Thursday, 21 September 2017

Book Review: The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington


Hello you, how's things?

If you're looking for something new to read, Christmas gift for a book lover, particularly if they're a young adult with a fondness for fashion - then don't budge until you've had a look at The Red Ribbon:

What is The Red Ribbon?
The Red Ribbon, is a young adult novel set in a WW2 concentration camp, and is the first novel by fashion historian Lucy Adlington. 

If you’ve been with me here, or on Instagram, for a while you’ll have heard me mention Lucy before as I've attended several of the fashion history presentations she delivers through her company The History Wardrobe. All of the talks I've seen, such as Great War Fashion, Gothic for Girls, Fairytale Fashion and Jolly Hockeysticks, have shone a light on the role clothing has played in women’s history, and they've each used the politics and practicalities of costume to explore larger ideas about women's role in society. (I always attend these events with my Mam and sister and – it's like my sister says – we go in thinking we’re just going to look at clothes … and come out with our militant feminism nicely burnished!)

And, unsurprisingly, with The Red Ribbon Lucy Adlington continues in exploring those same themes, this time inspired by the dressmakers of Auschwitz. While there may be some slightly fairytale-esque elements to the narrative - the idea that there was a sewing workshop inside a concentration camp - is not one of them. It's is based on true - if little known - historical events, because, yes, even in the darkest of man-made places there was silk, and satin, and ribbon. And it's there that Ella - the heroine of Adlington's story - learns that being chosen to serve the fashion whims of the wives of SS officers is one way to survive.

How does The Red Ribbon handle the infinitely dark setting of the story?
Well, I'd say Adlington handles it carefully, respectfully and at a (I'm guessing) deliberate remove.

The book is published under the Young Adult category, therefore - while never white-washing any of the brutal realities - this is, understandably, not a story about the darkest moments. I would say it's aim is to educate younger readers about the atrocities, but in a safe space, a self-contained narrative, with a feisty teenage leading character alongside them every step of the way.

As a 41 year old perhaps I'm not the ideal reader, yet I still found much to enjoy here, with a story that - like the rest of Adlington's work - is compelling, illuminating, ... and female.


How is the book structured? 
The narrative focuses on Ella's experiences of the camp:

  • her recruitment to the sewing room, 
  • her progress and attitude towards dressmaking for their captors, 
  • and on towards well ... that would be a spoiler wouldn't it? Perhaps I'll leave you to find out the rest for yourself ... 

The blurb on the preview copy puts it in the same category as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Diary of Anne Frank, but - not having read either of  those - it put me in mind of two other Holocaust-related narratives: Primo Levi's The Periodic Table and Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes.
  • In The Periodic Table Levi tells different stories about his life, including surviving the Holocaust, using elements from the Periodic Table as building blocks to connect together his life experiences, with each of the stories in the book taking the name of an element.
  • Similarly Adlington colour-codes each of the book's sections, Green, Yellow, Red, Grey, White and Pink, with each colour describing not only Ella's current dress-making project , but also the colour of the life around the camp.
  • The colours, plus the focus on the dressmaking itself - rather than the entire history of the concentration camps - is a well thought out method of approaching the subject matter. 
  • It takes what is vast, unfathomable and beyond general comprehension - and zooms in, and in, an still further, until we don't need to try to understand the incomprehensible, we just need to pay attention to this one single aspect. It's in absorbing the details that we can appreciate the wider picture.

As for the Edmund de Waal similarity: 
  • like in The Hare With Amber Eyes - which tells the Holocaust through the experiences of members of author's family - The Red Ribbon gives us someone (albeit a fictional someone based on various true accounts) to relate to within a story usually told in terms of millions
  • We get to know an individual. 
  • And, in this case, it's an individual who loves fashion magazines, who resents authority figures, who hopes her grandparents are OK, who feels the excitement of a new friendship. 

And - if current and future generations are to continue to heed lessons from the Holocaust - stories such as this, which personalise the past, are always going to be valuable.

So how is it 'fairytale-esque' then? 
Well - despite being at the centre of one of the defining events of the 20th Century - Ella's world is very small, and, in the heightened conditions of life in the camp she's very much a fairytale heroine, a kind of Cinderella trying to find a way out of her restrictive lifestyle. 

Furthermore the writing style is, at times, almost fable-like in its choice of language. 
  • For example Ella talks of being on 'a List', and how the List is why some people end up in the camp while others don't. Yet, as a child, she doesn't have a full explanation as to what's happening, it's all experienced as rather mythical and story-like.  

But, really, who would know exactly what was happening? 
  • We look back on that time with hindsight, with documents, photographs, films made which reveal the scale of the atrocities; 
  • we now know the terminology, the details, the locations, the numbers. 
  • But if we were there, if we were like Ella - stripped of everything and fighting - or dressmaking - for our lives - how much would we really know about what was going on? How could we know? 

The device of the naive narrator who gradually begins to realise what's happening will likely impact younger readers who may not themselves entirely understand that period of history. And as not everything is clearly spelled out from the offset, they may be drawn into Ella's story without fully appreciating which story it is she's telling. Once they're involved, once they care about Ella, the story then gradually begins to unfold the genuine horrors, but with care.

Who is this book for?
  • Anyone (like me) who likes learning about history through fiction. The idea that there were dressmakers of Auschwitz is a grotesquely fascinating one, and is worth learning about whether through non-fictional accounts, or stories such as The Red Ribbon.
  • Anyone who likes 'a good story'. One they can get absorbed into and want to follow through to find out what happens at the end. 
  • A young adult with a passion for self-expression through fashion. The book (and indeed Adlington's work with The History Wardrobe in general) has a lot to say about the dismissive attitude that 'it's just clothes ... it's not important.' Because the fact that people made space for dressmaking inside a living hell proves that the social messages we tell through them mean they're absolutely not 'just clothes'.  
  • And anyone looking for a refreshing take on inclusion. I'm pretty sure that it's not just my interpretation, and that there was a (very) subtle nod to same-sex attraction within the narrative. I won't spoil it for anyone, but I'm pretty sure there was a frisson, a spark which wasn't made out to be a huge deal, was not overly laboured as a defining issue but was just a light touch, fresh, natural, and simply there as a part of the story. 

The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington is published by Hot Key Books (on September 21st 2017).

What do reckon then? Can you think of someone who'd enjoy The Red Ribbon?
  • Does it help you cross off a name from your Christmas gift list?
  • Or does it give you a title to add to your own Christmas Wish List?!
  • Does it remind you of something you think we all need to add to our reading lists?
  • Does it make you want to find out more about the real stories which inspired the novel?
Let me know in the comments or via any of my online homes: Instagram * Twitter Facebook * Website

And you can catch up with Lucy Adlington via the History Wardrobe Facebook page or on Twitter @historywardrobe #theredribbon
Happy reading! Speak soon.

Julie


Disclosure: I was sent a copy of The Red Ribbon in return for a review.  When I saw that Lucy's publishers were seeking reviewers I put my name forward, as being familiar with her work already (through her presentations and her non-fiction book about Great War Fashion) it seemed an ideal fit. I've not been asked to discuss or link to anything in particular.All of the words are my own (well, I didn't invent them, but I did arrange them in the order I wanted, to say the things I wanted to say!)

Thursday, 14 September 2017

How having anxiety is like having a funfair goldfish thrust upon you ... and other stories.


Hello you, can we have a  chat about anxiety? Yours, mine, anyone’s.

And can we help those who’ve never experienced anxiety to understand it a little better by explaining to them how having anxiety can be like being given a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag?

Content notice: Discussion of people with anxiety and how some people struggle to support them. Also contains some swearing (because, when you’re writing about real things … you might as well be real about it). 

So, if you’re up for that chat … read on …


Next month (Oct 2017) I’m going to be co-hosting a workshop, with the mental health charity Mind, in which we’ll introduce people to the idea of blogging for, and about, mental health. And, while I don’t consider myself a #mentalhealthblogger as such, I don’t shy away from sharing my wobbles through life. 

And while sharing can’t necessarily prevent wobbles, it’s good to know there are other wobblers around. They give us something to grab on to, and even if we feel ungainly and awkward while grabbing, at least the reaching out keeps us from hitting the floor. 

And the only way to learn that there are other people experiencing these things is for one of them to talk about it; and today it’s my turn. If you need to grab on right now, this post is for you.

So, yes, anxiety.

For the record: I don’t have a current medical diagnosis of anxiety. I have had in the past and, these days, while anxiety relating to my phobia is frequent, the more generalised anxious episodes I'm talking about today are thankfully few and far between.

However ... this summer I experienced something which gave me a slight anxiety attack. Afterwards, when it crossed my mind to blog about the event, it really made me stop and think about how we talk about anxiety, how we emphasise battling through it, getting over it, feeling the fear and doing it anyway, which - to me - doesn't feel like always the best approach. But, before I write that post, before I tell that tale, and consider those questions ...

I’ve been trying to think of a good way to explain this particular kind of anxiety to someone who hasn’t experienced it. 
  • Because sometimes people are anxious for no fully explicable reason, which can be hard for both the individual and those around them to comprehend. 
  • If we admit to feeling anxious, the people around us, led by a genuine desire for us not to be upset, can sometimes respond with things like: “Well don’t be” or “There’s nothing to worry about”, “You’ll be fine” etc. 
  • And while the “Don’t be upset” attitude is genuine and well-meaning … it’s also less helpful than it’s aiming to be. 
(Of course, there are also people who are just Ignorant Shits who think you should just pull yourself together, but I don’t think they’re reading this right now. But if you are, hey, just don’t be a shit eh? And that’s that problem solved.)

What I want to do now is offer up a couple of comparisons, an analogy or two, a Forest Gump-ism if you will ...
  • something that might help non-anxious folks appreciate how baffling a sensation anxiety can be
  • how it can feel like a loss of control
  • and how external it can feel, even though it’s happening inside your own body. 
If there’s someone in your life who you‘d like to ‘get’ it a little better than they do now, shove this under their nose and see if anything helps them understand (you know how people like to hear things from several sources before they quite believe in it!)

So, here we go …

How anxiety is like having a funfair goldfish thrust upon you ... and other stories.


Just like that feeling when you suddenly wonder if you’ve left the gas hob on, the bathroom window open, or the back door unlocked, there are times when a sensation like dread, panic, or turmoil, descends on you, fully formed, from out of nowhere. It just creeps up on you. Hits you. Washes over you.

That’s anxiety. 

Because, often in those situations:

  • it’s not like you’ve actually been sat there all morning actively thinking about the gas, the window, or the lock. 
  • It’s not like you’ve been turning the over the idea in your mind like a gem stone in a polishing tumbler. 
  • It’s just something that popped up, something that suddenly occurred to you … and, try as you might, you can’t un-occur it. 
And, just because you tell yourself:
  • Of course you’ll have locked the door, why wouldn’t you? 
  • When have you ever just walked out and left it? 
  • You definitely did. 
It really doesn’t stop that niggling doubt, that increased heart rate, that whirring mind, that prickle of panic-sweat in your armpits.

And, if I tell you that everything’s fine, that I’m sure you’ll have locked the door, that you can just stop worrying about it … will you?

Can you? 

Exactly.

That’s anxiety. 

Because someone experiencing anxiety can’t just switch it off simply because that would be the most rational and productive thing to do. 

Once you’ve panic-sweated, you’re stuck with panic sweat. It’s a reality. Thinking calmly might certainly prevent an escalation, but it’s only a clean-up job after the fact – the event still happened, it’s still something you need other people to take seriously if their support is to be of any use to you.

And, yeah, it’s hard for someone to put themselves inside you head – especially when, during an anxious episode - you yourself may not be too sure why you feel that way. And it’s not always easy to ask for support. 


So, in order to explain to others this slippery, wispy, spectre of a sensation that wafts in unbidden and – more importantly – unseen …

... let’s try thinking of anxiety as something tangible, something concrete, something that can be witnessed and accepted as ‘real’. 

Something we can hold. 

Literally. 

How about we think about anxiety as a funfair goldfish that’s been dumped on you? 

OK? OK then.

Say you’re going about your business one day, doing your thing, living your life, and then someone emerges in your peripheral vision, carrying a goldfish in a plastic bag, the kind you win at a funfair. And they’re a little out of breath, a touch distracted, they keep looking over their shoulder, and then ...

... they hold out their arm saying “Here, hold this this” while thrusting the plastic bag towards you.

And you take it, because – of course you do – it’s a goldfish in a plastic bag what else are you going to do? Let them drop it?

“Thanks for that” they say, while turning on their heels to leave. And you attempt to object, opening and closing your mouth in a manner not unlike the goldfish you’re holding, but they carry on regardless declaring: “I’ve got to dash, I’ll be back for it later” before vanishing.

And you don’t really know how you got into the situation, you don’t know the backstory (Why you? Why now?) all you do know is that you’re suddenly on your own … with a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag to handle.

And you’ve got shit to do, you’ve got to go about your day, get stuff done, act like a functioning adult; and as if everyday life isn’t tricky enough, you’re now going to have to try to do all of that while taking a f*cking funfair goldfish along with you.

That’s anxiety.

Then you bump into someone you know – someone who doesn’t have to carry a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag with them – and they ask how you are. And although you feel silly, embarrassed and awkward confessing it, you do. You tell them that – because you’ve suddenly got a goldfish in a plastic bag that you have to carry around, you’re actually struggling a little to do all the normal things that everyone around you seems to be managing without issue.

That’s anxiety.

And this person (who isn’t an Ignorant Shit) doesn’t like the idea of you struggling so they try to ‘fix’ the situation. They say things like: “Well, just stop having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag then, and it’ll be fine. You can get on with things like I do and you can stop worrying”.

“Oh” you say, thinking for a second that you’ve found a kindred spirit “So you know what this is like then? Have you also had to struggle along with a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag? What worked for you? How did you change things and get back to ‘normal'?”

And they frown a little, and tense-up, and think you’re being sarcastic. 

“No” they say, “I’ve never had a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag myself. But, if I did, and if it stopped me doing the things I wanted to do, then I’d just stop having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag.”

And your heart sinks a little while you try to explain that it really isn’t as simple as all that
  • That you didn’t ask to have a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag today, it just sort of happened to you. 
  • That you didn’t opt for one for the attention.
  • And you did try to get out of the situation, 
  • And yes, you do know that you could put it down but that – seriously - that’s not as easy a job as you’re making out. 
  • Because – it’s vulnerable and wobbly and you’re not sure what’s the best approach. 
  • And well, it’s in a plastic bag for a start, it’ll probably roll off the table, or leak or burst and the fish will probably die and then the whole situation will be so much worse and it’ll all be your fault and everyone will be staring at you and wondering why you can’t just for god’s sake handle something as simple as a goldfish in a plastic bag like anybody else would!
And they look awkwardly at you like you just said all of that out loud, because you just said all of that out loud.

And they say “Oh, so, are you like, frightened of funfair goldfish or something? Is that why you’re panicking? Do you think it’s going to kill you or something? Because, it won’t kill you, you know? I think you’re getting this all out of proportion. Just breathe. It’s only a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag. Don’t think about it.”

And – after considering the best place you could shove the goldfish in order to stop them talking - you explain that:
  •  No you’re not frightened of funfair goldfish in plastic bags. 
  • You don’t think they’re going to kill you.
  • They’re not something you spend your life dreading, in fact, most of the time they don’t enter your head.
  • But that actually none of that rational thinking matters right now, because right now – no matter how you try reframe the situation – whether you think about it or not, there’s no mistaking it – you’re still standing here holding a bastard funfair goldfish in a plastic bag. 
  • You just are. 
  • It’s happening. 
  • And it’s happening now.
That’s anxiety.

And eventually the person (who really isn’t an Ignorant Shit, they just don’t get it because, unlike you, they’ve never had to carry a funfair goldfish in a carrier bag around with them) looks you in the eye, realises they’re not helping, and says “Is there anything I can do?”.

And at first you want to cry a little because, part of you is just not used to people being so thoughtful, while another part of you feels ridiculous and not worthy of their consideration. 

But you have a think, and you give them some options, some ideas of things they could do to help you while you've got to hold on to a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag.

“Well,” you say … 
  • “You could maybe just sit with me for a bit. It might get a bit lonely what with me being the only one here having to hold on to a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag so, some company might be nice.” Or … 
  • “You could try to distract me. Tell me a joke, give me something to focus on or fiddle with until I can get rid of this thing.” Or … 
  • “You could tell me that you know it’s not my fault, that I didn’t think my way into this, that anyone can find themselves suddenly having to hold a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag, that it can happen to the best of us.” Or … 
  • “You could remind me that ‘this too shall pass’ – that goldfish don’t last for ever, that the owner will come back soon, that I won’t be carrying this for all time.” 
  • “Or … if I’m really struggling with this whole having to carry a funfair goldfish around with me thing, you could tell me that - if I can’t carry on with business as usual - you won’t think any less of me if I just take it outside/home/somewhere quiet and just wait it out.”
And then, you say "Oh, and when it does pass – which will probably feel quicker now I’ve got some company – but when I’m no longer struggling to hold this thing together and stop it bursting all over the floor and ruining my entire day …
  • ... after that I might feel a bit tired, a bit vulnerable, a bit silly – so maybe then you could make me a cuppa, pat my hand, kiss my forehead
  • (Obvs. that last one depends on who they are. Don’t let the Ignorant Shits kiss your forehead #ruletoliveby) 
  • ... and then we could just carry on like it was no big deal.” 
And then the person who didn’t get it before, gets it a little more.



And where before they were uncomfortable with you having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag - because they felt helpless, out of control - they now begin to feel useful, like there’s something they can do if it ever happens again.

Which it might. Because that’s just caring for funfair goldfish for you. And anxiety.

They're both unpredictable but better when shared ... and orange*. 

 (*Anxiety isn’t really orange, I just put that in to see if you were still paying attention.)

***

So ... what do you reckon? 
  • I don’t pretend this analogy reflects everyone’s experience of anxiety, yours will be different. 
  • If you have your own way of defining, describing, giving a shape to you own experiences of anxiety … do share those too. Someone else may read your version and relate to it.
  • But if this one does help you, or someone you know, get their head around the amorphous confusion that is ‘Anxiety’ …then please ... 
  • Take it, use it, adapt it and let me know what you think in the comments or via any of my online homes.  
  • And please - if you can - share it ... so others might find and benefit from thinking about anxiety as a funfair goldfish! 
  • And any time you're welcome to join me with your own responses or stories using the tag: #anxiousgoldfish 

Thanks for letting me chat about this with you today. I hope something sticks in your mind and comes in useful when you need it to. 

Julie


*No funfair goldfish were harmed in the making of this article.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Book review: The Letters Page Vol.2


Hey you. 

I don't know about where you are, but from where I sit it's raining, it's chilly, and there's more than a subtle imposition of Autumn nudging up against by bare ankles today. 

So, it's probably about the time of year I start settling-in with a blanket, a pair of socks long enough to cover my chilly bits, and a good read - such as Volume 2 of the literary journal The Letters Page


Full disclosure: I was sent this copy in exchange for an honest, independent, review (I know! And there's me always going on about how I never get anything for free ...). 

I should probably also say that I have submitted a piece of work for consideration in Volume 3 but this review is not linked in any way to that submission process. If anything though, the fact that I've submitted something is merely evidence of my genuine interest in the publication, because why would I have submitted to it in the first place?! Now, let's move on to the journal itself ... 

But hang on though, because I simply can not talk about the book's contents until I've squealed over shown you the packaging! 

This how Vol 2 arrives: in style, dressed in its own perfectly form-fitting box-envelope (not a roll of brown, impossible-to-find-the-end-of, parcel tape in sight):

Show me any lover of stationery or mail art who wouldn't swoon when a handsome, sturdy, printed kraft card envelope like that presented itself on their doormat. I certainly did. (Except when I came into the hallway mine was still partly dangling from the letterbox which, understandably, didn't want to part with it too soon. And so it was tantalising from the very start!) 

And from then on its design continued to delight.
The Letters Page is published by the School of English at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Book Ex Machina, a specialist in special edition, small runs, of art books; so the high level of design and detail in this journal comes as no surprise.  They refer to its design as a 'celebration of the printed object' ... and it is certainly that.

As someone who agonised over the details of my own niche book ... I can really appreciate all the extra touches that go into making something feel special.  The embossed front cover even folds out to reveal this beautiful stamp-inspired end-paper design:
If you're anything like me you'll already be a little bit smitten with The Letters Page Vol 2 even before you've begun to look at its contents. But  before we look inside, what I haven't explained yet is that:

  • it's called The Letters Page - as each submission is sent in via the old-school, snail-mail, post. And the majority of the articles begin n the style of a letter, giving them a particularly intimate feel - like they've been sent directly to us, for our eyes only.   
  • it's published  and edited by writer Jon McGregor - who I first discovered through his short story collection This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You. And it was through link hopping from his website, to read more about that book, that I first heard about The Letters Page

 Right then, how about we start turning some of those pages?

So, exactly what kind of publication is The Letters Page?

The Letters Page is a literary journal - which, I suppose, you could describe as a collection of essays and musings that are satisfyingly more substantial and esoteric that the other kinds of articles you find yourself clicking-on via social media day-in day-out! They're a mixture of the sort of piece you might find in a thought-provoking magazine, some you'd read for academic purposes (complete with footnotes!) and some that feel like ... well ... like letters

None of which is any kind of a bad thing. In fact I really embraced this collection and felt smarter after reading it. It reminded me of just how absorbing it can be to research and read around a particular subject - something I adored doing at university, and which I'm re-indulging in while researching for my novel.  Which brings us to the idea of  'theme' ...

The theme of Vol 2 is 'Influence, copies and plagiarism'

And really - to someone who has produced an entire book made from snippets of other books, and who once co-hosted a blog called The Copy & Paste Project  - this couldn't have been a better topic to dive into! 

Curated in this volume are ten stylistically very different articles from contributors, plus letters from the publisher and editor which bookend the other pieces.

And they really do offer a wide variety of both interpretations of the theme, and genres/styles through which to explore it. For example ...

  • Kit Caless's feature, 'Who Knows the Origin of Anything?', consists of a series of letters to someone who set up an Instagram account which 'borrowed' his idea of documenting the carpets inside Wetherspoon's pubs via Tumblr. In the letters, Caless considers the nature of copyright in an age of multi-platforms: can you expect to have the same name, the same idea, and carry it across each social media platform? Can you claim any idea as yours and yours alone? 
  • There's a letter from poet Andrew McMillan exploring the idea of being a 'copy' when you're following in your father's poetic footsteps. 
  • Joe Dunthorne's contribution is a short story 'Delete These Exact Letters', in which only uses one single vowel - 'e'. The footnotes explain that the piece is influenced by the idea of 'univocalism', a structural exercise he acknowledges was directly influenced by the Oulipo group and Georges Perec.  
  • And Rowena Macdonald creates an entire backstory inspired by the people she 'meets' when she finds their lost correspondence tucked inside a secondhand book. (Anyone keeping up with my hashtag #thewhitbypapers on Instagram will know that both I, and my IG community, are a little obsessed right now over all the possible stories behind the letters in the hoard of vintage papers I recently found!) 


But perhaps the piece that has stayed with my longest is 'Thou Shalt Not Steal' Darren Chetty's discussion of how rewarding it can be - rather than starting from scratch each time - to produce something which "combines existing work into something new and coherent". Chetty's focus is on how sampling in hip-hop can be read as a creative act, a kind of folk-art, that borrows from existing music and creates a new collage style of its own.

Needless to say - even though his is a perspective drawing from music, Chetty's approach chimed so, so much with my own way of working on Snipped Tales ... especially as his piece begins with him planning to compose his own letter about plagiarism from snippets of other peoples' letters, before he gives it up as too tricky. It really couldn't have been any more appropriate for me if it tried, and I have a feeling I'll be delving further into his work at some point.


TL;DR / in summary ...
  • I thoroughly enjoyed my review copy of The Letters Page Vol 2.
  • I digested it over breakfast, at a leisurely pace, for several days, and I've dipped back in once or twice since. 
  • It's is a substantial read, but it's also accessible, refreshing and beautifully curated
  • Yes in parts it's slightly highbrow, and asks careful reading and concentration from you  ... but - equally - there's also a discussion of a colour chart for urine so ... it all evens out in the end. (The tone of the book I mean, not the colour of the urine ...).
The Letters Page:Vol 2 is for *you* if ...
  • ... if you're interested in Austen Kleon's 'Steal Like an Artist' manifesto - there's some similar ground covered here but from interesting new angles. 
  • ... if you love short, manageable, articles, perhaps online or in magazines, but ... you occasionally feel like reading something a bit more thought provoking than the regular 'hot takes' or click bait.
  • ... if you enjoy accessible literary and academic articles. 
  • ... if you like to see an issue tackled from a wide variety of viewpoints.
  • ... if you want an introduction to an inclusively broad variety of writers.
  • ... if you love the feel, smell and design of physical books! 
  • ... if you like feeling smart, clever and a little bit pleased with yourself for taking time to read and absorb something new! 
  • ... if you want to treat yourself to something that will feed your mind as well as satisfying your design cravings.

Where to find The Letters Page ...
So what do you think? 
  • Is it your kind of thing? Something you might turn to? Something you'd like to see gracing your doormat?
  • Are you going to hop over to their social media and maybe have a closer look at what they're up to?
  • Any other fresh, creative, intelligent publications you'd like to recommend?
Do get in touch, here, or via any of my other online homes. Although, I guess by letter would be the most appropriate way ... 

Julie

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Meet 'The Start Studio' and find out how *you* can help this new creative social enterprise.


Hello you. 

How would you like to spend a creative hour or two in this gloriously retro Scandinavian-style setting? 

I know. Me too.

Or how would you like to clear some space in your craft room and help out a new social enterprise at the same time?

Luckily for anyone who can get themselves to the Teesside area, we'll soon be able to spend time at the The Start Studio, (opening on August 6th 2017),  in Linthorpe, Middlesbrough; a new creative community space run by teacher and arts educator Sara Calgie of Find The Crafty Fox.

And ...you can scroll down (or just hang on if you're patient) to find out how you can help get this arty social enterprise off to a bountiful beginning!

A few weeks ago  I popped in to see Sara for a cuppa and a chat about her dream to bring affordable, inspiring, creative workshops to the area. (While the majority of the focus will be on children's workshops, do look out for the rolling programme of workshops for adults hosted by guest creatives.)

Oh and ... yeah ... I also wanted a nosey around her beautiful space, which was once the Swedish Church and Seamen's Mission (hence the glorious, worshipful, stained glass). Isn't it amazing?
While the space was still a work in progress when I visited (I did feel a bit bad keeping Sara talking while she clearly had lots to prepare for her opening day!). But it had already come an awfully long way from a dark, tobacco stained interior, that had taken a lot of white paint to subdue!

But even so, I think you can tell what a welcoming and well-equipped place it already is:
And all those original features. Oh my! From the parquet flooring, up to the scandi-chic ceiling lighting it's a true mid-century interior treat and that's before we even mention that incredible glass rainbow of a window.

However ... even if you can't make it down for a visit in person, and if - like me - you just feel like helping keep this heartening community-focused space well-stocked, here's how you can do just that:

Read more about The Start Studio here.
Full disclosure:

This is not a sponsored post ... nor did Sara ask me to do this! 

  • I knew Sara was still stocking up on crafty supplies before her launch and so, when I visited, I used it as an opportunity to clear out my craft cupboards and do a little bit of good! I filled a box, and several bags, full of papers, embellishments, ink-pads, stamps, craft books and all kinds of bits and bobs lurking in the back of my shelves. 
  • (You can see more of what I donated here in @TheStartStudio's Instagram post.) 
  • I knew I'd blog about my visit (naturally ... hello!) and I knew that once I mentioned it on here, some of you would no doubt ask me how you could get involved. 
  • So - planning ahead - I asked Sara if she'd be OK with me letting you know that - if you wanted to - you could donate something too. And so that's all this is.  
The Start Studio is not a charity ... but it is a CIC (a Community Interest Company): 

  • Which means that it is a social enterprise and that any that profits made will be invested back into the studio.
  • Alongside paid workshops for children Sara plans to host free activities / drop-in sessions where children and families can drop by and simply make whatever they fancy. 
  • And if my old embellishments, paper flowers and inks etc can help her offer that, than I'm delighted. What a way for my old supplies to gain a new lease of life.

What kinds of things could you send?
  • The sort of things I took included patterned papers, speciality papers, funky foam, stickers, alphabets, paper straws, flowers, pompoms, lolly-sticks, blanks to cover, books ... and more.
  • But it can be anything you think kids can use in creative play. I know you ... you know the kinds of things. 

Local friends: 
  • If you're coming to one of our usual crop days and want to bring something for me to drop off at The Start Studio, I'm happy to take in your donations! Sara makes a good cuppa so, I'm sure I'll be visiting again soon.
Further afield friends:

  • Please don't feel obliged to send anything ... this is purely a 'if you want to help, here's how you can' type offer. No hard sell here! 
  • But if you do and you're thinking about ease of posting/delivery from/in the UK then an A4 envelope weighing up to 1000g can be sent Second Class as a Small Parcel for £2.90. Or anything flat, but up to 750g, can go as a Large Letter for up to £2.14. (Full details via the Royal Mail site).
  • If you're outside the UK, you're welcome to join in but if postage is prohibitive, please don't worry about sending anything!
And do contact Sara directly at The Start Studio(their contact details are available on their Facebook page)if you think you can be of use to her in any other way.
  •  I don't know who's reading this ... maybe you've got magical / influential / creative connections and can open up a world of possible supply sponsorship opportunities. Can you?
  • I just know that, when I've mentioned good causes here in the past, nice people have made nice things happen, so there's no reason  to believe that won't happen again.  
  • Or maybe - as has already happened with a few companies - you have a local business whose waste /bi-product / off-cuts etc would come in handy for arty-up-cycling, again, please contact Sara if you think your product might be useful. 
And it might be nice...
  • If/when you do pop something into the post, you mention that you heard about The Start Studio from me! 
  • Not because I'm on commission (although I could maybe get her to pay me in tea) ... but because it'll make it slightly less like some random - albeit arty - junk mail dropping through her letterbox. 
And then pretty soon either your craft supplies, or you, or the pair of you will be enjoying the view from inside The Start Studio!


And, whether or not you send The Start Studio anything physical ... how about sending your support and well wishes for the launch on August 6th?

Wish Sara and The Start Studio well ...


Thank you in advance you lovely crafty people you! 

Julie


Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Jane Austen bicentenary: it's been 200 years Janey, and we're *still* reading you.

Hey you.  There's a link to a free Jane Austen-themed download at the end of this post, but first you'll have to put up with me getting a little sentimental ... 

At some point today, maybe after I've left my calling card at some grand house, or tried in vain to find someone to dance with at a ball, or had an intellectually stimulating bickering-fest with a brooding hero, I'm going to sit down for a gossip with my good friend Jane. 

Not that we've met. 

Not that that matters. 

Because, when you read a Jane Austen novel you quickly become her friend. You're right there negotiating the social niceties of early 19th Century England with both her and her bright, observant, witty heroines. You're surrounded by chatter and drama and biting commentary, you're meeting new, alarming or eccentric characters, creating strong friendship bonds with kindred spirits and - after so many false starts and missed connections - you're falling in love. 

And today - July 18th 2017 - marks 200 years since the death of the woman who managed to fit all of that life and entertainment into just 6 timeless novels. (Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Or 7 books if you count Sanditon the unfinished/finished by another author novel that some of us are reading as part of our Jane Austen Summertime Book Club - the #sanditonalong!)


All from a woman who struggled all her career to be taken seriously and who died at 41. (I keep welling-up writing this, I find her story and talent so inspiring. I'm also 41 and I'm trying to string a together a romantic novel so ... little wonder I'm nearly weeping into my keyboard here!)

Just 6 books, published over just 6 years; a tiny sliver in time for an author who has gone on to be read and loved throughout the world for 200 years. 200 years. Good on you Jane. Good on you. 


A little Austen bicentenary reading for you: 

Well, for a start there's those 6 classics to dive into. 
  • I will admit I haven't read them all ... yet. I've got Mansfield Park and Sense & Sensibility still to go. If you're new to Austen - dig out a copy at a charity shop and give it a whirl; the language and style can be a tricky  pattern for moder readers to slip into ... but it's worth it in the end. I swear I laugh out loud while reading (and not in that fake 'Oh yes, look how much I understand this high-brow literature' way; but genuine LOLs. #truejaneaustenstory
And there's still time to dip into Sanditon along with us this month. 
  • I haven't finished reading it yet, and there's still plenty of time to join in. If you find one of the editions that's completed by another author it's all kinds of interesting to wonder how Austen herself would've finished the story ... and how close - or otherwise - the alternative writer's ending might be to her own!
Plus there's a collection of well known authors discussing their favourite Austen novels...
  • ... which featured in last weekend's Review supplement in The Guardian (featuring a lovely illustration by Romy Blumel) but you can find the articles here online.
(It's OK, yes, I do know that Austen didn't use a typewriter ... I just wanted to sneak this little treasure in in here as I found it for an almost criminal £5.00 in a charity shop this weekend. And I thought you'd like to see it!)

And finally...

Penguin Random House spotted our #sanditonalong and have been in touch to bring the Signature's Essential Guide to Jane Austen' to our attention! 

  • It's a 29 page, free-to-download PDF booklet containing 12 essays on the Austen canon (you just need to supply an email address to gain access to the download, simply follow the link here.
  • And don't worry about it being some dry, academic paper (although, to be fair, I'd probably read some of those too) as it contains such entertaining titles such as '10 Jane Austen Quotations for the Vehemently Single' and - the one that caught my eye first '6 Jane Austen Novels Ranked by their Sexiness'!   
And, while I'll definitely give that piece a fair crack of the whip ... it'll take quite some powers of persuasion (no pun intended) to convince me that there's anything sexier than Mr Knighley in Emma. (Although, I'm willing to admit that might have had something to do with casting Jonny Lee Miller in the 2009 adaptation of Emma  ...).

Quick, someone fetch me a chaise longue ... I'm feeling a little overcome.

****
If there are other Jane Austen bicentenary related happenings and publications you think I should have thrust under my nose ... then thrust away! 

In fact - feel free to launch into any and all Austen-themed chatter in the comments - or across my social media homes:


The more Austen-themed gossip and stories we share ... the more richly Austenite our commemorations will be! 

But before that ... how about we raise a glass, or a cup of tea in a fine china cup, to our good friend Jane?

To Jane. Cheers!   

Julie 


Disclosure: This is not in any way a sponsored post. I have not received payment for mentioning anything here, I'm sharing the freebie-reads with you purely for the love of Austen!

Monday, 17 July 2017

A visit to RSPB Saltholme nature reserve. (There's cake involved, because, there's *always* cake involved.)


Hello, hello. 

You'll often find me sharing photos of our trips to art galleries, museums or nice little shops;  y'know, the kinds of places I can wear a nice skirt and a big necklace and where there's plenty of opportunity to stop for tea and cake? But today's post is a little different because ... we've actually been outside, in nature, under the (damp, British-summertime) sky where we filled up on birdsong and reed-rustling and, yes, OK, obviously there was cake too. Naturally. We're not complete savages. 

Disclosure: Last Saturday I was a guest at RSPB Saltholme where they waived the usual £5.00 per car entry fee in return for a blog post and some social-media sharing about my visit. I did not receive payment for this post, I wasn't asked to mention anything other than how they have Family Activities running throughout the summer, and all views are my own. Because ... can you imagine me agreeing to let someone put words in my mouth? Exactly. 

So, now that's out of the way, lace up your walking shoes and grab your binoculars ... we're off on a nature walk ...

RSPB Saltholme welcome sign

Location: 
RSPB Saltholme is a nature reserve in Teesside, just outside of Middlesbrough. If you can find our landmark Transporter Bridge, you can find Saltholme, the bridge is visible from right across the reserve (see if you can spot it in the background of my photos). 

And if you can't find the Transporter Bridge when you're in Middlesbrough then just stop someone in the street and they'll point the way, or just look up and it'll be there, plus it's bright blue so ... you can't miss it. You could even use a visit to Saltholme as an excuse to have a trip across the Transporter too because, as the name suggests, it 'transports' vehicles/pedestrians across. Anyway, you've distracted me now by asking about bridges, where was I? 

Oh, yes, I was in jeans, trainers, and a coat (although my socks did have fringing on them and I did manage to squeeze in a big necklace under my hoody) and I was on a nature reserve, under a damp sky, trying to be a good blogger while keeping my camera out of the rain!
Last weekend they hosted their annual 'Woolly Weekend': a celebration of all things sheep-ish, as the site keeps sheep to graze the grasslands.

If you follow me on social media you'll have seen more images and video of the day, but I'll just show you a few photos of that here, because I want to show you what you'll see if you're visiting Saltholme during the rest of the year (they're open every day except Christmas day!)

As for those sheep, we watched them being sheared both with traditional clippers:
And modern electric shears: 
You could actually buy the fleeces from these sessions and, while I was tempted, I resisted ... what would I have done with it? I suppose I could've tried my hand at spinning it ... but maybe I'll leave that to the professionals:
And we watched this beautiful breed - whose fleece is so dark they looked like dense, dark, shadows with horns:
... being rounded-up by some very willing sheep-dogs:
 (ahem .. anyone notice the bright blue iconic bridge anywhere in the scene?)

The Environment: 
Speaking of dogs ... Saltholme is a dog-free zone, only assistance dogs are permitted on the reserve. 

I know I joke about my dog-phobia (because, oh my, if I didn't ...) but anyone who:

  • has a phobia themselves,
  • or has seen one of my dead-eyed panic attacks, 
  • or who knows just how many activities I can't bring myself to do because of it ... 
... will know the absolutely debilitating restrictions it imposes on my life. So, being able to walk around in nature, without having to worry about an off-the-lead dog bounding up to me is a freedom I'm rarely afforded.

Truth be told - I did have to get James to tell me that there weren't any dogs there - just to hear it, to double-check - but after that, I was OK. I was free to enjoy being outside without anxiety, something I guess many other people take for granted? (I don't know ... I can hardly conceive that some people aren't constantly vigilant and hyper-aware while they're out and about! It's like when you think about how the internet works; you know it's true ... but you still don't 'get' it.)

And Saltholme is an oasis in more ways than one. 

It allows me to enjoy the great outdoors, it provides food and habitat for a huge variety of birds and wildlife, and - like many places on the industrial side of Teesside - it nestles itself amongst major works sites, making it a complete natural haven in the heart of man-made industry:
And it's the land itself, the combination of wet grassland, reed beds and meadows that contributes so much to its eco-system: 

What your visit might look like: 

If, like us, you have a general - rather than comprehensive - knowledge of birds, then don't be put off; there are plenty of guide-books, signs, wall displays, and real-life guides to help you work out what you might be looking at. And currently, in the visitor centre:
 ... there's even a chance to catch-up on what the nearby seals are doing on their 'Seal Cam Live!':
From the visitor centre you can take one of two exits to explore the reserve, we headed out towards the Transporter side where we headed past the various gardens and play areas, along part of the Lake Walk and down to the hide at 'Paddy's Pool':
From here you can pull up a chair, wind down a window and get a closer look at some of the birdy happenings (can you tell I'm not an official 'twitcher'? What gave it away?)
 From here you can take a number of routes across the reserve, we opted for a wander through the wildflower meadow:
It was extremely peaceful and there were plenty of photo opportunities!
BTW: this was a pathway cut into the grass, but the majority of paths on the reserve are suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs.

From here we dipped into the 'Wildlife Watchpoint' another cosy spot to pause and take in the scenery:
Here we watched clumsy moorhen chicks trying to get their long ungainly legs to cooperate with the rest of their bodies, and, we're pretty sure we spotted a water-vole bumbling under the surface at the water's edge!
The combination of lackadaisical ducks and swans gliding over the water, the background noise of rustling reeds, and all that fresh air very nearly sent me to sleep. Next time I can't nod-off I'll know where to come ...
 And, if birds aren't your thing, you could stop off for some mouse-spotting!
This little mouse house  linked up to a woodpile outside so, if you're lucky, you might catch yourself some mouse-action (not a sentence I've ever envisaged writing ...).

Back on the Lake Walk we stopped for a closer look at the reed beds:
If you've been visiting me here for a while now you might remember that I've visited Saltholme in winter on several occasions when they host their annual 'Soup and Starlings' events. There we get to watch tens of thousands of starlings swoop and swirl in their 'murmurations' - the en masse air-ballet they perform - before dipping down to spend the night among the reed beds. (You can see some of my photos from those events in these older blog posts.)

So it made a change seeing this habitat in summer and not on freezing - I'm-wearing-30-items-of-clothing-and-my-eyes-are-the-only-visible-part-of-my-body - afternoons in December and January! 
And it was here that I saw something  my parents really would've found really useful when I was little!
There are at least three occasions in my childhood where they could have deployed a Lifehook.

At least three.

Where you can take a break:
And, after all that walking, watching, ducking out of the rain and feeling the sun, wind and rain on our faces all in the space of 4 hours (as a British summertime will regularly offer) ... we were ready for lunch.

And when I say 'ready' I mean ... the 'give me the homemade beef chilli and rice AND a slice of lemon cake, right now, thanks, OK, great' kind of ready. I know you know that kind of 'ready'.
Fortunately the Saltholme visitor centre has a lovely cafe upstairs so there's no need leave the site to find sustenance. And, once you've finished your cake and had a glance around the gift shop you're either good to go back out for another wander, or head home feeling smug about all the wholesome activity you've enjoyed.

Oh, and tired. You'll be feeling tired too; that proper, healthy 'fresh air' kind of tired.  So it's bye for now Saltholme. See you again sometime! I'm just off for a nap ...

Further Information:
To find out more and keep up-to-date on their special events:


********
Right, you can kick off your walking shoes now, I want to hear from you ...
  • Have you been to Saltholme already? What did you see? Did you have cake?
  • Maybe you've visited your own local RSPB reserve? American friends - maybe the American Bird Conservancy organisation is your equivalent. What kinds of things do you do there?
  • Maybe you too are looking for dog-free spaces to enjoy the great outdoors, if so, I hear you. Ask at your local reserve to check the dog situation there.
Also, I've been told recently that I appear to do weekends well plus there seems to be lots of exciting things happening near where I live. If either of those things are true - it's only down to:
  • Putting in a little bit of extra effort, when all I often want to do on Saturdays is sit still and maybe, at a push, throw an M&S meal deal in the oven. 
  • Following all my favourite local-ish galleries, museums etc on social media to be in with a chance of spotting their new exhibitions/events etc.
  • Using the planner app on my phone, with reminders, to keep track of key dates. 
And, honestly, there really isn't anything  unique about where we live, if anything, there's a distinct lack of cultural activities to be had in the immediate area; but we're willing to regularly travel anything up to around an hour or so away from home to see the interesting stuff.  

And perhaps where we are particularly fortunate, it's in living somewhere that sits happily within a comfortable half-hour to an hour's drive away from a wide variety of town, country, and coastal locations to choose from for a visit. Turns out it's not all grim 'oop North' you know.  (At this rate my next gig should be with Teesside tourist board!)

Don't forget to check out RSPB Saltholme if you're in the area ... or even if you're an hour away. And if you're  further afield, then I hope you enjoyed walking alongside me on our virtual visit.

Julie