Monday, 30 June 2014

Birthday fun

I'm a little bit late with this, my birthday having been and gone over a week ago now, but I like to have a record here of how I spend my time so here I am, just in the nick of time before June finishes.

I'm really not that mature about my birthday; even at the advanced age of 36 I still expect to be treated like a special snowflake for the day week.  This year, my friends and family once again came up trumps.

After a lovely meal with friends on Friday 13th followed by cocktails, I spent a quiet weekend with The Boy before meeting up with my mum on my day off on Tuesday 17th.  We chose Ashbourne in Derbyshire for our rendezvous and, after wandering around the charity shops buying bargains and having lunch in a cute cafe, she sent me home with a boot full of presents and birthday cake.  On my Birthday Eve, Wednesday, I had another brilliant meal with another group of friends, although it was perhaps unwise of me to drink five cocktails on a school night.  I wish I could say it's the first time I've ever woken up on my birthday with a hangover, but I'd be lying.

That evening T and I went for a quiet meal together before heading home to demolish the vegan birthday cake he'd made.  I ended my birthday in just the right way: sitting in bed opening presents and generally getting very overexcited about the loveliness of everything.

Finally, our weekend in Bristol was the perfect end to a perfect birthday week.  Can I really be 36, though?  How can that be an actual thing that's true and real?  I demand a recount.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Good stuff

I have to apologise for my recent tattoo obsession, but I just loved this post: How tattooing my fat body helped me fall in love with it (link is also the image source).  It's so much what I was trying, and probably failing, to articulate in last week's post about my new tattoo.

Practical steps men can take to support feminism.  So good and so important, I'm pressing it onto every man I know.

A guide to the best times to post on social media. 

This rediscovered, previously unpublished Kathleen Hanna interview is awesome

A lovely story about a letter from Tolkein (and I have to agree with him that, "All teaching is exhausting and depressing".  At least, by this time in the academic year it is!)

Good to see genuinely radical and practical activism going on in London.

A brilliant piece about how using analogies to make a political point is damaging (sorta links to the discussion I was having on here about how PETA exploit women's bodies to promote veganism).

21 inspirational body positive tattoos.

An excellent analysis of the remarkable Rebekah Brooks verdict earlier this week.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

List #26: My life essentials

1. Books.  A house without books is not a home.

2. My boy.  I never want to be the person who's all, "I can't live without my partner," but he's made my life so much better that although I can live without him, I'd really rather not.

3. Sunshine.  And if it's accompanied by warm weather, so much the better.

4. Fresh flowers around the house (which sounds an indulgence, but Aldi are brilliant for flowers on a budget and their lilies last for ages).

5. Time with my family and friends.

6. My cosy bed.  Even better if the alarm's not going off and I can lie in.

7. A large glass of white wine after work on a Friday.  Or a cold pint of cider on a Saturday afternoon.

8. Hugs (especially from my niece).

9. Music.  Current favourites include Tennis, Beach House, Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear: lovely summery harmonies.

10. My iPhone.  Sad, I know, but who could say it's not become an essential?

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The reluctant vegan

Image source here

The Boy and I, despite our legion similarities, are very different in a few key ways.  I'm 5'3", he's 6'4"; I'm 36, he's 27 (that sounds terrible - does it help that he's almost 28?!); I'm an omnivore, he's a vegan.  And interestingly, rather than getting hung up on the height or age differences, the thing that people are most interested in is the dietary one.  How can a vegan and a meat-eater live together?

When I first saw The Boy's online dating profile, which listed his diet as 'Vegan', I was concerned.  Apart from a brief flirtation with vegetarianism in my teens, I've been a keen consumer of meat and dairy my whole life and I just didn't see how a long term relationship could work with someone whose diet was so hugely different to mine.  For his part, he had never considered entering a relationship with someone who wasn't at least vegetarian.  But the heart wants what the heart wants and, with strange synchronicity, getting serious with him coincided with a bad flare-up of my IBS.  Suddenly a lot of food - cream, butter, red meat - became verboten for me if I wanted to stay healthy.  And so I became, a couple of ingredients apart, a reluctant vegan.

This is the point at which those who know me will be giving the side eye because yes, when I go out for a meal with friends (perhaps once a month) I do sometimes eat meat.  And no, I really can't call myself a vegan when cheese is still a big part of what I eat (vegan cheese just doesn't cut it when you can eat the real stuff).  But our house is now entirely vegetarian and my diet has undergone enormous changes over the past year.  And you know something?  I've barely noticed.  Eating a mostly vegan diet has been an eye-opener about how little meat and dairy I actually want.

One of the stereotypes of vegans is that the food is indulgence-free, all steamed kale, lentils and brown rice.  Food without joy.  But I genuinely eat just as much exciting, tasty food now as I ever did.  In order to ensure we eat enough protein, our diet includes a lot beans, and tofu, yes.  But meat replacement products are the bomb: Fry's Chicken Strips are my favourite UK product and while soy mince is not quite as good as Quorn mince (which isn't vegan as it contains egg protein) it's still pretty damn tasty in a chilli or lasagne.

The main difference in my diet is how much of what I now eat is freshly made.  Although I never relied on ready meals, before meeting The Boy I'd never bother to make pesto or a curry from scratch, just making do with something out of a jar.  But with dairy sneaking into all sorts of pre-made things, my diet now is packed with fresh, homemade food: so far this week we've eaten 'chicken', black bean and roast pepper enchiladas, chilli sin carne* with a side of homemade guacamole, and an aubergine and tomato stew with pitta bread, houmous and a green salad.

However, I remain reluctant to commit full-time to veganism, not least because CHEESE.  I am also profoundly uncomfortable with some aspects of how the vegan lifestyle is presented by much of the vegan/alternative media and blogosphere, which promotes a narrow and very mainstream ideal of beauty and fitness.  Coming from fat positive/body acceptance activism, I find the focus on weight-loss quite alienating.  I am far more interested in finding great vegan pizza recipes than in the 'Lose weight and look great with vegan food' articles that proliferate.

Equally, although I have become increasingly more aware of, and in agreement with, the ethical arguments for veganism, I would struggle to align myself with organisations such as PETA. Nothing makes me want to go out for a rare steak more than their ghastly misogynistic adverts.  Fat Gay Vegan wrote a brilliant piece recently calling out those who use the vegan/animal rights cause as a shield against accusations of misogyny, homophobia or racism, and it's this side to the movement - the holier-than-thou vegans who think that not eating animal products makes them immune from criticism - that turns me off.

But for the all the flaws within the vegan community (and what community is without flaws?) I have been amazed and impressed at just how easy it is to eat a healthy, varied and delicious diet without using animal products.  If you're interested in going vegan for a day, a week or longer, good resources online for recipes without the health fascism are Rad Fat Vegan (the clue's in the name), the aforementioned Fat Gay Vegan, and A Beautiful Mess, who, although not exclusively vegan, post a lot of yummy vegan recipes.

* Yes, I did just have to look up the Spanish for 'without'.

Monday, 23 June 2014

A weekend in Bristol

Banksy's most famous work in his hometown, sadly vandalised at the moment

36 years after being born there (my parents only stayed for 3 months after my birth, so it's not exactly my hometown), I returned to Bristol to celebrate my birthday with The Boy.  And what a weekend we had: endless blue skies and sunshine, delicious vegan & veggie food, walking for miles while popping in and out of brilliant independent shops and spotting street art along the way. The more I saw of Bristol the more I fell for the city, and it's now shot straight to the top of our 'Want to Live' list (perhaps even knocking Hebden Bridge off its number one spot).

We found so many fab places to eat and drink.  My favourite was probably Roll For The Soul, a veggie & vegan cafe and bike workshop/community space.  The burrito I had for lunch on Sunday was HUGE and so delicious.  We also liked the chilled-out vibe of The Canteen, in Stokes Croft, where we drank cider on the terrace on Saturday afternoon (we were on holiday so daytime drinking is totally ok, right?).

It sometimes seems like there's not a wall in Bristol that hasn't been decorated with street art, from murals to graffiti tags to some amazing 'clean' stencil work (where the dirt on an old building has been blasted with a jet cleaner while a stencil is on the wall, leaving patterns in the clean bits).  As much as I loved the little cat, I think the fox is just stunning and the picture doesn't really give an idea of scale: it was on a building about five stories high!

We had a super-relaxed start to Sunday morning (gotta love a midday check-out) and then wandered back through the city to see the Jeremy Deller exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.  I love Deller's work but the exhibition - English Magic - wasn't the best of his I've seen.  I did love the multiple references to Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World, though, which ranged from some typically Deller banners to an amazing steel band rendition.  We walked via Castle Park and St Peter's Church, which was bombed during the Bristol Blitz in 1940 and is now just a shell, albeit in beautifully landscaped gardens which seem so peaceful, you'd never know you were mere steps away from the main shopping centre.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

What I wore: H! by Henry Holland

It's funny.  If you asked me to describe my style I'd say dresses all the way, but looking back through my outfit posts I'm realising that I'm far more into separates at the moment. I'm wearing skinny jeans with t-shirts a lot, and then in the warmer weather just switching out the jeans for a skirt belted at the waist.

This skirt was a brilliant find in the sales last year, I think it ended up costing me about a tenner and it's so lovely to wear.  I really love Henry Holland's line for Debenhams (even though it's quite clearly designed for much younger women!), and I like how the ditsy floral print and button front on this skirt looks vintage.  I only realised after the photos were taken that it needs a good iron, sorry about that!

* Skirt: H! by Henry Holland at Debenhams * T-shirt: H&M * Cardigan: H&M *
* Belt: Peacocks * Sandals: Marks & Spencer *

Sunday, 15 June 2014

How a tattoo taught me to love my arms

Disclaimer: I am very much writing about my personal experience here and would never claim that my own experiences with tattooing are representative of a wider community.

There have been some very interesting pieces in the Guardian recently about women and tattoos, culminating in Bidisha, in an article last week, likening her tattoos to "socially legitimised self-harm." Some of what she wrote was kind of eye roll (her apparent surprise that the sleeve she got in her 20s was permanent was disingenuous to say the least) but I certainly related to the idea of tattoos as self-harm.  I had four tattoos in my late teens and early twenties and there was - for me - undeniably a link between my self-harm and my tattooing at that point in my life; the endorphin rush of getting a tattoo being virtually identical to the endorphin rush of cutting myself.

The tattoos I have from this time in my life speak of a need to make my mark on myself and on the world. And although I once imbued them with meaning - attempts to demonstrate my independence or to memorialise loss - now they're just marks on my body.  They are neither beautiful works of art nor pieces that enhance my body but, with the exception of the ugly tribal-style armband that snaked around my upper arm (the dark shadow of which you can see under my new one), I'm fine with their existence and generally forget that they're even there.

It was only as I entered my less turbulent 30's that the idea of returning to tattoos occurred to me, and it was really when I visited Portland, Oregon in 2011, and saw the vast range of beautiful body art on show there, that I was able to start thinking about tattoos not as self-harm but as self-adornment.

I spent a couple of years pinning* images I liked and started to narrow down my ideas to something colourful and floral on my right arm.  For years, I have hated my arms and I wanted desperately to improve my body image in relation to them.  Flabby and lacking tone no matter what I do in the gym; covered in keratosis pilaris (small red dots and bumps); scarred in many ways, not least with the terrible tattoo I'd inadvisedly chosen when I was 19, I've spent my entire adult life hiding them and, even in the hottest summers, wearing only clothes that would cover them.  What better way to make my hated arms something I cherished than by following the principle of self-adornment?

The final result is actually not entirely final - there's still some touching up to do around the shoulder - but I bloody love it.  My relationship with that area of my body, so long hated, has changed almost overnight.  Whereas before I used to spend hot days sweating in a cardigan, now I can't wait to bare my arms.  It seems almost facile to say, but by putting something beautiful on my body I've started to believe that that part of my body is beautiful.

I've enjoyed people's reactions to it, too.  Whilst the vast majority of people love my tattoo as much as I do, any negative comment is related to either the fact of my being almost 36, or my being female, or both.  Whilst there is nothing unusual or revolutionary about tattoos nowadays, something about the combination of my age and my gender has led to some interesting responses, from "Aren't you a bit old for that kind of thing?" and "I'd have hoped you'd grown out of this by now," to, "I like tattoos but they're not very feminine, are they?"

And so, in answer to those questions:
I actually think that, if anything, I'm only now finally old enough for them.
Sorry mum, but although my hard partying days are long behind me, I haven't yet grown out of "that kind of thing".
Fuck feminine.

*Actually, this is a lie.  I've never got to grips with Pinterest, but saying "saving to my favourites folder" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Mid-century modern wishlist

While in Hay-On-Wye last week I stumbled upon the most gorgeous vintage 60's-era world globe.  A quick chat with my brother, and I was the proud owner of the globe as a fabulous early birthday present.

But, as is so often the way, one new acquisition must lead to a great many more.  I now have a vision of a mid-century sideboard on which to rest the globe (I've got my eye on one on eBay which just might fit our titchy Victorian terrace living room), and have been scouring the internet for other delights to complete the look. 

The image below, found via A Rosie Outlook but original source here, is pretty much my dream living room.  Beautiful, right? Hopefully by the end of the summer, with a few choice purchases (and an acceptance that, yes, my grey sofa is perfectly acceptable and does not need to be replaced by a yellow one), my dream will be realised.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The ghettoisation of female writers

Yesterday I visited Housmans, a wonderful radical bookshop just around the corner from Kings Cross Station in London.  I was looking specifically for Penny Red by Laurie Penny, a collection of her writing about politics and dissent, with a focus on her reportage from the protests of 2010/2011.  I wander in and head straight to the largest section in the store, Political Thought.  If they have the book, I'm pretty sure this is where it'll be, alongside other books on the same subject such as Paul Mason's Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere.  I find a pile of Mason's tome but no sign of the Penny book.  I search the P section carefully, then the surrounding shelves, but no luck.  I really want this book, and I want to buy it from an independent, and preferably radical, store, so I do something I almost never do: I ask at the counter.

The bookseller searches his computer and finds that yes, it's in stock.  I'll find it in the Feminism section. Now, this is a little weird, because although Laurie Penny is a vocal feminist and one section (out of five) in the book is a collection of columns about feminism, the remaining four-fifths of the book are general politics.  But fair enough, Penny has written other, explicitly feminist, books, so maybe they just shelve them together?  However, then it gets weirder.  The guy behind the counter and the woman working with him explain that women writers are usually placed in the Feminism section*.  I'll repeat that.  Women writers are placed in the Feminism section.  Never mind the content of the book: if you're a woman, it's off to the Feminism shelves with you.

Now, I'm a believer in the need for Feminism sections in bookshops when they contain books that are explicitly feminist, but in this case I found it intensely problematic.  By putting all books by women into Feminism - in this specific case, a book that would fit perfectly into the Political Thought category - the store seems to imply that men can have political thoughts but women, we can only have our women's issues.

The ghettoisation of women writers is an issue that has been much debated recently.  Shelving books based on the author's gender rather than the content of the book is, like the packaging of novels by female authors with 'girly' covers regardless of their content (implying that anything written by a woman is for women-only, while men's books are for everyone), is all part of an insidious cultural climate that marginalises women and the female experience, treating us like a minority rather than like half of the population.  Not only that, but categorising books this way isolates the women writers and limits their readership.  Because let's face it, even the progressive and politically engaged men I know don't generally look at the Feminism section in bookshops.

Most worrying to me is the fact that this is happening in a radical bookshop: a shop with a fantastic range of books, a wide selection of genuinely feminist texts, a place that you might perhaps expect a more clued-up approach to categorisation.  I wish I didn't have to criticise Housmans because I think it's a vital and rare resource and one which I value greatly, but how disappointing to find that a store which should be an ally is part of the problem.

* They also, to their credit, said they'd recently discussed whether this was the right thing to do.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Good stuff

A very cool article from Impose Magazine about women in music (also the image source).

I cannot tell you how very badly I want to go to something like this.

I really love The Militant Baker (self-billed Body Advocate, Fat Chick & Feminist), and these photographs of hers are utterly beautiful.

I definitely need to make a DIY book clutch bag.

Five idiotic travel tips you should avoid: all so true.  The number of times I've heard, "Don't you worry about travelling in Africa on your own?", the implication being that don't I worry about being mugged/knifed/raped?

As the daughter of immigrants from South Africa, I very much related to Crysta's post - Benefit Claiming Immigrants - about moving to the UK.

* Thanks to Jenny, Bitch Media, Charlotte for links *

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

May reads

1. The Shock Of The Fall was this month's book group choice, and I'm looking forward to hearing what people thought of it when we meet later today. I really enjoyed this tale of Matt, a young man with schizophrenia. Author Nathan Filer is a former mental health nurse, and I thought he did an excellent job of tackling a difficult issue with humour and empathy.

2. Emma Donoghue (of Room fame)'s new novel, Frog Music, didn't immediately engage my interest, but I quickly found myself drawn into the world she created.  Based on real-life events in 1870's San Francisco, at the time a frontier town experiencing mass immigration as people from across the US and globe sought their fortune, the novel follows exotic dancer Blanche as she seeks to find out who killed her friend, the frog-catching, cross-dressing Jenny.

3. I found the ambitious structure of White Is For Witching challenging but nevertheless found myself rather enjoying it. Essentially a haunted house story, in which the house itself is doing the haunting, I enjoyed the vivid characterisation of main characters Miranda, Ore and Eliot, who leapt off the page. Creepy and spine-chilling.

4. Where'd You Go Bernadette? was a really quick but enjoyable read.  When Bee's mother, Bernadette, goes missing one Christmas it's up to Bee to put together the evidence found in emails, letters, articles and memos to discover where her mother is and - perhaps more importantly - who her mother was.

5. I became interested in Zenith Hotel after Jane wrote a glowing review recently, and when she kindly sent me her copy to read I was immediately keen to dip in. But - sorry Jane - I really didn't enjoy it. Zenith Hotel has been praised for its visceral and unflinching portrayal of prostitute Nanou and her clients, but I found it a very stereotypical view of sex workers (and the men who use them). Author Oscar Coop-Phane takes great relish in dwelling on the intimate details of Nanou's life, but I felt there was something misogynistic about his disgust in her body and her work.

6. A Single Swallow was a spur-of-the-moment purchase in a small bookshop in Brecon. Author Horatio Clare decides to try and keep pace with the swallows on their annual spring migration from South Africa to his childhood home in South Wales, and this travelogue follows him (and the birds) from Cape Town, across Namibia, Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Algiers, Morocco, Spain and finally France, England and Wales.  Really beautifully written, his exploration of the colonial histories and contemporary exploitation of the countries along the west coast of Africa were fascinating to read.

7. I wanted to like DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture more, but it read to me a bit like a PhD thesis with the tricksy bits taken out, and didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know about the history of fanzines, self-publishing and independent music.  Although some bits were engaging and interesting (predictably, I most enjoyed the sections on Riot Grrrl and on how crafting and DIY art came out of that scene) overall I think it would be a better read for someone who is completely new to the DIY scene.

8. A bargain find in Hay, The Reluctant Bride is Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan's account of how she was "dragged, kicking and screaming, up the aisle".  Very funny, particularly if you're familiar with Mangan's work.

And three re-reads:

9. Best Friends Forever is a typically enjoyable and easy read by Jennifer Weiner, who I praised last month too.  When Addie's former best friend Val turns up at her house late one night, covered in blood and asking for help, Addie is forced to let go of the grudge  against the girl who helped to ruin her senior year at school, and the two embark on what I believe is known in the trade as a madcap adventure.  Sounds cheesy?  It kind of is, but full of heart and warmth, it deals with the issue of date rape extremely well.

10. If you haven't yet discovered the Georgia Nicholson series, then I urge you to start at the beginning with Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging.  Laugh-out-loud funny, the adventures of Georgia are completely ludicrous and over the top but recognisable to anyone who's ever been, or known, a teenage girl.  Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me? is the last in the series, and was a welcome balm when I was very ill with a kidney infection earlier in May.

11. I re-read Fangirl for Hannah's Two-View Book Review series. You can read my (and her) thoughts here.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

What I wore: The 'To keep or not to keep?' edition

This dress was a bargain £12 from Dorothy Perkins (seriously, does anyone ever pay full price for their stuff? I constantly have a voucher code or an offer in my inbox) but I'm undecided about it, so who do I turn to? Why, you!

On the plus side, I like the gingham check, which is different to anything else I own but looks ace styled with a headscarf. I also like that, thanks to my new tattoo, I might just be brave enough to take my cardigan off.

On the minus? You can see my bra, which I'm worried looks tacky (but with boobs my size, there's no avoiding the massive over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders), and when I do take my cardi off, my back fat is a wonder to behold, forming a whole new cleavage behind my existing one.  Also, I'm not sure if the whole effect is a little sack-like.

So, dear readers, opinions? Apparently I'm now unable to make a decision without crowdsourcing it.

* Dress: Dorothy Perkins Petite * Cardigan: H&M * Belt: Peacocks *
* Sandals: Marks & Spencer * Headscarf: Vintage * Bra: Bravissimo *