Sunday, 9 October 2011

what I'm reading (out loud)

ONE of the reasons I don't read as much as I used to, as I said in yesterday's post, is that having kids doesn't exactly leave you with hours on end to curl up with a book. But actually that wasn't strictly true. I still read a lot: just mostly aloud, and about space and dinosaurs.
Bedtime favourites come and go with my son, but there are a handful of books that have become particularly trusted old friends: some have been loved for years, while others were simply intensely right for their time. And now he's four and learning to read for himself, good stories read aloud seem to have become if anything an important respite from plodding through Biff, Chip and sodding Kipper.
So leaving aside the standard preschool books everyone has (anything by Julia Donaldson, and classic nursery tales) these are the ones we wouldn't have been without.

1. Night Night, by Marie Birkinshaw. The first book I ever read him as a baby, this is unashamed pro-sleep propoganda, with added liftable flaps. Wildly popular until the puppy chewed all the corners off it. So we moved on to...
2. Trucks (author's name lost in mists of time). An old friend of mine visiting from San Francisco gave him this touchy-feely board book of trucks. This is how my son learned words like 'articulated' before 'granny'. It was rehomed (with another truck-loving baby) only after an undignified struggle, when he was three.
3. I Took The Moon For A Walk, by Carolyn Curtis. My sister gave us this: it's a magical, singsong rhyming story about a little boy walking through the night, and we read it so often I knew it by heart. On long car journeys, he would instantly fall asleep if I started reciting it. Just looking at the cover makes me feel nostalgic and we still read it now.
4. The Elephant and the Bad Baby, by Raymond Briggs. I loved this as a child too: a gallumphing elephant, with a baby on board, pinches things from a series of shops - the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer - presumably unfathomable to kids raised on Tesco's. The moral of the story, somewhat subversively, is not 'don't shoplift' but 'always say please'.
5. The Tiger Who Came To Tea, by Judith Kerr. Apparently there's a whole literary subculture devoted to figuring out what the tiger who barges into a little girl's teatime is an allegory for (the Nazis invading Poland? the mother's lover, smuggled in while Daddy's out working?). But my son just liked the way the tiger slurps everything.
6. Volcanoes (Usborne Beginners series), Stephanie Turnbull. I can't remember when or why the obsession with volcanoes started, but it feels like forever. A non-fiction children's book answering all the questions I frankly couldn't about what how and why volcanoes erupt, still much loved. (Honourable mentions too for I Wonder Why the Wind Blows, by Anita Ganeri and How the World Works, by Christiane Dorion which also explain natural phenomena in child-friendly ways).
7. I Am Absolutely Too Small For School, by Lauren Child. Most of the Charlie and Lola books were popular but he read this one over and over again during his first fortnight at school. It deals brilliantly with the little things children actually worry about, like who to sit next to at lunch. I'd buy it for any child in the summer before starting school.
8. My Dad: Anthony Browne. That surprisngly rare thing, a book that's unashamedly upbeat about fathers. Excellent antidote to too much Daddy Pig, and a good one for encouraging fathers to read with kids.
9. Smelly Peter, Green Pea Eater by Steve Smallman. It's about a small boy who only eats peas, turns green, and farts a lot: sophisticated it ain't, but small boy heaven.
10. Monsters: An Owner's Guide, By Jonathan Emmett and Mark Oliver. About a flatpack monster who arrives in the post and trashes everything: I've bought several copies since for friends' children.
Both these last two, incidentally, were random finds in the library which became favourites - as Meg Rosoff's Jumpy Jack and Googily seems to be doing this week. I've not seen them in the major book chains, where the children's selection seems to be as safe and same-y now as the adults': an argument both for keeping libraries open if ever there was one, and of course for independent bookshops. (My favourite of which, incidentally, is the Crow On The Hill near where we used to live in south London: its owner hosts one of the best blogs on books around. And certainly the most sarcastic.)

what I'm reading

THIS was meant to be a blog about what I currently want to read, for National Book Week - if I'd finished writing it before National Book Week ended. Ah well.
I used to be a voracious reader once, but first work - for which I consumed so many newspapers, magazines, and back copies of Hansard that by the end of the day my eyes hurt - and then the particular kind of exhaustion engendered by small children crushed it out of me. When I changed my job, one thing I hoped to have more time for was reading for pleasure: unfortunately I immediately started writing my own book, which meant months of wading through an awful lot of background for that. Duh.
But I've finished now, so pleasure beckons again. This list probably isn't most people's idea of fun but although I normally read fiction, right now for some reason I want mostly books about ideas. Some aren't out yet, some are years old, but this is what I'm coveting this autumn....

1. 'Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour', by Michael Lewis. Of all the endless 'why the global econmy is screwed' books now coming out, this looks to be the most readable and possibly the only one with a sense of humour. Important when you're reading about the end of the world, I think.
2 'Masters of Nothing', Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi. Another book about the crash but concentrating on the human behaviour that led to it: Hancock used to work for the current Chancellor.
3. 'You Talkin To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama', by Sam Leith - because he is an effortlessly clever writer (see here) and I love the subject: why the spoken word holds such power to move us.
4. 'The Canon', by Natalie Angier - This is an a beautifully written book designed to convince scientific illiterates like me of the magic of science (here's the piece that made me want to read it.) I bought it on maternity leave, worried that I'd be bored with nothing to do but look after a small baby all day: I mean, presumably it would just sleep and I'd be sat twiddling my thumbs....Let's just say it was not the book's fault that I only got to chapter three. Four years later, he sleeps for long enough that I could probably finish this.
5. 'The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future', by David Willetts - I got this because I have never been bored talking to David, and am fascinated by the unravelling consequences of an ageing society. I started it but lost the book when we moved house. Being too mean to buy another one, I kept hoping it would turn up but it hasn't. Presumably the removal men now know much more demographic change than they did. Time to buy another copy.
6. 'Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage', by Hazel Rowley. OK, it's the story of President Roosevelt and his wife but it's not a political work at all in the conventional sense: it's about the intricate compromises and ebb and flow within a marriage.
7. 'New Selected Stories,' by Alice Munro. Most of the fiction I read this autumn will probably end up being picked by the book group I belong to, but this one's all mine: short stories are perfect for interrupted readers, and she's the master.
8. Matthew D'Ancona's book for Penguin on the coalition, still being written. No idea what it's called or when it'll be out but it's the only book on the Cameron-Clegg years I want to read, because he's one of remarkably few journalists who genuinely understands Cameron yet won't churn out a hagiography. I think he'll be the Andrew Rawnsley of the coalition years.
Tomorrow: the ten children's books we really loved in this house. Also, um, for National Book Week. Give or take....

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

something for the ladies

IT'S that special time again, the one women look forward to with such enthusiasm: the few days a year when politics suddenly falls over itself to notice we exist. Panicky memos on what female voters might want fly across Whitehall, journalists are exhaustively briefed on how the prime minister wants to woo wonen (why is our vote always wooed, Mills and Boon style, when men's is targeted?), and even Jeremy Paxman is made to host an all-female panel of political pundits in front of an all-female audience. And then, of course, everyone goes gratefully back to business as usual. Yawn.
But something thrillingly unexpected happened during last night's special 'Ladies Day' edition of Newsnight: a mini-insurrection erupted, led by the Tory MP Claire Perry (on the panel) and activist Charlotte Vere (in the audience), attacking the very idea that there is a 'woman's vote' or that women are defined by issues like childcare. (Fathers are interested in children too, someone shouted from the back). And I increasingly think they're right.
It sometimes feels as though I spent half my career in political journalism writing about the 'women's vote': pollsters and pressure groups never tire of analysing it, and some female ministers used it very effectively as a way of leveraging what they wanted out of Downing Street. But lately I've been increasingly uncomfortable about the term. How can you lump together grannies and students, hotshot female bankers and their minimum wage cleaners, in one supposedly cohesive group - as if the mythical Power of Ladyness somehow unites them all, despite obviously different priorities? Why is anyone shocked at YouGov's finding earlier this summer that nearly half of us can't identify which party is closest to women, rather than seeing it as healthy that women no longer vote - like a huddled, threatened minority - en bloc? Talking about the 'women's vote' too often carries the inference that women are a strange minority requiring their own special politics - preferably pink, and handbag-sized - while men remain the mainstream majority. Nobody talks about politicians losing the 'man's vote', although thousands of men have changed their minds about the coalition too.
Drill down into the data, as this recent blog by Resolution Foundation's Gavin Kelly points out, and the idea of one homogenous 'women's vote' makes even less sense.The Tories have lost support among women since the election, but it's among 'squeezed middle' women from the C2 socioeconomic group that they're really struggling: support among professional women has actually risen. So much for the sisterhood. As the pollster Anthony Wells points out, it isn't true either that women care mostly about 'soft' issues like health and education while men care about money and wars: both sexes are worried now about the economy, jobs, and living standards.
That said, there is one striking difference in the YouGov polling Wells was analysing: lack of confidence. Women are more likely than men to say they're 'very worried' about losing their jobs, losing their homes, or getting ill, suggesting they may react with greater alarm to the same levels of threat (women are indeed particularly vulnerable to job losses now these have reached the public sector, but they're presumably not more likely to get ill). Women are also much readier than men to tick 'don't know' - to admit that they're not sure whether spending cuts are good or bad, fair or unfair, too deep or not deep enough - while men tend to take a definitive view (although when even Nobel prizewinning economists disagree on tackling the crisis, most of us in all honesty probably don't know whether the government's economic gamble is the right one). Perhaps men are less willing to lose face by telling a pollster they don't know the answer, but it might also mean women feel greater uncertainty, fuelling their already greater anxiety. I wouldn't be surprised if the overriding mood Cameron wants to create today is one of reassurance.
And if that's so, he should forget about the mythical 'women's vote' and concentrate on some specific female voters with cause to feel threatened or let down by the coalition. Here are three ideas to get him started:
1. Wake up to older women. In 1997 it was all about the swing voting suburban mum, but Worcester Woman is 14 years older now and her children are nearly grown up: an ageing population means the biggest single electoral grouping is women aged 40 to 59. Harriet Harman dropped a big fat hint last week that Labour is going after them, talking about tackling the double whammy of ageism and sexism faced by older women. By contrast the coalition offers an unappealing cocktail of hiking retirement age to 66, deep uncertainty about the future of longterm care (women have a 50:50 chance of ending up caring for elderly parents or other relatives by the age of 59), and higher tuition fees (this group may have children approaching university age). And while stock market crashes particularly hurt the over-55s, whose pension funds don't really have time to recover before they retire, older women may feel more vulnerable because their savings tend to be smaller and probably need to last them longer. Cameron consciously surrounds himself with women who can offer him insights into what their peers want, but most are in their 30s and 40s: where are the older women, either in government or behind the scenes?
2. It's hard to be both the party of big business, and the party of female employees. The impression lingers that if asked to choose between a bright, ambitious young woman and an old dinosaur of a boss who won't promote her in case she has a baby one day, Tory sympathies would instinctively lie with the boss. This isn't exactly helped by threatening to price people out of taking discrimination cases to tribunal (which is effectively what the Chancellor was announcing earlier this week), or wild talk about abolishing maternity leave. Downing Street needs to pick a high-profile issue fast where it can be seen to be on the side of ordinary working women.
3. Watch for hidden gender traps. We're told, for example, that the prime minister will exhort the nation this afternoon to pay off our credit card and storecard debts: but since there are estimated to be three times as many single women struggling with store card debt as single men, and newspapers invariably run stories like this alongside images of women swinging shopping bags, if he's not careful young women are going to feel criticised and patronised. It wouldn't hurt to balance this with a promise to look again, say, at the relentless pushing of storecards (often with killer rates of interest) at point of sale in women's clothes shops.