Spelling those words since the early 80s / Purveyor of fine lines

I’ve had a busy old life so far: packing quiches in a refrigerated factory in blue plastic shoes, painting theatres at the Edinburgh Festival just so I could get free croissants from a daily breakfast show, photocopying tenancy agreements for Charlie Brooks (Janine from Eastenders), selling books to customers who insist 1984 was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and working in publishing for nine years. These days, I slave over a hot desk as an author and freelance copywriter.

Get in touch here to find out all the glorious words I could pour right into your brain.

It's Nice That

Oh Happy Day

The Bloggess

Yoruba Girl Dancing

You Are My Fave

What I'd Wear

I am a Leaf on the Wind

Gravity

On Mother-Shaming (in the bad sense)

I’ve never bought into the idea that parenthood – particularly motherhood – changes you dramatically. I’ve always taken it to be a toxic idea, one that cuts you off from your friends and your life at a time when you most need support and a sense of normality. Far younger than most of my circle when I married and had kids, I needed to dismiss this idea to keep my sanity and my ego intact. I was just the same. Nothing had changed. I worked in the same place, had the same parents and sisters, the same husband, the same friends, liked the same books and films and food and cities. I just had a noisy hedgehog to wheel or sling around with me now; and then I had another. They played with each other which left my hands free, and we still lived in London, Hub Of All Life, so things were still simple.

Then things, as they tend to do, stopped being quite so simple. We had one more baby, the final one, and suddenly our two-bed flat seemed a bit of a squeeze. I’d been made redundant from a job I had loved, but which had tied us to London, so we could finally get out of the city and find a home that would fit us all. We could go anywhere. We talked about Paris, and Japan, and we looked at international teaching jobs for J. Then my dad got ill – a whole bouquet of cancers blooming among his organs. My sister, brother-in-law and nephews extended their year-long stay in Australia to a tentative two, with a possible view to more. We moved house, out of the capital and into the Home Counties. One of the children stopped sleeping. The days got shorter and darker. J’s commute was over four hours a day.

And suddenly, suddenly, I had to admit that finally, definitely, parenthood had changed me. It had taken my choices from me. I was out of London, away from 98% of my friends, and with J stuck in traffic I found myself doing nothing but school runs, nursery drop-offs, swimming lessons, teas with school friends, Rainbows and coffee mornings and PTA meetings and desperately trying to cram in some reading around it all, to keep my hand in with work and my brain ticking over.

Any spare moments I have to myself are generally spent reading enraging, excellent feminist articles. J is barely in the door each night before I’ve turned on the blast furnace of rage and frustration at slut-shaming, mansplaining, intersectionality used as a stick with which to beat feminists, sexual assault conviction rates, institutionalised sexism and misogyny in film and TV and music and art and literature. I took him to see Bridget Christie the other week (Merry Christmas, darling!) and between the rib-aching laughter, I welled up furious tears at the things she said, that were so true and so right and so very fucking wrong. Why are we taking our children to supermarkets where women with legs-akimbo are on the front of almost any mag which isn’t The Lady? Why do I ache so much just walking down a street when ads for everything from deodorant to tights to cameras to cars are constantly, incessantly reminding us that women are objects, designed to look nice and to ornament the world of men? Why is it so fucking impossible to go to the library or the cinema without being reminded that the world is created and maintained only for white hetero men? And if you’re sick of hearing this, imagine how unbelievably sick I am of living it.

But all these things made me realise something else. I’ve been mother-shaming. Not in the sense that I like to do impressions of my mother’s European accent in a falsetto voice (although you know I love that) but that if someone defines herself as primarily a mother, I dismiss them. If I see that the first thing in your twitter bio is your maternal status, it’s massively unlikely that I’ll follow you back.

What the hell?

What the actual hell?

When I think of my very favourite women in my life, the majority these days are mothers, as I meet more and more in the life I have now. And because I am interesting, funny, smart and ambitious, so are they. Just like I haven’t been ‘dramatically changed’ since the birth of my children, neither have they. I don’t despair at boring, obsessive, martyred mothers, because I don’t befriend them. Just like I didn’t befriend boring, obsessive martyred people in my teens, or at Uni, or in my twenties. So why am I so ashamed of motherhood?

I wasn’t a fan of Gone, Girl. But that Cool Girl trope is true. And I bought into it just as much as the next person. When I think of the things I did and said and laughed at as a teenager, I despair at the lack of education and role model I had at that age. My daughter now asks constantly where the women are, why it’s only men, and that’s great. But there’s still so much internalised sexism on my part that I’ll be building in blind spots to my education of her and her siblings. Like a dismissal of and a shame about motherhood. Keep it quiet, love. You’ve had a baby, but no need to bang on about it. I understand and accept and tacitly condone the idea that it’s a nice hobby, that whole ‘perpetuation of the human race’, but it’s best to keep it under your hat if you want to be taken seriously. Motherhood is a niche area. It’s a fraction of the audience – not something everyone would ever care about. And the idea that you might actually be proud of raising kind, brave, funny, generous young people, who make you laugh, and make you cry with their selflessness, and who are interesting and boring at the same time, and who might actually have changed you for the better – even if you don’t buy into that whole thing about ‘making every decision for the children’ because frankly, that way madness lies – but who are on the whole A Good Thing… god. Heaven forbid, you boring Allsop-clone.

And if those were my feelings, why wouldn’t I feel as if my choices had been taken from me? In a society in which no value (or only a self-effacing, mocking value) is given to those who join a PTA in an attempt to make a school better for all the children, or those who clean and cook and discipline and drive and organise and launder and actually bear children are - because the latter is the one thing men can’t do, so its value is diminished in society until we’re embarrassed to even be doing it - just hobbyists, idiots who have made their cot-beds and now have to lie in them. And more than anything, I *must* remember that I have absolutely no right to demand respect for this job I’m doing. Alongside the one where I actually make money for myself. 

So yes, I may have changed. But as long as I still feel that way in those dark subconscious cupboards of my soul, I haven’t changed nearly enough. 

Oh, how much has happened since my last post. We’ve moved house, seen the kids put down new roots and watched the baby start speeding round the place. I’ve made more new friends in the last two months than I did in the last two years. I’ve starting watching Breaking Bad. J’s discovered my passion for spray-painting junk shop furniture, along with my inability to adequately prepare the area first. We’ve begun using a slow cooker.

In the wider family, my dad’s become more ill. From a simple tumble, to a treatable cancer, to two cancers, to a progressive neurological condition, the good news just keeps on failing to come. Despite having three kids, a mortgage and a marriage certificate, I - like most people in privileged, comfortable lives - feel like my age flatlined somewhere between 17 and 24, depending on my current mood. But with hospital appointments, medical jargon and his shrinking, shrinking prognoses, I’m having a juddering, breakneck rush into adulthood. Is adulthood simply what we say when we mean tough? Maybe. And how lucky I am that I’ve got to my thirties before feeling this way. 

But this state is an earthquake, causing shake ups and shake downs and aftershocks; every time it seems that we’ve absorbed one bit of news, there’s more. It doesn’t stop, and from here on in, it’s not likely to. Such is life. There are cracks running through our family that will doubtless grow into ravines, and there’s a temptation to disappear, opt out. 

More than saying I do, or pushing out some kids, or signing a document, however, this is an adulthood, and I’m engaging with it. The daughter in me says I need to, the human in me says it’s the good thing to do, and the writer in me whispers helpfully to me from the side of her mouth that, as with all these terrible things, it’s great material. You would not believe how much that final idea has helped me through tough moments in the past. 

So off we go. The kindness of you all helps like you wouldn’t believe. Here’s hoping I can carry a bit of that light over to my parents. 

x

Writing Secrets of the Pharoahs

Sometimes writing is a struggle, while on other happy occasions it feels like the words are tumbling out of my ears, and I have to rush to a computer or a pad to get them down, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, before they fall from my mind and vanish entirely. But what both situations have in common, I’ve realised, is a similar wonderful sense to falling asleep (which I love, and am – if I say so myself – extremely good at).

It means I can’t be aware of doing it, that my mind must be distracted from the task at hand. If I start thinking, OK, I’m writing, what am I writing? Why am I typing this word here? Look at me, writing writing writing la la la, then I’m lost; paralysed. But if I can do something like the flying trick in Hitch Hikers, yanking my mind away or gently asking it to look in the other direction, then everything goes swimmingly.

Just so I don’t either a) sound like I’m delusional about my skills (Oh, the words just fall out!) or b) give ammunition for anyone who isn’t a fan (Yeah, I bet you fucking wrote it without thinking) I will say that the editing process is like hard physical labour (only still sitting on the sofa with soothing jazz in the background), making me genuinely sweat and ache and gnash my teeth, dahhhhling. That’s the hard grafting of the foundations I’ve laid down by getting the words on the page.

So if you fancy writing something and you’ve not managed yet, that’s my Writing Tip of the Day. Just get something, anything down, and don’t worry about the quality or the direction. Just get something to shape. Good luck.

Tomorrow’s tip: An all-Haribo diet.

My To Do List Horror

This blog is updated so sporadically, for any number of reasons. But it’s certainly not for lack of ideas – no sir, I can barely leave the house without coming up with a title, subject, and a good few paragraphs for killer blog posts. In case you don’t believe me, you sceptical beasts, I thought this rare published entry could be a little insight into those other entries that, sadly, don’t make the leap from my brain to my screen. You’re welcome.  

  • Tips for new parents
  • Great gifts for new parents
  • Terrible gifts for new parents
  • Something observational about having a baby
  • A post about how the internet is already full of everything I could say about childbirth and parenthood, so I’m not going to say anything
  • Oh, Charlie Brooker’s basically done it already
  • My twitter addiction
  • The twitter boycott – my thoughts
  • My thoughts on twitter’s thoughts on the boycott
  • A gif to represent the 99% on twitter who are sick of this debate
  • My guilt at my boredom of this discussion aka GIRL POWER
  • A gif of Jaqen H’ghar
  • A pic-heavy post of the worst culinary disasters my mother has produced
  • Something about my dad’s cancer – heartbreaking, self-effacing, potentially award-winning
  • A blog post where I just rip off my sister’s blog and try to pass her skills off as my own
  • A blog post to illustrate how since my sister and I have both joined Pinterest and follow one other, I’ve created yet another echo chamber in my online life (WARNING: contains colourful interiors)
  • Something about how I’ve become an accidental shut-in, due to terrible morning sickness, terrible fatigue in late pregnancy, Family Events (cross-post back to Dad’s Cancer Post) and a tendency to prefer Game of Thrones on our sofa to almost anything else
  • A bile-filled, rage-induced review of a recent fiction publication, aka The Worst Book I’ve Ever Read
  • A blog post reflecting on how the publishing industry pays my mortgage, and I really need to not bite that hand
  • Something about the stresses and horrors of moving house
  • Something about trying to write my next novel, which is about the stresses and horrors of moving house
  • Links to shoes I like, in the hope someone will buy them for me
  • A follow up post about how it’s almost my birthday
  • The Q&A with bestselling barnstormer Mhairi MacFarlane that I’ve been meaning to post for over a year
  • A wryly witty post about successful friends
  • A post about all the lists I make when I’m supposed to be working, but in fact am hyperventilating about all my successful friends
  • Another Jaqen H’ghar gif

What to expect when you interact with other humans

It’s so rare that some ‘humorous’ ‘lifestyle’ piece engages me at all, let alone makes me feel a burning wrath. But the Guardian Weekend extract from Hadley Freeman’s new book made me want to cry all of the tears. I don’t really have any strong feelings on her writing either way: sometimes her column is one of those ‘can’t believe I spent that time I’ll never get back reading this’, other times it’s sharp, witty and political.

The Guardian’s extract ranges from the former with ‘How to cheer up your friend who is depressed about being single without lying to them, patronising them or making them feel even worse’, which basically assumes that either a) all of her readers are 12 years old, or b) none of her readers have ever had a human relationship before, through to the latter, with ‘Talking about eating disorders without using a single photo of Kate Moss’, which is moving, pointed and angry. Despite her writing that ‘I don’t believe personal experience imbues one with expertise’ and that she has ‘no interest in contributing to that pile [of eating disorder memoirs]’, this section is fascinating; you can tell she actually feels something here, something that has moved and shaped and influenced her, not just something she’s typing to up her word count.

Then we’re fully into the enragement zone. ‘What to expect when your friends are expecting’. In summary (and I really am not being unfair here – this is what she says will happen):

1.       After shagging, your friends will have a ‘sleep-depriving, bank-account-emptying bundle of joy’

2.       Once the pregnancy is announced, you will ‘learn, in the most extraordinary detail, tales of your friends’ sex lives’

3.       The last month of your friend’s pregnancy will be ‘the Gross-Out Stage’, as she will now be so accustomed to simply being ‘treated as a baby pod’ that she will now thoughtlessly use words and phrases to you like ‘mucus plug’, ‘leakage’, ‘dilate’ and ‘vaginal wall’

4.       Your friend, having just given birth, will now ‘feel the need to describe the childbirth in varying amounts of detail’

5.       Your friend – previously source of ‘chatty cups of tea and many ranting glasses of wine – will become a ‘mewling creature’, ‘covered in babysick’ and ‘living only from feed to feed, nap to nap’ – see what she did there? Your friend is now like a baby herself! Hahahhaha!

6.       The only socialisation you now have with your friend is buying their child ridiculously expensive Petit Bateau outfits

7.       You will now be so ‘indoctrinated with the thought that ringing a doorbell causes chaos’ that you text your own parents when you’re standing outside their house!

8.       You can’t hope for a proper conversation – even if it seems like they’re listening, they’re actually only capable of wondering ‘has he swallowed a pound coin?! Has he stuck his fingers in a plug socket?!’

9.       You’ll feel bad because your hilarious child-free adventures are ultimately empty compared to your friend’s attempt to raise a human

10.   If they have a second child, don’t expect to hear from them for ‘at least the next five years!’

I’m actually shaking with anger right now. What a fucking load of toxic garbage. It’s exactly this kind of faux-casual ‘God, having kids wrecks your life, doesn’t it!’ rubbish that makes it really hard for (particularly, but not exclusively) women to feel like they are allowed to retain their personality after a baby. When I had my first kid, at 26, I slogged my guts out to reassure friends that I wasn’t about to transform into any of these clichés – not, I hasten to add, that you MUST avoid them; you will be tired, and probably covered with sick, and possibly unphased about showing your rack off to a whole tube carriage because, frankly, if you have to feed your baby you couldn’t really give a fuck if a stranger sees your nipple; and there are plenty of friends of friends I hear about who go down this path whole-hog – but I was young/selfish enough to want to keep my personality. I didn’t want to become one of those parents who say proudly ‘I haven’t read a book since I had the baby’, or that never has a night out or night away (bliss!) because The Baby Needs Me, and I was delighted to see that no one treated me differently. No one was tiptoeing around me, and because my friends and I are humans, with some previous experience of human interaction, I was able to gauge who I could tell about the amazing, fantastic, mindblowing and 100% hilarious experience of pushing that baby out, and who wouldn’t give the smallest monkeys about it. They, in turn, could also gauge that I still wanted to hear about their lives, as I always had done, having had a baby rather than a lobotomy. But slog it was to convince them, to begin with, exactly because of pieces like this.

And as the baby got older, yes, I may have had to occasionally tear my eyes from my pals’ to check that no coins were being swallowed, but those without experience of small children may not appreciate what a simple skill this is – I don’t have to graunchingly change gears to do a two-second check about the location of my spawn, nor does my reaching over to pull some blade from their grasp signal my sudden inability to hear and understand what my friend and I are continuing to talk about. It’s like anything that requires two-track multitasking: stirring one pan and checking the other isn’t boiling over, putting laundry in a washing machine and not adding metal kitchen utensils, answering the phone and breathing.

Each of the ten points of listed here vary from completely untrue – if you’ve got a relationship where you talk about your sex lives, why shouldn’t that continue? And if you haven’t, why should that start? I’ve never come across that pregnancy-banging-detail-insistence, hurt as it may make me feel (it doesn’t) – to the frankly juvenile – ugh! My friend’s having a baby and now she wants to talk about VAGINAL WALLS OH MY GOD I NEED SOME BLEACH AND A SCRUBBING BRUSH FOR MY EARS and NOW SHE’S HAD IT AND WANTS TO TALK ABOUT IT AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! God, it’s so tiresome. Just grow up. Vagina vagina vagina, etc.

Ultimately, I think what’s entirely missing from this extract is any sense of empathy, either from this nameless, shameless friend, or Hadley Freeman herself. We all have changes in our life, some chosen, some forced on us; some expected, some surprising, in good and bad ways. We lose parents, siblings, partners; we change jobs; we move house, city, country. We stop liking 20/20 on a night out. We start liking table tennis. We change. That is, really, one of the main features of being alive. But the point of these relationships that we build up over our time on earth is that, while it can be an enormous help to have someone who’s been through what you’re going through, it’s not essential. Friends can still love us and support us when their parents are still alive, when they’re still stuck in a job they hate, when they can’t stand our partner. And we can do the same for them. So when there’s yet another article on those life-wrecking babies and the zombie idiots their mothers turn into, I just want to weep. Can’t we all just be a little kinder (she says, having written a 1,300 word blog on this bullshit)? Can’t we all just be a bit more thoughtful? A pregnant shouldn’t have to live in terror of boring those around her with this terrifying, amazing experience they’re going through, and friends-of-pregnants shouldn’t have this pre-emptive idea that they’ve basically lost their friend until the infants fuck off out of the parental home.

So come on. Let’s stop this nonsense. To hugely butcher-phrase Singin’ in the Rain’s Don Lockwood:

Empathy, always empathy.

A tiny voice

Although you mightn’t guess it from the (in)frequency with which this blog is updated, I have ideas for it all the time: weddings, babies, this pregnancy which today feels like it’s been going on for approximately 48 months, the privatisation of the NHS, Thatcher and the funeral, the power of the gun lobby and other lobbyists in the US, Hilary Mantel and just how fantastic she is, excellent friends, great and not great books I’ve been reading, the joy of playlists, even the weather... I have these thoughts, and start writing the blog entry in my head - then I hear a voice. And it says exactly this:

image

Still.

Back to nesting*.

*dancing to 6 Music, eating cold lamb offcuts. Because maternity leave, yeah?

The Truth about Publication Day

It’s not all bunches of roses and signings at Waterstones, you know. A factual look at a real publication day of a real-life author (me):

6.45am Alarm goes off. Snooze.

6.55am Snooze again.

7.05am Fairly sure by now that someone, somewhere in the flat must be preparing my Publication Day Celebratory Breakfast. Maybe they’re just distracted by bringing in all the bouquets? Hit snooze again.

7.08am Realise that J is on his way to work, and the kids are probably still asleep. The practicality of a four-year-old and a two-year-old conjuring up the breakfast I have in mind seems unlikely, if not dangerous. Finally get up.

7.10am Remember that my mother is also here (to look after the kids today) and am amazed that she hasn’t rustled up a feast. Make us all porridge, which I eat while having an argument about media coverage of benefit claimants with my mother. The children don’t contribute.

8am After filling myself full to the gills with porridge and apple compote (best winter breakfast in the world) realise that the celebratory breakfast is actually with my agent, in town, fairly soon. Frantically start throwing clothes on.

8.30am Quick listen to The Today Programme, just to check whether they’re discussing the groundbreaking and hilarious look at maternity, The Baby Diaries. John Humphrys shows no signs of having to stifle giggles: maybe Evan Davis has been assigned to the coverage. Give up, and decide to finally break out my Liberty print wedge Nike trainers I’ve been feeling guilty about buying since last summer.

9.30am After a sweaty, breakdown-ridden tube ride, meet my agent at the Soho Hotel. Finally. Order one of everything on the menu.

11.30am Remember that my agent has a job she needs to get back to. Release her from ‘breakfast’. Head to Foyles to buy myself a pub day present, and to do some work in their café.

11.45-3pm Write three blog posts and do some work from my paying life. Bump into the lovely Pushkin Press bigwigs. Learn how to pronounce Stefan Zweig’s name, finally, and feel very literary; also a bit tearful at the congratulatory pub day tweets from v nice twitter people, and emails from my publisher. Realise I’ve probably been here longer than most of the staff today, so head off to choose book for myself.

4pm Enjoy moment of clarity: even if I desperately want a new Jonathan Lethem or Edna O’Brien (and I do), if I come home with a new book when we’ve just shipped almost fifteen boxes of them to our various parents’, I might be dining alone tonight. Buy spinach instead.

5pm Home. After spending much of the day writing pieces that were pretty complimentary about my mother, I find that, rather than fixing the toilet, she has in fact re-broken it. She leaves us, with a confused look at my stomach and the words, ‘Are you sure you’re not due until April?’ When I flip the bird at the closing lift doors, I realise my daughter is behind me, and pretend to be scratching something off the lift button.

6.10-7.30pm Cooking with the infants. I’m an excellent cook (though I say so myself because it’s true), but somehow manage to overcook an entire batch of granola and produce a tray of brownies that are dryer than Dorothy Parker. I’m left with the best part of a kilo of burnt porridge oats and some mealy pecan cake. Mutter about Zadie Smith probably not having to deal with this on her pub days.

8pm Kids in bed, we start packing for our half term holiday, while I also cook for us. The menu: fillet steak, dauphinoise potatoes, spinach with nutmeg, mange tout and button mushrooms, all with a peppercorn sauce. Dessert: chocolate mousse. I have cleverly made three mousses, so I can eat the spare one when J goes to work tomorrow.

9pm We eat. J’s made a lovely table, and is delighted by the fact that there’s no limit on the potatoes. Lack of seconds is the price you pay in restaurants for not having to do your own washing up, I suppose. I’ve put Miles Davis on for backing music, but I can’t stop dancing to it. Distracting. We toast The Baby Diaries, check J’s copy has downloaded to his Kindle, then eat in silence for two minutes until our plates are empty.

10-midnight Celebrations are over. I’ve yet to receive my congratulatory telegram from Salman Rushdie, but there’s still so much packing to do and I can’t wait forever.

12.30am Bed. And so ends my second publication day. Good bits: second breakfasts and the kindness of twitter. Bad bits: all that burnt granola. But I’m sure Virginia Woolf went through exactly the same thing. 

The kindness of mothers (not including me)

About two weeks ago, M complained of an itchy head. On cursory inspection, it was clear there was a whole battalion of lice breeding on there, to which my first reaction was this.

But to be a bit Pollyanna-ish about it, it turned out to be rather pleasant: every night the kids have a bath, have their hair slathered in conditioner, then I comb their locks until every one of those beasts is destroyed. They like the sensation, and it’s probably the first bit of physical bonding I’ve bothered to do with them since I carried them in my Haribo-flavoured womb. And do you have any idea how satisfying it is to pick those suckers out?

I asked J (who took the easy route out by shaving his head) if he’d do the same for me, and once the kids were tucked up, conditioned my own head to be combed free of the creatures. It turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of my life (and I speak as someone who just had gas and air for my labours hahaha, etc.). To be fair, there’s no reason someone who’s never had hair longer than 90s curtains would understand that the way through a hair knot is not to jag on it, harder and harder, until the only solution is to yank the hair ball entirely free from the scalp; but I lasted about ten minutes before I could stifle the sobs no longer, and thanked him for his efforts.

So by the time my mother arrived for her usually weekly visit last night, I was looking forward to seeing her more than usual (due to my dad taking a tumble on his daily run, she hadn’t been since The Louse Invasion). To give you some idea of how desperate I was, this is a woman I swore wouldn’t come anywhere near my hair since she’d offered a ten-year-old me a trim from my long plaits, and hadn’t let me rise from the seat until I looked like this. NO I’M NOT OVER IT. But (having frisked her for scissors) I sat down in front of her and handed her The Comb.

She combed my hair for over an hour. Over an hour. Rather than making fun of her accent or mocking her inability to start a single sentence without the word ‘appayently’, I should be giving that poor woman a medal, or at least letting her sleep in a bed, rather than her car, when she visits*. Poor thing.    

But then the thought occurred to me: ultimately, whose fault is it that I don’t? Personally, I blame the mother.** And then we all lived happily ever after.

*of course she gets a bed. It just happens to be in a room without curtains.

**haha just kidding my mum! Please don’t stop your childcare! And being awesome! Hahahaha!

Miserable (yeah, I *did*)

Even if a film is bad, I always enjoy going to the cinema. Even when it’s a cinema that’s been (perhaps rightly) criticised, I enjoy the darkness, the quiet, the lack of distractions (if things go as they should). And yet last night’s viewing of Les Misérables left me fuming. FUMING.

To give some context, I love musicals. I love choreography, I love songs, I love amazing lyrics melded with smart tunes, I love dazzling visuals and show-stopping numbers and moving moments all done to a catchy beat. And on top of that, I’m fairly fascinated by the French Revolution and it’s aftermath, thanks to a French mother and the chance to study that period with a great history teacher at school. So when trailers started appearing for Les Mis, I was giddy with excitement. To put it into further context, the one time I’d seen the stage show was September 11th 2001, so I was slightly distracted at the time by thoughts that we might come out of the theatre to a London no longer there. But I still loved the show. I can’t hear even a snippet of ‘One Day More’ without goosebumps - even bigger goosebumps with ‘Can You Hear the People Sing?’ (which I kept singing the opening lines of on a loop this morning to the kids, until my 100% excellent mother-in-law joined in with the rest of the lyrics which I’d failed to memorise and I was sufficiently stirred to form the barricades and turn our bedding into flags right there).

So my wrath was a surprise. From the very mixed reviews I’d heard, I was prepared for it not to be perfect; I was prepared for it to be flawed. But from the very, very opening moments, before JVJ has even opened his heavily bearded mouth, I felt my lip twitching a little bit. Why won’t the camera stay still? Why is there a perfectly arranged shot of perfectly lined-up men pulling on the ship’s ropes, then a swinging, out-of-focus series of quick-cut shots between people we don’t even know yet, when nothing has happened besides the orchestra striking up?

Things didn’t improve. It seems that despite the grand, epic nature of the music, the themes and the story, Tom Hooper had decided to shoot almost all of the film on handheld cameras, lending a woozy, dizzy feel to all of it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, very little of it was even in focus. IN FOCUS. This is BASIC FILM MAKING, HOOPER (some v interesting thoughts on that here). Jesus, I got cross. Key scenes lost any power by the audience being unable to see the singer’s face clearly, and my eyes got bored of squinting.

The editing, too, was unbelievably distracting. Putting aside the hugely rubbish habit of the quick-cuts in a scene or moment which required the precise opposite, key lines in songs would be thrown away by suddenly cutting to a different view - not in the middle of a verse, or even the middle of a line, but in the middle of a word. God, I’m getting so angry all over again. I acknowledge that because of the unique nature of what Hooper was attempting - live singing from each performer, rather than miming to pre-recorded tracks - the editing might have been a real bugger: the slightest error would mean the whole song might need to be shot again, rather than editing in the usual way with the fixed backing track keeping it all in line. But JESUS CHRIST. The ONE song in which Eddie Redmayne managed not to sound like he was slowly having the life wrung out of him by an amorous Eton mother (‘Empty Chairs, Empty Tables’) was completely crushed by having his lines chopped in two as the camera switched between ‘close up ear’ and ‘close up face’. Did I mention ? TOM HOOPER HEARTS THE CLOSE UPS. Still, it is now hilarious to sing ‘Cosette, Cosette’ in the manner of one having one’s throat sat upon. This editing was also horribly noticeable in the big numbers with tonnes of singers. In West Side Story's 'Quintet’, you can hear every word from every performer: you know just what their story is, their feelings, why they’re singing and what it signifies in contrast to the others. In Hooper’s versions of ‘One Day More’ and ‘Every Day/A Heart Full of Love’ there was very little way of telling what the hell was going on. Chaos. Shots were too tight, cut randomly, and sound levels were all over the place, meaning you’d be given a glimpse of someone half-way through a vowel (with the rest of the line lost completely) before the shot switched to someone else singing an entirely different word… If you feel exhausted reading this, think how I felt watching it.

And this Singing Live thing meant that the whole thing was laden with the sense of a sound stage. Rather than being epic, filthy, chaotic (in a good way), alive, the film felt like a series of stage sets, not least for numbers like ‘Lovely Ladies’ (hellooooo, big stagey props!), and with utter silence when people weren’t singing (and oh god, they just sing everything, all the time). Where was the background noise of the swarming streets? Where was the sound of the people who filled this dirty, busy city?

Some of the costume and makeup decisions seemed a bit weird too. Poor Samantha Barks, an utter star and all-round good-egg, made me gasp out loud the first (and brief) time the camera panned away from pore-scanning close-up to reveal her whole body. Something about the shape of her dress made her cinched-in waist look like a bad photoshopping job. And while the rest of Redmayne’s revolutionary chums had Mumford et Fils hair, he was landed with… well. If anyone can look at this google image search for him and tell me how it doesn’t appear that he walked into Hairdressing his first day on set and someone said, “Shit! We’re out of time. Just go on as you are, Eddie love,” I will give you a million of some, as-yet unspecified currency.

Fortunately, I had my husband to help with some of the more baffling points. As the film started, he leant over and whispered, ‘I’ve actually bothered to read this, so if you have any questions…’, making me snigger childishly. But I DID. Why was Gavroche/the Artful Dodgé so annoying? (In the book, he’s a much more important character, and older, too.) Who was that white-haired doctor-fellow who turned up after the barricade battle and just sang ‘YOOOOUUUUUU!’ at Marius from the stairs? (I’d forgotten the throwaway glimpse of Marius’s grandfather earlier, although apparently the book makes much more of this and it’s far more important - you like that? Why not read Dickens’s Dombey and Son, which does that broken family stuff awesomely!) Were there really so few men at the barricades? (Maybe only a few dozen in the book, although the film seemed to have ten at most. NICE EPIC FEEL, HOOPER.) Why does JVJ act like such a dick about sacrificing himself to justice when he’s just sung about how many lives rely on him? (His religious rebirth is much more explicit in the book, so his need to save an innocent man makes more sense.) Why do Hugh Jackman’s teeth become more and more like his drunken lookalike's in The Prestige? (Unknown.)

The one chance Hooper had to inject some contrast into the film (‘Master of the House’, which always makes me sing ‘Everyone’s a fruit and nut case’ in the chorus) he threw away completely, filming it in the same higgledy-piggledy close-up, handheld ugliness he films JVJ’s religious revelations, Fantine’s surrender to darkness and Gavroche’s death (hurray!). After all this, it seems almost churlish to start on Baron Cohen’s insistence on using twelve accents when one would do. But I’m certainly not the only one to have been bothered by the film’s flaws.

Nice things, though? At one point, it ended. And at least it wasn’t as bad as Skyfall.