management believe the two require similar skills). But, during the journey set out above, the number of programmes requiring presenters to front light entertainment grew like topsy. The source for light entertainment host stopped necessarily being time spent at the end of the pier and became more nebulous. However, the key skills for presenting television (particularly live, which can be notoriously terrifying/hilarious, depending on which side of the camera you are) are quite specific; the ability to read an autocue without looking or sounding like you are reading a script, an ability to engage with both the other people on camera and the television audience on a human level and (in the case of live TV) being good under pressure and able to improvise. It helps in getting hired for the gig if you are easy on the eye, but if you cannot do the above, your looks won’t save you. This, by the way, is true for the boys as well as the girls – the benchmark and the level of perfection sought may be different, but Ant & Dec haven’t exactly crawled out from under the nearest stone.

If the job was to be awarded on merit, Claudia was the only candidate, the right candidate. She was hosting SCD’s weekday sister programmes It Takes Two until Zoe Ball took over, to enable her to spread her wings in other areas. It also freed her up to co-host the SCD Results programme with Tess, where they developed a “responsible older sister tickled pink by younger sister’s infectious spontaneity” dynamic. She has also taken the “Tess in the tower” role on the occasions where Bruce has been unable to do the Saturday programme. In other words, Claudia has proved herself, earned her stripes, insert other military analogies unless you find them totally inappropriate as war is not Saturday night entertainment.

But we had this terribly awkward pattern to deal with. Light entertainment has been the preserve of older man – younger woman for so long, it looked like it was going to be impossible to do anything else. Even I thought the BBC would be too timid to take the obvious step, and had begun to think of “not too terrible” alternatives. By which I mean, they would have been fine, but they wouldn’t have been Claudia.

Worst case scenario, an attempt to replace Brucie with a wannabe. The only good things about Brucie were that he had earned his place by a) being a Come Dancing presenting veteran, and b) having had a long, light entertainment career of his own, he had catchphrases galore and a persona the audience was comfortable with. But he was a man from another age. An early name bandied about was Anton du Beke, one of the regular professional dancers on the programme. For me, this was Brucie wannabe. The one failing Brucie had, and that was increasingly showing him up, was his pre-camp persona left him quite awkward with the increasingly accepting tone of the show. Brucie could cope with Craig as a pantomime villain and Bruno as the Liberace de nos jours, but this is not all they are (not even Liberace was actually just Liberace) and, more importantly, the public knows this. The audience theatrically boos Craig’s poor scores and smart-ass comments, but both the audience and the dancer judge the performances with his comments as a weather vane, and his 9’s and 10’s are considered “real” in a way that the nicer judges’ scores are not. I’ve gone a little off tangent again, but I was getting more and more uncomfortable with Bruce’s unscripted comments. I also get quite uncomfortable with Anton’s throwaways. I feel Anton would have been an attempt to recreate a history that has long passed.

My preference, if under sufferance, would have been to go for the anti-Bruce. For me, the obvious choices were Graham Norton or John Barrowman. Both are practised presenters and have established personae. No idea about his motives, but I like that Graham ruled himself out of the running relatively early. I have no idea what John thought, but I also have no idea if I was the only one who thought of him.

Both of these gents could have done the job. My problem is that we would have been back at the older man-younger woman dynamic again. Having put up/worked with Bruce all this time, doesn’t Tess deserve the promotion to primary role? Not sure either of these guys would have been prepared to take the gig if it was the “Tess in the tower” role, although both of them would have delivered it with aplomb.

One option I did not hear, and to be honest it only occurred to me when I started thinking about this post, was that of an older woman to replace Bruce. This is where Angela Rippon reappears in my narrative. She has the skills, Morecambe & Wise demonstrates in spades her ability to deliver both humour and camp, and it would help dissolve the unpleasant Michael Buerk rhetoric referred to above. I have no idea if it’s something she would fancy doing; as with the boys, she’d do a fab job. But we just aren’t getting away from the fact that, based on merit, there is only one candidate.

Which brings us back to Claudia. I could be wrong, but it feels like somewhere in the BBC, they went on this journey. I love that they went for the right candidate rather than the “balanced” team, and I am going to explode with anticip-ation (little Rocky Horror reference for you there, my loves) long before we get to the first episode. I hope it doesn’t mean her Winklemanness has to stop doing Film 2014; I can’t see how it would, given how they torture its scheduling (I haven’t seen a single episode live in the last twelve months, despite my best efforts – my brain just does not retain the information).

Literally Literature

I have a lot of books. I have just got to the point of my decluttering marathon where the books have to be addressed. I’ve had a very constructive afternoon and evening, but I’ve barely started with the difficult decisions that are ahead.

Buying books used to be my pick-me-up. I developed a slight compulsion with buying new books if I found them at all interesting, for fear that they might disappear and I would never be able to find them again. That this would result in a nagging feeling of loss (however slight) for the rest of my life. Rare was the occasion I stepped into a bookshop and failed to buy fewer than five books. I blame it on my library-going habits as a teenager; the maximum number of books was six, and I often ended up with more than one trip a week, because I had already read the allotted six.

Then the Amazon Kindle came out. I was an “early adopter”, buying one the same week it was available in the UK (when the books were still charged in dollars). There were a lot of things about it I fell in love with straight away; like reading from a screen that didn’t feel floodlit, and being able to go on holiday without a back-breaking suitcase (because books are heavy…). But the one feature which separated the Kindle from all other e-readers and revolutionised my spending habits was the introduction to Samples.

You can download the first few pages in any Kindle book for free (Amazon persists in describing it as a chapter, but it is rarely as narratively helpful as that). Overnight, my compulsion to buy books evaporated. Well, not immediately, because it took a while for UK publishers to embrace Kindle. But very quickly, my modus operandi became noting books’ details to check if they were available on Kindle, and only buying them if I couldn’t download a sample.

All that happened in 2009, and – with the exception of cookery, yoga and graphic books – I have bought very few actual books since. In actual fact, with a cruel sense of irony, the Kindle does not keep a record of the samples downloaded and, therefore, since I’ve upgraded versions, I have now lost the samples I was originally so concerned about. The Kindle, because of the sample option, completely changed my buying habits; I buy far fewer books (even digital versions) than I previously did. When I see something new, I download a sample, but tend to wait to purchase the full version until I am ready to start reading it. And, noting the exceptions listed above, I rarely read paper books any more. The last time I did, a few months back, it seemed awfully heavy and cumbersome, particularly turning pages in bed.

So in my declutter marathon, books represent a particular problem. Ownership of books, and display of them on my shelves, is tied tightly into my sense of self and how I express my identity to others. However I do need to reduce the numbers taking over the flat, and that means that any kept and displayed take on a far greater relevance; being part of a small tribe, rather than one of a teeming horde, as they had been before.

I have started work on the fiction/non-fiction (i.e. the type of books I ceased to buy in 2009) I bought since moving into the flat in 2005. I put shelves up in the hall when I moved in, but the books I owned at that point already filled that space to capacity. So post-2005 books are readily identifiable by their presence in the overflow shelving which was beginning to threaten a sideways crab-style walk down the hall. The ones I have read have so far been quite easy to cull, and I need to spend some of tomorrow filling boxes with books destined for charity emporia. I know the books that moved house with me will be harder to say goodbye to, so I suspect space is going to be the taskmaster.

But I have another category of books I am really struggling with; those bought but not yet read. My conscience rebels (I know, silly, right?) at the idea of giving up on a book I have not read, even though there are loads of them, I’m unlikely to choose to read a paper copy over digital now, and getting rid of the paperback hardly prevents me from putting it on my Kindle in future. I’m toying with the idea of boxing them all up and enforcing a tombola approach (e.g. I have to read something from the stash once a month). But I’m concerned that approach would just be storing up future clutter issues, rather than resolving them once and for all.

I expect you think I’m exaggerating; people often do, regarding my book collection. Please survey the state of my living room floor.


This was the situation earlier this evening. The three rows of books in the foreground are cookery books, the overflow of yoga books (most of which live on bedroom shelves), graphic novels and some reference books. Most of these will be staying.

The four rows in the background are most of the unread books, lying there awaiting their fate. There are some more in the bedroom that I need to add to this stash to get a true understanding of the scale of the problem. That can wait until tomorrow. However I am not exaggerating when I say that the books in the photo are less than a quarter of the books I currently own.

For tomorrow, I have to get these books into some sort of order, even if it is only a holding pattern until the May bank holidays provide a little more time.