Wednesday, 10 September 2014

In which I wonder whether doing what I love is selfish

A weekend or so ago, The Writer went up in a small acrobatics plane with an interviewee for a feature he’s writing. The stunts were so extreme and such was the G-force he experienced, he came back with burst capillaries all over his face. As I met him at the tube station, perturbed at the blotchiness with little red spots all around his eyes, I felt a rush of panic that he’d spent the afternoon doing something that clearly put him at extreme physical risk.

Hearing about some of the acrobatics, I slapped him on the arm and made him promise never to do anything like it again.

“Well now you know how I feel every time you go riding,” he said. I brushed it off, saying the two are incomparable.

But I’m not entirely sure they are. Because if you love someone, the thought of them doing anything at all dangerous gives you that horrid constriction around the top of your stomach. Worst-case scenarios flit through your imagination, sinister thoughts of destruction and death abound.

Which made me wonder whether putting yourself at any sort of risk when you’re surrounded by loved ones is the worst kind of selfishness.

Since getting back into the saddle, I’ve got used to Pa Blonde complaining that riding is a daft thing to do.

“Just open the Times magazine on Saturday,” he’ll say, referring to Melanie Reid’s column about how she copes with being tetraplegic having come off a horse and breaking her neck a few years ago, going on to give me a lecture: whether I’ve sorted out personal insurance yet (invariably the answer is ‘no’) and how I must, and how I’d cope if the same thing happened to me. I’m used to it – it’s easy to brush off parental concern. They’re always worried: it’s their job as parents.

But it’s not quite so easy to ignore when you realise that your fiancé is completely serious about his hatred of your riding in general, and specifically without wearing a body protector.

I’ve always been relatively blasé about the danger inherent in riding. It probably comes of having been put on a horse aged four and never really looking back. But it is dangerous – famously referred to by one medical professional as more so than taking ecstasy. Horses are large, heavy animals with minds of their own. They can be unpredictable. Ask them to share a road with traffic and statistically you’re probably asking for trouble.

But even being unceremoniously ditched into a field a few weeks ago hasn’t made me any more inclined to give up. Because, a bit like crossing the road, you recognise the danger, do what you can to mitigate it, and accept that you’re running the risk of it not going your way. Unlike crossing the road, any rider will tell you that the risks are entirely outweighed by the pleasures and benefits you get from taking part – be it the airborne thrill of taking a clean leap over an enormous ditch, surrounded by a host of other horses on the hunting field; or the simplicity of standing in a stable and breathing in the scent of a hot horse’s neck after a ride.

So, as much as Pa Blonde and TW might dislike my baffling propensity to sit astride a 16.2hh hunter and throw myself across the Home Counties countryside (especially when I’m not insured and refuse to wear a body protector day to day), neither would ever actually ask me to give up riding because they know how much I love it. Just as I’d never ask TW to stop doing mad acrobatics in small aircraft, or strapping bits of wood to his feet and hurtling himself down a French mountainside at certain times of year, which entirely gives me the heebie jeebies.

Because life isn’t the same without being able to do the things we really love – even at the risk of worrying those we really love.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

In which I ponder how to plan a wedding

I wasn't going to blog about wedding planning, because how interesting can it be? But then I thought, between work and wedding, there's very little else I'm actually doing at the moment, and frankly it's my blog, so wedding planning you're going to get. On the bright side, there's only 4 and a bit months to go.

Planning a wedding has made me confront two dichotomous sides of myself. The from-the-Home-Counties-and-really-more-traditional-than-is-fashionable side, and the wildly-feminist-I’m-not-taking-any-crap-from-anyone-else side have been rubbing up against each other creating more mental friction than I'd anticipated.

Take something that should be really simple. Like wearing a veil. I'm not enamoured with its history or symbolism - it's not like TW doesn't know what he's getting - but by gods, they're pretty. And when do you ever get to wear one otherwise? Tradition 1, feminism 0.

There's changing your name - the theory of it. Obviously the feminist way is to keep one's own name. But that's obviously one's father's, so it's basically pick your patriarchy. The traditional bit of me says take TW's name. But I happen to like mine, and it's a key part of who I am. Rather more agonising to come on this one. Tradition 1, feminism 1.

There's also changing your name, the practical bit. If I were just taking TW's name, I'd wave my marriage certificate at the bank or passport office and that'd be it. But if TW is to change his name, at all, whether to take mine, or double barrel, or simply to call himself Fred, he has to do it by deed poll. If he does it after the wedding, I have to do the same. But if he does it beforehand, I can simply take the new one. Misogyny and bureaucracy. A lethal combination. Tradition 2, feminism 1.

The marriage certificate itself is another glaring example of institutionalised sexism. Fathers' names go on it, for both parties, even if you don't know or have a relationship with your dad. Mothers, despite having given birth to you, are nowhere to be seen. Thankfully, this is about to change, but probably not terribly soon. We’re getting around it by having our mothers as witnesses. Tradition 3 (for doing its best), feminism 2.

The speeches have been comparably easy. There's no way the boys get to have all the fun, and someone is going to need to counteract whatever embarrassment I'm subject to at the hands of Pa Blonde. It'll come as a surprise to precisely no one that I'm planning on making one, especially when I’ve roped in a professional speechwriter to help me with it. Tradition 3, feminism 3.

Traditional wedding lore dictates that the groom does the proposing, goes on the stag do, and then does little else until the big day at which he’s essentially a guest at his own shindig. Not so in the TW-Blonde household, where the mantra is more “a groom with a view”. TW has opinions on everything from the decoration to the hymns to the flowers to the font of the invitations. Because of which, he’s highly put out that he’s had no say, at all, on the dress, despite being the clotheshorse of the family. I’ve refused to tell him anything substantial about it and thoroughly enjoyed the frustration, while the garment itself now hangs at Ma and Pa Blonde’s, where he can’t get his inquisitive paws on it. Tradition 4, feminism also 4.

Then, of course, there's the losing of the weight, which seems to be expected of all brides before the big day. I wish I could say I wasn't buying into the ridiculousness, but I've lost most of a dress size since May, in preparation. Sigh. Tradition 5, feminism 4.

And then there's the cost of the thing. In the good old days, Pa Blonde would have picked up the entire tab. In reality, he's picking up an overwhelming majority of the spending (and thank heavens. No way we'd be able to throw the wedding we are if he weren't). But for the really important bits that are crucial to the act of getting married, like the church fees and the rings, TW and I are picking up the tab. Tradition 5, feminism 5.

Whether, of course, our flagrant meddling with traditions gives the old school Home Counties churchgoers a collective heart attack as I refuse to ‘obey’ (no change there, then) remains to be seen.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

In which I hit the deck

Pride, the saying goes, comes before a fall.

Literally, in my case.

I went to the parents' recently for a long weekend, taking advantage of a rare and much-deserved quiet spell at work, and predictably headed straight up to the yard on the Friday morning.

"Wear your body protector," The Writer had said sternly as I left the flat, he departing to Wales for his best man's birthday and a weekend camping in the hills. "And if you don't, at least pretend to me that you did."

Of course I didn't. I find them uncomfortable to ride in so only wear them when there's a higher-than-good chance I'll be hitting the deck (i.e., only when I'm hunting), and having not come off in more than 20 years, I wasn't going to add another layer to a hot and sticky summer morning hack.

One of the girls led Lilo, a young-looking skewbald mare, brand new to the yard, to the mounting block.

"Any quirks I should know about?" I said as I settled into the saddle and tightened the girth.

"No, she's fine," the girl said, patting the horse on the bum.

About ten minutes into the ride, I realised that 'fine' depended on your definition.

I didn't mind her looking around and being a little nervous given that she was new to the area. But I did mind the attempts to break the land speed record in a trot down a farm track. And by the time we'd stopped to let one horse have a wee and Lilo had kicked out at the horse behind her and I'd had to sit firm to stop her shooting off across the field, I was aware that she was going to take a little more handling than I'd planned.

Most things followed well, the poor creature behind keeping his distance, as we attempted a controlled canter along a field of stubble. Thankfully I managed to keep a hand on the brakes, but wasn't expecting the enormous buck that came halfway up the field, throwing me with some force up Lilo's brown and white neck. I eased myself back down into the saddle and gave her a tap on the bum, feeling several kinds of smug with myself that I'd taken a good look through her ears and still managed not to sail through them.

A less eventful while passed, and we came up to the entrance of a village. Two dogs were barking hell for leather at a gate across the drive to a large house. I could feel the horse tighten beneath me as we came up. I kept my leg on and we walked forward.

Until we didn't. The dogs kept barking and jumping at the gate, and Lilo panicked. Spinning around, she made for the field of stubble on the other side of the road. Had she just bolted, we would have been fine - I can cope with speed. Had she seen the ditch between the road and the field, we would have been fine - I can cope with a jump and some speed. But she didn't - and proud as I'd been half an hour earlier that I'd kept my seat, there was little I could do when she fled towards the field and, at a panic, fell down into the ditch forelegs first.

Probably thankfully, I was flung with some force straight over her neck and clear of the ditch into the field. She scrambled up the bank and along the field, leaping over the ditch back again where one of the other riders caught her before she could do any damage to any of the cars on either side of our group, waiting for the scene to clear in full view of my spectacular landing.

I did the only thing you can do in that situation: got up, wiggled everything to check there were no breakages, and used a nearby fence post from which to scramble back up into the saddle. Thankfully there was no lasting damage, other than some bruising, a week's worth of soreness and a decades-long record of not falling off that I imagine won't be repeated.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

In which I read through July

Having made a cracking reading start to the year, it's rather tailed off of late. Sigh. Here's hoping the rest of the summer is better.

22. Title: Spoilt Brats
Author: Simon Rich
Recommended by: no one. I'd read this man's shopping lists. Purloined The Writer's press preview copy (complete with his review quote on it).
Read: 1 - 3 July
Score: 10/10. Obviously.

Like Last Girlfriend on Earth, this is a collection of Rich's short stories, but rather than love, they're centred around the theme of parents and children. It's not quite as funny as the previous collection, and there's definitely a sadder tone to some of the pieces. It includes the absolutely cracking story about the guy who makes pickles that was included in The New Yorker a year or so ago, and is no less funny, clever or charming the second time round.

23. Title: The Interestings
Author: Meg Wolitzer
Recommended by: I saw this in the NYT's 'summer books to read' list last year and suggested it to London Book Club as our read for July. Bought from Amazon.
Read: 16 - 26 July
Score: 10/10

I adored this book. Centred around a group of friends who meet as teenagers and go on to live their differing lives, it's packed full of gorgeous writing, nostalgia, and an enveloping sense of... familiarity, I think it is. The characters are so beautifully drawn, warts and all, that I felt a real sense of missing them when I finished the final page. HIGHLY recommended, and there's a great piece here by an LBC member which encapsulates it all far better than I could.

23.5. Title: &Sons
Author: David Gilbert
Recommended by: I don't remember. Bought from Amazon.
Read: 26 - 30 July.
Score: Unfinishable

Critics loved this, and it's very well-written, but oooof... I just can't get on with books that are written more for the writer than the readers. Dense and a bit too clever for me. The first book I've given up on in well over a year.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

In which I object to other people's bad manners

I’m a fan of manners. Not a stickler, definitely, yet still erring more on the side of Debretts than Danny Dyer. Pleases, thank yous and a general sense of consideration for other people’s feelings do, I find, go a long way. And it grates - in varying degrees - when other people don’t afford me the same basic courtesy.

Given events, The Writer and I recently decided something of an impromptu celebration was in order. We ordered up on the booze, knocked together a few canapés and opened our doors to the people who would be able to make engagement drinks at our flat with some 72 hours’ notice.

Most people were delight personified. We were overwhelmed with kindness, cards that are still running the length of the bar in the kitchen, presents galore and more booze than we thought we could shake a stick at (spoiler: we can apparently shake a pretty thorough stick).

The night was brilliant - full of fun, friends, shrieking, fizz, people trying on the ring, laughter, more fizz, a small dog, more fizz and a late night round of Cards Against Humanity.

But there was just one thing that left a disappointingly sour taste.

About two thirds of the way through the night, I went to the loo to pee and touch up my eyeliner to find crystalline white powder all over the back of the cistern, and along the seat. I rolled my eyes, dusted it off and hoped for the best.

Then, on repeated trips, I found it again, laid along the length of the shelf in front of the mirror and then, clearly in a fit of decadent, wanton abandon and want of a bigger surface area, all over the end of the bath.

I’m not naive. A lot of our friends are bright young things in London’s politics and media scenes: recreational diversions at parties is not what you’d call unheard of. Hell, those of particularly long blog-reading memory will vividly remember the ex with the rather serious habit. It’s not something that’s new to me.

And yet, it remains something I deeply, deeply dislike; it’s never something that’s become acceptable, and the discovery riled in a way that few other things could.

If other people feel the need to take the stuff - at parties, in bars, at work, on a Tuesday lunchtime - that’s their lookout. But I don’t do it myself, I don’t like it and I really don’t like that other people would do it in my home, at a party to celebrate my engagement, and then, as if that’s not all deeply rude enough, not bother to clean up after themselves.

Manners cost nothing. But coke all over someone’s bathroom can come at the cost of a friendship.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

In which I read through May and June

I slacked off writing these up last month, but this is what I've read over the last eight weeks or so, in one bumper edition.

15. Title: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Recommended by: everyone on the planet and bought from Amazon
Read: 30 April - 6 May
Score: 5/10

Much like a sticker announcing a book has been selected by the Richard and Judy Bookclub is an excellent indicator to avoid it, I refuse to read anything that wins the Costa Prize ever, ever again. There was so much hype about this book, and so many accolades poured on it that I assumed it was a sure-fire brilliant read. Essentially Sliding Doors set in the war, it tells the story of Ursula, how she's born and how she dies, over and over again. It could have been brilliant (the film, I adore). It wasn't - mostly, I think, due to the writing which is clunky, and the story and characters are occasionally overly reliant on hindsight, which never fails to get on my tits. I'm in a minority of, at last count, three people who really didn't like this book. Maths suggests you may, but I can't in a clear conscience recommend it.

16. Title: Dept. of Speculation
Author: Jenny Offill
Recommended by: @photogirluk and the lovely Megan at TIME who gave me her copy.
Read: 6 - 8 May
Score: 9/10

This little book contains so much love and grief and insight and originality that it's hard to know quite how to describe it. Essentially the story of a marriage, but written like no other book you've read. Gorgeous, heartbreaking and brilliant. Read it.

17. Title: The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Recommended by: The New York Times last year and bought from Amazon.
Read: 8 - 11 May
Score: 7.5/10

God, this is an angry, angry book. If you liked Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, this is one for you. Nora is a primary school teacher with an aging father and an unfulfilled desire to be an artist, and her life is upturned by the family of a new student. There are some very valid issues raised in the book - how society treats single women, why it's generally women who have to choose between the role of care-giver and career to name just two - but the sense of anger throughout is so overwhelming that the aftertaste is hugely unsettling. Worth a read.

18. Title: Goodbye to All That
Author: Robert Graves
Recommended by: chosen as the book for May's London Book Club and bought second-hand from Amazon
Read: 11 - 20 May
Score: 8/10

This wasn't a universally popular LBC choice, but I loved it. It's one of the classic war texts, and being so familiar with the books and the films these days, it's fascinating to imagine the effect that the visceral descriptions of trench life that this book must have had when it was published. Graves is a deeply flawed human being, but that doesn't take away from the telling of the utterly dehumanising experiences that he witnessed as a young man, who remains the voice of a lost generation.

19. Title: Easter Parade
Author: Richard Yates
Recommended by: @flamingnora and bought from Amazon
Read: 22 - 30 May
Score: 8/10

Gosh, this is a bleak, bleak book. It focuses on the relationship between two sisters and their tragic lives. The writing is so pure and elegant that the tragedy shines through all the clearer. If you liked Revolutionary Road, this is one for you.

20. Title: Tampa
Author: Alissa Nutting
Recommended by: The New York Times and bought from WH Smith at London Kings Cross
Read: 1 - 10 June
Score: 8/10

Well this was an eye opener. The NYT claimed this book about a young, hot teacher seducing her teenage pupils was one of their 'books to read' a while ago, that it was clever and funny and controversial and a must-read. I would say it's definitely shocking, and maybe funny once you get into it, but if you are going to read it, don't do it on the tube. It's not as clever and biting as Lolita but it definitely has shock value.

21. Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Recommended by: just about everyone and bought from Foyles at Waterloo
Read: 12 - 28 June
Score: 9/10

Despite studying Cromwell for A-level history and having a long-lasting fascination with both the Tudors and Mantel's writing (Beyond Black is a dark and creepy marvel), I've been putting off Wolf Hall for years, mainly because of the size. But, having got through The Luminaries and having a three hour train journey to the West Country to get through for work, I picked this up at the station and got stuck in. And I'm so glad I did. It's gorgeously crafted epic that will leave you wanting ever more detail and intrigue about the court of the tyrant and those who served him. Bring Up the Bodies is next on the list.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

In which I have a really good Tuesday

It was a Tuesday. It didn’t have much to distinguish it from any other Tuesday. Oh, except the fact it was our anniversary.

Most of my day was eaten up on a work trip: I spent hours on a train heading Oop North for a meeting that lasted considerably less than the hours I then spent on a train heading back to London. By the time I’d got back into Kings Cross, I was thoroughly glad we were going out for a celebratory dinner, partially because I’d accidentally managed to spend the whole day powered only by a single fat-free yoghurt.

In the back of the cab to Polpetto, where The Writer and I had our first date three years ago, I deployed the super-power belonging to everyone who attended a girls’ school, and changed seamlessly from work jacket and trousers to dress and heels without showing one’s tits to the driver and half of Soho.

We ate our way through a completely delicious dinner, as is the only Polpetto way, of gin fizzes, toasted focaccia, burrata and samphire, crab linguine,  goats’ curd and beetroot, chocolate flan and more red wine than was probably advisable on an average Tuesday.

I eschewed TW’s suggestion of a cab as too extravagant for a Tuesday, even an anniversary Tuesday, and we got on the tube.

Back at the flat, I unpinned my hair and mad a made dash to wrap up the last of TW’s anniversary presents that had arrived that morning.

“Come over here a minute,” he said, leaning against the sofa as I battled with the Sellotape.

“Hang on,” I flustered. “Just let me finish this.”

“Look, I think you should turn around.”

Something in TW’s voice made me put down the wrapping paper and turn to face him. He reached out his arms and pulled me towards him.

“I love you,” he said, “and want to spend the rest of my life with you. So there’s a question I want to ask you.”

My heart stopped and my eyes welled up as he crouched onto one knee and reached inside his jacket pocked to produce a sparkling sapphire ring.

“Will you marry me?”

I wish I could say I responded with calm and grace and dignity. I didn’t. I cried, shrieked and cried a bit more; threw in a “what the holy fuck do you think you’re doing?!” and kept crying. Smooth as sandpaper, me.

In amongst the tears, though, I managed to utter a “yes” as he slipped the ring onto my finger.

Best. Tuesday. Ever.


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