It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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My great-great-grandmother, La Centenaire (The Centenarian, guess how long she lived…) was a cook in a large country house in the French village of Paray-le-Monial. In the vocabulary of Tessa Boase's The Housekeeper’s Tale, a cook is an upper servant. As is the housekeeper, the second in command in any country house, and the hero in Boase’s book.  

The Housekeeper’s Tale features six women, all housekeepers in National Trust and English Heritage houses that date back as far as the Regency period: Dorothy Doar (Trentham Hall), Sarah Wells (Uppark), Ellen Penketh (Erddig), Hannah MacKenzie (Wrest Park), Grace Higgens (Charleston) and Nicky Garner (Holkham Hall). Boase took Regency as a “starting point because the role of the housekeeper began to subtly change from Victoria’s reign; also because The Reform Act of 1832 seemed like a good year to begin a book about the gradual enfranchisement and emancipation of the working classes.”

The six housekeepers have service to a mistress and to a big house in common. They all start out loyal, yet four out the six get the sack. Doar was kicked out after the house agent realised she had been stealing. Twist: Doar was pregnant. It’s likely that she only started stealing after she was relieved of her duty; a married housekeeper with children was not acceptable in 1832. Wells was kicked out without much notice after 13 years of service. Twist: Wells and her mistress Frances Fetherstonhaugh had been friends, back when Fetherstonhaugh was just a dairy farmer’s daughter.

"I didn’t set out to look for this, but it did become a bit of a theme", Boase explains when I ask her why she features so many careers that turned sour. "These stories are far more interesting to unpick than that of the ‘treasure’ buried in the family graveyard after half a century of loyal service. Why did they get dismissed? Was it fair? Were they working in an impossible situation? What were the fault lines of this job? I enjoyed the sense of settling scores, of rewriting history, of giving them back a voice. But I also think this was perhaps a reasonable ratio of successes to failures. If you look at the bundle of application letters for the top job at Hatfield House, it seems to have been a surprisingly insecure profession, beset by in-house politics. It’s the ‘treasures’ that have been remembered by history as they show the aristocracy/upper classes in a flattering light.”

Housekeeping wasn’t just hard because of the responsibilities and workload. The job was what we would today consider a managerial or a leadership position. Housekeepers were second in command to their mistresses, entrusted to large sums of money, managing groups of maids, responsible for hiring…

At the heart of all of Boase’s stories is the relationship between the housekeeper and her mistress, a relationship that often went bad. “If it goes wrong for a housekeeper, it’s often because of a clash with a mistress,” Boase reveals about the four housekeepers who get the sack in her book. One of the reasons is that training to run a country house seems impossible. “Marrying into a big house, with its own particular regime and way of doing things, seems always to have been a bumpy ride for the incoming mistress”, she explains.

Boase is an Oxford English graduate working as a freelance feature writer, yet The Housekeeper’s Tale is a first class example of how to do social history. She credits the skills gained in her degree and through her job for her knack for the genre. “Context is everything, when you’re studying English Literature. That ability to try to get under the skin of a text – to extract nuance, new meaning, to hypothesise – I’m sure I owe this to my degree. But more, probably, to 20 years in journalism writing human-interest stories, honing my eye for telling detail and a good quote. I approached the historical research as I would any piece of contemporary research: like a detective.”

You can feel the human interest in the first class research, done “in those houses where there are particularly good archives”, that’s interwoven with more fictional passages. For example, Boase writes about potential encounters between MacKenzie, housekeeper at Wrest Park when it was a World War I hospital, and author J.M Barrie, a friend and benefactor of the house.

Including these passages was important to Boase but she had to fight her editor who “wanted to cut all the imagined stuff as it wasn’t strictly history. But there are such gaps in servant narratives that I wanted to try a new way of writing about them. With women like MacKenzie – where I had photos, a great story and even a living relative, but nothing actually in her own voice – I needed ways in which to bring her more vividly before our eyes. This is true for all of them: I wanted to hear them talk, to see them go about their business, to know their mannerisms. All my imaginings are flagged up in the text, and firmly based on the bald facts that I had sleuthed into place.”

The more fictional moments succeed in bringing the housekeepers to life, but even when retelling facts, Boase is never arduous to read. Her writing flows, the type of writing which surprises at every turn of phrase thanks to the beautiful and evocative way words are assembled. A random example, on the solitude of the housekeeper: “too senior to fraternise with her maids; too dignified to let her hair down.”

The English grad in Boase is also present through the book’s title. Its structure makes it hard not to recall Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The reference wasn’t something Boase had planned on, although she doesn’t reject the comparison: “Atwood’s focus on the subjugation of women and the corrupting potential of power has definite relevance for this book. Though my story arc is, thankfully, one of emancipation.”

The best proof of this emancipation? Garner, the last housekeeper featured, shows how the job really is all about management. Her boss, mistress of Holkham Hall, recognises this, and sends her on HR courses. Garner’s job is to make sure the house runs smoothly for the 30,000 visitors it welcomes every year rather than focusing on making sure the family has food every evening.

Featuring a contemporary housekeeper was important to Boase “because this is the only job to have survived from the old country house world, along with the butler. Housekeepers are currently having a resurgence due to the growth of the new rich and the influx of Eastern European labour. It would have been odd to end the book in the 1970s, when the country house was in decline, and servants had all but fizzled out. The successful reinvention of the English country house, and the new roles for its staff, is very much a part of this story

Housekeepers aren’t just topical for those reasons. Every autumn, the job is present on our screens though Downton Abbey's formidable Mrs Hughes. Boase is a self-confessed Downton watcher. Her book’s press release name-checks the series in its first paragraph (“A far cry from the Downton fantasy, the real life Mrs Hughes was up against capricious mistresses…”). She also references the series on her Twitter to promote the book: “Love Downton Abbey? Read real stories of grand housekeepers #thehousekeeperstale by@TessaBoase out on Thursday”; “Love Mrs Hughes? then read fascinating stories of housekeepers in #thehousekeeperstale by @TessaBoase out now” etc.

Although Downton Abbey might help with the book’s sales and marketing, Boase believes the convergence of events that made it possible goes far beyond the ITV series. “I don’t think this book would have been possible 20 years ago, but it’s not just Downton that’s got everyone focusing on servants (though it’s certainly helped, for all its maddening inaccuracies!),” she reflects.

Other reasons range from our growing interest in how people used to live to our interest in genealogy: “The feminisation of history led by women like Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley, Alison Light, Judith Flanders and Mary Beard – all women with a brilliant, popular touch – has turned our interest in the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras indoors. The home is where it all happens; we’re now all agreed. Servants are very much a part of this story – but not just those working for the aristocracy. Every archive office I visited was filled with grey-haired couples researching their ancestry online – another relatively recent phenomenon. More of us will have servants in our past than masters and mistresses. Many people have contacted me with their own stories of a great grandmother or great aunt in service. The fact that the National Trust & English Heritage are now re-imagining the visitor experience to take in the service quarters isn’t just down to Downton: people were, apparently, asking for this before it aired. It gives us a sense of ownership of the local big house; so many of us have connections, but not posh ones.”

As a child, influenced by stories of my great-great-grandmother, present through her cookbooks and her pans, so heavy we rarely cook anything in them, I went through a phase of reading books about servants in the early 20th century. My readings around domesticity weren’t limited to non-fiction. Mrs Danvers, Rebecca’s housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, fascinated me and millions of other readers.

Boase thinks we are obsessed with housekeepers “because they know all the secrets. The combination of absolute power, a bunch of keys, a black silk dress and a whalebone corset seems to be a seductive one. Is it a part-sexual fascination? Dominatrix-esque women guarding the door, safeguarding the aristocracy’s scandals… Of course the truth is far duller, but for fiction she’s a ripe character and a useful go-between linking upstairs and downstairs.”

The Housekeeper’s Tale busts the myth and like the best social history books, it left me wanting to keep researching the subject. The potential extensions to the book are many. An organised tour of the National Trust houses featured is an obvious one and this is the kind of book that will end up in all good country house gift shops. It’s also easy to imagine The Housekeeper’s Tale being turned in a six-episodes TV series, to be broadcast in parallel to an upcoming series of Downton Abbey. Boase isn’t against the idea: “it would make for great television I think, and there’s been some interest. Part documentary, part drama, set in the houses themselves. As an ex-thespian, I might even struggle into a whalebone corset myself…”

A complimentary copy of The Housekeeper’s Tale was provided to me by Quarto Publishing Group UK. Email interview with Tessa Boase 10 June 2014.

Posted at 7:20pm and tagged with: book review,.

I come from a family where we don’t do football. Ever. Until 1998, and the World Cup came to France, I’m not even sure I knew such an event existed. In 1998, I was 12 and I read Jane Eyre for the first time.

But the World Cup being in France that year, we got into it. My mum put up a calendar of matches on the fridge, as she does for the Olympic games. I have no memory of all the criticism around coach Aimé Jacquet or the team selection; I just know it existed because of the post World Cup coverage. Until quite far into the competition, this was just something going on in the background.

1998 was the last year my grandparents, my sister and I went on holiday to the seaside town of Brétignolles-sur-Mer. We had been visiting every summer for at least five years. Although it took my grandmother another 12 years to die, she was already diminished. My grandfather was still a giant to me.

The place they had rented was a shithole, the type you only accept to live in in cities where rent is very expensive or in resorts, where landlords know they can get away with anything since it’s for just a week.

For the duration our stay, we didn’t watch a single match (no TV) but we kept on top of the news thanks to Ouest-France, the local newspaper my grandfather was reading. Ouest-France is a West France institution, the French-speaking paper with the strongest readership, different variants depending on where you buy it and every summer, a scratch game. Or at least it did, in 1998. Ouest-France and my grandfather are linked to the extent I can’t see it without thinking of him.

Every day, sitting on the tiny patio, we were reading the news, until one day we realised Les Bleus were actually getting somewhere. At some point, I started cutting articles and keeping them. I had an obsession with archiving, aged 12.

We drove back from Brétignolles to Le Mans on 12 July, the day of the final. There were people on the side of the road wearing striped blue, white and red make-up, waving flags and honking. “We haven’t won yet” my grandfather, the man who had painted Austin Healeys in his garage for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and started the family tradition of disliking football, remarked.

Yet when we got home, just a few hours before France-Brazil kicked off, we switched the TV on. There was an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Stade de France and then the game, of which I have little memory except for being very excited when I went to brush my teeth at half-time, my grandmother refusing to watch with us and my grandfather exclaiming “that was unnecessary” when Petit scored the third goal.

Then I remember the analysts taking over; France black-blanc-beur, the idea that this victory could be the start of a new, all-encompassing French society; President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s leaps in the polls; the crowds on les Champs-Elysées around the players’ bus…

One week later we were back on the road, travelling with my parents to the Somme. In the small village where we stayed, we continued another family tradition, that of buying Paris Match for big national events. That Paris Match is still in my cupboard but really, it should join the ones we found in my great-grandparents’ house about multiple Pope deaths and the de Gaulle family. 1998 was 16 years ago.

Four years later, I was in high school. My only memory of the World Cup in Korea/Japan is joining some of my classmates at the on-campus flat of the Welsh language assistant, who was dating one of them. France left at the group stage.

2006 is another good World Cup memory. It was my first year at the London School of Economics and my friend Stacy really got me into it. She wrote a blog about the Trinidad and Tobago team and I suddenly knew who Dwight Yorke was.

I went to see the match against Sweden at a bar by the Barbican, with mostly Trinidadians and Tobagonians. The room was heavy with hope because that game was a 0-0 draw. Later, Stacy told me there had been a few heart attacks in Trinidad, during the match. Then I went to see the game against England in a bar by King’s Cross. It was so busy that Nicholai had to perch me on the bar to see. The atmosphere was very different. Stacy wrote a few articles in the FT about the team and I was very proud. Seeing your friends’ names on an FT by-line never gets old.  

In the end, Trinidad and Tobago didn’t qualify but I have kept my red jersey, which I wore a few times that summer with pride, in between donning my postwoman uniform. Nobody else in Nevers had a Trinidad and Tobago football shirt. The games against Sweden and England remain the only two football matches I have ever seen on purpose in a bar.

Although mostly following Trinidad and Tobago during the group phase, I was also keeping an eye on France, if only because Stacy had written her third year IR dissertation on the politics of French football. The evening of the final against Italy, she sent me a text along the line of “good luck even though a victory would totally prove my dissertation wrong”. I kept it until I had to give up my French mobile.

The day of the final, we were in Le Mans again, for my goddaughter’s christening. My grandmother was in her cycle of hospital stays that would see her to the end of her life. I was wearing a white Kookai dress I keep forgetting I still own. When Zidane head-butted, everyone around the dinner table felt that all was lost. The following week, we bought Paris Match again, where some prize-winning novelist wrote that Zidane’s problem was hubris.

Since 2010 was another group stage World Cup exit for Les Bleus, I have little memory of it. I just remember the team refusing to disembark a bus. That day, I was meeting someone I was teaching French to, who was teaching me writing and he, like much of the British media, made fun of the French propensity for striking. My grandmother died that summer.

This year, I had hopes for another long World Cup until I heard on radio France Inter that the French squad’s aim was to reach the Quarter Finals; anything beyond would be a bonus. That’s not the spirit. François Hollande could really do with a trophy win, as could French society. But really, I am supporting Argentina because I drew them in the sweepstake at work and there is £40 at stake.

Posted at 4:30pm and tagged with: first person,.

The Last Room opens with a harrowing, hardly-bearable-to-read description of a pregnant woman being raped in the Cote d’Ivoire in 2005. I started the novel on 10 June, the first day of the Global Summit to End sexual violence in war, so this short chapter was immediately topical.

“When I wrote the book, I had been reading about the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire”, remembers author Danuta Reah. “It seemed to epitomise what we have since become more aware of. I wanted to make a victim of this kind of appalling sexual violence (and I was by no means as graphic as I could have been - I’m very aware of the danger of tipping over into gratuitous or titillating description) real to readers, to see her as a real woman and have some conception of what it must be like to suffer something like this.”

Although centre stage in the first two pages, Nadifa, the woman raped, only assumes a secondary role in the story. When the plot starts in earnest, she is an asylum seeker in Britain, married to a man recently deported for links with al-Qaeda, and mother to Sagal, a child recently murdered by a paedophile.

That murder, as well as the apparent suicide of Ania, a forensic linguist and expert witness in Sagal’s murder trial, accused of falsifying the voice evidence she used to convict the presumptive paedophile, are at the heart of The Last Room. Yet despite her integration of female characters, Reah often gives them second, passive roles. The real actors are the two men investigating Ania’s, and by extension Sagal’s, deaths: Will, Ania’s bereaved father, a disgraced retired policeman living in Scotland and Dariusz, her Polish fiancé. Both are convinced she would never have jumped willingly.

In their attempt to understand what happened to Ania, they encounter more men: Ania’s boss, policemen in Poland, Will’s former colleagues in the UK, a professor and a guard at the Polish university where Ania worked…

Reah says writing a story dominated by men wasn’t the plan but rather “the way the story worked out. I wanted both Ania and Nadifa to be women who had faced terrible adversity, and in a way they both survived. Ania dies, but she dies defending what she believes in. She isn’t defeated. At the end, I wanted her actions to be a model for Will who has lived so much of his life in bitterness and despair - she’s shown him another way. I couldn’t write from Nadifa’s perspective for long - I haven’t been through what she goes through, and I didn’t want to put words into her mouth. Also, she is marginalised exactly as women like her are marginalised all the time. Ania, was also a literary device. I wanted to show her from the different perspectives the men in her life had, and then finally, as a full person.”

As a female writer in the male-heavy crime fiction genre, Reah knows something about evolving in a field dominated by men. A few years ago, with fellow female crime writers Lesley Horton, Priscilla Masters and Zoe Sharp, she set up LadyKillers, a joint alliance to promote their novels. Although it doesn’t operate much anymore, the need for it is still there.

Reah’s audit of the inequalities in the crime writing landscape echo those female writers in any genre face: their books get reviewed less, and they are invited to speak on panels less. “Women still don’t get their fair share of reviews as opposed to male writers”, she regrets. For instance, in 2012, all genres combined, the London Review of Books featured 210 books by men and 66 books by women.

Panel underrepresentation doesn’t just mean that female writers voices aren’t heard, it also means that their names are less known. “I went to a conference in London called Queens of Crime, about women in crime fiction and it was fascinating. I got the names of several writers I hadn’t heard of who I plan to catch up with. At events and on panels, women are usually very generous with time and with to-ing and fro-ing in discussion, and asking questions about other writers’ books. Men can be more inclined to focus on their own work, though I have worked with many who are not like this. The worst panel hogs I have ever witnessed have been men.”

For all those disparities in terms of promotion and recognition, Reah doesn’t believe there is much difference between how both genders write crime fiction, though she reckons she would have said different a few years ago. So why the evolution? “I think men are still more represented as writers of fast moving action thrillers and women more in psychological crime fiction. However, there has been a marked increase in the number of women writing extremely graphic violence towards women. This makes me uneasy, especially as this kind of writing sells very well.”

In addition to championing women’s crime writing, Reah is teaching the next generation of female and male writers. One of the courses she’s taught focuses on setting up the all-important plot in a crime novel, so I asked her how she had structured the plot for The Last Room, inspired by a trip to Lodz for a Forensic Linguistics conference.

Ania’s character was the inception of the book. “I started with the idea of an expert witness being accused of falsifying evidence and apparently committing suicide. I then let the threads of that story run - had she in fact falsified the evidence? If she did, why? If she didn’t, what had happened? This is how I like to work - telling the story to myself as I go. I thought about the reactions of the people close to her. The intensity of Will’s grief and guilt gave me the idea that he would embark on a quest to find out what happened, and that he might even believe this was what Ania wanted - that she would talk to him and guide him. I was also curious about the concept of ‘the greater good.’ Are we ever justified in doing things for some undefined greater good that can destroy an individual’s life?”

Taking place between the United Kingdom and Poland, The Last Room includes a strong European dimension. For instance, Will is able to speak to the police team investigating his daughter’s death in Lodz thanks to a recommendation from his former boss in the UK.  The novel also includes multiple details on the history of Lodz. One in particular has stayed with me: the description of open grave pits in the Jewish cemetery where Ania and Dariusz met. They were dug on Nazi orders by Jews tasked with killing fellow Litzmannstadt Ghetto inhabitants. The graves were meant to be theirs, however the Russian army’s progress panicked the Nazis, and they fled before killing the men.

Mixing European travel, collaboration and horrific history is an effective way of reminding us why the European Union was built. Reah thinks herself “as European. My father was Polish and my mother was half-Irish. I think Europe is a wonderful continent and one we are part of, even though it can be troubled, with a very dark side. We’ve spent centuries knocking seven bells out of each other (and Lodz has some sobering reminders of what happened in continental Europe and what could so easily have happened here, less than 100 years ago). We haven’t had a war since we became more united, and I would hate to see that go.”

From the horrors of rape as a weapon of war to the usefulness of a European union, Reah has succeeded in constructing a story that isn’t just a page-turner, but also an example of how fiction can carry a message of progress and peace.

A complimentary copy of The Last Room was provided to me by Caffeine Nights Publishing. Email interview with Danuta Reah 14 June 2014.

Posted at 6:38pm and tagged with: book review,.

Blogger adventure: Felicia Sullivan of

Finding myself short of bloggers I knew in real life to feature, I went through my Twitter feed to see who I interact with most. Blogger, author and marketer Felicia Sullivan was an obvious choice: she shares great links and often favourites or retweets my tweets, which is always nice for the ego.

In fact, I discovered Felicia’s blog through Twitter, on a bus journey into London, and I kept selecting the next post until my mobile battery said no more. At, Felicia shares her baking and cooking experiments and her travel diary alongside mindful, inspiring thoughts on her journey to improve her life, all in first-class writing style.

Clearly, I’m a fan, so I took advantage of this blogger feature to understand more about Felicia’s writing process, how she decides what (and what not) to share online and how she inspires her readers.

On my feedly, your blog is under the “becoming a better human” category. How would you qualify it yourself and what was your aim when it started?

Thank you! That’s incredibly kind of you to say! When I first started blogging in 2001, I was curious about this new form of online journaling, and I maintained a blog merely out of curiosity. When I was a child I used to have dozens of pals and friendship books, and I initially viewed the online space as an extension of that – a way in which I can share my thoughts and meet people I would have otherwise not encounter.

I think I’ve been spending the past decade trying to be a better person, to love myself more, to be kinder to myself and those around me, and I think it’s important to share what I’ve learned with others so people feel less alone when they are physically alone. So I’ve documented, to a certain extent, changes in my life and growth that I’ve felt comfortable sharing online.

How do you decide what to write on  

I don’t really have a defined strategy or a deliberate content plan - what I write tends to be ephemeral. I write about the thing that currently consumes me - what occupies the periphery. Writers tend to write out their obsessions in a myopic way, and this mind-set dominates all aspects of my writing life. I’m currently working on a novel, which has been a four-year odyssey, and my blog posts are obsessions in miniature. One day I may be consumed by finding the perfect Irish scone based on a recent trip, or I may want to talk about challenges of being a female executive in the workplace, based on a dinner I’ve had with a friend. Sometimes I feel like I’m a photo lab that’s constantly developing pictures, always thinking about the frame of what happened and how that impacts me right now or in a few moments from now.

Some posts are very personal - how do you decide what to share and not to share online?

The online space continues to fascinate me because readers have this perception of being extremely connected to someone whom they’ve never met or truly know, which is to say that while I share some personal aspects of my life, they don’t encompass the whole of my life, only a slice of it; a slice of which I feel comfortable sharing. I have a rule of thumb when it comes to what I post: I share only that which I would feel comfortable having a peer or work colleague read. So while I may talk about topics that relate to feminism, addiction, career, art, food, and body issues there are some topics that are verboten, off limits: the personal lives of my friends and my love life, for example. I often joke to my very close friends that I’m the pentagon of personal relationships - you won’t know I’m married until you actually see a ring on my finger.

Much of my life is lived online, and I’ve started to realize in the past few years that if all aspects of my life are online it suddenly becomes less mine. It belongs to someone else. As a result, I hold some of my cards, parts of a played hand, close to my heart. So while it might appear that I’m pretty public, I’m actually extremely private.

There are a lot of scare stories out there about employers stumbling on blogs and deciding not to hire people as a result. What’s your advice to bloggers?

I think it’s tantamount to understand that how you represent yourself - online and off - generates perception. People (family, friends, employers) have an impression of you based on what you write and post. Assume that every résumé submission or LinkedIn invitation is followed by a comprehensive search that is on the level of the CIA. Assume that people who are viewing what you post are forming an impression about you based on what they see. You have the ability to shape one’s perception of you, and perception is shaped whether it’s fair or not. In that vein, why not deliver an impression that you can be proud of? Maybe save those half-naked selfies of you doing Jaeger shots for sharing with your friends IRL instead of putting them on online. is mostly writing-based, why is it so important to have high quality images on it?

I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of image and type - how an image can fill empty spaces or convey an aspect of a story that can’t be told with words. I also find that photographs can take you to places where prose can’t go, and I view what I create on my blog as an expression on what I’m able to say and what can’t be articulated. I think about how the power of image and type can assault a reader’s senses, move them in a way they hadn’t anticipated.

You have an active community in terms of the number of comments and also how long and thoughtful they are. You have also written a (really good) post about how bloggers sometimes react to their comments. What’s the role of the community in your blogging life?

Someone once told me that my blog will never be huge because I’m not “mass market” – my writing is often dark, obtuse, sometimes dramatic and often times strange – it doesn’t appeal to an aspirational, wide audience. My immediate urge was to punch this person in the face (just kidding), but then I realized they had paid me the highest compliment. I’m not one to cleave to size; rather I’m intrigued by breadth and depth. I do have a nice bit of traffic, but I love the small feel of my community, the fact that people really leave thoughtful, provocative comments, which often challenge the way I think.

Your blog makes me want to do things, from baking scones to going to India or taking more time to be mindful about what I do. Do you have any story of readers who changed something in their life as a result of reading your blog?  

Readers haven’t directly shared any transformational stories, however, interestingly enough, friends of mine, who’ve read how I candidly, and without shame, write about my various substance abuse addictions, have opened up to me about their struggles That’s probably the most gratifying part of being so open with that aspect of my life online—the fact that people trust me enough with the most personal and painful aspects of their lives, and trust that I’m going to be a real friend and not judge them for being human.

To be honest, I really struggle with the notion that I impact people. I rarely think I do until someone has to kick me in the head with a compliment. But whenever I do hear about the powerful impression I’ve made on someone, it honestly warms my heart.

How has your writing evolved since you started the blog?

For a time, my blog served as a haven for me to experiment as my voice and narrative style have became more refined. For years I was a traditional storywriter, and for a time I experimented with line writing. Now my style is the fusion of the two: telling stories with language reimagined. I firmly believe that one becomes a better writer by constantly writing, and reading - artistic growth is not predicated by a particular platform.

How does your MFA Fiction feed your non-fiction writing?

Someone once asked me how I’m able to oscillate with ease between fiction, non-fiction, copywriting, and business writing – and the only way I knew how to respond is to say that I simply think about how to craft a compelling story. There are technical rules by discipline, sure, but those are things that can be taught, whether it be from a formal MFA program or self-taught. Storytelling is the art. How you see the world and translate it is the art. What I learned in an MFA program were the most technical aspects of story (e.g. pacing, character development, structure) – elements I use in all of my writing.

Setting aside the formidable investment (which I’ll be paying off for the rest of my life), what I probably loved most about the MFA program at Columbia was the fact that it was essentially a graduate English degree with writing thrown in for good measure. While the workshops were important in terms of cultivating our voice, style, and stories, we were required to take four graduate level classes in English or adjacent disciplines, so I was exposed to writers and styles I’d otherwise have ignored. I discovered, and fell in love with W.G. Sebald, Gary Lutz, Carol Maso, Michael Cunningham, Susan Minot, and other extraordinary artists as a result of having been in the program.                      

How does your blog fit in with your career as a creative digital marketing executive?

I don’t know if it necessary plugs in, rather my blog serves as a platform for one expression of my voice. Another expression could be a marketing plan or proposal for a client, or a draft of a novel for my patient agent. For a long time I found myself segmenting various aspects of my life: marketing, creative writing and food writing/photography, believing that they were all discrete aspects of my life that couldn’t overlap. Then it occurred to me that the magic is actually in a mess of the three. Principally, I see myself as a writer, someone who builds and creates, agnostic of form, discipline or platform.                       

You’ve got a blog, you’ve got a job, you’re writing a new novel, you cook, you exercise… How do you prioritise so you can fit it all in?

Good question! I’m extremely Type A, and rely on scheduling and time management to get me through my day. I’m extremely disciplined with my time, and only send emails or engage in conversations that are meaningful and impactful. I’ve trimmed the proverbial fat in many aspects of my life so that every moment is lived mindfully, where I’m creating, spending time with people whom I love, or resting, recharging the batteries as it were.

All photos courtesy of Felicia Sullivan. 

If, like Felicia, you would like to be featured in the next instalment of the Blogger Adventure series, please get in touch at fashionmemex[at]

Posted at 7:44pm and tagged with: blogger adventure,.

Scene: A womenswear ready-to-wear store in Toulouse, France.  My sister, Camille, is trying on a cobalt blue neoprene dress. It’s love at first sight but expensive enough for her to need to justify its purchase.

- Where would I wear it?

- To work?

- You really have no idea of the environment I work in, do you?

Unlike my sister, I work in the luxury fashion industry. I can wear just about anything, long or short, black or colourful, fluid or fitted. Camille is an engineer setting up automated production lines for a company “that makes tyres, but not only”. Our professional fields could hardly be further apart. Since I was so surprised she couldn’t wear the dress to work, she gave me another example: the Zadig & Voltaire stripy jumper and A-line black denim skirt she picked me up at the airport in was already borderline because it was potentially impractical for some of her daily tasks.

Camille attributes her clothing restrictions to three reasons. The first two, cultural acceptance and her colleague’s perceptions, are expected in any industry. People turning up to my office in an ill-fitting, shiny black polyester suit would be frowned upon and considered a bad cultural fit.

Her third explanation, practicality and health and safety, is one I have never encountered, and isn’t one you will read about in any fashion magazine. The lack of representation of her field is one of Camille’s pet peeves when it comes to her monthly reads. Flick through the pages of an average Glamour or Vogue on either side of the Channel and you will find woman after woman working in fashion and media professions.

In the June 2014 issue of Red, there were interviews with and opinion pieces by a Hollywood actress, a Paralympic medallist, freelance writers/bloggers as well as fashion, beauty and restaurant entrepreneurs. Doing a round-up of professions in recent French editions of Glamour and Cosmopolitan, Camille also found: chefs, sex toy sellers, interior designers, community managers, comic book writers, lawyers, admin and finance directors…

Emma Bould, a mechanical engineer working in construction, started subscribing to Harper’s Bazaar a few years ago after switching from a technical to an office-based position. She’s also played the “list the jobs you see” game: “the roles usually profiled are that of successful women in finance, retail, fashion, law, marketing, PR and arts-based roles. It’s not often you see them talk to anyone technical and if there is, it’s usually someone who has been successful in IT.”

Professions such as politics, where there is in actual numbers, though not in proportion, less women than in engineering (6% of the UK engineering workforce is female vs. 22.6% of the House of Commons as of February 2014), are regularly represented in glossy pages. In jobs where success depends on public visibility, magazines can be useful. But the women who work in unrecognised or ‘backroom’ industries are equally, if not more, deserving of a space in the spotlight, if only because they’re not courting it for personal gain.

This is the first key thing all the featured women have in common: they all have a product, even if it is themselves, to promote. Secondly, they are often self-employed and therefore don’t have to abide by corporate communication rules that dictate who can use an employer’s name in public. One of the engineers I spoke to for this piece said she was “more than happy to talk to you and answer your questions.  I will have to do so off the record as my company can be funny about these things.”

Camille studied Physics (which, as she puts it, “is not electricity”) at the prestigious INSA engineering school in Toulouse. The graduation picture on her fridge shows the clear imbalance in her class towards men: only a third of her fellow students were female. This is actually more balanced than British statistics. In 2011, 85% of engineering and technology graduates in the UK were male (HESA, 2010/11, quoted in WISE statistics 2012). In 2012, 12,880 men completed engineering Apprenticeships compared with 400 women, according to Education and Skills: Learner Participation, Outcomes and Level of Highest Qualification Held (Data Service, Quarterly Statistical First Release, March 2013).

What’s your cleanroom uniform?

Since graduating, Camille has held a few jobs, including one at a microchip company, the type that manufactures the touch-and-go chip your car is equipped with. As part of her quality checks, she worked in a cleanroom, une chambre blanche as it is known in France. A cleanroom is clean because no foreign body can be introduced, and that includes make-up. Not being able to apply make-up when you think you are having a bad face day and glossy magazines tout Touche Éclat as the answer can be hard.

Dr Ranah Irshad, a Systems Engineer with eight years’ experience who splits her time between the University of Oxford and RALspace, also works in cleanrooms. “It means wearing full-body overalls (‘bunny suits’) with hoods, overshoes, latex gloves, hairnets and masks. It’s therefore more practical to wear trousers. I’ve been known to wear heels in the cleanrooms, though not the mechanical workshops. I do have serious problems with the cleanroom suits, though - Oxford bought an oversuit specifically to fit me, but they don’t make overshoes in my size so I wander around with clown’s feet. RAL, however, just have default sizes so I have to roll sleeves up and make do.”

Yasmin Ali, an Operations Engineer with four years’ experience, remembers working “at a power station and ending up having the biggest pair of overalls in the world. I was there for six months and had the arms and legs rolled up but the crotch still hung down to about my knees! It’s a bit of a pain getting all this safety clothing in lady sizes and shapes, the engineering and power industry hasn’t quite caught up with the female workforce when it comes to this area. It’s the same whenever we get any company t-shirts, the extra small is usually still too big for me and I don’t consider myself unusually small – 5’6 and size 10!”

Irshad and Ali’s experiences summarise the emails I received from the 26 female engineers interviewed for this piece, particularly regarding the sizing problem. For most of them, health and safety-led wardrobe restrictions are fine, because they are an integral part of the job. Resolving the sizing issue would of course make day-to-day work life easier. Wearing safety shoes every day is no crazier than the restrictive, impossible to walk in five-inch stilettos many women in my office teeter in. It’s just that Harper’s Bazaar will never write a feature on them.

Fashion magazines have a habit, for instance through the pernicious “women at work” and “my closet” type of articles, of suggesting that the women they photograph look like that every day. Whether in engineering, finance or even fashion, they don’t. No matter what your job is, there are restrictions to it and there are days you can’t be bothered. All the engineers I interviewed who labelled themselves as fashion conscious explained that they experimented with fashion during their time off, and often tried to bring a bit of it into their job with scarves and accessories.

According to a trainee at a prestigious automobile company: “When there is a factory which you need to enter on occasions, you need to wear safety equipment. I have a pair of pink safety boots! This is when I need to think more carefully about what I wear… Not many dresses look good with pink ‘Timberland’ style steel toe-cap boots!”

The dress vs. trousers debate was a recurrent theme throughout my interviews. An engineer who graduated in 1963 remembers that “in my day, skirt suits were de rigueur. Men always preceded you going up factory staircases! Nowadays, with trouser suits and smart trousers available, life is much easier. Basically what you wear for engineering work or for city type work is not dissimilar.”

How to dress for sexist situations

City or site, in any workplace, “being taken seriously” influences the way women dress at least as much as health and safety. Livia Garcia, a Project Engineer (Civils) with 18 years’ experience told me she avoided dressing “too lady-like because that will just attract questions like ‘Can you walk on that roof? Are you afraid of heights?’ I learnt that, until you are old enough that your experience shows no matter what you wear, the way you dress does help to project the image that you want other people to perceive.”

A few women mentioned that part of the reason they can’t wear what they want is because of sexist attitudes in the workplace. One of the engineers I spoke to related a conversation that her partner, who worked in the same place as her, had with a male colleague after she’d changed into her work overalls, leaving her dress in the changing room.

"Is that X’s dress hanging up in the…?"


"So she’s…?"


"…Christ…" and he wandered off.

It seems her male colleague was less offended by her changing her clothes, more piqued by the idea that she was now naked underneath her work attire.

A construction engineer, who manages the design of power stations, tells a story that starts in a similar way to many women in the workplace’s anecdotes but ends with a twist inherent to male-dominated environments. “The balance between looking smart, dressing practically and not being mistaken for being the secretary is sometimes a fairly fine line. I regularly attend meetings where I am the only women in the room and I have lost count of the number of times I have asked where the ladies washroom is… because they are not next to the gents, they don’t know”.

Camille, who on her job visits suppliers on a regular basis, recounted something similar when I started working on this post. There are attempts to encourage women to go into engineering, and the need for their skills exists, but many companies are not set up to welcome them. Imagine going to a job interview and realising there is no women’s bathroom to use.

Sound familiar? Sheryl Sandberg, not an engineer by training or profession but who, from Google to Facebook, works in and with companies relying on engineering, told a similar story in Lean In.

As told in Spiegel International:

When the presentation was interrupted for a break after two hours, Sandberg asked where the ladies’ room was. The firm’s senior partner turned around and offered a blank stare. Stumped by the question, he said he didn’t know where it was located. The company had moved into the offices a year earlier.

"Am I the only woman to have pitched a deal here in an entire year?" Sandberg asked.

"I think so," the client replied, adding, "or maybe you’re the only one who had to use the bathroom."

Feature more role models

Sandberg is a non-engineer, in an engineering field, who has been doing the media rounds. The lack of representation of female engineers and the overrepresentation of fashion and media jobs in magazines mean that young girls and students reading them aren’t knowledgeable about these professions. They might be more inclined to go into fashion or media because it’s what is shown as ‘normal’, cool and glamorous.

Conforming to the norm and the desire to fit in is a real need at the age when most girls decide what they will study which, in turn, determines their first job. Engineering is a vocational profession. Even though it is always possible to retrain later in life, it’s easier to get into it if you have considered it at university.

Silvia Boschetto, the Director/Founder of Silvakey with 22 years’ experience agrees: “having women in engineering represented in media shows female students a career pathway. People that you can associate with, and therefore see yourself becoming, will always stimulate aspirations. It takes a thick skin and an ability to ignore others opinions when you are going against the trend and media/fashion are areas where women are “expected” to work by society - my teachers expected me to become an accountant because I was good at Maths & Science when I had always said I would be an engineer from age 13. Not everybody is comfortable challenging “normal”. So by changing how engineers/scientists are represented we can create a new “normal”.

Tara Saleh, a third year Chemical Engineering Student at the University of Sheffield and a member of the Women in Engineering Students’ Society, is directly in touch with the issue and full of ideas about what female magazines can do to encourage girls to go into engineering. “If you mention the engineering profession in magazines, young females will want to be these professional females. They will see how successful these women are and what they have achieved.”

Saleh has first-hand experience of the identification problem: “I saw a personal stylist in a magazine and wanted to be that but reality hit me right in the face. I have the impression that to thrive in a fashion career, you have to be the cream of the crop, top class! An article just showing a female engineer, describing her job and how she got to where she is, along with some personal parts showing that not all engineers look like the stereotypical ones but can love fashion and beauty too.”

Breaking the engineering stereotype of a woman in a hard hat, sometimes one uncomfortable to wear because hard hat manufacturers don’t think about people with long hair or a fringe, is key to getting more women in the field.

The women I interviewed for this blog post, from students to retired engineers, came from varied fields. Saleh suggests magazines show the diversity and prestige of careers available, linking it directly to fashion if needs be: “We can work for cosmetic companies, for example L’OREAL. We can work anywhere in the world! It is a great degree to have and can lead to great careers, for Rolls Royce and Bentley, the top dogs in cars, along with many other companies like Haribo, Cadbury…”. Camille has applied for jobs with luxury jewellers.

Magazine self-interest

Engineers aren’t completely absent from women’s mags. Last January, Vogue UK featured Jo da Silva, a civil engineer at Arup. The article was praised in the field, covered in specialist blogs and earned the publication a few more readers. Ali actually bought the magazine for the first time in ages because of the feature.

Irshad stopped buying glossies because she couldn’t imagine her size 12 in the outfits presented. In that sense, female engineers aren’t different from the many women who have stopped reading glossies because they can’t afford the overpriced clothes and can’t relate to the skinny models and the celebrity news.

But not all engineers feel alienated by their lack of representation. “I read Cosmopolitan, Glamour. I find all their articles really generic and therefore can be applied to any job, even engineering,” Angela Webb, a development engineer with 3.5 years’ experience, told me.

Boschetto’s explanation of the lack of women engineers in glossies has a lot to do with ingrained clichés. “I would also say as an engineer you are often considered somehow strange if you are interested in reading fashion magazines - so maybe fashion magazines don’t see female engineers as their audience? And therefore feel less need to represent them in their publications or in the media generally?”

Lara Yusuff, a Quality Engineer with over five years’ experience, reads magazines ranging from Ebony to ELLE. She “wouldn’t expect to find inspiration on fashion ideas for work in particular and wouldn’t say I do or don’t recognise myself at all in them. I feel there are different aspects to who I am as a person, individual and professional. As a vibrant young lady who is very much interested in fashion, I can say I do recognise myself in some of these magazines but as an Aeronautical Engineer, I wouldn’t say I do.”

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo and first woman engineer at Google in 1999, has been a regular on fashion pages since her appointment. Most articles mention her love of fashion and friendships with designers such as Oscar de la Renta. Vogue’s feature on da Silva also had her in fashionable work clothes. As a female engineer, you can be featured in women’s magazines, as long as you comply with their idea of what women should wear.

Choosing not to feature women engineers isn’t just stupid from an inspirational and a feminist perspective; it’s a short-sighted business decision. Considering the salary difference between a fashion employee and an engineer, the latter are much more likely to have the money to purchase the items shown on glossy pages. By missing out on entire professions, magazines are cutting a big part of advertisers potential customers. And, with falling readership numbers, they aren’t really in a position to ostracize any potential readers.

There is no excuse for the under-representation of female engineers in glossy magazines. As tempting and easy as it might be for writers to feature jobs similar to theirs, when I put a call out to groups aimed at the promotion of women in engineering, they all answered. WISE, which aims “to increase the gender balance in the UK’s STEM workforce”, The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), WES Women’s Engineering Society “inspiring women as engineers, scientists and technical leaders” (its executive Vice President Dawn Bonfield inspired the title of this blog post) as well as the #awesomewomen network were particularly helpful. In the end, I interviewed 26 women, either as background research or for quotes. Considering that my blog averages 5,000 monthly readers, I can only imagine how keen they would have been to share their views with a national magazine.


Posted at 2:15pm.

Classy Film: View from the Top (2003), Gwyneth Paltrow’s Cliché Fest

We’ve all had to do jobs we’d rather forget about. For some people, they end up on Netflix rather than in a HR filing cabinet.

I first heard about View from the Top on Lainey Gossip, the one gossip blog I read every day. Lainey name checked it when Thanks For Sharing, a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo, was released. It marked a 10-year reunion for the actors, who held the lead roles in View from the Top.

If you’re a Lainey Gossip regular, you’ll know that to her readers, Paltrow is G and something of an obsession. Before the conscious uncoupling, before GOOP and the cookbooks, before Paltrow decided to be a lifestyle brand, there was what Wikipedia calls 2002-2007: Career Slowdown. After her Shakespeare in Love Oscar and her wedding to Chris Martin, Paltrow starred in few films until the Iron Man franchise came knocking.

Released in 2003, View from the Top is a movie Paltrow described to The Guardian as “this terrible movie that Harvey Weinstein talked me into doing”.

And terrible it is. The scenario, which revolves around the Hollywood cliché of a white trash girl from a small town with big aspirations, is telegraphed through flight metaphors and philosophical sentences such as: “It’s not my destiny. I want my destiny”; “I’m a pilot, it’s my job to know where people are going” and “For me the waiting room was my life until I met you”.

Paltrow plays Donna Jensen, the girl with big aspirations. After her quarterback boyfriend breaks up with her on her birthday, she decides to leave a promising career in the luggage aisle of her local department store for a job as a flight attendant on a commuters’ plane. Her boss warns her that customers will be gamblers and drunkards, her uniform is something out of a fetishist Star Wars shop, only with less taste and more polyester, but she sees it as a step up.

Which, since this is a feel good movie, it is. Her first job opens the doors to Royalty Airlines, the best American airline. In the process, she meets another cliché: Mark Ruffalo as the twenty-something who decides to drop his law studies because he’s afraid his whole life has been decided for him.

This entire review could be counting the film’s clichés. There might even be a drinking game there. Paris is presented as the City of Light in a first degree, one-dimensional way, through quick views of the lit Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysées. Jensen even wears a beret as La Vie en Rose plays! As a French person, I hate the way Hollywood keeps selling Paris, although I do understand it contributes to the capital’s tourist standing.

Even Jensen’s dream flight attendant job is handled through cinematographic platitudes. The camera follows her as she puts on her uniform, zooming on her zipping up her jacket or buckling her shoes. She is only seen in full through an escalator motive, an airport twist on the classic makeover reveal on the stairs.

During her training, Jensen gains a mentor in Sally Weston (Candice Bergen), the most famous flight attendant of her time. Weston has made a living selling ideas to young girls, mainly the notion that being a flight attendant means glamorous travel to faraway locations. She has become wealthy through her marriage with a man she attended to while working in business class, a flying myth as old as John marrying his prostitute.

Considering all these shortcomings, seeking a feminist message in View from the Top was farfetched. When Weston shows Jensen her walk-in closet, telling her she recognises her own ambition in her, she announces that the closet and riches of her life is all she’d ever wanted. Like in Pretty Woman, bagging a rich man is all one should aspire to. By the end of the film Jensen has conformed herself to this. It’s a pity the message is wrong, because I like the idea of Hollywood showing young women the importance of mentoring.

What I like less is Hollywood showing young women that women are bitches to each other. Jensen’s best friend ends up backstabbing her because of jealousy. Their last scene together is a ridiculous, half-hearted catfight. “You were always jealous of me for being prettier”. This is definitely not a character movie.

Rob Lowe features as a pilot. When I first saw him on screen, I thought his character and Jensen were going to end up together. So there was at least one surprise in the film. The other one was the presence of fellow West Wing regular Joshua Malina, in the cliché role of a gay man becoming a flight attendant. It’s miles away from the astute political roles he’s since played in first class Washington dramas.

Despite the acting talent gathered on screen, nobody plays well. I can understand an actor doing a movie because s/he needs to, for financial, for contract or for networking reasons. But once your name is on the poster, once you ask people to buy a ticket (and View from the Top grossed $19,526,014 worldwide), the least you can do is deliver. With a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, View from the Top is Paltrow’s last-but-one worst rated movie and the third-to-last worst rated for Ruffalo.

Here’s one thing not to emulate Gwyneth Paltrow on: even if you think the job is beneath you, do it well. Like Donna Jensen, who knows where it might take you?

Posted at 1:21pm and tagged with: Classy film,.

Blogger Adventure: Jodie Marie Dewberry of A La Jode

From blogger neophyte to seasoned fashion blogger in less than 18 months: in the crowded field of the personal style and fashion blogs, Exeter-based Jodie Marie Dewberry of A La Jode proves that building quality content and a dedicated following is still possible.

Her secrets: dedication, planning and a heavy dose of proactivity. She’s organising a South West Blog Social on 7 June and was actually the one who contacted me to run this feature.

Jodie took time out of exam revision to answer my questions about getting the blogging bug, organising outfit posts and what it’s like to blog in Exeter.

What made you want to start a blog?

I’d been reading blogs – mostly fashion, beauty and travel – for a couple of years and I had a ‘now or never’ kind of moment. So one day I just went for it! I kept it secret from all my friends and family for a few months, as I never expected it to take off or for anyone to read it.

You’ve been blogging since February 2013 - how has A la Jode evolved over that period of time?

When I started out, A La Jode was more of an experiment than a commitment. I quickly caught the blogging bug, however, after realising how amazing the community is and how nice it was to have a creative project alongside my degree! In the past year I’ve moved from Blogger to Wordpress and really focused on making my blog both more personal and more professional at the same time.

A la Jode, largely based on outfit posts, is in a very popular segment of the fashion blogosphere - how did you dig your niche?

The fashion blogosphere is so big that every blogger in it needs something distinctive - whether that’s related to content, fashion sense or writing style – and I think I’m still in the process of realising mine. I constantly feel like I need to find more of a niche, but instead I seem to go the other way and add more variety!

I admire people who post outfit pics because I could never be bothered. How do you prepare your outfit posts?

I usually take outfit photos in batches. They’re outfits I’ve either worn or I am planning on wearing sometime before the post goes live. I wish I had time to take them daily! If I do a lookbook post or video about a specific trend (e.g. pastels) I will put together outfits specifically as it’s more about inspiration than my own style.

Your blog mixes outfit posts, tutorials, dressing advice and debate entries - how do you decide what to post?

I plan most of my posts about a month in advance and adapt them/add in anything else that comes up accordingly. Once I graduate in July I hope to stick to a stricter, category-based schedule! It’s nice for readers to know when they can expect their favourite posts.

There is an active community around A la Jode. How did you build it and how do you keep it going?

I’m really not too sure! I started the blog as a bit of an experiment but never expected it to take off – I remember being excited about having 10 readers! Readers seemed to suddenly start increasing last September and that’s continued ever since. I’m very lucky that it’s happened fairly quickly and I still can’t quite believe it sometimes.

You are developing your You Tube channel. Why is it important, and what do you expect it will bring you and the blog?

When I began blogging, I always said I would never go on to YouTube, but earlier this year I decided it would be a nice way to show a bit more of myself and engage with followers. A La Jode is almost entirely focused on fashion and style, but I like to upload the occasional beauty, lifestyle or tag video on Youtube. It really is an extension of my blog.

What’s your relationship with PRs like?

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve not really had any bad experiences and a load of good ones. A La Jode doesn’t feature a whole load of gifted products – I’m quite fussy! – but I really enjoy building lasting relationships with brands.

How are you planning to develop A la Jode over the next few months/years?

Now my finals are over, I can’t wait to get stuck back in to blogging. I’ve not been as active as usual over the past month due to exams and travelling so I have lots of ideas waiting. Over the next few months, my main goal is to completely tidy up my blog in terms of layout and general ease of use, and perhaps redesign it. I’d also like to work on my photography – great photography makes a huge difference to a blog.

You’re organising a blogger meet up in Exeter in June. Is this an important part of blogging for you?

I’ve met some really good friends through blogging. It’s so nice to have people I can talk fashion with non-stop as none of my friends are really into it. I always find events incredibly exciting so I’m really looking forward to this opportunity to host one. It’s very time-consuming and stressful but I’m having a great time organising it!

What is the Exeter blogging scene like?

There aren’t many of us! But in some ways I think it makes us feel a little more connected. Nearly all the events happen in London or really far up North so it’s nice to bring such a huge event to the South West.

All photos courtesy of Jodie.

If, like Jodie, you would like to be featured in the next instalment of the monthly Blogger Adventure series, please get in touch at fashionmemex[at]

Posted at 5:33am and tagged with: blogger adventure,.

Classy Film: Neuf Mois Ferme (Nine Month Stretch)

If Hollywood remakes Albert Dupontel’s second movie Neuf Mois Ferme, as Jonathan Holland at The Hollywood Reporter suggested it might, it will be about redemption and the importance of the nuclear family.

This being a French movie however, the characters’ evolution isn’t as clear-cut; the moral aspect is less prevalent. The focus is on Ariane Felder (Sandrine Kimberlain), an ambitious Parisian judge, as she learns to deal with the unknown rather than on her one-night-stand, and the convict and burglar Bob Nolan (Albert Dupontel), being reformed.

A few months after an inebriated New Year’s celebration with fellow legal professionals at the Palais de Justice de Paris, Felder realises she is pregnant. Calling upon her contacts, she manages to piece the night together, mostly thanks to footage from CCTV cameras, which results in one of the funniest sequences in Neuf Mois Ferme.  Her shock to learn Nolan is the father is superseded by her discovery that he is the main suspect in the butchering of an old man during a burglary gone wrong. He’s even thought to have eaten his eyes! Not exactly father material for a woman who didn’t want offspring in the first place and, as a judge, would have attended one of France’s most prestigious schools.

Built like a play, thanks to three clear acts and limited locations (mainly the Palais de Justice and Ariane’s flat), Neuf Mois Ferme relies on tried and tested comic recipes, so much so that it reminded me of my high school literature classes on the topic.

The five comic types are a key part of the French curriculum: le comique de mots, based on deformed speech, jokes and word play; le comique de gestes, based on humorous gestures; le comique de situation, when the most unlikely people meet; satire and le comique de répétition, when something happens again and again. They were a large part of my school life as, aged 12 to 17, I made my way through Molière play after Molière play. A quick search online suggests it isn’t as big a deal in the English curriculum. Not so much comedy in Shakespeare, I guess.

Nolan’s lawyer, Maître Trolos (Nicolas Marié), suffering from a speech impediment and naivety, is the language-based comic. Juge de Bernard, (Philippe Uchan), Felder’s colleague with a crush on her, is there for comique de répétition: as she suspects him of being the father, she takes him to play golf where, to get enough tissues for a DNA analysis, she hits him with a club. This is the first of a series of scenes where Bernard is hit on the head by various and more and more symbolic objects.

I saw Neuf Mois Ferme as part of the Rendez-vous with French cinema festival. No word so far on a UK-wide release, with good reason: I am not sure how the comic effects translate in subtitles. Also, the movie relies on understanding the French justice system, which differs from its British and American counterparts, especially in the role of the judge who oversees investigations, and there were moments when only the French moviegoers laughed. However, the success of TV series like Spiral suggests that this isn’t impossible to overcome.  

Despite building his movies on traditional comic formats, Dupontel avoids being too academic thanks to the dark humour and the themes he infuses into the drama. Upon realising she is six months pregnant, Felder tries to self-abort by throwing herself off a chair she’s perched on her desk. The scene starts with a ruling delivered in traditional judicial verbosity. Judicial vocabulary is at the core of most the Kimberlain-Dupontel dialogues, and the resulting laughs demonstrate once again both actors’ comedy chops.

Kimberlain, who I had last seen in a much darker role in Polisse, playing a well-off mother who realises her husband is abusing his daughter, and before that in comedy Pauline Détective, shows that she has a superb comic timing. Her delivery and the very osées scenes Dupontel had her play gained her a second César award earlier this year - a well-earned one too.

A complimentary ticket to Neuf Mois Ferme was provided to me by Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Posted at 5:13am and tagged with: Classy film,.

For the past two weeks, I have been trying to figure out what my peanut is.

In The Compass of Now, DDnard’s million-selling Thai self-leadership book recently released in English, the peanut stands for all the things we hold on to which stop us from moving forward and achieving our goals.

Take the businesswoman who refuses to sell her land for less than the offer she previously received for it, even though she really needs the money. Her peanut is the past opportunity, which has convinced her she can get more than the current going price. Holding on to it means the bank ends up forfeiting her land. She has debts, but no more land and therefore, no means to pay them back.

Identifying your peanut requires practising self-awareness, or “the compass of now” as DDnard calls it. Self-awareness takes time, which explains why I have been reading this book for two months.

DDnard herself is a proponent of slow reading when it comes to The Compass: “in today’s fast-track world, people are looking for the quick tips and quick fixes for their lives, but our heart and souls do not work that way”, she explained to me in an email interview. “You can’t speak numbers and quick fix with your heart. Our mind needs soothing and comforting for quiet thoughts, and a pause to feel and be enlightened at our own pace.” Like most self-leadership books, The Compass deserves to be read with a notebook and a pen in hand, so you can reflect on your own life.

The Compass of Now stemmed from DDnard’s own practice of self-awareness. It enabled her to overcome a £2 million debt inherited from her husband, the grief of his loss, her struggles as a newly-single mother and her physical pain. Explaining how she got over these very human difficulties has catapulted her to literary fame in her home country Thailand, where The Compass now has its own meditation retreats, seminars and a charity.

Launching the book in the United Kingdom, where the self-help book market is already popular, was the next natural step. From her personal history, DDnard is attached to the country, which she describes as a second home and as the place where she grew up.

One of the most harrowing personal stories in The Compass see a young DDnard, homeless and without acquaintances in the UK learning that when you have a problem to solve, you don’t have time for self-pity. “The UK taught me so many things present in this book”, she remembers. “If millions of people are benefiting from The Compass of Now, I feel that the source of my knowledge should benefit from it too.”

In the UK, The Compass should find an easy public, even though parts of it, particularly the ones referring directly to the Thai lifestyle or to the way industrialisation is affecting Thai society might not be as relevant to the British audience. The decision not to adapt the book was a conscious one. “You see it as the rest of the world sees it. I think pain, suffering and happiness are universal”, explains DDnard.

Generally, The Compass is at its strongest when it focuses on the thoughts and habits the reader can change, rather than on companies or states. The two chapters on misplaced priorities at corporate and national levels are interesting in themselves, but feel out of place in this book about personal change.

For DDnard however, talking about corporations and governments was an imperative. “To have a balanced life, readers need to have sustainable wealth and prosperity. If we work in the wrong place, if we are manipulated by our governments or organisation without understanding the bigger games that are played, it is more difficult to achieve long-lasting wealth and happiness. We all need a broader paradigm about the world we live in, how we impact the world and how the surrounding affect us”, is how she explains it.

It probably isn’t by chance that the two chapters that spoke to me less contain concrete examples rather than the nature-based parables the rest of the book is woven with. To make sure the reader identified with The Compass, DDnard used stories ranging from the peanut to a rose, from a monkey to Finding Nemo. She’d had a chance to test the impact of her parables before publishing The Compass in one of her multiple seminars.  

While Stephen Covey’s very American stories in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People caused me to roll my eyes numerous times, DDnard’s parables were easy for me to picture and identify with. For instance, since reading her comparison between how the mind grasps onto painful thoughts and how the hand grasps onto thorns, I often find myself physically opening my hand when my mind struggles, which helps me let go.

Like every chapter of The Compass, the one this example comes from is illustrated by Suporntip c. The drawings include numerous monkeys, angels, men and women and hearts. By providing more food for thought as well as enabling the visualisation of the book’s advices, they are a welcome addition to DDnard’s exercises and parables and are further evidence of how she takes advantage of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic cues to make her message as powerful as possible. The illustrations’ symbiosis with DDnard’s message was guaranteed by the way the two women worked together. “I told her the style, the pictures in my head, the feeling I expect the illustrations will communicate to the heart of the readers”, DDnard remembers.

Although The Compass was written a while ago, DDnard still loves it the way it is. She is planning to share more wisdom with the UK by bringing her seminar and meditation retreats here: “I’m seeing the free meditation retreats happening for the busy working people in the UK. That will be my happiest day”.

These retreats will no doubt add to DDnard’s already extensive library of stories of how people’s lives have been transformed by her book. She shared two of her favourite with me.

The first one, which also appears in the The Compass, is that of “a man with £1,000 debt, thinking of killing himself, his wife and kids. His neighbour told him the story of the book and gave him a copy. Today he is not only happy with his family but also happy with his noodle factory.”

Her other favourite story is that of a “lady who lost six babies. Her husband lived with another woman for 32 years, and she had £40,000 debt while her monthly salary was only £400. She had nowhere to turn to and wanted to kill herself, until her niece gave her The Compass of Now. After reading it, she came to meet me and decided that she would let go of her husband and, like the monkey letting go of the peanut, live happily. She also asked her husband to pay her debt for her so she can start her life free and happy, giving him the divorce papers in return.”

A complimentary review copy of The Compass of Now was sent to me by Palamedes PR. Email interview with DDnard carried out on 9 May 2014.  

Posted at 5:32am and tagged with: book review,.

Four books are currently sitting on my bedside table: In My Shoes (Tamara Mellon), the Jimmy Choo co-founder’s autobiography; The Compass of Now (DDNard), a part-coaching, part-autobiography book teaching you “to be happy and fulfilled regardless of the circumstances”; The Making of Her (Susie Nott-Bower), about a makeover TV show and The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (Kim Ghattas).

Last December, I vowed not to spend another penny on books until I had read all the ones I currently own. In keeping with this resolution, I haven’t paid for any of these titles. The deviance is that back in December, none of them were on my shelves. The Compass of Now and The Making of Her were both sent to me for review by PRs, In my Shoes and The Secretary were both lent to me by friends.

Not buying books has had an unexpected effect: I read less and I am actually less focused on what I read. I flit around from one book to the next. Discovering that I hadn’t read 15 books in the past four months, a low figure for me, resulted in some reading introspection.

At first, I struggled with the sudden decrease in my reading rhythm. Devouring books is part of who I am, it’s why I choose to spend so much time on my own.

I looked at the practical reasons. Since realising, during the February Tube strike, that taking the train home would save me between 20 and 30 minutes a journey, my public transport reading time has shrunk from 45 minutes a night to 15. I am working on the launch of a site about women, foreign policy and education, scheduled for September, and the time I invest in it isn’t spent reading. Since I was a child, I have preferred reading over doing. Deciding to launch this website, putting together its critical path to hit the self-imposed deadline and realising the work that needs to go into it, has forced me to rethink this.

Shifting priorities and shrinking time on public transports aren’t the only reasons for reading less. I only realised the third explanation after seeing Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. The film brought back my Saint Laurent obsession and I re-read Lettres à Yves (Pierre Bergé), extracts of which feature in the movie, Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon (Marie-Dominique Lelièvre) and The Beautiful Fall (Alicia Drake)in the space of ten days. This was reassuring (I can still read!) but more importantly, it showed me the role of flow in my reading habits.

Choosing books linked to what is going on in my life at a given moment is key to my reading. I am not one to pick titles based on glowing reviews or on what’s in the 3-for-2 promotion at Waterstones. All the unread volumes on my shelves tell the story of what I was doing when I purchased them. Laurence Benaim’s Yves Saint Laurent was my first biography of the couturier, bought at his Petit Palais retrospective. The Cairo Trilogy (Naguib Mahfouz) was my way to investigate the Arab Spring and to learn more about a country I had holidayed in and had studied at university.

When I don’t read a book at that specific time however, the momentum is lost. Purchasing The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer an Archeological Scandal (Charles Allen) was logical when I was working at the British Museum, helping put together a catalogue for a Buddha exhibition in China. Although it still sounds intriguing, it makes less sense now.

Of course, this made me question the sustainability of my book-buying habit. Not only did I spend significant money for the purpose of a gratification that never came, but that money has been immobilised ever since.

Not buying books was the answer to a financial imperative. As I near 30, not saving money starts to be more irresponsible than carefree. Tying up money in books is less financially viable than investing money in fashion: whereas I can re-sell the latter for a decent price on eBay, the going rate for a read book is often too low to make it worth more than the read, or so I tell myself. Considering the number of second-hand books I have purchased online for £0.99, I am only too aware of this. Arguing that books are an intellectual investment is only valid if I actually read the books.

2014 is meant to be the year where I reap my investment. Unexpectedly, the self-imposed ban has had another consequence: for the first time, I am asking for things in the name of this blog.

Trying to figure out how I would cope without buying books for a year, I suggested last December I would ask publishing houses to send me books to reviews. So far it has worked, thanks to the launch of Books4Media, a platform linking industry PRs with journalists or bloggers. This is how I learnt about the publication of Suffragette Autumn, Women’s Spring, of The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War and how I got in touch with Lynn Michell at Linen Press. Most books on Books4Media are from small publishing houses who are more than happy to put me in touch with their authors. This fits nicely with my desire to base more Fashion Abecedaire articles on people and to celebrate achievements, especially women’s achievements.

The most unexpected thing to come out of these four months though: I haven’t even been tempted to but a single book. Not once. I am planning to spend the next quarter investigating that change.

Posted at 10:00am and tagged with: book review, first person,.