Sunday, 26 April 2015

How to upgrade your iPhone (if you're clueless)

1. Eke out the usefulness of your iPhone 4, bought almost five years ago in the US, until emails take about ten minutes to load, apps randomly crash on you and the battery mysteriously dies several times, requiring emergency resuscitation on several occasions.

2. When you can hold out no longer, make trip to the Apple Store, having carefully backed up your phone and taken all the photos off).

3. Get to Apple Store, having parked 20 minutes walk away. Don't bother with any browsing. You're not here to have fun (unlike the kids who are straight on the iPads). Home in straight on the one you want ( a "normal" iPhone 6) and commander an Apple geek to help you buy it.

4. Go to get out your old phone, to find it's still in the car. You were using Google Maps on the way and left it sitting in the front seat.

5. Worry that you won't be able to swap all your information onto the new phone. Husband, and Apple geek, assure you this is not a problem.

6. Get to the swapping stage, where another Apple geek informs you that actually, you do need the phone, as they need to send you a text.

7. Husband is dispatched back to the car, while you make small talk with Apple geek and try to sound knowledgable about iPhones. Nod as if you understand everything he is saying.

8. Husband is back, looking sweaty, with phone, and the swap is successful. However, Husband advises you not to buy iPhone case from Apple Store as it is "a rip off". Compared to price of iPhone, cost of case seems trifling but you concur.

9. Tramp around shopping mall looking for a nice iPhone 6 case. Fail to find one; cases are either all for other sizes of iPhone, or they feature One Direction.

10. Go to dodgy looking, "off the back of a lorry" mobile shop in the nearby high street. Choose cheap, serviceable case, but are persuaded to spent ten pounds on a clear plastic cover for the screen. Total cost is almost as much as Apple case. Plastic cover turns out to be impossible to use without smearing.

11. Finally use new phone. Feel actually astounded at what apps are like five years on - and what's more, now, Google Maps doesn't show the traffic jam on the wrong side of the road. You are like a new woman. Who knew?

Monday, 13 April 2015

A tourist's eye view of London

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace
Last week, we were tourists in our own city.

Our German friends from Long Island days came to stay, and as, they had barely visited London before, I decided to take them on a really Grand Tour. They'd sent me a list of things they wanted to see which included: the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard, Big Ben, Hamleys, the London Eye, Carnaby Street and (bizarrely I thought) Queen's Park.

Well, we managed to see all of these in three busy days (except Queen's Park, which it turns out my friend had read about on a blog. We decided our local Crystal Palace Park was just as good if not better). Amazingly, the best weather of the year descended as if from nowhere and we had three days of brilliant, warm sunshine that made it feel like summer.

On the first day, we started at Buckingham Palace. I'd never seen the Changing of the Guard, and to be honest, the huge numbers of tourists with selfie sticks made this rather difficult to see, but see it we did and even the children, who had been grumbling at the wait for the action to begin, were enthralled with the parade. The best bit? The band played the Star Wars theme. Perfect for three small boys.

Walking down to Westminster
After this we picnicked on hot dogs in St James's Park (luckily for us we had three little New Yorkers in tow) and wandered down to Westminster Abbey, where we walked round the cloisters for free (go in the back way and you can do this) and peered through an archway at the school where The Doctor was educated.

Then, we caught a Thames Clipper from Embankment Pier to Tower Bridge - again, something I've never done, and well worth the albeit short trip. You do get a different perspective on London from the river. At the Tower, we wandered around the outside, avoiding the queues for the Crown Jewels but taking in the forbidding stone walls and the Traitor's Gate while imagining the memories that grim building must hold.

Sunset at the Oxo Tower Brasserie
Day 2 started with a trip to see the stone dinosaurs in our beloved local park, then a bus ride all the way into the West End - more familiar territory for me. We got off in Regent Street and did a quick tour of Hamley's, the boys all acquiring new Hexbugs which kept them happy for hours afterwards. Then it was on to Carnaby Street for a coffee, before a stroll through Soho and Chinatown to Covent Garden where we watched a street performer sitting on the sun-warmed cobblestones of the piazza. From there we walked to the Oxo Tower Brasserie where we'd booked a table for dinner. It being so warm, we were seated outside on the balcony and caught the most incredible London sunset.

View from the Emirates cable car
Day 3 started with rain but then cleared up and was fine once again for our ride on the Emirates Airline cable car, from Royal Victoria Docks to Greenwich Peninsula. This again was a first for me and is really worthwhile, affording great views over London and the river. From there it was on to Greenwich Park and the National Maritime Museum. The boys played in the kids' section while we learned about Nelson and Trafalgar, then it was up the hill to the Royal Observatory, for more fabulous views from a different angle, and a peek at the Greenwich Meridian line.

All in all I think our friends loved London; what I noticed was they constantly remarked on how green it is, how full of parks and trees, and on the contrast between the old and new -- for example the Tower of London juxtaposed to the Shard and the other modern skyscrapers of the City. Interestingly, they also felt that in comparison to New York, which can feel a little crumbling at times, our infrastructure and skyline seemed a lot more modern and up to date. Sometimes you have to step outside your own shoes to make such observations.

Seeing it through their eyes brought home to me that we do truly live in one of the world's great cities. Other places may sound exotic, but to a foreigner, London is an incredible place, rich in history, beauty, culture, colour and interest. Now, if only we could order that sunshine for 52 weeks a year.....

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.