Here comes the sun (and the sexism…)

odd_skirt_viralSo lovely weather has at last descended on the capital, but with a hectic week full of interviews and assessment days, I wasn’t able to properly enjoy it. Yesterday I had my first day off, from work or interview preparation, in what feels like weeks. Shame, then, that I had to go and ruin it by announcing to the world that I was freely available for catcalls, comments, and general creepdom.

Yes, chaps, I decided not to wear tights. I had the audacity to walk round London bare-legged (from the knee-cap down, no less) and then react with outrage (and perhaps more naively, surprise) at the sudden increase of unwanted attention on the London streets.

I hope the sarcasm has become self evident now, because to be honest, it totally ruined my day. It’s been quite a long time since I’ve had to put up with the kind of treatment I despair of daily on The Everyday Sexism Project, but it seems that, by shedding my winter uniform of thick black tights, my parole officially ended yesterday.

My encounters ranged from the irritating but manageable (a car horn, a couple of catcalls from passing vans) to the genuinely scary. At one point, a guy followed me down the street making weird comments and trying to engage me in conversation. When I tried to dodge him by ducking into a women’s clothes shop, he followed me in and browsed beside me, continually offering to buy me things. On another occasion a clearly drunk guy passed me on the entrance to the underpass, then turned around and followed me back into the tunnel, whispering “compliments” about the 30cm of bare leg on show, and crudely speculating “how far they go”. I only didn’t run because I didn’t want to prompt a chase.

So that kind of sucked, but it wasn’t what ruined my day. What ruined my day was looking back and wishing I’d acted differently; I wish I hadn’t given in to fear by responding politely, I wish I’d had the guts to tell these men to piss off and leave me alone, that I’m not a piece of meat to be appraised and bargained over, and that I can wear my legs bare if I damn well please.

I especially wish that this had been the way I ended my two more creepy encounters. I’d have loved to send them away with their tails between their legs and feminist fury in their ears. Instead, I had to resort to that age old adage “I have a boyfriend”.

Yep, it wasn’t my resolute ignoring of the guy in the underpass, nor the five minutes of saying “no thank you” and goodbye” to the man in the shop, which finally got them to leave me alone. It was my positive response to the question “Does another man have a claim to you?” that bought me my peace. How sad is that? A guy shouldn’t leave you alone solely because he’s realised he’s treading on another man’s territory; he should leave you alone as soon as you make it clear, on your own account, that you want him to. I’d like to manage my own border control, thanks.

Next time, and with the warm weather approaching, it’s all too certain that there will be a next time, I’m not going to answer that kind of question in the affirmative. As long as it’s safe to do so, I’m promising myself to make it clear exactly why how they’re behaving is wrong, and why I, and not a totally absent and irrelevant boyfriend, should be allowed to call the shots on who I interact with and how.

So, summer-time disclaimer, here is what my bare legs are saying: it’s hot today. End of.

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The prison book ban; as self-destructive as it is spiteful

Forgive this rushed late night ramble, but I feel I have to at least add my voice to the chorus of outrage that has risen this week.

When the story broke a few days ago about the blanket ban on prisoners receiving parcels- including books- from the outside world, I admit I gave it very little thought. The ban was clearly a means to an end, and it sounded worth it: drugs are, as we know, a recurrent issue in prisons and a hindrance to rehabilitation. Any necessary measures which might prevent drugs being smuggled into penitentiary units should be adopted if possible. And, as Justice Secretary Chris Grayling so repeatedly assured us, prisoners could still have access to prison libraries, and could keep up to 12 books at a time in their cell. Well, I thought, having your own copies of books is lovely, but even I’ve had to make the change over to library books now that I’m a saving for a Masters. I’m sure it won’t do the prisoners much harm…

I’m now a little ashamed of myself. As the story broke and the understandable outrage unfurled, I’ve had a bit of a rude awakening. I found out that many prisons only open their libraries for 15 minutes a day, with a terribly narrow selection of books on offer. Even more disturbingly, in some institutions, books on prison law and human rights are locked away in cabinets.

Of course this ban is a terrible violation of individual freedom: everybody has the right to read, literacy and book access are meant to be the right of every child born in this country, and yet a quick survey of the majority of prison inmates which show you just how far society has failed. But not only is this move unfair and seemingly motivated by nothing but spite; it’s also bloody stupid.

It may sound a little cliché, but it is undeniably true that when you open a book, you open your mind. Emotional intelligence, empathy, decency; these are not things every baby knows instinctively. We learn humanity from humans, and if (as far too many children find) your home cannot teach you how to walk in another man’s shoes, fiction can fill that void. Poor literacy and a lack of reading are symptoms of the kind of social and developmental conditions which put people on the path which ends behind bars. Denying prisoners access to an escape into fiction once they get there not only pushes them further towards the escape into drugs which is supposedly the root cause of this cruel and ill-thought-out ban, it also ensures that one of the routes to rehabilitation is closed forever.

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How to Celebrate St Patrick’s Day Without Being Lame

I love St. Patrick’s Day and it’s whole-hearted commitment to some of my favourite things: the Irish people, drinking, dancing, and the total absence of snakes. But I never know exactly how to pitch it when planning how to celebrate the day: I face a weird conflict of very much wanting to join in, but being unsure if I’m actually invited to the party. Outside America (where every holiday is game for whoever wants to dress up or decorate), the celebration of St Paddy’s day is largely limited to the Irish people, and I’m not sure if I count.

 
I definitely have some of the credentials: the passport, the name whose pronunciation is almost entirely unrelated to the spelling (“Lee-sha”, by the way), the inability to tan and the sprinkling of freckles across the nose which my mum gallantly spent my entire childhood trying to convince me were “cute”. But I’m also missing a few of the key ingredients: I never lived there, the only Irish I know are the swear words, and my accent is so ridiculously RP it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a BBC broadcast from 1940.

 
Still, I certainly feel Irish, it’s what I say when people ask me where I’m from, and if I let St. Paddy’s Day slip past totally unregarded, I’d definitely feel like I was missing out. Yet I’m also keenly aware of just how cliché it is to jump on the St Paddy’s Day bandwagon, determinedly telling the barman or bouncer that “I’m Irish” in your heavily American or British accent. In the past I’ve toed the line by partying only if it’s a weekend (when my appearance in an Irish Bar might be natural enough) or through some subtle celebration; a green cardigan, or a piece of celtic jewelry.
 
I’ve put together a little guide for those of you who are keen to jump on the St Patrick’s Day bandwagon, but are wary of going at it in full-throttle “oirish” regalia. Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh! (via google translate, of couse…)

 
READ
indexMcCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in Ireland, by Pete McCarthy. This truly hilarious account of how Irish-English Pete McCarthy soul-searched and drunkenly-lurched around his native land really resonates with those thousands of people, Irish ancestors solidly in the distant or not-so-distant past, who feel a weird mystic union with a land they’ve never lived in. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, so funny that I really don’t recommend reading it on a bus or train, for fear of making fellow travellers nervously edge away from you. A few of the anecdotes are so structurally perfect that I became fairly convinced that the author was making half of it up, but it’s in true Irish spirit not to let anything so mundane as truth get in the way of a good story.
 
DRINK
baby-guinness-drink If you don’t want to join legions of wannabe-irish reaching for a Green Guinness (which, FYI, is never seen in actual Ireland), but still want to honour the day and it’s admittedly drink-sodden revelry, then you can take a little hop back from cliche by indulging in a round or two of Baby Guinnesses. This is a truly yummy shot-sized cocktail, made by filling a shot glass 3/4 full with Tia Maria (or any coffee liqueur) and topping it with a layer of whipped Baileys (or any Irish cream). The result looks like a tiny little Guinness but, unlike it’s parent drink, doesn’t taste like melted down tarmac.
 

EAT
BarmbrackA full plate of Irish Stew, Colcannon or Boxty might be milking it a bit, but why not start your day on a celtic note with a few slices of Barmbrack with butter? This is a really amazing soft sticky bread made from a tea-infused dough, and mixed with currents, raisins and candied fruit. It’s a lovely way to get your hot cross bun kicks before Easter, and is decidedly Irish (but being more traditionally associated with Halloween than St Patrick’s Day, you can eat it with complete cliché immunity) A lovely recipe can be found <a href="http://eatsamazing.co.uk/recipes-tutorials/my-grans-barmbrack-cake-recipe“>here, or you can find a tasty version in Waitrose.
 
DO
Get up and go to work, ya lazy eejit, it’s a Monday

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Midnight musings: on the labour of love

In my current job as a Runner, I’ve spent a lot of time in a news studio late at night. Which lead to the sleepy absorption of rather a lot of news. Which lead in turn to a bit of a revelation: turns out I am an absolute sucker when I’m tired. Usually, I would describe myself as only a half-hearted romantic. The odd well-planned and brilliantly executed gesture is all well and good, I LOVE surprises, and hand-written notes should not be allowed to die out. Outside this fairly strict definition of “sweet”, however, I’m something of a valentine’s-day scrooge, eye-rolling and cringing with the best of them. It was a bit strange then, to learn that, when read at 2 in the morning, stories like this have the ability to make my eyes brim with sentimental tears. No, seriously. Flight MH370 is still missing, two high-profile sexual assault cases are currently being heard in court, and today’s Oscar Pistorius coverage reached an emotional fever pitch, but it was the story about the builder who spent three years renovating a beach-front Victorian loo as an anniversary gift for his wife which broke the camel’s back, and had me reaching for the tissues.

I seem to have found the chink in my romantic armour: the labour of love. Why are they so undeniably adorable? It must be something to do with their usual absence of clichés, and also because donating time and skill to something means that the labour of love is one of the few romantic gestures which every one (even impoverished runners and their equally impoverished boyfriends) can dream about, plan, and execute. Looking back over a few of the things which have made me especially happy over the last few wintry weeks, I guess a lot of them could be deemed a labour of love: the Lebanese feast I cooked for my mum and dad, the birthday card I made and sent overseas, the costume I helped cobble together for my boyfriend; working on things for other people is rather a lovely way to be romantic or demonstrative, without a cliché in sight.

For inspiration, and to further stimulate an attitude of doing nice things for people, I’ve been thinking about some of my favourite labours of love:

457PX-~1Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese”: falling deeply in love with her husband-to-be (the also good for a romantic gesture or two, Robert Browning) Elizabeth Barrett wrote a collection of 44 love sonnets in the period leading up to her runaway marriage. The collection includes the famously gorgeous ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ but also many other lines which are heart-stopping because so honestly and totally in love (“And I who looked for only God, found thee/ I found thee; I am safe, and strong, and glad.”)
What makes this book of poems a truly epic labour of love is that it never would have appeared without the efforts of both partners: hearing her husband ranting about the limitations of “personal poetry”, Elizabeth showed Robert the 44 sonnets she had written about her love for him. Insisting that they were the best sonnet sequence since Shakespeare, Robert urged his wife to publish them, even supplying the title which would afford the couple a modicum of privacy.

This guy, and the marriage proposal which can only accurately be described as “frickin amazing” . Trust me, I’ve watched a fair few youtube proposals in my time. This one is the best.

Cavendish-BlazingMargaret and William Cavendish ‘The Blazing World’: a marvelous writer, intrepid intellectual explorer, and rather glorious eccentric, Margaret Lucas was in her early twenties when she married the ageing William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle. Yet their marriage seems to have become a happy one of mutual support, and as she was penning her extraordinary piece of science fiction ‘The Blazing World’, she managed to write into the fantastical story a plea for the return of her husband’s lost wealth, confiscated by parliament after the end of the English Civil War. She would also write his biography. In his turn, he encouraged her in her writing and in her philosophic and scientific explorations, and wrote a touching poetic tribute to his wife’s imaginative power as a dedication when ‘The Blazing World’ was published.

Our Elder World, with all their Skill and Arts,
Could but divide the World into three Parts:…
But your Creating Fancy, thought it fit
To make your World of Nothing, but pure Wit.

The guy who built his girlfriend a snoopy post box to surprise her. Snoopy and getting the post. Two of the best things in the world.

800px-Schloss_Neuschwanstein_2013Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle: it is not a romantic love, but an affair with music, which is honoured in the gothic architecture of Neuschwanstein Castle near Fussen, in Bavaria, Germany. Ludwig never married, and was likely a homosexual unable to express his feelings openly, but his life-long love of the operas of Richard Wagner finds full expression in this weird, castle-wide tribute to the works of his favourite composer. He was fully involved with the concept and planning, but died before it could be finished. A labour of love to the end.

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The Little House, by Philippa Gregory

little-house-22Novels woven around an intense feeling of claustrophobia rarely appeal to me; I’ve never managed to get past the opening chapters of Wuthering Heights, and I’ll happily admit to skipping the Lady Dedlock chapters when I reread the otherwise marvellous Bleak House. I prefer my reading experience to be expansive, opening up possibilities of other times or other worlds, and I like my characters to blossom, rather than wilt , as I turn the pages. One exception, however, has proved to be The Little House.

No blossoming is to be had in this acute psychosocial drama about a seemingly charmed life in rural England. Gregory’s protagonist, Ruth, doesn’t so much wilt as positively wither away: made redundant from her job as a radio journalist, she falls accidentally pregnant by her charismatically controlling husband and finds herself shoe-horned into living in the grounds of her in-laws’ country home. Gradually probing Ruth’s childhood, Gregory gives us a perfectly viable explanation for orphaned Ruth’s increasing pliability and voluntary subservience to the will of her husband and his family. But what broadens this novel’s scope and keeps my interest beyond its insights into a harrowing mental decline is Gregory’s wonderful introduction of a secondary and subversive possibility. In a clever fusion of psychological drama and actual thriller, Ruth slips from postnatal depression into total mental collapse, and the novel begins to beg the question; if Ruth is a wilting flower, is someone poisoning the garden?

Alternating between the viewpoint of Ruth herself and the inhabitants of the big house- Ruth’s unfailing domestic goddess of a mother-in-law and her jocund country-gentleman husband- Gregory creates an intriguing reading atmosphere in which both parties are temporarily deemed to be acting to the final letter of reasonableness. Is Ruth a paranoid hysteric or a genuine victim? Is Elizabeth’s constant interference with her son and his family the benevolent act of a concerned grandmother, or the Machiavellian plottings of a determined matriarch? Gregory lets her readers totter on the brink of indecision for a chapter or so long, with a wonderfully dizzying effect. The result is an intriguing family drama, moving portrait of young motherhood, and genuine thriller all in one.

A succinct, swiftly plotted and continually engaging novel, The Little House is well worth a read. Claustrophobic it may be, cramped in the dusty confines of a troubled mind and the womb-like surroundings of the family home, but there are a great many hidden spaces to explore in these close confines, and a twist you never saw coming.

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Living by my Calendar: February

(Catch up on the ‘Living by my Calendar’ series here)

This month, I have once again let my lovely calendar by The Bright Side take over as my personal guru and general life coach. As well as the occasional daily challenges and hastily invented but utterly brilliant holidays (‘International Do Nothing Day’ was a particularly appealing one for this month, but rather sadly fell on a Monday. ‘International haul your overly heavy suitcase from London to Oxford before handing in a job application and doing the laundry day’ really doesn’t have the same ring to it…) the calendar also provides a monthly mantra on a lovely splash of colour. This month was all about Loving Me, Loving You; here’s how I got on:

February: Love every inch of Your Body (and, when at all possible, every inch of somebody else’s as well)

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Cunningly slipping in Valentine’s Day possibilities without excluding the single or cynical, this is a brilliant slogan for February, when it’s still dark and depressing and most New Year’s fitness resolutions have now been sensibly relegated to the ‘too ambitious anyway’ bin.

However, well-chosen as it is, I wasn’t exactly sure how to honour this month’s challenge. It’s quite hard to quantify “loving every inch of your body”, especially for me. This month I’ve been saving up for schooling, so had no money for clothes in which to drape said cherished form. I was also on work experience with Sky News, the long evening commute from which made soaks in bubble baths or home-spa evenings somewhat tricky to find time for.

An opportunity presented itself however, in a rather unusual form, so this weekend, I’ve decided to basically force the issue: I’m having nude photographs taken. Of course there’s an element of this which quite frankly terrifies me, because guess what, chaps: it’s quite hard to love every inch of your body. It’s relatively easy to pick and choose the odd good bit; the eyes you like the colour of or the tummy which stays mercifully flat. It’s very very hard, however, to cultivate a catch-all acceptance of every single element.

Physical perfection, we are told, doesn’t exist, yet somehow we are forced to look at it every single day; on shop mannequins, in doctored images, on professional models whose job it is to get as close to ideal as possible. When you’re stuck with a pointy elf ear and hips that certainly don’t lie, this plethora of superior examples is a bit bloody annoying.

More than annoying, in fact; it can be damaging, affecting your ability to appreciate even the bits of you which used to cheer you up, because someone somewhere always has even nicer eyes, a flatter stomach. We need to learn to see beauty for what it is; a totally subjective spectrum, whose greatness lies in difference.

This is why I’m taking my clothes off. It’s not only about proving to myself that I love every inch of my body, but about trying to help spread that love a bit further, because (deep breath) these photos aren’t for my eyes only. I’ve written about The Yes Resource before—it’s a wonderful website promoting frank and honest discussion of sexual issues, gender equality, rape culture and body image. In their next promotional bid they are showcasing naked volunteers, posing with slogans about positive body image and consent. That’s where I come in. Wish me luck!

Daily challenges. 5th: do a press up and succeed day. Further to my wholehearted success on last month’s ‘do a push up and fail day’, I’m happy to report that I can now do 7 actual push ups in a row, and 19 half push ups. Win.

2014-02-09 16.38.269th: Create an air of mystery day. Perhaps designer Lily Bright was thinking more along the lies of a femme fatale wardrobe or unexplained errand here, but I went for a slightly different tactic. The 9th was the day I made my valentine’s cake with the mysteriously (!) concealed heart inside.

26th: Give a compliment to a stranger day. My you read this post quickly, well done you! No, in actual fact I did give a compliment to a stranger. Lara in Waitrose; your earrings really were incredibly gorgeous; I can’t believe you made them yourself.

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The Folly, Gracechurch Street

Originally published here.

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Nestled amongst the grim façades of London’s financial hub, the wide windows of The Folly are an oasis of twinkly gorgeousness and charm. Having first spotted it from the far less salubrious settings of the 381 bus, I was instantly seduced by the inviting décor (I react to fairy-lights the way most five-year-olds respond to Santa) and promised myself it wouldn’t be long before I was pushing open the heavy glass doors.

Thankfully, a graduation ceremony in Barbican provided us with a handy excuse. Less than a minute from Monument station and a short potter from London Bridge, The Folly is ready to be your Edenic escape from the big, bad world. Lit by soft, tear drop bulbs, candles, and the afore-squealed-over fairy-lights, the atmosphere is a sparkling union of relaxation and buzz. Tables tucked between tree bowers or cushioned hanging chairs make for cosy corners, while longer tables on the lower level provide the perfect space for larger parties. Sliding onto one of these purpley-plush benches and grinning at your companion through silver candlesticks and basil pots certainly makes you feel like one of the cool crowd, attendees of an elite summer garden party or university may ball.

We were greeted cheerfully and seated immediately. That said; it was a Monday night. After a quick chat with a regular in the ladies’ I was warned that come Thursday or Friday the place is heaving, and you find yourself engaged in an intense battle with the bankers to get hold of a seat for dinner. Booking advised.

The drinks menu offers a great range of innovative cocktails, and helpfully provides flavour wheels to help you match a drink to your particular tastes. Rather too helpfully, however, was the list of ‘skinny cocktails’, calorie count determinedly displayed. Now I don’t approve of calorie-counting on nights out, and when it comes to cocktails, ignorance is bliss. Bliss it certainly was though, as the waitress cheerfully reminded us (twice!) that it was Mojito-Monday, where their gorgeously-balanced cocktails (including a kumquat mojito and a lavender and strawberry concoction) are two for the price of one.

Delivered to your table, glowing like jewels in pretty glass jars, this is not an offer to be refused.

The food was an Asian-Italian-British fusion range, sourcing from local suppliers to create dishes like the slightly-alarming sounding “London sausages” (cue Sweeney Todd associations, anyone?). We decided against a starter of flatbread in the end; some of the options sounded interesting (particularly the borough market flatbread, with brindisa chorizo and piquillo peppers) but at nearly £10 it was too risky a choice. The diners around us had selfishly refrained from ordering it so we couldn’t see how much bang (or bread) you got for your buck.

Instead, we headed straight to the main courses, choosing the Crispy Duck Salad for me, while The Graduate opted for the Steak Sandwich. To test the full variety on offer, we also chose a Mac & Cheese side (hey, all in the name of research…)The food arrived quickly (again, a by-product of the Monday night lull I suspect) and was truly wonderful.
2014-02-03 19.26.03
Served up to me in a gorgeous ceramic dish, my warm noodle salad came with succulently sweet red peppers and crunchy kale, and was altogether a fresh, filling and fabulous dinner. At £9.45 it was only a pound or two more than the same meal from somewhere like Noodle Nation, but without the greasy regret.

The duck was honestly perfect, crispy at the edges but succulent, not a trace of fat, and drizzled with a heady hoisin sauce far richer than what you’d find in your usual Chinese takeaway. My companion was pleased by the finely sliced Scottish beef on his ciabatta, but the waitress forgot to ask how he liked his meat (it came rare) and the £8.45 portion was reasonably small, without any accompanying chips or fries (or, as I like to call them, “the good bits”).

The side dish, though, was a triumph: made with salty bacon and tenderly cooked leeks, the macaroni swam in a delectable cheese sauce made with what tasted like 1000% cream. If the Folly is Eden, the Macaroni is surely the forbidden fruit; too sinfully tempting to resist.
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We had a great night at The Folly. The scrummy food, beautiful cocktails and carefully-detailed décor make you feel like you’ve achieved the glittering lifestyle of the city-worker, without the matching price tag. Drake and Morgan have opened another bar, The Fable on Holborn Viaduct, and after my experience at the Folly, I am truly excited to see what these guys are serving up next.

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