Category Archives: the culture desk

The best game in the world: Friday night edition

What did you think was the nicest thing about being in your late twenties? I’ll tell you mine: no longer having to pretend that I liked being out late on a Friday night. I never enjoyed it, and felt like everyone else did, thus making me a loser all the way through high school and university.

Here is the Friday night of my dreams: I’ve finished work, have shut the door on two sleeping boys (I’m still ludicrously charmed by the fact that they sleep in the same room now), and have a well of quiet in which to drink this hot chocolate and make a start on a fat book. I have a blanket and a footstool. My socks are thicker than my feet. Tim is not here this evening, alas, so it’s not perfect. But everything else is pretty damn good.

If you’re reading this from under a blanket rather than while jumping in a dark, loud room, you may just be the sort of person who enjoys a stack of new books. Want to see? Here’s what I got from the library today, and why:


First, The Search for Richard III: The King’s Grave. Last year I decided to try to broaden my historical fascinations beyond the Reformation, so reached all the way back to…the Plantagenets, one dynasty earlier. I know – at this rate, I’ll only just have reached the Stone Age by the time I’m in my fifties. I have a soft spot for poor, maligned Richard, mythical hunchback and all, so was delighted when it was announced he’d been uncovered in a car park last February. This book alternates the story of his life, by a historian, and the story of his discovery, by the woman who instigated the search. And I CANNOT WAIT.

Then hurrah, the fantasy section yielded Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch – another in the Peter Grant series that started with Rivers of London. I enjoyed the first one the most – where a down-to-earth London copper got himself accidentally inducted into the wizarding branch of the Metropolitan Police – but Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground were both excellent too. Aaronovitch writes about London so well that your bogies turn black when you read it.

Then Zadie Smith’s newest offering, NW. I so want to love Zadie Smith, but have given up on both her previous novels about halfway through. Her writing – vivid and bloody – hooks me in, and then the plot and/or prickly characters spit me back out. Third one’s the charm, right?

The last is actually mine, rather than the library’s – and I’m delighted about it: Life After Life just won the Costa prize, but I’ve also had several people recommend it to me. And I had a £10 gift voucher for Waterstones, so those seemed like two things just made to make me happy. I’m only 30 pages in, but it’s about a girl who gets the chance to be born over and over again to alter her destiny and that of the world at large. Och, I tell you what: it’s good. I’m reading it with my breath held.

Now Tim is home with the ingredients for Oreo milkshake, so Friday night just got catapulted into FABULOUS.

Here’s to staying in.


Filed under the culture desk

If I were Katniss Everdeen, my day would sound like this

This week I reread The Hunger Games trilogy. In two-and-a-half days. And here’s an interesting discovery: you can’t swallow fourteen hundred pages that fast without starting to feel like you’re the heroine in a book written by Suzanne Collins. Which makes you all present tense, short sentences, heavy on the drama, heavy on the eyebrows (my new fringe isn’t helping with this much. I find fringes terribly dramatic, somehow). Bless Ms Collins: she also ends every chapter with a cliffhanger in which at least one person, somewhere, is shouting ‘nooooooooooooo!’

Fourteen hundred pages. That’s a lot of cliffhangers.

My days are easily that dramatic, since you ask.


           Baby Games


Chapter 1

It’s dark when I wake up. I glower across the room at the clock, as my fingers stretch automatically over the faded coverlet to replace Edward’s dummy. I can hear a rhythmic banging on the stairs.

Burglars, I think. They’ve come for us at last.

The door creaks open, creakily. I realise I am yawning, and bite my tongue. I must not show weakness, not here. There’s a figure in the doorway, and now I’m sure I know who it is.

‘Porridge time?’ it enquires, in a plaintive voice I know only too well.

It’s not burglars. It’s not even the postman.

It’s Henry.

Chapter 2

Panic. That’s what I feel as I hurtle down the stairs three at a time. Teds is wailing, and it’s a cry that means only one thing.

I enter the room and choke on the fog of nappy fumes that fills the air. I get down low on my hands and knees, searching for the source of the explosion. I know I’ll only get one chance to defuse it. Perhaps it’s already too late.

After what feels like a lifetime I find Teddy’s foot, and yank open his babygro with one hand. The smell is bad, but it in no way prepares me for what is waiting underneath. The stickily evil swamp. The orange and brown stains flooding up his back. Worst of all, the twitching that tells me another bomb is on its way.

I have just enough time to cover my face before the baby bowel explodes, and I am thrown backwards into the air.

Chapter 3

CRASHHH! I whip around, hands full of the sausages I’ve been skinning at the stove, to find Henry covered in broken remnants of Christmas ornament.

‘I smashed it’, he says, blue eyes bright underneath his mop of gold hair. He looks so like his father. I soften.

‘Let me sing you a song’, I say. I don’t sing very often, but it feels like the right moment. I begin, my voice low and persuasive.

Small potatoes, on the moon

Small potatoes, in the sea

Small potatoes, take a bath

Small potatoes, sing with me

Potatoes, oh, potatoes

Small potatoes

As I finish the song we sit still, tears of emotion making my throat ache. Then I realise that I can no longer hear the goats calling to each other outside the window. Guess it’s true, the goats really do fall silent when I sing.

Henry is silent too. Then he smiles, and smashes another Christmas ornament onto his own head.

Chapter 4

He’s here. Finally, he’s here. I run from the bathroom, where I’ve been foraging for old nappies, and cannon into him. Straight into the warmth of his arms. His face is amused as he looks down at me.

‘Why are you carrying a plastic Furby?’

I don’t want to tell him, but I have to. I avoid his eyes and mutter ‘it’s a Happy Meal toy. We went to McDonald’s today’.

Immediately his face darkens with sorrow, and I wish I hadn’t said anything. ‘Didn’t you get me a Festive Pie?’

I hang my head. ‘They’d run out’.

In the night, I dream of lost pies and skinned sausages. I wake up screaming, breathless with horror. He eases me back into sleep and as I float off into oblivion, I hear him say ‘there’ll be more pies tomorrow’.

And I know he’s telling me the truth.

The End

‘The Baby Games is awesome’ – Stephenie Meyer

‘A gripping dystopian thriller that had me hooked till the final pages’ – The New York Times




Filed under baby diaries, the culture desk

What Love Actually says about you


Last night I was snivelling over the end of Love Actually, because every Christmas season needs to involve snivelling over Love Actually, when Tim came in from work. He looked over my shoulder to see Colin Firth proposing to his Portuguese housekeeper in a crowded restaurant.

‘That’s my favourite storyline in this film’, he said.

I was surprised. I don’t know why. I suppose that I assume everyone’s favourite storyline involves Hugh Grant shaking his backside in 10 Downing Street. But, you know what, it is totally right that Tim goes for the Colin Firth. That strand is about a quiet, unassuming chap following his heart through a series of embarrassing encounters. It is low-key (at least until the big finish), but sweetly romantic. So it fits him.

Then suddenly, I had a GRAND THEORY. What if everyone’s favourite Love Actually storyline told you exactly what kind of person they were? And immediately I knew without a shadow of a doubt and with every fibre of my being that this theory was true, and would probably end up bringing about world peace, at least. Where do you fit in? Read on…

the Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon thread

hugh grant

if the chirpy-Cockney-sparrer-meets-Prime-Minister thread is your favourite, you are probably so English they could cut you open and find bourbon biscuits. You like stammery, understated British humour, and cheer during the Harry Potter speech where he sticks it to the US President. You are a sucker for a mismatched love story with a happy ending. You would pay to watch Hugh Grant doing that bottom-shaking victory dance on a loop. You are astonished by how good Martine McCutcheon looks in red.

the Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln thread

keira knightley

if the best-friend-loves-hopelessly-from-afar thread is your favourite, then picture postcard romance and grand gestures set your heart aflutter. You have paused, screen-capped and retweeted the scene where Andrew Lincoln holds up the placard saying ‘To me, you are perfect’. Its loveliness is such that you don’t even mind that a skateboard is better at delivering lines than Andrew Lincoln. You desperately want someone to arrange a secret orchestra to attend your wedding. In other news, you have genuine designs on Keira’s glorious pink London house.

the Colin Firth and Portuguese girl thread

colin firth

if the awkward-broken-hearted-writer-falls-for-awkward-Portuguese-girl thread is your favourite, you like to see the quiet guy getting the girl for a change. You are probably an understated sort of person yourself, so you understand the agonies that accompany social embarrassment, and never being able to communicate the right thing. You like the thought of looking for love in unexpected places. You think you could cut quite a dash in a roll-neck jumper, actually.

the Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson thread

emma thompson

if the middle-aged-husband-tempted-away-from-middle-aged-wife thread is your favourite, you recognise that Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are the best things on any screen, and watching them together is worth getting your heart broken. You know that not all stories end happily. That Joni Mitchell song makes you cry. The moment where Emma Thompson hugs Hugh Grant makes you cry. Her speech about making a fool out of the life she leads makes you cry too. On reflection, you might be a sadist. But damn, you’d watch Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson selling vacuum bags, and call it a good afternoon.

the Liam Neeson and cute little boy thread

liam neeson

if the bereaved-man-helps-stepson-find-love thread is your favourite, you might have a soft spot usually indulged by weeping at films where the dog dies at the end. You are eternally optimistic that grand tragedies can turn into happy endings, possibly involving Claudia Schiffer. You can’t refuse anything to a tiny moppet with big eyes. You have always, always wanted an airport declaration scene to happen to you. You find it slightly odd that Liam Neeson’s Irish accent sounds weird, especially since he’s IRISH.

the Laura Linney thread

laura linney

if the selfless-woman-sabotages-own-love-life-for-ill-brother thread is your favourite, you might have a keen sense of family ties. You are probably used to putting yourself aside for the responsibilities you owe to others. You love to watch a good awkward first date. You’ve been known to knock out a secret happy dance or two. That ring tone now makes you tear up a bit.

the Bill Nighy thread

bill nighy

if the washed-up-bad-grandad-gets-number-one-hit thread is your favourite, you like an old person who isn’t afraid of an f-word. You like your comedy broad and a bit saucy. You don’t think you’ll ever unburn the image of a naked Bill Nighy from your retinas, but you still think he can do no wrong (he can’t. The end).

the Martin Freeman is naked thread

martin freeman

if the naked-body-doubles thread is your favourite, you don’t blush easily (I do – Tim made me a version of the film without this thread in it. Shh, don’t tell Working Title).

the Kris Marshall and the American girls thread

kris marshall

if the bumbling-fool-proves-irresistible-to-American-babes thread is your favourite, you might be an idiot. Or you might really like those BT ads. That’s all.

Remember kids, love actually IS all around. Now go and watch it again. 

What do you think? Did I get it right? Are we going to cure cancer with this thing, or what? 

UPDATED BECAUSE: I forgot to say – I’m an Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson person. Did you guess? 


Filed under the culture desk, thoughts

Once, there was a boy


One day I was in the Tate Modern (always a good beginning). I’ve forgotten why, but there didn’t have to be a reason: we were still in that carefree part with no children, but also quite a way into the part where I wanted them. We wandered into the gift shop downstairs, and found racks upon racks of brightly coloured picture books. They were in gorgeous, hold-your-breath colours, the sort you have to run your fingers over to properly appreciate. Intoxicating, especially then. I found an author I’d never seen before , who’d made a beautiful book full of skies and stars. And a boy, who loved them both. It started, ‘Once, there was a boy’. And the book was by Oliver Jeffers.

‘How to Catch A Star’ was one of the first picture books I bought, the beginning of a hopeful little library waiting for a boy I could read to. Then I got one. I sat him down in front of Oliver Jeffers far sooner than he could really appreciate. We’ve got the whole series now, all with hold-your-breath illustrations. Henry adores them. And I still get a touch of that old anticipation and longing, that shiver of skies and stars, every time I sit down and begin, ‘Ready? Once, there was a boy’.

So you can imagine how delighted we were to discover a new theatre production of ‘Up and Down’ by Ga Ga Theatre. They’re a new theatre company aiming to make theatre outings friendly and welcoming for children. So all their venues are pushchair-accessible, and the productions are forty-five minutes long without an interval. Ours was in a little independent cinema, about a minute from Notting Hill Gate Tube station. We arrived with Henry’s cousin and auntie to an enthusiastic welcome and a giant posterboard of the boy and his penguin, which we managed to knock over seven times in ten minutes. The theatre was one of those with huge, plush red seats and a gilded ceiling, crammed today with mothers and excitable kids. You don’t realise how much you worry about your pushchair getting stuck in a doorway or your toddler trying to sit on someone’s head until, suddenly, you don’t have to.


He didn’t, in any case, because the show was completely delightful. Funny, inventive, and faithful to the whimsical spirit of the books. Two actors played the boy and the penguin, telling the story with the help of giant, cartoony props and Jeffers’ own illustrations moving on a screen behind. It took Henry about half the performance to realise that the people jumping on stage were pretending to be the characters, but he was enthralled from beginning to end. I had to tell him that ‘peggwin’ had gone home for his dinner just to get him out of there. I was afraid he’d park up next to the checkers board and never leave.

There’s something quite lovely about seeing a favourite book opened up so beautifully in front of you. Given half the chance I would have stepped inside it myself, tucked us in with a blanket and said ‘Alright. Ready? Once, there was a boy’. Then up and up we’d spin to skies, and stars, and everything in between.

‘Up and Down’, Ga Ga Theatre, various London venues till 3rd November.

Ga Ga Theatre kindly provided us with free tickets for today. But the opinions (and enthusiasm) are mine. Henry’s too. Even with the prospect of chicken nuggets before him, he wouldn’t stop talking long enough to eat them.







Filed under adventures, family, the culture desk

I want to cry and hug a dictionary. Standard Friday.

Photo 01-09-2013 08 01 34 PM

Short on time today. But yesterday was National Poetry Day – when I was rambling about rodent genitalia; how poetic – and I just read this via a wonderful post on Segullah. I’m so grateful when someone brings my attention to poets from outside of the British Isles, since British writers formed the majority of my study and so the majority of what I read now.

This blew off the top of my head, to be honest. Whew.

For the Sleepwalkers

Tonight I want to say something wonderful
for the sleepwalkers who have so much faith
in their legs, so much faith in the invisible

arrow carved into the carpet, the worn path
that leads to the stairs instead of the window,
the gaping doorway instead of the seamless mirror.

I love the way that sleepwalkers are willing
to step out of their bodies into the night,
to raise their arms and welcome the darkness,

palming the blank spaces, touching everything.
Always they return home safely, like blind men
who know it is morning by feeling shadows.

And always they wake up as themselves again.
That’s why I want to say something astonishing
like: Our hearts are leaving our bodies.

Our hearts are thirsty black handkerchiefs
flying through the trees at night, soaking up
the darkest beams of moonlight, the music

of owls, the motion of wind-torn branches.
And now our hearts are thick black fists
flying back to the glove of our chests.

We have to learn to trust our hearts like that.
We have to learn the desperate faith of sleep-
walkers who rise out of their calm beds

and walk through the skin of another life.
We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness
and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised.

Edward Hirsch

Oh my goodness. I have a feeling my Tesco shop this afternoon is going to be painted in melodrama with that effortless, elegant beauty in my head.

May your Friday be lyrically lovely, my dears!


Filed under the culture desk

The squat pen rests


Source: Photo by Felix Clay.

Seamus Heaney died today. I found out just before dinner, and sat in an armchair clutching Death of a Naturalist and dripping melancholy into my tomato soup.

I fell in love with Heaney on a cold October. Arriving home work-frazzled and chilly, I sent Tim off to his meeting, folded the laundry and then sat myself up in bed with a stack of books. I found a tiny copy of Death of a Naturalist, opened it up, and read ‘Digging’. He was good. Oh heavens, he was astonishing. I read ‘St Francis and the Birds’ aloud three times in a row, that joyful perfect little thing, and couldn’t tell why it was lovely but knew it unquestionably was.

For my birthday a couple of years later, I was pregnant with Henry, and had just come out of morning sickness. We went out for dinner, and to see Dr Faustus being performed in the basement of Blackwell’s Bookshop, in Oxford. Evenings like that feel like they were invented with my head in mind. Blissful. In the half-hour before the play started, we were allowed to browse the bookshop – when it was closed! Like it had opened just for us! – and I went around trying to think of a book that would be special, that would remind me of the twilit perfection of this evening, with Timothy and the promise of this new baby and Dr Faustus leaping around on bookshelves. I found Heaney’s collection Open Ground, and it fitted the occasion just right.

‘Digging’ is about parents and sons and grandparents, inheritance and inadequacy and forging on into new uncertain paths. I never read it without wanting to take what I love doing and make something of it. I might never get anywhere with writing – the audience for baby-sick stories is surely limited – but ‘Digging’ makes me think that I have a pen, so I could have a go.

I read it to Henry this evening. He was excited by the mention of potatoes.


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

I’ve no spade to follow men like you, Mr Heaney, but with all my heart I thank you for making me want to try.


Filed under the culture desk, thoughts

Everything flowers

I am here close to midnight, sat in piles of books. All day (and all night, at regular intervals) and all of the days before, I have been spinning from one thing to the next. The yawning needs of these boys are like a pan of water on a rolling boil. I flip from one to the other and back again. I am accidentally erasing my shopping lists doing the Hokey Cokey in Tesco. I am getting caught in the firing line of bright green poop shooting TWO FEET across the room like a pressure hose. I am playing host to wooden trains using my belly as a ‘bonnsy castle’ (thanks, Henry). I am about ready to throttle the guy who decided that Thomas the Tank Engine episodes should only be five minutes long.  I am kissing a lot of foreheads, and wiping a lot of wax crayon off the wall, and loving these faces so much it actually hurts. In short, I feel like I’m one of those harassed mothers of small children in an advert for nappies or gravy granules, and I kind of thought I’d do it more glamorously than this.

[AMAZING CHAT-UP LINE: 'you could advertise my gravy granules any day'. Someone use it, please.]

All of which makes it extremely important that every now and again I sit in the middle of poetry books at midnight. You can’t read poetry with half an eye on Facebook. It needs all of you for the words to work. It is a positively luxurious thing to do. And I tell you, there is something about reading the right poem that makes every single part of me stop and be still. I like the quiet.

Like this, for instance.

St. Francis And The Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as St. Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of
the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking
and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Galway Kinnell

Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness. Now I remember. Now tomorrow will be fine.



Filed under family, the culture desk

and it’s Spring and…

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan whistles


It has been a long, long, dark winter. Cold, to make your skin crawl. Wet, to keep us fenced indoors. Our flat never feels smaller than when we don’t want to leave it. It has more of an effect on my mood than I’d like to admit.

For this reason, and given that Tim is away for five days (at w-w-w-work, Henry tells me; the w’s seem to take a lot of effort), it’s been especially wonderful to have a week like this. We have had the loveliest time.

It might not last for long – well, almost certainly not, as we’re in England – but it came just when I needed it. (Having said that, Amsterdam, any time you feel like giving us a Timothy back, go right ahead.)

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Filed under family, the culture desk


Three happy discoveries for Saturday:

ONE, there are some songs that never stop cheering you up. Possibly it’s not cool to love The Feeling, these days, but I still hear this and get all unstoppably jolly.


TWO, if tiny poems of perfection are your thing, then you should look at 17 beats (thanks to Peonies and Polaroids for directing me there this morning). This woman can do in fifteen words what I can’t do in five hundred. Look at ‘time machine’, ‘a metaphor, mostly’, ‘when a banana asks you on a date’ or ‘infant milestones’, to begin with. Or this. Look at this.


he enters the train.
he is regal, his head high.
from his neck and chin

springs forth a mighty
beard of matted coils, dense and
black. he has no shoes.

broken bags cover
his broken feet, but he walks
with Grace and Purpose.

he parts the crowd, a
sea of judgement and contempt, and
stands beside the door.

from 17 beats

Argh, it’s so good it hurts.


THREE, boy and cardigan and IKEA meatballs and mugging for camera. Too much.


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Filed under family, the culture desk, thoughts

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Today Hen had his first haircut. It was long past time to cut off that ludicrous wispy mullet at the back. His bed hair looked like a back-combed tumbleweed, but I still dragged my feet when it came to cutting it off. I wasn’t ready at all to see a boy’s face on those skinny shoulders. He looks smart, serious and old, so old, and it hurts in a funny way I can’t put my finger on.

Today Tim cycled 37 miles for the heck of it. He does that, sometimes. I enquired afterwards how much he weighed (surely he must leave behind ten gallons of sweat) and he shrugged and said ‘I don’t exercise to lose weight, now’. I thought, hmm, there’s something worth thinking about. Also, there are other reasons?

I ache.  Oh, I ache all over like I never did before. After a couple of miles all the muscles and ligaments in my back and legs start to screech like a rusty car. I think it’s pretty wimpy, considering I’m not even in my third trimester, it didn’t happen the first time, and I’m not yet half as heavy as I’m going to be. I know this because I check a pregnancy weight gain calendar more often than I should. I am impatient with the changes in my body – glaring at elongated thighs and stretched skin in the mirror – and spend too much time wishing them over and done with.

It is Easter weekend. Time to consider what else – apart from a baby’s mullet – I might be hanging on to when it’s best to let go. Time to think about renewal, and trying again, and failing again, but failing better. Time to remember that there is grace everywhere, including in myself; and that there is always room to treat people better, and that also includes myself.  

Have a wonderful long weekend! Be kind to yourself. Wishing you chocolate and much happiness.


Filed under baby diaries, the culture desk, thoughts