We Need to Talk About Kevin

Why: It was on a display shelf in the library with a recommendation next to it. I’d always meant to read it so I picked it up and started reading instead of doing the work I was supposed to be doing.

Oh god. I don’t want to write about this book because it is so much and too much. I appreciate that that sentence is tautological and nothing-y but perhaps it makes sense if you have read the book?

Kevin is a book so well-known in popular culture that on picking this book up, you know you’re going to read about a high-school massacre, so perhaps you ought to know how unbearable it will be. I didn’t anticipate it. Not in any properly comprehending way – not the extent of the horror. Now, I don’t want to be misleading, this book is not a horror or true crime genre staple by any means. It is deeply and darkly psychological, playing you against yourself, as you sympathise with, question, and perhaps revile the narrator – Kevin’s mother, Eva.

Throughout I felt burdened by the weight of Eva’s testimony, which you read as letters sent to her husband, after the massacre. Much like a Donna Tartt novel, the depth and acuity of the writing means the story pervades your day-to-day life; you really live with it while you’re reading the novel and its impact hovers over you like grief, long after finishing the last page. For me, the novel, and Eva, felt like they were dragging me down with them and unearthed fears of motherhood I had never fully appreciated. I haven’t read many critic’s takes, but I feel that now, in light of our greater attention to gender bias, we could have a much more fruitful discussion about the social expectations surrounding Eva and motherhood. I truly feel those expectations, and the role of her husband, are at the core of the novel, rather than a simplistic analysis of nature or nurture. The question ‘was it the mother’s fault or was the baby just bad?’ is far too binary for the complexity of the narrative and depth of the characters, and reaching a definitive ‘conclusion’ about whose fault it is probably misses the point. It is a novel which will stay with me and continue to shape my thinking


Under the Greenwood Tree

Why: It’s the Hammerpuzzle Christmas play at the Studio theatre and I felt like I ought to read the book before seeing it – plus the director assured me that it was “very short”.

I was fully convinced that Thomas Hardy’s MO was misery. Having read his poetry about his late wife, and knowing how he had treated her, I’d never felt a particular sense of affection for Hardy, though after reading Under the Greenwood Tree, I’ll openly admit I’d wrongly pigeon-holed the bloke. Sure, his major hit, Far From the Madding Crowd, is fairly relentlessly miserable but there are lovely rural bits and, at the end of the day, the story is about dogged, faithful love. Under the Greenwood Tree is all of those good bits without the misery! Would you believe it, T. Hardy even cracks a few jokes?! I wouldn’t say laugh a minute, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, but he certainly painted sweetly funny situations and characters. The two protagonists were more charming than frustrating for the most part – and even the frustrating things about them (mostly the arguments about wearing a bonnet or a hat) were quaint.

But the stand-out element for me, rather than the gentle love story, was the ‘quire’ (or choir). I can’t think of much that is more bucolic than a troupe of townsmen roaming about their village with various stringed instruments (but certainly not any evil ‘clarnets’) serenading or irritating their neighbours with carols and hymns. While reading this, I spent much time desperately wishing I hadn’t given up the violin, even though I was truly AWFUL at it, so I could now join one such troupe, that definitely doesn’t exist anymore, and harass the good people of Cheltenham.


What Would Boudicca Do?

Why: I read Shakespeare for Grown Ups earlier in the year in order to write Shakespeare 101. This is by the same duo (plus I wanted to know more about Boudicca).

This takes a day or so to read, is delightful, and should be given to all women upon their 18th birthday. The concept is simple: the lives of 50 women from history can teach us about key elements of life today, so you have the history side and the, I guess, ‘empowerment’ side. I’m not crazy about the ‘empowerment’ side, partly because the whole concept feels fairly commoditised at the minute, and partly because Boudicca’s merciless and brutal rebellion against the Romans in response to them taking her lands, flogging her, and raping her daughters, seems a little bit trivialised when the message we can take from it is ‘sticking up for yourself’.That being said, the writing is sharp, modern, and often hilarious, so the ocassionally trite take-home messages can be forgiven (just like Cleopatra you should ‘keep your family in line’ – except they’re not advising you to marry your brother and then poison him, but maybe just to tell them to keep out of your room and stop reading your diary).

The history part, on the other hand, is excellent. I haven’t come across any other book that is a history of incredible women throughout history, let alone one which condenses it so efficiently and riotously. Even better, the women are brilliantly diverse – in terms of era, notoriety, geography, ethnicity, and gender binary – the balance is well-drawn between women you will have heard of, and women you ought to have heard of. Reading this gave me a much better sense of the wealth and extent of female achievement, that I don’t think was ever focused on or appreciated in history lessons at school, or trips to the museum. In textbooks, the lives of women plural in whatever period are touched on in a paragraph, but seldom is a single women lauded for her own achievements or her whole life appreciated and explained. What Would Boudicca Do? is invaluable because of its witty potted-biographies, explaining where each woman came from (her social background and historical context) and how they achieved their greatness. For me, it was this part that made these women seem relatable and not the more marketable, self-help-y stuff about helping you to be a better woman. The history and writing is absolutely worth it & it should be taught in schools.

Victory at The Battle of Boat

Presented by the students of Stagedoor Learning, for one night only at the Parabola Arts Centre, The Battle of Boat was a refreshing and innovative take on a piece of history we know all too well.

In a welcome departure from the majority of World War One stories, The Battle of Boat did not focus on life in the trenches but instead rooted its story firmly at home, following a group of children living in wartime Britain.

The bold and ambitious story takes us from a seemingly innocent and carefree opener: “these are the golden hours, where the choice of what we do is ours”. Through an awakening to what the war is actually like, and then the children’s steadfast determination to make a difference – even more so when one of their number, William, is recruited as a soldier, despite being underage.

Though the show was very good throughout, especially given the age of the cast, the strongest moments were consistently the large ensemble pieces. The opening number in particular set a clear, confident scene with joyful harmonies, accompanying a flurry of activity to show the busy, playful lives of this group of children. The set was used extremely creatively, with the actors building their playground from simple crates (the crates showed impeccable workmanship and consistently stole the show, caveat: they were made by my dad who is now looking for more props to make…call me).

Similar stand out moments of ensemble included a classroom scene built up with clockwork, repetitive actions, as well as a powerful moment where the children play at being soldiers in lines which orderly cut through and around each other. The strength of the ensemble lies in some inspired directing, as well as a power and intensity from all of the actors who were clearly very invested in the world and characters they had developed.

Photo: Stagedoor Learning

Though the show covers some very serious and heartbreaking topics, there is brilliant humour throughout. This is largely generated by ‘Beagle’, played with aplomb by Saskia Clifton. Clifton has a great sense of playfulness and comic timing, in one moment distracting characters and audience alike from the seriousness of sneaking onto an army base by ‘camel-flarging’ herself as a bush – simply repeating the word BUSH to establish the effectiveness of her disguise.

Other notable performances include Joseph Stanley as William, the young man accepted into the army despite being underage, Sean Kilty as Gripper, the playground bully and Izzy Robinson as Frances, William’s intelligent and heartbroken sister. Stanley and Robinson’s duet, whilst one is in the trenches and the other safe at home, was incredibly moving, showing them both forced to mature beyond their years because of events far, far bigger than they can imagine. Meanwhile, Kilty’s Gripper was deeply menacing, showing that war was not the only danger for the children. In fact, it is revealed that Gripper’s malice is driven by his father’s ‘cowardice’; his family have been shamed by the community because his father is a conscientious objector. This motivation elicits sympathy for his character and demonstrates how the war is impacting on all the children’s lives in more than just the obvious ways.

Though troubled with some technical issues, The Battle of Boat was a captivating story, giving an insight into a lesser known aspect of our history. It was invested with power, emotion and some extremely talented vocals by the whole ensemble, who received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Find out more about Stagedoor Learning:

Self-unhelpful Books

Hello. I’m going to talk about self-help because I think January is often a time when we decide we need to help ourselves. After a month of indulgence – because it’s literally freezing cold and we still need to fuel our bodies and find some reason to be happy – in January we decide (or big corporation’s decide, depending on your politics) to lambaste ourselves because we are too {insert basically any trait/characteristic here}.

January is a time of change and renewal, by virtue of our arbitrary calendar system, and also because the days literally stop disappearing and we can once again look forward to a bright future because it turns out the world isn’t actually ending: yet. The fact we choose to celebrate this change by removing all the joy – or – chocolate – from our lives can often make this time of change much less optimistic than it should be. Especially because it is just as frikking cold outside as during the Xmas ‘indulgence’ (also known as: essential nourishment for life), if not colder.

So, given that we’re starving our bodies because we’re too whatever, and also over-exerting our bodies cause we’re too whatever, and it’s also still frikking colder than a nitrogen ice cube’s nipples: we (possibly unsurprisingly) tend to get a bit unhappy this time of year. Who would have thought?!

Now I’m not a certified psychologist but (and serious depression aside because some things are much more complex) a lot of our winter blues is our bodies going ‘hey, hi, hey, nice to meet you I am a prototype that is APPROXIMATELY (I looked it up) 200,000 years old, and I’m interested in keeping the old prototype going for AT LEAST ANOTHER COUPLE HUNDRED THOUSAND YEARS THANKS. So if you’re gonna mess about and take away all my food supplies and walk in the same place for sevERal hours watching; The Chase, I am THUrough.’ …So you don’t feel like going out because you don’t have the energy, and you sit at home feeling a bit crap – and lamenting the fact that you’re still too… whatever.

This definitely hits sometime in the week after New Year’s and this is how bleak it is: the 6th of January “has an average of 25 per cent more deaths than the daily average”. This is a genuine article from the Telegraph: which we can obviously trust because well, it’s the Telegraph and, no one has ever been misled by factual statistics have they? Makes you reflect a bit differently, doesn’t it? Less of the I’m too blablabla and more of the ‘I have survived the darkness’ because literally everyone in this room has survived the 6th of January. Round of applause to us all. And if you want to see the image they tastefully used to illustrate the article, click on the article link below:

An absolute barrel of laughs.

Anyway, moving on to another statistic: at this point where people feel like they’re too fat, thin, weak, lazy, tired, pathetic, meaningless, inarticulate, stupid, annoying, cry-y, (i realise a lot of this is perhaps just me…) you are 94% more likely to pick up a self-help book. And I’ve picked up a self-help book so you don’t have to. Actually a couple – it’s called ‘research’ OKAY.

Some more statistical evidence for you, as we get started. The first thing about a self-help book is the ratio of useful to useless information is about zero to whole book. Depending on which one you buy, the quantity of useful information can occasionally tip above zero. The rest is waffle, so there are enough words on paper to convince you to buy a self-help book.

First up, I read ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, subtitled: 7 reasons why you are not worthy.

  • When I say I’ve ‘read’ it. That is perhaps too strong. I have skimmed the ‘look inside’ option on Amazon.
  • And actually here’s an insider tip. You don’t have to read the entire book, because he’s given you all the answers on the contents page. Voila

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then be understood

Habit 6: Synergize

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Some; fairly valid suggestions. Some; confusing business/quasi-religious suggestions. And others; just what? SHARPEN THE SAW!!!!!

Sorted. Well, I hope after that quick read you’re all feeling like you can now be highly effective. It does make you sound like a computer. Or a treatment cream. Which is actually what I aspire to be in life.

Now we’ve got our business lives in order, I think we really ought to sort out our emotions. So I found THIS book to help: Is it me, or is it my adrenals? From the hilarious Marcelle Pick. Now your adrenal glands “are endocrine glands that produce a variety of hormones including adrenaline and the steroids aldosterone and cortisol”. If you check out her book cover you might also notice that she’s written a similarly titled book called ‘Is It Me or My Hormones’. What is the difference? That is a very good question. I’m assuming the adrenal one sold better because it sounds more unintelligibly science-y slash fall-off-your-chair hilarious.

But yes it does sound science-y and, in fact, Marcelle is MSN, OB/GYN NP which must mean: message me about your vagina? no problem. (Message me about a decade ago). Which all means she’s definitely qualified to give you medical advice.

But this IS another thing self-help does, it tries to convince you it’s completely backed up with science. Because it’s much more reassuring to have Science prove that you’re useless. Now Marcelle does talk about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system – and I am by no means a doctor but this all seems to check out. It correlates with my anatomy classes at the HIGHLY scientific Yoga Teacher training course I did a couple of years ago where they told us the names of bones and muscles and how they work together, alongside stuff like, it’s really good for you to drink cow pee and if you sleep with your head facing the north you won’t rest properly because the electromagnetism of the earth will pull the blood into your head. Which sounds potentially legit, but I did find a study at the time that had found no evidence either way. But you can of course take the internet’s advice:

screen shot 2019-01-09 at 15.35.37

“Even if you are not convinced, it is still better to be safe that sorry.”

Anyway adrenals: the parasympathetic nervous system (you may or may not know this already and I am by no means an expert) is linked to your whole fight or flight instinct for basic survival. If there’s a tiger, your body needs glucose & adrenaline & cortisol (a stress hormone) cos if we weren’t a bit stressed about it, we’d already be dead…

Now this becomes a problem when tigers are not tigers any more. Now they are emails, or being late, or watching small children hang inconceivably far over the rail in the upper circle. We get stressed by a million things because if we weren’t bothered about things we wouldn’t survive: if I don’t reply to emails, I lose my job, if I am late, I lose my job, if a child falls off the upper circle, I – I go to jail. But it’s not exactly fighting a tiger. Your body still reacts in the same way though and that can cause problems, getting your adrenal hormones a bit all over the shop.

So explaining and addressing all these issues is legit – and there is a lot of useful stuff in this book that might help expand your knowledge and understanding of the basic principles of how your body works. But then it also says crap that is toooootally ridiculous like recommending herbal supplements to help your energy levels instead of sleep, and cutting all gluten and sugar from your diet – actually she does “believe in moderation” and you should only comply 90% and 10% is up to you, or 4/35 meals per week. If you want something that feels like a special treat, feel free! AS LONG AS YOU DON’T CONSUME ANY GLUTEN OR SUGAR!!!! Great. So no treats then.

Other recommendations: “buy fresh flowers… remember to look at them and perhaps smell them once per hour” – should I set an alarm to remind me? I also like that she assumes you’re able to afford flowers every week. And if you’ve got hayfever? Sorry, you’re stuck with your adrenal problems I’m afraid.

“Smile consciously” because facial expressions can actually produce corresponding feelings. And if you “hate forcing yourself to smile, hold a pencil between your teeth for one or two minutes once or twice a day”… CURED! I also like the idea of having a timer go off and stressing you out every 5 minutes for your self-care.

Now, I’m not saying self-help can’t be helpful but it does often suggest a one-size fits all approach, suggested by someone who is in the privileged position of writing a book. What I AM saying is that we shouldn’t starve and victimise ourselves into wasting money on pseudoscientific books in January, then bullying ourselves with with the ‘treatments’. And maybe we’d be better off reading a biography instead, where you can read about how other people have dealt with things and work out more objectively if it’s a good fit for you.

*this text was originally presented at The Alternative Book Club 09.01.19 and has been edited slightly to fit a written format.

Awful Show Review

I was not a fan of Awful Auntie and I really wanted to like it. When a kids show comes through town, against popular opinion, I’m 100% sign me up. Dinosaurs? Yep. Talking animals? Uhuh. Rhyming couplets every sentence? I’m all over it mate.

But I hated Awful Auntie. I really did.

Now to be fair there are some good bits. I must have laughed at a couple of the set changes which were intentionally, smoothly comic – an old housekeeper taking the tiger skin rug for a walk, sourcing a live chicken for dinner and other hijinks. And the set is amazing. It’s a stage designer’s horny fantasy: “let’s get it to spin around” “yes! Let’s get it to move side to side!” “YES! Let’s get it to function entirely automatically” “yes yes YES YES YEEESSSSS” …And I assume, therefore, the stage electrician’s nightmare.

But the rest? The rest is mostly running about the ‘giant house’ being mildly offensive which, at best is Little Britain toned down, and at worst is just bad writing for kids. For example, at one point near the end of the play Stella, the female protagonist, discovers the profound wisdom that whether you’re brought up in a stately home, or in a workhouse, you should treat everyone with respect. Not a bad message by any means. But she does only arrive at this conclusion once it has been revealed that her ghost friend who she has already patronised for growing up in the workhouse actually was/is her uncle. The titualar aunty sent him down the river in an early bid to kill him and the workhouse, it turns out, is just where he ended up. So kids, you should treat everyone as equals, but only because you might discover they are your relative from the same stately home as you and actually they ought to have been treated a lot better from birth (just like you).

The sketchy morals continue – not that a kids show need or ought to be moralistic – but the genuinely homicidal aunt perhaps would be better suited to Broadmoor than the Everyman. It is discovered, and fairly quickly accepted, early on that Aunt Augusta is a murderer – yeah that’s just how aunts are these days – and the torture scene (sorry, yes, that is torture scene) is fairly uncritically passed by. Honestly! Aunts! Whacha gonna do!? Hide the waterboarding kit? Turn off the mains power? Probably yes?

Later on there is mild resistance to more electrical torture when the ghost, Soot, encourages Stella to take one more hit for the team:

“Get back in the cage”


“You have to get back in it”


“I have a plan!”

“Oh alright then”.

Classic vague male heroics at the expense of female pain? Ah but they’re only 12 pal: kids just bounce back from that sort of thing. And that segues smoothly into my last major frustration. A female protagonist on stage still feels like a rarity and Stella Saxby is clearly such a rarity that Walliams forgot to add any brains. She constantly gets whine-y, annoying or explain-y lines, whilst her friend/ghost/uncle(!) gets all the funny bits. It’s excruciating.

Honestly, with his fairly offensive track record, how is David Walliams now licenced to pour his outdated attitudes into stories for kids? I’ve literally no idea. But I know I hate it.