“When You Get to the End of Your Rope, Tie a Knot and Hang On”

medalThe shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award was released today, and such are the successes among British sporting stars that poor old Mo Farah, despite having achieved the legendary ‘double/double’ (winning the 5,000m and 10,000m at both the Olympics and World Athletics Championships), is still not favourite to take home the accolade.

After becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, Andy Murray is expected to secure the top prize. Others on the list include Tour de France winner Chris Froome; Sir Ben Ainsley, credited with masterminding Oracle Team USA’s America’s Cup win; and Justin Rose, whose triumph at the US Open made him the first Englishman to win a golf major since 1996.

Astonishingly no footballers on the list, despite the fact that, given its extensive coverage in the daily newspapers, you’d be forgiven for thinking football was the only sport played in this country. Not even [Most Expensive] Footballer of the Year, Gareth Bale, made the cut. And Mark Cavendish has now won the points classification at all three major cycling tours following his success in the Giro d’Italia this year, but didn’t make the Beeb’s top ten.

Basically, this year is a long way from 1997 when Greg Rusedski got to take home the awkwardly shaped statue. His triumph came on the back of getting to the final (for the first and last time in his career) of the US Open. Not to demean Greg’s efforts in any way – lord knows I could never get to the top end of a ladder, let alone the top end of a tennis grand slam – but Andy couldn’t even win it last year after having reached five major finals, won the US Open, and beaten Federer to Olympic gold. Stakes are somewhat higher now.

There is female presence on the list in Christine Ohuruogu and Hannah Cockroft; the BBC wouldn’t be so daft as to submit itself to the uproar of 2011, a year in which apparently there was no female achievement worthy of note. The events of London 2o12 made it easy to draw up a shortlist that was an even split of male/female success.

A year later, is it truly the case that only two women’s performances are worth mentioning? Even with the increased competition for a spot on the shortlist, I don’t believe that for a minute. I also don’t think the blame for the frequent under-representation of women on the SPOTY list lies (solely) with the BBC. The real issue is a combination of lack of coverage and lack of opportunity for women in sport.

British Tour de France winners are like buses. You wait nearly a hundred years, and two come along in succession. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome are incredibly talented and driven, and rewarded with success in cycling’s biggest challenge. And they managed it without any “extra” help, if you get my drift. They deserve the attention and the plaudits directed their way, and I’m sure their wins have done wonders for young cyclists around the country. But what of their female equivalents? There are none, because even in the 21st century women are still not permitted to compete in the Tour de France.

It creates a vicious cycle (no pun intended): there are relatively fewer races for women to compete, therefore a significant lack of bikecoverage, and thus a dearth of sponsorship, making it a real struggle for women’s cycling to grow. Laura Trott defended her omnium title at the Track Cycling World Cup and was part of the winning women’s pursuit team, but for all her efforts, even the golden girl of last summer struggled to make the front of any sports pages.

I would not suggest for one minute that female athletes should be included on the list simply because they are women. That is a case of political-correctness gone mad. However, I do feel that more female achievements should be pointed out. The SPOTY event is a glitzy affair that draws a large number of sporting names, is televised, and receives significant coverage in the press. It offers a perfect opportunity to draw attention to the successes of women that have otherwise slipped under the radar.

In an ideal world, one night on the BBC would be enough to redress the balance and propel minority sports and participants into the headlines rather than a byline on a final page roundup. But in reality, there are multiple obstacles that must be overcome to achieve gender equality in sport.

The first of these is the sports governing bodies. To again use the lack of a women’s Tour as my example, this was initially prohibited because one of the purposes of the Tour de France was to celebrate masculinity. Women who wanted to ride were treated with suspicion. This may not be the case anymore, but the current rules still seem to suggest that women are simply not up to the rigours of long-course road racing. It still stands that women can only race a maximum of eight days and for stages of no more than 81 miles.

Women were only allowed to compete in the 10,000m at the Olympics 25 years ago, and 2012 was the first time women’s boxing discowas included on the programme. Female tennis players are still only required to go to a best of three sets, while men have to battle it out in five. The implication, always, whether intentional or not, is that women are too weak and feeble to take on the same challenges as their male counterparts. This needs to change.

So, too, does the appearance and visibility of women’s sports. La Grande Boucle Féminine was billed as the Tour de France’s female equivalent, but received minimal coverage and its demise barely registered when it eventually closed up shop in 2009. If news outlets aren’t interested, neither are sponsors or organisers.

Furthermore, young girls need a wide spread of female athletes that they are inspired to emulate. There also needs to be incentive. This BBC News article quotes research that found only 30% of teenage girls exercised regularly. It’s shocking, but not surprising. The various pressures on girls around the ages of 13-16 make it difficult to continue to get enjoyment out of sport. At the moment, I don’t think there is enough to persuade them that giving up a significant amount of free time is worth their while.

Sport should not be glamourised, but female success should be offered the same opportunities as men receive. Male sporting stars become legends – Lennox Lewis, the 1966 World Cup team, Sebastian Coe, Fred Perry – whereas Virginia Wade had to suffer the indignation of some reports declaring Andy Murray “the first British winner of Wimbledon in 77 years”, thus wiping her name from the history books in one sentence.

Female athletes are too frequently targets for ridicule. Paula Radcliffe still holds the world record for the women’s marathon, and yet this is often overlooked in order to sniggeringly remember her misfortune and bladder issues during the Olympic marathon in Beijing. Victoria Pendleton, only able to ride one race in Beijing while Sir Chris Hoy came home with three golds and hero status, was finally allowed the same opportunity as the men in London, but had to put up with comments about her personal life and being branded a ‘whinger’ after her responses to certain interview questions.

Who would want to deal with all that, on top of the relentless training and diet regimes of a professional sportsperson? You get the same amount of flack for appearing on a show like The Only Way Is Essex for less than a fraction of the effort – and you probably get paid more, too.

Certain sporting events – and specifically, the women’s side of these events – need to capture the imagination; to persuade the public to remain interested for longer than one glorious summer month every four years, and thus encourage regular attendance. At the moment, I still believe it remains hard to become fully invested in a sport if it does not receive an adequate level of coverage. This is the catch-22: press will not report on something if it little interest is displayed, yet it is difficult to remain aware of an event taking place unless it is publicised in a national paper.

In fact, all the aspects I have written about are interlinked: larger audiences will attract more attention from the media; this will influence funding, which can make the difference between someone reaching their full potential and not; this has a knock-on effect as to whether the athlete can secure a sizable sponsorship deal, which also depends on the publicity surrounding the event; more charlie brownpublicity will encourage a bigger following… and so on.

Ultimately, female athletes need equal opportunities and to be taken seriously for what they do. Their inclusion on the SPOTY shortlist should not be met with confusion as to what it is they’ve been nominated for, and should not be open to the criticism that they are a ‘token’ addition. Quarter of a century ago it was believed to be dangerous for a woman to run long distances. Now that she has proved that she can run just as far as any man, the next step is to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

“Think Not I Am What I Appear”

Against better judgement I have started watching the current series of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. I’m not here to defend this choice, as tempting as that is, but to write about some significant points that the show – in less than a week on air – has raised about appearance, achievement, and the media’s approach to the female body.

Rebecca Adlington is one of this year’s contestants, and a personal hero. When I was younger (I’m talking 14/15) it was my dream to be an Olympic swimmer. I blame some incredibly slow twitch muscles for my failure to succeed (if you can’t join them – blame your genes!), but would like to think I have a small inkling of the sacrifice and dedication it takes to make it to the starting block of an Olympic race, let alone finish with a medal.

That is why it has been particularly heartbreaking to witness, despite all her achievements, Rebecca’s deep insecurities. Earlier this week she was reduced to tears by what began as a discussion of Miss Universe winner Amy Willerton’s life as a model/beauty queen. Rebecca acknowledged in the privacy of the camp’s ‘diary room’ that she had spent almost her entire life dedicated to making her body perform in the most active sense of the word. Wiping away tears, she admitted, “It’s making me very, very insecure that I have to look [a certain way]. For me, I was an athlete.”

Would a male athlete have been reduced to tears in the jungle, comparing himself unfavourably to a male model? A large part of perfect bodyRebecca’s reaction stems from her own self-esteem (or lack thereof), but this has been compounded by the ideals of femininity presented in the media, coupled with targeted attacks on her Twitter account. The likes of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Sir Chris Hoy do not have to put up with relentless messages that tell them their thighs are too big, or that their ears stick out too much.

Men’s achievements are still taken more seriously in some quarters (I stress – in some quarters); the spectacle of the race is entertainment enough. The topic of outfits is another discussion entirely, but consider all the ridiculous commentary surrounding the women’s volleyball during London 2012. Women are expected to be able to perform and present an appealing aesthetic. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter if she comes last in her race, as long as she looks good doing it.

Really taking the biscuit has been the subsequent coverage of Rebecca’s upset. *Certain* media outlets – I am referring to the ones that perpetuate the idea of what constitutes female beauty and belittle any who fail to achieve it – have taken this golden opportunity to partake in their own favourite sport. That is, pitting women against each other. Yay! There’s a fun pastime, right there: highlighting women’s ‘flaws’ and ‘mistakes’ and then sitting back to watch as they tear each other apart.

The same paper that took such glee in reporting on the supposed “showdown” – it was a tetchy discussion! – between Amy and Rebecca, posted another article (for want of a better word) a day later blatantly squaring them off. There is a table of comparison and everything. You can have a look here if you have the stomach for it.

The tone is deliberately skewed to make those in the comments (oh god, the world of internet comments) pick a side. The same paper that has been salivating over pictures of Amy in her bikini since before the show even began has decided that women should hate her, because she represents an industry that makes women hate themselves. Amy is obviously beautiful: slim, tanned, long hair, the works, and she knows this. I mean, you don’t win Miss Universe and still question your own attractiveness. But why should knowledge of her own beauty be a Bad Thing?

In the bizarre world of tabloids, Rebecca’s pre-existing insecurities have been used to black mark Amy. The thought process is that tea“real women” (a phrase that deserves to be trapped in an eternal bush-tucker trial) must devalue Amy in order to empower all the women (probably, sadly, a majority) like Rebecca made to feel that they are not good enough because they cannot fit into a pair of size 8 jeans.

How, how, is this in any way a viable form of female empowerment?! Instead of dismissing Amy’s successes – pitted against a gold medalist I’m sure most of us would feel our achievements pale in comparison – why not celebrate both for rising to the top in their respective fields, no matter what your opinion of their respective career paths? By fueling these petty rivalries and playing on women’s self-doubt these media sites manage to distract from the real issues facing women both in the public eye and in ‘normal life’.

There was another significant moment during the week, which involved fellow camp mate Matthew Wright and a women’s swimsuit. For those who know anything about I’m a Celebrity…, Myleene Klass and the white bikini is folklore. Basically, by the simple act of showering under the camp waterfall everyday in a certain two-piece, former Popstars winner Myleene was able to successfully reboot her career upon leaving the jungle.

The “subject” of ladies in swimsuits has been turned into an annual competition; another classic divide and conquer tactic. Matthew, a television presenter and newspaper journalist, took the chance to poke fun at the tabloids’ barely contained excitement over who would provide the “Myleene Moment”, by donning the famous white bikini and taking the role himself.

It was funny, it was ridiculous, but it also made a point. The roles in the jungle are much more tightly defined for the female contestants than for the men. As fun as the show may be, I’m a Celebrity… is not immune to the frequent reality series’ pitfall that sees women compared and judged, not for what they can accomplish and overcome, but how they present themselves.

Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Matthew’s joke (that I understood as poking fun at the sort of showbiz commentary he once wrote) has been misconstrued by some articles as his attempt to mock “attention-seeking” female camp mates. How reassuring to know that women will always be responsible for their own bad press.

“How Well He’s Read, To Reason Against Reading!”

…Or, My Ideal Bookshelf

books1

I recently read a great post by adoptingjames, where, inspired by the book ‘My Ideal Bookshelf’ [ed. Thessaly La Force], he decided to put his own selection together. And I liked this idea so much that I decided I would do the same. It’s a bit like ‘Desert Island Discs’ for your books, I suppose. You choose the tomes that are significant to your life and provide a short explanation why.

I have chosen ten books that have/had a lasting impact on my life, and categorised each one to make clear why I chose it.

Here is my selection, and I would love to hear what others would choose, if you’d like to share in the comments!

1) The book where it all began/The sentimental choice

milne

Winnie-the-Pooh was my favourite book when I was younger. It is funny, engaging, incredibly sweet, and always beautifully illustrated, not to mention wonderfully written. The characters are vivid and embody the childish dream that toys can talk and have their own lives. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from Pooh et al. about friendship and acceptance.

                                                         “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them”

2) The book that made me laugh

brysonIt’s not often that you come across a book that makes you laugh out loud. Bill Bryson is a very funny guy, and out of the broad range of his novels that I’ve read, this one is my favourite. The ‘Notes from a Small Island’ section frequently had me crying with laughter; each description of the less tourist-friendly spots in Britain so well-described and recognisable. The chapter on Milton Keynes was a particular highlight for me, living not too far and sympathising all too well with Bill’s struggle in the multi-storey car park. 

I read this while I was living in Halls at uni. The girl in the next room asked to borrow it after having put up with my snorts and cackles through the very thin dividing wall each night. I suppose that’s as good a recommendation as a book can get.

3) The book that encouraged me

frayn

‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn was the first book we studied on my English Lit A-Level course, and is the book that convinced me to apply for an English degree, rather than History as I’d been planning. I had always loved reading and writing, but was uninspired during the GCSE years when it was all about ticking boxes and making sure everyone came away with a passing grade. The A-Level was different, though: the texts were more interesting, there was more opportunity to find your ‘own’ reading, and we got to spend weeks and weeks with one novel or play, learning it inside-out.

‘Spies’ is an incredibly clever story, and very carefully constructed. I have since read a couple more of Michael Frayn’s works and thoroughly enjoyed each one.

4) The book I read again and again

mcewan ‘Atonement’ is one of my favourite novels, and my current re-reading count is three. I don’t re-read books that often because I always seem to have a never-ending pile to get through. But I am willing to make space for Ian McEwan’s story of school girl jealousy and a fatal misunderstanding.

This book is so well-written that often I forget it is fiction. By the time I reach the last section, where Briony says that she cannot publish what has preceded until her cousin Lola and Paul Marshall are dead, I often take the words as truth before remembering, of course, that it is Ian McEwan’s name on the front of the novel and not Briony Tallis’.

5) The book that I love most

rowling

I will always champion the ‘Harry Potter’ series because it made kids excited about reading. The first installment came out when I was seven, and I couldn’t be happier that I was able to “grow up” with the characters as the novels came out.

I will always remember when the final book was published: a couple of my friends had arranged to meet up to celebrate the end of our GCSE exams. Half of us were seriously into the wizarding world, and the other half weren’t so bothered. Those of us who were spent most of the day sweating and panicking in case we inadvertently came across a spoiler anywhere. And one of the girls who had brought the book along with her kept trying to read out the last page. Good friends.

I love that each publication was such an event. And it makes me quite sad if the children I’m babysitting tell me they love the films but have never read the books!

6) The book that opened my eyes

achebe

My knowledge of Postcolonialism was woefully slender before the final year of my degree, but ended up being the subject I specialised in. It was fascinating; brutal; unimaginable; and the literature so vivid. There were so many great texts on this subject to choose from. Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ acknowledges the wider clash between traditional culture and colonialism by focusing on one man’s struggle to protect his village by the only means he knows. Unfortunately his strengths are also his weaknesses. It makes a story about widespread exploitation into a deeply tragic personal account.

7) The controversial book

rushdie

This is another novel I read during my degree and, after three years averaging three novels a week, this is my standout favourite. It’s not like many other books. It’s difficult to explain, occasionally difficult to follow, but that’s why I liked it. There was only a scattered concept of linear time, interspersed with flashbacks, subplots, and dream sequences, and during the chapters when it was supposed to be ‘real life’, well, that’s when it often got stranger than ever.

It got Mr Rushdie into an awful lot of trouble (to put it lightly), but I’m sure glad he wrote it.

 

8) The book that changed my life

faulks

For years this was my favourite book. I love literature about the World Wars because they are written with so much intensity and, I feel, use language to its greatest effect. ‘Birdsong’ is so wonderfully written from beginning to end. Faulks does not always make his war-time protagonist easy to sympathise with, which is, I think, a brave thing for a novel to do. It is a great study of human nature and relationships, in the most unnatural and isolating environment imaginable.

 

9) My favourite book

orwell

‘1984’ by George Orwell has been my reigning favourite for over four years now. I had picked it as my holiday reading before going away with some friends. I know – solid choice for a girly beach holiday. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away, it was just one of those novels I thought I should tick off the list. I ended up spending the majority of that holiday sitting under a shaded rock on the beach reading page after page while my friends splashed about in the sea. They teased me mercilessly (still do), and I came home as pale as when I left, but really it was a perfect opportunity to sit and read everyday without any other distractions. And I’m so glad it was this book. I love it.

10) Special acknowledgement

shakespeare1

I couldn’t decide which Shakespeare play to pick for this list, so I thought I’d cheat and include all of them. I’ll concede that my favourite is probably ‘Hamlet’ – it embodies most of what I love about Shakespeare’s work. I often find the tragedies have some greater comic moments than the comedies themselves, as a result of ingenious wordplay. I would probably sell my entire house for a fraction of Shakespeare’s talent and writing ability.

 

 

“Good Things Come To Those Who Bake”

Until a few months ago, I had never seen an episode of The Great British Bake Off. I was immune to its immense popularity and presumed it to be twee and dull, never even having attempted to, you know, actually watch it before passing judgement. It is particularly odd that I made it this far in the show’s run without even seeing a snippet of Mary judging someone’s soggy bottom, given that I lived with a Food Science and Nutrition student during series one and two. I think I had the genuine excuse that I was trying to finish reading and analysing Moby Dick before the turn of the next millennium.

But all changed a few months ago, as I was flicking through the channels unable find anything worth staying on. I have been watching an increasing number of cooking shows over the last few months, (which isn’t exactly hard, there is a strong case to be made that BBC should be renamed British Baking and Cooking with the amount of chef-fronted shows on the menu every night), and on this particular occasion decided to finally give in and see what all the fuss was about.

Well, oh my god. By the end of the hour I was completely hooked. Excuse the over-baked pun, but this show just has all the right ingredients. Mel and Sue are hilarious, both on and off camera (apparently if one of the contestants is having a proper meltdown they start swearing so that the footage can’t be used). Mary has long been a baking hero of mine, thanks to her recipe for banana bread that I have been using since before I even knew how to scramble an egg. Paul is good in his Simon Cowell-lite role – he’s the one you want to impress with your flavours and crumbs. And of course the main factor, the sponge that makes all this icing worthwhile, is the contestants. They are not there with any hidden agenda, to play games, or bag themselves a front cover Heat magazine interview. They are there because they are already very talented, and want to get better.

I loved them all. I really liked Howard, who reminded me a bit of Jeff Goldblum. I thought Glenn was brilliant at keeping the mood light and was sad when he had to go. I shed a tear for Christine’s departure. I loved the finalists and wouldn’t have minded who won. I had a soft spot for Ruby because of all the unjustified criticism she got online, which seemed to stem from her honesty and self-deprecation on camera. It didn’t help her case that she is young and beautiful and obviously clever to boot.

After the final aired, I felt lost in that way particular to those of us when a show to which we have become too attached ends. I still get that feeling every time I finish the Buffy box set, even though I know I’ll end up watching it all over again in a year or two. There was now a void in my Tuesday evenings. To get over my heartbreak, I decided to bake (it has not been good to my waistline). I love a good bake. It is satisfying in a way that I don’t find cooking – probably because the sugar involved in cooking is minimal to none – and I like having something to show for my work, that will last a few days rather than a few minutes on a dinner plate.

I have started making bread, which is not as difficult as I thought. Admittedly I’m still making fairly basic loaves, but it only takes so long because you have to keep letting it prove* for hours. Below is a picture of the first loaf I made, using a recipe from the newspaper. I enjoyed making (and eating) it so much, that I have since bought and been using recipes from series three runner-up James Morton’s book, Brilliant Bread. It’s really very good. (The book, I mean. I wouldn’t say my baking’s really good yet. Certainly not publicly. Modesty becomes one, etc.)

bread

And this is James’ blog, which is very fancy and has loads of other interesting recipes: http://bakingjames.co.uk/

*BBO, Before Bake Off, my ignorance was such that I thought prove was a term more suited to the courtroom than the kitchen.

It is too soon for books from this year’s bunch, but most of them have blogs. I made some cheese, onion, and sage scones following Kimberley’s advice at her blog www.butimhungrynow.com

CHEESE, ONION, AND SAGE SCONES

scones

She says not to overwork the dough and that combining the ingredients should take about 30 seconds, but I wasn’t very good at this bit. They weren’t too complicated to make otherwise, and fairly quick. Just make sure that they are cooked all the way through when you take them out the oven! I’ve been enjoying mine for breakfast the last couple of days.

I sent this picture to Kimberley on Twitter to thank her for the recipe, and she replied! How chuffed was I? Does this make me a fan girl? Is this how Beliebers feel when Justin notices them?

   

My next Bake Off-inspired effort was a recipe from Ruby’s blog: www.rubyandthekitchen.co.uk – a good old WordPress account!

I made her orange and white chocolate loaf cake, which, even though I made it and shouldn’t boast like this, is seriously drool-worthy. It’s more to do with Ruby’s techniques than anything to do with my skill to be honest!

cake 2 This recipe uses lots of zest and juice. This is my mix after adding orange and lemon zest to the butter and sugar.

You need to have a fair bit of time on your hands to make this one if, like me, you don’t have a food processor. Altogether,

cake 1with the time it took to get my ingredients prepared, combine the mixture and bake (plus injury time to patch up the bit of my thumb that I grated along with the oranges), it was about two hours.

This was my cake straight out of the oven. You might be able to make out from the picture that it has been perforated with a skewer. Ruby has this genius tip to pour a mixture of heated sugar and orange and lemon juice over it all once it’s baked. It makes for one great smelling cake. Oh, and you also have to add on a bit more time to wait for the cake to cool, before you can add…..

……MELTED WHITE CHOCOLATE!!!!! Seriously, you have to try this

WHITE CHOCOLATE AND ORANGE LOAF CAKE

cake

“Literature is Strewn with the Wreckage of Those Who Have Minded Beyond Reason the Opinion of Others”

How do you write?

howdoyouwriteThere’s a lot of it going on at the moment, with NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo currently taking place. (Both acronyms sound like a weird kind of digi-pet project to me.) I admire the people doing NaNoWriMo in particular, because I’m not sure it’s a challenge I’d be able to tackle while maintaining either my sanity or an acceptable level of personal hygiene. I don’t want to say outright, “there’s no way on earth I could ever write 50,000 words in a month,” as I’m currently going through the job application process and therefore having to exude confidence in my own abilities. This ain’t an easy task, given that this week I gave myself food poisoning for the second time in five months. I’m a VEGETARIAN. Which root vegetable or lentil could I have possibly cooked so ineptly that it left me lying in bed for a day groaning ‘woe is me’…?

I appear to have digressed. The main reason for my unwillingness to take part in something like NaNoWriMo is that I know, too well, how I write. I am so envious of those of my friends able to splurge onto a blank page and then go back and fix what they’ve written. I have tried, but more often than not I spend ages agonising over what word or turn of phrase to use in each sentence before I can move on. It makes editing a much quicker process, but it doesn’t half make life difficult when you are sitting with a blank document and a looming deadline.

I am currently writing a short story (with a much more manageable word count of 3,000) for a magazine competition. I don’t expect to win; I am doing it simply to take the excuse to write. I am finding it more enjoyable than if I was trying to get out that many words in a single day, every day this month. But with an interest in publishing/journalism I realise that I have to stop being so precious about what I am doing, and get into the habit of writing regularly and at a speed that doesn’t leave me with grey hairs by the time I’m finished. For this reason I have loved getting back into blogging and reading other’s posts, and wondering how long it takes people to put together their uploads. Most of mine have taken longer than I’d like to admit, as I tend to sit on them for a few days and keep tinkering with structure, wording, etc. (It also keeps them warm in these cold winter months – sitting on them.)

I’m currently reading a collection of Christopher Hitchen’s essays, which are often so dense and complex that it is taking me far longer to finish than a book would normally. Though despite the intense mind-workout that each essay gives (for this reason, perhaps not the wisest choice of bedtime reading), Hitchens writes in a way that seems almost effortless. This is impressive, given that it is also apparent just how much personal reading and research must go in to each of these well-formed and -argued opinions on a whole range of subjects. I believe this is the trait of a great writer – one who can spend hours, days, weeks, months, and longer agonising over a piece of work, yet for the finished piece to read as though it was no bother to produce at all.

“The Rest is Silence”

I completed my secondary schooling at a local comprehensive, which had a wide catchment area and  accepted students from all backgrounds. Like every kid going through the education funnel there were parts of school life that I detested (growing up can be quite rubbish, can’t it?), but I speak for my inner nerd when I say that I loved school itself. In comparison to the separate grammar school experiences of my sister and best friend, I consider myself extremely lucky to have gone to an institution that placed value on the individual rather than the grade. This may have had a lot to do with the school’s Christian philosophy, but I think it was mainly down to many of the teachers wanting pupils to find their niche and develop as well-functioning members of society.

I have loved writing since I was at primary school, and it was an easy choice to pick predominantly Humanities-based subjects that had plenty of essay writing involved. I loved my English A-Level course: I was introduced to Michael Frayn and Arthur Miller, developed an undying love for Chaucer’s Tales, and got to re-read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, one of my favourite novels, while taking a luxurious amount of time to analyse nearly every page. During the final year of my English degree I was reading up to three novels a week, and remember being told by people to savour the opportunity as it would prove difficult to achieve even half that amount in the same time once away from the bright lights and red bricks of campus.

I am therefore lost for an appropriate reaction to the news that the “Rt Hon” Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is pretty much annihilating English literature from the core English GCSE. “English” will instead revolve around grammatical correctness and right or wrong answers. This scenario destroys what it was/is that I loved about English as a subject: for me, it provided a relief during the relentless grind of examination from the age of 14/15. I found I was able to write much less rigidly than in my other subjects, as there wasn’t the requirement to relentlessly check fact and accuracy. English is subjective, fluid, and encourages imaginative thought. Take away the literary aspect of the course and you are taking away the whole point of the subject, not to mention a generation’s engagement with the likes of Orwell, Austen, and Sassoon. It denies pupils freedom of thought and the chance to have an individual reading that can’t be declared utterly, one hundred per-cent wrong. But this is precisely why Gove cannot understand the value of studying literature: it does not fit in with his desire to reduce everything to a final mark and a table of results. Imagination cannot be measured in numbers.

The official party line is somewhat different, of course. Gove claims that it will be schools’ choice; English Literature is still being offered as an optional extra. What he does not publicly acknowledge is that it is unlikely to be a viable option for schools struggling to meet the requirements of Gove’s league tables. It will be these schools that most rigidly adhere to his prescribed curriculum of sciences and language, and it is these schools in which inspiration and engagement is so crucial. Yet students will be denied the opportunity to study so-called ‘soft’ subjects – drama, art, and now literature – and will be straitjacketed by an education of facts and figures. This can only serve to better demonstrate this country’s social difference, if not widen the gap further.

Applications for the 2012 university intake were in sharp decline after the rise of tuition fees to £9,000, with Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences the hardest hit subjects. There is an increased desire to choose a vocational subject or one that will lead to a well-paid job after university, which I can understand – I studied English and am still looking for a ‘graduate’ job eighteen months down the line. What’s more, the rate for my limited sessions with a subject tutor work out at roughly at £50/hour under the new fees (I paid around £17/hour). But despite my difficulties and comparatively worse (with science students) value-for-money when it came to contact time, I wouldn’t change my choice. The many books that I read, a large proportion of which I would probably not have otherwise come across, have stayed and will continue to stay with me for much longer than the time it took to get in and out of the exam hall.

One of Gove’s ministers spoke of these changes as “rebalancing the curriculum towards high-value subjects” (my italics). This snobbery – to what I suppose would be referred to as “low-value subjects”, then, minister? – suggests anything outside maths, science, computing and language is a waste of time. Something that always sticks with me is the story of a boy from my school, who wasn’t especially academic and didn’t particularly enjoy being in the classroom. He unexpectedly joined in with the vaguely uncool school eco-club set up by one of the teachers, which included giving up weekends to build a wildlife habitat on the school’s grounds. He left school at 16, but was awarded at our GCSE prize-giving for his contribution to the club and, we were told, had since begun training as a landscape gardener. My school allowed and encouraged people to find what interested and excited them. I’m not saying that it succeeded every time; some students are likely to have a very different perspective to mine. What cannot be denied is that there was plenty of room for individuality, and it is this that Gove, with his rote-learning and no second chances, appears desperate to stamp out.

“The Goddess from her Chamber Issues, Arrayed in Lace, Brocades and Tissues.”

I never really used much make-up while I was at school and university, and only boast a modest collection since taking a more active interest in various lotions, potions, colours and creams over the last year. Any new additions have always been lumped with the old stuff in an unused (albeit rather brightly coloured and fetching) wash bag, then onto a windowsill where it invariably gets dusty and the majority of it neglected, as I settle for reaching for the products on top of the pile.

make up bag

This is the bag in question on the left, and below is an example of another problem caused by squishing everything together. Nicely packaged makeup like this lipstick gets covered in gunk; I think the culprits in this instance are a mixture of loose eye shadow powders and pencil sharpenings.

lipstick

 

After having a clear out recently I found I no longer had any use for a plain desk tidy, but didn’t want to get rid of it. It sat on my floor for a few days, near the bin though not quite confined to the rubbish heap. I can’t remember how the thought came to me, but suddenly it seemed like it might be the ideal contraption to put all my makeup in. It could display all my stuff and keep it separate, prevent anything getting muckier, and ensure that I might actually make use of something other than my usual mascara/foundation routine.

This is how it looked with everything packed in:

make up holder

I was quite pleased with how it turned out, because halfway through assembling it all I realised that reaching for things in the back two compartments might prove tricky. I managed this by putting all my foundations and ‘eye tools’ in the second tray, which could be stood upright, and used the third section for a big box of eye shadows and stacked my nail varnishes on top of each other. The first bit has a couple of creams and small pots that I like to use regularly, while I used the side holders for my brushes on the right and lipsticks on the left.

This is the view from above:

first section

section 3

section 2

section 4

Then it was time for the fun part….what else is there to do with a plain storage device other than to decorate it?!

craft bags

I had loads of little craft bits and pieces hanging around because I spend way too much time and money in the local art shop. I had some of these ‘craft bags’ (left), and also used lots of sequins plus a few decorative flowers. Everything was attached using standard PVA craft glue. I made it slightly difficult for myself by decorating while the makeup was already in the holder. I had put it all in first to check whether this idea would work, and then couldn’t be bothered to take it out again! However, it did help me to keep my design to a minimum and not go completely overboard like I usually do in these situations.

Here is the finished holder:

completed holder

The quote I have added on the black piece of card is the first and last two lines from The Lady’s Dressing Room by Jonathan Swift. It is a poem about the vain attempts of women to present a beautiful, superficial image of themselves to the world, but also mocks men’s expectations that this ‘illusion’ is real. quoteThe poem is very funny if you want to go and read it, and these lines, I feel, are an appropriate addition to my makeshift ‘vanity case’!

Buying plain storage devices is not only cheaper, it allows you to personalise it yourself. My mum first gave me the idea with some standard Ikea drawers that she got me when I was young – an MDF box with eight small compartments. She stencilled on some patterns and filled them in with acrylic paints as a birthday present. When I was looking for something to keep all my arts and crafts materials in earlier this year, I bought a plain cardboard box and then went rather overboard with the glitter glue and felt-tips:

desk tidy

I suppose the moral of the story is save money on cheap storage, and then spend what you’ve saved on important things like sequins and mini felt creations. Wait, no, that wasn’t it…..