Monday, 1 September 2014

Rainbow Braid

video


My daughter (like almost every other girl in the western world) has succumbed to the loom bracelet craze, so we were delighted to be sent The Rainbow Refill Pack a superior version of the ones on the current market. The Rainbow Loom, a plastic device for turning small rubber bands into jewellery, has sold more than three million units worldwide and the majority of the best-selling toys on Amazon UK are either looms or loom-related.  Rainbow Loom was invented in 2011 by Cheong Choon Ng, a Malaysian-born former seatbelt technology developer from Michigan, who noticed his daughters weaving elastic bands over their fingers to make bracelets. Ng tried it but his own fingers were too big, so he built himself a "loom" - a technology known to the clothing trade since at least the 15th Century - using pins and a wooden slab. 

Ng developed a plastic version and set up a business manufacturing them, investing $10,000. He got a toyshop to stock his product and, after it sold out within a few hours, other stores took an interest. It spread from there and looms and bands can now be seen in schools and homes around the UK and US. I wonder if he patented the idea? We saw them for sale this summer in the rural Adeche in France at every market we went to. 1 Euro for each packet and they were everywhere. My ten year old daughter has made  at least fifty bracelets since the craze begun and has made several for me.  The difference with these bands (invented by a mother) is they are smoother, tougher and don't smell toxic. I found that all the previous bracelets she made for me broke within 24 hours. The rainbow refill pack above comes with 5400 bands in 18 different colours including neon, glitter, solid and glow in the dark variations. Compatible with all loom kits and you can buy it on Amazon.





Monday, 28 July 2014

A Trip to Yemen

Long before I was married and became a mother, I was invited to join four writers and two photographers who were travelling to Yemen. I barely knew where Yemen was, but it sounded exotic and enticing, and I soon discovered that it lies between the Red and Arabian Seas. It was November, 1996, and as the date of departure grew closer, I learnt more, and became excited about seeing the mud tower houses in the desert, the stone dwellings in the mountains, and the conical clay huts in the Tihama.

We were lucky to travel to the Yemen when we did. The latest news from The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all travel to Yemen and strongly urges British nationals to leave. They warn that there is a high threat from terrorism throughout Yemen and specific methods of attack are evolving and increasing in sophistication. Not only did we not experience any hostility or threat, but we were treated very well.

I packed long skirts and scarfs to cover my head and flew to San’a, the capital of the Yemen. The old walled city has been occupied for over 2,500 years and is a world heritage Unesco site. The first morning, I strolled outside to find medieval tower houses rising like sculpted cakes and the decorative window surrounds dripping like white icing. The men – (many of whom strode around hand in hand) wore red and white check turbans, sarongs and swashbuckling jambiyas (ceremonial daggers worn at the waist). The city was bleakly devoid of women and the couple that we eventually came across, were veiled head to foot in black. In the souk we passed a mad man, shackled at the wrists and ankles, shuffling through the juice bars and fruit and vegetable displays with a haunted, wild, expression.

One of the group, a photographer, (who was later to become my husband) beckoned me down some stairs toward the frenzied sound of drumming, into a dark cellar lit by bare, swinging light bulbs. Men squatted on the floor, cheeks bulging with qat, dealing the narcotic leaf, to men who lined up to buy it.

Later that evening, we met Tim Mackintosh Smith, the writer and Arabist, who has lived in the Yemen for more than thirty years, in the summit of a mediaeval tower. He was wearing a long flowing gown, chewing qat and sporting a huge beard. He offered us black tea with cardamom, and we chatted over the haunting backdrop of the Call to Prayer, from one of minarets nearby. He was working on what would become Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, which won the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book Award in 1998.

The following day we set off in a Toyota Landcruiser driven by a man called Hussain. He had weary brown eyes and owned an English/Arabic phrase book, with quaint phrases and illustrations and answered ‘no problem no problem’ to our every request. We were all charmed by him immediately. We were heading for the Hadhramaut, which extends from the coast to the Arabian Sea to the southern deserts. When we reached Ma’rib, 120 miles East of Sana’a, Hussain led us to a restaurant, where tribal men had laid down their AK47 rifles to eat grilled chicken, garlic beans and flat bread. There were no women in the café, although a female beggar sat on the doorstep collecting leftovers. Later that day we visited old Ma’rib, an almost deserted mud town set high on a hill. I wrote in my diary: “dark eerie windows in the baked towers look like the eyes of Antony Gormley sculptures. An unveiled peasant woman dressed in red scavenges among the decaying houses for firewood and a three legged donkey lies exhausted in the road.”

On the third day we embarked on a journey to cross  “the empty quarter”  a desert, covering 250,000 square miles of southern Arabia. Wilfred Thesiger, the legendary explorer of Arabia, described it as 'a bitter, desiccated land that knows nothing of gentleness or ease ... a cruel land that can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match'. We bumped across the dunes, driven by an angry young Bedouin in a white turban and another man who sat cradling his machine gun on his lap. After a long, hot dusty drive we eventually reached the ancient town of Shabwa, built from granite volcanic rock, where the derelict houses are sculpted against a backdrop of black mountains. Later that day, we passed Shibam, a sixteenth century walled town, which guidebooks call ‘the Manhattan of the Desert.” From a distance the medieval mud skyscrapers are truly staggering to behold, magnificent and beautiful. Located at an important caravan halt on the spice and incense route across the Southern Arabian plateau, the city of dwellings up to seven storeys high are developed on a fortified, rectangular grid plan of streets and squares. We left Shibam as long shadows played on the ribbed sand of the dunes.

By day 4 we had reached Tarim, a dusty, desert town where men were playing lazy games of dominoes and chess. There were no ceremonial daggers around their waists and the pace of life seemed gentle. Goats, chicken and donkeys wandered through the souk and unlike Sana’a, not many of the men were chewing qat; it is not grown in the region.

On the long drive to Mukhalla a troop of baboons were squatting on the lunar landscape. We stopped at an ancient mountain village where men were making bricks, and one of our group, Annabel, bought some honey that the Yemenis claimed was an aphrodisiac. The port town of Mukhalla was filthy and pungent and the men wore Westernized jackets. It was nothing like Freya Stark’s description of 1935, “Tall houses every shade of white and grey… a naked crowd with brilliant loincloths and turbans.” We spent a day at the beach, mesmerized by a large school of dolphins.

Back in Sana’a, we were invited to Hussain’s house for lunch, one of the highlights of the trip. We removed our shoes at the front door, and then sat on the carpeted floor lined with hard cushions and bolsters. We were served fenugreek stew and doughy bits of bread dipped in a herby soup with chives, and brought in by a dutiful smiling son. Hussain’s daughters, wife and mother remained firmly out of sight, but we caught glimpses of them when we said goodbye, before Hussan’s wife hastily covered her face.

It was a long, winding drive to Ta’izz, high up in the mountains – a cosmopolitan town with lots of cafes and shops, where many of the women were unveiled. We visited the Ashrafiya Mosque, a white building at the top of the old town built with minimalist-style arches and tall narrow walkways that kept it cool.

Towards the end of our trip we reached Al-Khawkha, once an important coffee exporting port and the biggest fishing village on the southern coast of the Red Sea. In better times it is touted as a tourist resort. We saw beautiful, unveiled women wearing long, patterned dresses, walking freely through sandy palm groves. Walking by the coast, we passed colourful fishing boats and saw flamingoes, sea eagles and sandpipers.

The next day we visited Zabid, one of the oldest towns in the Yemen, and on the Unesco World Heritage List after Shibam and San’a. It was the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th century and a center of the Arab and Muslim world due in large part to its University of Zabid.  In 2000, Zabid was listed on the list of world heritage sites in danger, due to a state of poor upkeep and conservation. Sadly when we visited it was in a state of disrepair.

The last couple of days in the Yemen, we drove back to San’a along the dried up Wadi Sari. We saw weaverbird nests, girls carrying firewood on their heads, and boys selling bananas. The mountain houses were made of coloured patterned stones and the temperature dropped as we reached Thilla, situated above a sloping basin of terraced fields where we ate our last lunch. At the end of a magical journey it was as though we had visited several different countries within one, mediaeval cities, desert towns, coastal resorts, and mountainous regions. It was a deeply romantic and memorable journey, and one that I will never forget.

This  is dedicated to the talented writer and editor, Annabel Freyburg, one of my companions on this trip, who sadly died on the 8th December, 2013.


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Monday, 30 June 2014

Congratulations to the PARK CLUB


Huge congratulations to my local health club: The Park Club in Acton. They have won the Tatler Award for Best Family Club! Here is what Tatler had to say:

If Shepherd's Bush is the new Notting Hill (which it is), the Park Club is the new Hurlingham. It's extremely family- friendly, with loads of land (27 acres!) - members drive from all over London for a great slice of the outdoors. And kids rule - there are holiday and tennis clubs and all manner of tantrum-avoiding activities. If you can see past all the pyjama-clad smalls (exercised, showered, fed, doing their prep in the café before being shipped home to bed), you will spot a lot of very glamorous people.
Monthly membership, from £213 (joining fee, £150). At East Acton Lane, W3 (theparkclub.co.uk; 020 8743 4321).


The Park Club is much less stuffy and conventional than Hurlingham, and the HUGE difference is that there is NOT a fifteen year waiting list, in fact, there is NO waiting list - new members are courted and very much welcome. I would totally agree though, that the Park Club is superb for families, and it's true that young children practically live here after school: doing their prep, eating their kid-friendly suppers, showering, and being whisked home to bed. It is where huge numbers of local school children (both posh-state and private) meet after school to just hang out and play - think private park with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, ping pong, football, cricket, tennis, plus endless tennis and swimming lessons, a playground, sandpit, bouncy trampoling thing, and lots of space to run. My ten year old daughter plays tennis there or just plays football with the boys, or hangs out in the computer room, she likes to swim too and will always find someone to do something with.

I go for pilates, yoga and swimming and sometimes even I work, eat and shower there too.

We love it. Bring it on!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Jude's brilliant Movie for Morrisons

No it's not my family firm and supermarket shopping is not something I usually do unless it's online, from Ocado or Waitrose;  but when BritMums offered me the chance to take £80 worth of vouchers to Morrisons, I took the money and ran to my nearest branch in Acton. As we left, my husband Luke, who was not fit for purpose because he was wearing baggy Bank Holiday shorts - shouted out that Morrisons was one of his favourite shops because he had a good time there once, when he decided the staff were great. My two children accompanied  me for the novel shopping expeditiion and my son, Jude, age 12 (aspiring actor and film-maker) made a funny film about our outing, and you can see it below. We had an hysterical morning, shopping, filming and darting around the aisles piling more and more stuff into our trolley. We liked the display of fruit and vegetables, and found that some products, peppers for example @4 for 79pence, were really reasonable, and 50pence for a bunch of radishes was seductive. The Morrisons own brand multi grain bread is delicious and a bargain at £1.59. 8 Diet cokes were £2.64 for 8, which is amazing for a Diet Coke addict like me, and the own brand oatcakes - 81pence a packet, are cheaper than anywhere I shop, as is fresh ginger. 10 lamb chops for £5 is excellent.  We had 54 items for £97.49 but that included Lavazzi coffee for my husband which cost £6.48 and a bottle of Prosecco for £5.99.

THE MOVIE CAN'T BE WATCHED ON A FULL SCREEN

video
A big thank you though to Morrisons and Britmums. Our Bank Holiday lunch was superb: Roasted peppers cooked in the oven with tiny tomatoes, peas, feta and lentil salad, lamb chops marinated in garlic and herbs and plain rice.  I calculate that the cost per head was approximately, £2.50. 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

My Phobia

There is no problem driving around the city in my Audi Estate car, ferrying children, taking myself to the gym, or doing the school run. My consumption of alcohol is nominal, so I am also the allocated driver after any social occasion in the evening, as my husband likes to drink when we are out. I have no fear of traffic and can barge, push and cut in, along with the most seasoned city drivers – I have been driving for 25 years. I am able to navigate the biggest, scariest, roundabouts with no problem at all, park in a hurry, and wheedle through traffic. Occasionally, at night, on the Westway (a dual carriage way that bends from Marylebone to the A40) I can be a little frozen with nerves driving at 40 or 50 mph on what I think of as a conveyor belt and not having the best eyesight in dark conditions, but generally, driving in the city poses no problems for me.

My fear around driving kicks in on a motorway. I am apparently a sufferer of DAD (Driving Anxiety Disorder) and have a phobia of driving in these conditions. There is no Latin word for this kind of phobia but the nearest is hodophobia (fear of travelling).  A hypnotist I went to see said that fear of driving on the motorway and fear of flying are the two most common reasons, people come to see him, so there is some comfort that I am not alone. The sheer speed of the cars hurtling along the motorway terrifies and exhausts me. The combination of fear and concentration needed for me to drive in these conditions, means that if I do drive on the motorway, I can only keep going for about an hour. I feel trapped and fear the fear of anxiety, or having a panic attack and hate the fact that there is no escape.

I haven’t driven on my own on the motorway for many years.  I forced myself to drive in France last year, as we had driven from London and it would have been absurd to allow my husband drive all that way, but I certainly didn’t enjoy the experience and was very tense throughout. I can’t remember now, what it was like to drive in a carefree way, without worrying about crashing and dying. I don’t remember the problem when I was a single woman, but as soon as I was in a long-term relationship and out of the habit of driving on the motorway, the terror suffocated me.  The first time it occurred our young children were in the back of the car and suddenly, the thought that we could crash seemed very real, and imminent. I got palpitations, sweaty hands and was short of breath – the symptoms of a panic attack. I slowed down from about 70mph to 30mph and eventually came to a stop on the layby. My husband had to take over at the wheel. I was conscious that my actions were frightening for the children, but there was nothing I could do about it. I’m not sure what would have happened if I had been on my own.

The speed and pace of the cars on the motorway always feels so relentless and my fear is that either my car will spin out of control and we will crash and die, or that I will tire of driving and won’t be able to stop, which makes me panic. When my husband is driving, I often wonder what would happen if he suddenly had a heart attack, or  if the wheel burst, or another driver spun out of control. The apprehension and terror about driving is partly borne out by evidence: It seems to me that every time we drive somewhere on the motorway, we witness an accident. A hypnotist, who was trying to cure me of my phobia, told me that I was looking for accidents, but I don’t think so. He also told me that driving was relatively safe, and asked me why I’d like to get off the motorway, once I’d started to drive, surely he said, you would want to get off when it was time to get off. However after about half an hour I want to stop. That is why driving in the city works for me, there are frequent reasons to stop or slow, down and catch your breath. I don’t like the sensation of being trapped not only in the car, but on the road, hurtling along in a piece of metal. I feel vulnerable, the sensation of going fast for so long doesn’t seem natural, although it once did. My hypnotist told me to breath in and breathe out calmly saying, I am in Control, and sometimes that works a bit, but the fact that it has been proved both in the UK and the US that travelling on the highway or motorway is safer than travelling on ordinary roads does not inspire me.

I had a car accident when I was sixteen, and no doubt this is the source of my fear. We were not driving on a motorway, but on a small road in Nassau in the Bahamas.  We had left a club, and I had climbed into a car with a teenage boy. He drove through a stop sign and a taxi crashed into the side of the car, where I was sitting in the back. The impact of the crash, broke my femur and I was in hospital for three months, while the bone failed to heal. It was a very long time before I could walk again. The more reasonable part of me knows the boy was obviously an inexperienced driver and had been drinking, but I am also hyper-aware that there may be other drivers out there who are inexperienced or have been drinking, although in the UK, it is prohibitively expensive for a young person to get insured to drive, but maybe that just means that a rich drunk, teenager would maybe crash into me rather than a poor drunk one.

I am envious of my friends who have so much more independence than me, it is not a good feeling to rely on other people to get me from A to B. I also had a three hour course by a company that helps nervous drivers. I was able to drive with the instructor on a stretch of motorway, but still it has not helped me overcome my fear, I still can't bear the idea of going on my own or for driving long distances. I know I need to practice driving on the motorway more often to help overcome my fear. I know this, and yet I don’t. I often wonder what would happen in an emergency, if I really needed to drive down the motorway on my own. I suspect that I would be able to do it, albeit slowly! Or would I?


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

My son Jude White (age 12) makes his acting Debut today in Law and Order



I am on the set of  Law and Order watching my 12-year-old-son rehearse a scene with a  crowd of crew and actors including Bradley Walsh and Ben Bailey-Smith who star as the two detectives. This is my son’s first paid job and I am his chaperone, earning a fifth of what he is. My flat fee for the morning is £95. The money has gone to his head and he’s offered to buy us a “mansion” when he grows up and gets to Hollywood.  I feel as though I am at his mercy and that he has a strange new power over me. He is the undisputed star, and me and his father are merely the facilitators – the ones who get him to castings, or help him learn lines. He is  an A-lister and we are nobody’s. When he goes to his agent’s Christmas Party, he is the one who is taken around and introduced to all the other performers (he is at the same agency as Eddie Izzard, Rowan Atkinson and Dylan Moran) while me or his Dad linger around on the sidelines hoping someone will talk to us.

We never aspired to have a child actor as a son. When he was nine some proactive parents persuaded Olly Murs, Davina Mccall, and Oritze from JLS to come and judge the school talent contest. Our son won first prize, with a satirical stand up comedy routine he wrote about his family. The laughs were at our expense of course.

The first prize was an acting agent and we were somewhat taken aback, horrified actually. We did not envisage our child being a professional actor. His days were already filled with schoolwork, football and piano. Jude was determined that acting was his new vocation, and harassed us for a year. We eventually gave in and went to visit our first prize and discovered that she wanted us to pay to have his photograph in Spotlight - a mere £95. We went home and did nothing. She did nothing either and so we parted ways. I was relieved. Perhaps that would be the end of it.


He continued to harangue us though. Every few weeks he would ask us if we had found him another agent; and I would answer that it’s hard to  ‘find an agent.’ They have to see you act in something. They need to love you, and want to work with you. I asked advice from a casting agent acquaintance and she tried to put me off by saying having a child actor in the family was problematic – all the auditions you have to take them to, schlepping across town in rush hour.  I relayed the information to my son, but he was more determined than ever.


When he eventually ended up at PBJ Management, his brand new agent sat down one afternoon and explained that there would be many reasons he may not win a part – it could be as minor as having the wrong colour hair, or that he didn't look enough like the “parents” who had already been cast. Luckily he’s small for his age as most casting agents want a boy who looks younger than his years. He’s been put up for parts that occasionally I’ve had to veto because the content of the script seems too alarming or dark (think sexual predators or murder most horrid). He recently auditioned for a lead part in an American action film that if he actually won, would been reallocating to New Zealand for six months filming. Whenever I ask, ‘what if he actually he gets the part? Because that would mean turning our life upside down, his agent always replies, “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Law and Order was about his tenth audition. An actress on the set told me that an actor will get about one job in every thirty auditions. The competition is vicious. At the various castings I have met extremely dedicated parents. Fathers who home school their children, especially so that they can get them to the castings and have time to learn their scenes without the constraints of a school day; children who are at full time stage school and do extra dancing and acting at the weekends.

Scenes are sent home one or two days before an audition and children are expected to know about three off by heart. Castings are usually in central London, at the end of a long, busy day. We have twice been called to the BBC in Elstree, (The first time we went, we walked from the station two miles up the road to the wrong BBC studios). There is unlikely to be any feedback on the child’s performance, and if there is a call back the child will have to go again, and do the same scene again, only this time in front of the producer and director. Not every child would be able to deal with the rejection, but my son is fairly sanguine about it, and my feeling is that it is good preparation for the real world.

The day of the shoot for Law and Order he is treated like a Prince. He has a bedroom in the house, with an en-suite bathroom where he can chill out between scenes. There are snacks delivered to the room from the studios (about a mile away) when he is hungry.  He asks for several different snacks, which are driven over by a man whose job it is to drive us around. He collected us at 6.00 a.m  and explained that on TV productions such as this, it’s only the lead and child actors who are chauffeured to the set, everyone else travels on public transport and only the stars and my son (because he is a child) get an en-suite bathroom.  


When it comes to the actual scenes, I watch on a monitor in the kitchen. There is no sound, but he does look like a nervous, guilty boy, trying to defend his mother as he is supposed to while being questioned by the police. I see him mouthing the words on the screen. He appears to be on the verge of tears and he is doing exactly what is says in the script – twitching his hands. For a shy boy like my son who often feels he’s “shrinking away” at school because of is height, learning lines, auditioning in front of strangers and finally acting real scenes has given him an enormous boost of confidence and some welcome extra pocket money.  I am a convert and glad he enjoys is career but still wondering what will happen if we have to relocate to New Zealand.

Law and Order (episode 2) tonight at 9pm on ITV





Friday, 14 March 2014

Review of Labor Day starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin


Labor Day, released in the UK on the 21st of March,  is a movie based on the novel by Joyce Maynard and reduced both me and my girlfriend to tears.  Directed by Jason Reitman, (the director of Juno, which I loved) It's the story of a doomed love affair between a convict (Josh Brolin as Frank Chambers) on the run, and a depressed, sensitive, quivering wreck of a single mother, Adele Wheeler played by Winslet. (We were both impressed that to convey the 'depressed mother,' Winslet appears at the beginning of the movie, with matted hair and scarcely any makeup).  It's set  In 1987, in rural America. Adele has been moping since her husband left her and lives with her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) who brings her coffee in the mornings and helps her put the car into gear when they leave the house - its what's known as a co-dependent relationship! While they are doing their monthly shopping trip (Adele is agrophobic) a bloody man approaches Henry and persuades or mildly forces him to introduce him to his mother and then he forces her to give him a lift. The man is revealed to be Frank Chambers, a convict who is wanted by the  police after jumping from the second floor of a hospital where he was sent to have his appendix out.

Bronlin first appears with a goatee, (which he apparently persuaded the producers he had to have to make him look more menacing) the point is though, that not once, did I think he was menacing or that he would do the mother and child any harm. He ties up Winslet, to look as though he's kidnapping her, but with pointedly suggestive shots of Winslet's ankle, as he's tying her, you know that he's already lusting after her, and they will inevitably fall in love.  The audience are given more and more signposts incase we don't get what's going on - a repetivtive ominous drum beat whenever we are meant to think that Frank could be re-caught and huge flashing signs about the burgeoning relationship between him and Winslet - close-ups of their sweaty bodies and a cliched scene of them all making a pie together, thrusting their hands together in a bowl of butter and flour.   My friend said it took her, "a very long time to engage with the characters and that she didn't believe they could fall in love so quickly."  I was taken in by their love affair though; Adele  had been alone for years, and needed the huge physical presence of a man like Bronlin who wanted to take care of her, to knock her out of her mood and there was also the fact that he had been wrongly imprisoned for years and without the love of a good woman.

Through flashbacks, it is revealed that Frank is a Vietnam veteran who returned home and married his pregnant girlfriend, Mandy (Maika Monroe), who soon gave birth. A year after the baby's birth, Frank and Mandy had a fight, where she unintentionally revealed that he isn't the baby's father. During the fight, he accidentally pushed her against a radiator, resulting in her death. Simultaneously, the baby drowned and Frank was sent to jail for Mandy's murder.

By the end of the film, I was hooked, really hoping that they would be able to  run away together and start a new life.  When that didn't happen, most of the people in the screening were crying and still crying when in the last few minutes when they are reunited many years later (I don't want to give too much away here, but perhaps I already have).  The performances from the three lead characters are excellent. We both wished their had been more scenes between Henry and his step-brother, very funny indeed, perfectly catching that awkward teen phase, when parents are SO annoying. I award 3 stars out of 5.