The New Day

New Year is always an odd time for me.

I tend to think a lot about time, and my perception of it. And anniversaries of things, and how I always find it strange that life sometimes moves in slow, swirling circles, even as it moves you into the future, and when you come back to a space or a scent that reminds you of something that’s gone, you bring that forward with you.

New Year’s Eve always seems timeless to me, because I spend it with, usually, the same friends I’ve spent virtually all of my teenaged and adult New Year’s with. Things ebb and flow and it isn’t always exactly the same people, but it’s always the same group. And it’s wonderful. They’re brilliant and bonkers and creative and clever, and I adore them. And so every New Year feels like a link in a long, lovely chain, leading on to something else wonderful.

New Year’s Day is the anniversary of the day my grandmother died. She made it to the new year, and then it was time. So it’s a reminder that all things change. Things end, and other things begin. We miss them, and we bring them with us.

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Visions of the Future

Yesterday, I touched on time travel, the present we inherit from the past, and our perceptions of time. I want to start with perception today, as I think about other aspects of time travel in fiction.

Meanwhile, my fiancé reminds me that we’re supposed to be watching Back to the Future III today, so therefore I have to be quick. Time. Never enough of it.

We are all subject to time. Whatever you measure it with, it slices our experience of the world into regular segments, neatly numbered. We can spend it or save it, but we can’t survive it – but we can experience it at different speeds.

Time drags when we’re bored, and flies when we’re busy. For all that our divisions of time are rational, our perception of time is fundamentally illogical. And we can escape it for a while by slipping into stories.

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Back to the Future Day, Time Travel and Perceptions of the Past

In honour of Back to the Future Day, a few thoughts on time travel.

Why are we so drawn to stories of moving in time?

The idea that time is mutable isn’t a new one.Time-travel stories feel like a new, science-fiction phenomenon, but they’ve been around for thousands of years. But I think it’s interesting to read them in terms of a more modern understanding of culture, of the individual, and of the power of choice.

We all carry history with us. We’re surrounded by things that were built long before we were born, and will endure once we’re dead. And as we live our lives, we tell stories about how things happened and wonder “What if something else happened instead?”.

Those idle daydreams where we pick over the decisions and moments of the past and re-play them to our own satisfaction (or worry) offer us glimpses of what we could describe as “alternative realities”. We often wish we could go back and give our past selves advice, or even that someone viewing all the paths of our lives could categorically say, in the moment of an agonising decision, “This is the right choice for you to make”. (Some of us do this with future worries, too.)

“What if?” is at the heart of all storytelling. And time-travel brings to life the “What if?” that changes all the world around you.

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Abandoning perfection

I have a writing folder on my computer, and I’ve had it for years.

I got my first computer when I was thirteen. It was a reclaimed laptop that had once been the property of Harper Collins, and as a chronic insomniac, it significantly helped defend the little sanity I had going for me.

I’ve had an anxiety disorder since the age of three, and I can’t always tell what’s real and what isn’t. Even now, as an adult, that acute dissociation can turn me into a quivering wreck. Sometimes as a teenager I didn’t sleep for weeks at a time and I couldn’t tell for days at a time whether I was at school, or dreaming about it. I started therapy when I was fourteen that would continue, on and off, for the next twelve years.

In all that time, I did two things. I had ideas for stories, and I wrote them down.

But I didn’t manage to write.

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The story I want to tell

I’ve been writing lately. This is a minor miracle in itself, because years of an anxiety disorder left me with a fear of failure so inhibiting that I’d rather hide under a duvet than even attempt writing a sentence that might go awry. But I had treatment, I wrote a hundred haiku as part of the therapy, and somewhere in the middle I realised that, all those years ago, I didn’t just start telling stories as an escape from things that I found painful. I started telling stories because I just loved imagining things, and I enjoyed bringing things to life inside my head, and I enjoyed finding the right words to describe them.

At the moment, rediscovering that is a delight so simple it’s almost hard to believe. I actually enjoy writing. Long may it last.

The story that I’ve been writing this month is one that’s been with me for quite a long time. I had the idea for it, oh, way back in 2007, 2008? It started flowing from my head to my hands, it had its own momentum. I started writing, wrote twelve pages, and then my computer crashed and I rewrote pretty much the entire damn thing from memory.

The story is almost unrecognisable from what it was then – it’s grown and changed so much, and the direction I thought it was going to go in just isn’t relevant now. I’ve struggled with how to distil these ideas into a book, not just a tour around a fiction landscape with its made-up mythologies and politics. I actively stopped writing it because I knew it wasn’t ready to be written – which is a bloody weird thing to have to say, but hopefully some of you will know what I mean. I couldn’t force a shape onto it, because it would have been the wrong shape. I had to wait for the eureka moment – or line of eureka dominoes, as it were. It’s taken years, it’s taken talking through ideas and concepts, it’s taken getting frustrated with my inability to write it and my inability to make it sound like the really fun story that I want it to be, both to write and to read.

This week, I was talking about it with my boyfriend, and he posed the very pertinent question: “Why do you want to write this one? Of all the stories you have notes for, what is it about this one that you keep going back to?”

He has a very valid point. I have a lot of stories that I could write. I have a lot of ideas I’d love to give time to.

This one has been refined and realigned so many times, which was a frustration in itself. Its working title, “Passion”, is a word that doesn’t fit in the slightest because it’s not a love story. It’s just a word that had the right sounds in it.

But it’s a concept that’s pretty much the point of this missive. This is a story that I love writing. My heroine is a delight to me. And, even though the actual plot has taken years to get right, it’s always been a story that I want to tell. There’s no real logical reason other than that. I want it to happen. That’s why I’m writing it. There are other stories that I want to tell, but this is the one that I want to tell first, that I want to tell now. And that’s what matters, that’s what gives it momentum.

Existentialism is a flawed philosophy in many ways, but its focus on action rather than thought is one that I often take a lot of comfort in. So at the moment I’m celebrating the fact that my actions are making more words – and I’m not worrying whether they’re the right words. I’m writing and I’m not editing as I go, I’m getting it out there and letting it grow. (Ah, poetry.) I’m embracing the feeling because it’s been so rare for me – and I am very much hoping that it will last.

What’s the story that you want to tell? Whatever it is, I hope you find the way to tell it.

Four things we can learn from Frozen (that don’t involve wedding dresses)

There have been rumours of “official” Disney wedding dresses for some time, and now the collection is finally being released for sale. Designed by Alfred Angelo, “America’s largest family-owned bridal company”, you won’t be surprised to hear that the dresses come with hefty price tags.

But considering that Disney has been peddling wedding fantasies for decades, you might be a bit taken about that a lot of the dresses are  well  pretty horrible. The designs are boring and, honestly, tacky. You might be rolling your eyes at my surprise, but seriously, if Disney’s going to be selling wedding dresses, why aren’t they beautiful? Why aren’t they closer renditions of the impossibly lovely, possibly beyond the laws of physics gowns worn in the films that become women’s wedding fantasies? It seems obvious that the dresses should have some value for what they are, rather than what company they’re made by.

We all see Disney films. Disney has been selling the dream of weddings and true love, floaty dresses and being treated like a princess for a long time. The garb has always been part of the package. We all absorb the stories and the patterns that they tell  and we’re all a lot more savvy now than we used to be. We understand that telling girls they should only want things that are pink and fluffy is bad. We understand that applying particular social standards of sex and gender toys, cakes, and stories isn’t healthy for children, or for the adults that they grow up to be.

So times change, and Disney heroines have become increasingly active over the last twenty years. Stories haven’t always been defined by princesses waiting to be saved – they’ve set out to save other people, like Belle, or competed to save themselves, like Merida. And Frozen has been applauded as being the most progressive of them all.

The girls don’t need a guy to save them, but they save each other.  “True love” is familial as well as romantic. Love at first sight can’t always be trusted, and the convention of getting married to someone you’ve only just met is satisfyingly lampooned.

Characters are well-rounded. Female characters are particularly well-rounded, and not defined by their female characters or the social structure of femininity. That’s one of the reasons that the Frozen wedding dress rubs me up the wrong way (aside from the fact that it’s ugly as hell). Frozen is one of the stories that’s founded on the power of non-romantic love, and in which girls aren’t rewarded for their good behaviour by marriage into the higher social order.

Also, they’ve made the dress based on Elsa’s caped ice gown. She’s the one who doesn’t engage in romantic love, and is suspicious of her sister’s sudden, fairytale engagement. But, as the article above notes, Anna isn’t the one who sings “Let it Go”.

For me, the dress – ugly as sin, corporate cash-grab – is the epitome of a missed point.

As a writer, and as a teacher of creative writing, I spend a lot of time thinking about the importance and the value of stories. I’ve had a few thoughts banging around my head about the things that Frozen can actually teach people – especially young people – and now seems an appropriate opportunity to share them. And please, if you think that my points below sound over-complicated, don’t patronise children. They’re a lot more clued-up than society stereotypes them as. The students that I tutored this summer, none of them older than 12, had a detailed, hour-long discussion, completely unprompted by me, about how you should never judge someone based on their gender or the colour of their skin, and how all of those kids were prepared to intervene and speak up for people who were being bullied. They restored my faith in humanity.

So, for them, and in a quietly intellectual protest against Disney’s hideous dresses, here’s what I think is the real value of Frozen and the things it can teach our kids.


1. Well-meaning parents can, and do, make decisions that affect their children badly. 

I honestly think that this is one of the most important things that any child can learn. The idea that parents and teachers are always right, that adults never make mistakes, and that they can and should be trusted inherently, can cause a lot of damage to children as they learn to navigate a big and complicated world.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to protect your children. Elsa is shown to have loving, caring parents, who make a big mistake that they believed was the best way to protect both of their daughters from the fallout of Elsa’s powers. This doesn’t make them bad people, though it does mean that they made a bad parenting decision.

I think this is one of the most important parts of the film because parents, especially in fairytales, tend to fall into much more simplistic roles. Usually, they’re dead, which allows the child greater freedom, but also sets up the need for a mentor and a potential villain in the step-parent replacement. But while the fairytale’s focus on the child can provide inspiration for individual behavioural choices, this overarching cultural pattern doesn’t necessarily help the child understand his or her relationship to her own parents. And it doesn’t always help that parents don’t have examples that they can point to to say, “Sometimes parents make mistakes out of love. That’s the way life is, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t love you and want what’s best for you.”

And I think that’s something that parents need to accept. Yes. You’re probably going to fuck up at some point. Let it go. Once you accept the possibility of a problem, you become much better at solving the problem. Ignoring the problem is ignoring your child. Don’t close the door on the problem, because, like Elsa’s powers, it’ll grow until it’s overwhelming.


2. Being close to someone doesn’t mean that you necessarily understand all of their story, or why they make the decisions that they do. 

Elsa and Anna might love each other, but for a long time, they don’t understand each other at all. Elsa’s powers, and the way she’s been told to treat them, form a barrier between them – and, in fact, between Arendelle and the outside world.

They both make mistakes because they don’t understand why the other doesn’t understand them. The impasse of communication between them – Elsa hiding her powers, Anna’s years of unhappiness at the unexplained isolation – is something that can spring up very easily, between close friends, siblings, or even parent and child.

Fairytales and stories aimed at children frequently offer a simplistic view of the world, where “good” agrees with the hero, and “bad” is the source of problems and conflict. In reality, of course, life is far more complicated, and Frozen doesn’t shy away from that.

Sometimes people want and need different things. It isn’t hard to communicate this, but it can be very hard to accept. Elsa’s powers can be treated as a metaphor for a number of different things that might make someone “different” from other people. The lesson in Frozen issn’t just that people are different, though. It’s that it’s okay to have different needs, but that learning how to cope with different peoples’ needs can be a complicated and painful process.

Frozen also shows that our ignorance of other peoples’ issues can be difficult, but shows that the real problem is an unwillingness to learn how to deal with other people’s needs.


3. It is easy to become absorbed by your own pain and to miss the reasons for someone else’s actions.

Children are all a little bit solipsistic. Their own pain is often more real than anyone else’s, because they don’t always appreciate that other people are the centers of their own worlds. In a kid, it’s natural, and it’s something they need to grow out of. In an adult, it’s self-centred, and it can be damaging to assume that someone else understands the reasons for your pain.

Anna is a little guilty of this – yes, it isn’t fair that she is shut out of her sister’s life and that her parents lie to her for a very long time, but her own hurt and isolation prevents her from seeing that there might be a reason for it. Similarly, Elsa is consumed by the problem that her powers present and misses the damage that her absence does to her sister.

I’m not saying that Elsa is at fault here – she’s a child, she’s legally incapable of being at fault. Their parents have mishandled the situation, and, because they are the adults and have a far greater breadth of experience and education, they should have seen that their solution – to hide Elsa and ignore her powers – wasn’t working.

Of course, the story-based argument could be that they’re running a kingdom. But it’s still valuable to remember that other people’s actions are as valid and important as yours are – and that you might be as much of a mystery to them as they are to you.

In conclusion, points 2 and 3 can be summarised thusly: the choices that we make affect other people as well as ourselves. We must be aware of the way that we affect other things as we move through the world, just as we encourage that other people are aware of the way they affect the world and us. That includes the stories we tell ourselves, which is why I started writing about the lessons we learn from stories in the first place.


4. Actions speak louder than words – but words are necessary, because it’s easy to misinterpret actions. 

The crux of Frozen is that Anna chooses to act to protect her sister, rather than waiting to be saved herself. She puts Elsa’s safety over her own, just as, in her isolation, Elsa prioritised Anna’s safety over her own happiness. Choosing to act, being empowered to make choices, is something extremely important for a child to learn. But they must also be able to explain why they act they way they do. Through understanding that every act is a choice, a person is empowered to assess situations and make better choices. If you don’t realise that you’re choosing something, it isn’t really a choice – and it means you’re trapped in a lack of knowledge that you might not even realise is a lack of knowledge.

Anna’s unhappiness stems from not understanding why her sister suddenly rejected her, apparently dividing their family. These are actions that are never given an explanation. Once they acquire the information to provide context, the basic tension of the plot, and the problem of their relationship, is resolved. Elsa gains control over her powers when she understands that love and communication are all the situation needs – are all they’ve ever needed, really, it’s just not what their parents encouraged them to do.

Accepting that people make mistakes, that we all have plenty of learning to do, and that ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away are valuable life lessons. Learning that you don’t have to buy into the surface of the story, but you can delve into the reasons behind it and question them, is important for people to become well-rounded members of society. And this is why that dress misses the point of the film: Frozen encourages and empowers people to make choices, to understand situations, to realise that love can be true even when it’s complicated and painful. That’s something completely at odds with the role of marriage in traditional fairytales, which rewards good girls with a wedding that secures their social standing.

Disney’s released a dress inspired by a character who sings about letting go of a judgemental society’s fear of her and her powers, designed to be worn by brides who love Frozen. It’s ironic that they’ve emboded the conclusion of the traditional fairy tale in an expensive piece of “Let it Go” merchandise, because the value of Frozen is clearest when it’s set against the cultural history of tales that told girls to lie down and shut up until the handsome prince turned up to save them.

Sam and Shawn’s Wedding Blanket Squares

A little late, but considerably less late than Nova’s camera and Zara’s blanket from last year…!

This August, I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of two lovely friends of mine. Sam and I have been members of the same friends group since we were fifteen or so. The Kilvites a fantastically creative bunch, we met on writing courses run by the incredible Beth Webb and we’ve been together ever since.

Sam and his delightful bride, Shawn, tied the knot in a beautiful and bonkers country house in Somerset. But for several months prior to that, a bunch of us were working away making them a wedding present like no other.

Sam was once described as “the sexy purple man” – he had a penchant for wearing many shades thereof when we were younger, so it was no surprise that that’s the colour scheme for the blanket was, too. Marshalled by Sam’s mum, the lovely Kate, many of us – in fact, many of us who’d never met! – beavered away making squares of varying shades of lavender, violet, plum, amethyst, lilac and heliotrope. The instructions were to make squares, which I duly did. But rather than just stick with blocks of colour – which, in crochet squares, could have looked a little dull – I decided that a change was as good as a rest, and returned to the delightful sunburst granny square pattern used for Zara’s blanket.

crochet blanket sunburst granny square

This is where it all began!

I was careful not to share any pictures of the finished squares publicly, but so that Sam’s mum wouldn’t be too shocked when she received my package, I took a record of what I made and sent this over to her while they were in the post.

crochet blanket sunburst granny squares

The first batch of squares.

I particularly enjoyed making the sunburst squares with a range of colours. I made four of them with the shades of purple yarn that Kate had sent me, and four with yarn from my own yarn stash. I think the ones with the alternating stripes of dark and light were the least successful of all the squares, but I’m still glad I experimented with them nonetheless.

I think I was the only contributor to make squares out of crochet. The rest, many of which were made by a spectacularly talented woman named Jeanette with whom I also had many great chats about feminism and literature, were knit.

After the first batch, I made three more – by that stage, Kate had laid out most of the blanket and wanted to use the flower-like squares for structuring the colours. Like so!

crochet blanket sunburst granny squares

It has a lovely, stained-glass window quality to it.

I think the soft shade of green that Kate used to stitch it all together was absolutely perfect. Softly striking without being too overwhelming, it’s a remarkably harmonious choice. Apparently it came about completely by chance! She was working on the structure of the blanket with the mother of one of the groomsmen, when one of them pulled off a green cardigan and chucked it down next to the squares – and realised it was an excellent match. Serendipity!

I loved working on this project, not least because it was exciting to make all the squares, send them away, and then come together much later, celebrating the happiness of two wonderful people, and see how many people had come together to make something that they can keep with them always. What a nice notion.

So congratulations to Dr. Major and Mr. Wood, may you have long, happy, warm, purple, fuzzy lives together!

Four things we should learn from Scotland’s referendum

A week on from the after-parties and we aren’t talking about the result any more. There are other things in the headlines, Alex Salmond’s on his way out, and the governments are scrambling to move forward with what they promised in a moment of panic last week.

We’ve got the message – Scotland’s staying in the UK game. What should we be thinking about as we move forward?


1. Democracy isn’t dead.

Voter turnout has been dropping for a long time. It’s not hard to see why: first-past-the-post is hopelessly corrupt, people’s votes don’t matter if they’re voting for another party in a “safe seat”, politicians are universally hated. Voter turnout drops on rainy days. Young people and poorly-educated people have a particularly sparse voting record. And yet, people have shown that they will turn up to discuss things that they care about. The Scots cared about their country, so they turn up to discuss it. Non-Scots cared about what would happen when it went to the vote, so they discussed it, too.

If there is one thing we should take from the referendum, it is that people will vote for policies, not people. I think that’s because they know perfectly well that politicians are primarily self-serving. Politicians focus on other politicians, and it’s hard to wash away the idea that they are interested in their careers as much as they are in the country/ies they run.


2. People do care about the future, but they don’t care about the way the politics is done. 

There’s long been criticism that the parties are all the same, there isn’t enough difference between their policies. But something else worth considering is that policies are what politicians consider to be important, but that’s not what resonates with people.

Sure, some people care about policies. But they’re often the ones who’ve already taken an interest in politics, and have learned how the system works. To people entirely outside the sphere of the political world, the way it’s run makes no intuitive sense. It’s easy to hate politicians because they’re paid to sit around, argue, and make slippery comments in front of cameras. They court the media and their own parties in the name of “serving the interests of the people”, but do they ever ask what those people’s interests are?

The very concept of having a “whip”, enforcing party attendance and dictating how members should vote according to party policy, neatly embodies the problem. It means that people may elect a representative who answers to a member of their party rather than the people who put them in place. It means that, once again, politicians’ votes are affected primarily by the function of politics and not by people they’ve been elected by. Can you imagine what would happen if someone consistently voted against the whip?

They’d be disciplined for not keeping to the party line – at the very least. Ministers can automatically lose their seats if they don’t turn up to an important vote. This is a pack mentality, and it ensures loyalty to the party over everything else.

In case you hadn’t gathered, I don’t think that’s a good thing. Politicians should be answerable to the people who elected them, not the pack they’re currently running with.

Even the phrase “party whip” reeks of a privileged, aristocratic past. It comes from whipping dogs into a hunting pack, so that the group hunts more efficiently and individuals don’t break away and do their own doggy thing, like not taking part in blood sports, or possibly scaring away the fox.


3. People care about decisions that represent what they believe.

Petition sites have made it possible for everyone to belong to a pressure group and to lend their voices to the causes they believe in. There’s a greater level of political engagement over issues that resonate with people. Causes, passions, identities – the things that make people distinctive from all the other humans in the world. That’s what’s important to them. That hasn’t changed.

It’s feeling powerless to change things that keeps people from voting. It’s knowing how little value their votes count, how little effect they’re actually going to have on the people at the top. It’s being a pawn trying to outmanoeuvre a queen – and, yes, I’ve always hated chess. If the pawns ganged up and took on the royals, the whole board could be a republican utopia within half a game.

If politicians are looking at the referendum and thinking “How do we repeat that level of engagement?” (which they should be), they should pay attention to the importance of passion.

Of course, not every vote or referendum can be on something as fundamental or evocative as an expression of national identity. But the understanding that people vote for things that they feel strongly about should be what drives development in the political arena. Voting for ideas, for policies, and not for people to make faraway decisions about stuff where they might or might not then bother to tell their constituents what’s up – that’s the future. The internet will make it happen. It’s a question of when, not if. And we need to start preparing for it now, by educating people properly as to what their rights and responsibilities are towards themselves and the other people in the countries they live in.


4. Party politics has failed.

It failed a long time ago, but we’re all so used to it that it’s taken a while for people to notice. Party politics failed as soon as people started saying the main parties were all the same. They are: they’re mostly made up of rich white men who occupy a particular niche in society.

How do we fix it? Well, for one thing, we need to educate people more. We need to make it easy for them to vote, we should make their vote needed, and we should empower them to make choices.

We should enforce voting as a civic duty. I’m not saying people should go to jail for not voting, and I do think there should be space for conscientious objection and spoiling ballots, etc. But voting is really bloody important. We should be making it easy and important for people to do.

For one thing, we shouldn’t make people vote all on one day. Voter turnout drops drastically on days when it’s raining, which is ridiculous considering that the way the country is run has nothing to do with the weather. Polling should take a week. It works in New Zealand.

One thing that’s very clear from this election is that people do truly vote with their feet. They turn up to things they care about.  The panicked scrambling of politicians in the last few weeks has been extremely satisfying to see, because it shows just how out of touch they are with life on the ground.

They’ve presided over a country that’s struggling through an economic crisis, that’s looked to its leaders and found them wanting for a very long. So many of this government’s policies have been incredibly unpopular, and the government before that wasn’t much better as far as listening to the people goes.

Perhaps, one day, when we live in a resource-rich utopia and nobody needs money or religion, we won’t need people to make classified decisions. But that day’s a long way off, so for now, alright, I accept that there might need to be representatives who have access to those decisions. But they should properly serve the people who elect them by asking what the people want to have done. Of course it isn’t feasible that they ask every single time, but with the rise of the internet, it’s now far easier for people to engage with politics, to dispute what they dislike, and to make it clear to governments that there are consequences for betraying their people.

As I discussed before, empowering the people by offering a vote isn’t enough. It’s not empowerment to make ill-informed choices: that’s manipulation. That’s propaganda. That’s very close to fascism. Itt’s not going to build a stable society that caters equally to the interest of every party involved. And by “party”, I don’t mean political parties. I mean people. Every person.

Because if we’re not voting for a stable society where everyone has an equal chance to shine, what’s the point in politics at all?

Why is it suddenly a shock that Scotland want independence?

The referendum on Scottish independence was proposed in March 2013, passed by the Scottish Parliament in November 2013 and received Royal Assent in December 2013. The whole process has taken longer than eighteen months to come to a head. It’s 307 years since the King of Scotland became King of England, and 268 years since the end of the Jacobite rising that saw the hopes of a Scottish king returned to the throne dashed. Walter Scott’s first damn novel, published in 1814, was about complex sympathies with Scottish nationalism under Hanoverian kings. Braveheart was a hit. (Sorry, Scotland.) So why have newspapers exploded in the last few weeks with the news that Scotland might vote Yes?

It could be interpreted as a symptom of how out of touch Westminster has always been with Scottish voters – or, in fact, any voters in the provinces outside the capital.

London has always been a law unto itself. Since Londoners made their choice as to refuse Matilda’s claim as Empress in 1141 (hint: you haven’t heard of her because they said no), London’s been a unique political reality in the British Isles. It’s got its own relative gravity. And there’s a semi-real stereotype that its people and its politicians orbit London and leave the rest of the country/ies up to their own devices. Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the rest of England are moons orbiting the sun of London – and it’s really bloody annoying when you’re not one of the chosen few.

Sure, Londoners got a bad name when they moaned about Tube closures as Dawlish station sank beneath the waves. They are criticised for their London ways, and the attention they take from other people in other places. Well, that’s an issue of social culture as much as anything else – of a lot of people being affected by one thing, and a few being affected by something else. There are thirteen million people in Greater London. In sheer weight of numbers, it’s not easy to argue with those kind of market forces.

There are five million people in Scotland, four million of whom are eligible to vote in the referendum. There are three million people in Wales (no jokes about sheep, please – there are twice as many sheep in England as there are in Cymru). There are 53 million people in England, and in case you aren’t good at maths, that means that a quarter of the population of England lives in London.

This is why politics focuses on London so much. Yes, it’s a simple tyranny of the majority, and that’s a problem in itself (and one that technology, and the increasing democracy allowed by the internet, will challenge in future). But it’s also a question of applying resources to their most lucrative place, and that’s always been the capital.

If you wanted to be optimistic, I suppose you could say that if you focus policies on London, you could improve things for a lot of people very quickly. But I don’t think politics is about benefiting the people, certainly not the way it’s done at the moment.

And besides, London already has the Oyster card, which is amazing (though apparently going to be phased out, because they don’t know what’s good for them). What more do they need?

But I digress.

The fact that national newspapers are running “shock” headlines about a Yes vote suddenly leading the field, leaving leaders scrambling to issue political ultimata, indicates just how deep the problem of focusing too much on the capital goes. This story’s been in going on for a very long time, though, and whatever your feelings on the matter, it just shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a hefty chance that the Scots might vote yes.

My feelings on Scottish independence are complicated, and honestly, I’m not voting, so I didn’t particularly feel the need to share them. But then I thought, well, I do need to blog more. And once the votes have been cast, excited speculation will be irrelevant, so I thought I would just put some ponderings out there.

I support every people’s right to self-determination.

I was raised to think of myself as Irish, not British, and with a keen awareness of modern Irish history. In case you aren’t aware, my mother’s father was an Irish politician (and footballer, and lawyer, and MEP, and also a great violinist – he was pretty cool) and a member of a political party founded on the ideal of Ireland being a self-governing republic. Simply by existing, both sides of my family have always challenged the English historical narratives that I received at school (my father’s family are Anglo-Indian), which pushed me to think about the way things are, and how that’s different to the way things are told.

My grandmother was a codebreaker for the Americans in India during World War II, but I wasn’t allowed to do my history project on her experiences because they “weren’t relevant to the World War II curriculum”. If you weren’t writing about Britain and Germany, you weren’t going to pass the test. I was ten years old. I was furious – and to get a mark and I had to do what I was told.

And people say that privilege isn’t a problem in education?

I have always believed that we have a right to vote for our leaders, that we should try to create a society in which we are truly born equal, that universal education is the key to achieving social equality, and that privileges of race, gender, religion and class must be challenged in order to be overcome. I suppose, if you look at my principles, I could support Scottish independence simply because I don’t think the UK has a right to call itself united (more on this another time), and I don’t believe in kingdoms.

In practise, though, I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. For one thing, whatever the Scots do, I don’t really mind. It’s their choice, and I’m not eligible to choose. But I find it frustrating that there aren’t more referenda in the UK. It frustrates me that once again, choices that affect many are made by the few.

I’m not saying that the whole country should be made to vote on Scottish independence. Sheer weight of numbers is against the Scots, so that’s unfair right off the bat. I am saying that the whole country should be made to vote at all. Voting should be a civic duty, because it’s not a choice we should be allowed to duck out of through apathy or laziness. There should be more things available for us to vote on. We should be consulted on the way things are run, and to make sure we’re all properly equipped for the responsibility, we should all receive a quality of education that means we are empowered to make well-informed political choices.

That’s what I believe.

That’s why it makes me spit with rage that people keep saying things about David Cameron being “the Prime Minister who loses Scotland”. There have been calls for him to resign, claims that his party will no longer trust him, that he will be seen as “personally culpable” for the conditions that have led to this happening.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate the wilful ignorance and snobbery of conservative politics. I hate the denial of social problems. I hate the fact that so many of the country’s leaders are white, privately-educated males. And I hate this:

“Three in four senior judges, 59 per cent of the Cabinet, 57 per cent of permanent secretaries, 50 per cent of diplomats, 47 per cent of newspaper columnists, 33 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet and 24 per cent of MPs went to Oxford or Cambridge University. One in seven judges went to five independent schools – Eton, Westminster, Radley, Charterhouse or St Paul’s Boys.”

(I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with people who went to private schools, by the way. Many of my friends benefited from a private education, and I went to a grammar school for two years, but I don’t think you should have to go to a special school to get a high standard of education. I believe in free, universal education to the highest quality, for everyone. I don’t believe we should have to pay for a better kind of education, for a better class of class – and I don’t agree with money as an exclusionary measure, or the privileges that blind people to ongoing social problems.)

As much as all these things, I hate the fact that they describe David Cameron as “personally culpable”, because it’s a cheap, punchy piece of rhetoric that hides all of the real problems. Accusing him of being the one weak link, politicians and political commentators make it about one rich white man, instead of about the institutionalised, endemic failure of the system he happens to spearhead.

Make it about Cameron, and by implication, the problem goes away when he does. But it doesn’t. This isn’t about Scotland running away from David Cameron, or David Cameron as a failed shepherd whose flock is going astray. A nation isn’t some spare change that’s slipped down the back of the sofa.

The issue is a lot deeper and more complicated than one rich white man’s reputation after centuries of political unrest boil to the surface and become an issue on this scale. And the problem has always been that London focuses on London, that politicians focus on other politicians, that there isn’t enough transparency about money, that our MPs come from a particular societal niche and so they don’t ever accurately reflect the cares and interests of the people they’re supposed to serve.

Here’s a thought for you: can you name the Welsh First Minister? Do you know the difference between an MP and an AM? What are the major political concerns of Northern Ireland? What did the Good Friday Agreement achieve in 1998?

The UK isn’t really united, because most people outside Wales and Northern Ireland can’t answer those questions. And Scotland is no exception.

Scotland’s quest for independence is a symptom of an ongoing problem. While I might have reservations about the policies that will come into play if they do branch off on their own, I also accept that I’m not an expert in any of the matters to hand (border controls, currency, the cost of running embassies in other nations, etc). And, ultimately, I don’t really mind what happens tomorrow. The rest of the UK is an absolute mess, so what I hope is that whatever the vote is, the issues and policies raised will kick-start some change.

I don’t want to see triumphant gloating if Scotland says No – and I don’t want to see David Cameron held culpable if Scotland says Yes. The events that have led to this vote are more wide-ranging, and it’s time we started discussing what else led us down this road. Because in a way, Scottish independence might be a good answer for those north of the border, but it’s not something that can be applied to, say, England. Could England secede from the UK? Would they achieve a better future if they did?

England already pay more for education than the rest of the UK. They pay more for the NHS. Their government doesn’t look out for them the same way that the Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish governments focus on their own people. (I say this as someone who grew up in England, but now quite happily lives in Wales.) But that’s a problem in itself, because I don’t believe in nations, and I don’t like the fact that convenient geography and a history that’s ignored by the people in power is what makes some places look to their own concerns. We should treat all people equally, and we should be empowered to make our own informed choices.

What I really hope is that if the Scottish become independent, it might wake people up to the chance for change that exists, and has always existed, we just haven’t stood up and demanded it yet.

I want independence. But I want independence from a corrupt system of privilege that focuses on keeping a certain type of person in power. And, ultimately, that’s why I decided to share my thoughts. Because it’s only by speaking that ideas spread.

And I might be lucky. There might be others who agree. And there might be enough of us that we can make something change.

Adventures in Baking: Challah

challah baking bread

As many of you may know, I am a keen maker of foodstuffs. I’ve never been much of a baker, though – apart, that is, from my love of baking bread.

There is nothing in life so satisfying as baking bread.

I really love bread.


Braided, unbaked challah, brushed with egg white.


Mostly I bake Irish soda bread the way my mother taught me (which I’ll share with you the next time I do so). During my MA Dissertation, when I was wrestling an epic down to just over 20,000 words and frequently wanted to punch things, I kept a sourdough culture in my fridge and made bread regularly. (More on that story later.)

For those of you who don’tknow bread – on the commitment scale, things things couldn’t be further apart. Soda bread is a delightful flirtation with flour, an hour or so from conception to lovely hot loaf. Very little kneading, no need to proove. Keeping a sourdough culture is like having a pet. You make sure it’s not too hot and not too cold, that it has enough food, that it’s developing okay, that it’s clean. And then you make the dough, ignore it for a while, punch it down, let it rise again, sometimes punch it down again, and then you bake it. Phew!

Now, one of my besties is a beautiful Jew, and we delight in sharing each others’ culinary history. On a midnight trip to a supermarket one night recently, after I had travelled many hours to be at her side, I had a craving for soda bread. She’d never had it. We had a bread trade, namely: I left her most of my loaf of soda bread, and she bought me a kind of bread I’d never had before: challah (it’s pronounced with a hard H, HHHHHallah – Meli, I can hear you laughing from here).


Look at that beauty glow!

Challah is everything I’ve ever wanted from bread. Soft, slightly sweet, lovely shiny crust… my boyfriend and I polished off a loaf in about two hours (because it’s a little sweet, it goes excellently with tomato sauces). It was amazing. And this Friday, I decided that, since we were out of bread, I was going to to bake my own.

What makes challah special is that the recipe includes eggs in the dough mix, which gives it a lovely softness and richness. You also then paint egg white onto the surface of the loaf before you bake it, so that the crust goes a lovely crisp, glistening dark brown. Mmmmm. No wonder it’s one of the most popular breads in Europe.

I followed this recipe from TheKitchn, which also includes useful instructions on how to braid loaves more complicated than my humble three-strand plait!

What I learned during my challah-baking adventure was that I should trust my instincts more. I found myself second-guessing a few things, which is silly, because baking bread isn’t rocket surgery.

I also used wholemeal flour, which is what I had left over from my last batch of soda bread, which gave the challah an interesting texture. White-flour challah is very soft, and the wholemeal bread was a little less forgiving. I won’t lie, though, it’s still extremely delicious and I’m still a genius for providing myself with fresh bread for a Saturday morning breakfast.

Though I didn’t wait that long in the end.


It was delicious.

The recipe at TheKitchn makes an extremely generous-sized loaf, so it’s kept us going for a couple of days. So far I’ve eaten challah with butter and honey (sublime), to mop up bolognese (surprisingly excellent), and dunking it in olive oil and salt (the sweetness of the bread goes really well with the salt).

It’s also the perfect accompaniment to eggs in purgatory, which is my favourite quick dish (fry garlic in olive oil, add cayenne pepper, pile in a tinful of chopped tomatoes, poach eggs in the tomatoey spicy goodness). You eat the delicious hot mess by dunking bread in. You don’t even have to get cutlery if you don’t want to! Culinary bliss.

The sweetness and lightness of challah, along with the useful scoop-worthy rigidity of the crust, makes it the perfect bread to accompany eggs in purgatory. In fact, I might make some for breakfast tomorrow morning, to use up the last of my loaf… (yes, it’s Sunday and I’ve nearly finished it. It’s just that damn tasty.)

I’m vaguely sticking to my commitment to blog at least semi-regularly and I still have so much more to share with you all! I just need to get my words out more. And to get back to writing my book, too. So many things, so little time…

But I foresee plenty of challah in my future, because it’s unbelievably delicious and really very therapeutic to make. Meli, thank you so much for introducing me to the bread of your people! I very much look forward to being able to bake it for you in person.