Friday, 27 March 2015

Books for Children: In praise of Judith Kerr

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
I've always loved Judith Kerr, the writer of the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came to Tea. As a child I loved those books, for the artworks as much as the brilliantly intriguing stories. (Mog goes out in the garden and thinks "dark thoughts" because she's forgotten that she has been fed. What a complex idea for a children's book, and so memorable).

Recently I heard Kerr being interviewed on Radio 4 about her memoir, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and I decided to read the book to the boys. It's an autobiographical story about how she, her brother and her Jewish parents fled Germany just before the Nazis came to power, travelling first to Switzerland, then Paris and finally London, where the family ended up.

I remembered enjoying the book as a child, and I also thought it would be a good way to introduce the thorny topic of Hitler and the Holocaust into conversation (a tricky subject with boys, who I find are simultaneously fascinated by this kind of thing and also liable to be traumatized). It is; because although there is a hidden menace behind much of what is happening in the book, it's also an everyday story of a family.

On some nights the boys were laughing out loud at passages in the book (such as when Grandma and her annoying dachsund, Pumpel, come to stay); on other nights they were scared (such as when the family are escaping from Germany on the train and having their passports checked) and on other nights we were all angry or sad (such as when the family meets some other Germans who shun them because they are Jewish).

It's stimulated some amazing bedtime conversations, from what to do if you buy something and it doesn't work (there's an episode in the book where Papa is sold a dud sewing machine), to why Hitler was such an evil man.

The boys, from having initially been reluctant to read this book (they're obsessed with Percy Jackson at the moment and wanted another installment), ended up loving it and asking me if there was more about Anna and her family. I said no, but I've just been on Amazon and found to my delight that there are two more autobiographical books by Kerr, Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away. They sound more grown up, so I'm going to read them first myself before I try them on the boys, but I think she's a hugely under-rated writer so I'm looking forward to reading them myself.

One of the quotes stuck out from the final chapter last night - it's from when Anna is reflecting on whether having moved countries so many times means she has had a "difficult childhood.'

 Sometimes it had been difficult -- but it had also been interesting and often funny. And as long as she and Mama and Papa and Max were together, she could never have a difficult childhood.

I think all of us current and former expats can reflect on that one.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Do US audiences really not "get" Brits?

Downton Abbey: Americans love it
I was reading Mail Online today ( a dirty habit I know - I do hate most of it, but I occasionally can't resist the temptation to find out who's dating who in the celeb world) and came across an article about the fact that actor James Corden (The History Boys, Gavin and Stacey etc) is about to start presenting the Late, Late Show in the US and Hollywood bigwigs are worried that Americans "won't get him."

In typical Mail style it seems trying to set him up for a fall and I was particularly amused/irritated by this paragraph.

 During the rehearsals Cordon's use of language has been criticised as U.S. audiences are far more sensitive to swearing compared with those in Britain. Also Americans do not understand words such as 'knackered' which describes somebody who is excessively tired. 
Also, British references to drunkeness will prove difficult to U.S. audiences, who do not understand terms such as 'half-cut' or 'bladdered'.

Yes, we all know that the UK and Brits are divided by a common language - goodness knows, I surprised some of my American friends a few times during my stint in New York. (A particular example comes to mind -- when I asked a woman at a party whether her children had had the "lurgy" yet. She looked horrified.)

But honestly, this patronises both American audiences and Corden, who I am sure is a clever bloke and knows exactly what he's doing. And what about all the American shows that U.K. audiences watch? Yes, we might not understand all the references on The Daily Show or even an "easy" sitcom like Friends, but isn't that what's nice about watching something from another country? You learn something. You go and look something up. 

Americans have embraced always British actors with open arms -- see Eddie Redmayne et al at this year's Oscars. They love Downton Abbey -- and I'm sure they don't understand all the references there. They love our shows and steal the ideas (The Office, House of Cards ). As for TV hosts - well, the Daily Show's John Oliver is a Brit, and although Piers Morgan got sacked from CNN the end, in the beginning he was quite popular, I seem to recall.

If Corden fails, I don't think it will be because he's British. It won't even be because he's bad. It'll be because US TV is so ruthless that if something doesn't get massive ratings in the first few weeks, they pull it. 

I hope he's a roaring success.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Super women, and mini men

I've never been one of those women who's not sure if she's a feminist. To paraphrase Caitlin Moran  in her brilliant "How to be a Woman", what woman in her right mind wouldn't be in favour of equality for women?

I always felt quite passionately about women's rights. I remember reading a book as a child (sadly  I can't recall its name) about a girl who wanted to be a suffragette, and being outraged to discover that women hadn't been able to vote until quite recently. I also clearly remember reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged about 11, hearing all about Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir (if you remember, Adrian's mother was going through a militantly feminist phase), and being intrigued by the idea of feminism. Later on, I would write a University dissertation on the novels of Margaret Atwood, looking particularly at feminist symbolism, and my first published article, while still a student, was about the graduates and the "glass ceiling."

In relationships, I always advocated equality: at my wedding, I was absolutely insistent that I should make a speech, not because I love public speaking (I don't) but because I had this gut feeling that weddings were terribly patriarchal and it would be a travesty not to.

I haven't experienced much overt sexism in my career -- unlike, say, the City, the media is full of women -- but, like all working mothers, I've faced issues since having kids; the cost of childcare, the hours, the "is it worth working at all?" moments, the guilt. I've seen mediocre men rise to senior positions just by virtue of being there all the time.

So I jumped at the invitation to attend an industry conference, last week, aimed at inspiring senior women in the advertising industry to fulfil their potential. I was there to report on the day and also to speak (on a panel about dealing with the media) but what I loved about it was the chance to hear some really inspirational women speaking about their careers and lives. The speakers included Jo Swinson, the junior minister for Women (she was also at BritMums and is one of the few politicians I genuinely admire), Emma Freud and the Paralympian Karen Darke, as well as senior women from the ad industry who shared their stories.

One of the sessions was on working after kids, and I noticed that many of the younger women who were thinking about starting a family seemed anxious -- that they wouldn't be able to manage, that they didn't see many working mothers who were managing well, that there weren't any good role models. And I do think we have a long way to go in this country. We need more shared responsibilities between men and women, more shared maternity/paternity leave, more flexible working arrangements from employers. Working women still do the majority of looking after the children -- and that can be true even if you have a helpful, supportive partner. We are far, far, far from real equality.

As a mother of boys, I don't have daughters to worry about but I think I can help to shape the next generation. My boys are going to learn to cook, clear up, do the laundry, and all of that (at some point) but even more important, they are going to have it drummed into them that women are absolutely equal to men.

We've read a lot of 19th century books recently (like The Secret Garden, and the Little House on the Prairie series) and I've explained to the boys that while the little girls in these stories had to behave in a certain way, this is not how we think of girls and women now. 1950s books like The Secret Seven, and the Famous Five are just as bad -- the girls have to be good and nice, while the boys get all the adventures. I've told them very clearly that this is wrong and unfair, and only how things used to be.

But I think we still have to be careful. Even in books like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, the girls are still the sidekicks to the main event. I don't want them getting ideas ingrained about women somehow being inferior or the weaker sex. I want strong female role models for my boys -- and if I can't find that book about the suffragette girl, then gosh I might just write one.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Social secretary

Since moving back to the UK almost (gulp) 18 months ago now, my social calendar has taken something of a dive.

I've seen old friends, of course -- although many of the friends who have kids (nearly everyone) have moved out of London in the past few years. And what with working five days a week and then dealing with sons who have increasing amounts of homework, "playdate" type stuff has had to be restricted to half terms and holidays.

I tried quite hard with the school gate mums the first year back, but it seemed to be quite difficult to penetrate the layers of existing friendships between women who had got to know each other when their children were young, and who didn't particularly want a new mate to chat to on the school run. And I definitely missed the close community that I experienced in the US, where -- knowing no-one -- I'd made a huge effort to get to make friends. Although I'm not a huge party animal (I'm quite happy to sit at home watching Gogglebox on a Friday night),  I am someone that needs people, and a chance to put on a nice outfit and go out occasionally.

Which is why this year I plunged in at the deep end when it came to school stuff, signing up as class rep (something I said I would never, ever do). I've never been the social secretary type - I'm quite happy to volunteer for things and help out, but usually on the sidelines and not running the committee. Organizing events tends to fill me with horror - not because I'm disorganized, but I can't just chill out about things not coming together, which I presume is a prerequisite for being a cool-headed events person.

But I have to say, it's been a surprisingly good move. I've palled up with a very nice fellow mum who's doing it with me (and is also new to the school, and back in London after a spell living abroad). I've got to know all the parents in the class, via various occasions, and even felt confident enough to suggest starting a book club - something I've missed every since we left America. There was an enthusiastic take-up, and our first meeting is next week.  There's also a quiz night coming up and a summer party, both of which I'm sorting out tables for.

I'm sure The Doctor thinks there are an unnecessary number of school engagements in the calendar. But what I think he (and most husbands) doesn't realise is that, if you're at home all day -- even working from home -- you do need some social interaction other than talking to your children about their day and nagging them to do their homework. I look forward to my two or three work meetings a week, but, unless it's someone I've known for years, I'm always on guard and in "totally professional" mode. (Although occasionally, if I find a work contact is pregnant and/or has children, I have a tendency to gabble about various aspects of motherhood. Embarrassing).

So I think my role as social secretary will hopefully pay off -- it's either that or join the local Amdram club......

Monday, 9 February 2015

Bearded at the BAFTAs

Ralph Fiennes: surely better without it?
Is there no end to the trend for facial hair at the moment?

In my line of work, there are plenty of "hipsters" -- so I get to see a lot of big, bushy beards. Advertising creatives are among those where the trend first started, and many's the time I've been told to look out for someone in a cafe or restaurant with the information: "Carlo/Nick/Andy has a really massive beard." Which isn't really that helpful when you're in Shoreditch House.

However, the hipster trend has now become mainstream -- The Doctor tells me that many of the junior doctors at work now have beards, something that would have been incredibly unusual when he was at the equivalent age. (I don't think many city types are bearded, but I bet there's the odd goatee, and stubble on the weekend, even among this crew).

But watching the BAFTAs last night it occurred to me -- all the good-looking actors and celebrities are now bearded too.

David Beckham's had one for a while now, but I also spotted beards on Ralph Fiennes, Steve Carrell, Ethan Hawke and Best Newcomer actor Jack O'Connell, and various other good-looking actors who I didn't even recognize because their chins were covered in hair.

Now, I'm not beard-ist. Some men suit beards, it's true. (I can't really imagine Mike Leigh without one, for instance).

But in my opinion, all of the above would look better without them. So come on, enough is enough. Shave it off! Leave beards to artists, Santa Claus and English teachers (like when I was growing up). It's high time chins made a comeback. I'd even give them a BAFTA fellowship.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Resident Aliens

Waiting in line -- a New York tradition
A girl from work, who's based in New York, is over in London for a time and has been complaining about the woes of being an alien. She's not American, and has lived all over the world so I was therefore surprised to hear her take on landing in London.

She writes in an email: " I'd forgotten how bureaucratic everything is in Europe... so lots of queues and lots of appointments to get the basics took almost an entire week (and a fair amount of sweet-talking) just to open a bank account and get a new phone number!"

I had to laugh, because this was exactly our experience in America, and we spent the whole time complaining about how bureaucratic Americans were. 

It was impossible to do anything until one had a social security number -- which didn't arrive immediately, despite us registering with the social security office on our very first day in New York. So everything we needed to get set up -- renting a house, registering with utility companies, getting a bank account sorted -- was virtually impossible, despite the fact that we had visas and documentation saying that The Doctor was employed by a hospital there.

Buying a car was similarly nightmarish. We'd agreed to buy one off someone we knew who was leaving the US -- however, we weren't allowed to drive it without car insurance, and we couldn't get any car insurance until one of us had a New York driver's licence. We ended up renting the car off the friend for three months while we went through the process of registering for, and then taking, the NY driving test.

One of the most frustrating things was not being able to get an American credit card for over a year, because we had no credit history in the US. This was necessary, not because we buy things on credit, but because ordering things online in the US is virtually impossible without one. My British credit cards just didn't work, because they didn't have a zip code - and I had to get a friend to help with simple things like paying for children's swimming lessons online.

Given that credit checking companies are global, you'd think they could share some data (and it might even benefit them - after all, people with bad credit histories can start from scratch in a new country under the current system.

Coming back was similarly frustrating -- with four years away, we had lost all our car insurance history, and were forced to start again paying premiums for new drivers, despite having driven for twenty years.

As the world becomes more global, there must be a simpler way of making the transition process easier. Surely the time is ripe for someone to invent one, and tear through some of this unnecessary bureaucracy? 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

This (Mama's) Life

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

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

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

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

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

So it seems the acting world is just like any other profession. As I was discussing with a friend and ex-colleague the other day, all the brilliant women I've worked with are doing just OK, whereas almost all the men have risen, almost effortlessly, to top jobs just by virtue of being there all the time. (There is light at the end of the tunnel in journalism, though -- the Economist has just appointed its first female editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, and there are rumours the Guardian will do likewise).

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