Monday, 11 February 2019

We All Need a Recharge Once in a While...

I had a stinker this week. 
I decided to be proactive about the fact my laptop battery lasts seven and a half minutes without being plugged in. I decided to stop being a victim. I decided to go and grapple that Apple-bull by it's sweet-charging horns and do something about my lack of technological oomph.

Diagnosis: crap battery
Of course, I didn't think it through. When I booked the online appointment with the Genius Bar last week, I didn't stop to think that it might affect my ability to write this blog on time. I naively chose Thursday to drop into town. The fact I write the blog every Friday hadn't entered my head. When it occurred to me that they might not sort my battery out on the spot, I panicked. I started to pre-emptively write these very words a few hours before the appointment. That way, if they chose to keep hold of my laptop, or take it apart and break it accidentally, I'd have this saved. I could hopefully work out a way of publishing it on Monday morning via my phone. Or something. 

It's an empty calendar
of possibility. Larks.
So there we go. That's where we are. As you're reading this, it means one of two things have happened. Either my laptop is being tended to by millennial genii, my foresight has paid off, I've managed to work out the Blogger App on my phone, and you're missing out on the pearls of wisdom I would have come up with, if I'd had the luxury of my usual routine. It means that instead of spending Friday morning, afternoon, and intermittent bits of the weekend writing, tweaking and titivating a wordy post, I'm gadding about the land with free time to my name, feeling the wind in my hair for the first time in ages. That's the first thing it could mean. Alternatively, it could mean that even though my laptop was fixed within an hour and I was sent speedily home with full power restored, I've decided that these brief words will do and I'm taking advantage of an empty Friday. It's gone one way or the other. Who knows at this point which way. But whichever direction the Apple-Gods directed me, this is as good as it gets. I'm checking out a day early. (Last) Friday is mine for the living. 

So, as we all wish my bruised and battered laptop battery a safe journey to a better place, and we get ready to welcome her replacement with open arms, let's enjoy whatever unexpected free time we scrape together. We all need it once in a while. Our metaphorical batteries need a reboot. (I'm mixing metaphors but I don't have the techy knowledge to fully grasp how.)  May that reboot/recharge/whatever be equal parts raucous, rejuvenating, and relaxing. Bon chance and bon voyage, everyone. 

Have a lovely week, folks.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Code Red Imminent...

I've been pre-menstrual for days. The period tracker - that I used for the first time this month - confidently informed me I would be perioding two days ago. Reader, the tracker lied. 

It's fine. It's coming. I can tell. From my bloated, anxious stomach, to the insatiable craving for anything sweet, or my zero tolerance for the tiniest of dick heads, it's only a matter of time. That crimson wave is about to get surfed.

But - seeing as we're sharing - this is not my first rodeo. I've been aware of the joys of periods long before they bothered my existence. This is partly due to a mother that informed me of such matters, as well as a slightly older next door neighbour who would give me her used copies of Just Seventeen and My Guy when I was in primary school. I had a working knowledge of all sorts of grown up things like pubic hair and french kissing, long before they featured for realsies in my life. And so it was with menstruation.

The book that I'm plugging at the moment is the story of a girl in top Juniors. She knows periods are a-coming. She ponders them now and then, and wonders when that day will be. I don't think I've made her talk about the whole shebang more than is normal. I think - when I cast my mind back to that time in my life - I thought about periods the same amount that she does. They're on their way and she knows it. She wants them to start because they herald adult status, but she doesn't want them to start because of the classic 'what if I'm in school?' nightmare or 'blood on jeans in public' scenario. Standard stuff, I think. Timeless concerns for the ages.

Leeza has a LOT to say 
about all sorts of stuff.
When adult friends have asked me if this book is suitable for their youthful children, I tell them yes! But then I add that a working knowledge of puberty might be advantageous. Not that it really matters, I suppose. Like my discreetly stashed copies of Just Seventeen, children learn about life from all sorts of places their parents have no clue about. And that's as it should be. One sign of growing up is losing the need to get your parents to OK everything you know and learn. So whether it's Just Seventeen's problem page, Judy Blume books, or some dodgy website that they really shouldn't have stumbled across in the first place, kids find out stuff from all kinds of places. Unlike the dodgy website however, nothing in my book could be described as adult content. But for the less informed reader, it might raise questions. That's a good thing, I'd say.

But we're getting sidetracked. Worrying about the age appropriateness of period chat in a children's book is a waste of time. Periods are a thing. They exist. It'd be inappropriate NOT to refer to them. As you read this, 800 million people are simultaneously experiencing the joys of monthly bleeding. Fun! With numbers like that, I don't understand why we're not talking about periods in every single conversation. (Some people would argue that I do!) And I'm sure it goes without saying that boys need to know this stuff too. I think we've worked that out now. No longer boys topics and girls topics, whispered secrets passed on amid nervous, single-sex giggles. The PSHE curriculum is fairly robust, thank goodness. Everybody learns everything, regardless of personal biology. It's the best way. Hopefully it means the days of an adult male friend putting his fingers in his ears and la-la-laaing over me as I tell him I'm feeling below par because of period pain, are coming to an end. (True story!) 

Rubbish cramps aside, I am ludicrously lucky. A throbbing stomach, nagging lower back pain, and an intolerance for idiots is nothing considering my advantageous circumstances. I have a bathroom. I have a home. I have money to buy sanitary towels, Dairy Milk and Solpodeine Max Strength. In terms of those 800 million people currently bleeding, I'm winning.

For some time now I've been a fan of Bloody Good Period - a charity that donates sanitary towels to refugees. It's brilliant on several levels. Mainly because it meets the most basic of hygiene needs for those that have the most basic of finances, or even showering facilities. But it's also easy to donate - via Amazon. Just a few clicks, and it's sorted. Because I'm a lazy cow that needs things made as simple as possible, this suits me enormously. If you think it suits you too, check them out. For the tiniest of efforts, you get to be helpful. It's hard to argue with that.

So as I sit here and await the arrival of this month's #bloodgate, I recognise that if this is all I've got to deal with, I'm doing OK. I'll send Bloody Good Period some packs of Always and I'll crack open the sharing bar of Dairy Milk. And whilst I won't technically be sharing it with anyone, I'll mentally pass it around my 799,999,999 fellow perioders, and thank my lucky stars I get to cosy up in clean pyjamas, in a warm house, with everything I need for the duration. 

Have a lovely week, folks.

In related news, I enjoyed reading this article. It shares euphemisms for menstruation from around the world. My favourite is the South African one - Granny's stuck in traffic. It's all I'll be saying as soon as I come on. Don't say you weren't warned.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Winter Thrills and New Order Songs...

And just like that, Blue Monday is over. Another year gone. This time last week we were thigh-deep in the gloom of it all, wading through the overwhelming angst, and contemplating all the misery. Or we were?

Bang on, Dr. Ranj.
I'm not saying everything feels perky and bright in the post-Christmas come down. But I balk slightly at using mental-health terminology about a random annual day. People with actual depression know that it's not confined to a carefully equated day of the year, when tight money, gloomy weather, and New Year's resolutions giving up the fight, are all supposed to converge as one. And then there's the fact that Blue Monday was created as a publicity campaign to sell holidays. Apparently. Put into that manufactured context, it feels silly to even mention it. 

And yet people do mention it. It was all over Twitter last week - trending, or being linked to adverts for businesses, and instructions for self-care. Fair enough. If it helps people suffering from depression to ask for help or even recognise something is wrong, then that can only be a good thing. But in terms of a yearly day of global gloom, I'm not on board.  

This January, I'm feeling the opposite of blue. (The colour wheel tells me this is orange!) What is normally a boring month of routine re-establishment after the Christmas madness, has actually been rather marvellous. I was trying to work out why the other day, and it comes down to this. It is not Summer. 

An actual photo 
of actual sweat. 
June 2018
Everyone knows I dislike Summer. That's standard. Everyone knows I love the build up to Christmas and the constant Met Office tease of a snowy day. Classic. But this year, the glow has been ramped up to eleven because of last year. Last Summer was - and I realise loads of people don't agree with me, so brace yourselves for an opinion - utterly horrendous. The oppressive heat, the never-ending lethargy, the brain fog - I really struggled. There was no let up. It felt like it went on for months. (According to this article it was six weeks.) But six weeks of feeling below par, fed up, and struggling to function was not fun. And because it went on so consistently, it's taken longer to forget. 

My icy, sparkly, pretty skylight!
It's January 28th. The heatwave ended four months ago, and yet I've not forgotten. I can't. It was too much. Plus, it's making me dread this Summer, which is likely to be more of the same. So at this time of year, when I'm usually bored with rain, frustrated that no one is going out, and feeling ready for some excitement now the Christmas shenanigans have died down, I am relishing January. I am loving the dark nights, wallowing in hibernation, and making sure I eke out every bit of Winter fun. 

For the sun worshippers out there, who are willing away the weeks until they can bikini up, drink beer in gardens, and go jogging alone in the evening once more, here are my Winter thrills that might convince you to enjoy the current season with me. See what you think.

No amount of sun can
provide this much pleasure.
My fancy title makes this paragraph sound more sophisticated than it is. Put simply, it's jumpers. Jumpers and slippers. Oh how excited I was on an almost-breezy day last year when I was able to wear a jumper again. A big, fluffy, blanket-esque outer layer is the loveliest thing in all the world. I've got myself a bit of a jumper habit these days. I've amassed a range of fleecy, leisure-wear style tops from the PJ section in Tesco. This does not stop me wearing them out and about. When I have to venture forth into the chilly rush-hour darkness, to dash for an essential evening meal ingredient, it's best to do it with SWEET DREAMS emblazoned across my chest in glitter. Fact.

This works because I am
 5ft 4. It's not an inclusive
household for anyone much taller.
Mood Lighting
I had a eureka moment the other day. Like dogs, fairy lights are not just for Christmas*. Now, any visitor to my home can see I've long known this. My dining room ceiling is bedecked with year round white lights strung across it. Yet, it's only during the festive season that they're switched on every day. Come January 6th, I do not flick that switch. UNTIL NOW. I've decided to keep my fairy lights lit as long as the dark nights are upon us. Yes, that's right, I'll stop in March when we spring the hour forward. I will not live by other people's rules, and that includes when is or is not acceptable to switch on fairy lights. Likewise candles. Lighting them in the evening is a lovely, almost ceremonial event, by which to herald the start of Death in Paradise.

As well as a jumper habit, my
Tupperware obsession is
reaching an all time high.
Gorgeous Grub
No One Gets Horny Over Salad will be the title of my eventual cookbook/memoir. But for now, let's just enjoy the stodge of it all. Mashed potato, gravy, curries, chillies, big pans of simmering aromas, and fluffy jacket spuds. I'm not advocating shovelling in carbs till you burst. There are plenty of winter warming foods that hit the spot but keep things healthy. I spent the best part of yesterday making four types of soup, and a stash of baked beans to freeze - mainly to stock up on lunches for the coming weeks - but it was the happiest way to spend an otherwise uneventful Sunday. Bubbling pans and the smell of warming sustenance.** Mmmmmmmm.

Don't forget kids, other
cinema chains are available.
Fab Films
It's Oscar season. This might mean frig all to you (and I agree that a much Oscar-nommed film is not necessarily a standardised quality mark) but it's the time when big hitters, sweet indies, and well-made contenders fill the cinema screens. I've seen The Favourite and I loved it. I've also watched A Star is Born, Stan and Ollie and Mary Poppins Returns. Still to catch are Can You Ever Forgive Me, All Is True, and Mary Queen of Scots. Whether these float your boat or not, the wealth of films that appeal right now is huge. Last Summer I resorted to watching Oceans 8 twice in three days purely so I could be air-conned for a couple of hours. If there'd been all those crackers to choose from, I'd have managed the heat so much better. 

This is not on brand. Get a
plan, Aubrey Plaza. Get a plan.
The Future
Sun lovers, you'll be back on top soon. With January mostly done, your time is coming, and quickly. For me, I'm spending the last few weeks of the hibernation period, planning for what happens when it's done. I need plans in place so that when the nights are lighter and those fairy lights are off, I don't feel rubbish. I'm lucky this year. I've got my sister-in-law's hen do, and my brother's stag do in the diary already. (Yeah, check it out, we're a modern family!) And then there's the annual caravan shebang in May. And then there's Eurovision. And then there's Aussie relatives coming over for my brother's wedding. And then there's my book coming out, and then there's... yeah, yeah, you get the gist.

Looks like it's going to be a busy year. If I'm lucky, I won't have time to notice the seasonal change. Not for a second. And if not, I'll just move into my local cinema for the Summer. That's a plan. Defo. But for now, I'll carry on solemnly lighting evening candles like Jack the Leerie, dribbling homemade soup down my fleece, and planning my next cinema visit. Onwards and upwards. Let's keep on keeping on.

Have a lovely week, folks.

*Obvs my CHRISTMAS lights are just for Christmas. They got shifted back to the loft once the decs went. I'm talking about the non-Christmas lights. You know, those other ones.

** Warming sustenance aka butternut squash, chilli and coconut soup; brocolli and feta soup; smoky tomato, pepper, and chorizo soup; and Chinese chicken curry soup. 

Monday, 21 January 2019

DuVernay, Bigalow, Coppola... Bond...

Maybe this is the 'They'.
They say you need six months for marketing once your book is finished. Who 'they' might be, is less clear. Self-publishing experts, bloggers, writing groups that have a decent online presence? All of the above. What's also less clear, is how that marketing actually manifests itself.

Some people are hell bent on trying to get their book into bricks and mortar book shops. I can understand this. It would be quite the thrill to be tracing my finger over the spines of an Atwood, Billingham, and Blume, before chancing upon a Bond. Quite the thrill indeed. 

This is how my attempts at cultivating a
 relationship would go. But it would be the
booksellers that needed the Kleenex
due to my awkwardness.
But not thrilling enough for me to take on this gargantuan task. Not at this point, anyway. It's virtually impossible to get an indie-published work into a brick and mortar bookshop, unless you've spent the previous years cultivating relationships with the owners. And as I tend to avoid small talk in all retail transactions I encounter, I've never quite made it beyond handing over my bank card and saying 'thank you', in whatever book shop I happen to be in. So, I have to market elsewhere.

The internet is the obvious place. I've got all the social medias (except the ones I really can't be faffed with) and I use them regularly. Twitter, Facebook, Insta, this blog - it's all happening in my online life. So I bang on about my book/s and hope people are moved enough to click the links or look them up.

It seems this isn't enough, though. More and more suggestions are out there. How to make people move from mild indifference to an actual sale. How to reach out to as many people as possible, widening the scope of people who might feel the urge to buy. So here we are. It's come to this. The future of marketing is video.

*chuckles to self* This is soooo me.
Yes, I realise that even the word video sounds like an 80s throwback these days, but this is where we are. Movies, clips, gifs... the moving image is what social media is about. It seems scrolling past an image is way easier than scrolling past a clip. People tend to linger, longer if something is moving. That's what I've gathered, anyway, from observing the way I use social media, and the way things are marketed to me. It was also something my sister-in-law mentioned when she started a new job. Videos are the future, according to her Comms team. 

Armed with this knowledge, I did a thing last year. I experimented with iMovie. This is a free programme that's been on my Mac since I bought it, yet has remained unsullied by my inner Spielberg. Not any longer. I dusted off that programme and had a play about. The first results - which long-time fans may have already seen on Facebook and Twitter - took the form of this....

It's basic, I know. But considering I had no clue what I was doing, or what buttons did what, I'm happy enough with it. And it was just for starters.

Fast-forward to the present day (about three months later, last week) and I had another go. This time I wanted to add some audio. I worked out a shortish way of explaining what Leeza McAuliffe Has Something To Say is all about, whilst sitting in my kitchen, and hopefully looking as natural as possible. Imagine I'm being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg or Mariella Frostrup. No, go on. Imagine it. And now imagine that instead of seasoned interviewers, the questions are being asked by titles inserted between clips. Now add some irritating sound effects and you've pretty much got the gist. 

A sneak previous of my seminal work - a screen shot of
an ad. Coming to a social media platform near you, soon.
I'm going to 'drop' these videos in a couple of weeks, once I've got my other adverts in place and ready to go. I'm also going to ask everyone to retweet and share the hell out of them, and possibly give away a free book to a lucky retweeter/sharer - it's all part of spreading the word.

But for now, I'll carry on filling this marketing period with as many constructive ways as I can to reach out to readers everywhere. Just call me <INSERT FAMOUS ADVERTISING AGENCY HERE>. Yeah, I'l be honest, I don't know any famous advertising agencies. It's not an area of the world with which I am familiar. This is all uncharted territory, and I'm winging it every step of the way. So, if you feel sorry for my pitiful attempts at playing with the big girls (Ogilvy and Mather, Dentsu, WPP group - I googled it!) then feel free to share this blog, retweet any links I put up, or use the power of speech to spread the word. It's all much appreciated. And it'll make the remaining two months of marketing time absolutely fly by.

Have a lovely week, folks.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Fan-Girling Over Football...

I KNEW it would be big.
There's a giddy thrill in discovering a thing before the rest of the world does. Like, for example, when an early 2000s post-pub channel-surf, led me to a random docudrama that I couldn't quite believe. It took a few weeks of tipsily catching half episodes, before I decided it was funny and told my family. Fast-forward a couple more years and we're all dragging dining chairs into the lounge to watch the The Office Christmas special together. Rooting for Dawn and Tim along with the rest of the nation. Obviously I'm not saying Ricky Gervais owes his career to me. Well, maybe a little bit. But it was interesting to be aware of The Office before the buzz gathered momentum and the world learnt of David Brent.

I was thinking about that when I was at the football last weekend. I've said it before, but I have little interest in men's football. I grew up in an Evertonian household so was aware of specifics like Howard Kendall, Frannie Jeffers, and Barry Horne's goal of 1994. But apart from the odd World Cup or Euros tournament, it left me a bit cold. There was no hook to drag me in, and no one mithered me to try. I went through high school doing my absolute utmost at wagging as many PE lessons* as I could get away with (Sorry Miss, I have a cello lesson) and being utterly turned off to the concept of jigging about in the cold. Yet, just thirty-seven years after my birth, and alongside the BBC's decision to televise the 2015 Women's World Cup, I became a sports' fan. More specifically, a women's football fan. Now, I'm on my 4th season ticket for Liverpool Women FC and spend every other Sunday cheering them on in Prenton Park.

Unlike Ricky Gervais, (who would be absolutely nowhere if I hadn't told my family about his little show) women's football is not in its infancy. Clare Balding's Channel Four documentary When Football Banned Women, showed how popular the game was after the First World War. Women worked together in factories and mills. Work-based teams were established, games were played, and the crowds flocked in. But in 1921 women were banned from playing by the FA because... sexism? The patriarchy? Jealousy? Who knows. The ban was reversed in 1969, although it took another twenty-four years for the FA to set up the Women's Football Committee to run the game in England. So it's not early days for women to play football at all. It can just feel like it sometimes. Especially when compared to what the mens are doing.

Merseyside Derby at Haig Avenue on
2nd December 2018. Everton won 2-1.
I had the worst hangover and had to buy
paracetamol in Aintree on the way home.
I try not to compare really. It's a different world, and one I'm not interested in. I get frustrated when the women's game is seen as not as good as the men's. When people think the men set a standard that the women don't reach; that they compete at a lower level. Nah. That's bollocks.** It's two separate entities. By all means find the women's game less enjoyable if you prefer the men's leagues, but don't assume your experience is universal. Like heterosexual people who think everyone is straight until they're told otherwise, fans of the men's game are always surprised when I extol the virtues of women's football but have no clue what's happening in the Premier League. They think they're mainstream and the rest of us are other. It's annoying. 

Whilst I was musing about this blog,
assistant manager and goal keeping
coach, Chris Kirkland, was trying
to score against Anke Preuß 
So, during half-time on Sunday, I came up with my list of reasons why women's football is fab. Many are to do with off-pitch organisation as much as the game itself, but it all adds up to making it a satisfying way to spend a Sunday afternoon. So grab your rattles, wave your scarves, and let's go.

Women's Football is Fab Because...'s cheap!
It costs £6 for an adult ticket to watch Liverpool Women. A pound less if you book online and children cost £2.50 when pre-booked. Whilst some clubs' prices may differ slightly, no one takes the piss. It's possible for a family of five to watch a game together without taking out a second mortgage or selling an organ. 

...the crowd is nice!
Possibly because of the large proportion of children present, there's very little bad language. I think I heard one fan mutter 'shit' under their breath once. But standing up and yelling abuse at players, managers and refs isn't the norm. It rarely happens. There's cheering, shouts of encouragement, and collective groans at near misses but that's about it in my experience. On top of that, the away fans sit alongside the home fans. Whilst this can sometimes be annoying (one Birmingham fan stands out in my mind - I had to stop myself shushing him!) it results in good-natured banter at most. 

...there are less cards, sendings off, or extra time!
I've no empirical evidence for this, just my own gut instinct, but I've watched many games where there're no cards given. I've also watched matches where there's no extra/injury time added on. I would hazard a guess that this is the opposite of the norm in men's matches. If I had more time/inclination I'd do statistical analysis over the course of a season. Or Google it. The players get on with the game and don't tend to time-waste. Not obviously, anyway. Dramatic dives and desperate appeals to the ref aren't often a thing. It's refreshing.

A paused, zoomed in TV screen
  does not give the best quality
photo. But here I am, enjoying
my personal space on 26th
November 2018 watching
Liverpool play Birmingham City.'s not too popular!
This feels like an own goal to be honest. I want more people to attend games, I want more money coming into the clubs, and I want more coverage on the TV because broadcasters see it's a popular sporting event. However, there's something lovely about being able to choose where to sit, not have my outer thighs pressed up against creepy guys either side of me, and not have to apologise to twenty people in the row as I make them stand so I can nip to the loo at half time. I like the personal space. I know it's not ideal for the clubs who want as many people there as possible, but I still like it. Sorry.

...equality is more obvious!
All the players are women just as all the players in the men's game are men. But in terms of other football professionals, there's a real mix. Amongst the managers, coaches, referees and linespeople, there's no obvious bias. When I catch five minutes of a men's match on TV, it's rare to see anyone female besides the crowd. I don't know why this is the case. Likewise, I don't know why there are many out-gay female players but hardly any out-gay male ones, but that's the way it is. It makes for a nicer, more inclusive environment in which to spend a couple of hours, regardless.

An old pic now but I proper fan-girled
 over Tash Dowie. We have a mutual friend
so it wasn't the weirdest thing for me to
say hi. Not my usual style at all
...the players meet their fans!
I think this is the biggie for me. At the end of every match, the home team walk over to the stand and sign programmes, pose for selfies, and chat to their fans. They walk along until everyone who has waited to see them, has been seen. It's the loveliest thing ever. I stayed once to see what happened. Dozens and dozens of kids, teenagers, and parents got to chat with their favourite players. It sounds really simple, but had a visible impact on the kids who got to see their idols close up. Later, on Twitter, I saw those same photos being proudly posted. Parents tweeted their thanks to the players who made their kid's day. It's such a positive thing to do. How wonderful it would be if it happened in the men's game. 

I could go on about this all day but I won't. The truth is, I'm a big fan but I'm no expert. I still need a slowed-down replay to see if a player is offside, I don't know the names of all Liverpool squad yet (to be fair it changed completely a few months ago) and I'm getting fed up of sitting in the freezing Tranmere weather and watching teams score against us. But that's it, isn't it. That's the thrill. The highs, the lows. I'm becoming a real football fan after all. I just need to shout 'back of the net' and 'pick THAT out' several times a match, and it's like I'm Des Lynam. Or something.

Have a lovely week, folks.

*My PE lessons consisted of netball and hockey in the Winter and tennis, rounders, and athletics in the Summer. In 4th and 5th Year (That's Year 10 and 11 for millennials) we had tasters of loads of stuff like archery, badminton, step aerobics, and self-defence. All good stuff, but not a sniff of football over the five years. 

**It's all subjective. Men's speeds are faster but that doesn't mean men's football is better. It's not a running race, after all. Having a slower speed means that the women's game can showcase passing, tackling, and quality footwork with much more clarity for the fans in the stands. This might not be your thing, and you might prioritise speed and pace over that. Fair play, the men's game is for you. But just because the pace is faster, it doesn't mean it's better. Just different. 

Monday, 7 January 2019

The Joy of (physical pleasure other than) Sex...

Over Christmas I was asked, 'What's your favourite book of all time?' There are many ways to answer that question. Do I want to sound clever and profound? Do I want to describe the type of book I wish I'd written? Do I want to be honest? Full disclosure, I was drunk. I went with honest.

My answer was Christopher Brookmyre's Sacred Art of Stealing. I've read loads of great books over the years, but this one ticks all my boxes at once. It IS clever (in an accessible way). It's certainly satirical and cynical. It's exactly what I wish I could write (it balances a bunch of unexpected plot twists and gruesome crimes, alongside a tender romance) and I've read it every few years since my mid 20s. When I was asked this question (at my writers' group Christmas meal, no less - now THAT'S pressure to come up with something intelligent-sounding) I didn't overthink it. The Sacred Art of Stealing was the one. 
It's a cracker. 

The underlying reason for my love of that book (and many others written by Brookmyre) is that he writes women so well. Obviously for authentic, well-written female characters, I can go to female writers. And I do, pretty much all the time. But I think the reason I love CB's books is that they're pacy, witty crime thrillers, all with a political edge and an unexpected moral compass, yet his female protagonists are well-rounded and fully realised. In my experience of enjoying a male-written thriller from time to time, that doesn't often happen.

In semi-related news, Joanne Harris of Chocolat fame (and many books since) is a great follow on Twitter. Every few days she asks her followers for a writing topic she can advise on, in ten tweets. Her #TenThings hashtag has covered loads of issues such as #TenThingsAboutBookBlurbs or #TenThingsAboutTitles. A little while ago I read her #TenThingsWomenWantMoreOfInBooks. There were many great points made (ten!) but number seven was an eye opener. Joanne Harris suggested that women want to see more 'physical pleasures other than sex' in books. It sounded so simple and obvious. I imagine I emitted a 'duhhh' sound as I read it. Like, OBVS I want characters to experience physical pleasure other than sex. That's just basic. But then I started thinking about my own writing and my own characters. Have I fully rounded them out so they feel non-sexual pleasure in the same way that a real life person would a hundred times a day? I'm not sure.
So far today, my own list of non-sexual pleasures include the first sip of tea this morning, the smell of my sausage butty immediately before eating it, and the smugly energised feeling I had after returning from my morning walk. All that took place in the first three hours of being awake. If I was a fictional character, no matter what plot-driven shenanighans I got up to, small details like that would make me a more interesting, more developed person on the page. So... have I given my own characters such basic details as non-sexual pleasures to enjoy, or did I go straight for plot-driven characteristics. 
Oomph. That smell!

With Carry the Beautiful, it's an interesting dilemma. The main protagonist Tilda, is an uptight, unfulfilled, hyper-organised person. Experiencing pleasure isn't her first concern. She has to be convinced to put her needs first, by her mate, Bea (a character that is all about pleasure, non-sexual and otherwise!) On reflection, I think I deliberately made Tilda avoid anything as self-indulgent as enjoying herself. Although, in my attempts at establishing her character early on, I described her relishing the brief window of silence in her empty house immediately following her return from work. That was more about showing she wasn't particularly happy in her marriage, rather than giving her unbridled pleasure with her cup of tea. But maybe I could have shown her rearranging her tupperware drawer? Getting a tricky stain from a rug? Something to show her ordered, tidy personality as well as highlighting the things that her personality finds pleasurable. It would make her leap from the page all the more quickly. Something worth reflecting on for the next time I write an adult character, anyway. 

Oh baby!
Which leads to my new book, Leeza McAuliffe Has Something To Say. Leeza turns eleven over the course of the book. As such, she seeks pleasure in as many ways as her limited funds and freedom can allow. Her parents insist on family vegetarianism so her secret ham sandwiches are an absolute treat (albeit one that causes enormous guilt). She loves the memories of holidays by the sea. Her weekly enjoyment of Friday night tea (where more effort is put in by everyone), or the huge bath she has in her first stay at a hotel - they all highlight who she is, and what makes her tick. But it was easy with Leeza. She was a child. It made sense for her character to be more focused on her immediate feelings of pleasure. My challenge will be to remember this, when I sit down to start book number three, and write new adults with new lives. That'll be happening in the next few weeks. 

And as for Christopher Brookmyre? In The Sacred Art of Stealing, when we first meet Angelique de Xavia, she's attempting to beat her judo partner into submission. Straight away, her character is established with a non-sexual pleasure or pastime. She is shown to be interesting (the reason why she's trying to channel her aggression becomes clear as the chapter progresses) and not simply there to prop up a male character and his story. This is her story. She has feelings, motivations, disappointments, and inner-conflict. It's all there. No wonder I liked her. No wonder I found myself remembering this book (amongst a huge shortlist of potential answers) when someone asked me what my favourite was. Now I just need to remember all this when I start writing again.

Have a lovely week, folks.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Festive Viewing, Part Three...

The struggle is real
The days between Christmas and New Year pan out the same way each year. Before they arrive, I dread them. When it's mid-December and I'm waiting for the Christmas glow to kick in, I want to postpone the post-Christmas period for as long as possible. But then madness takes over. There's excessive food, I'm in a permanently boozy haze, I eat cheese hourly, and my clothes stop fitting. By the time Boxing Day's over, I'm ready for a break. I don't want to see another Christmas advert. I don't want the sniff of an alcoholic drink. I want to feel 'normal' again. 

But things aren't normal. Not until we've done the first week of January. Schools are still on holiday, rush hour is still calmer, the TV is still full of interesting and non-standard fare. So when you've tired of consuming everything in sight, and you don't want to socialise for another decade, the best thing to do is make use of the telly. Ladies, gentleman, and those who don't adhere to the gender binary, I give you... my Festive Viewing, Part Three! Yep, I really have dragged this out to a third part. You should never have doubted me.

Christmas is OVER
So let's start with the basics. Christmas is over, pack up Elf and Home Alone and put them back in the mental attic. It's time for new, exciting things. The Radio Times (that you'll have pored over with a highlighter the second it came out) is filled with nuggets of wonder. Lavish productions, special episodes, big feature films - they're all there. You'll have added them to your TV planner of choice a few weeks ago. Now the jingle-bellsy stuff is out of the way, it's time to sit down and watch. The choices of viewing can be roughly split into three categories.

Oi, Malkovich. I said Christmas was over.
Now show us your Poirot.
1. Interesting Telly
There's so much novelty at this time of year. Routine scheduling is ditched in favour of one-offs and specials. Top tip: if you forgot to plan ahead, utilise that BBC iPlayer. (Other catch up services are available.) Mark Kermode's Christmas Cinema Secrets was great. Kermode is my favourite film critic because even when I don't agree with him, I RESPECT him. Anything he says about cinema is worth listening to, IMHO. Then there was The Morecambe and Wise Show: The Lost Tapes. Obvs M&W have been culturally linked with this time of year for years, so this felt like a special treat that we didn't know was coming. Then there's the big budget stuff. The BBC are brill at this. There's always an Agatha Christie remake, and this year it was The ABC Murders. John Malkovich no less, had a pop at giving us his Poirot. Fair play, lad. And if that wasn't your thing, maybe a songless Les Miserables might be more up your street. You could always mentally insert Anne Hathaway's Oscar-winning performance, should the need arise. Over on ITV player, the dramatisation of Torvill and Dean was always going be a nostalgic romp. When I get round to watching it, I imagine I'll be bolero-ing myself silly before the evening is out. The Queen and I on Sky was a tongue in cheek morality tale about how a republican Britain might look if the royal family were sent to live in a council house on benefits, and for those that have happy memories of the original cartoon (anyone?) this year's star-studded, new-fangled animation of Watership Down might be worth your time.

In the last few weeks there's been quality TV all over the show. You just have to get round to downloading it.

Me and Geoff Capes could
 have a bash at recreating this.
2. Films I Saw for the First Time at Christmas and so are Always Seasonal in my Head
For the next category, cast your mind back before streaming services, catch up TV, and - if you even can - the Internet. Christmas/New Year was the one time there was a decent chance of seeing a good film on TV. The kind of film you'd have liked to have seen at the cinema, but you had no money, no one would take you, and you'd been told to wait until it came on television. As December rocked up, the Radio Times was highlighted to death, and a bumper pack of blank VHSs were bought. As a result, I've seasonal feelings about a whole host of films I encountered for the first time this way. I first saw Crocodile Dundee after it was shown at Christmas 1989. I wrote a review of it in my diary that year. (I had to concertina in an extra page because I had so much to say.) Dirty Dancing came into my life at Christmas 1990, as did Back to the Future. In 1992 I saw A Fish Called Wanda after it was broadcast on Boxing Day. Shirley Valentine was Christmas Day's evening film in 1992 and Last of the Mohicans was a few days before Christmas in 1995*. I recorded all these films at Christmas on my blank tapes, and then proceeded to watch them repeatedly until advances in technology brought DVDs into my life. When I want to relax in the days post-Christmas, these are the sorts of things that make me cheery. Best watched with excessive cheese and crackers. 

If you're still hungry for more inspiration, there's one final category. 

This could be a Bond family holiday
video from the 80s. Except it's not Wales,
and they're not visiting a coal museum.
3. Nostalgic Classics From Yesteryear 
This will be different for everyone. For me, it's filled with films like The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing,** and The Wizard of Oz. Family films from years ago. My favourites often have a musical bent. Alternatively, growing up in the 80s meant family sci-fi was big business and formed my youthful Christmas film memories too. ET, Flight of the Navigator, War Games and D.A.R.Y.L. All of these are the kind of films that are snuck in at 10am on 23rd December, or filling the initial January schedules before school starts again. The listings are full of them if you look. Little gems you first saw years ago, that take you out of yourself for an hour or so. Indeed, a few days ago, when everyone who'd stayed for Christmas had left, and I'd hoovered up the sea of crumbs, baby wipes, and glitter that covered every flat surface in the house, I lay on the settee under a blanket with a mug of tea, and watched Mary Poppins. I spent the entire film dozing on and off but it was the loveliest come-down to a festive high that I could have possibly imagined. With added fairy lights. 

So now here we are. We're into the last hours of 2018, and are facing all the unknown that 2019 will bring. As I attempt to emotionally disentangle myself from the never-ending cheeseboard that is my fridge, I'd like to say thank you for reading. Happy New Year, and I hope marvellous things come your way in the future. 

Have a lovely week, folks.

*There was a bit of a drama in my attempts to record Last of the Mohicans. In 1995, I was 17 and money was tight. I had invested in a multi pack of blank vids - something like  £2.99 for ten tapes. (Can't remember exactly but it was an absolute bargain at the time.) On 22nd December I opened the pack and took out my first tape to record my first circled film from the TV guide. The TV wasn't on but I was in the lounge when it happened. About fifteen minutes from the end of the preset recording time, I heard a noise from the VCR. There was a bit of a whirr and a buzz and then a very distinctive snapping sound. The tape had broken. Knowing how much I loved the end titles (I'd seen it at my friends house and I knew the music in the last scene was the best part of the whole film) I rushed off to get another of my cheapo/potentially flawed video tapes and recorded the last ten minutes of the film. That same video was used the next day to record selected TOTP2 Christmas hits. For years later, I would rewatch the last ten minutes of Last of the Mohicans before segueing into Fairy Tale of New York, and associated the whole thing with Christmas festiveness. Happy memories. 

**I'll be honest, it's been years since I've seen this, but I really really liked it when I was little. I just have the sneaking suspicion that it's massively racist now. I don't want to find out for sure by rewatching in the cold light of adulthood.