Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge (and why I’m not doing it)



I wonder, sometimes (lots of times) if I’m maybe getting a little crotchety now I’ve hit that 30 mark, if perhaps somewhere along the line I’ve lost my sense of ‘fun.’ My Facebook feed, just like most I imagine, has been over-run lately with videos of the ALS ice bucket challenge and the whole thing is just making me think things.

Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against raising both awareness and money (I conceded and took part in the ‘no make-up selfie’ earlier this year) and I think anything which at its heart is about those two things can only be A Good Thing.
ALS (or MND as we know it in the UK) is a horrible horrible condition, and it’s close to my heart: my Auntie lost her Mum to MND, and my cousins their grandmother. I know how awful it is, and there is no doubt at all that the £48 million donated to the cause worldwide since the ice bucket challenge started is excellent. If you want to take part, if you want to pour a bucket of ice cold water over your head in the name of charity then be my guest. I applaud you. I offer to you the highest of fives.

I shan’t be joining in, though.

Call me a spoilsport, or a killjoy, or a wimp. Call me what you will, but here’s the thing, I just think it’s gone a little crazy. I give to charity; I have a direct debit set up to the charity of my choice. I make a donation every single month and have done for ten years. I just don’t like being made to feel like I have to do something, that if I don’t do it then I will be judged or called out.  I’ve seen a couple of other people refuse the challenge - refuse the challenge but still make a generous donation - which surely is the point, right?
‘Not good enough’ the comments declare, ‘the forfeit for not taking part is £100.’

The forfeit? I do not like this, not one little bit (said the fish in the bowl to the cat in the hat etcetera)  Then, 24 hours the videos tell me. 24 hours, or what exactly? The whole thing feels too much like peer pressure and I don’t like that.

Charity isn’t about giving (and dousing yourself in cold water) because you feel like you have to. It’s about those who have a little more than they need, giving whatever they can to a cause that needs it. Raising money and awareness is admirable, but feeling obliged to do something just because a bucketload (pun intended) of people on the internet are doing the same and making me feel like I have to? It just doesn’t feel right.
It’s not a challenge; it’s a dare. I don’t like to be dared.

If I’m going to give to charity – like I already do – then I want it to be my choice. If I want to do a run, or even dump a bucket of iced water over my head and raise money by doing so then I will. But don’t make me feel like I have no choice, don’t make me feel like I will be ridiculed for not taking part, don’t make me feel bad.
& before you start, this has nothing to do with the discomfort of the icy cold water of the challenge, and everything to do with the discomfort of the situation.

Something else? There is something inherently wrong I think, in giving to one group of people in needs whilst laughing in the face of another. California at the moment is in the middle of one of the worst droughts ever recorded – taps have dried up and water wastage is being fined – but even that is nothing in comparison to the millions of people who are dying all the time because they don’t have access to clean water and here we are, millions of us who have an endless supply of water at our fingertips, literally pouring it away. For….charity. The figures I read claimed approx. 5 people per day die from MND in the UK alone, which is terrible. The number of deaths from having no access to clean water though? Closer to 3.5million a year. It kind of makes you think a little, doesn’t it?

I’ve made my donation to MND (text ICED55 and your amount to 70070 if you want to do the same. It really is a very worthy cause) and I’ve made a small donation to wateraid too, but that bucket of water? It’s staying full.

in which I have a wifi free weekend.




Hello folks!

I write today feeling much more relaxed than I may have been had I posted last week. Ian and I spent the bank holiday weekend in the Cotswolds with some friends and two of their three children. It was, as they say, just what the Doctor ordered. There’s just something about time spent with good friends. You know how there are some people who you just kind of click with, who it doesn't matter how long it is between visits, when you do get together it's like no time has passed? That's what it's like with these guys and the whole weekend was just full of laughter, so much that I gave myself a stitch, and finishing each others sentences and so much food.
The kids are the greatest too. Millie (she's 12) borrowed her Mum’s phone to text while we were stuck in traffic (hours and hours on theM6. Awful.)
'I'm at your service' she said 'if you want me then start your text pineapple; if you want mum then start it grapes.'  How utterly fabulous. She painted my nails, and Ian and Flynn played Top Trumps for hours and it was just, it was the best of times.

Mark is working in the Cotswolds at the moment filming the third series of Father Brown for the BBC (which you should totally watch, because it, and Mark, are excellent. The Radio Times described him as ‘a joy’ on a review of series two, which is always nice,) and we headed down for his birthday on Friday. We spent the weekend in a property owned by the Landmark Trust. The Castle, as we affectionately called it, was immense. It was actually the old banqueting suite of an old Jacobean house in Chipping Campden: the only part of the house left standing after a fire in 1645. Amazing.  When we arrived, Flynn (10) put a hand consolingly on my arm and sighed heavily. 'Theres no wifi. It's like the olden days.'

No wifi; little telephone signal; overstuffed armchairs that begged to be occupied by a girl (being me) and her book; a massive dining table fit for a King (or if not a King then more than fit for us); grounds big enough that when the boys took off to try out a new boomerang they became little more than specks in the distance; and a pub within walking distance. You see why we loved it?

Access could only be gained through a padlocked gate and a walk through the fields that had once been the grounds, and as you walked, the East Banqueting House –our weekend home – loomed, both imposing and inviting in the distance.

The house, built by Sir Baptist Hicks (financier in his day of the lavish court of James I) was one of the grandest houses of it’s era and today, despite being destroyed by fire so that the gateway and the two banqueting houses are all that remain, is classed as one of the most important Jacobean sites in the country. Fancy, huh? It felt a little bit like going back in time.

The banqueting houses would originally have been used as places of retreat after a main meal, used solely for drinking wine and eating cake. This, I thought, is the life. A whole wing of a house just for drinking wine and eating cake? Clearly I was born in the wrong era.

We all ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we climbed the spiral staircase from the small kitchen to the banqueting hall.  ‘This place’ Mark said, flinging open the huge wooden doors onto what would have been the terrace and taking a seat at the dining table, ‘is crying out for a Sunday roast.’

& so we silenced its cry. Granted, it wasn’t quite as it would have been, back in the day (although it definitely felt like we had retreated, from life if not from just another wing of our super fancy home, and there was wine. & cake,) and I wonder if that old table had ever seen so much food. We ate and ate and ate, all weekend: large breakfasts and plates piled high with pasta and then Sunday lunch and SO MUCH DESSERT.  Ian has a lifelong hatred of bananas. He had three helpings of banoffee pie. This was the banqueting house after all and blimey, Emma can cook.

As there was no TV Ian commandeered my book – I was re-reading Oryx and Crake – so I decided to acquaint myself with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. I say ‘decided’ but what I actually mean is Mark said ‘have you read it yet’ and I said ‘no I’ll start it right away.’

Anyway, that’s what I read. 

I liked it.

Set in 18th century Germany, it’s the true story of (slightly crackers) philosophy student Fritz (later to become the poet Novalis) as he meets and decides he must marry ‘his philosophy,’ 12 year old Sophie – plain, simple and not at all a match for his brilliance. It’s well written and subtle. There’s no…demand for enjoyment I guess? None of the characters are written especially favourably, and there’s very little in the way of sentimentality but still, you’re drawn to the people – the Von Hardenburgs and Karoline especially – and sucked into the story. Fitzgerald’s style of storytelling is rather different, here at least; the book is short at around 225 pages and you feel as though every word has been carefully considered and placed, so at times it feels sparse and a little lacking in atmosphere and yet, and yet, at the same time it has a certain quality to it that keeps you turning the pages, you have to sort of just sit back and read it - don’t try too hard or look too deeply.
It begins, rather excellently, with the Von Hardenburg biyearly wash-day and it continues with these little insights, descriptions, snippets of dialogue that make you see just why this book is so highly thought of (nominated more than any other as Book of the Year 1995 by all accounts)

Apparently, when asked how she might celebrate the novel winning the National Book Critics Circle award, Fitzgerald replied, ‘well I certainly shan’t do any ironing today.’ I think that’s rather excellent.

It’s not my book of the year, it won’t even make the top five, but it’s a good read, and an interesting one. I’m glad Mark pushed me to read it. Cheers, mate.

[Fitzgerald didn’t publish anything til she was 60 as a by the by – perhaps there’s hope for me yet!]

In other news, before I go, I hope you’re all getting excited for The Bookshop Book! Just over a month til publication day! *happy dance*  I am very excited about this book, if you weren’t aware!
There’s all sorts of fun stuff going on over at Jen’s Facebook page of late actually, including a rather fabulous book club. You ought to check it out: www.facebook.com/weirdthingscustomerssayinbookshops 

Monday, 11 August 2014

No Other City Ever Made Me Glad





In 2007, on the night I met the boy who was to become the ‘love of my life,’ he asked me – quite nonchalantly – if I’d like to go to New York with him the next Christmas. Fast forward to just over a year later and we were grabbing a yellow cab at JFK. It’s one of my favourite stories to tell about the way that we met, and, New York is quite possibly in my top two places on earth (the other is by the sea but that’s a story for another day.)

Fast forward another 6 years from that and here we are. We watched the New New York episode of Glee this week and when it ended we looked at one another and sighed a little sadly. We miss New York, we miss it in a way not dissimilar to the way you miss an old friend you haven’t spoken to in a while: it was fun and we want more and why are you so far away. That’s kind of how New York makes you feel, like it’s that holiday romance, all too fleeting but so intense that you look back on it both fondly and with a sense of longing that almost takes your breath away.

I’ve been having a lot of New York feelings recently, perhaps due to my best friend’s forthcoming wedding (in real life, not the Julia Roberts film) which has a New York theme. She got engaged in New York (top of the Empire State Building the whole shebang), super romantic, right? I KNOW. I’ve been feeling nostalgic for that week we spent there, possibly the best week of my life, and have what can only be described as a longing to go back. A quick look on Skyscanner and a check of my bank balance swiftly reminds me that that is not even a remote possibility right now. Woe is me, I know. Feel free to send sympathy on a postcard.

I never expected to love it so. I went because Ian wanted to, mainly. I mean, I wanted to go, don’t get me wrong: who doesn’t want to go to New York, but I hadn’t spent the 25 years of my life prior to my trip with New York City dreams. I’m not a city girl. At all. I like the feel of the sea breeze on my face; I like the feel of grass between my toes; I like wide open spaces and making daisy chains in a field knowing there might not be another person for miles. That feeling, of being the only person in the world? I love it.
My grandparents owned a farm when I was small and I grew up collecting eggs and venturing as far away as I was allowed (which looking back wasn’t all that far but which felt like a million miles to me) and rolling down the hills in the top fields, faster,faster,faster. I was nettle stings, and grass stains, and sitting on a fence, laughing when the goats tried to eat my shoelaces. My cousins moved to Manchester when I was in my teens and visiting them, whilst an adventure, left me feeling like a fish out of water: it was big – too big- and loud – too loud- and dirty and all of the people were in such a hurry to get nowhere and I longed to go home to my small town life.
 
London was the same again – a big city, too much too fast, although I was older when I first went there (for my 21st birthday) and I kind of got caught up in it all – I love me some time in the capital, but I’m always ready to come home again after a couple of days, to the relative peace of a hometown that doesn’t even have a shopping centre, where a 5 minute walk has me feeding the ducks in the park.

I thought New York would be the same: bustling, and a little insane, too many people in too much of a hurry and so much to see it would make my eyes burn. I thought I’d be ready to come home after a couple of nights; I worried our trip would be too long.

It was exactly what I expected: New York is bustling, and a little insane, with too many people in too much of a hurry and so much to see it made my eyes burn.

& I loved it.

Our trip wasn’t long enough.

I loved the line of yellow cabs waiting for us when we left the airport, bundling our cases into the trunk and giving the driver our hotel address, and the way Ian’s hand felt in mine as we crossed over to Manhattan. My heart raced and my stomach churned and I was just so freaking excited. Excited and overwhelmed and head-over-heels in love.  I loved the way it looked; the way it smelled; the way it sounded. I loved wandering through NoHo on our first night, grabbing a coffee and not being able to quite believe I was really there, being tired and grumpy but not wanting to stop walking those streets, ever.
 
We went in December, so it was cold, and the Christmas Tree was outside the Rockerfeller Centre and all the shops on Fifth Avenue were lit up with pretty lights and we got to go ice skating in Central Park. There was a Christmas market at Union Square and every day was so cold I could see my breath mist in the air in front of me. We walked and walked and walked til my boots wore away a patch of skin on my ankle; we didn’t catch the subway once. One night as we wandered hand in hand through Greenwich Village to John’s Pizzeria on Bleeker St it began to snow, enough for me to leave noticeable footprints on the New York sidewalk, and I stuck out my tongue – do New York snowflakes taste different than those back home in Lancashire? They do: they taste like possibility and dreams coming true.

I loved the people, the ones in the street and in the shops and in the all night deli on the corner of the block near our hotel (Washington Square baby) where I could buy hairspray and takeout food and a packet of Cheetos all under one roof. I loved the amazing concierge we made friends with in our hotel, and the guy who gave Ian a high five when we stopped for a slice of pizza in the pouring down rain when even my best Carrie Bradshaw couldn’t secure us a cab (you’re from England. Happy holidays!) and the lady with the broadest of New York accents who handed me my plate of pancakes and bacon in the diner we shared with the NYPD and a massive big dog. She said ‘coffee’ like they do in the movies. I kind of wanted to sit there all day. I loved the shopping (as did Ian. So many pairs of shoes oh my god) and the food and the sights. I loved the atmosphere. I loved how everything somehow felt familiar but at the same time utterly unknown; the view from the Empire State building that blew my mind and the view from the Statue of Liberty that did the same; Ground Zero which made my heart hurt and my eyes burn; Times Square and Wall Street and Bloomingdale's and Grand Central Station and City Hall and The Brooklyn Bridge and this tiny little cafĂ© almost hidden by some scaffolding where the lino was peeling at the edges and the grilled cheese tasted like something straight from heaven.

I loved it all, so very much and even if I never get to go back I will be forever grateful that I ever went at all.

Oh New York. No other city ever made me glad.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Love Letters to the Dead



 You think you know someone, but that person always changes, and you keep changing, too. I understood it suddenly, how that’s what being alive means. Our own invisible plates shifting inside of our bodies, beginning to align into the people we are going to become.


Things about me that you probably know if you are an avid reader of this blog: I am a sucker for pretty pretty words.

Love Letters to the Dead is full of them . Full to the very brim. Delicate words, and breakable characters and a storyline that haunts you.  It’s like Perks, which is how Jen sold it to me, in one of her zomgz Jo read this book text messages (always my favourite kind of text messages.)
She said: it’s a modern day ‘Perks…’ It has lots of Jo sentences and I want to quote the whole book to you.’
So I bought it, and I read it (in like, an evening) and now here I am, rather wanting to quote the whole book to you, o lovely readers. It has that vibe that made Perks so special, but it is by no means a carbon copy; it’s the same sort of special in an entirely different way. Because this is my blog, and I will talk in sentences that make no sense if I want and you can’t stop me.


Sometimes when we say things, we hear silence. Or only echoes. Like screaming from inside. And that’s really lonely. But that only happens when we weren’t really listening. It means we weren’t ready to listen yet. Because every time we speak, there is a voice. There is the world that answers back.”


There is no getting away from the fact that this is a stunning debut; I am doing well with those lately, and that makes me extremely happy. Give me all the books from all the new exciting people please.

So, why’d I like it?

The voice of Laurel, our protagonist, is so strong the whole way through, so absolutely spot on, and so real: this kid is messed up, and Dellaira gets right inside her head so that your heart kind of breaks right along with hers. There’s a strong cast of supporting characters too: Laurel’s new best friends who are falling in love with each other and don’t know what to do about that because being gay in high school is the opposite of easy; Sky, the boy Laurel loves who is just so precious and kind and utterly flawed – he’s such a teenage boy sometimes in his actions and reactions and I love how real that makes him. Sky isn’t perfect ands sometimes he’s a bit of an asshat, and I love him for it; the two seniors that Laurel and her pals befriend, a couple of years older but no more sure of who they are; Laurel’s Dad and Aunt Amy. Every single person is just so real. So, we have excellent characterisation and a strong narrative voice combined with the utterly beautiful use of language: yep, s’probably exactly why Jen was so adamant I read it. She knows me well.  (& it’s super clever too: I loved how the letters to all the different (dead) celebrities were used to explain the complexities of grief.)

This book felt eerily like being taken apart and then slowly reassembled as somebody new: I got that feeling, albeit on a much deeper level, when I read Perks, and The Book Thief. It has that kind of under-the-skin emotion to it. & you know, you might kind of hate it, because on the surface it is just another ‘high school sucks’ book full of teenage angst and drama, and I get that, I do, except this book is so much more than it seems on the surface.  It really is: it’s a book about loss, and pain and how to deal with that and how to keep going; it’s about putting a person on a pedestal and how dangerous that can be; it’s about forgiveness and finding a way to like oneself, to accept oneself.


When we are in love, we are both completely in danger and completely saved.”



It was then that I could feel that the moths in him, with their wings so paper-thin, will never be near enough to the light. They will always want to be nearer - to be inside of it. It was then that I could feel the lost thing in him.”



It wasn’t fair what happened to you, either. Or what happened to her. A lot of things aren’t. I guess we can either be angry about it forever or else we just have to try to make things better with what we have now.”