Thursday, 18 June 2015

Five things to do in Kraków

Wawel Cathedral

Adding to my meagre collection of travel guides, I wanted to give the excellent city of Kraków a shout out.  It's the perfect place for a continental city break - affordable, not too far away and easy to get around.  Unfortunately I can't lend you my awesome friends to go with, but I can offer up some (fairly boozy) tips for how to make the most of the city.

1. Take the time to visit Auschwitz.

I'm not going to write here about why people should do this but I did want tp note a couple of tips that made our visit run smoothly.  We booked an English-language tour online before our trip, took the bus from Kraków bus station and gave ourselves plenty of time to get there, collect headphones and watch the film that is available.  It's a gruelling day so it's good to plan ahead.

You also don't need photos of Auschwitz.  Put your phone and camera away and look at where you are.  Some people there will be behaving terribly.  Close your eyes, breathe and step away from them.  They are beyond your help.

2. Mix up culture and beer

Kraków is not a big city: it's very easy to cover it all on foot, which allows for the perfect amount of wandering around, looking at beautiful buildings and nipping into bars to drink cheap beer.  I'm always a bit stingy when it comes to paying to go inside cathedrals and churches but Wawel Cathedral is absolutely worth it.  It's packed with truly spectacular opulence and topped off with a midnight blue, star-studded arched ceiling.  

Starry starry night

To counter-balance that, head around the corner to the House of Beer and curl up on a squidgy leather sofa whilst sampling their vast selection of craft beers and ales. Other good spots for an afternoon beer are CK Brower if you're after a hilarious picture with a five pint beer pipe, Pauza to look out over the bustling Florianska street, or Caffe Camelot either for a sun-trap if the weather is nice or to hole up inside in what looks like your grandma's living room.

It is, indeed, a House of Beer

3.  Eat Polish

It's a proud moment that we genuinely shocked the manager of a milkbar by competently putting away almost all of the outrageous number of dumplings we ordered in one sitting. Spinach dumplings, potato cakes with sour cream, breaded pork and deep-fried Camembert make for a hearty evening meal.  Polish food is not to be sniffed at.

If you want to try somewhere traditional but not daunting, head to Milkbar Tomasza.  Be warned, they don't serve booze so stock up on your beers elsewhere.

4.   Drink Polish

Apart from good local beers, Poland is all about the vodka and even managed to convince a staunch vodka-hater that it's not all bad.  We used our resident quarter-Polish tour guide to show us the way and she directed us straight to Żubrówka, known as bison grass vodka.  The way to drink it is very cold with apple juice, and a hint of cinnamon. It tastes like Christmas. Try it at cosy, hipster Eszeweria in the Jewish Quarter before dancing down the road to Alchemia.

I prefer something a little less sweet so I'd recommend heading to a traditional snack and shot bar.  Maybe give the herring a miss but pick up a shot for 4 zlotys (about 70p).  My favourite was raspberry vodka topped with fresh lemon juice.  And remember to sip, not shot, otherwise you'll look incredibly British.

The vodka hater has come round to the idea.

5. Try absinthe without getting totally out of your tree

My past absinthe experiences correspond pretty closely to nights when I've either kissed a lot of boys or made my most committed effort to recreating the Dirty Dancing lift.  Both have resulted in bruises, some to my pride, some to my knees.

It all went a bit Moulin Rouge after this.

Taking the luxe and measured approach to the Green Goddess turned out to be much more fun and much less foggy.  We visited the eclectically decorated Absynt Bar in the Jewish quarter which set us up well for a night of dancing.  There were some treacherous sounding absinthe cocktails on the board but we went for the Belle Époque style traditional serving with fancy Instagram-worthy goblets and intricate silver spoons.  Having only ever necked a shot of the cheap stuff, it was a pleasant surprise to water down the absinthe in the style of whiskey and appreciate the aniseed flavours.  

It should be noted some appreciated this more than others.

Hey everyone! Enjoy absinthe!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Of Course We Still Need A Gender-Specific Prize for Literature

Last night Ali Smith was announced as the winner of the £30,000 Baileys Prize for Fiction.  Five established novelists made up the shortlist – Rachel Cusk, Kamila Shamsie, Sarah Waters, Anne Tyler and Ali Smith – and one debut author, Laline Paull.

Of course I’ve missed out a crucial word.  The prize is actually called the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  How sexist eh?!  How reductive to still be lauding a gender-specific literary prize as a measure of success when five out of the last ten Man Booker prizes have been awarded to female writers. 

But these arguments that women-only shortlists and awards are an act of segregation, or are actually a step backwards, ignore the context completely.  Calling out a Bronte sister, or indeed all three (yes, even Anne), does not suddenly offset Hugo, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dickens, Swift, Wilde, Vonnegut and Amis(es).  Women are building a literary canon in a way that has only become possible in the last fifty years, in the same way as they are building an artistic heritage, a political legacy and a new social framework. 

For me, women-only prizes are akin to the discussion of female quotas for boards.  In an ideal world, these things would not exist.  But it’s not an ideal world and levelling out thousands of years of a distinctly uneven playing field needs a helping hand.  There are all sorts of invisible helping hands that boost various people over various fences without ever being noticed.  

If you’re male.  If you’re straight.  If you’re white.  If you’re middle class.  If English is your first language.  If you’re wealthy.  If you’re able-bodied.  If you’re old enough, but also not too old.  Those conditions all provide a little extra oomph for your career or relationships or opportunities. 

The reason there doesn’t need to be a Men’s Prize for Literary Fiction (or any kind of equivalent celebratory occasion) is because we’ve already had that prize over and over again.  It might not have been labelled as such but for most of humanity’s existence, it wasn’t necessary to label something explicitly for men only.  It was just an unsaid truth that the criteria to be eligible for those awards was mainly "PENIS? WHITE? COME ON IN!"

Men have had been congratulating themselves since the start of human civilisation.  Which isn’t to say that previous achievements should be deemed worthless.  It's plain ignorant to ignore that most art was created by men in a world where they exclusively had opportunity to produce it, and it was then judged and valued by fellow men.

It is a mistake to think these awards are designed to disable women by pitting them against one another, or suggest that they are inferior.  There just hasn’t, for centuries, been a space for women to create and think and publish, and the field is already pretty busy.  We need to find a gap, squeeze ourselves into it and push the sides away from us until more than just a handful of women can fit through.  Any event or celebration that focuses exclusively on female contribution is simply women holding onto that newly-found ground and maintaining it.

It’s very easy to cite Hilary Mantel or Tina Fey or Caitlin Moran as evidence that the tide has turned and women are on top of their game.  We may well be top of our game but unfortunately it’s still a game that too few people are watching. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Wedding Guest Outfits: SOLVED (ish)

I’ve not been to many weddings in my life due to be hugely unpopular and generally trying to repel anyone who looks like they might be on the brink of getting hitched.  

Psyche!  I only really do that with hen nights.

But still, when they have been mercifully few and far between, the problem arises that I don’t really have a wedding outfit arsenal for when invitations do come through the door.  There is no fall-back safe option, perfect formal jumpsuit or *flinches* summer cover-up.   I don’t have to go to fancy work events, black-tie, christenings or garden parties and my current idea of a “going out” outfit relies heavily on a goth aesthetic, piling on the necklaces and a floor-length black lace dress that I think makes my tits look good.  It’s just not very wedding y'all.

I want to say that I wouldn’t really care if someone at a wedding was wearing the same outfit as me but that would be like saying I don’t really care that The Mindy Project got cancelled.  I care Mindy, I CARE.  Given that weddings are the only real occasion when it is normal and accepted for multiple adult women to wear the same outfit, as a pleb guest, I’ll do everything in my power to avoid inadvertent bridesmaid action.

With four weddings and counting on my summer horizon, I’ve been heavily preoccupied by the dreaded outfit clash and trying to find solutions that will instead focus all my social anxiety back onto appropriate conversation topics, greeting people with the correct combination of hug/handshake/air-kisses and entering quiet rooms without falling over.

Here are five looks I would happily be seen wearing whilst I snaffle all the canapes, minesweep leftover wine and have an argument about white male privilege with people I've only just met.


My perfect wedding guest maths.  A great dress that I'll wear loads, from an off-beat label paired with kooky statement accessories and a pair of shoes that I can actually walk and dance in.  This look is dreamy.

Lilac Valentina dress: £150 Ukulele  Silver acrylic choker: £125 Finchittida Finch  
Blue brushed faux fur box clutch: £40 Skinny Dip  Silver leather sandals: £135 Cos

I used to be a dedicated vintage lover and of late, my retro wardrobe hasn’t much been taking my fancy but occasionwear is different and it’s where vintage comes into its own.  Safe in the knowledge that you have one of a kind, it’s important to make sure that your dress fits properly so I highly recommend trying on first.  My last-minute saviours in London have been Beyond Retro, Pop Boutique and Frock Me! Vintage Fair.  Do bear in mind, if you are inclined to sweat, that man-made fabrics from the last few decades are not the most breathable. 

50s floral party dress: £125 Rokit  Gold slim choker: £28 Whistles  Brow leather watch: £25 ASOS  Yellow metal trim sandals: £52 Topshop  Blue origami boat bag: £40 The White Pepper

So the dress might be a bit run-of-the-mill but styling gives you free reign to jazz things up and buying accessories is by far the most fun way to shop.  I love this sweet 50s style dress but would de-prettyify it with a creepy ring like this snake tempting Eve.  Jewellery that scares people is a great talking point at dinner right?

Yellow floral dress: £55 Collectif  Cat Eye sunglasses: £89 Ace & Tate  
Adam and Eve snake ring: £45 Jewel Heritage  White mini holdall: £36 Topshop  
Tan leather sandals: £89 Office

Think outside the box with textures and prints.  Either clash colours or go head to toe in varying shades of the same colour.  This is an especially good way to re-use a dress that might be a bit wintery for the sunny wedding season.

Navy printed dress: £228 Marni  1960s vintage Aurora Borealis earrings: £165 Susan Caplan  
Iridescent green leather clutch: £48 American Apparel  
Peacock satin pumps: £325 Sophia Webster

If you live in London and are headed to a wedding well away from the city, I recommend & Other Stories because they still ludicrously have only one store & charge for postage and packing.  You’re more likely to avoid an outfit clash here than with Zara, Topshop or Coast.  Otherwise, online is your best pal if you can unearth some lesser-known labels like Mrs Pomeranz (below).  I also highly recommend The Finery.

Floral cocktail dress: £225 Mrs Pomeranz  Coral candy stripe sunglasses: £32 The White Pepper  Double triangle earrings: £30 Wolf & Moon  Turquoise leather sandals: £65 & Other Stories  Leather foldover clutch: £65 & Other Stories

Friday, 15 May 2015

The Falling and Girlhood: Finally, some real teenage girls in the cinema

At the Women of The World festival in March, Caitlin Moran (when she wasn’t making the sign language interpreters translate rude words), pointed out how rare it is to see normal girls on screen just being normal.  

It’s bloody marvellous to see Katniss Everdeen saving the world, but most teenage girls aren’t discovering hitherto unknown archery skills, displaying unfathomable courage and making incendiary speeches.  Mostly they’re pissing about at the back of a classroom, or the back of a bus or the back of a playing field.  They're writing notes to each other in sparkly gel pens, discovering that bras will never be comfortable and generally trying to work out how to possibly handle the world around them.

It’s essential for girls to have role models and strong female characters to look up to, but it’s also so crucial that they can see themselves reflected in art and culture, and not only within the YA genre.

There are two films in cinemas at the moment which are giving some much-needed screen time to teenage female characters that exist very much within the realm of possibility.  The Falling and Girlhood show the experience of being a teenage girl in ways we so rarely see. 

In Girlhood, a scene of the four central characters lip-syncing to Rihanna’s Diamonds in a hotel room is so full of joy.  The song fades out and you realise that they’re not lip-syncing at all; they’re singing along, at the top of their voices, and not particularly well.  This is not Pitch Perfect or Glee.  This is every girl’s bedroom I was in when I was fourteen.

There are scenes in these films that I can’t remember ever seeing before in the cinema.   I’ve never seen girls beating the crap out of each other like Girlhood portrays in full thumping detail.  When The Falling’s core group of friends deal with a tragedy by performing a solemn ritual, holding hands in a circle, it resonates.  They find some quiet, insular way to mark the event that feels true to them, however ridiculous it may appear to outsiders.

Any film about teenage girls would be failing all teenage girls if it shied away from portraying their teenage bodies.  Times are a-changing and they are simultaneously fascinated and horrified by their own and others' outgoing pubescence.  Girlhood opens with an all-girl American football game, bodies crashing into each other and hitting the ground.  Powerful limbs tackle stocky torsos.  

In The Falling, the mass fainting that takes over the school comes in the form of dance-like sequences as the girls sway dreamily and their knees buckle. The camera lingers over the silhouette of Abbie’s perfectly ski-sloped nose in The Falling while solemn Marieme in profile is a truly stunning shot in Girlhood.  Neither film is reluctant to show these girls learning to inhabit their physical forms but rather than sexualised, they are fascinating.  This is very much a female on female gaze.

Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams in Carol Morley's The Falling

The girls in both films are constantly touching each other:  hugging, kissing on cheeks, stroking hair, holding hands and snuggling into one another’s shoulders.  They’re obsessed with each other.  They descend into wonderfully honest fits of giggles and make heartfelt declarations of forever friendship.  They appropriate habits from each other, mirroring movements and hairstyles. They are so absolutely in that moment, making good and bad decisions, being kind and being cruel.  They are naughty, confused, brash, annoying, wistful, perceptive and stubborn.  They are real.

I've written before about the importance of seeing films with female leads on their opening weekends - to boost box office clout and convince the studios that these films are worth producing.  Here are films with almost entirely female casts, made by female directors and focusing on the stories of teenage girls, which are so often ignored.  These are the sorts of projects which are not easy to get off the ground.  But it gets a whole lot easier if there are ticket sales to back up audience demand. 

Thanks to the wonderful The Female Lead for the preview screening of Girlhood.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Poppy Smart, catcalling and pissing in the street

There has, this week, been a “VERY heated debate” (Daily Mail, 29th April 2015) around 23-year-old Poppy Smart reporting builders to both their employer and the police for repeated sexual harassment.  Of course there hasn't really.  There have been misguided opinion pieces written by women who claim that they enjoy the attention, comment pieces from men who frankly have no right to wade in at all, and opportunistic, wanking misogynists on Twitter seizing yet another moment to hurl abuse at a woman for speaking up, from behind the safety of their computer screens.

Thanks to projects like Everyday Sexism and the generally increasing prominence of female voices, it is now largely recognised that a social dynamic exists whereby women are subject to unsolicited sexual attention (also known as harassment) in public.  Even one of the pro-catcalling commentators in the Mail’s “VERY heated debate” piece agreed on this, although managed to somehow argue that the best thing for women is to just deal with it stating “a woman who can’t deal with a whistling man is not going to be able to deal with very much that this world is going to throw at her”.  Thanks Melissa Kite, that is just some real inspirational stuff.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking to the Overground station from my flat in Shadwell.  In six months of living there, I’ve been lucky enough not to be made to feel vulnerable on the streets there.  On this particular Saturday, I was (the irony!) heading to Shoreditch to take part in a new anti-rape campaign called This Doesn’t Mean Yes, and interview the founders of the project.  

As I walked down past the railway arches, it was pretty quiet.  There were some men unloading fruit and vegetables at the back of the market, a kid playing football and a family herding several children on tricycles and scooters.  I walked past them and then, between me and the station, there was just one man up ahead of me.  He was on the other side of the street but crossed over to the pavement I was walking on and stood very near the wall of some flats, facing inwards.  It was a strange move.  If he was desperate for a piss, there were many, many more private places to do it than here.  Men urinating in public is one of the basest forms of male assertion of power but that is not the debate I want to have here.

I was still a hundred feet away and nothing happened.  He just stood there and I put it down to some plain old oddball East London behaviour.  Then at the exact moment I reached him, was parallel with him, no more than a couple of feet away, he started to urinate.  I flinched, carried on walking and wondered whether the timing was pure coincidence.

I turned back once, looking over my shoulder and he was staring straight at me grinning.  It wasn't coincidence.  He had made a conscious decision to walk to somewhere where he would be closer to me and then to begin pissing at the exact moment I drew level with him.  He literally marked his territory, and as far as he was concerned, his territory was that pavement.  He owned it and I did not.

There is often a discussion around catcalling along the lines of wondering what men are hoping to achieve when they shout insults, make lewd requests and comment on a woman’s appearance in public.  Are they hoping that she will sleep with them?  Reward them in some way?  The answer is that there is no end goal here.  There is no thought process.  It is their unthinking, accepted, unconditional right to demonstrate their superior position as and when they choose.

So whether catcalling or wolf-whistling or "Morning love" - it is not “traditional mating fun” (Ray Connolly, Daily Mail).  It’s about who holds the power in a public space.  It’s not flattering, or a compliment or harmless flirting.  It’s nothing more than pissing in the street just because they can.

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