Review: The Phoenix Comic (PR gift)

This is an ad: the kind chaps at The Phoenix sent us a free subscription to review. But what we think of it is entirely up to us.

Something terrible happened this week. We opened our weekly edition of The Phoenix and there was no Doug Slugman in it.

Let me rewind (God, I’m so 1980s).

A month ago, some nice people from The Phoenix got in touch and asked if my 10yo daughter and I would like to try it out and review it. It’s a comic, specifically designed for the – frankly hard-to-please – tween market. It’s a weekly which arrives, touchingly, in an envelope addressed to the kid – with an added whizz-bang adjective. Which certainly pleased her nerdy mum (and her).

I think that makes me The Fantastic Mrs Fox

Inside is a beautifully designed magazine packed with all sorts of episodic comics and short strips: the more traditional robots and explosions, the brilliantly weird like Bunny & Monkey (think humour on an Amazing World of Gumball level), and non-fiction explainers on science and history.

There’s also a good chunk of traditional activity magazine stuff, like learning to draw. My personal favourite is the sort of ‘bits-and-pieces’ bit at the end where you’d usually find horoscopes and the like. I mean, how else could I find out that my real star sign is actually Cake That No-one Wants?

I am, absolutely, lichen this.

But of course, it’s not my opinion of it you really want; grown ups are far too easily charmed by, you know, creativity and wit and great storytelling. But from the day the first magazine arrived, and now once a week, this is the only view I get for a solid half-hour:

I promise that’s a real child

Occasionally she will surface to show me bits or explain why she’s laughing. And she absolutely tears into the envelope every week when it arrives, which I’d say is a bit of a winning formula.

But, just in case, as a parent, you really do like to steal their reading material, I have to give a big call out to Doug Slugman, which absolutely tickled me to death. With a different explanation every week as to how this slug became a PI, it’s gloriously bonkers. It hasn’t appeared in the last couple of issues, but fingers crossed it’ll be back soon.

If you’re not sure if it’ll ring the right bells for your own tween or one you’re thinking of buying a present for – they reckon the right age range is 7-14 – you can try out 6 issues for £1 with the lowest-tier subscription (it changes to £9.99 after that). Or you can go the whole hog, and the best value, for £99.99 a year.

(There’s an in-between half-year offer, but do many people do that? Maybe you do. If so, they’ve thought of you too.)

I plan on waving some copies under the nose of my niece and nephew in the New Post-Pandemic Times when I’m allowed to be in the same room as them again, cos I reckon it might make a very cool gift-that-keeps-on-giving from their mum’s favourite sister (I’m her only sister, but I don’t see why that matters). I don’t know about you, but I’ve really struggled to read as much as I usually do during The Year of Lockdowns, and I’ve really loved the idea of a weekly dose of joy, delivered through the letterbox just to create a little bubble of entertainment and creativity. I’m kind of wishing they’d do a grown up edition.

As long as they still include Doug Slugman.

Start your own subscription to The Phoenix right here.

(All the links in this piece are trackable, so The Phoenix can see where you came from, but I don’t get anything out of it; this is not a sneaky sell.)

Does 2020 need a word of the year?

Well, it’s just as well last year’s word was Speak, not Write. Because this place has been rather neglected of late.

To be fair though, I have been writing. I’ve been drafting little social media friendly stories. I’ve limped on with my WIP novel. But most significantly, for me, my job title is now Senior Writer, and I really thought I would always dance around that official creative job and never get it and now I have. And it’s exactly what I wanted it to be. Continue reading →

Meet Erin Le Clerc, author of I’ve Got a Cow Called Maureen

Erin Le Clerc is pretty much what you get if you give a whimsical fairy princess a backbone of steel. Psychologist by day and scribbler by night, one minute she’s doling out pragmatic life advice, the next talking about the ghosts in her childhood home (an abandoned hospital). I’ve known her for at least a decade – first online and then in person – and she’s become one of my very favourite people in the world. And I mean the world: she’s based in Queensland, Australia, whereas I’m in London, UK.

When Erin finally realised a lifelong dream of publishing her first book with illustrator Tisha Almas – a smart, inclusive picture book called I’ve Got A Cow Called Maureen – I was thrilled for her. Even more so, I was thrilled for the kids who’d get to read a story about finding your own path and potential. So I invited Erin here to have a chat about her writing process, inclusivity and what we can expect from her in the future. Continue reading →

The Umbrella Academy’s woman problem (S1 spoilers)

In this, the Year of our Lord 2019, there should be no reason to go fridging a woman. And if doing so once might be regarded as a misfortune, to do it twice in service of the same male character just seems like carelessness.

Welcome to The Umbrella Academy: the Netflix / Dark Horse comic book adaptation that hasn’t met a trope it didn’t immediately adopt. With promising diversity in its casting, it could all have gone so much more right. Though, in retrospect, starting with sudden forced births from 43 unsuspecting women – who until that day didn’t even know they were pregnant – should have been a sign of lack of female autonomy to come. Continue reading →

Man watching TV with his back to the camera

The case against pure escapism

Is there a phrase more ready to suck the joy out of the room than “it’s pure escapism”?

Alright, perhaps not everyone dislikes it as heartily as I do. But there’s no description of any form of entertainment more guaranteed to put me off indulging in it or extending the conversation with the person in question. As a review it’s unhelpful and as an analysis it’s dismissive. Continue reading →

What The Favourite can teach us about female representation in popular cinema

Women’s stories can be very different from men’s. But are women themselves? Popular female storytelling in film, particularly in the hands of men, is so often disappointingly predictable and narrow: strength is translated in the main as physical, motivation stems from trauma. When a director – with the best intentions – dismisses the impact of gender, race or sexuality, saying they don’t want it to get in the way of telling a human tale, it’s so often a recipe for disaster. At worst, women are written as walking mouthpieces for their issues; at best, their behaviour is still so often tightly laced into restrictive stereotypes.

Enter The Favourite, equipped to change the game with a nuance and subtlety that contrasts gleefully with its coarse dialogue and visually arresting style. Continue reading →

2019: A new year, a new word

Usually I know what my word of the year is likely to be a good month or so before I get to writing my posts on the matter. This year inspiration has gone right to the wire; it only really hit me a day or so ago.

It’s my seventh year of choosing one, and you can read about years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 here (I don’t think I wrote about 2014’s Creativity or 2013’s Decisiveness). I still feel largely pleased with my year of ‘Do’, but I’m conflicted because the things I thought I would have done, I didn’t – and other things I didn’t expect to happen, did.

I don’t like to make excuses. Scratch that, I love to make excuses, but I know they don’t fly. When I think through last year’s mental To Do list, it’s mixed results. Continue reading →

Why I still don’t know what I’ll do when I grow up

I’m no longer inspired by people who always knew exactly what they wanted to do.

Well, to clarify: I am inspired by their work, and their passion, and sometimes even by some of their process. But given than I’m 38 and I’m still not entirely sure what I want to do “when I grow up”, I no longer seek out stories that start with “I told my nursery school teacher that I was going to be an actress”. Continue reading →

A Hallowe’en ode to Practical Magic

There’s been a wave of Twitter chats recently around favourite bad films (Kong: Skull Island), unpopular opinions (The Lion King is mediocre animal Hamlet with mostly bad tunes) and the like. It’s a great platform for the random and reactionary. But one film kept bafflingly coming up as a “guilty pleasure” with astonishing regularity: Practical Magic.

Now, we all know why that is. We know that it doesn’t actually matter on any level whether it’s a good romantic comedy or not (it is), if the script is smart (mostly), the performances are on point (yup) or the structure makes sense (eh, more or less). What matters is that it’s a women’s film, and we can easily dismiss womeny things that men couldn’t possibly be interested in like love and magic and, um, being beaten and strangled by your insane abusive ex. Actually, it really is a women’s film. Continue reading →

Theatre review: A Monster Calls at The Old Vic

I’ve done a lot of crying over this story.

First on a train as I pulled into a local station, red-eyed, having feverishly rushed through the last few, devastating pages of the book on the way home. Then at the London Film Festival, where I can only assume that the last twenty minutes looked as beautiful as the rest because I was viewing it through some sort of blurry waterfall. So I have history with A Monster Calls.

Still, I had to wonder how the the creative team setting up shop at The Old Vic was going to cope with the mixture of mundane school settings and storytelling flights of fancy. Continue reading →

Film review: Teen Titans GO! to the Movies


There’s a terrible rift in our household. A Civil War, if you will. You see, I’m Marvel. And my kid is (whisper it)… DC.

It’s tricky. And since neither one of us has a mother called Martha, that line of resolution is closed to us. But if there’s one space where I’m willing to let divided loyalties lie it’s in front of the TV for a family viewing of the hilarious, anarchic show Teen Titans GO! So when we were invited along to a preview of the big screen outing for the Justice League’s biggest fans, it would have taken a feat of superhuman strength to hold us back. Continue reading →

My new goal is no more goals

I wrote the other day about how I’m giving up my seven-year-old habit of setting a word of the year. The tl;dr version is that I realised all of the words I’d ever set amounted to one thing: trusting myself to keep trying to be a better person.

Of course since writing it, a lot of other thoughts about the whole goal-setting culture have been jostling for attention. I have literally no research at my fingertips to prove any of my hunches so maybe I’m pulling this out of my arse or my cloistered social media bubble. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like everyone I know is labouring under a persistent gas cloud of fatigue. I think there is starting to be a steady push back against the idea that every January or autumn back-to-school season or big birthday should come with the necessity to ‘reflect’ and plan and set intentions.

Let’s start with what I don’t think. I don’t think people should bin all their aspirations, dreams, ideas, practical work plans or any of that forward-thinking stuff. I don’t think they should stop enjoying the view behind them of how far they’ve come. I do think the only obligation to the future anyone has to is to consider saving some money for old age and getting a pension if that’s an option that is open to them. The rest is all a matter of access, primarily, and then choices.

I’m focussing on the choice bit because I live a really very comfortable life with a number of options open to me. I think I’m largely speaking to people in a similar situation. But I really don’t want to go the route of “real people have bigger problems to worry about”. Firstly because I think that’s immensely patronising and inaccurate (you can have a lack of privileges and want to plan, for heaven’s sake, maybe even more so if you feel very little control). But also cos, look, we know the parameters of this conversation. We know what we’re talking about. You know where I’m coming from, even if you don’t know me. This is not new. But I still get to unpick it some more.

Like most people, I’m neither fully determinist nor entirely the opposite. I recognise choices are not made in a vacuum, which means some are unavailable and others are immoral or at least not very nice. We never make any logical decisions, as far as I can work out, because people aren’t very logical. That’s fine. We might do some vaguely sensible things, or necessary things, like train to be a teacher if that’s the job we want or go on a course to learn something that makes us better at things we need to do to make money or enjoy our private time. We save money to do specific things: move out, go on a holiday, replace the kitchen. We attend the gym to stop huffing up the stairs, and we promise ourselves to file our tax returns earlier so we don’t get a nasty shock.

Are those goals? I don’t feel like they’re what people talk about when they talk about goal-setting. I think they consider them steps on the way to their fully realised life which is their real goal – but which, they’re dimly aware, is actually constantly moving further and further away. The problem is, I suspect thinking of these small things as steps towards a bigger goal actually reduces both the motivation to complete them and the satisfaction we’re supposed to get from achieving them.

It feels to me like we’ve devalued the process in favour of the result. I understand why. Why do anything if it’s not going to get you from A to B? I’ve said before that the only two states that feel rewarding are the ‘planning to’ and the ‘having done’, because the bit in the middle is laborious and so, so hard. But I think the reason for that is the constant pull of the done, ticked, completed, achieved. Remove that, and the middle bit doesn’t seem so boggy anymore.

Perhaps the secret to greater contentment – maybe even greater success, whatever that means – isn’t scanning the skies to spot the rainbow that’ll lead us to the pot of gold. We think we’ve got to mark a point on the map, and travel like hobbits to Mordor, sweating and trailing spiders’ webs until we can save the Shire. But then we get there, and it turns out there’s another great leap and another and another and we’re always going to want to keep going. And that’s exactly it: we’re going to feel dissatisfied no matter what. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t believe we need to motivate ourselves at all.

We’re going to keep going, because what else is there? And why not? Yes, on a daily basis you might need a structure and a plan to manage, for a whole variety of reasons, which is absolutely fair enough. But for the bigger picture? You’ll probably keep plodding along regardless. And I can’t help thinking that the plod will be so much more pleasant if we stop taking a pause to whip ourselves. Sure, not every goal has to feel punitive, but somehow they always seem to take on the language of tradition, honour, discipline, excellence.


Let’s be honest: most of us are not destined to be world-renowned (and most of those who are world-renowned did it through a series of small manoeuvres to achieve an idea of a goal, rather than the actual thing they got, and which tended to involve a dose of luck, privilege and being in the right place at the right time which is simply not always calculable). And feeling like we need to give ourselves a performance appraisal every January to get through the next cycle around the sun might appear to help, but I think at best it’s… nothing. At worst, it feels harmful – like picking a scab until it bleeds over and over again and thinking that the scar is proof that it’s working.

This is hardly a new thought, but somehow we collectively keep forgetting it’s already there. Through Anne Lamott, I came to this quote from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” When it comes to life, we could push that car analogy all the way up a hill and back. And you’ll have noticed it doesn’t even begin to mention having a planned destination. Or any need to go off-road.

Chatting about this on Twitter, Cathy Wallace – who’s really great and outrageously sensible – commented: “we’ve come full circle from a starting position of considering ourselves ordinary and therefore ‘less than’, to attempting to stand out, only to realise we’re *all* basically very ordinary in our way and that’s ABSOLUTELY fine” and honestly I think she’s spot on.

I’ve loved the brilliant Jo Middleton’s posts about her “midlife unravelling”, too which have resonated to an almost physically painful extent. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a) we’re all women and b) we’re circling around 40. I think we’re all coming to the same conclusion, which is that we cannot plan bloody anything, because life will do what it wants, and we can only do what seems like a good idea at the time and try to enjoy it as best we can. Why does that hit women harder, in my opinion? Because while I think goal-setting in a work context has been a very masculine preserve in the past, the idea of annual reinvention and self-actualisation is peddled to the feminine much, much harder. And getting half-way through the average life expectancy (for women, heralding the end of your sexual and breeding capital under our current social system) tends to hone your acuity when it comes to anyone trying to sell you the perfect life.

Also, I’m tired. And the world feels tired with me. Again this might be my political bubble speaking, but a long, painful run of unexpected election results and turbulent international relations seem to me to be confronting even the most self-possessed among us with a bowel-melting lack of control. In that environment it’s hardly surprising that ‘new year, new you’ lives on under different guises every year. If we set goals and work hard and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps we can weather any storm, right? Uh-huh.

But beyond ageing, politics, exhaustion and just not seeing the point, the past five years have delivered to me personally an occasionally brutal, sometimes ecstatic lesson in how little we can truly shape. Goals? Are you kidding? I don’t even know what my kid will decide she likes eating tomorrow. I’ve dealt with two major family health crises, one of which is in stasis and the other very much ongoing. There have been employment ups and downs, which had nothing to do with competence or failure to network or really anything much within my or my loved ones’ grip. In the last year in particular, I’ve felt very much like I’ve been on a sort of amber alert – to the point that I ended up seeing my doctor for stress-related symptoms that were physically taking me down (I’m fine, kids; don’t worry). Set goals? Why? So life can laugh in my face?

Which is why in the last few months, I’ve had a breakthrough of sorts. Right around the time I stopped thinking of every decision as a way to get to the next rung, and the next, and the next, I realised I’d never even been standing on a ladder. And the minute I stopped being ambitious for things or berated myself for not knowing exactly what I wanted to do / want / be, the complete terror of being untethered felt far more manageable.

I’m not going to pretend for a single second I’m not still anxious about all sorts of things. Not having enough money to live on in my old age scares me. Ageing out of my industry scares me. Putting my daughter in a decent secondary school scares me. Doing work projects I haven’t done before scares me. Not finishing my novel scares me, as does finishing it. My extended family’s health and wellness woes rip my guts out and dance around wearing them as garlands. Can I set goals to win back that feeling of purpose? I can try. And you now what will happen? I’ll add achieving those goals to my list of worries and feel even more lost.

Pardon my language, fellow travellers, but fuck that.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t even know what all the questions are. But I do know that every time the fear rears up and whispers but what do you want to do with your days in my ear and I answer whatever feels right at the time, I feel better about… well, everything. And thus far, rather than presenting an obstacle, it’s made me feel confident to apply for a job I wasn’t sure I could get (I did), write stuff about films I wasn’t sure people would like (they tell me they do) and occasionally throw bits of writing into the wild without a third thought (I always have a second). These things don’t have to get me anywhere, cos I have no idea where I’m going.

Imagine it: no hurdles, just challenges. No failure, just learning. Getting on the best you can, and having that be enough. I’m willing to try that for a while, because frankly it sounds really peaceful, and peace seems like a spectacular gift to give myself.

I’ll let you know how it all works out.

The pain chronicles part 2: back to the future

I should have called the last part ‘requiem for a disc’, shouldn’t I? If you’re joining me for the first time here and you really like extended medical stories about back surgery, do I have a 3,500-word treat for you! Otherwise, if you a) already read that, b) don’t care or c) just want to get straight to the stuff about how I live with pain now, two surgeries later, as well as yet more extended medical stories then do settle in.

I’ll start with a list of things that I used to do without thinking, and which now give me pause. This is not for sympathy, but relatability for those with a list of their own – and a chance for those with no list to maybe register how life might look different for that friend, relative, colleague or random stranger on the bus. Continue reading →

The pain chronicles part 1: surgery for a slipped disc

The most common question I get asked about my back problems is “how did you slip your disc?”. And I usually reply: “I stood up”.

Over the years I’ve told bits of the story, always in person, to individuals. I want to write much more about how I deal with pain now, what it means now. But to do that, I find I need to explain the history first. And it’s a good medical story. Who doesn’t love a good medical story? Continue reading →