On mum bodies and postpartum pride

I never had a pre-baby body. I mean, it existed of course – I didn’t spring into being from Zeus’ head, only with an infant at my side, eight years ago – but it wasn’t, in any way that matters or is visible, any different from my post-baby body.

That’s partly because I’ve never been thin. My stomach has had rolls for as long as I can remember (not in that hunched over on the beach way to show that you can squeeze a wrinkle out with effort, either); my thighs have never known a gap. I sometimes compare the textures of my body to food; at the moment I feel most like squidgy, pillowy dim sum. My body is what it is, and has been part of the battleground of hatred and fear since my age was in single figures. I’ve learned to live with it, because I have no choice but to live in it. I don’t always love it – I challenge anyone who deals with daily pain to really love their body, all the time – but I’m grateful for whatever it’s capable of at any given moment.  Continue reading →

Things that have happened since I got a new job

Towards the end of last year, I cleared my laptop history of feminist film blogs, deleted 418 screenshots of client competitors doing clever things from my phone and handed in the security pass I had almost managed to lose – for the first time since being given it four years earlier, when we moved to that building – at my leaving drinks. I put my mug in kitchen, tucked in my chair and headed out into a cold, November night. And with that, I no longer worked for an agency. Continue reading →

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. Continue reading →

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. Continue reading →

Film review: Beauty and the Beast (live action)

It doesn’t feel an overstatement to suggest that Howard Ashman was absolutely key in transforming the lumbering beast that Walt Disney Animation had started to resemble in the mid-80s into the fleet-of-foot animation royalty that dominated the 90s and heralded an era of musical hit after musical hit. He did it through the gift of song – his artistic vision and a lyricist’s pen dripping with inspiration that was at its most passionately effective in partnership with his long term creative collaborator, Disney Legend Alan Menken. The 14th of March marks the 26th anniversary of his sadly premature loss, so it seems a fitting moment to return to some of his very finest work with the company as Disney indulges in its latest project to reinvent its back catalogue into live action for fun and profit.

If Bill Condon (Twilight: Breaking Dawn 1 2, Mr Holmes) attempts to tighten up the more dated elements of the tale as old as time by developing its independent and intelligent heroine’s back story, there’s no need to lift a finger to invigorate the music: it’s aged perfectly.  The sole bum note is the Beast’s new number, a rather pedestrian lament penned by Sir Tim Rice (who also completed Ashman’s work on Aladdin) – though it’s good to see the cursed Prince get his due with a bit more character development. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens brings a note of gruff sarcasm to his performance which is warm and welcome; he’s also provided with hints of a more complex story than simply ‘petulant child’, and this helps with what has always been a tough sell of a romance – even more challenging with live action characters and hard-working CGI and prosthetics than it is with animated protagonists.

The supporting cast is stalwart and solid; Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth is reliably…McKellian. Ewan McGregor can safely be counted on to belt out a rousing tune; his Lumiere’s Be Our Guest might lack the tongue-in-cheek suaveness of the sorely missed Jerry Orbach but taken as its own performance is still a Busby Berkeley extravaganza in which the running joke of Belle failing to actually get to eat anything remains. Audra MacDonald’s Mme Garderobe gets a fuller role and injects necessary notes of both pathos and jollity as a result of her continuing love affair with harpsichord husband Mastro Cadenza- a newly-created character and gleeful cameo from Stanley Tucci and his spectacular dentures. The challenges here are largely of realisation rather than performance; where Cogsworth and the Maestro’s household objects lend themselves to mimicking facial expressions, Lumiere’s tiny face, Mrs Potts’ flat surface and the wardrobe’s unnerving facelessness are at times slightly unnerving. While this doesn’t prevent national treasure Emma Thompson from being bumblingly charming and pretty much pulling off that crucial titular ballad, she’s one of the few characters that is preferable in her briefly-observed human form.

But what of Belle herself? Emma Watson’s is a very cool and reserved take on one of Disney’s more fearless heroines. In many ways she’s a more realistic introvert, and there are some touching moments, such as a small bubbling up of glee at being given the library to explore and in the richer relationship with the delightful Kevin Kline’s Einsteinian Maurice. Still, this interpretation leaves some of the high drama sadly lacking; for one, her Fraulein Maria hilltop moment is oddly muted. It perhaps doesn’t help that Watson is well nigh steamrollered by an absolute barnstormer of a performance from Luke Evans on full-bodied form as Gaston, rolling effortlessly from high camp to cartoonish villainy with a genuine note of unhinged violence. Where Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast should dominate the score, it’s actually tub-thumping tavern jig Gaston and menacing rabble-rouser Kill the Beast that lead the way as the film’s most engaging musical moments. There’s been much press coverage of Josh Gad’s Le Fou being the first obviously gay Disney character, though this is rather more disappointingly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it than advertised; still, he’s an able enough foil for his puffed-up partner in crime, even if his conflicted moments are a little lacklustre.

Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is a beauty but a funny film; just a touch too paint-by-numbers to attain the high standards set by Jon Favreau’s lavish and loveable take on The Jungle Book and certainly not about to replace the near-perfect Ashman swansong from which it took its cue. But it’s an affectionately crafted and solidly enjoyable family night out; the lights of its most stirring numbers remain undimmed and that wickedly effective Gaston is possibly even an improvement on the source material. If, being honest, it wouldn’t be included in the bookshelves of the mind where my most prized treasures rest together, I wouldn’t refuse to include it in the library.

Beauty and the Beast is on UK general release from Friday March 17th. Many thanks to @disney_uk for two press preview tickets. All opinions my own; more blog-based movie reviews here; even more film stuff on my Letterboxd profile.

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Fear of showing fear of flying

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink at 35,000 feet. I won’t be able to post it up here, but we’re four and a half hours into a flight that’s barely halfway over so there’s plenty of time to write. So by the time you read this, it will already be done and dusted.

I’m supposed to be watching The BFG but I’m struggling a little with both staying awake and fully appreciating it. I actually love some of the cinematic changes from the book – a livened up exchange with a visiting Fleshlumpeater (was it that one?) is beautifully done; the setting is simply stunning. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to find fault with Mark Rylance in anything, but the modernisation of Sophie is as hard as a snozzcumber to swallow. I mean, she’s officious and self-righteous in the book, too (Dahl was nothing if honest about the foibles of even his own family) but this feels a little like Hermione gone horrid. The corrections to the BFG’s language seem snarky and cruel rather than thoughtlessly self-assured. But we’re only 35 minutes in. I might have judged the little tyke too harshly. Watching a film on a plane is never giving it its best shot, and I’ve already rewatched – and thoroughly enjoyed, again – Captain America: Civil War. So maybe I’m feeling generally combative.

Plane journeys are pretty dull after all – even if the destination is a thoroughly exciting one. But I relish the boredom. The boredom is fantastic. The boredom is my favourite thing. Because the boredom means the crippling anxiety is over.

It’s not technically accurate to say I have a fear of flying. What I have is a fear of take-off. Approximately 2.5 minutes into the flight, I chill the hell out and then it’s plain (ahem) sailing all the way. And no, before you ask, it doesn’t come back for landing. Landing is normal. Landing is natural. Landing is what we’re meant to do. I do get horrible ear pain, but eh. We’re heading down. We’re where we’re supposed to be. There’s nothing weird about an incomprehensibly massive, heavy metal object coming to rest on the ground. Firing it up from the ground, well… this might be the only time you’ll hear me quoting Frankie Boyle, but he did make me laugh on just one occasion when he said there wasn’t anywhere on Earth he liked enough to be fired at it in a tube at 700pmh.

Luckily, there is such a place for me; many places, in fact. It’s what keeps me getting on flights because if there’s one thing I can accept less than take off it’s never visiting exciting places. Perhaps if I had endless time and money I’d go everywhere by train – my most beloved mode of transport – and sea (far less beloved due to my propensity to feel grossly nauseated, but I do love watching the waves. But I am, at this moment, heading to my happiest of happy places, Walt Disney World, and I couldn’t do it any other way that is remotely reasonable.

But the anxiety, the fear – it’s really, really, really real. It starts a few weeks out with the occasional wobble, and the last two days are a painfully blurry countdown of hours until take off, minutes until that moment when the engines go from a dull purr to a roaring throttle, when the pace suddenly picks up and the slowly trundling beast that haltingly bumbled back from the gate becomes a raging lion in full gallop after a gazelle.

(Sophie is now in a rusted car, being thrown down a hill by what appear to be gargantuan Nac Mac Feegle. I love Spielberg, but I might have to give this one up as Not For Me. Still, when it comes to films I’m no quitter, and I recognise that I am, after all, writing a blog post at the same time…)

Anyway. The anxiety.

God.

It’s so unpleasant.

For 48 hours now I’ve had a persistent constriction in my chest. I get quite panicky about heart stuff; a lifelong poor relationship with food, aversion of any exercise that isn’t a bracing stroll and witnessing a close family member suffer a heart attack in their 40s when I was a child… well, I worry about my heart health. Obviously worry is super good for heart health, and so then I start to get anxiety about what the anxiety is doing to me. As vicious circles go, this is the Wandsworth one-way system. Now that the tightness has eased, I’m free to feel a pain in my chest that is caused by the muscles in my neck – bunched up in tension by day and bad sleep by night – slowly trying to work out if they’re okay to relax or not (after all, there is a return flight).

These days, I’m honest about my fears with most of the people I know. The thing is, I don’t want it to mean I don’t get asked to travel; I recently missed out on a flight with work because I was sick, and none of the relief I felt at being spared take off was worth the annoyance I felt at being out of the loop. I will absolutely accept the flights and get on the flights and live through the tremulous wibble in my own head because I desperately want to beat this.

I am a supporter of – believer in? – hypnotherapy, having used it for birth, and I keep meaning to book some sessions in to deal with this. I wonder if some other forms of therapy could also be helpful – CBT for the thought spirals, perhaps. I mean, I need to address why I am so scared, from the fear of dying to the fear of knowing I’m dying, to the existential dread stuff about what comes after. One of my best friends has pointed out that it’s not unnatural to be perturbed about the very, well, unnaturalness of take off. The thing is, I don’t worry once everything is stable; I’ve flown through two (separate) hurricanes and been in a plane that had an emergency unscheduled stop due to a failed engine (one of two) which, once repaired, I had to get back into to fly home. Turbulence doesn’t overly bother me, even though one of my parents suffered lifelong injury after falling and being trapped in a loo when a plane they were in hit an unexpected pocket of it in a cloud, or however it is that works. How is it such a very small part of every journey can cause such disproportionate horror?

But there is one person who has no idea that I feel the slightest frisson. I never, ever mention my fears within my daughter’s earshot. While we’re trundling down the runway I’m reading (the same line fourteen times if necessary), or my eyes are shut in peaceful sleep (prayer) or I’m giving my daughter a gentle snuggle (holding on for dear life). I don’t medicate – if the odd glass of bubbly doesn’t count, and not every time – except with eating too much rubbish. After suffering through endless weeks of viruses followed by worry about the flight I have eaten in the past three weeks all the sugar I haven’t eaten in the last two years (I am actually savouring the thought of a hard reset in the New Year; realistically pancakes and waffles and ice cream – oh my! – will just be too tempting in the Sunshine State). My friend Erin gets anxiety from eating sugar; I’m not sure my attempt to treat mine with it is the wisest move I’ve ever made. But food has always been love in my house. Pretending so that my daughter is spared my agonies is the least I can do.

I travelled fearlessly as a child myself, and this continued until I was in my late teens. God willing she’ll be like her dad, gazing eagerly out of the window and savouring the speed even now he’s in his 40s, without a frisson of fear. I remember once actually reading so intently I didn’t notice the plane had risen off the ground; I just looked out and saw clouds. I must have been about 19 then, because I was reading – or trying to read – James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was my gift for winning the English Prize at school during my A Levels. I chose it out of a sense of duty and pretentiousness and after that all-encompassing attempt to work out what the hell was going on I abandoned it and leant it to my friend Beatie whom I think still has it. She’s always been madly smart and has written a fantastic book you should all read, called Petite Mort. It’s very good, and the scary part is I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as she’s going to get, say, three novels from now. There’s Angela Carter-level talent just beginning to show. You’ll see.

(I think Sophie has just risked accidental suicide. Hmm. I properly love the rendering of the Nac Mac Giants, though.)

I think blog posts are supposed to have a story to them. This is meant to be like my word of the year piece – a neatly constructed slice of life with something at the end. A moral, a resolution, a conclusion. But I’ve been reading a lot of Shirley Jackson this past week – note: do not read Shirley Jackson to calm your spirit, that is just stupid – and I’ve been hugely enjoying the way her creepy, plotlessly unsettling stories seem to just suddenly end, with either nothing changed or everything moved slightly to the left, inexplicably. The fact is, I was scared, and now I’m not. I’ll be scared again and then I won’t be. And I’ll carry on in the cycle – and carry on hiding it from my favourite person in the world – because… well, because.

So that’s that, then.

2017 is going to need a stronger word of the year.

If you’ve read my blog before, you might know that each year I assign a word of the year to give myself direction and purpose. It gives me not so much a resolution, but more a thematic approach to the areas of my life where I feel some development is in order. Back in 2013, I needed to get myself in the mindset of Decisiveness. The following year I embraced my Creativity. I had a year of Asking in 2015, and followed it up this year with recognising and respecting Value – mine and everyone else’s.

With that kind of track record, this year’s going to need a really, really good one. Also – and I feel it’s now reached the point of being self-explanatory shorthand – 2016, you guys. 2016.

This year’s theme can be tricksy. It will need some definition. What is it?

Chance.

Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about ‘leaving things up to chance’. I think that’s the opposite of what a person like me needs; perhaps my worst self-development trait is sometimes being  nervous of making things happen and so waiting for others to offer. Which, realistically (cynically?), they won’t. That path leads only to entitlement, I think  – or at the very least a belief that everyone is able to SEE into your SOUL and magically KNOW WHAT YOU WANT. Don’t go there kids. And stay in school.

No, this Chance is chance in the sense of:

Give yourself a…

Give this new situation a…

Take a…

This chance is learning to live with uncertainty. Learning to accept the ripples in my stomach not as harbingers of a maelstrom but as currents leading to a wildly exciting white water ride. I have one or two things up my sleeve for 2017 that are massively out of my comfort zone, and for once I’m making this a reason to do them rather than an excuse not to. It’s the greatest testament I can think of to truly having recognised my own value – and with it embraced the possibility of failure. Because if you truly think you’re offering something positive to the world, then failure is a disappointment but not a devastation.

I’m proud of my accomplishments and achievements, but I recognise I could challenge myself more. By committing myself to the possibility of failure, I also give myself the best opportunity to succeed. There are dreams that are tired of being dreamed, and simply want to be lived.

And in the year ahead, I fully intend to give those dreams a chance.