Monday, 20 October 2014

In which I consider what's in a name

Once, it was just what you did. But marriage - and the decision to get married, and the act of getting married, and everything that goes with it - in 2014 feels like a political choice, a statement of intent. And no element of marriage is that more so than in the case of changing one’s name.

Once, it was easy. Once, you went from your father’s name to your husband’s, assumed the title of Mrs, and that was that. Now, not so.

Do you keep your name? Do you take his? Whichever route you pick, one option will produce askance looks either from elderly relatives who didn’t realise they had such a radical in their midst, or your feminist friends because you’ve betrayed the cause.

All of which is quite academic until you come to do it yourself and then you realise - I mean, you knew it before, obviously, but now you know it, it’s hammered home in a very real way - that your name is a critical part of your identity.

It’s easy - or, easier - if you objectively like one more than you do another. A former colleague won’t ever change hers, she says, because she doesn’t like her boyfriend’s name. Job done. But when you don’t have an aesthetic objection it’s harder.

My name is important to me. It’s part of who I am, and very much a part of my identity. Some colleagues at work call me by my surname. I’m attached to it. I like it. My father doesn’t have boys, and I don’t want to let our name just slip into the past when it needn’t.

At the same time, I want to have the same name as The Writer once we’re married. And should we ever have kids, I want us all to have the same name (if nothing else, it sounds like it’s FAR easier to deal with life that way).

I could take his name in my personal life, and keep mine in my professional - it’s an option that seems to work for a lot of people. But I’m not sure that it would work for me: my two identities aren’t quite that distinct, and although I certainly have a ‘work’ persona, I’m not a completely different person when I’m there - and quite a lot of how I define myself in my entirety comes from the professional skills that I have and the job that I do.

He could take mine, of course - and it’s something that we seriously discussed. There’s no logical reason why, if someone’s name has to change, it shouldn’t be his. But, being a journalist, there’s a byline to consider, and he’s built up an extensive body of work under the current one. There’s also the more prosaic point that my current surname just doesn’t really sound right with his name.

So, we’re going to do something I’ve previously not been a massive fan of, but which in this case seems to be the best compromise, and we’re going to double-barrell, both of us taking the new name.

Starting off with a compromise that suits us both seems to be a good way to go into a marriage.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

In which I get a pang of nostalgia

Last Friday evening, I had dinner with a couple of former colleagues. We finished around 11pm, and I walked back to the tube past some of the student accommodation halls in Southwark. Everywhere, outside the pubs, outside the supermarket, outside the corner shops, presumably inside the pubs, and on street corners, were students dolled up in Friday night finery. The whole Borough was filled with cheap perfume and enthusiastic Freshers’ Week snogging.

For a moment, as I picked my way through oblivious students flirting and writhing and drinking and squealing, I felt a quite visceral pang of nostalgia.

When it flits across my mind, university doesn’t feel that long ago. I have crystal clear memories of sitting in Blonde Towers with Best Mate, wrapped up in socks and scarves in our top-floor flat in the middle of January. Of spending seemingly endless days in pubs and bars and coffee shops, people watching and gossiping about the crushes we had on boys in our seminars. Of the many and ill-advised dalliances with an apparently infinite list of poorly-chosen men who provided hours of material for dissection over coffee, or gin, or coleslaw eaten straight out of the tub as BM and I sat on the kitchen floor and pondered our bad decisions.

But in reality, it was 10 years ago that I started my four years in Edinburgh - which easily remain some of the best of my life. Everything seemed so possible then. We hadn’t any real idea of what our careers had in store - much less had started on their paths. Very, very few of us had partners - and of those who did, I can count on one hand the couples who remain the same. We had no real idea what the future held, and - until our final year - didn’t give it too much thought. Life stretched out in front of us like a field full of stubble on a hot summer hack, and we were too busy having fun.

Which is an enormously powerful feeling when I look back on it. But 10 years is a long time - and things change. Not out of all recognition, but out of our previous frame of reference.

And it’s not that things are any less possible now, really - there’s nothing to stop us upping sticks and making substantial changes to the paths we’re on if we want to. But we’re definitely a few steps down the paths now that we were only starting to think about back then. And that’s a good thing.

I’m in a career that I enjoy, and in which I’m progressing - and that I hope I’m good at. I’m mercifully not picking terrible men any more - rather, I'm getting married to an excellent one in the New Year. I have a stable circle of friends I adore, enough cash to have a decent lifestyle, and my own home.

Which is why, walking through those students with their paths yet to stretch out ahead of them on a chilly autumn night, filling the air with their hope and over-applied cologne, the nostalgic pang disappeared as quickly as it came.

Because I’m not in a worse place now than I was then; I have just as many possibilities and firsts and challenges still ahead of me - they’re just different. In fact, I’m probably whereabouts I hoped, whilst I was at university, I would be six years after I left. And I can't in conscience ask for much more than that.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

In which I advise how to buy a wedding dress

I was dreading buying a wedding dress.

I hate shopping at the best of times, let alone for an event where 100 people will be staring at you in the outfit that's likely to be the most photographed of your life. And I'm not one of those frankly odd women who's known since childhood what her perfect wedding dress is going to be like (is there anything odder than a woman who has her entire wedding planned before she's even met the man she'll marry? It's creepy. Dream of a great marriage, by all means, but a dream wedding is weird).

So beyond the notion that it would be a dress, I was a bit stumped. But, in the end, and entirely unexpectedly, I found the whole process pretty easy and, to my great surprise, thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I sort of wish it had taken longer.

So, in case anyone's in the market: How to buy a wedding dress

Do your research. Dive into the wormhole that is bridal magazines and Pinterest. Absorb more knowledge than you ever thought possible about designers, types of neckline, detailing, materials and the number of different shades of white on offer.

Have an idea of budget. Just an idea. Then completely undo any notion of what is 'a reasonable price for a dress you'll wear once' by walking past Vera Wang in Mayfair the following week.

Consult bridesmaids. Book in three or four appointments at a variety of boutiques when they can come with you. Undo the organised work by seeing an ad for a sample sale on YouandYourWedding and booking an off the cuff appt on a Saturday morning, just to try on a few bits before you start the serious work.

Take just one exceptionally hungover bridesmaid with you. Persuade her not to throw up on the tube on the way there.

Get to the shop to be greeted by a terrifying Russian assistant who is more than a little reminiscent of OITNB's Red. Listen to a stern lecture about how this is not the place for research, but instead where people come to buy, because you will spend months looking and by the time you've made a decision the dress you love will be gone. Be told in no uncertain terms that, 7 months out, you have left this very, very late. Wonder whether this was a good idea.

Pick your way around the shop marvelling at prices and some frankly ludicrous blingwork. Select eight or ten dresses to try. Include one wildcard, just for the hell of it.

Step behind the decadent velvet curtains. Strip to your smalls. Send quick prayer of thanks that you had wherewithal to wear presentable matching set.

Be hoisted into series of dresses by the Inimitable Russian. Have none of them quite work despite being utterly beautiful for reasons you're not quite sure of, but that Inimitable Russian can pinpoint immediately (the waist starts in the wrong place, the cut makes legs look short etc).

Be asked "darrrling, vot iz your VISION?" Don't say "weddingy." She won't take it well. Describe the sort of thing you've pinned over and over again to Pinterest.

Try on an exact replica of said VISION that's £4k over budget that Blenka has dug out of the section of the shop marked "remortgage prices". Think it wonderful but not quite right.

Feel slightly dispirited. Try on wildcard dress that wasn't a strong contender. Feel amazing. Step out of changing room to watch hungover bridesmaid dissolve into tears. Hope they're not entirely gin-fuelled. Wonder whether it's completely ridiculous to buy a dress in the first and only shop you've visited, on a trip that was purely for research.

Call mother and Best Mate / Maid of Honour, neither of whom are free the following day for a second opinion.

Mull over wisdom of spending *cough* on a dress when you've not seen any others. Eat burrito. Spend rest of day thinking about dress, and deliciousness of burrito. Think you should stop eating burritos if you want to get into said dress.

Return the following day with same bridesmaid suffering a different hangover. Put dress on again. Decide there's a good chance, given a choice, that you might never take it off again.

Buy the dress.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

In which we have a not-very serious problem

The definition of first-world problems is not being able to choose between luxurious, long-haul beach destinations for one’s honeymoon.

The Writer and I have been thinking and researching and gently squabbling and TripAdvisoring and consulting with travel agents and thinking and planning and thinking for months now about where we’ll be taking our honeymoon when PW (post-wedding, some mythical time in the future) finally rolls round.

The host of destinations under consideration read a little like an atlas of indulgence: Botswana, the Maldives, the Seychelles, the British Virgin Islands, Bali, Belize. And that’s just some of them. A nigh-on endless list of places in which a fortnight wouldn’t be a hardship.

But as thinking and researching and squabbling time has gone on, we’ve managed to narrow down the criteria that are actually important to us.

  • Somewhere we wouldn’t go on a run of the mill holiday. Out go Italy and Greece, divine as the Amalfi coast and Santorini are.
  • Somewhere hot. In February. Out goes the rest of the Northern hemisphere.
  • Beaches. Nice ones. Sandy ones we can laze and read and nap on. Sadly, out goes Botswana, even though a horseback safari remains at the very top of the bucket list.
  • Interesting and varied things to do when we get bored of lazing on beautiful beaches. Out go the Maldives.
  • Wildlife is a bonus. What about… said our travel consultant. In came Borneo and its orang-utans.
  • Incredible accommodation. Ideally a private pool, said TW.

You wouldn’t necessarily have thought there would be so many places in the world that could fulfil all those demands, but apparently there are.

We’ve spent hours and hours sitting in the offices of real, honest to goodness, surprised to find they still exist in the real world travel agents. We’ve pored over pictures of white sand and glistening blue sea in supplements of bridal magazines. We’ve had surprisingly vociferous discussions about whether one place appeals more than another purely because fewer people have been to it, or whether the beaten track is what you want on a honeymoon where you’re just after two weeks of gloriousness.

We’ve debated the benefits of jungle lodges in Costa Rica, arrived at by white water raft. Multi-destination African trips that take in the beaches as well as safaris. Whether it’s daft to be put off a place if there’s been a terrorist attack of any sort in the last few years, or the FCO advice scares you to the bone.

It’s taken months of wrangling, and four sets of travel consultants providing ream upon ream of eye-wateringly intricate, sometimes ludicrously over-budget, itineraries only for us to be enormously fussy and swap one boutique hotel for another with a differently shaped pool, or a better yoga class, or a different destination entirely in a quieter part of the country, and a different flight back to the UK…

All of which has led us, finally, to an agreement.

So, for two weeks at the beginning of February, straight after the wedding, we’ll be heading to Thailand, for several days in a luxury boutique hotel for lazing next to TW’s beloved private pool and – you can take a girl out of the Home Counties – riding horses on the beach; then up into the hills and jungles of a national park for a few days of hiking, canoeing, and hugging baby elephants; and then on to a different island for a week lazing on a different beach, taking yoga classes on the sand looking out at crystal clear water and limestone rocks.

Probably worth the hassle, to be honest.

The actual beach we're heading to. I'm okay with this.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

In which I read through August and September

This summer was rather a fallow period for reading, particularly when compared to last year. In August, I appear to have clocked up a grand total of two, which can’t be right, but which my notes suggest is the case. Nowhere near last year's average of a book per week. More effort needed.

25. Title: Open City
Author: Teju Cole
Recommended by: chosen as the August read for London Book Club, and bought from Amazon. Read: Something to something of August (not long)
Score: Hmm. Tricky. 6?

I wouldn’t ever have picked this up off my own bat, and I’m not sure I’d read anything else by Cole. That said, it’s good to read things that push you out of the comfort zone, and this is certainly one of those. Plotless, it’s a meandering meditation on the cities that the character has lived in. The writing is mellifluous and strangely hypnotic, and while I was reading it, I enjoyed it. Not enough to want to pick it up after I'd put it down though, or recommend to other people.

26. Title: Jump!
Author: Jilly Cooper
Recommended by: a reread, when I was in need of some comfort reading. So old I can’t remember where I originally bought it from.
Read: 15 – 30 August
Score: How could it be anything but a 10? Ok, maybe a 9. At a push.

I adore Jilly. I won’t hear anything against her. While Jump! might not be her finest work, it’s still brilliant. Jump racing, and the usual horsey and bonking shenanigans. If you've not read her stuff, don't start here though...

27. Title: Polo
Author: Jilly Cooper
Recommended by: a snuck-in suggestion which ended up being London Book Club’s September read. Ditto above.
Read: 3 – 16 September
Score: 10. Obviously.

One of the earlier Rutshire chronicles, which follow the lives of the inhabitants of the county of Rutshire (essentially the Cotswolds, as far as I can make out), and I think possibly the best of Cooper’s books. There’s the return of the inimitable Rupert Campbell-Black, possibly the handsomest and most-fanciable chap in all of literature; horses aplenty; and the usual bonking shenanigans. It’s 80tastic, and whatever the heathens at LBC say, this book is the ultimate comfort read. This is where to start in the Jilly stable.

28. Title: The Girl With All The Gifts
Author: MR Carey
Recommended by: a staff member at Foyles, Charing Cross branch via their “recommended by staff” section and purchased from same.
Read: 16 – 18 September
Score: 9

This is entirely outwith the bounds of what I’d normally read, but it was the day before I flew on holiday, and it leapt out at me from the ‘recommended by staff’ shelf in Foyles. I’ll be picking up more from that shelf, because I blasted through this, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The Girl With All the Gifts is a dystopian thriller, in which a large percentage of the world’s humans have been infected with the really rather nasty cordyceps fungus which controls its hosts by changing their behaviour, and focuses on a small group of scientists locked in a secure compound conducting research on the parasite. It does the usual high-adrenaline zombie fighting stuff, but also has a more philosophical side to it, about humanity, good and evil, and what it means to be human. It came as no surprise to learn that the author (writing here under a pseudonym) has written for the screen: it’s a fast-paced, very visual, page-turner that would make an excellent film.

29. Title: Schroder
Author: Amity Gaige
Recommended by: This was on New York magazine’s hot list last summer, and I’ve been meaning to read it since. Bought from Amazon.
Read: 18 – 19 September
Score: 7

So many people raved about this, but again one of those that just didn’t live up to the hype. The premise is interesting: a man who has been living under a false name for many years, for what started out as relatively innocuous reasons, is in the middle of a messy divorce and kidnaps their daughter. But somehow it just doesn’t ever really hit its stride, or fulfil its potential.

30. Title: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Recommended by: a staff member at Foyles, Charing Cross branch via their “recommended by staff” section and purchased from same.
Read: 19 – 26 September
Score: 10

I’ve not been so completely enveloped by a book in a long old while (captivated, yes, by The Interestings, but not enveloped in the same way). Morgenstern creates a totally enchanting world that’s so richly drawn that when you’re reading, you feel like you’ve fallen straight into the book’s pages. Two young people are bound to each other in competition by their fathers. Set in a circus that moves around the world, but only opens at night, it’s full of magic and intrigue. It reminds me a bit of John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, which is in a similar vein and also well worth reading.

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.

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