So this is our world now?

Donald Trump surrounded by Miss America contestants

Theresa May in a tartan Vivienne Westwood trouser suit

What’s wrong with a nice knee-length skirt and a cashmere jumper?

The front page of today’s Times has a full-length photo of Prime Minister Theresa May in a tartan Vivienne Westwood trouser suit looking, as my Grandmother would have put it “a complete bloody bugger”.
The leader of the country (albeit unelected leader) in Vivienne Westwood.
It’s like punk never happened.
President Putin

Russia – known for its great literature, music, ballet, architecture, vodka, prozzies…


On the same page is a story about President Putin, boasting that Russian sex workers are the best in the world. This is the president of one of the world’s most powerful countries, bragging about their whores.
It’s like Tolstoy never happened.

And all this two days before Donald Trump is inaugurated as US president.
It’s like hundreds of years of civilisation never bloody happened.

Old ladies’ handbags

Launer handbags, as used by the Queen
A small handbag covered in silver sequins

Gran would have sniffed dismissively at this excuse for a handbag

My Great-Grandma died when she was 96, so I have distinct memories of her. A small, slender woman with wavy, fair hair and an eagle eye, she always wore a coat with a fur collar, and usually a hat and gloves. And she always had a handbag.

This handbag was a thing of wonder. In smooth black leather, it had rigid sides and a catch that could take your finger off if you weren’t careful. It also weighed about 5lbs when empty – two tonnes when full.

And this one - how would you fit a fag case and your snuff in this?

And this one – how would you fit a fag case and your snuff in this?

I was reminded of her when I saw a picture of Our Own Dear Queen recently, also with a handbag. In fact she is never without a handbag, and rumour has it she uses it to send messages to her aides (looped over left arm – I am talking to a dullard; hanging from fingertips – my feet ache, fetch the car etc). What she keeps inside is also a mystery, although I like to go with a linen hankie, half a bottle of gin, dog treats and a snub-nosed revolver.

The contents of Gran’s bag were not a mystery. She was a good sport and would let my mother root through it. With the help of her, and my aunt, I have compiled a list of what Gran used to keep in her handbag – and it is quite a bit more than the Queen.

  • Coin purse
  • Note case
  • Tape measure (for checking the sizes of clothes in shops)
  • Pen
  • Diary
    Now you're having a laugh - it's a gold string vest, not a handbag

    Now you’re having a laugh – it’s a gold string vest, not a handbag

  • Address book
  • Half a bottle of brandy (“in case”)
  • Eau de Cologne
  • Comb
  • Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes – in a silver case
  • Lighter (never matches)
  • Manicure set
  • Emergency jewellery purse (she would carry a couple of gold rings and a change of earrings, you know, in case the weather changed and didn’t match her jewellery)
  • Snuff (yes, snuff – this is a woman who was born in the 19th Century)
  • Handkerchief
  • Asprin
  • Little Imps (devilishly unpleasant cough sweet things)
  • Alka Seltzer (after the brandy and Little Imps, probably)
  • Scissors
  • Needle and thread (for emergencies, like sewing up her ruptured arm after carrying the bag, presumably)
  • Powder compact
  • Lipstick
  • Rouge
  • Keys
  • Smelling salts

No room for a revolver – though all she would have to do is wallop a would-be assassin with the bag and he would go down as if felled by a cannonball.

The Queen with a black handbag

I bet it’s actually bullet-proof

No choice but to choose

A row of expensive double-door fridges

My youngest daughter goes to secondary school next year, and she gets to choose. We are lucky – the two nearest schools to us are Good schools (so Ofsted says) and there is a grammar school in the next county.
So where do we choose?

We went to Devon on holiday this year, and spent ages pouring over holiday cottages. Got it down to two – one in the middle of a town (too noisy? too busy?), one in the middle of a field (too remote? too cold?). What if we picked it wrong and spent the whole precious seven days wishing we’d gone to the other place?

Last year, we were given some money to buy a TV. It took us THREE MONTHS to decide on the model, the size, and the functions. (And just for the record, 3D is a useless gimmick).

The first time I remember being too spoiled for choice was twelve years ago when our fridge (actually my mum and dad’s old fridge) broke down. They coughed up the money for a new one as a Christmas/birthday present. It was the early days of the internet, so I didn’t have to go to actual shops, but could compare fridges online. It was impossible – did we want an ice-maker, or a chilled water dispenser, a fast-freeze function, a chrome and black finish or pristine white? One shop would give us free delivery, but was that as cheap as the other place where we would get a £20 voucher?

Alright, it is a nice position to be in, but wasn’t life much simpler when there was less choice? I don’t just mean the amount of time you would save, but the lack of personal responsibility you would have.

Tizer sign

Time was when the hardest choice of my life was between Tizer and Dandelion & Burdock

If we get the wrong school, it is our fault for choosing wrongly, and we could never forgive ourselves – same with the fridge. Would I curse myself every summer for not getting one with a chilled water dispenser? (No – but I still wish we hadn’t bothered with 3D – all those stupid glasses falling out of the cupboard).
When my mum and dad bought the old fridge (we’re talking early 80s here) they got it from Kays Catalogue and had a choice of three, the price rising with the capacity of the fridge (and no chilled water dispensers). They bought the one they could afford, thought no more about it, and got on with filling it with Yorkshire pudding batter, beef dripping and Tizer.

I had no choice about the school I went to. It wasn’t the best school, but it wasn’t the worse, and either way there was nothing I could do about it.

Sometimes, it has to be simpler to just get on with the cards you have been dealt with instead of wishing you’d gone into a different casino.

Research – the writer’s cul-de-sac

Styles For All Figures - 1920's underwear

I’ve written a time travel novel called The Clock Box, and enjoyed it so much I am half way through writing another one. The first one is set in 1926, the second in 1940. The reasons for this are plot-dictated, rather than any particular love of – or in-depth knowledge about – these eras. Even so, I reckoned I had read enough Agatha Christie to be able to blag my way through 1926 and seen enough war films to pull off 1940.

Not so. Name me a cinema you would expect to find in a small southern town in 1940. There are loads – Odeon, Gaumont, Rex. But you have to be careful. This is 1940, not 1946, so you won’t find an Essoldo – they came later. And don’t opt for a Union cinema either – they were taken over in 1937.

Essoldo cinema

An Essoldo cinema – the name was an amalgam of the names of the owner (Solomon), his wife (Esther) and daughter (Dorothy). This is where too much research takes you

While we’re on the subject – what kind of underwear did people wear in 1926? Not what was in the fashion magazines, but what did people actually wear? Was it all buttons and ribbons or were there hooks and eyes? When did elastic become widespread? Did fast young gels wear the same kind of pants as respectable housekeepers? (I have been writing sex scenes. Fastenings matter).

Woman wearing 1920s underwear

Can you imagine trying to get this stuff on? Can you imagine someone else trying to take it all off?


These are the cul-de-sacs research sends you down.

My day job is a sub-editor. This is a heavy weight I happily cast off when I dive into the fiction pool, but, like that nasty slimy seaweed that wraps around your legs, it keeps reappearing and dragging me under.

A favourite author of mine once said that while re-reading one of his earlier works he discovered that he had described the sun setting twice, about three hours apart, on one momentous day. He hadn’t noticed, and neither had his editor.

I would have done.

At a talk with crime writer Mark Billingham in Hull recently, he said a reader once contacted him to point out that a particular set of traffic lights featured in one of his books (Oxford I think…) had since been altered and it was now impossible to turn right there, as one of his characters had done. ‘You may wish to amend this for the next edition’ the reader said. Billingham laughed it off; at the end of the day, you can only do so much research, he said. You just have to go with the author, or the amendments will never end.

I would have amended it.

I spent a pointless afternoon trying to find out what food was served in hospitals during the war. They would be on rations, of course, but surely they would get extra portions? Of what exactly? I read loads of fascinating first hand accounts from nurses and patients, but apart from one fella saying he preferred it in hospital as they got better food, I drew a blank. Ended up culling it from a 1946 report of recommended menus from a charity that inspected hospitals (it later became the King’s Fund, and was founded in 1898, becoming a think-tank after the NHS was set up).

Oh, and did you know the American army officer’s summer uniform had a leather belt until 1941? After that it became a sort of hessian affair. And that Daimler produced a massive 7.1 litre car in 1926 that apparently was so quiet you could only hear the engine when the bonnet was open. And while I know from studying zoomed in pictures of these cars that they definitely had glove compartments, I can’t find out whether you could lock them from the outside.

Advert for a 1926 Daimler Double 6

A late 20s Daimler. Beautiful – but does it lock from the outside?

This is the stuff I pick up while researching and I have no idea if it is any use. I just know it eats into the precious time I have carved out for actually writing, and I invariably cut it short without finding out exactly what I need to know.

It isn’t just researching facts either. Language can make or break a book’s credibility. A crime novel set in the 1960s I read a few years ago lost me totally when one of the characters was asked how they were. “I’m good, thanks,” they replied. NO-ONE said ‘good’ like this in the sixties. It is a 21st century expression. They said ‘fine’ or ‘fab’ or ‘gear’.

Another one –  ‘balls-up’ sounds modernish, lewd, and probably American, so I was searching for a phrase like it that would have been used in 1940s England. Turns out balls-up is the perfect phrase. It came into widespread use in the First World War and while its origin isn’t clear – it may be navel thing – it has nowt to do with testicles. Who knew? Well, me, now.

I research too much and for too long. Part is procrastination, I know. Part is fear of getting it wrong and someone smugly pointing out to me that ladies didn’t wear elasticated suspender belts in June 1926 because they weren’t invented until July. Part is the journalist’s need to get it right. But the biggest part of it is my need to get inside the characters – to think, talk, eat and feel the way they feel, to see what they see when they walk down the street.

I think I’ll have to accept I need a real time travel machine for that.

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #10: Ripper Street, Seasons 4 & 5

Ripper Street Season 4 (Amazon)

I was SO pleased when Amazon took over Ripper Street after the BBC wandered off. And now I am SO pleased it is over.

Ripper Street had a great cast, a steampunk script and an endless supply of blood and gutsy murders. Season 4 continued this to some extent, luring perpetually troubled Inspector Edmund Reid (consistently good Matthew Macfadyen) and the irritatingly perky Mathilda (Anna Burnett) back to dirty Whitechapel from the seaside backwater where they had been living in boring peace.

As Bennet Drake (best side-kick ever Jerome Flynn) is now the boss of H Division, and Reid a mere special constable, tensions are inevitable. This is compounded by the fact that Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) is about to be hanged and Captain Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) is acting all drunk and not bothered and their son, Connor, is to be brought up by Rose (Charlene McKenna) and Drake. Oh, and Mathilda is making all the eyes at desk sergeant Drummond (Matthew Lewis), who resorts to reading Dracula to try and impress her.

Jedediah Shine, Ripper Street

Don’t dial 999 for him. Jedediah Shine, brilliantly played by Joseph Mawle

So far, so Ripper Street. Storylines involving amateur footballers and blood splatters, an evil workhouse owner and a blood transfusion gone horribly wrong recapture the grisly magic of Ripper Street of old.

However, there were some sneaky storylines underlying it all that should have alerted me to what awaited in Season 5. Firstly, there is Augustus Dove (Killian Scott), an unbelievably young and even more unbelievably reasonable assistant commissioner. Then the cold case involving the murder of a local rabbi and talk of a Whitechapel golem. Finally, there is Long Susan’s execution. She killed 52 people just so she could put a hospital in her front room! We don’t feel sorry for her, and Jackson is better off without her. Instead, he comes up with a daft plan and saves her from the rope. Boo.

Season 5 has a single storyline. Even the title music has changed, and Reid keeps forgetting to shave, just so you know that everything has taken a darker turn. Pantomime villain Jedediah Shine (played terrifyingly well by Joseph Mawle) turns up to take over when Drake is killed, Rose – who seemed to be a completely different person than in previous seasons – turn traitor then trundles off to Blackpool and Augustus Dove decides to bring up Connor, with the help of a cruel governess. Reid, Jackson and Long Susan hide out in a theatre owned by Jackson’s previous amour, the witty Mimi (Lydia Wilson), who had some of the best lines in the series.

It all trundles along, with everyone knowing what is going on but no-one able to bring anything to any kind of conclusion. In the end, I forgot I was watching the final series, wandering over to iPlayer documentaries and YouTube film noirs when I was ironing instead. Then a severe sinus infection knocked me flat into bed for three days and all I could do was stare at the iPad and sniff. It seemed the ideal time to finally cross Ripper Street off my list.

Long Susan and Nathanial Dove

Long Susan and Nathanial Dove – we know what awaits them, and it ain’t a happy ending

It wasn’t all bad. David Threlfall as Abel Croker was an excellent addition to Season 4, and jaunty Sergeant Thatcher (Benjamin O’Mahony) made up for the absence of old favourite, slimy journalist Fred Best, who was killed in Season 3. Nathaniel Dove (Jonas Armstrong), Augustus’s murderous brother, was brilliantly portrayed, as you wondered who was the real animal – the man who couldn’t help himself, or the one who could but killed children to cover up his brother’s madness.

As always, the staging and photography was a treat. The smoke of the Thames Ironworks, peeling plaster of Newgate Gaol and billboard-plastered alley walls were all atmospherically recreated. But the final series just wasn’t Ripper Street, it was a two-episode storyline stretched so much you could hear the whalebone snapping.

A lot of critics disliked the final episode, but I thought it redeemed the series somewhat. By wrapping the storyline to its obviously inevitable ending half way through, it left the second half open for flashbacks (Drake and Best reappear!) and a lingering farewell. Reid carries on, his best friend dead, everyone else he cares about moving on and moving away. He remains at Leman street, haunted by the one crime he could not solve – Jack the Ripper – and spending the last minutes of the old century alone, reading through the night’s crime reports.

Things I think about when I sort through the linen basket:

  • Did Augustus Dove’s lisp get more pronounced as the series went on or did I just become more attuned to it?
  • Who caught the eels for the Sumner family before Nathaniel turned up? Thatcher said they were the ‘best eels in London’…
  • I lost track of Rachel Costello (Anna Koval) that determined new reporter who was on Dove’s trail. Where did she go after Shine menaced her? Why didn’t she scream blue murder to the people in the next office when he had his hands up her petticoats?
  • Why did clever Mimi have to go and marry some old bloke? Why couldn’t she carry on having cosy suppers with poor lonely Inspector Reid? Why?

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #9: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Seasons 2-7

RuPaul

***NO SPOILERS*****NO SPOILERS*****NO SPOILERS***

I was introduced to RuPaul’s Drag Race by my step-daughter, who said her proudest moment would be if her brother ever appeared on it.
I don’t know why it isn’t more of a (female?) phenomenon in the UK, because it combines everything you could want from a hard-fought reality show, as well as providing for all your comedy, high fashion, emotional backstory and killer bitchiness needs.

Sharon Needles. Need I say more?

Sharon Needles. Need I say more?

RuPaul Charles is a drag queen (read ‘Drag Superstar of the World’). Out of drag, he is a very tall, slim and slightly geeky black man. In drag he is an amazing glamazonian with blonde hair, model-looks and sequined designer gowns. We are not talking Danny La Rue here.
The programme is sort of a Great British Bake-Off for drag queens, of which America seems to have an unending supply. At the start of the series, 12 men dressed up as women pitch up in a large workroom and are giving various tasks to do. At the end of each week, one is sent home until the season finale crowns the Next Drag Superstar.
RuPaul is the Mary Berry in heels and a corset presiding over it all, helped by a panel of C-list judges. He offers inspiring advice and killer put-downs in equal measure.
It is as hilarious, eyebrow-raising and gross as it sounds – as well as inspiring and touching.

Courtney Act

This is Courtney Act. She. Is. A. Man

In the UK, we see drag queens as little more than pantomime dames. In Drag Race, where drag is an art, it is obvious they are so much more than that. There are the comedy queens, of course, but there are also the pageant queens, in foot-long false eyelashes and over the top prom dresses, the fishy queens who look so much like women (fish=woman, you don’t need to know why) it is unnerving, the East Coast queens in their weird, edgy drag that usually involves sticking bits of hairdryers all over a bodystocking and talking about My Art and the plus-size queens with their Large and In Charge ethos.
The tasks are either silly, hilarious or just ewww.

The queens have to dress non-drag men up as fellow queens, take part in mini-Broadway shows or exercise videos, record a song (promoting whatever single RuPaul has just released), dress puppets up as fellow queens or guess the colour of a load of beefy assistants underpants.

Stacey Lane Matthews

Stacy was chunky but not very funky

At the end of every show there is a catwalk, where they have to strut in their best drag to a different theme each week, ranging from Gold Eleganza to Executive Realness. After telling each queen how she had let herself – and, more importantly, Mama Ru, down, RuPaul selects the bottom two who will have to Lypsynch For Your Life.

Cue over the top dance moves, splits (‘she dropped it like it was hot’), and wig swinging (in one memorable Lypsynch, one queen dragged off her wig only to reveal another wig underneath). Ru delivers her verdict, telling the losing queen to ‘Sashay away’, which she does with her head held high and a few bitchy words for the camera back in the workroom. You don’t get that on Strictly.

Stacey Lane Matthews

Stacy Layne out of drag. Or is she?

The show’s production values are as trashy as the queens’ outfits. Sponsors get any number of mentions, the stages are tiny, the audience, when they have one, is about a dozen people. Everything is held together with hundreds of catchphrases you will soon find yourself incorporating into everyday life, such as remember – don’t fuck it up, or no tea, no shade, no pink lemonade and can I get an Amen in here? Oh, and a phrase for every situation – don’t blow your nose on the fabric, baitch!

Stuff I think about when sewing on my sequins:

  • You need a suitably draggy name – try Pandora Box, Sharon Needles, Milk, The Princess, Ginger Minj, Shangela, Penny Tration and Jujubee for size.
  • You have to be gay. You don’t have to be, but they all are.
  • You have to be able to read – give someone a dressing down in the most bitchy way possible (usually preceded by donning a pair of plastic glasses and announcing ‘the library is open’).
  • You have to say fuck a lot. All the queens swear vilely, all the time.
  • You have to know how to tuck (go look it up) – a meaty tuck is to be avoided at all costs. You also have to cinch (to avoid hogbody) and pad. It’s a whole new world.
  • You have to have a tearful back story. Actually, this isn’t true. Some of the queens have lovely, supportive families, but they are in the minority. Most were bullied at school for being gay and effeminate, many have parents who can’t accept their lifestyles, some are totally estranged from their families. Ah, the shade of it all…
RuPaul season 6 lineup

The Season 6 line-up – fave series so far. Every queen was a winner (except Laganja Estranja, obvs)

Is it better to feel the fear – or take a detour?

An old style telephone surrounded by takeaway food menus

This is about social anxiety – those hidden fears and neuroses that blight your life and make you feel like a brain-crippled, un-normal, low-functioning fool.
I didn’t know, until I heard a radio phone-in, how many other people have Things. Thought it was just me and a couple of close, confiding friends.
Everyone else has no problem ordering a drink, opening the door, talking to a teacher, going to a bank. They – the happy, carefree, normal people – just get on with stuff like this.
But a 5live phone-in last year was unexpectedly flooded with people who successfully hold down difficult jobs or manage busy lives while coping with Things.

An old housemate had a Thing about hairdressers. By no means shy, or lacking in confidence, what he used to hate about it was that you are held captive and can’t escape while they question you. He used to beg me to come in with him and tell the barber he was a deaf mute so I could do all the talking. He would regularly make appointments then cancel them. Eventually, he bought a set of clippers from Argos and I trimmed his hair in the kitchen (this is when military-style crew cuts were in fashion).

A pair of sharp hairdresser's scissors

Would you trust me with these? I wouldn’t, but I don’t have the Thing about hairdressers…

A colleague’s wife had a Thing about people coming to the door. It freaked her out, unsettled her for days, so much so she used to ring him, sometimes in hysterics, whenever anyone knocked at their front door.

Made no sense to me, who has no problem yanking the door open and telling whoever it is to shove their taunting double glazing leaflets somewhere they’ll be appreciated – like Antartica.
But ask me to pick up the phone and call for a takeaway and you will end up very hungry.

A telephone and lots of takeaway food menus

Yes, sometimes I would rather starve

I have a Thing about phones, and calling takeaways in particular. Just can’t do it, and I don’t know why. The phone often crackles and you can’t hear what is being said properly, you might mess the order up, you have to give your name and if you mumble you have to repeat it.

Using the phone is hell – I would rather drive to the takeaway, order in person, sit on a draughty bench surrounded by drunken yobs reading last week’s local free sheet for half and hour then drive home while it all goes cold or spills out over the passenger seat.

I have always regarded this as a weakness, a failing that limits me, sets me apart from the rest of the population and which I should try to overcome. I make myself use the phone, and when I do, it is always fine. Although I hate it, I always end up with the right order.
But I still dread it as much the next time.

There is a theory, the Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway theory, inspired by the book by Susan Jeffers. I read this book years ago and can’t remember anything about but the inspiring title. You can work through your fears, it implies, until they aren’t fears anymore.
But can you? If you have a Thing about making phone calls, or parking the car (another of mine, let’s not go there), the theory is, if you make yourself do it often enough, and without mishap, then it becomes easier and easier until the fear is gone. Yeah, sometimes I can pick up the phone and get on with it, but it doesn’t make me feel stronger, and the next time I loathe it just as much. And it has always been this way for me.

Same with my housemate with the hair. He now has a standing appointment with a city-centre barbers which is too loud and busy for chit-chat. He says it makes it a bit easier – but not much. He still occasionally cancels when he can’t face walking in there.
In the twenty-five years I have known him, he still hasn’t got over his Thing, despite facing it time and time again. (I don’t know about the colleague with the wife. I changed jobs. Maybe she is cowering in the hall right now while he bangs on the door having forgotten his keys.)

MOT certificates and a MOT refusal certificate

I. Would. Just. Rather. Walk.

I have a Thing about garages. The kind where you get your car MOTed and it costs you £1,000 and there is nothing you can do, luv, because they have already stripped it down, y’see and it is going to cost you 500 nicker just to build it back up again, luv.
I have had a LOT of bad experiences with garages. But not my current garage, which is run by two laid-back blokes who have cheerfully stuck my car back together with duck tape before now, always manage to jolly it on through its MOT and are always up front and honest. My car has been going to this garage for fifteen years now, but MOT time still sees me with my head in a bucket of sand while reaching for the bus timetable deciding I don’t actually need to drive anywhere anyway.

My husband does the garage stuff. He books it in, drops it off, even when it is of extreme inconvenience to him. He braves the oily workshop and talks about alternators and crank-shafts and stuff. The amount of stress and anxiety this saves me is mammoth. I know I shouldn’t be avoiding it – I should be feeling the fear and doing it anyway – but the relief that I don’t have to any more is indescribable.

Is this a bad thing? Is this the thin end of the wedge? If I avoid every Thing I have anxieties about will I end up a prisoner to them, stuck at home with a broken-down car, slowly starving to death as I try to harness the mental strength to order a curry? Or will I just feel better able to manage everything else in my life?