Dear Santa

christmas_wish list_jumper_fashion_sweater_christmas jumper_truffle shuffle_online shopping_mlp_my little pony_childhood_retro_dreams_gift_present

Please and thank you.

If anyone else would like to own this fabulous creation, you can buy it here.  This fantastic retailer (I ordered this item at 1007 on Thursday, it arrived via standard mail – free delivery – at 1041 on Friday) are also registered with EasyFundraising, so your purchase can raise a free-to-you donation for a charity who are registered with them (I highly recommend Equine Partners CIC, but feel free to make your own choice).

End of PSA.

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The perfect fit

I’ve been having a problem shared by many women: none of my bras are fitting correctly.  It’s been a shamefully long time since I’ve invested a decent amount of time and money into this crucial piece of daily kit, so I set out on the quest which is only rivalled by the search for the perfect pair of jeans.  I ultimately visited three shops, here’s the tale of my labours…

Bra stop the first: Marks and Spencer
I entered a local branch of Britain’s stalwart retailer on a rainy Sunday with an action plan.  As a reasonably clued-up girl, I had made a guess as to how my size has changed, and went on what turned out to be a disappointing hunt.  I’ve worn a 36D for a long time (before you all have an attack of the vapours, I haven’t worn this size because I like it – I’ve had it checked regularly, and have genuinely felt comfortable in it until recently), but was curious about the fact that I may finally fit into a 34, which I knew would probably mean going up a cup size (given that I’ve changed shape, but not deflated, as it were).

I hunted around the (horribly-merchandised) lingerie department and quickly figured out that M&S design bras in two categories: pretty, but for those who only need to support the weight of two peas on their chest; ugly, and in suitable sizes to conveniently double as headgear.  I should have given up at this point, but I knew I owed my bust a favour, so I sighed and gritted my teeth.  I fished through for a selection of bras in a variety of sizes (because, hey, my guess may have been wrong) and headed for the fitting room.

I hovered awkwardly in the doorway for a moment whilst the woman behind the desk at the back of the corridor busied herself with something else, before she – without even looking up – told me to just go in, that they don’t help with fit any more.  I almost fell over in shock, and again very nearly dropped the mic (bras) and walked away.  Instead, I saw myself to a fitting room, closed the door and organised myself.

Then, dearest retailer, I was confronted by something I really didn’t expect to see: I had selected some bras which are sold in pairs, and it wasn’t until I got to the fitting room that I noticed they were tagged together.  Like this:

bra_bras_lingerie_marks and spencer_shopping_shops_retail_high street_fitting room_customer service

I twizzled everything around to figure out the mechanics: should I try them on like this?  I quickly realised this was physically impossible.  Should I ring the bell provided for assistance?  I soon decided none would be forthcoming, given the frosty reception I had previously received.  I chose to break the rules and snapped the plastic.  Something not all people can do.  I tried every bra I had selected on.  Some – in the size I had guessed – were a reasonable fit.  They were comfortable, even.  They weren’t the type of bras you’d see strut down a runway, or in a fashion spread, but I was also going for day-to-day practicality rather than sexbomb on this occasion, so I was willing to ignore that fact.

What I wasn’t willing to ignore was the complete lack of customer service I was receiving from a high street retailer.  And shops wonder why the internet is winning!  I got dressed, having completed my research, hung the bras up on the rail by the fitting room entrance and walked away, vowing never to darken the door of Marks and Spencer for so much as a pair of socks ever again (which is a shame, because their thermal socks helped me survive last winter and their socks with the fluffy padded ankles and toes get me through the rest of the year).

Customer service: -5/5
Fit: 3/5
Value for money: 1/5 (due to poor service)

Bra stop the second: Leia
Unfortunately, the town I was in that fateful Sunday has very few decent options when it comes to bras (as demonstrated by the above!) so I had to persist with my old no-longer-faithfuls for another week, before I had the opportunity to seek out another shopping experience.  I decided that department stores weren’t the way to go – I needed real help from experts in order to feel satisfied and shell out for some decent goods.

Having prepared myself via means of caffeination, I headed to a shop I hadn’t tried before.  Oh happy day, I did not have to ask for help, assistance was volunteered by a member of staff (remember, I work in retail, I am admittedly a picky customer).  She whizzed me straight to the fitting room, asked what I was looking for, what size I was wearing and took a look at me.  She agreed that I needed a smaller band size, but her guess was that I’d require a 34F, not an E.  I was shocked, but decided that it wouldn’t hurt to try.

I was presented with a bra which matched my brief, tried it on and…well, hello glass slipper!  The bra fitted perfectly.  The sales assistant returned to check the fit for me, made sure I was properly in the bra and comfortable, then asked if I needed anything else.  I was slightly reeling from the experience of suddenly jumping two cup sizes, so I decided that I needed to go and take stock of my underwear drawer before making too many purchases.

Having bought the bra I tried on, I went to another shop for different items…and swiftly returned to Leia, having realised that my underwear drawer would require a total overhaul.  I tried on a different bra (as I had additional requirements!) and again, a sales assistant helped me to fit it and made sure it was the right one.

Sadly, the “fun” and “glamorous” end of the shop’s range wasn’t really pushing my buttons this time, so I stuck with a nude t-shirt bra (to add to the black t-shirt bra I’d previously purchased) and was on my way.  But I’ll be keeping an eye on what they have in stock, and was quick to recommend the store to a friend who is a similar size to me…

Customer service: 5/5
Fit: 6/5
Value for money: 4/5

Bra stop the third: Victoria’s Secret
VS cops a LOT of flak on both sides of the pond, but I’ve had some great experiences in there.  First pro of VS: it’s fun – it’s not short on colour, sparkle, glamour and atmosphere.  Yes, it’s like shopping in a nightclub (though without the sticky floor and dry ice), it’s very very dark.  But it’s well-staffed and, although the merchandising could be better, once you know what you’re doing, it’s straightforward (just frustrating that they rarely have all colourways in stock in all sizes).

Having been re-sized, I knew the VS range wasn’t going to fit me very well any more (they generally only stock to a D cup, with some ranges going to DD or DDD), but I was desperate for something fun, so thought I’d try a few bras on.  I repeated my M&S smash and grab, not being too fussy about colour at first, I was just trying for fit.  As I knew the cups would likely be too small, I avoided anything with too much padding or push up (which made me a little sad – I’ve had some great push ups from VS, even though it’s not something I really need) and headed for the fitting room.

The fitting room was well-staffed, I was shown to a room and left in peace, with the offer of help if I needed it.  I worked my way through my selection, trying the different styles.  Unsurprisingly, two of the five gave me some definite “four boob” (where there’s too much breast for the cup and you spill over the tops), but some of the roomier styles weren’t as bad as they might have been.  It was tempting to go back up to a 36 and see what happened, but I decided not to tease myself, and returned to the shop floor armed with my findings to have another look.

I returned to the fitting room, figured out which of my choices felt best and decided to get the opinion of the sales assistant, partly to see whether they confirmed what I knew or tried something else!  The girl who helped agreed with my assessment (and commented that she liked the colour of the one I’d chosen).  It’s tough – the cynic in me thinks she was upselling, as I know the bra could’ve fitted a touch better, but when all you’re dealing with is the range you have available…was she in a position to know any better?  Possibly not.

Customer service: 3/5 (this would actually be a 4/5 for the store staff, but see below for what drags the company as a whole down)
Fit: 1/5 (sad but true)
Value for money: -1/5 (VS, who are you trying to kid with your “charge the same number in Sterling as you do in Dollars” strategy?)

I wanted to go through the good points first, but now it’s time to throw some constructive criticism at VS – I would really love the people in charge to listen to this, because I think this store is good, but it could be so much better (and, get this, more profitable) if those in charge listened.

  1. We do not feel like Xtina in Burlesque in your dressing rooms, we feel like we forgot to pay our electricity bill and it’s December. We want to see ourselves in your products, so that we know what we look like!  We cannot do that when we feel like we’re wearing filter category four sunglasses.  Yes, you have a brand; no, we don’t actually want to get dressed in the dark
  2. Repeat after me: big breasts deserve pretty bras. More cup and back sizes = more customers = more sales.  If you even think about charging more for sizes above a 34C, we will turn tail and run, and we will take the lovely A and B cup ladies with us because, guess what?  Stores like Leia stock everything from a AA to a…well, I don’t know, but I definitely heard mention of K cups when I was in there.  Leave the chicken fillet-filled B cups for your Christmas meat market show and give the high street the E+ cups it needs
  3. Linked to the above: cut it out with the security tag obsession. I admitted that your bras don’t fit me all that well, but the tags hinder things even further.  I was thisclose to asking your lovely staff to take them off, but I honestly thought they’d say no, so didn’t bother.  This too, will be making you lose sales (see a pattern, here?)
  4. This is the most important point, so please listen carefully: IT IS 2015. Stop insulting the UK and crippling your staff by failing to allow them to order stock in, and not allowing us to shop online (in fact, not even having your range online in UK prices is a heinous crime too).  Get yourselves a UK distribution centre STAT.  How you’ve survived this long with a placeholder website is beyond me.  Why you aren’t keeping your costs low and your profits high by offering online shopping is also mind-bogglingly stupid.  The UK loves VS, as do all of the tourists who visit us.  You’re an aspirational, cool, sexy brand with masses of appeal.  And you’re sticking a machine gun to your foot on a daily basis

Marks and Spencer, this advice is for you:

  1. Hire a new Head of Lingerie who has run a successful store before. Give your staff products they can be proud of and the confidence to fit and sell them.  Jump on the VS bandwagon and take the advice I have given them (well, you already have a website, so you’re ahead there.  One less thing to do).  Alternatively:
  2. Stop selling bras. I mean it when I say I’m not buying another sock from you.  I will find fluffy socks somewhere else.  And no-VPL pants (because, damn, they are good, but I will hunt down some other ones now).  Admittedly, I may continue to buy the odd bottle of Prosecco or a sandwich.  But you really can forget the rest, unless you seriously change.  My experience was utterly diabolical and, like many British women, I have been buying your bras since I first needed one

After two arduous shopping trips and one long blog post, I feel relieved.  Anyone care to share their own experiences?  If there’s anything else you’d like to know, please go ahead and ask – as you can probably now tell, this is a topic I’m not shy about!

Adopting

There’s an increasing Americanisation of the UK, with us taking on many of their “holiday” traditions these days (that can stop, by the way – we don’t need Halloween or Black Friday, thanks), but I’m trying to bring something else into commonplace.  My favourite American custom is that of encouraging people to have a nice day, rather than just saying goodbye.

As a long-serving (suffering?) service industry professional, I’ve seen retail and food outlets adopt what many super-reserved Brits regard as being an over-the-top friendliness.  To greet customers or be the ones to initiate conversation is seen here as a combination of nosy and pushy salesperson-type behaviour.  When Starbucks began asking customers for their name when ordering drinks, they were met with stern opposition (and not just from the mocking Twitterati, who take delight in exposing spelling mistakes) at this supposed over-familiarity (side note: take it from a former-barista, this policy is saving lives – nothing more frustrating than the umpteenth customer asking if the stone-cold latte on the end of the bar is theirs, and then proceeding to take the extra hot triple decaf wet soya latte which clearly isn’t theirs instead).  No, the American custom I’m on a mission to expand within the UK is that of encouraging people to have a nice day.

Rather than leaving my customer sign off as, “thank you, goodbye”, I try my best to encourage people to have a good day.  It often surprises them.  They tend to say, “thank you” or at the very least smile in response.  It visibly lifts them.  And occasionally, I get the biggest win of all: they return the phrase.  Sometimes, it’s an unconscious, “you too”, but on other occasions it’s clearly heartfelt.  And that makes me smile, put my shoulders back, and glide back into the retail fray with a better attitude.

I don’t save lives, I sell merchandise.  I’m not a member of the emergency services who works unsociable hours, I work in a shop and often work unsociable hours (we won’t discuss my rota for December here, in case some kind of miracle occurs and I escape it, but let’s just say it’s far from good).  I’m no hero, and I can be on the receiving end of some abuse.  So when people are nice, or grateful, and happy, it’s noticed.

I do it as a customer too – partly because I know what it’s like to be the poor person behind the counter who has rotting milk in their hair, or the one on the till whose feet hurt and has been wearing an enforced smile for several hours, and faces a stock take once the shutters come down – and I feel sad when it isn’t a part of that worker’s culture, when it’s me who delivers that line to them (always, always earnestly), who has to try and make them feel better.

But it’s worth it if I change one person’s outlook.  And it’s definitely worth it when one of my customers smiles and tells me to have a great day.  Because now, I just might.

The art of giving (when the recipient is too young to know that they’re getting)

If your life is anything like mine, it currently feels like there is at least one friend/acquaintance announcing a pregnancy or birth every week!  This can mean that a bit of shopping is in order.  I blogged previously on how I think you can ensure you buy a great gift, but there are still times when you could be quite stuck.  Babies are a prime example, particularly newborns, and if the parents do not know whether they’re gaining a son or a daughter.  Unsurprisingly, I still have some advice, most of which was passed on from my mother.  Here are the basics:

  • Clothes are good gifts, but there are still some bad ideas. Avoid buying any clothes with integrated hands and feet – extremities grow fastest, so a baby can irritatingly outgrow the mittens/socks which are sewn into a body suit before their body does!  The item is then sadly wasted (unless the parents don’t mind cutting the hands and feet of the outfit off)
  • Even if you know the gender, buy neutral colours and patterns – you may not know the parents’ exact taste plus, sonographers can get the baby’s gender wrong
  • Never buy clothes in “newborn” size, even if the baby is premature – they will fit for approximately five minutes and, again, be a waste of money. If you want to really impress them (this is my favourite trick), buy clothes the baby can wear in six or nine months time.  You have to think about this carefully, because you’ll have to make sure you think ahead and buy something seasonally appropriate (there’s an art to this!  If you’re shopping in November or December, there will be a lot of cold weather clothes, but when a December newborn is six months old, they won’t need a puffy coat!), but your gift will be mightily appreciated: EVERYONE buys for newborns or up to three months old.  Parents are overwhelmed with new babygros and tiny clothes, then suddenly end up with a limited wardrobe a few months later.  Extra bonus – if you buy for when the baby’s older, there’s a better chance of you getting to see him or her in your outfit
  • No baby can have too many socks. They fall off constantly, get eaten by washing machines and generally go missing.  Socks are a great padding gift, they’re cheap and will be appreciated.  Scout around and you can even get more exciting baby socks – I hit a triple whammy when my cousin’s daughter was born, as I found a three-pack which had a pair that looked like ballet shoes (my cousin loves ballet and her daughter was the first girl born into the family in 25 years), plus a pair which had “born in 2013” on them
  • Think about how you purchase your own clothes – it’s rare that we buy one item which is only ever suitable for wearing as part of one outfit. Buy neutral layers so that parents can again get a good amount of wear out of it, and potentially mix and match your items with others (when my cousin’s daughter recently turned two, I picked two dresses, and a cardigan which matches both… and is in a neutral colour which will work nicely with other things in her wardrobe)
  • It can be quite difficult to find nice clothes for baby boys, but the range on the UK high street is improving. You don’t have to spend a fortune: I’ve previously found some really nice, well-wearing items in places like Asda and Tesco, but my favourite place to shop for baby and toddler clothes as gifts is definitely H&M – they usually have a fantastic variety and are very reasonably-priced

Having said all of that… parents tend to receive lots of clothes.  And some people don’t like buying clothes (you’re strange, by the way).  So here my tips for non-clothing items:

  • Never, ever buy a soft toy. Again, parents are overwhelmed with these.  Unless you are an aunt/uncle/grandparent/godparent, step away from the stuffed animals.  Now!
  • As with general adult gifts, ask if there’s anything you can get for the parents. Do they have a registry?  Is there anything they’ve been struggling to get?  See if you can help them out.  They may want sheets for the cot, or a nice blanket, or even have set up a savings account for their baby
  • Mum’s favourite thing to buy is cutlery, she’s particularly keen on this as a christening gift. It’s a nice present, a child’s first set of “proper” silverware – my sister and I still have ours, and buying a nice miniature set that they can have for special occasions when the adults of the house bust out their own nice set is a good chance for the child to feel involved
  • Hand down something you love – one of our family friends had a great knack for picking fantastic young adult books (she gave me Harry Potter before it became famous – yes, those days existed! – and introduced me to another young adult author whose work I fell in love with and also became very popular), and that has inspired some choices in me. Particularly if a child’s parents are bookworms, I like passing on a novel for them to ultimately read together.  I tend to pick my favourite child-centered classics, such as Black Beauty, The Secret Garden or The Wizard of Oz – leave things like Pride and Prejudice for them to hate when they get to school!
  • Remember the parents – even if it’s something you think is small by comparison, it’s a nice thought. Whether it’s a bottle of wine, box of chocolates or a promise of a night of babysitting, something for them to try and enjoy is a nice touch

Hopefully that’s given you some ideas!  I’ve already found the main gift for my closest friend who’s due next… but I need to wait until she gives birth and knows the gender of her baby before hitting the online checkout.

What I was doing while you were breeding – book review

Don’t worry, I’ll stop showing off soon.  I’ve now finished all of the books on the “books I was truly excited about reading” list, so things are bound to slow down now.  Or maybe it’s time to make good on my promise to review the Ladybird book I got for Christmas…

Last September, my friends and I spent a night at Portland airport.  It was no accident – we weren’t victims of cancellation or horrendous delays, we just had an early morning flight and saw no point in spending a precious $30 each on accommodation and breakfast when we could bunk down on the concourse for free.  We had blankets, snacks and each other, what more could we want?  And besides, PDX has been voted America’s best airport two years in a row, so why not take advantage of the supposedly-brilliant facilities?

I remember catching up on quite a bit of blogging that night, and dozing in a corner with my friend Eva.  But I also, of course, ventured into every shop in the airport in search of entertainment.  One of the perks is that one bookstore sells second-hand books, although I didn’t buy any.  I did find a book I knew I’d love to read, though, but rather than buy it at the time, it promptly got added to my wish list and showed up on Christmas day.

What I was doing while you were breeding is the sort of book I’d one day love to be able to write.  I won’t, because my life isn’t as adventurous as the author’s, but the title alone was something I related to straight away.  Although I mostly forget that I’m almost 28 (much of the time, I convince myself I’m still 21 and that there’s plenty of time before I have to grow up), there’s an increasing frequency of reminders that my peer group are overtaking me in the grown up stakes.  Thanks, social media, for the slew of engagement announcements around Christmas (no doubt there will be more in the next couple of weeks).  Thanks also for the unmitigated (and, frankly, horrifying) week-by-week pregnancy updates.  These days, I feel like I’m the only one whose updates still revolve around bars I’ve visited and bottles of wine I’ve consumed, rather than number of night feeds and childhood diseases.

But this book is a reminder that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, that I’m not alone in seeing out my twenties without marrying or buying a house.  A lazy reviewer’s description would be that this is Eat, Pray, Love for girls under 30, but that’s too simplistic really.  It’s more about working hard, playing harder and learning how to compromise but not settle.  I didn’t really want the book to end: I laughed, then I laughed harder, and I wished I had it in me to live the author’s dreamy lifestyle of undertaking a well-paid job for eight months per year, enabling myself to travel for a chunk of the rest.  Those kind of roles are a rare thing, and I’ll just have to stick to what mere mortals do – enjoy the job I have, and save up to take some time out and see more things.

Above all, I’ve started a new list, using one of the sentiments from the book which struck the strongest chord with me: the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it.  Newman explains it as doing the typical thing relating to the place that you’re in – riding Icelandic ponies across a frozen plain in Iceland, for example.  Or going to a luau, perhaps.  It’s a “when in Rome” sort of concept, designed to make sure you fully absorb the culture of wherever you are.  Many of us don’t do it enough, preferring to stick to our comfort zones, but if that’s the approach we take, we’re neither breeding and settling like our friends, nor living as we’d perhaps like.

Have you done The Thing in The Place?  What was it?!  And if you’ve settled down already, what’s the greatest adventure you wish you’d taken beforehand?

Important kit

This post probably could’ve gone in my other category, but it’s more sporty than “general other”, so here we are.  We’ve got past the “new year, new me” stage for most people now (anyone got a gym membership which is gathering dust now that Dry January is over?), and with the cold and wet weather continuing in the UK (newsflash: it’s like this all year round), enthusiasm for exercise is definitely waning.  Then along came #thisgirlcan to try and get us all out of our comfy PJs and off our sofas (WHY?!), and a few people probably groaned and did as they were told.  And then here comes another problem: we’re doing it wrong.  The media tells us and our bodies tell us, and it puts us off again.  But today’s issue is really easy to get right, and far more important than many women assume.

I’m talking about sports bras.  Whether you’re the proud owner of fried eggs or melons (as an aerobics teacher we had at school put it), you really and truly should be wearing one for anything remotely resembling exercise.  The more-endowed are generally fairly naturally aware of this, as we occasionally bruise ourselves when stumbling down the stairs in a hurry to answer the door early in the morning, yet some still don’t do much about it.  I’m not even sure why, to be honest, because I for one find exercise painful enough without adding ruining my bust to the drama.

Here’s the thing, girls: unfortunately, breasts aren’t made of muscle (life could be fun – if maybe a little awkward – if they were), which means that there’s absolutely no hope for redemption once you do too much damage.  And something I only learned this weekend, is that their motion pattern isn’t a straightforward vertical or horizontal when you break out of anything other than a dawdle: oh no, breasts move in a figure of eight pattern when they jiggle (I was very conscious of this for the first few minutes after I learned it – I began to understand what the fascination is for certain people…).  With those facts in mind, you may want to care for your assets a bit more, but guess what?  You’ll probably get it wrong again.

Many people are aware that “statistically”, most women wear the wrong size bra.  Beware – these statistics even more than usual ones are highly flawed, because they’re generally taken from those who actually know this already, rather than measuring a random sample of women.  However, the point is valid: it can be due to poor measuring, change in size, bad fit or age of bra, but either way, most of us are in the wrong size, which decreases the helpfulness of said garment.  But it’s okay, help is at hand!  Here are my top tips for kitting yourself out:

  1. Admit you need help – congratulations! You have realised that you need to take care of your body.  I would strongly recommend going to a specialist retailer if you can (I don’t mean high street department stores – many of these get it wrong too).  I bought my first “real” sports bras from Less Bounce and haven’t looked back.  If you’re at a show where they happen to be, go and see them!  There are many other good online sports retailers with great advice, but beware the internet…
  2. Be careful – I love the internet, it’s very useful. But it sometimes has too much advice, and with things like clothes and cooking, it can be very confusing.  Because guess what?  A 36D isn’t always a 36D!  Make sure you find a measuring guide which uses your own country’s sizing method, and even then be prepared to be patient in your search…
  3. Get more than you need – check the returns policy of the site you’re ordering from first, but if you’re able to return items, then buy lots of sizes, try them on and send back the ones you don’t need. You probably won’t be able to actually exercise in them, but you should be able to at least figure out what fits.  Sports bras are an investment, and can be pricey, so it’s worth getting it right.  Make sure you do your trying on and returning within the window of opportunity, so that you don’t get charged unnecessarily
  4. Make the right choice – if you regularly do a low-impact exercise and fit into a smaller cup size, you’re not going to need a lot of scaffolding. If, however, your sport of choice is high-impact and you have a larger bust, make sure you don’t just get a glorified crop top.  For several years now, various companies have produced sports bras with underwires, which were a total revelation – they offer greater support and, in my experience, the wires have yet to escape and cause any nasty injuries, yay!  Sports bras have also come a long way in terms of attractiveness (not that this typically matters, but it does make them a more fun purchase these days)
  5. Look after your kit – Less Bounce recommend sports bras shouldn’t have a birthday! Just like helmets and other sports equipment, these things have an expiry, particularly if you’re wearing them daily and washing them in a machine.  Even if (like yours truly) you don’t replace them strictly on time, do make sure you adjust your bra after washing and vigorous activity – bras are not fixed pieces of armour!  They are designed so that they are adjustable, and they therefore tend to do this of their own accord.  If you really can’t be bothered with fixing them all the time, perhaps take a Sharpie to your straps and make a mark where yours are typically adjusted to, but remember that you will change size and shape too, so it’s worth taking the few seconds to make sure it fits every time
  6. Sports bras aren’t just for exercise – I wear mine whenever I visit the yard, even if I know I’m not riding. Inevitably, you end up chasing after some kind of animal, or a stray feed bag, or a child.  And as someone who has taught many beginners over the last couple of years, well that involves some sprinting if you’ve got mischievous horses, excited riders or ones who are just learning to go faster.  Think about what you’re likely to do and dress appropriately.  You wouldn’t go to do turnout in flip flops, would you?

Next time you spot me in the saddle or leading a horse, you’ll know that I’m in my favourite Panache (it’ll take a lot to persuade me into something else) – what will you be wearing?

Walking Home – book review

My 2015 is off to a flying start, thanks in part to a hiatus in my working life.  When I finally raced through Clare Balding’s first book in a day last autumn (something I’ve not done since reading One Day by David Nicholls several years previously), I added her follow up Walking Home to my Amazon wishlist.  Walking Home subsequently made it down our non-existent chimney on 24 December, and I picked it up and started reading almost immediately.

The concept of Walking Home didn’t grab me as much as My Animals, but I’m a big fan of Balding, and she cleverly finished her first book at a point in her life when the reader would want to know more.  This time, the stories are framed around walks she’s taken – largely in pursuit of recording her Radio 4 programme Ramblings – and the people she’s met along the way.  Some of the stories are more tenuously linked to walking, such as her recollection of covering the Olympic and Paralympic Games during London 2012, but they’re all engaging, just like the previous book.  There are tales of people who walk barefoot, people who walk to counter grief and people who just like to walk.  There are anecdotes which involve walking with her family (and a few animals sneak in, of course), and mini-history lessons about buildings she has passed en route or areas she has covered.

Thanks to writing stories about walks and adventures, Balding is able to keep the subject matter largely impersonal – the book covers a period of time during which she fought cancer, for example, but there is no lengthy outpouring regarding the ordeal.  She also – very elegantly, I think – doesn’t mention her complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (which was upheld) following an article written by a Times journalist regarding one of her shows (when show was mentioned in passing in the book).

Probably my favourite part was the piece about the Olympics and the torch relay: Balding was one of the torchbearers prior to London 2012, and describes the experience in detail.  I had always assumed that she had participated due to who she is, that she was one of “those” people who’s important enough in the sporting world to be listed by the Games organisers and given a relevant place, but my assumption was incorrect (I won’t spoil it for you, as it’s an interesting story!).  She also recounts her now-infamous encounter with Bert Le Clos, father of South African swimmer Chad, who she and Mark Foster astutely got on the air straight after Le Clos Junior beat Michael Phelps to a gold medal.  Watching those sorts of things at home on TV is one thing, reading about what actually went on in real time is another.

The book was a pleasure to read, and did inspire me to get off my backside and get out more – partly to see a bit more of the world around me and farther afield, and because I agree with Balding that walking is good therapy, and can offer thinking time as well as health benefits.  If only it would stop being January outside…

Horses Never Lie – book review

I started reading Horses Never Lie back in May, having received it as a Christmas present.  I was sitting on a stranger’s sofa, quietly supervising a student who needed to sit a public exam at home.  When I was about 20 pages in, inspiration hit: I put the book down, picked up a pen and planned the horsemanship classes I’d begin to deliver a few weeks later.

The book came with me to the US, but I neglected it in favour of other activities (working, socialising, seeing the sights… you get the idea).  When I returned home, I finished The Long Ride Home and raced through My Animals and Other Family.  Casting around for my next project, I had a few choices, but I picked up Horses Never Lie.  I’m glad I did: it’s in a similar style to My Animals, which helped it to make sense – Rashid frames his teaching around stores of horses and people he’s learned from, whether they were employers or clients.

I found myself nodding along with many sentiments, sometimes with a sharp laugh thrown in for good measure.  There’s one section where Rashid is particularly critical of an unnamed (but apparently famous) horsemanship trainer’s methods (reading it is a bit like a blind item column, and I think I know who he’s talking about), though in a decent way.  He talks in detail of how he spent several years re-developing an employer’s programme as a consultant, whereby training of his staff mattered a huge amount – the emphasis was on the staff handling and riding horses in a soft way in order to improve their way of going, with the penalty for going against this rule being a two-day suspension from work (which was never needed – something I found very interesting).  Rashid also mentions an incident during this job whereby he and his colleagues trained their horses in a certain manner in order to bring themselves in for feeding: this was a brilliant idea, and something I’d love to try, it was a great example of how imagination and consistency can help you to quickly achieve something.

But my favourite section is the chapter on perception.  Not only is there a great story about a horse Rashid trained, who had a unique response to the idea of moving away from the pressure created by their human partner, but there’s also a slightly poignant anecdote about a woman who chose to be very aggressive.  This story echoes the theme of the book in general – the story of the popular misconception that a horsemanship-focused approach requires a person to become the “alpha member” of the herd, for the horse to see the person as the leader of the pack.  This may in fact be what is correct for some people, but I’m with Rashid here: I agree with the concept of “protect your herd of two”, whereby when you are with a horse – particularly when amongst the herd, for example when you’re in the field catching your horse – said horse is your number one priority, and that you are there to be their leader and help protect them, but that you aren’t doing so in an aggressive way.  The particular incident Rashid described, where a woman ran a horse ragged until he was tired and therefore submissive, but that she chose to interpret as being acceptance of her as the leader is on the money in terms of how many people think horsemanship is.  The reality here was that the horse was just tired and fed up, rather than a truly changed animal.  In fact, his attitude towards her was probably worse than it had been initially.  And thus, perception matters – how you perceive your horse, how he perceives you, and how you together perceive what you’re trying to achieve.

Because, when all is said and done:

“Your relationship with your horse comes from the heart, not the hands.”

I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to expand their knowledge of what it’s like to work with horses, whether you take a horsemanship approach or not, this book truly is an example of every horse having something to teach and every person having something to learn.

My Animals and Other Family – book review

The down side of my vow to read more books at a greater pace is that I’ll probably talk about them a lot.  I promise not to turn my blog into a site solely about books and horses (and absolutely not books about horses, though there will be a few), but I couldn’t ignore the fact that this book sat on my shelf for almost two years and was promptly devoured in a day (what can I say: being time-rich, jet-lagged and car-less in a small village do strange things to a girl).

I’ll open with this: I adore Clare Balding, so I am a little biased.  She’s someone I wouldn’t mind being when I grow up, mainly because she’s – by her own admission – imperfect.  She’s made some cringe-worthy gaffes (not errors in fact, because Clare is always perfectly-researched and prepared; her mistakes are normally enormous misjudgements and failure to think before she speaks) on live television.  But if that’s the worst thing she ever does, you have to take your hat off to the woman.  I admired her before she became the Female Face of BBC Sport (RIP, Sue Barker, long live Queen Clare), having caught sight of her on horseracing coverage.  I don’t enjoy rugby – another sport she gained notoriety for covering – but I could tell she was good at it.

When she isn’t startlingly offending her interviewees, the woman is on a par with Oprah, but what you don’t often see on television – though perhaps hear on her radio show – is that she’s a gifted storyteller.  What’s even better is that she has an arsenal of brilliant stories to tell, there’s no need to make anything up.

I can’t remember when I fell in love with autobiographies over fiction, but they’ve been what I prefer to read for a long time now.  I usually pick up a book ghost-written for a sports personality I admire and dive into their journey, marvelling at how they have the mental stamina to push through a variety of tests in order to achieve at an insane level of brilliance.  Many of them follow the same format – a basic chronology of their career (either as a whole or to-date) – but Balding’s is different.

She has framed the story of the early part of her life around the animals she loved, the beasts who guided her.  The opening chapter, about her father’s most famous racehorse, Mill Reef, had me in tears.  By some miracle, I don’t yet know what it’s like to live through the death of a horse I treasure, but I knew exactly how Mill Reef’s groom felt when he had to let the horse move on and away.  I laughed through some other tears later in the book, when Clare recounted finding her younger, now highly-respected racing trainer of a brother licking a radiator – for I am also an older sibling baffled by their younger sibling’s weirdness.

The thing with autobiographies that many people dislike is that they lack suspense, but that’s actually my favourite thing about them: I know where Clare is now and what she’s doing, but it was fascinating and hilarious to have the blanks filled in.  Perhaps I find a reassurance in that regarding my own life – I’m at a stage where I think I know where I want to end up, but I have absolutely no idea how to make it happen, and am only able to see the many obstacles in my path.  It’s nice to know that I will be able to clear those obstacles, land in one piece on the other side and thrash on to the next, because if other people have done it, I can too.

This now hasn’t been a book review, more of a “why I love being nosy”, but here’s the 140 character version: I read Clare’s first book laughing, crying and relating.  It helps if you love animals, but it’s more about how the love of anything gets you through, and what it teaches you about living life.

Spoiler alert (for those of you who don’t own TVs or radios, or don’t live in the UK): this woman has gone on to take over the sportscasting world, and it’s all in her own way.

High standards

Having spent two summers in the US, I’ve learned the importance of selecting the right airline.  Growing up in the UK meant that my idea of what is a reasonable cost for short haul or domestic travel is possibly a little warped, although it did also give me an awareness of how much airlines like to rip passengers off.

Within the last 12 months, I’ve taken domestic flights with six airlines, and the experiences have ranged from “acceptable” to “I wouldn’t put a corpse on one of these flights”.  Here are the highs and lows (sorry), so that you can avoid my mistakes and the airlines may see what they’re doing wrong.

Frontier (New Orleans to Las Vegas via Denver, September 2013)
I had a pleasant experience with Frontier, but since I flew with them, I’ve heard that they’ve adopted one of my least favourite policies – charging for cabin baggage.  In one way, I see their point – people take the mickey with cabin bags, particularly on US domestic flights, but I feel that these days that isn’t so much about the convenience of not having to wait to collect your bag, but more that if you’re taking a round trip, having luggage in the hold increases the cost of your journey by at least $50.  Anyway, the crew at Frontier were nice, there were no issues with our trip, but now that they’ve reviewed their policy, I’d check carefully before flying with them again.

Delta (Las Vegas to Jacksonville via Atlanta, September 2013)
This fits into the “not bad” category: this particular flight was my bargain of the century – it cost $70, including taxes and my luggage fee.  It was a very early morning takeoff (7am on a Saturday – not the sort of Vegas experience you want), and my layover time was due to be around an hour, which isn’t actually very long given that Atlanta airport is famously huge.  Of course, my connecting flight was delayed…because there was no plane.  I made it to my destination in the end, and decided I’d gotten what I’d paid for: absolutely no frills, no food or drink and a delay.

I flew with Delta again in September 2014, from Boston to San Francisco via Detroit.  Thanks to some inclement weather, it was a bumpy first leg into Detroit, but the crew handled it nicely.  Due to the weather, our arrival was delayed, as was our departure, but the weather isn’t something the airline can do anything about, and the situation was well-handled.

JetBlue (Jacksonville to New York, September 2013)
This was an even earlier departure than my Las Vegas flight, and I still owe the person who gave me a lift to the airport big time.  JetBlue have a great reputation – the planes are nice, the staff are good and the service is organised.  I have no complaints and would fly with them again.

Alaska Airlines (Portland to Honolulu, September 2014)
Alaska had a sneaky helping hand here – our destination was paradise.  It felt like a very long flight to Hawaii (it’s further from the mainland than I realised, and we spent the night prior to our flight at the airport to cut our costs), but the staff were pleasant and soft drinks are included.  However, I do think it’s criminal that, on flights of four hours or more, there is no food included in the cost of your ticket.  It’s harder than it looks to get one-way flights to popular destinations, including your baggage fees for less than $180 per person, and you’d think that for having paid that much – which is far more than the vast majority of hotel nights which include breakfast – you’d be entitled to at least a muffin, packet of crisps, piece of fruit or some other snack.  But, perversely for a country which consumes as much food as it does oxygen, this is not the case.  We touched down ravenous, though we did get a lovely commentary about the scenery we were unable to view due to being sat in the middle of the plane, courtesy of a crew member who is a native Hawaiian.

Allegiant Air (Honolulu to Las Vegas, September 2014)
This was my “never again” experience.  We were suspicious when we booked this flight, as it was so much cheaper than those offered on the same date and route by other airlines, but as we were strapped for cash, we did it anyway.  Allegiant are now down with Spirit on our no fly list, as they provided a similarly terrible experience for one of my friends last year.  Allegiant, it turns out, are the USA’s answer to Ryanair.  There are certain standards most US domestic airlines stick to, some are good, some are bad: no food or alcohol is provided, but soft drinks are complimentary; passengers are essentially allowed two items of cabin baggage each – one piece of cabin-sized luggage, and one “personal item” (which basically means small bag such as a handbag or briefcase); hold luggage weight allowance is 50lbs/23kg – the same as economy passengers get on long haul flights.  Allegiant breaks all of these rules: passengers are charged an extra $10 (depending on your route, it could actually be more) for wishing to carry two items into the cabin; soft drinks cost $2 each, with other drinks and food costing more; hold luggage allowance is a mere 40lbs.  Fortunately, one of my friends had a spare suitcase, so between the three of us, we shuffled our belongings around to make four bags weigh 40lbs each, and paid for it to go in the hold.  To add insult to injury when we got on the plane, the cabin was absolutely freezing.  Oh, and the seats don’t recline.  And so began the most painful five hour flight of my life, and one which I will never repeat.

American Airlines (Las Vegas to New York, September 2014)
AA also falls into the “passable” category.  The staff were very cheerful, given the early takeoff, and it’s not the airline’s fault that JFK airport is about 150 years old, meaning passengers must therefore walk six miles to reclaim their bags.  American Airlines are the only carrier to send me a follow up email asking for my thoughts on my trip.  “Great,” I thought, “here’s my chance to tell them that they and every other airline are arseholes for not feeding us!”  But no.  It turns out AA actually don’t want passengers’ thoughts – they just want them to answer poorly-worded questions which have unfairly devised likert scales (no options for “don’t care” or “not applicable”), without even so much as an “any other comments?” box at the end of the survey.  You fell at the last, AA, thanks to your own ego.

Now that I’m no longer new at this, here are my top tips for surviving US domestic air travel without losing your mind and going bankrupt:

Before you book

  • Check the baggage policy – not only do some baggage allowances vary, but costs can vary if you don’t book your baggage when first offered. Sometimes this is when you book the flight, sometimes it’s when you check in online the day before your trip.  Also make sure you check the cabin baggage policy
  • Figure out how long the flight is and what catering is supplied – airlines state on their websites which routes include free soft drinks or other food and beverage items. Be prepared to spend a lot of money, go hungry, or bring your own
  • Check the flight price through comparison websites (Kayak is my favourite, though I normally double-check via Momondo) and direct with the operator – sometimes there are minor differences, but these can build up. Don’t assume that the cheapest price on the comparison site when you look at the initial search results will hold – often the most bargainous one doesn’t include the standard taxes and fees, in order to entice you in

Before you travel

  • Make a note of your departure time and make sure you check in online as early as possible. Check in normally opens 24 hours prior to take off, and this is when you get to choose your seat (unless you fly with Allegiant or Spirit).  As with all flights, your seat allocation will pop up, but you can usually change this for free.  Some seats incur an extra charge, but most don’t, so read carefully, pick your favourite seat (I always have to decide whether I want to be at the front of the cabin or on the aisle – getting both of those would be a dream come true for me) and get organised
  • Ensure you have paid your baggage fees, or are at least prepared to pay for them. I find it more convenient to pay online before travelling, not to mention most of the time it’s cheaper
  • Allow enough time to arrive at the airport early and stock up on snacks and drinks – airports really have you over a barrel, as you can’t take liquids through security, so you have to rely on the generosity of your airline or your willingness to pay through the nose for drinks once you’re airside
  • Prepare your in-flight entertainment: most US domestic airlines are getting even slicker with regard to movies – some will offer movies for a fee, others offer nothing. Charge your iPad up, download some films and grab a new book

On the day

  • If you and the airline have a scale-related disagreement, be prepared to open your luggage and stuff more into your carry on or throw it away. Know what will be easiest (and most appropriate to move around), so that you can just whip it out and get on with your journey
  • If you’ve forgotten your trusty book or your iPhone battery has been drained as you furiously Tweet throughout check in that airlines are bastards, grab a magazine before you get on board
  • Stow your hand luggage under the seat in front of you – there’s nothing I find more infuriating after a five hour flight which has made me grumpy because I’m crumpled up in a tiny seat and getting hungrier, than having to wait behind every other idiot who’s retrieving their luggage from the overhead bins at a snail’s pace. Grab your bag, unbuckle your belt and run up that aisle as soon as you can

Good luck, dear reader: although these airlines are criminals, the destination is normally worth the pain of the journey.