Mostly books, sometimes other bits.

Sex and the City, feminism & book snobbery

I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, I loved Sex and the City.

I bought the DVDs and wondered at the ridiculous clothes and endlessly questioned whether the behaviour of Samantha, as HBO seemed to suggest, really was the optimum way to live life as an adult female.

And then I grew up just slightly and realised that a programme where women, despite being intelligent and successful, are only allowed to talk about men is probably not a very good feminist concept. Despite what certain magazines might say about empowerment being reached by a woman being able to buy her own shoes.

Also the ‘independence’ message was more than slightly undermined by the fact that all the series was geared towards was finding a suitable man. It was like a bastardised version of Pride and Prejudice set 200 years later, without the beauty and with added lashings of gratuitous nudity.

There were good points, obviously. SATC was of a time (late 90s, early 00s) when women talking openly about all things sex had never been seen before and was probably needed. It seems superfluous (and borderline patronising) now – the films highlighting this especially.

Still, I was 13 and I definitely shouldn’t have been watching it – and it was a guilty pleasure.

Which is all a preamble to my point in this post, which I am almost ashamed to commit to blog.

I’ve been reading the biography of Sylvia Plath (see below post). It’s heavy going. Sylv is in Mytholmroyd (so, so close to home for me), getting laughed at by straight-talking, slightly bemused relatives of Ted Hughes, and reacting by tramping off across the moors in that melodramatic way that would eventually be her undoing,

So, I was getting annoyed with Sylvia and her non-problems. I wanted to read some trash. I felt the overwhelming need to feed my brain with the literary equivalent of candy floss. I went into our lounge, where my flatmate had left a pile of books that will probably, although I doubt any time soon, make their way to the local branch of Oxfam. I selected The Carrie Diaries.

For those lucky enough to not be enlightened, The Carrie Diaries is Candace Bushnell’s telling of ‘the girl before she became an icon’, and it recounts Carrie Bradshaw’s last year of high school. 17-year-old Carrie races around her tiny backwater town (this is a tale of a small town girl done good, of course), wearing ‘genuine 1970s go-go boots’, sorting out the dramas of temperamental friends and sisters and of course having man trouble.

It’s utter bollocks. I’m apologising to my brain and the people who awarded me with my English degree every time I pick it up; I’m trying to push out of my mind the fact that I’m reading a book with an embossed gold cover and scrawly pink writing across the front that starts with the earth shattering lines “They say a lot can happen in a summer. Or not. It’s the first day of senior year, and as far as I can tell I’m exactly the same as last year. And so is my best friend.”

Carrie and her ‘best friend’ then go on to discuss the fact that they really, really need to get boyfriends. So clearly, nothing does change in the life of Carrie Bradshaw.

I’m still taking Sylvia on the train; I can’t have people thinking I’m reading this shit out of anything other than desire for perpetual brain-ache.

The Carrie Diaries, Candace Bushnell, HarperCollins, 2010 

Surprised by Sylvia...

My tube reading this week has been the biography of Sylvia Plath (Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, Anne Stevenson, Penguin).

Apart from causing a few people to throw me curious glances –yes, I know it’s fairly heavy for 8am in the rain, but please– it has shed some light on a writer that I clearly knew far less about than I thought.

Currently I’m in 1956, and our Sylv is a graduate student at Cambridge. She is spending most of her time flitting off to Paris for trysts, leading on a ridiculous amount of men, and having far more sex than I could ever have expected from a writer who is most famous (and I don’t mean to disregard her work; the facts are unfortunate) for her all-encompassing depression.

In general, she could not be pegged as,

          a) a recluse
         b)  socially awkward
         c)  overlooked

which are three things that I definitely considered her to be, before I started reading Stevenson’s book.

There are clearly a lot of misconceptions flying around about Sylvia. But she certainly isn’t the only one who has been obscured over the years.  

According to the book, when Sylvia first met Ted Hughes she yelled at him before biting his face (steady on, love). From this point on she seems determined to turn him into a brooding, dangerous, Heathcliff-type character. It is the impression I always had of him, so maybe Sylvia succeeded. It is at odds with how his Cambridge friends saw him, though – gentle and kind are the words I seem to remember Stevenson using.

It is worth noting, if you weren’t already aware, that Ted Hughes was born in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire – a village way up in the hills, just a mere stone’s throw from the Brontes’ home at Howarth. It is, in my entirely unbiased, Yorkshire-bred opinion, a place everyone should visit for its literary associations. Was (and is) this location part of the reason why Ted Hughes has been so depicted, by Sylvia and by history? I’d hazard a guess at, um, yes. In reality, it doesn’t appear that he was this person at all.

I think, maybe, that Sylvia Plath was determined to play the tragic heroine all along. Controversial? Possibly. It is unlikely, of course, that her phenomenally bright, utterly unstable mind will ever be fully understood – although biographers like Stevenson make a decent attempt.

So, I’m learning a lot about Sylvia, and about Ted. Bitter Fame is throwing up a whole heap of surprises. Slap on the wrist, history. You have misrepresented them both. 

RIP Adrienne Rich, hero.

This morning when I came into work and flicked through the news headlines/ trending tweets I was informed that the poet Adrienne Rich had died at the age of 82.

I was first introduced to Rich whilst I was at Lancaster (thank you for quite literally changing my life, now defunct Women Writers of Britain and America 302) through the Virago Book of Love Poetry.

 I can honestly say that some of the most beautiful writing I encountered throughout my whole degree was created by little known female writers and stored between the Virago collection’s heart-adorned covers.

Adrienne Rich was of course not one of the many unacknowledged writers that graced the book’s pages, although being female, gay and Jewish she was fighting on multiple levels. Due to copyright law, a lot of her poems that were previously on sites like have been taken down, and her work is therefore not all that easy to find on the internet. So, I’ve been slightly sad today about the fact that my copy of the Virago collection, containing her work, is 200 miles away in a bag in the corner of my Huddersfield bedroom.

Adrienne Rich died yesterday in Santa Cruz. (Re)visit her work if you have the inclination or a few spare minutes. She was one of the greats. 

MATE, there is no talent here... oh.

Hanging around Alex Square in the rain, falling asleep in the Learning Zone and repeatedly getting told off for bringing my umbrella into Venue by the DON'T SHEK IT woman - these things were regular occurrences in my Lancaster life. Today saw the end to another great Lancaster institution: as of around 3am this morning, Carleton was no more.

She doesn't even GO HERE (any more), I might hear you suggest. Well. Never mind. 

Here is a collection of my favourite Carleton moments. Just call it a tribute - to three years of Wednesday nights.

Soz Katy.

Patriot's Carleton... 

What beauts... just before we ended up in A&E getting told off. Class.

So much lovin'. 



We dressed as chimney sweeps and took a broom to Carleton. Couldn't do it anywhere else.

Tasty face.

Foam's about to hit.

Came home later covered in washing up liquid and without golf club or glasses, gutted.

Thank you Carleton! 

Last Chance To See... 'Alice in Wonderland' at the Tate Liverpool

The spontaneous tale that Charles Dodgson made up for Alice Pleasance Liddell and her sisters during a summer riverboat ride down the Isis in 1862 has spawned more visual illustrations, retellings and cultural associations than any other narrative, possibly ever. Film versions of Alice were created in almost every decade of the twentieth century. The most likely Alice to spring to mind is Disney’s blonde haired, restless cartoon version from 1951, who questions the logic of books without pictures before curiously following a waist-coat clad white rabbit into the bowels of the earth, but other incarnations have included 1983 Japanese-German anime, Mia Waskikowska’s older, gothic 2010 Alice (thank you Tim Burton) and a peculiar Czech interpretation by Jan Svankmajar that began with a taxidermied rabbit smashing its way out of its glass case and ended with my friend and I rocking backwards and forwards in horror on the floor in my room and feeling more than slight apprehension about ever going outside again. 

In the early years of the twenty first century, Alice has inspired resurgence in the popularity of everything from retro tea parties to floral prints to the Urban Outfitters golden pocket watch necklaces on long chains that never seem to leave the shelves. For her birthday this year, one of my friends threw an Alice themed garden party. During the course of my English degree, Alice appeared in modules dedicated to Victorian literature, literature and film, and children’s literature. Tim Burton’s film version saw an onslaught of Alice-related paraphernalia swamping our high streets. An alarmingly large number of British students, I have noticed, seem to have an obsession with tea drinking and cup-cake consumption.  Alice in Wonderland has even passed into the medical lexicon, its eponymous Syndrome referring to the condition, usually manifesting itself in childhood or adolescence, whereby as a result of surplus blood flow to the brain sufferers experience confusion over their physical size. 

The affect that Alice has had, and continues to have, on our popular culture cannot be underestimated. Questioning why exactly this is the case, I find myself feeling just like Alice herself –curiouser and curiouser 

Why has Dodgson’s tale of a middle class, mid-Victorian girl child falling into a world of hookah-smoking felines and talking flowers been so successful at capturing both the public conscious and the cultural sphere for the last hundred and fifty years? Why, simply, is there (still) such an enduring interest in Alice? 

Answers may be found at the Tate Liverpool, where the Alice in Wonderland exhibition brings together a collection of Alice related paraphernalia dating from its initial publication in 1865, through its later Victorian stage adaptations, its relationship with war-fractured Europe and influence on artistic movements including Pre-Raphaelitism, Surrealism and the psychedelic. 

We are first greeted with a collection of dream-like, psychedelic neon words that are suspended from the ceiling as if depicting thought clouds. The words appear random, as is the nature of dreaming, and indeed Wonderland itself – ‘Abraham’s Bosom’, ‘Trout Basket’, ‘Vice of Love’, ‘Peep’, ‘Cha Cha’. Suspended at various heights, they certainly seem to offer a manifestation of the wandering, unrestrained imagination – or, as my companion put it, ‘the wacky ramblings of Carroll’. On the floor beneath is a pile of towels folded into the shape of a bed, an incongruous pair of ears emerging from it. An attached label reads ‘#2 My Madinah’ – research later tells me that ‘Madinah’ is an alternative word for Medina, the supposed birthplace of Mohammad. Possibly this installation is suggesting that sleep and dream-like states, or the imagination that comes from dreaming, can offer healing and solace in the same way that religion can. The Freudian themes of the Alice books, then, can be seen clearly in the first room of the exhibition. 

On the walls are three paintings by Swiss artist Annelies Strba, entitled Nyima 445, Nyima 405 and Nyima 438, that depict a sleeping child in a wood. The colours are hazy and purple, again suggesting a half conscious state. Running above the works, around the walls of the room, is a thick black line – it is nine feet above the ground, the same height that Dodgson’s Alice grew to in Wonderland after imbibing the cake labelled ‘EAT ME’. 

Upstairs, we are given a wealth of information on the mid-Victorian context of the Alice books. The nineteenth century fascination with childhood, as seen in Pre-Raphaelite works such as William Holman Hunt’s Triumph of the Innocents, which is seen here, was one of the reasons for the books’ early popularity. The relationship between Dodgson and the Pre-Raphaelites can also be seen in the numerous paintings of him that they produced – including works by Dante Rossetti and Holman Hunt. Pre-Raphaelite inspired painter George Dunlop Leslie was the first to make a clear connection between the novels and seemingly unrelated art, with his 1879 painting entitled Alice in Wonderland – a portrait of his wife holding his daughter, who also happened to be named Alice. 

Quotations from Dodgson are printed on the walls, offering an insight into the spontaneity behind the novels: ‘In a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairylore,’ his words read from above a line of Pre-Raphaelite portraits, ‘I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole… without the least idea of what was to happen afterwards.’ 

Also included in this section of the exhibition are translations in Polish, German, French, and Russian –the latter the work of Nabokov. The real highlight though is Dodgson’s original, handwritten manuscript, set behind glass. It is bizarre to consider that all the cultural associations previously mentioned –tea sets, dressing up costumes, countless films– have stemmed from the small, slightly faded book that now sits in front of us unimposingly at the Tate. 

After the Victorians, we are faced with the first art movement to consciously engage with Alice in the twentieth century: Surrealism. Unexpected, anti-rational, uncanny –the suspension of reality required fits easily with the land beneath the rabbit-hole. The theme of displacement was adopted poignantly by artists as a result of the Second World War, and the movement of dispossessed peoples in mainland Europe. Here we see works by Max Ernst, a POW in France in 1939, and Oskar Kokoscha, whose 1941 painting shows Alice’s naivety as a metaphor for the Austrian government, closing her eyes to what is going on around her. 

A 1969 work by Dali shows twelve illustrations, one for each chapter of Alice. She is depicted as a young girl with a skipping rope, overshadowed by huge, psychedelic insects and bright swirls of colour. 

This leads us directly into the ‘altered states’ of the 1960s, the decade that saw Dodgson’s Victorian creation become ‘a poster child for the psychedelic generation’. We are faced with oils by Adrian Piper, showing a hallucinogenic version of the rabbit hole, the tea party and the card game. The LCD-esque creations that close the exhibition bring it full circle – back to the beginning, which saw neon words hung from the ceiling in an incongruous depiction of a dream world. 

The day after I write this review, I am sat in Revolution in Manchester when a stop-motion version of Alice appears on the screen next to our table. Mildly surreal, in a vodka bar on Deansgate Locks, but the hypothesis is proved correct: in late 2011, 146 years since its first publication, society is still taking Dodgson’s dream-like, unpredictable narrative and adapting it for its own ends. We aren’t bored of Alice yet. 

The Alice in Wonderland exhibition runs until January 29th
Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4BB.  

Extra baggage allowance bought, final visit to Trastevere undertaken, many hugs given: I'm coming home... cider and black at The Star on Wakefield Road, to the smell of pine from a real Christmas tree, to my limitless supply of books, to my cat, who between naps on the back of the sofa probably hasn’t even realised I’ve been away for four months, to British television, to walks around the frozen lake at Cannon Hall, to tattoos that remind me of second year summer, to having a sofa again, to Love Actually and Bridget and Pride and Prejudice, to a snow covered Thorpe Lane, to mince pies, to Mingles, to Castle Hill, to the Comedy Store, to Dirty Dancing in Manchester, to Piccadilly station, to rolling hills, to mulled cider at Giraffe, to present exchanges, to my grandparents, to garden centres, to cheap, acidic wine at Huddersfield Yates, to the Kingsgate Centre in festive lights, to Haigh’s farm shop, to fireworks, to the Yorkshire accent, to gingerbread smells, to snow, to boxes of Celebrations, to baubles, to Christmas stockings, to woolly hats, to Morrissey and the Stone Roses, to driving back over Saddleworth moor, to pointing out the chippy with the mushy pea fritters, to my own quilt, to chocolates on the tree, to Nosh, to Zephyr, to Chaophyra, to exhibitions of Alice in Wonderland and Ford Madox Brown, to Christmas cake with plastic Santas, to cups of tea from an actual kettle, to 19 days of an unopened advent calendar, to a hundred photographs of Almondbury, to making Christmas cards of Siena, to Wench Banter, to everyone in the world that I love, to Lancaster in January, to Friary and Merchants and Bar Eleven (before 9pm) and Water Witch and The Sun and afternoon drinking at Robert Gillow, to hallucinogenic spinach wraps at Venue, to the castle, to catch ups; to London, to The Independent, to learning shorthand, to reciting media law, to the British Museum and the V&A and Kensington High Street and crowded tube trains, to Royal Parks, to a pile of journalism books, to newspapers, to no more procrastination, to the next chapter...  

A jolly good knees up... 12 reasons why England wins at Christmas

1. Advent calendars. The Italian version of the advent calendar does not contain chocolate, which seems to me to defeat the entire point of its existence. I remember when I was about four years old, getting an advent calendar from my childminder that contained only festive drawings of deers behind every window. Luckily I had the real thing from my parents/ grandparents, but the disappointment of the one chocolate free advent calendar was palpable. Now, imagine that the pretty deer pictures were the sum total of what was behind the advent calendar doors for your entire childhood. It’s a sad thought, isn’t it? And this is if they exist at all – I have been informed that they do, but I’ve get to see evidence of twin advent calendars at the Bellomos, and December is now two weeks old.

2.       We have Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.

3.       We also have Christmas crackers. They don’t exist here. Wtf?

4.      Snow. Nothing says ‘festive’ like a glittery dusting of the white stuff, and over the last few years England has come up trumps in its provision of it. I find it extremely difficult to care about people not being able to get to work when the world is swathed in silver. The temperature here is autumnal, and the landscape is reflecting it. Rust coloured leaves do not say December to me. They say October.

      5.       X Factor. A poor one, I know. But it’s going on the list, despite it being (in the words of my mother) ‘crap – apart from Gary Barlow’. Since X Factor hasn’t been in my life this year, I’ve been clamouring for it. It is a Christmas tradition for the 21st century.  I have even forgiven it for providing the world with Jedward.

6    Christmas Costa. I don’t care if I’m in the coffee capital of the world; get me a Gingerbread Latte and a festive cupcake. Pronto.  

      7.       Christmas farm shops, particularly Cannon Hall Farm Shop at Haigh’s at Mirfield. Farm shops at Christmas, I feel, are a very British invention. Every year we troop to Haigh’s and buy our Christmas tree, and there is always a slight worry that it will not fit in the back of the Yaris. British farm shops make me stupidly content.

      8.      Love Actually. My absolute favourite ever; a beautifully put together piece of British cinematic festive fluff. It’s just so happy (apart from for Emma Thompson). I love Andrew Lincoln. I love Colin Firth. I love Hugh Grant’s dancing. I love Love Actually because it contains Andrew Lincoln and Colin Firth and Hugh Grant’s dancing.

9.       Christmas cards. Again, I see no evidence of this most traditional of Christmas traditions in Italy. Admittedly, the sending of Christmas cards has fallen over the last few years. But with all things retro currently en vogue, I sense a comeback. As soon as I’m home I’m going to make mine using pictures from Siena, and dash them off in the last minute first class post.

10.   Rudolph. In Italy, there is no Rudolph. There is no red nose. There are just... reindeers. That’s all. It begs the question, how do they understand the songs?

11.   Christmas songs. They are all in English. I refute the probable fact that this is because English is one of the world’s dominant languages, and instead choose to believe that it is because, quite simply, England is best at Christmas.

      12.   British Christmas television. Recent and not so recent years have provided us with Christmas Specials from The Office and Gavin and Stacey, amongst others, that have passed into the comedy hall of fame (if there is such a thing). What classics have I got to look forward to when I get back this year? Well, the annual Yuletide offerings: The Big Fat Quiz, the Royal Variety Performance, this year hosted by Peter Kay, and Micheal Buble all over my life, to name but three. We will also see Dickensian classics given a festive tint with Great Expectations and The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, starring Robert Webb of Peep Show fame. And then there is the Outnumbered Christmas Special, and The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen, and the return to our screen of Edina and Patsy in the first of two Ab Fab specials. After Christmas we will be treated to the wisdom of Charlie Brooker in his 2011 Wipe. Yes, British television is the best. I’m possibly most excited about 4OD-ing My Big Fat Gypsy Christmas.

13.   Alright, I know I said 12, as in 12 Days of Christmas, but I’ve thought of another. Yankee candles from Mellow Moments in Huddersfield. Lighting them in our cosy dining room. Candles that match the wallpaper. Cinnamon, baked apple, spice, wood smoke, pine. Nom.
      I love Christmas, I love England; the two combined is a fairly winning combination. Add Baileys and a box of Roses and I’ll be utterly content until January rolls around. Now, I’m going to dig out the wrapping paper and toilet roll tubes. The twins have crackers to make.