My 2018 Word of the Year

2017 has been… a good year for comedy. Politically, whatever point on the spectrum of opinion you occupy, you’ve probably felt aggrieved. Being in a country that doesn’t know where it’s going or why it’s going there but by God it’ll go there with conviction isn’t necessarily the most inspiring context to live in, but I recognise it takes a massive level of luck to even be concerned with any sort of personal growth. But, you know, you’re on a blog not a news channel, on a post entirely about self-actualisation, so you kind of asked for some self-centered pontificating.

Looking back at my previous words of the year, many of them were about mindset – about thought, rather than action. And that makes sense – action takes practice, and thinking makes it possible. I may or may not be able to accurately attribute actions I took to fostering those mindsets, but I do it anyway. For example:

2013: Decisiveness > changed jobs, deciding that yes, frankly, I could work for an agency and be good at it (spoiler alert: I could indeed).

2014: Creativity > started sharing my probably terrible but heartfelt art in public (the results of this are still working themselves out in various projects and exciting ideas)

2015: Asking > a small mountain of small asks that altogether allowed me to accept taking up space in the world.

2016: Value > I think I might have seen more of the results of this in 2017 than 2016, especially when combined with…

2017: Chance > packed in a level of security to go for a fast-paced job in a sector I’d never worked in, leading people who are very likely smarter than me.

Of these, only ‘asking’ is an action – the rest are much more ambiguous; deliberately so, as I wasn’t interested in narrowing my field of vision. But I do have a slight problem with focus. I’ve often wondered if my love of the V&A is down to operating like a series of Victorian fads all on my own; I develop crazes and obsessions, start a project… and then leave it foundering. In contrast to my paid, out-of-home work, where I tend to be dogged, I pick up and drop personal projects, leaving a bog of abandoned hopes behind me. A large portion of this is fear – it’s no coincidence that many things get shelved just as I’m required to take the next steps to make them fly. And a chunk of it is being tired, lazy or distracted: by ongoing health problems I need to argue with my doctor about (if it looks like a thyroid issue, hurts like a thyroid issue but you won’t properly test for a thyroid issue, does anyone hear the tree falling?), by bills to be paid (£420 to remove four of the cat’s teeth?!), by raising the most wonderful child (who can also be a PITA on the regular), by taking the leap to change jobs (and living up to my own hype) or by horrible family illness (I can’t be flip about this one; just trust me that it’s terrible).

Still, I don’t want my word of the year to be about completing things, because I am nothing if not a contrary younger child. Tell me that I must and I will tell you that I won’t (yes, perfectly aware this is self-defeating; your point?). But knowing my own propensity to need to be inspired rather than chided, to seek carrot rather than stick, I wanted my word to suggest motivation and ongoing evolution rather than evoke the full stop: finish, complete, achieve.

I cycled through some of the more inspirational language, and quickly rejected it: blooming (sounds like acne), blossoming (yech), flying (nope).

And then it hit me. How about just… Do? It suggests the completeness of an action while including the possibility of onward motion. And it allows a level of impulsiveness that gives me permission to break down the walls in my head that suggest no, shouldn’t, couldn’t, too old, not good enough, why. I’ve already booked another stay at the best place in the world to help keep me on track but also do is for every day; I can’t fall into my pattern of thinking I’ll do that when I have time to or when I’m fitter or when I’m good enough.

Yesterday, I stumbled across this wonderful piece from Roxane Gay about following dreams at any age. It spoke to me on every level, and I knew more than ever that I couldn’t keep shying away from doing the work. I have stepped up in other areas of my life – become a more assured mother, asked for and got the job and the pay rise, complimented myself and my abilities when it’s warranted, worn the obnoxious lipstick and taken time out for myself without (too much) guilt. So at this point I have to ask myself: can a lack of confidence, a fear of failure and a dollop of pure laziness ever be worth the cost of not pursuing what brings me joy and satisfaction?

Of course not. So I’ve done the thinking… and now it’s time for doing.

Beautifully simple, and simply beautiful.

Happy New Year.


Four minute film review: The Florida Project

It’s taken me weeks of thinking about The Florida Project to even consider trying to write this in four minutes. But if I gave myself longer, I might never stop.

Named after the code for what would become Walt Disney World, The Florida Project takes place in the shadow of Cinderella Castle, centering on a young mother and daughter living a transient motel room life worlds apart from the glossy, expensive vacation kingdom up the road. An astonishing performance from Brooklynn Prince sends us into the story through the eyes of a child – a foul-mouthed, whip-smart, fascinating child, in turn worlds apart from the usual syrupy fare Hollywood dishes up. Her outstanding chemistry with influencer-turned-actress Bria Vinaite, who is utterly compelling, is the beating heart of the film.  Yet possibly the smartest trick The Florida Project pulls is dressing up an incredibly tight structure in the loose garments of what is so well written it all sounds like improvisation. No setup is wasted, no lines are indulgent, no performance is over or undersold; everything feeds back into the whirlwind. It’s a queasy dervish that draws you in with such lightness that – even though the breadcrumbs are there all along – you don’t quite realise how comprehensively it’s breaking your heart until the final moments.  Absolutely one of the best things you’ll see this year.

Film review: Paddington 2

Quad_Fairground_AW_[32622] Paddington 2

I’ll dollop on marmalade analogy early: this film is deliciously sweet, but with a gently tart edge, and if there were a cinematic equivalent of comfort food this would be it. But it would be unreasonably twee to spread it on too thick, given this is a film that wears charm on its sleeve, but never becomes sickly.

Once again voiced by the wonderful Ben Whishaw, Paddington is on a mission to buy a thoughtful birthday present – a unique book about London – for his Aunt Lucy (the voice of Imelda Staunton). This first requires getting a job (no mean feat for the delightfully naive little soul who seems to be a magnet for accidental trouble) but things take a turn for a elaborately worse when a thief gets his hands on the precious book and disappears in a puff of smoke – leaving Paddington to get the blame and the Brown family with the task of putting the clues together and clearing his name.


Hugh Grant dominates a stellar cast in what is probably his finest, and certainly most hilarious, role. He spares no flourish for a barnstorming performance as ageing showman – and master of disguise – Phoenix Buchanan, who is busily switching accents and wigs as he plots to get his hands on a hidden treasure that could radically change his fortunes now he’s reduced to dog food ads and local appearances. The bulk of the remaining laughs come from Brendan Gleeson’s menacing prison inmate, who forms an unlikely alliance with our fluffy friend while they’re both behind bars. It’s testament to the quality of the film that it’s packed with big names and brief cameos  – no monstrous egos on show besides Buchanan’s.


Everything is just so perfectly judged, with a brilliant blend of slapstick humour – largely piled on the unfortunate head of Tom Conti’s grumpy judge – and witty asides mixed in with lots of loveliness as the residents of Windsor Gardens come to realise how much better life is with a marmalade-loving bear in the mix. Paul King and Simon Farnaby don’t spare the undertone, with a showdown between Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville) and mean-spirited NIMBY-ite jobsworth Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) about welcoming in strangers providing a little bit of a bite for the adults in the audience.

With the world as it is right now, this is the charming, open-hearted comedy audiences of all ages need to see and be soothed by – one where we can believe that with enough faith in the power of human goodness, all can be made right.

Paddington 2 goes on general release from November 10th.

Parents’ note: my rather sensitive 7yo really enjoyed this – a few belly laughs and she was genuinely moved at moments. It’s the kind of thing that tends to sweep kids of all ages along with it, but there’s nothing to alarm the youngest or more sensitive souls.

Tickets were kindly provided by ThinkJam PR on behalf of the production for us to see the film. Opinions are entirely my own, as ever. If you’ve seen the film or want to find out more, join Paddington on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Four minute film review: Thor: Ragnarok

These are good times for comedy. Giving the most maverick wing of the MCU outside Guardians of the Galaxy – this one ripe for resurgence following a shaky sequel – to a reliably off-the-wall comedy genius managed to be both a brave and low-risk move from Marvel; fortunately, Taika Waititi doesn’t disappoint.

In his first work to involve massive budgets and existing characters, he effortlessly pins his intimate, wise-cracking style on the overblown, operatic drama of the Thor franchise. It gives Thor (Chris Hemsworth) ample opportunities to stretch his comic muscles while letting Loki (Tom Hiddleston in the best terrible wig so far) a little off the leash and channelling the dry wit in the latter’s constantly challenged dignity rather than the raw rage seen in previous incarnations. The plot is messy but fun, the set pieces full of opportunities to lovingly re-create comic book panels and the director’s fondness for pratfalls lampoons any moment that threatens to crumble under its own CGI. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is neon joy and Cate Blanchett’s death goddess utterly beguiling if a fraction underused; on the flipside Karl Urban will join Don Cheadle and Dick Van Dyke in bad accent purgatory and – the biggest shame – Tessa Thompson hasn’t hit her stride yet, largely lacking conviction. You’ll laugh, and then you’ll laugh some more as Waititi blends humour and warmth so deftly he ought to have James Gunn sharpening his pencils – and his wits. This is my Guardians – and I loved it so much more.

*written in four minutes. Because this.

BFI London Film Festival 2017: four-minute film reviews (The Meyerowitz Stories; Battle of the Sexes; Call Me By Your Name; The Shape of Water)

I’m taking a different approach to my festival filmgoing this year – a round-up rather than a post for each. I’m sure SEO experts will be shaking their heads and I’m certainly not winning on frequency or volume of content, but I’m hoping this will mean a distillation of quality – more useful stuff, delivered more efficiently, with less waffling.

She says, waffling.

Anyway. This is what I saw, and these are my thoughts – written in four minutes or fewer.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Writer / director Noah Baumbach turns his lens on notions of success and failure in life and art, with the help of a gorgeously restrained performance from Dustin Hoffman bookended by smart takes from Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller – who are given specific set-pieces to channel their usual energetic performances into so they don’t overwhelm the all-important quiet. Strikingly edited and deftly constructed, it’s warm, witty and truthful – and Baumbach nails quirks so much more invitingly and incisively than his sometime collaborator Wes Anderson. Its weakness is in its women; less well-developed than the men around them – and at times almost uncomfortably drawn as the maiden, the would-be mother and the crone – there is a strong whiff of missed opportunity as Emma Thompson feels miscast and Elizabeth Marvel underused. That said, it’s unquestionably a lingerer with some beautifully written and cannily observed family conversations that make it well worth a shot – and it’s on Netflix any day now, so there’s no excuse not to.

Battle of the Sexes

Oh, how terrible this could have been – but blissfully isn’t. Filled with energy and an assured lightness of touch from Simon Beaufoy’s sparkling script, the story of young and ambitious Billie Jean King taking on the ageing but still potent self-styled chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, could have been beset by stumbling blocks: a living subject, a known outcome and a watered-down message. They’re all neatly brushed aside in a funny, smart and even-handed take which allows both Billie’s and Bobby’s stories to breathe before building to the climactic match with genuine tension. There could have been a little more explanation of Larry King (who in every particular resembles Fred from Scooby Doo) and Alan Cumming’s well-meaning ‘flamboyant fashion designer’ seems to be the voice of LGBTQ+ politics with a direct line to the future, but it’s all ultimately forgivable in a message film that avoids queasy moralising in favour of simply pointing out how right it so obviously is. Emma Stone blends steely and breezy apparently effortlessly, Steve Carrell deftly sidesteps any mawkishness to make Bobby occasionally even sympathetic – while Sarah Silverman steps in to steal the odd scene with maybe the best 70s hair ever seen on screen. A feel-good winner for sure.

Call Me By Your Name

The pinnacle of the festival for me, this dreamy take on André Aciman’s book from Luca Guadagnino is suffused with Italian summer sunlight and is every inch a James Ivory adaptation. If it has a flaw it is this tendency to cast everything in soft focus – a queer love story for straight people like me – but it stays so resolutely on-the-nose about first love and burgeoning sexuality that it’s hard to hold that against it for too long (that’s what he said, etc). Timothée Chalamet is outrageously good and Armie Hammer outrageously charismatic; while there’s little room for anyone else to command the screen, Michael Stuhlbarg gleams in the supporting role of the benignly yearning outsider. I could watch the end credits for hours.

The Shape of Water

A gloriously evocative mood piece that ultimately favours style over substance. Intended as a fairy tale period piece with a very modern sting in the messaging – absolutely a commentary on our current crises – it sings most powerfully when the wildly captivating Sally Hawkins leads us deftly through the pattern of her mundane days and then the incredible positive disruption that the arrival of an intriguing underwater specimen causes. When it centres on Michael Shannon – commanding but inexplicable – it loses some of its subtlety and depth, and yet again it is Michael Stuhlbarg to the rescue as the voice of the outsider in a moving subplot that I wanted more of. Sadly, Octavia Spencer is wasted on a character that skirts around the edges of stereotype as she gossips endlessly about her husband while occasionally Del Toro gives in to his ghoulish side to deliver some gratuitously grim thrills; one particular stunt with a cat feels like a cheap trick. Still, for all of this – and despite granular plot points that don’t stand up to close examination – the naming of the mysterious facility housing the ‘creature’, Occam, reminds us that we might as well have faith. And what The Shape of Water lacks in depth, it delivers in both faith and heart, making it a flawed but still compelling offering.


Gladstone’s Library aka I took a holiday alone and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done that I’m thinking of right now

I am a work-out-of-home mother. This necessitates some sacrifice in the amount of time I can spend with my daughter, and that can be difficult. My employer is reasonably flexible, allowing regular work from home which means maximising before and after school time. Despite various weekend commitments we all try to make sure there’s at least one weekend day where we don’t do too much and get a few hours to veg on the sofa. I try to use my holiday time judiciously to both reduce the eye-watering amount I spend on summer clubs and actually get a continual run of solid family time from which we can all recharge and remember why we like each other.

So this summer I did the sensible thing and took two weeks off, in the middle of which I ran away for a long weekend on my own.


This is, I think, something that can be hard to understand. If time with my daughter – and, for that matter, my freelancing, round-the-clock-working husband – is at a premium, it seems exceedingly selfish to run off in the middle of it to be by myself. It is selfish. And like many selfish things it turns out to be extremely good for you.

This is not going to be a piece about how much I missed them and how much it made me appreciate family time more because yes I do appreciate family time even more but actually I didn’t spend my time pining or – crucially – feeling guilty. Now, that might have been partly down to the venue in question, Gladstone’s Library. An actual, honest-to-God residential library, it’s a madly wonderful place in a tiny village in North Wales that I had no idea existed until my friend Jen visited and revealed the secret. A plan was made; rooms were booked. Before I knew it I’d shelled out around £150 of my hard-earned cash to stay three nights in what seemed to me to be a thing from a dream: a place where I could be completely quiet, completely focussed and – meal times and evenings aside – completely alone.


I’ve forgotten how to be quiet. I do not know how to be still. I love the cinema because I’ve always loved the cinema but also because there are rules that require me to turn my phone off, concentrate and not talk – except when I’m telling my husband that no, he’s not ever allowed to clap at the jokes in a film again. (Sorry, people sitting next to us for Spider-Man: Homecoming; the Bueller thing was too much for him.) I pass Quaker meeting rooms and think about going in and learning how to sit still but it is unthinkable; I haven’t seen a fully single-screened television programme for at least two years. All of this means that the writing that is living in my head very rarely happens, because above all writing – good writing, writing another person might at some point want to read – requires concentration, even if you only do it four sentences at a time.

And, honestly, I think in paragraphs. I think in chapters. I have never seen a film without writing a review of it in my head – cautiously, and with edits. I have mentally drafted at least 200 blog posts you have never read: some because I thought better of them, some out of fear but most – say, 175 – because I simply never got round to writing them down and then the moment had passed. I did actually draft a book and even did some work on rewriting it but then this new idea started to take an unnerving shape in my head and I have been percolating it ever since.


Now, I do believe good ideas need time to bed in. You need to nest in them like a cat on a fresh washing pile; ideas have to be given a bit of a pressing and tried on for size in several different positions and at least once upside down. But there is a point at which the unfeasibly bendy stretch must happen and you must leap off in search of the meat of the matter. If you don’t, creativity, like diseases, arrives at only two outcomes: cure or death. Either the peg on which you wanted to hang your story will be curiously missing, forcing you to go seeking another, or you’ll throw out the hatstand and all the coats on it, too. Dear God, I seem to have wandered into a metaphor swamp. And I thought I was doing so well.

At Gladstone’s I checked into a room rather like a modern monastic cell, in such a good way. A reasonably comfy single bed with a warm duvet. A desk, a small cupboard concealing a hairdryer and a tray full of tea things. Many power points. Around the way a shiny little eaves bathroom with Velux windows that had no blinds and probably wasn’t overlooked. I had come forewarned with comfy trousers and comforting cardigans; next time I’ll take slippers, too. I unpacked my books – knee deep in Joanne M. Harris and her runes, a notebook my friend Alex gave me for my birthday which I haven’t dared to defile with stupid notions yet – and folded my clothes into the cupboard, quite unlike at home. Alright, it overlooked the graveyard next door and I felt I needed to be slightly drunk to sleep there alone every night but Gladstone’s can’t be blamed for my imagination.


When you check in, your room key is also your pass to the library and your room number can be used to charge the simple, school canteen meals to your account. Jen met me there and ushered me into the library, beaming and with the sleepy-eyed joy that can only come from having written yourself into another place. In through the door to the Theology Room and you would know in an instant you were in a library even if the only sense that remained to you was smell: dry paper, much-polished wood, cracked leather. Add sound and you add the soft percussion of laptop keys and gentle rustle of paper, carefully shuffled footsteps, creaks of tiny spiral staircase steps (maybe a whisper). The library is not large but it still feels capacious with its two floors and high, beamed ceilings and vast leaded glass windows.

Because of the warmth of the place – both the actual summer glow of sun through the windows and the almost tactile loveliness of the staff – I didn’t notice the silence at first. I would hardly be surprised at quiet in a library; I knew what I was there for. That wasn’t the silence that I hadn’t known I needed.


I woke up every morning and tried out a sequence from a Dana Falsetti set of yoga videos I’ve got on that Cody App thing because my back has been quite bad this year and I need to do something to address that. I love Dana – that’s a post for another time. Then I had a shower in my own bathroom; maybe they could see me from across the way but I suspect that was more traumatic for them than me. I wore no make-up – the books don’t care – and swaddled myself in layers since I’m always cold, even in a sun-kissed library. I met Jen and Caitlin for breakfast; for me boiled eggs, toast and butter – on one day, porridge – and for the others perhaps cereal (no, Caitlin, milky muesli never is nice) or toast and jam. It’s included, but maybe splash out a little extra for cooked breakfast on the last morning.


Then: writing. No, I’m not ready to talk about the idea. For one, I’ve hit that sticky part where it will either come together a beautiful pliant dough, ready for kneading, or it’ll stick to my palms in desperate globby lumps that I’ll be picking out from under my nails for weeks. But I think it might be a good one, if only I can work out how to be a little more nuanced and bring all the different bits I want together (or honest enough to dump the things that won’t work). Jen favours the History section, which gets locked at 5pm (as a resident, you can get a key); I can see why – there are just six desks and some wonderful old tomes. My favourite desk is an unusual one in the main room – set back from the main balcony in front of a window, rather than side on to it. But you can hardly sit in a bad place; it’s impossible.


Lunchtime is stews and bakes, quiche and carbs with a side order of huge chunks of lightly boiled veg (I hope you like carrots). There are Sunday roasts on the appropriate day and ice cream or a stodgy pudding. Onto the room tab.

More writing. I ran into a brick wall on day two, but I anticipated that and brought my sketch book for my Secret Squirrel project and did some designing instead; the tap-tap-tap was replaced by the scritch-scritch-scritch of my pencil and sharpener and that sudden table rattle you get from angrily applying an eraser. I sipped at my water and cursed the thoroughly justifiable rule that there can be nothing else but a bottle of water in the library; I have never so desperately wanted a cup of tea. I had fantasies of sneaking in Thermos flasks, and then horrified day-maeres of spilling my imaginary contraband caffeine on the crisp pages of some historic volume. Curse my rule-abiding personality.


Night, and there’s more school dinner fayre in the dining hall, but only if you want to be served within a specific half hour. Across the road to the Fox and Grapes and their hearty burger and more wine than I had expected to drink and some deep laughs. The silence has continued, but I haven’t noticed it yet.

Rinse, repeat. On the Sunday afternoon, Jen and Caitlin give hugs and go; I write a little longer, eat the oddest enchilada I’ve ever eaten in the dining hall and take to the common room and its honesty bar for whisky and more Harris runes – though for the first time I’m distracted by my phone a little. I chat with a friendly stranger about how great The Power is. I am, indeed, slightly drunk when I return to my room alone and pointedly don’t look at the graveyard through the window.


More writing after a last breakfast and then a walk – up and down the tiny high street, into the lovely church which seems to be in at least four different styles on the inside, and over the road to the castle grounds. I get in a long conversation with a very strange man about his very troubled (and thankfully preoccupied) dog, and then start to worry when he twists the strap of the lead round and round his hands like a movie serial killer and run off to get my train. (I would totally have haunted my bedroom, though.)

Did you know that it is silence that makes you an adult? It is what we do in the silence. I didn’t. I have a really lovely daughter. I do; she’s the best person I’ve ever met and certainly the best person I’ve ever made. I also have this astonishingly supportive husband; I’m sorry that he’s more feminist and lovely and kind and sweet than yours but he also farts and burps so we can’t have everything. There is a specific and precious kind of recharging that comes with just being with them; when we got away for a few days to a wedding in Finland it was just wonderful. Our weekends on the sofa? Superb. Can’t beat it. But I had not in perhaps 10 years experienced what it was like to have no demands on me whatsoever. Not work, not motherhood, not being a partner and wife, or being a daughter or sister.

I had not been away under my own steam, to my own choice of venue, to do my own thing (largely in silence)… ever maybe? I can’t remember it. I couldn’t remember the last time I could make choices without having to explain them, negotiate or check in. I just was. For three days. Entirely in my own world. And it turns out that I am an independent adult after all. I knew… but I didn’t know. It took the silence to show it to me. It took the absence of any adult responsibilities to understand my own adulthood – and honestly, the responsibilities seem lighter because of it. My privileges seem more awesome. My family more precious. My creativity more valid, and certainly more deserving of my time and attention.


At the beginning of the year I talked about giving things a chance. One of the things I gave myself a chance to do this year was be alone. I started going to the cinema by myself on purpose. I have had meals out alone, over a book, and enjoyed them. My chance, as it turned out, was to get to know myself and try not to be frightened, nervous, bored, uninspired or lazy. When I met myself halfway, it turned out that I was a person worth knowing. Three days in a library didn’t turn everything around, but it did provide a significant milestone and permission to pursue this wonderful relationship with myself openly and with greater joy.

I haven’t written any more of the book yet. But I will. And now I know where I keep the silence in my head, I’ll be able to visit a lot more often.




What (not) to do when you have a nervous child: letting go of old things and trying new things edition

I’m not one for universally acknowledged truths, so this generalisation will probably bite me in the behind, but I suspect that most – if not quite all – parents have, at some point, a series of thoughts around the things they don’t want to hand down to their offspring. The hangups and torments, the weaknesses and inner monologues. While we’re busy wondering if they’ll have our hair, or avoid our grandfather’s unfortunate nose, there are things about our outlook – no matter how much we’ve found peace with ourselves – that we probably wouldn’t hand down with Uncle Joe’s cheekbones and Auntie Jean’s height.

I was a nervous child. And a conflict-avoiding adult. It has taken decades of practicing the things I love – that I’m good at – to create enough of a core of confidence to make certain moves in my life. Weirdly, even though I have a very low opinion of my appearance to this day, I can be brashly confident about, say, posting an outfit photo on Instagram (well aware I don’t look that great! Don’t care!) and I told my then good friend that he loved me before he knew it himself (ten years, one marriage, a house, a cat and a child later I still know I was right). But when it comes to New Things I have to actively fight an inner voice that tells me these things are not for me; they’re for better people, cleverer people, prettier people.

I’m not unaware of how much of this is inextricably bound up with being female in this world. And when I knew I was having a daughter, busy being overjoyed simply because she was, I was relieved in some part not to have the responsibility of raising a feminist-friendly man but also terrified of the threats she was going to face both to her person and to her personhood. I prayed she’d get her father’s slight build, so she wouldn’t have to be a fat, female child – something I’d never choose to go through again – and also his calm, sweet fearlessness. He’s bungee jumped and abseiled down Table Mountain and I swear if he could hang out of an aeroplane window with his tongue hanging out like a gleeful spaniel, he would. I won’t even jump off a low wall and have to say the Lord’s Prayer in two languages under my breath as soon as the engines fire up on a plane.

But it’s more than that. He’s the one I get to make the phone calls and organise the appointments. He’s the one who happily wanders up to anyone in the room, whether he’s met them before or not, and shares life stories. There’s an undercurrent there – a reason he’s so keen to make friends, past trauma – but it manifests itself in this glorious openness. Sitting in the Monsters Inc Laugh Floor in Florida, the camera turned on him and labelled him as the guy who just wanted to get up and dance. Up he sprang and made sure it was the most outrageously embarrassing dance he could possibly manage, making our daughter almost vomit with the giggles, and then sat down, cheeks pink but pride undamaged. He will so happily make an idiot of himself, and then get over it instantly. I would be replaying any moment of accidental humiliation in my head for the next 24 years.

What has all this got to do with getting rid of old things and trying new things? I’m getting to it. You can probably see where this is going.

Our 6yo is her mother’s daughter. Sure, she also has my superpowers (an easy facility with language, a low-effort / high-reward approach to academia) but try as I might to hide my fearfulness it has leaked into the bond between us. She is cautious, frequently shy and absolutely terrified… of being terrified. Unexpected significant changes to routine bother her (she never seems to enjoy the idea of a holiday until she’s actually on it), and she really, really hates giving or throwing things away unless they’re demonstrably so far beyond use – or gross – that she can bear to tear herself away. And because the cinema is loud and dark, she has misgivings about new films – even though she loves TV and will obsessively watch the things she likes – and it’s sometimes hard to work out what will scare her. Some things, like The Jungle Book I predicted (and gave her an out, having offered to go without her anyway); others are harder to anticipate. She is extremely bright and imaginative, and thinks about things very deeply – so deeply she has told me outright, without prompting, that she can’t help considering what the worst thing that can happen is.

It can be hard for adults. On our second trip to Disney World, a place we all love and obviously have to invest both time and money to get to, rides and experiences she’d loved so much she cried when she had to leave them last time suddenly became too terrifying to do again. We started to ride things in turns so she could sit out, although she also braved and enjoyed things I hadn’t expected her to. She surprises and confuses me constantly, and sometimes, I admit, it distresses, frustrates and disappoints me. I so desperately want to be able to share the things I love with her – for her to love them too – that I can forget to let her be herself and learn and grow out of these things in her own time (and accept that she might never love those things, even if she’s not scared of them anymore). Because when I think about it at any length I know she must and will grow out of it, simply because most people do. When I look back, I was every bit as scared and only did things she was allowed to opt out of because my parents didn’t consider letting me avoid them and my big sister made fun of me. So then I was just scared and resentful – which didn’t achieve much, really. I still had to go through the process of becoming not-scared, only then with shame attached. And at the moment that R expressed fearfully that she thought she might ruin the holiday for others by being different, I knew that my gut feeling that pushing the issue was not the way to go was correct.

In the past few weeks we’ve had two issues crop up that I handled, in the first instance, extremely badly while trying to do the right thing. But then which, with patience, lots of love and a bit of strategic thinking, we were able to resolve in a way that made everyone content. So here I offer my mistakes and my successes, in the hope that if you, too, have a child who thinks about everything just a little bit more than they need to, you might find some help – or at least solidarity – in them.

The Moana Incident

When Moana came out in cinemas I was really keen to see it, but R dithered. I was perfectly happy to go without her, but she also really wanted to see it. But, unlike films on DVD at home that I’d seen before, I couldn’t tell her what might be scary and how it would resolve – I didn’t know. So we agreed we’d just get it on DVD and if it was on a small screen everything would be much easier to deal with and could be paused, etc. It arrived at home to her enormous bouncing excitement; then she read the back cover, caught a sight of some words that suggested danger or scary moments, and decided she wasn’t going to watch it after all.

I bribed. I cajoled. I argued. It did not end well.

So I apologised. And I backed off. And then I started to think about why she had wanted to see it (musical snippets on YouTube; the kid’s a sucker for a musical and has been listening to carefully vetted bits of Hamilton for weeks on my phone). For me, getting her to see it was an exercise in helping her to see the worth of overcoming her nervousness; for her, it was a chance to find a new thing she’d enjoy.

So I bought the soundtrack. First we just listened to the one everyone knows. Then we started listening to some of the other songs.

“I know there’s a big scary crab in it. My cousin told me. I don’t want to hear his song.”

One day in the car, when she was in a good mood, she wanted to listen to the soundtrack all the way through. “But the deal is, we’re not skipping Shiny,” I said. “FINE!” came the answer. During the song, she stuck her fingers in her ears.

We listened to the soundtrack all the way through again. One finger came out of her ears. “This doesn’t sound that bad… show me a picture of the crab?” We looked at them on my small phone screen. She looked on with trepidation. I showed her a picture of Jemaine Clement, because we like chatting about who does the voices.

Then one Saturday afternoon, I watched the film. She left the room with the iPad. And kept coming back in, and leaving, and coming back in, and leaving. She caught a glimpse of Tamatoa. She popped back in for the last ten minutes and was monumentally unfussed by Te Ka. Big animals = bad. Lava monsters = fine and dandy thanks, here, incinerate my island I don’t care. 

The next day: “Can we watch it again?” She stayed in the room for everything except Tamatoa.

A few days later, I watched Tamatoa’s scene on my phone, knowing she wouldn’t be able to resist poking her head over. “He doesn’t look that bad, I suppose. And I saw a picture of him on Google with Jemaine Clement’s face.” I laughed out loud.

All of this happened over maybe two weeks. We’ve seen the film over and over again since then, because she adores it. She insists on watching all the credits through to see Tamatoa’s brief end-credit sequence. It’s a great new joy in her life, and she has at least one example in her head now of a time when, having gradually desensitized herself to something that worried her, it worked out for a best. That won’t always be the case, but I needed her to have that example.

So if I have any tips it would be: don’t push, at all, but do gradually build up exposure by going for the most tempting bit. All carrot, no stick.


The Great Clothes Clear-Out of 2017

R didn’t just inherit her dad’s build; she got his height, too. Then again, I’m almost 5’9″ myself. She’s 6yo and right in the middle of the weight range, but she wears size 2 shoes and to get the length right her leggings and dresses – her preferred uniform – are all aged 8-10. She doesn’t like trousers much these days, but it’s just as well on a practical level – the waist gapes if the length is right unless they’re trackie bums like the ones she wears for stage school (yes, it does massively help confidence if you can afford it / talk them in through the door, but it’s by far not the only way if you can’t or can’t right now).

Being prone to impressive growth spurts means you end up with a lot of clothes in good condition that need to move on. Whether to family and friends – her cousin of the same age is slightly shorter and slighter – or to a charity shop.

I suggested we might need to move on a few pieces she’s clearly outgrown – and in some cases never really liked in the first place. CUE THE TEARS.

We tried logic – getting her to try them on to see how badly they fitted. We tried appealing to charity – wouldn’t it be nice for another child to have them? We tried pointing out the horrendously limited storage in our shoebox of a house. To no avail. On – gentle – questioning, two issues emerged:

  • Many of these things were presents from us or her grandparents – what if said grandparents were mortally offended or thought she hadn’t liked their gifts?
  • What if she wanted to wear them again?

There wasn’t a whole lot we could do about the second of these. The rigmarole of trying on tiny jumpers and short leggings helped – she could, with a bit of lighthearted cajoling, recognise that, as angry as she was about it, she couldn’t make the clothes bigger or herself smaller. But the former was a really big issue for her. She seemed to feel especially bad about pieces I could tell she’d never been that fond of, since she felt a sense of guilt she hadn’t even got use out of them when they did fit. A mixture of failed obligation and FOMO. I briskly told her that obligation be damned – you’re not obliged to like or use a gift. You are obliged to politely thank someone for it. Equally, the person you give it to is not obliged to like or use it after. Once it’s no longer yours you cannot dictate the terms (she got a bit reproachful about this – “what if they don’t care about it like I do?!” – but accepted at least she wouldn’t be there to see it).

The sticking point remained. Finally, we came to an agreement. We would gently broach the subject with the grandparents next time we saw them and explain that the clothes no longer fit – and ask their permission to give them away. In the end, she asked my mother hrself, and was so reassured by the answer she forgot to even mention it to my mother-in-law. And once we also pointed out that clearing out would leave room for a few new bits and pieces we needed to get her, the fog began to lift. The very next day after that visit to my mother, she helped me carry every item of clothing she owned into the living room and took control of the whole process: we had a pile for keeping, a pile for the bin / recycling (old underwear and tortured socks), a pile for friends and family and a pile for the charity shop. I held up the items, we agreed on their destination, she piled them up accordingly. We matched socks, stuffed things in bags and handed them to Daddy to send on their way (or temporarily store). And she has never once regretted a single item.

I am sure I will get it wrong again. Sometimes impatience to see her best self breaks through. Sometimes she surprises me so much; at her end-of-term showcase at stage school we were expecting her usual shy mumble, but she read her poem beautifully with a happy smile and bounced through the rest of the show, even the dancing which I could tell was slightly embarrassing her. She’s really excited about having a part as a hula girl in the next show, and a bit where she holds up a sign to the audience. She was a confident narrator in the school Christmas show. She meets new people of all ages and can go from hiding behind my leg to being their BFF in under 20 minutes. She fears being embarrassed and standing out by wearing a BOBBLE HAT IN SCHOOL OMG even though her friends do, but chooses the most outrageously day-glo trainers for out of school that you can imagine, and tells all her friends about them. She says I’m embarrassing her all. the. time. but also happily still gets before-school kisses and cuddles at the gate.

I never know when one of these bone-deep reactions is going to hit, or what understandable or less understandable issue it’s going to hit over. I, too, have to learn as she is learning. Each time I have to remind myself that patience works – and that it’s no less than she deserves. That validating her feelings of fear – telling her she’s entitled to them – isn’t the same as saying there’s anything to be scared of. That, as much as I’m an unapologetically strict parent about certain things – manners and consideration for others, for example – carrot is a considerably more effective tool than stick (metaphorical stick, I hasten to add – I do not believe in ever raising a hand to a child in anger, ever). And frankly, carrot is really all I want to put into the world where my daughter is concerned. Even if she never changes one bit, I’ll love her just the same, just as deeply and fiercely.

I often think I’ve given her the wooden spoon that is the worst of myself. The least I can do is teach her the ways to add the spoonful of sugar that I’ve had to learn the hard way. If she can learn faster than I did – cocooned with love, not shame – then maybe I can have given her a little of the best of myself, too.