Monday, 8 August 2011

I Get Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman!

Feminism is a curiosity for many young people today; something ugly that's curled in a corner, to be prodded with a stick because they don't quite know how it's going to react. To be honest the extent of my knowledge of what feminism stands for, or who a feminist actually is, goes no further than expressions of powerful female iconography that I've been exposed to through pop culture whilst growing up. Madonna grabbing her crotch whilst wearing underwear as outer-wear. The Spice Girls pulling peace signs whilst declaring 'Girl power!' Lady Gaga being... Lady Gaga. But is Madonna really a feminist when she's still having to sexualise her performances by having her tits peeking out of a blazer? Surely the five 'categories' that the Spice Girls were organised into only serves to present woman as a one-dimensional being? And as much as I love Lady Gaga, she has settled herself so snugly in an alternative niche - through her imagery particularly, often standing outside of what could be easily classed as any clearly defined gender - that is she really representative of a modern woman? The stereotypical bra-burning movement was a little before my time, and so with a liberal mind and heart my interpretation of what feminism stands for is restricted to what I've absorbed from the early 90s onwards.

Obviously there's room for debate within any of those claims, but then thank God for Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman for helping clear up some of the hazy finer points of feminism. With chapter headings as pronounced and loud as her Twitter posts ('I Start Bleeding!', 'I Don't Know What To Call My Breasts!'), it essentially goes like this:

Put your hand in your pants.
a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said 'yes' to both, then congratulations! You're a feminist.

It's not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but then what's enjoyable about How To Be A Woman is that it focuses on one much-needed thing: clarity. Moran writes in a brash, over-exaggerated tone that is accessible to all. In fact, it reads like it's basically just you and her, in some dingy little pub, putting the world to rights after too many bacardi and cokes. Part autobiography, part feminist mission statement, you stumble through each chapter confronted by various feminist issues, such as sexism in the workplace or the trickiness of high heels, until Moran pulls you back and says: 'Do you know what? None of this really matters. As long as you're doing it because you want to, then it's neither here nor there.' She quickly denounces the ridiculousness of Katie Price and her alter-ego Jordan as a successful businesswoman as little more than a phoney and a fraud; dismisses girls who are paying their way through university by stripping for money; and exposes the absurdity of spending £6,000 on a designer handbag ('If I'm honest, the handbag I would probably like most is a big, hollowed-out potato with handles on it. A giant King Edward with satchel straps. Then, in times of crisis, I could bake and eat the handbag, and survive the winter. That is the way of my people.")

All this is done with so much loling and roflment - indeed, the chapter 'I Get Married!' reduced me to such hysterical giggling as Moran documents the developing armageddon that was her wedding day, that I genuinely thought I was going to have to pop a valium - that it is a joy to read. It also reinforces the notion that Moran believes we should approach 'serious' topics such as feminism with a good smattering of humour, thrown in for healthy measure.

But it is the last few chapters that talk about giving birth, question the assumption that all women will have children, and Moran's decision to have an abortion upon discovering she is pregnant for a third time which are the most revealing. The biggest challenge of the 21st century will be shattering pre-conceived ideas of not only women and feminism but identity in general, focusing on offering anyone, whether female or male, the respect and opportunity to make their own choices, free from any set agenda. Upon discovering Germaine Greer, Moran invites all women to stand on a sofa and shout, 'I AM A FEMINIST!' By the time you've reached the end of How To Be A Woman, it becomes clear that Moran is simply advocating anyone and everyone to have the balls to stand up for themselves and purely create themselves in their own image. To this end, I will go one better than Moran. I will gladly join her up on that sofa but instead I will scream, 'I AM A FEMENIST!' Not to change the term to include the word 'men', but rather to change the term to include the word 'me'. See - free from any set a-gender.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Plas Cadnant gardens feature

At the end of a long drive, through beautiful parkland complete with lavish trees and hidden away in a huge valley lies the breathtaking Plas Cadnant gardens. This secret location can be found alongside the Menai Strait, a narrow stretch of low tidal water, on the Isle of Anglesey, North Wales. Situated between the Menai Bridge and the historic town of Beaumaris, these stunning hidden gardens belong to Anthony Tavernor, who is originally from the village of Weston (near Stafford) and still has a strong connection with the area.
 "I come from a farming family. I farmed in Stafford, my father farmed there, and so did my grandfather and great-grandfather. Four generations at the very least, and probably longer. I still have family and friends there."
 But just how did a farmer from Staffordshire end up in North Wales?
 "I made a change of direction in 1996. I was looking for another farm with land and this property came on the market. It was a bit of a wreck; very dilapidated and very ruinous. It was an old place that hadn't had much done to it for very many years."
 Anthony refused to be deterred however, and saw the infinite potential in restoring these historic gardens to their former glory days - and Anthony says he's never been one to turn an opportunity down.
 "I regarded it as a challenge. All my life I have been intrested in gardening, history and architecture, so it satisfied all of my interests. There's no question it's a labour of love. When you come up the drive you enter another world. It is like Narnia, and that was the attraction. Because it is in a valley, when you drive past you have no idea that it's there. But even in its semi-derelict state, I could see it was a beautiful place."

 Anthony knew he was taking on a tremendous task; one that he is still working on to this day, 15 years later.
 The Plas Cadnant gardens cover nearly ten acres, so the restoration was never going to be a simple job. Indeed, the first year was spent purely clearing much of the area. The gardens had been badly neglected, overgrown with trees, cherry laurel and ponticum.
 The first treasure to be unearthed was a spectacular walled garden, which was formerly a kitchen garden. "The walled garden, which is almost two acres, had been converted to a wood," Anthony recalls. "You don't touch anything for 60 to 70 years and nature takes over. It took about a year to clear the walled garden. We did it very carefully, by hand. Most of it had just been swamped by things growing. It is quite an unusual walled garden, as it is a valley with a curved wall round it. It is also quite a large walled garden for the size of the house."
 A previous occupant had actually used the space for rearing his pheasants! "He was more keen on shooting," Anthony laughs.
 Now, the garden has been planted with a great number of perennials and looks like a completely different space. There is also a picturesque valley garden, complete with a river and waterfalls, and an outcrop garden with a ruined folly. In addition, Anthony has restored all the derelict outbuildings and transformed them into holiday cottages. He has tried to be sympathetic to their past by using lime water on the walls and lime plaster.
 Consequently, five individual self-catering cottages have been created. These charming cottages offer an enchanting hideaway, with the luxury of real oak beams, local slate floors and your very own sumptuous four-poster bed. "It is such a magical, lovely place," Anthony enthuses. "You can't describe it, you need to visit."

 Work on the site is still on-going, however.
 "The gardens are being developed all the time. Most of the gardens started declining in the 1940s for several reasons: financial constraints, labour and economics. For example, it became cheaper to buy your own vegetables than grow your own."
 And in a similar way to how the gardens have slowly revealed themselves through the restoration, Anthony has learnt more about the previous owners of the estate with the passing of time. Former owners of Plas Cadnant were related to the Tremayne family of Heligan House, which is now famous for its Lost Gardens in Cornwall.
 Life at the property began in 1804 when John Price chose a highly scenic position for his new Georgian house. This estate continued to be well-maintained under the Price family until after the First World War. However in 1928 the estate was split and sold to various owners. The penultimate owner was a keen gardener but simply did not have the resources to fully manage the area, hence why the property has been such an enormous project for Anthony.

 The gardens are open for groups from April through to September. There is only limited opening hours available because it is still a private estate, but any money made from the public will be put back into the gardens. "The idea is that it will eventually become self-suistainable," says Anthony.
 Furthermore, the Plas Cadnant gardens have received growing media attention, having featured in a book entitled Discovering Welsh Gardens, which claimed it to be one of the liveliest gardens within Wales.
 "It's gone from being totally unknown to recognised," Anthony considers. "It is an endorsement of what we are doing and all part of the thrill. As the custodian of this project, it is nice to know they are slowly being discovered by the public."
 With visitors travelling from as far afield as Germany, Denmark, Belgium and Holland, not to mention a fair few from Stafford, these hidden gardens truly offer a new world of discovery, a sentiment Anthony wholeheartedly agrees with: "I uncovered far more here than I could have possibly dreamed."

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Expecto patronum!

Harry Potter is the story of a generation's childhood. Watching the final installment in the franchise on this ordinary, muggy evening, I was taken back to just how enraptured I was with Philosopher's Stone when I first read it. Enamoured with the idea of Quidditch, I would sit on the back of my parent's two-piece sofa (which required quite a bit of balance and, thus, made it more realistic in my mind that I was really on a broomstick) and pretend to catch the golden snitch. Like many children around the world, I deliberated over which house I would belong to and what my favourite Hogwarts class would be. Even the holidays I went on whilst growing up were defined by what Potter book I was reading at the time: Goblet of Fire in the Isle of Man; Order of the Phoenix in Crete; Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows in Portugal.

Transforming the books into films was never going to be an easy task but the later films in particular have been very strong, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was a complete triumph in my opinion. I feel privileged that this series was written directly at my generation, with the books progressing in both style and subject matter as readers have got older.

Finally, imagine putting yourself in J. K. Rowling's shoes and carrying that weight of responsibility when crafting a fitting conclusion to such a well-loved story. I do not believe the best stories ever leave you, which is why I'm so glad Hogwarts will always be there to welcome me home.

Albus Dumbledore: "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?"

(Watch from the four minute mark)

Thursday, 14 July 2011

That's Life

A year's hard work at Staffordshire Life magazine has reached its conclusion due to my contract coming to an end. It's been a memorable year, where I've gladly put up with all kinds of shenanigans being thrown my way. I guess not many people can say in their professional career that they've undertaken work that includes falconry, theatre, artists, cookery schools, musicians, museums, MPs, forests, canals, local businesses, Bentley, fashion, weddings, hospices, press trips, archaeological discoveries, festivals and even a trip to France.
It's been brilliant. And I hope that whoever's flicked through the magazine over the past 12 months has got just as big a kick out out of reading the features as I did writing them.
Still, onwards and upwards. Who knows what's next?

Friday, 3 June 2011

L! O! V! E!

Dance to the beat of my drum! Dance to the beat of my drum! Crackin'.