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playing with the grown-ups

I’ve just finished reading Sophie Dahl’s first novel, Playing with the Grown-ups, which left me with an itch to pinpoint exactly what it was I found so peculiar about reading it.

I’ll admit that I did approach the book with a certain degree of initial trepidation. After all, the cover is very pink, with butterflies and curly-wurly writing; and what is more, no one could say that the notion of a “somewhat autobiographical” first novel from a world-famous supermodel exactly inspires an instant vote of confidence. However, I was also genuinely prepared to enjoy this book: for one thing, I do actually quite like butterflies and pink things, and for another, in spite of the apparent “double jinx” effect of being simultaneously both an extremely beautiful celebrity, and the grand-daughter of one of Britain’s best-loved writers, Dahl does strike one as someone not short of a brain cell or two. Her previous novella, The Man with the Dancing Eyes (2003) was very enjoyable (in spite of taking the concept of “whimsy” to whole new levels) and she has since written some interesting pieces for Vogue and The Guardian. More tellingly, however, Playing with the Grown Ups has also received some very favourable reviews in the press, being compared by a number of critics to not just one but two of my all-time-favourite-ever books: Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. As far as I am concerned there isn’t really higher praise than that. For extra reassurance, the book’s cover is laced with lavish recommendations from everyone from Time Out (“a lush and rhapsodic coming-of-age novel”) to ELLE (“lyrical, knowing and stylish”). The only potential warning sign is a thumbs-up from Cecilia Aherne, who I have to admit is not a favourite of mine – I did manage to survive PS., I Love You, but only barely.

Anyway, Aherne aside, I was feeling pretty good about settling down to read Playing with the Grown-ups, which was shaping up to be everything I like best in an easy-going, escapist, Saturday-afternoon kind of read. But 100 or so pages later, I was feeling confused, even a little cheated. The book I was reading didn’t seem to bear any real connection to most of the reviews on the cover. Was I even reading the same book?

Now, before we go any further, I have to point out here that this isn’t going to be a hatchet job on Dahl’s novel. Frankly, I think she has enough to contend with as a famous-supermodel-cum-author-cum-girlfriend-of-Jamie-Cullum without getting into that sort of unhelpful sniping. It is, after all, a first novel – and besides, I think it really does have quite lot going for it: there are some very sharp, sensitive observational moments; it is often genuinely funny; and I enjoyed the touches of early-90s nostalgia. Broadly speaking, the story follows Kitty, a young girl growing up at the idyllic Hay House, where she lives with her “eccentric” English family: grandparents, teenage aunts, half-siblings and her glamorous but temperamental young mother, Marina, an artist and “spectacular beauty” whose whims pull Kitty away from her familiar childhood home and whisk her through a string of new and strange locations – from a slightly grim boarding school to a ritzy New York apartment to an ashram. The narrative is framed by sections which focus on Kitty in the present day – now grown up and pregnant by her rather sickeningly perfect husband – returning from New York to the UK following her mother’s overdose. Though she doesn’t always quite convince, the character of Kitty is thoughtfully drawn, and certainly a lot more subtle than some of the overworked “eccentric” figures who are amusing but not always very believable – even Marina herself always remains something of a try-hard bohemian stereotype, although interestingly Dahl has acknowledged that her character is largely based upon her own mother, Tessa Dahl. But where the novel really falls down for me is when it tries to be Deep or possibly Serious, and thus slides into cringe (or giggle)-inducing psychobabble and melodrama – at times, there is just the tiniest hint of Dawson’s Creek. The occasionally rather overwrought and self-conscious prose style doesn’t help matters: I could have done without the references to “spectacular” beauty and “silver eyes” though as Katy Guest, writing in The Independent points out “any writer who uses the line, ‘She was in bed wearing a silk peignoir’ with a straight face deserves a prize.”

There’s something more than language, though, that bothered me about this book – which, when Dahl relaxes and lets herself go, is actually rather gracefully written. I think the closest I can come to it is a very classic and clichéd piece of advice (which I have been given myself in the past…perhaps, dare I suggest, many of the things which disappointed me most about Dahl’s writing are the very things that frustrate me about my own?) and that is “murder your darlings”. What’s really wrong with Playing with the Grown-ups is that there’s no sting in the tale, no bite. In spite of the rather tedious roll-call of the usual ‘misery-lit’ ingredients – drugs (check), alcohol (check), sex (check), dysfunctional family life (check), hints at eating disorders (check), self-harm (check), tragic beauties (check) nothing seems to have consequences. Far from being dark, it’s actually all rather glossy and well-lit: you can imagine everyone a little bit wooden, but with perfect hair, like characters in a made-for-TV movie. In spite of all, at the end of the book, the now supposedly well-adjusted grown-up Kitty seems to have a cringingly ‘nice’ relationship with her family, whilst Marina herself is rather too neatly ‘punished’ for her insensitive ways by turning out to be a bit of a sad case. Dahl has been quoted as saying how much she hates “bitter books and bitter people” and I’m the last person to advocate for the grim and the joyless in the books I read, but it all just seems a little bit gooey – like eating a lot of cream cakes – maybe whimsical pink ones, possibly with some kind of star-shaped sprinkles on top?Now I don’t mean to imply that Dahl ought to have written a misery memoir (let’s just say I am not a fan of those), and of course, a lovely, light-as-air, enjoyable cream-cake of a book, even if it is a bit sugary at times, is not automatically a bad thing, especially when it has that extra touch of magic-wand sparkle to it. However, by the end – I’ll admit it – I was desperate for something to take the edge off all that sticky sweetness.

For me though, it is not simply the over-the-top praise the book received, but the endless comparisons to Smith, Mitford (and on occasion, Evelyn Waugh) that are the most baffling. OK, so Dahl is writing about the experience of being a teenage girl, and yes, she clearly has that whole English-rose-eccentric-aristo thing going for her, but beyond that I am slightly confused. Have any of these reviewers actually read The Pursuit of Love? I can just about countenance the idea of Kitty as a sort of parallel Fanny, though I can’t somehow quite imagine Fanny skipping school or going on a coke binge, not to mention wearing white jeans, even if she had happened to live in the 1990s. But Marina as The Bolter, frankly, is just a bit of an insult to the poor old Bolter. The Bolter would never have gone down the road of self-harm or drug overdoses. She didn’t need to find herself in an ashram. She was quite happy just being the Bolter, really. I think that was always the point.

Having said that, is it really just that Nancy Mitford just happens to be en vogue at the moment, and so is a sort of shorthand for a vaguely stylish kind of book (after all, it has been written by a supermodel) that would go well with your Christopher Kane by Burberry or maybe your Alice Temperley tea gown? I don’t know. It’s all a bit of a mystery to be honest. Still I did eventually manage to track down one review of the book that seemed more in line with my own take on it – Katy Guest’s in the Independent which gives a much more balanced reading of Playing with the Grown-ups. Even though she does go down the whole Mitford/Waugh avenue, Guest qualifies it by describing Dahl’s novel as “like Mitford and Waugh after they’ve worked through their issues with an understanding therapist.” Hmmmm. Quite.

I suppose if there’s one thing all this proves, it’s that age-old truism “don’t judge a book by its cover” – or by the strap-lines on its cover anyway. Most of all, I think what was peculiar about reading this book was the disjunction between the PR spin and the book itself – which gave me a sharp reminder of just how vitally important marketing and PR is in today’s publishing world. It left me wondering if, when so many talented writers have an uphill struggle to even get a manuscript looked at by a serious agent or commercial editor, a slightly uneven first novel would attract anywhere near this level of rhapsodic (or even hyperbolic) praise and critical attention if it wasn’t penned by a marketable celebrity – and thus, something of a guaranteed “cash cow”.

On the plus side though – and just to finish on a less cynical note – it is fantastic to see that it is still possible for new writers to get published in spite of being (shockingly) non-celebrities – or so far, at least! Can I please direct your attention to Jenn Ashworth’s first novel A Kind of Intimacy which is due out next month from Arcadia Books, and has already been selected for Waterstone’s New Voices 2009 promotion . If you go to her blog here you’ll have the chance to win a copy – if you’re very clever that is!

happy new year!

I haven’t written anything here for a while, largely because I’m in the middle of trying to write an essay about Mrs Dalloway. Right now, I feel like I hate Virginia Woolf a bit, but I know from experience that I will probably forgive her again when I have finished writing the essay. That’s just how it goes. The essay isn’t actually due until 19 January (which, coincidentally, is also my birthday) but I have been trying to get as much written as possible before I go back to work tomorrow.

It’s now 2009. Today it’s very cold, and as I am writing this it is snowing a tiny, tiny bit. It’s a grey and dark day.

2008 has ended, and I don’t really know what I think about the last year. It was a funny one I think. It had a lot of good bits, but overall I feel it was a tough year, a year of hard work and graft. If I was going to represent it symbolically, it would be one of those big cart-horses, or possibly some sort of barefoot Victorian orphan getting sent down the mines or up chimneys. I hope that this year will be different, with less hard graft and more fun. I would like to feel a lot more healthy, have more energy, and spend more time sleeping. I am tempted to say I would like this year to be like a happy sloth, but I think it might be better to opt for something with a bit more vitality and ‘oomph’, like a poodle, or an iguana, or perhaps an anteater.

I haven’t actually made any new years resolutions, but if I was going to make any they would be along the lines of “eat more cake” (which I’m sure I saw suggested on a blog somewhere -can’t remember where though) or “more playing” (see Chris Cleave’s ‘Down with the Kids’ column in yesterday’s Guardian).

Here’s a few highlights from 2008:

Books: as always, too many to list, but off the top of my head, The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon and pretty much anything by Haruki Murakami and Barbara Pym.

Exhibitions: many, many, many, but some that spring to mind are Peter Doig at Tate Britain, Pipilotti Rist at FACT, Made Up at Tate Liverpool especially the Drawing Room, The Intertwining Line at Cornerhouse, Made Up at The Bluecoat, and…erm… From Toad Hall to Pooh Corner at Seven Stories.

Watching: Juno, The Dark Knight, The Cat Returns, Little Dorrit, The Wire, Quatermass and the Pit

Listening to: CSS, Kraftwerk, Bat for Lashes, Stereolab, The Long Blondes, Squarepusher’s ‘Just a Souvenir’ album, old Kate Bush records, Birdsong Radio and of course the Ting Tings.

Events: again, far too many to list, but I must mention the very fine no point in not being friends, as well as of course, the Manchester Blog Awards at MLF.

Thing I missed but wish that I had not: the La Machine Spider in Liverpool.

Some other things I have appreciated and enjoyed this year include: blankets (especially my electric blanket); pyjamas; dark chocolate; rare moments of sunshine; the outside bit at The Bluecoat in Liverpool; my leopard print earrings; trains; cinnamon tea; the colour moss green; porridge for breakfast; ginger beer; knitting; long cardigans; Spritz Aperol; baths; vietnamese food; exploring London; my mum’s soup; mittens; making lists; chicken dinner with my favourite red cabbage; really nice pens; parks; naps.

ladybird books


I absolutely love Ladybird Books… but then, is there anyone who doesn’t? They whisk you back into your childhood in an instant – suddenly you’re there all over again, fascinated by ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, or, my personal favourite, ‘The Enormous Turnip’ – and don’t even get me started on ‘Puddle Lane’. Though in fact, I think part of the magic is that actually, they have the power to take you back even further than that, into another, imaginary childhood, where things are priced in shillings, magnets are unaccountably fascinating, lawns are green, policemen are friendly and helpful, and Peter and Jane go Shopping with Mother or have a jolly time with Pat the Dog. All this and the opportunity to hone your skills at reading such essential words as ‘dog’, ‘girl’ and ‘ball’. I think the other reason I love Ladybird Books is because they also remind me of the sheer, electric joy of learning to read, of devouring whole books by myself.

Someone has obviously caught onto the universal appeal of the Ladybird Book because you can now buy notebooks and mugs and fridge magnets and suchlike with vintage Ladybird illustrations (see here), as well as a book, Boys and Girls: A Ladybird Book of Childhood. I’m not usually a one for novelty mugs or indeed those just-for-the-sake-of-it gift books that people give each other for Christmas and then never look at again, but I have to admit that I can see the appeal of these. But what I really want for Christmas is a real-life Tiptoes the mischievous kitten.

bunnies are best for bad moods

I am feeling cross today. I am in a bit of a bad temper. There are various reasons for this, but it is perhaps partly just an accumulation of little things. It’s been a long week and I have a very sore throat, and someone has stolen my recycling box from my front garden, and I have had a disaster with the blanket I am knitting for my friends’ baby, and my kitchen door has fallen off its hinges and my hair is not looking good today. None of these are especially important, but they are the kinds of small things that do sometimes put one in a bad mood.

There are lots of things I would quite like to be doing this weekend but I am not going to do any of them. Here are some of the things I would like to be doing:

I would like to be going to see the new play Peacock Boy by Crystal Stewart. Described as ‘a grubby adult fairy tale of desperation and deception’ this combination of live action, music and puppetry is on at Contact Theatre this weekend.

I would like to be going to look at lovely new artist’s books and publications at the Liverpool Artist’s Book Fair at Wolstenholme Projects this weekend.

I would like to be going to ‘Night of the Owl’ at A Foundation tonight. This event will offer the chance to see and hear some of the first results of a collaboration between the Owl Project and musicians Leafcutter John, Kaffe Matthews and Thor Magnusson to develop a new range of wooden instruments for live performance. It will also include performances from Philip Jeck, Tim Lambert and Simon Whetham as well as short films from Jacob Cartwright & Nick Jordan. There is more here.

Instead I have been staying inside, nourishing myself with cups of cinnamon tea and a hot water bottle, and reading The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard for the hundredth time, which is always very cheering. Sometimes small things can also put you in a better mood, especially if they are things like small fluffy bunnies.

I have also been looking at some good things on the internet. I have been listening to lovely live birdsong here, which can only be a very cheerful sort of thing.

I have also been reading about this interesting new project from the excellent if:book London, which describes itself as ‘an experiment in close-reading’: seven women, including Laura Kipnis and Naomi Alderman are reading The Golden Notebook by Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, and will be carrying out an ongoing online conversation in the margins. The project went live on 10 November and it will be interesting to see how it develops: project objectives are to enable a culture of collaborative learning, and to explore the possibilities of carrying out complex conversations ‘messy, non-linear and complicated’ via the platforms offered by the web. I’m embarassed to admit that I’ve never actually read The Golden Notebook though it’s been on my ‘to read’ list for a long time – this project makes me want to go out and get myself a copy so I can read along.

And for moments when I feel a bit less intellectual, I have also been looking at pictures of other people’s breakfasts (mmm, breakfasts) and oh yes, of course, looking at photographs of bunnies. An orange rabbit is the best antidote to a bad mood. You can also try looking at silly photographs of dogs and videos of cats doing ridiculous things, of course. If a cat getting excited about putting its head in a box doesn’t cheer you up, then I’m afraid nothing will. It’s a fact.

In case you too are having a bad mood day and the bunnies haven’t done the trick, there’s some videos of a particularly entertaining cat called Maru doing that very thing here. I feel better already.

handmade nation

…along with the news of a very welcome election result, last week brought a message from America of a different sort to my door – an exciting parcel wrapped in brown paper.

Inside was a copy of a brand new book, Handmade Nation, sent to me all the way from Boston by lovely Meighan.

Meighan is the curator/author of the beautiful blog my love for you is a stampede of horses, where right now amongst many other things, you can find pictures from studio visits, images from artists’ sketchbooks, meercat brooches, a q&a with artist christian rex van minnen and temporary unicorn tattoos, plus new work from a huge range of emerging artists.

Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design
investigates today’s new wave of craft – a vibrant movement of artists, crafters and designers working with both traditional and nontraditional media to create highly innovative work that’s a world away from the traditions of floral embroidery and cross-stitch samplers. Authors Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerel have travelled 19,000 miles across the US to document this new craft revolution, which fuses traditional handcraft techniques with radical thinking, punk and anti-capitalist culture and the DIY ethos, and frequently crosses the boundary between craft and contemporary art. The book will also be accompanied by a documentary film of the same name due for release in 2009.

This beautifully-presented and inspiring book brings together profiles of 24 artists, designers and makers working with everything from embroidery to rug-hooking, shoe-making and paper-cutting, documenting their work, inspirations and methodologies as well as their work environments and processes. The profiles are accompanied by an interesting and thought-provoking selection of texts which explore the ‘handmade’ phenomenon in more detail, focussing on some of the related cultural and political issues. Essayists include Andrew Wagner of American Craft Magazine, Callie Janoff of the rather fabulously named Church of Craft, Betsy Greer of and Susan Beal, author of Super Crafty. Particularly interesting is the essay by Garth Johnson of, ‘Down the Tubes: In Search of Internet Craft,’ which highlights the role of the online crafting community, emphasising the importance of the web both as a tool to market and sell products via sites like and as a platform to share ideas, network and collaborate.

With lovely illustrations and lettering by Kate Bingaman-Burt (including a beautiful timeline mapping the rise of craft’s new wave that evokes Sara Fannelli’s artist timeline at Tate Modern) Handmade Nation is a fascinating snapshot of the contemporary craft phenomenon in the US. The book also provides a valuable context for the movement, touching on the political ideologies at its heart; however, I would have been interested to read more critical writing unpacking some of these ideas in greater depth, investigating the potentially revolutionary agendas of craft’s new wave, and positing what the possible futures of the handmade movement might be. Altogether though, there’s no doubt that Handmade Nation is a hugely enjoyable read, packed with ideas and inspirations. Here’s to the continued rise of DIY, art, craft and design!

For more information about Handmade Nation check out the blog and the official website. There’s also a q&a with Faythe Levine on my love for you is a stampede of horses, and an interview with both authors in NYLON here. There are lots of other people jumping on the ‘craft’ bandwagon at the moment, most recently India Knight in last week’s Sunday Times with this article on ‘credit crunch chic’.

Whilst I was checking out the Princeton Architectural Press website, I also spotted this new book, A Year of Mornings. The book documents another interesting blog-based projects, 3191, which has a good story behind it. On the morning of December 7, 2006, Maria Alexandra Vettese and Stephanie Congdon Barnes each took a digital photo of everyday objects randomly arranged on their kitchen tables and, unbeknownst to one another, uploaded them to Flickr. Noticing a surprising similarity between their images, they decided to continue to document their respective mornings by posting one photo to a shared blog each weekday for a year – 3191, their site is named after the distance in miles between their homes in Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon. This new book brings together a range of images from the original Year of Mornings project, but Maria and Stephanie have already embarked on a new collaborative photographic project, entitled A Year of Evenings, which you can see here.