I love Saturdays.

Saturday mornings are for all the best things in life. Mornings which don’t start with the alarm clock ringing at 7 am. Long, lazy breakfasts, ideally involving something like blueberry pancakes or hot chocolate. Reading the Saturday papers (so much better than the Sunday papers) and doing the crosswords. Mooching to the shop and buying something frivolous like flowers or cake. Having more cups of tea than is strictly necessary. Listening to the radio while you float around the house, polishing things and thinking about stopping for a ginger biscuit or two, while you contemplate what you might do later on in the afternoon or in the evening - usually something cheering involving going somewhere and seeing friends. And there are the traces of the excited feeling of childhood Saturdays too - the Saturdays which involved things like riding round the village on my bike (a turquoise Raleigh Bianca), penny sweets in a paper bag, ballet classes and going to the bookstall on Chorley market and spending all my pocket money on paperbacks. Most of all, the lovely sense of possibility. After all, it’s still only Saturday morning. There’s still all of Saturday afternoon and evening, not to mention all of Sunday still to come.

Today I am recovering from a super-busy week I am catching up on domestic things (the War of the Green Taps continues), reading the paper, re-reading The Weather in the Streets by Rosamund Lehman, drinking cinnamon tea, knitting and resolutely ignoring the university work I am supposed to be doing. I am listening to a bit of Radio 4 or, when it annoys me (and/or Any Answers? is on) Radio 3. I am looking forward to going round to my friends’ house for dinner later on.

And in between all of that, I’m just doing absolutely nothing. Except maybe breathing. And sipping my tea. And watching the birds out of the window. It’s very, very good.

monday inspirations: nick knight for uk vogue

I love Nick Knight's amazing editorials for UK Vogue, especially this quirky 1940s-inspired shoot from the March edition: "Chocks Away." The lighting, colours and compositions are beautiful, and Lily Donaldson makes the perfect contemporary re-imagining of a classic 40s pin-up/wartime heroine.

Knight has also been responsible for some of Vogue's most adventurous and innovative editorials in the past, including the "Unbelievable Fashion" feature in the December 2008 issue. The photographer has developed a reputation for pushing boundaries - whether technical, artistic, or in terms of posing a challenge to the fashion industry by questioning conventional ideals of beauty. As well as working on stories for Vogue, Knight has worked for everyone from Yohji Yamamoto to Louis Vuitton, Vivienne Westwood to Christian Dior, as well as shooting record covers for David Bowie, Paul Weller and Massive Attack.

These beautiful images have certainly brightened up my Monday - maybe tomorrow I'll look out a red lipstick! I have to admit though that it's not been an entirely "bright and shiny" "happy clappy" sort of a Monday. I'm feeling very tired today and a bit grumpy; I have spent more time than seemed strictly necessary on a train; one of my blog 'followers' seems to have absconded (was it something I said?); and yet again my house has failed to self-clean and tidy itself when I haven't been in it. However I have been (semi-)cheered by: most unusually, being able to go back to bed with a cup of tea, albeit briefly, on a Monday morning; the smell of fresh white paint; lovely images on the LOLITA blog; dark chocolate ginger biscuits from M&S; finishing the crossword; and my brand new Converse shoes.

Phew. A few good things anyway. And maybe Tuesday will be better. How have your Mondays been?

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!

bashful blogging: a monologue

Every now and again, this blog has a bashful moment. Something happens out of the blue that suddenly makes it go shy and self-conscious and quiet. Usually it happens when I meet up with (or bump into) someone I haven’t seen for a while, and they say “ooh, I was reading your blog the other day, and...” or perhaps “my brother was reading your blog, and he said...” Or it could be that I’m at work, and I go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and one of my colleagues wanders in, and says “hey, I was just looking at your blog and...” or someone starts referring to “Katherine’s blog” in a meeting and I turn the approximate colour of a very ripe tomato.

The common factor in all of these situations is that suddenly (painfully) I am forced to confront the truth that when I write things here, they don’t just disappear into a lovely invisible void. They are actually out there, public, available for anyone and everyone to read. I think the weird thing about anything you do online is that in spite of the web being possibly one of the most public spheres that has ever existed, it has a way of tricking you into thinking that what you’re doing is completely private - or at least, relatively intimate. Sometimes I feel that writing here is not so different to writing in a personal diary - I’m just happily chuntering away to myself, not really expecting anyone to be listening. Or other times, I feel that I’m talking directly to just one or two imagined “kindred spirits” (see L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables) who are always sympathetic and never critical, and to whom words like “self-indulgent” or “trite” are utterly unknown. At the very most, I feel I am writing to a very small audience of people I have never met, and am never likely to meet, who don’t me and who in any case probably live in, like, a whole other country.

Actually, of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Writing a blog is nothing like whispering into a sympathetic ear: in fact, it often feels more akin to standing up in front of a room full of people, including everyone you’ve ever met, and repeatedly shrieking “look at me!” Which if you do know me, or if you’ve ever read about my thoughts on stuff like this, you’ll be aware is possibly the Last Thing On Earth I Would Ever Do.

It’s easy to forget that though, when you’re sitting cozily in your room, by yourself, in your pyjamas, just happily wittering away, much like I am doing right now. After all, there’s rarely an instant audience reaction - no applause, no chorus of boos. And so you forget that there’s a real audience out there, which inevitably consists of both the loyal front-row seaters, who turn up to every show without fail, and those sitting at the back, rustling their programmes a bit impatiently and sighing and looking at their watches and wondering when it will be time for the interval so they can go and get an ice-cream or have a cigarette. (Or maybe even people like the man I remember seeing once when I was about 15 and was at the theatre, watching a double-bill of Tom Stoppard plays, who nodded off as soon as the lights went down and slept solidly, complete with quite audible, entirely unembarrassed snoring, through the whole show.)

Maybe that’s one advantage of blogging though. It does force you to be a bit braver about getting up there and saying something - anything - and I am basing this on the assumption that saying something is always better than saying nothing at all. But every now and again, when you remember where you are, you can’t help getting a little stage fright, especially when the spotlight is not exactly your natural habitat. So don’t be surprised if every now and again I have a ‘bashful blogging’ moment. If I go quiet for a few days - even a week or two- you can guarantee I’ll soon forget where I am and be back to my usual meandering self.

[exeunt stage right]

monday inspirations: charley harper

It's Monday again... and Monday is the time for brightly-coloured, cheering things, especially when it's February and toes are cold, and spring still feels an unfeasibly long time away.

Today, I am admiring these beautiful illustrations by artist Charley Harper. Inspired by the simplicity of Inuit art and movements like Cubism and Minimalism, as well as the mathematics, geometry and physics, Harper developed a style he termed "minimal realism" which aimed to capture the elements of his subjects (usually animals and birds), reducing them to a series of simple visual elements such as shapes, patterns and colours. Working in direct opposition to conventional "superrealistic" illustrations of nature and wildlife, he characterised his unique approach as follows:

When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming or unutilized parts; and herein lies the lure of painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe.

I am currently coveting this fabulous (and enormous) monograph of Harper's work, entitled Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, which brings together images from all five decades of his career - however with an RRP of £99.95 I think it's going to have to stay on the wish list only!

Other things that have cheered up my Monday include: the first spring daffodils; blueberries and strawberries in my fruit salad; fleeting moments of sunshine; my growing addiction to we heart it; button earrings and black satin bows; soya hot chocolate as a mid-morning treat; the excellent Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl; and the prospect of maybe checking out this when I go down to London later this week.

What has brightened up your Monday?

subversive spaces

On Friday night, I went along to the opening of the new Subversive Spaces exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery. I’m not sure whether it was the opening speech from Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota, the free bubbly and chocolate cakes (decorated with appropriately surreal slogans) or the work itself that was drawing the crowds, but whatever the reason, it was great to see a preview as busy and lively as this one. Unfortunately though, it did become a little difficult to get a really good look at the exhibition, so I’ll have to go back another time. I also want to venture into the (by all accounts, very spooky) installation by Gregor Schneider: specially commissioned for this exhibition, Kinderzimmer is a replica of a child’s nursery from Garzweiler, a German town which was destroyed as part of a massive open-cast mining operation, becoming “a double of a space that no longer exists... a strange repository for real past lives lived in identical spaces.”

Curated by Anna Dezeuze and David Lomas, Subversive Spaces: Surrealism & Contemporary Art is the result of a collaboration between the AHRC Research Centre for the Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies, and The Whitworth Art Gallery. This ambitious exhibition sets out to explore the legacy of the Surrealist project, bringing together work by artists such as Dali, Magritte, Ernst and Atet, and setting it alongside works by contemporary artists exploring similar territories. The exhibition is organised into two distinct spaces: Psychic Interiors investigates and destabilises the domestic space of the home, exploring themes such as female hysteria, anxiety, claustrophobia and the unheimlich; whilst Wandering the City follows the Surrealist’s interest in exploring the city streets to discover hidden social spaces and the secret territories where our unconscious fears and desires reside. These locations, both private and public, personal and social, are the “subversive spaces” of the exhibition title - the familiar, everyday places that the Surrealists attempted to disturb and reconfigure, exposing the hidden narratives at work within the spaces we inhabit.

Ambitious it may be, but from what I have seen of this exhibition so far, it certainly delivers a lot. Whilst some of the connections made between historical and contemporary works were undoubtedly more interesting and revealing than others, the exhibition is beautifully presented and very well thought through: exploring the twisty network of rooms and passages is itself an appropriately destabilising and disturbing experience. Of the contemporary works, some highlights for me were Lucy Gunning’s strangely atmospheric video of a woman in a red dress crawling around the walls of the room without touching the floor (pictured above) evoking the archetype of female psychic disturbance (Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper particularly came to mind) whilst simultaneously re-visioning children’s games. Robert Gober’s unexpected sculpture of a very realistic male leg apparently emerging from a wall was pleasingly unsettling, as were some satisfyingly unheimlich works by Tony Ousler, Sarah Lucas and Tacita Dean, whilst Katie Houlten’s crotchet wall-patterns, Francis Alys’s Railings and William Anastasi’s Subway Drawings represented playful attempts to map the apparently random and ephemeral traces of urban life. It was also interesting to get close to some classic works including original illustrations for André Breton’s Surrealist novel Nadja, Ralph Rumney’s 1958 "study" of his wanderings in Venice and Guy Debord’s psychogeographic "map" of Paris. Overall, this exhibition is an interesting assemblage of a variety of work related to the Surrealist movement and its themes: whilst the connection with some of the contemporary works occasionally feels a little tenuous, overall it makes a compelling case for the continuing relevance of the Surrealist project in all its complexities, emphasising the revolutionary intent at the movement’s heart.

Subversive Spaces is showing until 4 May, and there's also an accompanying conference taking place next Friday and Saturday which I'd love to go along to if I can make it. You can read some other responses to the show here and here and also here there's a flickr set of work from the show here.


I am always intrigued by the google searches that bring people here. Here's some recent ones:

bad for bunnies
about being slow
yellow things
the best moods
disaster owl knitted hot water bottle
sculpture of pineapple by the road
tra la la lingerie
bunnies are the best
red shoes perfect for yellow party dress
when is paraphenalia good?
best things about brick
enchanted shoes stuck on her feet

So pleasingly random, and also strangely inspiring - I feel I'd like to write a story featuring enchanted yellow party dresses, slow but cheerful bunnies, disastrous owls, musical underwear and pineapple sculptures.

In other news, follow the yellow brick road has ventured into uncharted waters - the somewhat baffling world of twitter. I'm still not really sure I get it, but I'm working on it (I mean, if Russell Brand and Fearne Cotton can manage it, I'm sure I can). For twittering, tweeting and other general bird-type noises, find and befriend me here.

Any expert twitterers out there with any tips/insights to share?

monday inspirations: rene gruau

Monday is a day to look at pretty things... especially when you're still full of illness and have very cold toes and need something colourful to brighten up your day.

Today I'm loving these fabulous illustrations by Rene Gruau, which capture so perfectly the spirit of late 1940s and early 1950s fashion and design, evoking all the glamour and elegance of the post-war "New Look". Famously self-taught, Gruau took inspiration from diverse sources, looking to art nouveau, traditional Japanese prints, and the work of artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec to develop his distinctive graphic style and colour palette. Today, he is probably best remembered for his fashion illustrations for Dior, which epitomise Parisian chic: Dior first commissioned him back in 1947 for the launch of the Miss Dior fragrance. However, he also worked for a range of other "grands couturiers" including Pierrre Balamin, Marcel Rochas and Givenchy, illustrated for magazines including Harper's, Vogue and Elle and designed posters for Paris institutions such as the Lido and the Moulin Rouge cabarets, as well as iconic French brands including Cinzano, Martini and Air France.

Other things which have cheered up my Monday include: perfect orange tulips; leopard print socks; a new blog find, little brown pen; dairy-free chocolate brownies; and of course, watching the snow fall - the view from my window has been transformed into a white fairytale world. (So much better of course when you don't have to go anywhere and can sit at home under the blanket, listening to reports of snow related chaos on Radio 4)

What has brightened up your Monday?