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:

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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!

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Product review – Glamourati horse glitter kit

My reviews have been getting great feedback, and some exciting search engine results, so I’m pleased to present the latest product I’ve been privileged to test: Glamourati horse glitter kits!  Here’s the upfront disclaimer: I approached Glamourati in the run up to the Equine Partners open days, asking whether they’d be willing to donate anything to our cause, in return for a review and some cross-promotion.  I was delighted when they kindly sent me a glitter kit (and a custom stencil is also en-route!) – this is the first time I’ve accepted a product for free in return for a review, but all opinions are my own honest findings, so read on to get the details.

I was hoping to get my hands on a glitter kit for three reasons: firstly, as I think it’s a great way of attracting attention for a brand if you’re taking your horse out and about (which we do, occasionally, for play days or promotional events); secondly, I knew it’d be something some of our visiting kids would love to use, as grooming horses is a big part of what they do – most of them love plaiting and bathing, so I thought glitter would also be popular; thirdly… well, I’m a girl who loves a bit of sparkle, so I’ll be honest and state that I wanted the chance to bedazzle a horse too!

The glitter kit I received contains three pots of Stardust glitter (pink, gold and silver), three sponges (one for each glitter pot), an instruction card, a bottle of Glamourati’s Shortstay adhesive, and two packs of stencils.  All of Glamourati’s products have been safety tested for use on horses, and the glitters themselves are high-grade with no sharp edges or spurs.

The instructions were nice and clear, so with my wonderful assistant and photographer (my sister), and my semi-reluctant guinea pig/model (Prince), I set to work…

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step one: groom your model!

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step two: place stencil on horse

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step three: apply glitter to horse’s hair

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more glueing… and a slightly-unimpressed Prince

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step four: glitter time!

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Prince was very patient as I experimented

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step five: the stars are revealed!

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the stencil post-use. If you peel off carefully and re-apply the backing, it’s possible to re-use

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a treat for the model!

The benefit of Glamourati’s stencils versus traditional quartermarking stencils, is that they’re adhesive – they stick to your horse whilst you glitter him or her up, meaning you’re not trying to use hands/arms/elbows/other people in order to hold the stencil on.  As you can see from the pictures, I did undertake my test on a lovely sunny day, but I know that these stencils would stick comfortably to your horse in a gale-force wind.  I peeled it off Prince carefully, so as not to hurt or startle him, and so that I could hopefully re-use the stencil, and it worked a treat.

My suggestion to those wanting to use these products with children, as I do, is that an adult/responsible person is the one holding the glue brush – it’s got a consistency similar to nail polish, so it’s very runny and would be easy to overdo it.  I’ve got no concerns about it getting on skin (it’s water-based, so is very easy to clean up), but you wouldn’t want to waste it, or get it on areas outside of the stencil.  Children would have no problem dabbing the glitter on – I worked with the idea that you can always add more, so I went quite carefully at first before I got the hang of it and figured out how much was needed.

The adhesive stencil allowed for a very crisp and accurate finish, giving an impressive design.  If I’d had time, I would have done more stars all over Prince, but I wanted to reward him for his modelling efforts and ask him to stand still only for the minimum time required (I did make good use of a bucket of hay whilst bedazzling him!).

I’ll definitely be getting more Glamourati products in future, as I loved using them and think they look fantastic (I’m now desperate to go to a fancy dress competition!).  Our kids will enjoy the process too, and it’ll help those who want to do something creative but aren’t sure where to start, as well as developing fine motor skills and a bit of good old-fashioned self-control!

As a bonus, here’s a video I took of Prince using his favourite toy – Prince loves having his ankles scratched and will walk up to you and dangle a leg if he wants to be itched!  If no willing humans or ponies are available, he’ll make good use of this stump instead:

A big thank you to Glamourati for supporting Equine Partners CIC by sending us a kit – much enjoyment provided for adults and kids alike, though the jury’s out on what our gelding thinks of having a sparkly bum!

If you’ve been inspired to bedazzle your horse or pony, I’d love to see the results!  Let me know in the comments or, better still, tweet me a photo via @_kickingon

Reasons to stay alive – book review

This could be a very short blog post, because my thoughts on this book are simple: it’s excellent.  Published a mere three months ago, the buzz about this book turned into a roar very quickly.  The internet collectively cried, “Someone described how I really feel,” and how.  The author, Matt Haig, suffered a breakdown in his early 20s, eventually turning to reading and writing in order to overcome his new state of mind (I’m not convinced that depression is something which we can “cure”).  Initially, Haig published a handful of fiction books, some of which received a good deal of positive attention.  It is Reasons, however, which has catapulted him to a different level.

As someone interested in learning more about depression, I was looking for an autobiographical account of it, and there are many currently available.  However, my reading habits over the last few years could probably best be described as erratic: when I left young adult fiction behind, I wasn’t sure where to go with proper, grown up books, so my tendency is to buy something which sounds exciting, but this hasn’t been all that effective.  I’ve got more books than I’d like to think about sat around having lost me after about 40 pages – if I don’t finish a book within 48 hours of picking it up, odds on I won’t go back to it.  So when selecting my book from this category, I took the recommendation of a few friends who raved about it before purchasing.

I was pleasantly surprised: it’s an incredibly clever book, as no chapter is more than about eight pages long.  It’s a book written by a depression-sufferer for fellow sufferers, contained within manageable chunks in an engaging style.  There are lows – of course – and there is hope.  There is practical advice (in a gentle way, a “this worked for me, you could try it, I have no proof, but you could also leave it and try your own thing” style), and there are true accounts of the author’s experiences.  It is a brave person who opens their brain like this, showing the world what it’s really like: that it’s a mess in there, and you have no idea how to untangle it.  Not only do you not have the practical resources, but you also don’t have the energy, because whatever has short-circuited in your brain is demanding all of your body’s physical energy in order to try and fix that problem before you can address the emotional ones.

It’s a book everyone should read, whether you are depressed, have been depressed, or know someone who is (or may be – statistically, given the amount of people we all connect with, you either currently know someone who is suffering in silence, or will know someone in the future who faces this problem), you should read this book.  Because there is help for supporters too, it is useful to see this perspective, as it is something many people are not able to articulate.

One of my favourite lines came about half way through the book, and it’s worth noting even if we’re not discussing mental health issues: “Normal is subjective.  There are seven billion versions of normal on this planet.”  If we all began by taking a minute to let that sink in, the world would already be a more comfortable place.  Take 48 hours to consume this book, and things could improve enormously.

Product review – Berlei riding bra

Being quite famously attached to my Panache sports bras, I was sceptical about trying the Berlei one, but I needed a nude-coloured bra for the summer, and the Panache doesn’t come in nude. Time to push my comfort zone (quite literally!) and give Berlei a whirl.
In addition to being brand-loyal, the other reason I was suspicious of the Berlei is because it doesn’t look much like a sports bra. It looks very much like an everyday t-shirt bra, particularly in the nude version. I visited the Less Bounce stand at Total Confidence Live to try a bra on, and was perfectly advised by the staff (although I am a slightly confusing case, as I wear the same size in sports and everyday bras – most women are different): the advice was to go up a cup size, as the Berlei comes up small in the cup, and the advisor was spot on. The bra fit like an absolute glove, but I was still suspicious that it wouldn’t offer a sport-level of support. But, a nude sports bra was what I needed, so I decided to buy it and give it a fair trial – my logic was that, if it didn’t work out exactly, I’d save it and purely wear it on the occasions where it was absolutely necessary (I mostly wear dark clothes around horses, which means the vivid Panache colours aren’t a problem).

Well, I’m delighted to say that I’m having to eat my words! I worse the Berlei the following weekend, ran around doing ground work and therapy sessions, had a ride (albeit only in walk) and was shocked – the bra doesn’t look like much, but performs brilliantly. Having a great fit helps, but this seemingly-flimsy sports bra does actually give great support (my bust is a not-insignificantly sized 36D).

My tests continued recently with some more dynamic riding (trotting! For the first time since October!), and some very energetic ground work (having the horse I was working with canter on a circle – horsemanship-style, rather than lunging, which can involve quite a lot of leaping and running). I may be converted! I won’t be ditching the Panache, because I still love it and, although nobody knows, the fun colours are great, in addition to the fit and function. But the Berlei is surprisingly brilliant. Supportive, comfortable, easy to wear… what’s not to love? I’m yet to be swayed by riding underwear – I think they’re a total swizz and am more than happy to wear everyday underwear for riding (also because I have quite a selection, catering for any occasion or outfit, and have yet to find a set I wouldn’t ride in), but the necessity for sports bras is clear.

Life has again demonstrated that we shouldn’t disregard things without trying them. Lesson – comfortably – learned!

For the sake of clarity, this review hasn’t been sponsored in any way – I paid for my bra and am happy to declare it worth every penny.

Old ground

We’ve been here before.  A year ago, I blogged on the flaws in the BBC’s coverage of Badminton Horse Trials, one of the highlights of the equestrian calendar.  Unbelievably, the coverage in 2015 was worse than before.  Admittedly, I missed the coverage on cross country day because – guess what? – I was out with my friends’ horses, but I was kept up to date by my sister, and cross country day isn’t what I’m taking issue with.

Although the BBC didn’t take my most basic advice on board – that, if they can’t give eventing top-billing on main channels, that there should at least be consistency, and any coverage of the event should be via the Red Button channel OR BBC 2, not straddling the two – they do seem to have communicated their message better: in 2014, I was fielding many Tweets from confused fans who were watching on the wrong channel.  This year, the Twitter backlash was regarding something very different.  In 2014, cross country day was little better than decimation – only 28 horses and riders made it to the final day of competition.  A year later, there were many riders remaining, and the competition was in an exciting state – the top of the leader board was packed with big, talented names, with very few points between them, demanding stellar performances.  It would’ve been very watchable… had the cameras been rolling.

The BBC chose to show just six show jumping rounds live in 2015.  On a day when 57 combinations remained in the competition.  I’m not advocating they show all of them, that would be tedious, but those livetweeting the event vouched for the fact that the show jumping course was riding badly, meaning that the competition was hotter than hot.  Instead, the BBC showed a lot of cross country highlights: great for those who missed the cross country coverage or have never watched the sport before, again terrible for the hardcore fans.

We all know I’m a big fan, but objectively speaking, Clare Balding did again do a great job: she worked hard, running around the collecting ring and speaking to riders as soon as they came out of the show jumping ring.  This made great use of the seconds between rounds, and she gained some good insights from riders such as Mark Todd, as well as following first-timer Rose Carnegie diligently all the way through the event.  Clare further proved her credentials in the pre-recorded footage, talking viewers through different shapes and sizes of horses, and capably picking up a horse’s enormous hoof – the woman knows her way around a horse, and has a great passion for them, you can tell she loves covering equestrian events, and I hope that broadcasters continue to put someone who enjoys a sport in front of the camera, because it adds something special to the coverage.

At this point I despair, really.  Two years in a row the BBC have demonstrated that they have a great deal of talent at their fingertips – the technicality of the broadcast is great; Balding and the commentary team of Ian Stark and Mike Tucker remain on point – but it’s wasted with poor production and scheduling.  There’s precious little equestrianism – which has three Olympic sports and a huge amount of talented Brits – on free to air television annually, but at this point, I’d almost rather there were none at all.  I remain disappointed and deprived of my favourite sport.  Where do we go from here, and how do we ensure that people are able to view equestrian sport and be excited by it as I once was?

The Perfume Society Discovery Box

For one reason and another, this post is much-delayed, but it’s here at last!  One of my Christmas presents was a subscription to The Perfume Society, which is a great little club offering all sorts of exclusive events and news to “perfumistas”.  In addition to year-round events and online magazines, subscribers get a “Discovery Box” when they join!  Variations on this box are also released throughout the year (as I’m on a budget at the moment, I’ve had to seriously restrain myself from buying two already!), but the original one is designed as a kind of starter kit.

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The box is beautifully-presented, and arrived prior to Christmas, in addition to my personalised membership card.  The box contains: blotters (for testing perfumes on) and instructions on how best to use them; a lovely little notebook; several fragrance samples, along with “smelling notes” cards for each one; a travel-sized hand cream sample (we all know how much I like to look after my hands!)

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the goodies! Testers, notebook, blotters and “smelling notes”

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a new favourite for me? These testers are all defined as florals, my go-to fragrance category.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent a few days the other week testing out all of the perfumes on the blotters and myself – I decided to smell the blotter without reading the relevant note card, to see how good my sense of smell actually is.  Unsurprisingly, the answer is “not great”!  Beyond “I like this” or “I wouldn’t wear this”, I didn’t get very far, but I tried, even if my descriptions were “smells like soap” or “reminds me of my Grandma’s house”.

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I didn’t want to like this, but I did! Even though I described it as smelling like shower gel…

 

In the interest of science, I did also try every single perfume out on myself, to further try and attune my senses.  It took a while, as I wanted to try them two at a time (one on each wrist), so had to make sure it was a day that I wasn’t going anywhere!  It’s great to try fragrances out over an entire day though, to see how they develop on you and how long they last.  I had fun trying everything out, and surprised myself a little.  I don’t think there are any fragrances in the box which I’d buy or ask for as gifts – the testing served to confirm that I’m very firmly a florals girl!  That said, there were a few florals in the box, but none of them really grabbed me (in fact, I was actively disappointed by the Chloe fragrance, as I’d heard great things about it).  It was exciting nonetheless, and a gift I loved “playing” with – something very grown up on the outside, but allowing me the chance to be a big kid and do something I enjoy.

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Dali Wild: I thought this smelled like a pine cleaning product at first, but it developed a little clearer and reminded me of cucumber water.

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I was a little underwhelmed – I have another Versace fragrance which I enjoy, so perhaps why I was unimpressed?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once I’m more settled again financially, I’m sure I’ll treat myself or someone else to a box later in the year (they’re £10 each for subscribers, £15 for non-subscribers but unfortunately only able to ship within the UK due to liquid restrictions), and I look forward to learning more and trying more things out.  It was a nice surprise too that not all of the fragrances were little tester vials, but some were miniature bottles, so that you get more fragrance and a beautiful dainty replica of the real deal.  If anyone needs me, I’ll be busy whipping out blotters and sniffing my wrists…

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?

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…

Press play for thought

I watch a reasonable amount of movies, particularly at this time of year as the film industry ramps up for awards season and those on general release aren’t summer blockbuster dross.  I wouldn’t call myself a snob, but I do like to have my thoughts and opinions challenged occasionally.  I enjoy fluffy, romantic, funny or child-friendly films too, but as with my reading habits, I’m drawn to true stories and beautifully-made movies – I subscribe to the “CGI is not a verb” theory, and dislike sci-fi or fantasy “the world is being eaten from the inside by aliens, so we have to save it by turning humans into robots” concepts.

One of the movies which is getting enormous awards buzz is The Theory of Everything – starring Eddie Redmayne as Professor Stephen Hawking, it tells the story of the famous scientist’s first marriage, based on a book by his ex-wife.  Redmayne has received a lot of press regarding his preparation for the role: Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS – brought to the fore last summer thanks to the ice bucket challenge which did the rounds on social media) whilst studying for his PhD, and told he would only live for another two years.  Fifty years later, he’s severely disabled, but alive and working.  Redmayne’s performance covers Hawking’s life from the 1960s until roughly the mid-1980s, a period during which Hawking became wheelchair-bound and unable to speak due to the necessity of a tracheotomy.  It must be demanding enough trying to get into another human being’s thoughts in able to accurately portray them in a biopic, without having to completely alter your own movement and physicality.

I’ve now seen this movie twice, and I’m glad I went for a re-watch.  I was impressed the first time, but I wasn’t prepared for my reaction to the second viewing.  It reminded me of my experience watching The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep’s turn as Margaret Thatcher) a few years ago, which made me want to become Prime Minister and never suffer a chronic and degenerative medical condition, particularly one which has an impact upon brain function.

Prior to watching …Everything, I thought I knew where I stood on end of life decisions, and that I was ready to put my wishes into a Living Will.  Now, I’m not so sure.  It was an issue I regarded as being black and white: choose to save the person in question, and you do so with the knowledge that they may not be the same, your lives could be very difficult and it could be a tough road to walk down; choose to end treatment, and they will die, you must learn to live without them, but their suffering is over.  I am in no way religious – my standpoint is not affected by a moral choice between science and religion, but learning the story of the Hawkings did make me reconsider my position.  I’m still not sure where I’ve ended up.

I always thought – and this is from someone who considers themselves to be really quite lazy – that it would be terrible to be a conscious mind in an increasingly-wasted body; to be the adult who relies on the skill, patience, generosity and commitment of others in order to get through ordinarily simple tasks like washing and dressing.  I also believed that it wouldn’t be nice to be in the position of watching someone you love slip away mentally – that the person you knew slowly disappeared thanks to their brain being taken over by forces beyond the control of medical science, and that the body is still willing, the brain still semi-dangerous and the person a mere husk of their former self.  Knowing those thought processes, it should be simple to make the leap and say “yes, it’s over”.

Jane Hawking saved her husband’s life, and they both had to then learn to live with her decision, adapt their way of being and continue.  Despite being increasingly disabled, Hawking has dedicated his life to his passion, seeking an answer to the question he posed before he knew he had ALS.  To disappear into a dark place – and stay there – would be easy.  To keep moving forward and not resent your situation (particularly if you have a choice: for Hawking, to make his wishes clear and slip away at the next opportunity; for Jane, to leave the marriage) must require a great deal of strength.

Essentially, there shouldn’t be any hope in some situations; there is an easier option and a harder option.  But hope exists, it’s just a question of clinging to it and learning how to make the most of it.  Things may not happen in the way you had anticipated, but isn’t it better to stick it out and see if you can still get there, rather than give up because things have become difficult?

Whether this movie makes you think as I have or not, you should go and see it.  Some people I know have complained that they don’t wish to see it as Hawking is reputedly not all that nice of a person (I faced similar opposition from those of a certain age when I raved about The Iron Lady), but there are other merits here: it’s beautifully-shot, Redmayne has proven himself a brilliantly transformative actor, the supporting cast are great, and there are some genuinely funny moments.  The word in the entertainment press is that Redmayne will likely be robbed at the Oscars, and I unfortunately agree.  He’s taken home a Golden Globe already, and I daresay he’ll also win a BAFTA for it, both of which he can be proud of.  And I’ll continue to get excited about the biopics which make me think.

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.