Sunday, 25 January 2015

This (Mama's) Life

This Life: What happened to the women?
January. When everyone gives up eating, drinking and spending money, and the only thing that can possibly brighten up your day is a brilliant new television series to obsess over.

At least, that would explain the incredible excitement in the UK last week over the
BBC's dramatisation of Wolf Hall. Not to disparage the beautifully acted drama, based on Hilary Mantel's excellent novels -- it's set to be a classic. But I'm not going to review it here - plenty of others have done that. This is about something else.

I spotted, amongst the cast, the actress Natasha Little, who played Rachel in This Life back in the 90s, when that show was the one we were all talking about. For those who didn't watch it, the show was about a bunch of 20 something trainee lawyers sharing a flat in London. A sort of anarchic, UK version of Friends, but with more drama than comedy, and which explored issues such as drugs, promiscuity, gay sex and infidelity.

In Wolf Hall, Little was playing a relatively small part, Cromwell's wife, who (spoiler alert) succumbs to early death in episode 1. She'd been a big name in her day, memorably taking the lead role in Vanity Fair a few years after This Life. That got me thinking about the other female stars of This Life. Where were Amiti Dhiri (Milly) and Daniela Nardini (Anna) now? Some of the male actors have gone on to have highly successful careers: in particular Andrew "Egg" Lincoln, who now plays the lead role in The Walking Dead. (I never could quite get my head round that). Jack Davenport, who played Miles, starred in films like Pirates of the Caribbean and the comedy Coupling  and has acted in numerous US television series.

I googled Dhiri and Nardini and found they'd had perfectly respectable careers, playing roles in series like The Bill and Judge John Deed. But unlike their male counterparts, they hadn't become major stars. And yet they -- along with Natasha Little - were just as good, if not better actors than the men. So what happened? Why, of course they've all had had time off to have children.

So it seems the acting world is just like any other profession. As I was discussing with a friend and ex-colleague the other day, all the brilliant women I've worked with are doing just OK, whereas almost all the men have risen, almost effortlessly, to top jobs just by virtue of being there all the time.

Maybe this is what we need to be shouting about, rather than the fact that so many top British actors are privately educated. I hope all the luminous young female actors in Wolf Hall are just starting out on their brilliant careers, and that they've gone stratospheric by the time they're 40. Not reduced to a role so small they don't even make it to the official Wikipedia cast list.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


School run fashion: oh, the glamour
"You're wrapped up warm," said another mum to me yesterday as I did the school run.

Er, yes. That would be because it is 2 degrees celsius out there this afternoon. So, yes, I am wrapped up in my full Long Island winter gear: fashionistas might like to note it consists of LL Bean coat and sheepskin boots, J.Crew hat and scarf-from-ages-ago. And my special smartphone-friendly leather gloves.

Other Mums looked quite jaunty in their normal get-ups, without hat or gloves, but not me. I believe in dressing appropriately for the weather, however unglamorous it may be. I'll have you know if it gets any colder I'll be wearing my thermal ski leggings underneath, and my toasty Uniqlo heat-layering black top (note to self: do not wear it to any more work meetings in overheated offices. People will think you are having hot flushes).

Fellow blogger Tara at Sticky Fingers posted the other day about wrapping up warm for the rugby sidelines, and I'm totally with her on that. If I go to a sports event, I'm the one huddled in the most clothes possible, wondering where the hot coffee is (and not knowing what on earth is going on in the game). The boys have tennis lessons in a local park, and it takes place outdoors on a floodlit court. Which has been fine until this week, when it really is too cold to sit around watching for 45 minutes, so I retreated indoors. Normally, I would be there in full ski gear, daydreaming about being at the Australian Open instead of watching a bunch of nine year olds try to get the ball over the net.

Earlier this winter, when the temperature was somewhat milder, I was amused by another Mum at tennis who was far more concerned about her child being cold. As they are running around (and don't seem to feel the cold anyway) this wasn't really an issue. In fact, the child was determinedly throwing his thick coat off and insisting he was fine, until she finally she took off her own pink jumper and made him wear that - oh the indignity - while she sat there, martyr-like, looking frozen. As you an imagine it all ended in tears.

I know Toni aka Expat Mum, in Chicago, will scoff at our softness, but it really is a bit parky in England at the moment. And, unlike America, we don't have nice heated car seats, well-insulated houses and efficient, vented-air heating systems. In the land of clunky radiators, British Gas and "put on another jumper," winter is really quite harsh.

I'll leave you with a lovely advert from Sweden which I happened to write about this week. It's called "Vintersaga" and it's all about melancholy wintery feelings in the land of the frozen north. Enjoy.

Monday, 19 January 2015

On birthday party etiquette

I've been jolted out of my blogging ennui by an article in The Guardian this morning, about the parents of a five year old who were sent an invoice by the parents of another child, for missing the latter's birthday party.  The family were charged15.95 for failing to show up at a party at the Plymouth Ski Slope and Snowboard Centre.

I'm appalled, amused and fascinated by this story in equal measures, not least because people not replying to invitations, or replying and then failing to show, is a subject close to my heart. In the US I experienced this a few times as the host of a party. (I also experienced people turning up with other siblings at the sort of party where they do a headcount and you pay per child, and letting them join in. Which is arguably even more infuriating.)

The lack of manners always infuriated me -- in fact, I once telephoned round all the parents who hadn't replied, only to realise I had myself committed something of a cultural faux pas by organising a birthday party on Mother's Day. Which, I now know, is a completely no-go date in the States. But still.

Another time, a mother replied to our invitation at midnight the night before our party - to say yes, her child could come. But in the morning, sent another email saying he couldn't. We wondered if she'd been drunk when she sent it the first time, then in the cold light of day couldn't face the party....

Nevertheless, to send an invoice? It seems a bit much. Yes, sixteen quid is a lot of money, but how about finding out first if there was a good reason that the child hadn't showed. (Looks like there wasn't by the way. Some rather nebulous story about not knowing how to contact the parents and cancel).

But there's something else going on here. It's the fact that we feel pressurized to throw this kind of expensive party for a five year old. It's no longer good enough to hold it in your house, play a few games of pass the parcel and eat some sandwiches and birthday cake.(Another anecdote - we once did have this kind of party, and heard via the parents how much the kids all loved it. To them it was a novelty). We feel forced into shelling out for party venues, who in turn see us as a captive market and rachet up their prices.

I bet a bunch of five year olds on a ski slope was a total nightmare, by the way. No wonder the poor mother was furious.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

New Year, easyJet style

New Year's Day: Not recovering from a hangover, but on the slopes
At 5.30 am on New Year's Day I was wide awake.

Not kept up by partying the night before -- that hasn't happened for many, many a year. But en route to Gatwick for a nice easyJet flight.

New Year's morning is quite eerie as you trawl through the dark, cold, empty streets of London -- no traffic, no people save the odd miserable-looking person at a bus stop. But once you are inside the artificial light of an airport, frankly it could be any old day, and any old time of day. Although the grumpy woman on the check-in desk did grudgingly wish us a Happy New Year once she'd handed us our boarding passes.

We decided a few years ago that New Year's Eve just isn't fun when you have small kids. Unless you are to host your own party, going out isn't an option (who's going to babysit on the biggest party night of the year?). So you grimly sit up until midnight watching Jools Holland or the London fireworks, drinking champagne because you feel you ought to, before retiring to bed at 12.15. It's always an anti-climax.

Therefore, it seemed a good idea to book an early flight to Geneva. Very early.

As we waited for the airport bus from long stay parking in the dark and cold, I remembered various New Years' Eves from years gone by.

1987, when I was 14, and had my first kiss behind the garages during my parents' block party in Hong Kong. A drunken fumble with a teenager who wore train-track braces.

1990, a party when we Scottish danced all night and my friend and I said; "This is our decade!" as the clock struck 12.

1992, spent with my Uni friends in one of their parents' houses, a large country estate which we had all to ourselves. We drank solidly till 4am. I seriously regretted it the next day.

1994, in the Alps with The Doctor and his brothers, throwing snowballs as we made our way to a dodgy apres-ski bar.

2000, Millennium Eve, when The Doctor had to work, and I spent the moments after midnight trying to call him in the rain in a Devon village. My mobile never really was the same again.

 2003, spent with our neighbours in Clapham, trying not to drink too much because we were setting off on a four month round the world trip the next day (though not at 6am).

2005, in a ski chalet, and The Doctor's cousin insisted on waking up Littleboy 1 at midnight to see the fireworks. (He was 9 months old and didn't appreciate it). 

2009, watching the Ball Drop in Times Square, New York. On TV of course - we had a two and four year old. And we didn't have any good enough friends to have been invited to a party. 

2011, in Vermont, watching a torchlight procession and fireworks in ski resort. (At 9pm -- it was a "family" resort). Then going to bed early.....

2013, when a massive, champagne-fuelled family row occurred at about 12.15am. 

Looking back, there's no doubt the really good New Year's Eves were those early ones, when it was still massively exciting to sing Auld Lang Syne and toast the coming year, not the later ones when, to misquote John Lennon, the feeling is more "Another year over....and what have you done?" .(I doubt The Doctor would even say that, as he is a solid hater of New Year.)

So, no regrets as I got on that easyJet flight. And certainly none when we arrived in sunny Geneva, and three hours later were strapping on skis and joining the New Year crowds on the slopes.

Happy New Year!


Thursday, 18 December 2014

Festive traditions, there and back again

There are things I miss about Christmas in the US.

 For example, the decorations outside almost every house. What's striking about these is that, in New York at least, many of them were pretty high quality. In London, the decorated houses stand out - maybe one in twenty -- and they're usually quite naff, all inflatable Santas and blinking lights. In our neighbourhood on Long Island, you'd be more likely to see giant candy canes, fairy lights round trees, red velvet bows on every window and -- on one house's immaculate lawn -- a real wooden sleigh.

I also feel bizarrely nostalgic for American Christmas songs on the radio. I'd never heard Dan Fogelberg's poignant Same Old Lang Syne (see below) or the insanely catchy Feliz Navidad before I moved to America and at the moment I wouldn't mind hearing Kelly Clarkson's Grown Up Christmas List. Magic FM, are you listening? It's fine to play Phil Collins' "Coming in the Air Tonight" all year, if you want to - but not on the 18th December, OK?

Then there's the Christmas cards. When we first moved to the States, I noticed with mortification that I was the only parent at the Montessori nursery not to have sent a "happy holidays" card featuring a lovingly chosen family photograph. The following year, we fell into step. We've now of course reverted to traditional cards, but as Christmas cards fall more and more out of fashion (I still send them, but more and more people don't) I can see the point of the  American card. It's more of a memento than perhaps receiving a hastily written card featuring a cartoon Santa -- and I have to admit it was rather fun choosing the photos.

But there are things that we missed in America, and are now totally gorging on in London. Like mince pies, mulled wine.....and carol services. We went to three last year, and this year have notched up two so far, as well as having lustily sung carols at two school assemblies. Littleboy 1, who didn't know any Christmas carols in America, is now in the school choir and is currently racing around the house singing Latin words from "Unto Us a Son is Born." (This was charming at first, and is now rapidly starting to grate on my nerves).

His brother meanwhile, read a very heartfelt lesson at the country carol service we go to every year. While they both missed out on Nativity plays (so I'll never see them play Joseph, or a shepherd, sadly), they've both recited lines about the Christmas story in their Christmas assemblies, something that would never happen in secular US schools. And most importantly, they now know the "silly" version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (you know, the one that goes "like a lightbulb").

I also went to a very traditional work-related Christmas lunch last week, in a Soho boozer -- let's just say lunch didn't even start till 3, and by the time I left at 5.30, we'd only just had the main course and quiz. Somehow I don't think these happen in New York in quite the same way......

I hope you are enjoying the festive season on both sides of the pond -- what traditions would YOU import?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Bears and royals: the UK in a nutshell?

We took some bears to see 'Paddington'
Apologies for the relative lack of blogging recently. I'm coming up for my sixth blogging anniversary soon, and I'm beginning to wonder if that phase in my life is coming to an end.

When my children were young, blogging was almost a form of stress relief; when endless winter afternoons stretched out with the boys napping or watching Cbeebies, or when I'd run in from a walk with the toddler Littleboys and bash out a blog post while I was waiting for the pasta to boil, just because it was such a blessed relief from thinking about chasing small children around the playground.

The older the boys get, the less demanding they are in some ways but the more time they seem to take up. Laundering sports kit. Supervising homework. And the birthday parties! I think I'm starting to lose it. For the first time ever, we arrived at a party on Sunday with no present or card, and what was worse, I hadn't left it behind. As we parked, Littleboy 1 piped up "Shouldn't we have a present?" and that was literally the first time it had occurred to me.......

Anyway -- London life remains busy and ripe with opportunity for experiences, from seeing the display of poppies at the Tower of London last month (brilliant) to taking the 176 bus all the way home to Crystal Palace after seeing a play in the West End (mistake). This weekend, either end of the two birthday parties, we packed in two contrasting cultural experiences: a play (King Charles III) and a film (Paddington).

The play is a "future history" written by Mark Bartlett; that is to say, it takes its cue from Shakespeare, is written in blank verse and has elements of both high comedy and high tragedy. It predicts what might happen when the Queen dies, and Prince Charles becomes King. Very quickly things go pear-shaped when Charles (the brilliant actor Tim Piggott-Smith) refuses to sign a bill concerning press freedom. Meanwhile, Prince Harry (whose scenes provide some hilarious comic relief) is romancing an anti-monarchist gal wearing Doc Martens, there's a groaning ghost around Windsor who sounds suspiciously like Diana, and Kate is busy supporting William's cause like a modern-day Lady Macbeth. Act One ends with Charles dissolving Parliament after a stand-off with the Prime Minister; I won't reveal the rest, but it's incredibly thought-provoking, whether you're a royalist or republican.

Paddington showcases another side of British life with a gentle humour that everyone, old and young, can enjoy. While few elements of the actual books remain (and there's a ridiculous, unnecessary sub-plot involving a taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman), the film captures the essence of Paddington -- an accident prone, but utterly well-meaning bear with excellent manners. Ben Whishaw voiced him perfectly, but it was Hugh Bonneville I was really impressed with. Forget Downton Abbey, what with this and the brilliant Twenty Twelve, he's shaping up to be one of the funniest actors we have. Paddington is also an illegal immigrant from "Darkest Peru", and with immigration a huge topic at the moment in the UK, the film had a lot to say about whether or not the British are welcoming to newcomers.

So there we are: British life in a nutshell, royals and bears included.

What have you been up to?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The one where I review the Christmas ads

Work was crazy last week. I write about adverts, and the first week of November now seems to be when all the big U.K. advertisers release their Christmas commercials. I sat through, and then wrote about, at least a dozen festive offerings, then felt surprised when I went back into the real world and everyone wasn't making mince pieces or watching the snow fall prettily outside.

I'm sure virtually everyone in the UK has seen the John Lewis ad by now, but I'm going to post it here for the benefit of my non-UK readers. I like it, even though I know it's highly manipulative and designed specifically to appeal to me, the middle-class mother. The Doctor said it looks as if it was directed by Richard Curtis, and I agree (it wasn't. The director, Dougal Wilson, has done many of John Lewis's "hits", including The Snowman). Some people (including the lovely Melissa at Talk About York) said the little boy in it was too good to be true, and of course she's right, but an ad featuring grumpy tired kids who don't want to do their homework probably wouldn't have worked as well. A minority still said it left them cold -- one Facebook friend of mine said she just kept thinking the grubby penguin toy needed a good wash.

Marks and Spencer's, ad, meanwhile, is just as whimsical but not quite as winning, in my opinion. It concerns a couple of fairies who go around spreading their magic dust to better everyone's Christmas. I particularly noted that they manage to get a bunch of kids, who are sitting around watching TV and on iPads, outside playing in the snow.But that wasn't enough to make my eyes smart.

Maybe laughter is better than tears? Mulberry's ad is the one that made me laugh the most. Even though I'm not into fancy handbags, I love the humour and the portrayal of the snooty family.

 Waitrose, meanwhile, has a child who's bad at baking being saved by the lovely people at Waitrose. Now I sympathise with this child. I was/am rubbish at baking too. But if I went down my local Waitrose and asked for help with making biscuits, I can't really believe they wouldn't stare at me like I'm a crazy woman. Anyway - it's nicely done, and if you didn't know, the choir singing Dolly Parton's "Try" is made up of ordinary people who uploaded clips of themselves warbling the song.

Finally Vodafone has a bunch of people singing "Let it Go," in their Christmas ad this year. I wonder if they thought this would be a hit for anyone with small children? But perhaps these parents are fed up with hearing the bloody song, and will groan when they hear it yet again? 

Which is your favourite? Have you seen another one you like?