What would be on your family playlist? (And what’s the best-known Beatles song?)

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To celebrate the recent launch of the iPhone 6 handset and its family sharing functionalities (you can now share purchase from iTunes with up to 6 people in your family), I was asked to compile a family playlist and, honestly, I got quite excited. I love a playlist, me, and I make them for each of my books and also for different moods and experiences (currently also compiling both Halloween and Christmas playlists).

UnknownOne of the things I love about iTunes is that I can have books and music and TV shows and films all in the one place, so it’s perfect for a family playlist. In fact, the most-played music on there is Phineas & Ferb. That’s not me. (Apart from Love Handle’s You Snuck Your Way Right Into My Heart. I love that one.)

The boys have also been asking a lot about The Beatles, so we’ve been listening to quite a few of their songs too. In fact, Harry asked me what the most famous Beatles song is. Not the best, but the best-known. Any idea? I think it’s Yellow Submarine. David said Yesterday (which hadn’t occurred to me) and Help, All You Need Is Love and Let It Be have all been suggested.

Remember when I asked for recommendations for Harry’s ‘musical education’ playlist? We still listen to that too. We actually need to add some more for Joe…

imagesFilm-wise, both boys are a bit obsessed with Charlie & the Chocolate Factory – they’ve seen the original, but prefer the remake (sigh) – and have watched it over and over. Also on the playlist is Despicable Me, which none of us ever gets tired of watching (“Curse you, tiny toilet!”). I’m about to download Out of Sight because I haven’t seen it for years and George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are at their sexiest. No, it’s not family-friendly, but you know what they say, if mum’s happy…

mightybThe TV shows section of my iTunes is like a wander through the boys’ TV obsessions over the past few years. From Teletubbies to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Peppa Pig to Horrible Histories and the Wallace & Gromit Collection. Plus a couple of Peanuts specials forced on them by me (they made me nostalgic when I was a kid, I can hardly bear them now!). One of the most recent additions is Amy Poehler’s animated series, The Mighty B!, which is anarchic and hilarious.

UnknownThe Radio 4 sitcom Cabin Pressure is, I think, essential for a family playlist. For a while, the boys listened to an episode before bed (actually, so did I) and flying back from holiday recently, they both got very excited when ‘cabin pressure’ was mentioned as part of the safety demonstration, thinking that perhaps Martin, Douglas, Carolyn and Arthur were on board. (Almost as excited as I’d have been had Benedict Cumberbatch been on board. But I doubt he flies Ryanair much.)

What’s on your family playlist? 

A (hotel) room of one’s own

A few weeks ago, David showed me a photo in the paper of a woman sitting next to the Seine with a typewriter on her knees. “Ooh,” I said. “I’d like to go to Paris to write.” “Good luck with that,” David said.

WP_20130831_006A couple of weeks later, I was making arrangements with David for me to go to Sheffield to meet my friend Diane for lunch. He said, “Why don’t you stay over? You said you wanted a writing break.” “I did,” I said. “In Paris.” “It’s Sheffield or nowt,” he said. So I booked the hotel. (I did have a couple of hours of fretting about whether it was a waste of money to go and stay in a hotel. Whether the money would be better applied to the Sekrit Christmas Project. Whether it was too indulgent, particularly since I’ve done this solo writing break thing before… And then I decided feck it – I’m with the boys ALL THE TIME and I deserve a break, dammit! Oh and I checked and my last indulgent writing break* was 2005. Pfft.)

Before setting off, I downloaded a couple of episodes of Parenthood to watch on the journey and in the hotel (Diane’s been at me to watch Parenthood for AGES and since she was right – so very very right – about Parks & Rec, I thought it was about time I listened), I packed a couple of books and some snacks, bought myself a coffee and off I went.

Trains are great for writing but only, I discovered, if you get a table seat. I tried balancing the laptop on the little fold-down table, but it didn’t really fit and it was bumpy as hell. Even so, I wrote 1000 words and then watched the first episode of Parenthood. Loved it. Changed trains, bought more coffee, did some reading and then met Diane and her mum and we went off for a chat.

Diane’s mum left, but the chat continued. There was pizza. And wine. And lots and lots of talking. (We even, at one point, had a rather heated debate. It was ace.) Eventually I had to go and check into my hotel and that was also ace. Nice big room with a huge bed, a desk and this lovely view.

I did actually move the table in front of the window so I could sit and look outside instead of looking in a mirror, as I was at the desk. I spent the rest of the evening alternating writing with watching Parenthood (and I Skyped with the boys) before a bath and bed.

IMG_0399 IMG_0402

I woke at 7, wrote a bit then went down to the spa for a swim and a little sit in the Aroma Room followed by an even shorter spell in the Ice Igloo (couldn’t even sit in there, the seats were too cold). Back up to the room for more writing and then out again for breakfast in a cafe I spied from my window. It was really cute and the full cooked breakfast and cuppa sorted me right out after my swim.


Back to the room for one last burst of writing before I had to check out. I stayed at the Mercure Sheffield St Paul’s Hotel and Spa and I was really impressed. You know how at some hotels you feel like they’re doing you a favour? This was the opposite. The wifi was free. The spa was free. You didn’t even need £1 for the locker. The hotel looks really stylish, but isn’t at all intimidating and the staff were lovely. I’d never heard of the Mercure chain before, but I’ll definitely check them out in future. And, no, I didn’t get the stay for free. (But I do plan to see if I can get a freebie for the Sekrit Christmas Project, yes.)

Went wandering in Sheffield – which is really lovely, btw, if you haven’t been, you should go – to  Waterstones where I bought four books (oops) and then finally to the station where I wrote another 500 words and sat next to this beautiful creature. It was on the floor, so one of the cafe staff put a chair over it so it didn’t get stepped on. 


Watched another Parenthood on the train, then wrote a final 500 words in Leeds station then finished my book (the one I was reading, not the one I’m writing – I’ll finish that one today) on the last leg home. 

Not only did I write 7000 words, I had the most wonderful time and felt like I’d been away a lot longer than (*counts*) 32 hours. I really shouldn’t wait another eight years before doing something like this again. 

* If you don’t include LA cos that was totally research and not actually one of the best holidays of my entire life.

Feminism Friday: Are you ready to be strong?

Not long ago, I saw a tweet that said something like “Discovering feminism is like pressing ‘reveal codes’ on a Word document.” Yes. Absolutely yes. Someone else compared it to The Matrix, but I can’t remember anything about The Matrix so I don’t know how useful that is.

Last year I read this wonderful blog post by Stella Duffy. It’s about coming out and this bit really stuck with me

If everyone who has ever had a homosexual love, desire, or experience came out right now, the world would change overnight. We could stop being interesting or different or special because we’re gay, and get on with just being.

And then last week, I read this article by Anna Ford about how to get more older women on TV. But it’s not just about that. It’s about sexism and feminism and the patriarchy and has actual suggestions for what can be done to change things.

Finally, I watched the last episode of Buffy. It was (like the rest of the series) completely brilliant, but this bit made me well up and also it made my stomach bubble with excitement. (If, like me, you’re years behind on Buffy, you probably shouldn’t watch a clip from the final episode.)

If we all stand up. If we all call out sexism when we see it. If we all complain to companies who insist on stereotyping both boys and girls. If we all report harassment. If we all say ‘Enough’. Then things will change. They will. They must.

Together, we can slay the patriarchy.*

*It pained me to write that, but I did it anyway. I’m sorry.

Me. This week. Sort of.

I (finally) started the rewrite of Cherry Season yesterday. (But shush, don’t get too excited, we might scare it away.) So I won’t be blogging til I finish it. I mean, I know I’m blogging now, but I’m only blogging to say I won’t be blogging so that’s fine, obviously. (And now that I’ve just watched this Spaced clip, I may well post a Spaced clip every day. But that’s all. Honest.)

Feminism Friday: When stuff you like is sexist

You shouldn't say that, Josh, you've got a great body.
You shouldn’t say that, Josh, you’ve got a great body.

As part of my resolution to call stuff out, I’ve been, you know, calling stuff out and one of the responses that bugs me is this one: “I’m a huge fan of [TV show, toy, company]. I see no problem with this.”

The first time I got a reply like this, I wanted to say well bully for you. Oh, if you don’t have a problem with it, person on the internet, then it must be fine. You’re right and I’m wrong. I’ll shut up now. But I didn’t say that – actually I kind of did, I messaged it to a friend, but I didn’t say it publicly. Publicly I said “I’m also a fan of [this thing] which is why I’m disappointed that they did [this sexist thing] and I want them to do better.”

Questioning or criticising something doesn’t mean you don’t/can’t love it. The West Wing is still one of my favourite TV shows of all time, even though there are quite a few moments in the show that make me wince from a feminist perspective (and one – in my all-time favourite episode, Celestial Navigation, that makes me shout “WTF, Josh?!” every time I watch it).

If you like something does that really mean you have to blindly like every single little thing about it. No matter what? How is that even possible? I mean, I love my husband and kids more than anything, but they do things that annoy me pretty much every day. If I went through life pretending they didn’t, saying “I love them! I have no problem with that! Everything’s fine!” people would worry about me. And rightly so.

Plus if you love something, why wouldn’t you want it to be the best it can be? Why wouldn’t you want the writer/company/whatever to look at what’s upsetting people and address it. Actually, that’s another point – just because you may love something so much that you’ll forgive anything, that doesn’t mean everyone has to. If other people have a problem with something, what use is you denying that? Isn’t it a bit *fingers in ears* “La la! I’m not listening!”

Anyway, I found this brilliant blog post – How to be a fan of problematic things – that explains it much better than me.

Sunny days

Sesame Street- 35th Season Opening ShowSesame Street is pretty much the same age as me. I watched it throughout my childhood and credit it with my obsession with New York. So when my friend Diane bought me the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis for Christmas I was delighted (thanks, Diane!).

Even though I’ve loved Sesame Street for so long that it only recently occurred to me that there’s a person inside Big Bird, I didn’t know much about it. The book has a lot of background on how Sesame Street was thought up and produced and I’m afraid much of this was a bit of a yawn, but then the good bits – the bits about the creation of the characters, the topics addressed on the show, the actors and actors both in and out of the muppet costumes – was just great. But the absolute best thing was it reminded me of just how incredibly progressive the show was.

In the 70s they featured Buffy Sainte-Marie breastfeeding her son. The photo caption in the book said this “was a first for children’s TV”. I would have thought it was an only, never mind a first, but I looked it up on YouTube and found that they did it again (almost word for word) with Maria and her baby  (check out the first comment for a perfect example of just why this is needed). Even having the Native American Buffy Sainte-Marie as a recurring character was revolutionary: “It wasn’t until decades later that Sainte-Marie became aware that during her years on Sesame Street, her name had been listed on White House stationery as someone whose music ‘deserves to be suppressed.'”

The cast was (and remains) mixed – with the creators being particularly keen to show positive black and Latino characters (the show was originally aimed at an “urban” audience). Just to show how ahead of its time it was, a five-member commission voted 3 to 2 to block the show from airing in Mississippi because it was “not yet ready” for a show in which black, Latino and white kids played together.”

Jason Kingsley who has Down’s Syndrome appeared in fifty-five episodes “as his charming, exuberant self“. It wasn’t about him having Down’s, it wasn’t commented on, he was just one of the many children on the show. I remember Jason well and realise now he must have been the first child with Down’s I’d ever seen. The Deaf actress Linda Bove was added as a recurring character in 1979 and I’m pretty sure she was my first experience of sign language (I learned to sing Happy Birthday in sign language thanks to Sesame Street).

Something they did less well was gender equality. They were called out on this by feminists in the 70s, but argued that what they were going for in relation to black and hispanic children was more important. In response to a letter from the National Organisation for Women, who were complaining that Susan was a housewife, Joan Ganz Cooney wrote “I don’t know how useful it is to look at Sesame Street solely through feminist eyes when clearly it is trying to do a number of things for young children… We consider our primary aim of reaching and teaching the disadvantaged child a life and death matter, for education determines whether these disadvantaged youngsters enter the economic mainstream of American life or not.” Why they couldn’t teach disadvantaged children and represent women equally at the same time, she doesn’t explain.

It took the show’s producers a long time to realise all the break-out characters were male and so they created Zoe (I’m not really familiar with Zoe) and then, in 2006, Abby Cadabby. “We wanted a female lead character. If you think about the Mary Tyler Moore Show, some girls relate to Rhoda, who’s our Zoe, and some girls relate to Mary, who’s a girly girl. And we didn’t have that girl.” What I find depressing about that is that the male characters weren’t developed in this way; they were simply allowed to be whole characters. Yes, they have an MO – Elmo is about love, Cookie has his cookie obsession – but they’re not simply archetypes in the way the female characters are (or were – I’ve only seen a bit of Abby Cadabby, but I really like her and think she’s way more than just a girly girl).

I was talking to a friend recently and saying Sesame Street pretty much had everything covered, but then I wondered if they’ve ever had a gay character. I googled and found something I’d forgotten – Bert apparently coming out. I’m not sure about Bert, but this seems positive: “The Los Angeles Times noted: “In its own subtle, perhaps unintentional way, the show’s latest season feels more LGBT-friendly than ever.” It suggested that recent guest appearances by lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, the gay actor Neil Patrick Harris, who played the “shoe fairy”, and Will.i.am, the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas, who sang What I Am, a gay anthem, indicate the direction the American show has been moving in.” I’d prefer to see a gay relationship represented in the cast, but it’s a start.

When I bought a Sesame Street DVD collection a couple of years ago, I was surprised to find that it came with a warning: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” That’s bollocks. They are perfect for today’s preschool child. No, they’re not based on the curriculum, but everything doesn’t have to be about the curriculum, does it? They’re funny (with plenty of jokes for grown-ups, but not the sexist/icky jokes so many modern kids’ films seem to think adults want), clever, inclusive and, frankly, brilliant. If you think I’m exaggerating, just watch the way they dealt with Mr Hooper’s death.

February 2008: Ellen makes me happy

I used to watch Ellen’s sitcom, but then she kind of fell off my radar until fairly recently. Now one of my favourite things is watching her dance at the beginning of her chat show.

But also, I find her incredibly inspiring. For some unholy reason, I feel kind of old and like I’m running out of time to do everything I want to do and I’m only 36. Ellen was 50 earlier this week. 50! I would never have guessed. Not only does she not look it, she’s so youthful in outlook, enthusiastic and joyful (plus, unlike me, she knows new music). She makes me happy.

And she inspires me. You should watch this clip of her stand up show in which she represented her experience of coming out via the medium of interpretive dance, but just in case you don’t want to watch it (busy, are ya?) then at least read this:

When you’re down there there are times you believe you’ll never get up again and it’s a scary place and it’s very dark. But I believe that’s when you grow the most, when you face your fears, that’s when you grow. So I decided I’m going to face every fear I have, I’m going to challenge myself every opportunity I get. People always try to make you feel better, they say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself’. Okay, great, now I’m scared of fear, thank you very much.