Thursday, 27 February 2014

The teenagers who took on Michael Gove

Imagine never enjoying sex. Imagine having problems going to the loo and suffering constant pain. These are all symptoms of female genital mutilation (FGM), which in the past was known as female circumcision. The procedure involves cutting away the clitoris and/or labia of a young girl, often with rudimentary tools, to make her 'fit' for womanhood and marriage. It is a brutal and traumatic practice that bears no relation to male circumcision. 

Fahma Mohamed, campaigner for Integrate Bristol on FGM
Fahma asked Gove to write to headteachers about FGM
Credit: Oliver Zimmermann

This month a group of teenage girls took a stand on FGM and forced all of us - including Michael Gove, the UK education secretary - to sit up and listen. The 17-year old Fahma Mohamed and her classmates from a school in Bristol have successfully campaigned, with the backing of The Guardian, for schools to play a greater role in protecting pupils from FGM. 

"You wouldn't think it's something people in Britain would have to worry about today - but that's the problem," said Fahma recently. "People don't talk about it, doctors don't check for it, teachers don't teach it. But we know it happens to thousands of British girls each year."

Friday, 14 February 2014


Rather aptly, a few weeks ago, I started reading Tales from the Ark to my son at bedtime. It turned out to be a fictional prelude to the floods that have beset our little British isle. Thanks to the Old Testament, the phenomenon of flooding still has biblical overtones (for some residents of Henley-on-Thames more so than others). Nowadays, rather than hunkering down in our wooden ark, we take a more combative approach with sandbags, barriers and pumps. As the Atlantic storms buffet our shores, it has become a contest: the human species versus the global weather system.

Living in Henley-on-Thames, I know a few friends and family who have watched the river break its banks and consume their gardens and homes with inexorable ease. Tales abound of heroic rescuesgood deeds by neighbours, travel chaos and the evacuation of dogs (and even llamas) from waterlogged ground. Only today a friend told me how her husband had saved someone's new kitchen from watery oblivion by helping to divert some of the flood water in the village of Shiplake. It was celebratory cups of coffee all round!

For all the disruption and misery, however, there remains something oddly compelling about a landscape transformed into a waterscape. Our local bookseller, Jonkers, recently coined a new name for our aqueous town: Henley-in-Thames. Here are a few pictures of the flood, post Noah, circa 2014:

Flooded Regatta course in Henley on Thames
The famous Regatta course expands widthwise

Friday, 7 February 2014

The agonies of interior design

This past week I thought I had a bad case of PMT. Turns out it was IDT (interior-design tension). I can accomplish most tasks in life with a modicum of organisation and some hard graft, but there is something about home-decorating that ties me up in knots. Nothing like a wallpaper dilemma to keep me awake half the night. So why is it that I can write a 140,000 word novel, but the thought of re-decorating my lounge fills me with trepidation? 

Decor in kitchen extension
The completed extension project, with dog crate! 
(see suppliers below)
I spend hours (or even weeks) agonising over the precise shade of paint: a shade too dark and the room might appear smaller; a shade too light and it feels like a wishy-washy compromise. I know my Farrow and Ball colour chart like my 10-year old daughter can recite times-tables. Pigeon? Too dark, too London. French Gray, Blue Gray, Elephant's Breath? Being literary minded, I can cope with the names better than the actual colours.

The options don't end there. Apparently I could team up Pigeon on a feature wall with Blue Gray on my supporting walls. And that's just the foundation. After that, we are talking furnishings, lighting, accents and even the colour of the skirting boards. These days we can't just resort to Brilliant White for our woodwork. The F&B website advises us to soften the contrast between walls and wood with different kinds of white so the confines of the room disappear. (That was the fruit of yet another feverish hour spent sweating over interior design sites.)