Saturday, 21 April 2018

A Short Break In Iceland

The week before last I was lucky enough to be able to tag along on a work trip with Thomas. He'd gone to Reykjavik the previous week to conduct interviews with activists there, and I flew out to meet him on Sunday.

I've actually been to Iceland twice before; once with my friend Lesley, and once with Thomas a couple of summers ago (photos from that trip are here). So it was quite nice to be able to chill out on this trip, rather than feeling frantic about needing to see all the sights and visit all the things. Which isn't to say I didn't do any sightseeing.
Thomas was working on the Monday so, after a slow and chilled morning in the hotel I took myself off for a wander around Reykjavik, stopping to photograph the beautiful street art and admire the colourful pavements. I met Thomas for lunch at vegan cafe-cum-bar-cum record store Kaffi Vinyl, which I would thoroughly recommend (my bread and dips took humble ingredients and elevated them to a whole new level). We also ate twice at Glo, which was a favourite on our previous trip and has since gone totally vegan, too.

Iceland is notoriously expensive and when eating and drinking you have to just stop converting into sterling and go with it. However, there are some (relative) bargains to be had. The aforementioned Kaffi Vinyl is reasonably priced for Reykjavik and has permanent happy hour prices on beer and wine, while Loft Hostel has a bar and roof terrace open to the public and is also very reasonably priced. We also got a free shuttle bus from outside the Harpa concert hall to Perlan, and found the cafe there decently priced (and it also had the most incredible caramel buns). While at Perlan I'd recommend the Glacier & Ice Cave exhibit, which was a fascinating (if cold) experience at a fraction of the cost of a real ice cave expedition. 
But no one goes to Iceland for a city break (or, if they do, they're wrong) and on Tuesday we joined a tour heading to the Snaefellsness Peninsula, north west of Reykjavik. It was a cold, windy and grey day but the scenery was just spectacular, from snow-capped mountains and frozen streams, to black sand beaches on the edge of lava fields. We ended the day with a visit to our guide, David's, family farm, where we had a chance to say hello to these magnificent and friendly Icelandic horses.

All in all, I had a surprisingly relaxing few days and, as always, found myself left speechless by the incomparable Icelandic scenery. Unfortunately I left my camera at home but I think my iPhone camera did a reasonable job of capturing the highlights.

Monday, 12 February 2018

A Wedding On A Budget

Throughout the planning process I had a lot of comments and questions here about how we were managing to stick to a small budget for our big day. With the average UK wedding registering at an eye-watering £21,000, our aim of spending £4k or less looked naive at best. But achieving our wedding on a budget actually turned out to be incredibly easy.

For a start, it helped that we were consciously trying to do things a little differently and keep it low-key, and so didn't want a number of traditionally expensive extras such as wedding cars or fancy floral arrangements. But what truly enabled us to stick to such a small budget was the help of friends and relatives, many of whom already work in the wedding industry. Now, I appreciate that this isn't a tip most people will be able to replicate for themselves, but knowing a wedding photographer, a professional cake maker, and a graphic designer specialising in wedding stationery was an enormous contributing factor in our wedding eventually coming in at a not-so-whopping £3,272*. However, the following tips are hopefully more easily replicable.

* In actual fact, our entire spend was just under £6k, but for the purposes of this post I'm only counting the elements that would be part of a more traditional wedding day. The extra £2,600 paid for a large family brunch on the morning of the wedding and - something that was incredibly important to us - hotel rooms for all the guests travelling from overseas. We basically booked out three floors of the city centre Premier Inn for the weekend!
Decide what your main priorities are & allocate money accordingly
Ours priority was food and drink. We wanted yummy cake & fizz for after the ceremony, amazing vegan & vegetarian food, and enough free booze that people could get a bit tipsy. And so that's where the majority of our budget went.

I've had the pleasure of being friends with the brilliantly talented Elle Jane since we met through blogging years ago, and our wedding coincided with her going into business as an occasion cake-maker. She made us 200 beautiful bite-size cupcakes to enjoy after the ceremony with glasses of Prosecco, which I bought from Tesco during one of their regular "Buy 6 bottles get 25% off" promotions.

Meanwhile, the meal was a real highlight of the day. Our fabulous reception venue, The Lansdowne, served up a delicious three course meal for a mere £18.50 a head, which meant we had money left over to put behind the bar.
Avoid bridal shops if you're on a strict budget
When it came to outfits I knew two things for sure: I wanted something comfortable and relatively non-bridal (and if it featured polka dots then so much the better), and I wanted to spend as little as possible. In the end, I managed to find my literal dream dress in the sale at Lindy Bop for a mere £16. Yep, you heard right, £16.

That sorted, I found polka dot dresses for my nieces - Gracie's turquoise dress was also from Lindy Bop at about £11, while Amelie's pink number cost £20 from Amazon - a cheap petticoat from eBay, and a pair of teal Mary Jane shoes which I'd spotted years ago in Clarks and loved, and eventually tracked down on eBay, paying £13.

All of which left enough in the budget for Thomas to splash out on a new suit from Slaters in Leeds which, thanks to having previously worked in the Glasgow branch, he got a discount on. Picking up a pair of secondhand brogues from a vintage store in Bristol left Thomas suited and booted for just over £100.

My advice, then, would be to avoid traditional bridal stores (particularly if you know you want something less traditional and structured) and embrace secondhand shops and eBay as sources.
Reuse & repurpose
I was also really keen to use the beautiful 1940s diamond ring I'd inherited from my granny and, as I wasn't fussed about having a traditional wedding band (in fact, without the existence of my granny's ring I don't think we'd have bothered with rings at all), it made sense to repurpose it as my wedding ring. Meanwhile, ever keen to keep costs low, we bought Thomas's hammered silver ring from Etsy for just £18.
Do It Yourself (or get a mate to do it for you)
Partly to keep costs down and partly for the reasons outlined in my post on planning an anxiety-free day, we kept things incredibly simple and pared back. No favours, no bouquets (actually this is maybe my only regret - in retrospect I would have loved a bunch of sunflowers), no complicated table settings beyond jars of flowers. And I don't think anyone attending the day at any point thought, "you know what, I'd be enjoying myself so much more if there was more stuff around."

But what we did have, we did ourselves (or, more accurately, roped in people to do for us).

The flowers were from supermarkets, arranged into jam jars (collected by friends in the months leading up to the day) with the kind help of my cousins, and dropped off at The Lansdowne on the day by a friend (who also made the tree trunk sign below).

The seating plan was a vintage suitcase that usually sits on our wardrobe, strung with twine and with beautifully calligraphed cards pegged onto it. My cousin Sadie volunteered for the writing, cousin Caroline's husband Steve did the stringing, and in the space of an afternoon we had it finished for the cost of four sheets of card and some mini pegs from Paperchase.

So my advice would be to keep things as simple as you dare and, for everything else, get people involved. I had so many friends and cousins not only willing to pitch in but actively wanting to help.
Think outside the box
Finally, my absolute top tip would be to consider non-traditional venues. There's not many places you could feed 70 people for less than £20 each, but your favourite local gastro pub may just be one of them. Even if they don't do normally private hire, it's worth asking (opting for a weekday wedding is also a huge money-saver: ours was on a Monday).

I also can't emphasise enough how much we loved hosting the party at a place we were so familiar with and fond of, with staff who knew us and enjoyed celebrating alongside us. We still get such a kick from going back to The Lansdowne for a pint and remembering what an ace time we had there with our friends and family.

Price Breakdown
Food & drink: £1846
Outfits (mine, Thomas & bridesmaids) & rings: £268
Flowers: £57
Ceremony venue: £670
Extras (including photographer, taxis, make-up artist, balloons, confetti, gifts etc): £432

My other wedding posts:

All photographs by James Mottram Photography

Saturday, 3 February 2018

What I've Been Reading Recently

Recently I'm mostly reading the rather odd combination of feminist theory and Agatha Christie novels, the latter being just about all I can cope with, intellectually speaking, after grappling with the former! However, interspersed with the Judith Butler texts and Marple mysteries, I have read a few absolutely cracking books lately that I wanted to share with you.

The Wages Of Sin by Kaite Welsh*
Rating: ****

Sarah Gilchrist has fled from London to Edinburgh in disgrace and is determined to become a doctor, despite the misgivings of her family and society. As part of the University of Edinburgh's first intake of female medical students, Sarah comes up against resistance from lecturers, her male contemporaries, and - perhaps worst of all - her fellow women, who will do anything to avoid being associated with a fallen woman. When one of Sarah's patients turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into Edinburgh's dangerous underworld of bribery, brothels and body snatchers - and a confrontation with her own past.

If you're after historic fiction with feminist leanings and a Gothic Edinburgh setting - think Sarah Waters crossed with a Victorian Ian Rankin - then The Wages Of Sin is the book for you. With the medical student characters and glimpses into both high society and the degradations of those living in poverty, it reminded me a little of Sarah Moss's brilliant Bodies Of Light. It comes with a CN on discussion of sexual assault, which some may find triggering (and which I wish I'd known in advance), but that aside it's a superbly atmospheric read and Sarah is a heroine to root for. I'm hoping to see a follow-up to this soon. 

Hunger by Roxane Gay
Rating *****
With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and authority that have made her one of the most admired voices of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to be overweight in a time when the bigger you are, the less you are seen. Hunger is a deeply personal memoir from one of our finest writers, and tells a story that hasn't yet been told but needs to be.

Whether it's writing about the rape that left her eating to make her body, in her words, "safer", or her unflinching account of society's hatred of fat bodies, Hunger was often a tough read. But I love Roxane Gay's writing, which is never less than raw, honest and true. Highly recommended. 

Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
Rating: *****
Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with her high school teachers who think the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes, hallway harassment and gross comments from guys during class. But most of all, Viv Carter is fed up with always following the rules. Viv's mum was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in the '90s, inspiring Viv to create Moxie, a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. She's just blowing off steam, but other girls respond and spread the Moxie message: Moxie Girls Fight Back!

A YA novel about using zines to start a feminist revolution is obviously right up my street, but what makes Moxie so brilliant is that it's not just about large acts of change but also about the small moments - for example, the subtlety with which Mathieu handles the love interest's "not all men" bullshit is especially well done, giving teen readers the tools they'll need to challenge such behaviour without being preachy. On top of which, Viv Carter is a wonderful heroine, totally relatable and utterly likeable. I want to press copies of this book into the hands of every teenage girl, not to mention every teacher who's ever dismissed incidents of sexual assault in the school hallways as "just a bit of fun". 

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth*
Rating: ****

The night Cameron Post's parents died, her first thought was relief. Relief they would never know that, hours earlier, she'd been kissing a girl. Now living with her conservative aunt in small-town Montana, hiding her sexuality and blending in becomes second nature to Cameron until she begins an intense friendship with the beautiful Coley Taylor. Desperate to 'correct' her niece, Cameron's aunt take drastic action. Now Cameron must battle with the cost of being her true self - even if she's not completely sure who that is.

I absolutely raced through this lengthy YA novel, completely immersed in the lives of Cameron and her friends. What I found most impressive was the nuance with which each character is written: even the Pastor in charge of the conversion camp to which Cameron is sent is treated with sympathy, with the reader never allowed to forget that each person is human, not simply a villain or a hero. The Miseducation Of Cameron Post has recently been made into a film starring Chloe Grace Moretz as Cameron, and I cannot wait to see such a brilliant, important, heart-wrenching book on the big screen.


* I received these books from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Oh Hello 2018

Hello!

Lovely to see you, it's been a while. How have you been? And how's 2018 treating you? Are you, like me, both baffled that it's already 2018 while finding it inexplicable that it's still January?

Anyway, I thought I'd drop by to let you know that I am still alive. The end of 2017 was hectic to say the least: once I started my MA in September life became a bit of a whirlwind.

I knew before I started university that it would bring challenges. The fact that I started off my post about beginning an MA by reflecting on my (largely negative) undergrad experiences suggests I had an awareness, perhaps subconscious, of what some of those challenges would be. But I've still been pretty blindsided by how returning to study is affecting me.

First of all, there's the obvious challenges of being a learner after twelve years in the role of teacher, which is undeniably strange and at times difficult. I don't deal at all well with feeling inexpert, and thus far I feel inexpert pretty much every day. Added to that is a severe case of Imposter Syndrome: a little voice in my head that's trying to tell me that everyone else on my course is brilliant and I am stupid; everyone else gets it, so why can't I? Because this shit is hard. I'm realising how little I've been intellectually challenged in recent years, how I need to learn to flex mental muscles that have long gone unused.

Equally, I think if I'd known beforehand how difficult trying to do an MA while living 120 miles from university is, I'd have had second thoughts. But I didn't, and in truth there are many positives about doing the MA now, not least of which is that I get to see my mum every week when I stay with her, and see much more of my brothers and nieces, too.

But as well as being hectic and challenging, the last few months have also been full of positives.

Thomas and I spent a wonderful long weekend in Norfolk at the start of December: four days of no internet, no photographs, no phones, just lots of open fires and books and long walks. In other words, bliss.

Having felt that I was struggling with the MA, I was surprised to find myself really enjoying researching and writing my first assignment, and was even more surprised when I did really well. To know I was doing ok made the struggles of the first semester feel more worthwhile.

I made it to the end of 2017 well within budget for my Buyer's Archive challenge, and although blogging my buys has gone by the wayside, I'm still keeping a record of my spending and am aiming to keep it below £500 in 2018 (ahem, we won't talk about how much I've spent in January...).

We've booked our long-overdue honeymoon to Canada this June, and I'm looking forward to spending time with family while we're there.

Oh! And while we're on the subject, Thomas and I made it legal. As much as we would have both liked to maintain our "fuck the man and fuck marriage" stance, it unfortunately makes so many things complicated (I lived in fear that he'd have an accident while cycling and I wouldn't have had a say in his treatment). So we popped down to the town hall one Saturday with a couple of friends, got into trouble for giggling during the ceremony, then went out for a massive pizza afterwards. And now, in response to anyone who asks why we got married, I can quite genuinely say, "so I can turn his life support machine off"!

So yeah, a busy few months.

Thanks to the MA, I won't be around here much until summer at the earliest (apart from posting some stuff that's languished in my draft folders for ages). But I'm finding Instagram increasingly useful as a sort of micro-blogging platform so if you do want to know what I'm up to, you can find me there.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Buyer's Archive: September & October

 Since February 2015, inspired by Elise's Buyer's Archive project, I've been keeping a record of all my clothing purchases in an effort to track what works and what doesn't and - in theory - cut down on my spending. 

Looking back at last year's September and October Buyer's Archives, it's clear that the start of autumn is always a time of spending for me. It makes sense, I guess: the new season's clothes are all out in the shops, looking ever so tempting, and as it turns colder you realise that for some inexplicable reason you charity bagged most of your warm cardigans in spring (true story).

This year shows no sign of bucking the trend, particularly because I needed to replace my winter boots and coat. And when I say "needed", for once I actually mean it: the H&M boots I bought two winters ago have started to become rather too porous to water, and after selling last year's vintage coat find on Instagram I also needed to replace that. But first, the fun stuff...

Mustard longline cardigan, Sainsburys £22
My office is freezing cold, so this mustard yellow cardigan of beauty will make for a winter of feeling snuggly and warm.

Polka dot skirt, Fat Face £15 (no longer online but may be available in store)
I've been eying this polka dot beauty up since it first went into shops, but had no intention of paying full price. So literally the minute the Fat Face sale email appeared in my inbox, I was on the website to snap it up. I actually think I'll wear this more in summer than winter - I'm quite particular about the length skirts come to when I'm wearing tights (basically, the shorter the better!) - so it'll go to the back of the wardrobe ready to be rediscovered come spring. Also, it has pockets!

Black corduroy pinafore dress, Primark £12
Last November I bought a black denim pinafore dress from Dotty Ps, impulsively sold it on Instagram when I didn't wear it much, and have regretted it ever since! Being a strange combination of short, massive boobs and long body, I've struggled ever since to find a replacement. This corduroy number from Primark has been in my wardrobe for 5 days and has already been worn twice, so I won't be making the same mistake again.
Blue polka dot dress, H&M £12.99
It's blue, it has polka dots, it was always going to come home with me, let's face it. Despite the fact that I actually don't wear polka dots all that much at the moment, I still can't seem to resist them. However, it's actually a tad too large for me, so it may be destined for an Instagram sale at some point.

Navy blue duffle coat, La Redoute £22
I had a great duffle coat from La Redoute which, after a number of year's wear, finally gave up the ghost last winter. I've been keeping an eye out for a replacement ever since, and so when I saw this one in the sale for £30 I grabbed it. As I already had an £8 credit on my account, it set me back just £22: not bad for a winter coat. And as I just sold my vintage duffle coat on Instagram, I'm leaving this off the total for October.
Rocket Dog boots, TK Maxx £19.99
These are the boot holy grail - cut low and close-fitting on the ankle, small chunky heel, completely plain black with no extraneous detailing. They'll hopefully see me through the next couple of winters, paired with printed dresses and thick tights.

Dr Marten shoes, Rubbersole £77 after 25% discount code
I perhaps, strictly speaking, didn't need both new boots and new shoes. But after spending months coveting a pair of these classic 1461 DM shoes, I couldn't resist after I found a whacking great 25% off code for Rubbersole. They've turned out to be surprisingly comfortable to break in and should last me for years: £77 well spent, I reckon.

Total for September: £54.98
Total for October: £104

Total so far for 2017: £480.06

Total this time last year: £552.82

So I'm still (just) on target to spend less than £600 this year and, despite the outlay of new shoes, boots and coat, keeping below last year's spend too.

Look out for the #buyersarchive hashtag on Twitter and Instagram to see the other bloggers taking part.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

A Week In Rhodes

In September Thomas and I went to Rhodes for a week and between this trip and last year's visit to Crete, I think we're finally converts to the "lazy holiday in the sun" club. We had a wonderful time sitting by the pool reading, taking in some of the island's historic sites and, most of all, eating lots of delicious Greek food.

We were staying in the village of Kalathos, on the east coast just north of Lindos. I'd heard lots of great things about Lindos and so it was an obvious choice for our first outing (after a couple of days of lying on sunbeds doing very little, that is). And it was extremely charming: a picture-perfect Greek village, with stunning views along the coast from the cliff-top Acropolis.
Overall, though, I much preferred our visits to Rhodes Town, and especially having a chance to explore the fascinating medieval streets of the Old Town. Sitting within the modern town but entirely separated from it by fortified walls, the old town was constructed by the Knights Templar in the 14th century and boasts a magnificent mixture of ancient, Byzantine, Ottoman and Italian architectural influences.

As well as wandering the labyrinthine streets, peering down alleyways and admiring the many street cats, we visited the Archeological Museum for some Proper Culture. It's well worth a visit, as much for that incredible building and gardens in which it's set.
It's a testament to how great the food is at To Marouli that we ate there on both of our visits to Rhodes Town. And we also enjoyed stumbling upon Todo Bien, a Cuban-themed bar just around the corner, whose boast of serving 'the best mojitos in Rhodes' obviously had to be thoroughly tested.

We were also lucky to find a number of excellent restaurants serving vegan food near our hotel in Kalathos (our favourites were probably Konstantin and the seafood restaurant Mythos) and generally found Rhodes far superior to Crete when it came to vegan options.
But the absolute highlight of our trip was undoubtedly the cats. Our apartment block had a huge gang of semi-feral cats - we counted thirteen in total - who included some of the friendliest and sweetest holiday cats I've ever encountered. Although most of the older cats were happier left alone, Thomas and I spent many a happy hour with the younger cats and kittens who enjoyed clambering all over us and our sun loungers, peeking up from under our books to demand attention, begging for treats, and snoozing in the shade.

We stayed in Daniel Apartments in Kalathos and can thoroughly recommend both the apartments and the island itself. Good vegan food, excellent local wine, friendly cats, and breathtaking historical sites combined to make Rhodes a very special place to be. If you happen to visit, do say hello to the kittens for me.

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Thrifty Christmas Gift Swap

I can't believe it's already time to talk about the gift swap: I swear it was March just a few days ago. But autumn is definitely here - I'm looking out of my window at yellowing leaves and grey skies - and so that means it's time to start planning for Christmas.

This will be the sixth year of the thrifty Christmas gift swap, and it's always so much fun to have participants making, buying and thrifting cool gifts for each other. Unlike a lot of other swaps, you do not need to be a blogger to take part: last year was about a 50/50 split between bloggers and non-bloggers. And don't panic if you're not a natural crafter, it's also totally ok to decide to buy all your gifts.

So, if you're interested, take a look at the guidelines below and then drop me an email to sign up.

How It Works
1. Send your name, address, blog address (if you have one), social media links and any extra information to jbistheinitial@gmail.com by November 1st. Include in your email as much detail about your likes and dislikes as possible. You could also include links to Amazon or Etsy wishlists, to give your buyer an idea of your tastes.
2. Once you receive the information about your recipient you can start putting together a box of bought, thrifted and handmade goodies you think your recipient will love.  In previous years gifts have ranged from framed animation strips from the giftees favourite film, to Christmas mix CDs, to cool brooches and embroidery hoops, to secondhand books.
3. Try to limit yourself to a £12 spend (not including postage).
4. Pop your parcel in the post by December 10th (although try and be a bit more prompt if sending overseas).
5. Sit back and wait to receive your own box of delights from a mystery giver!

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

A Very Leicester Wedding

Our wedding in July was very much centred on the city Thomas and I call home. Because the vast majority of guests were from out of town, it was really important to us that we use the event to highlight the things about which we're most proud when it comes to Leicester, including its history, its diversity, and its incredible vegan food to name just three.

Ironically, considering how central a role the city ended up playing, our original plan was to have the wedding out of Leicester in a rural setting. When we quickly realised that a festival-style wedding was going to require a hell of a lot of work and money to create, we went back to the drawing board and decided on an urban wedding that celebrated our home town, instead.
As soon as we decided to host it here we knew what our first choice of reception venue was: our favourite pub, The Lansdowne. Only problem? They don't usually do private hire and had never hosted a wedding reception before. We decided to ask anyway, as the worst they could say was "No" and, lucky for us, they barely hesitated before agreeing to let us hire the whole place and cater a three course, mostly vegan menu, for 70 guests.

The Lansdowne is our favourite pub for three reasons: great food, fantastic and friendly staff, and incredible mid-century interiors. And those elements made it the perfect place to host a wedding reception. Sadly, we were all too busy having fun and scoffing the food to take pictures of it but rest assured it was amazing. Many guests, even those who aren't vegan or vegetarian, commented on how much they enjoyed the meal. Meanwhile, it meant so much to us that the staff were visibly enjoying themselves and happy for us; because it's our regular haunt, it felt completely different to having the reception at a faceless corporate venue. We know the staff well and it genuinely felt like they were part of our celebration.

Another favourite element of our wedding day was the walk we took through Leicester from our ceremony venue, the Guildhall, up to the Lansdowne. Although about a 20 minute journey on foot, most of the route follows the beautiful Georgian-era tree-lined, traffic-free pedestrian path known as New Walk. I especially am a big fan of urban walking and it was important to me that this was incorporated into the event.

After a week of solid rain, and fretting that we'd have to find alternative transport, our wedding day dawned bright and sunny and the walk was on! From a chant of "F*ck the police" begun by Thomas' friends (see photo above - they said walking in a big group reminded them of being on protest marches), to dancing bridesmaids, to passing well wishers greeting us, it was such a special part of the day and the photographs are some of my favourites.
Aside from the wedding itself, we'd also planned a number of other events so we'd get a proper chance to hang out with guests. On the morning of the ceremony we hosted a brunch for family members, which was a lovely way to ensure we spent some quality time with family - all of whom had travelled from out of town, most from out of England - before the actual wedding later in the afternoon. And on the previous evening we invited friends and family who were staying in local hotels to join us for pizza at our favourite joint, Oscar & Rosie's. This turned out to be a really calming and fun way to spend the night before the wedding, and it helped people to meet each other in a more relaxed environment (my uncle from Canada and Thomas' dad especially seemed to hit it off and chatted a lot the next day).

We also put together a little mini-zine telling people about our favourite places in Leicester to visit - from museums to galleries to the best place to get gelato - and had so much fun chatting to friends who'd followed our suggestions and hearing what they thought. Considering we had guests from some of the most incredible places in the world - New York and Cape Town among them - I think we did a reasonable job of introducing people to our little city. I am so glad we decided to have the wedding here, because now when I walk around town I have some incredible new memories to accompany places I've been familiar with for years. Seeing the people we care about most come to the place we've both grown to love was indescribably special: if you're considering an urban, home town wedding, I'd thoroughly recommend it.

My other wedding posts:

All photographs by James Mottram Photography

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Back To School

"Conkers lying on the ground, the air is cooler. And I feel like I've just started uni."
Zorbing by Stornoway

Every late September I can't help but remember the autumn that I was 18. Seeing the streets of Leicester suddenly clogged with excited, fresh-faced students takes me back to the year I was one of them.

1996. I'd dyed my hair black over the summer, listened to too much gloomy indie music, and been suffering from what I now recognize as crippling anxiety attacks. I hid in my room when the phone rang; I panicked if I received any post. The world suddenly felt too big and too wide and I was about to go out into it.

I went to university in pursuit of adventure. My most fervent hope was to find my people, which at the time meant slim-hipped boys with floppy hair and eyeliner; girls in Manics t-shirts and glittery nail polish. I thought that if I could just find these people I'd finally be happy (conveniently ignoring the fact that I'd spent the previous two years hanging out with people who exactly matched that description, and it hadn't got me anything except a self-harm problem and the editorship of a mildly successful indie fanzine).

I was nothing short of devastated, then, to meet the students at Leicester University and discover that they were so far from being my people it was almost laughable. My fellow halls of residence, erm, residents were genuinely nice but, from the rugby-playing law students downstairs to the Home Counties public school girls on my corridor, I had nothing in common with them. For their part, they viewed me as something akin to an exotic animal in a zoo: something to be gazed at from afar, but not got too close to.

Having been planning my escape from Bradford since the age of ten, the reality of life at university was a disappointment to say the least. I'd sincerely hoped that, after years of being the brightest kid in class, further education would finally provide me with the challenge and intellectual debate I so sorely wished for (and yes, I do realise that makes me sound like a particularly pretentious Adrian Mole). My hope was quickly dashed against the rocks of a dull curriculum taught by indifferent lecturers. I'll readily admit that I gave up, decided not to bother trying, and emerged a few years later with a 2:2 degree that I barely deserved.

So it's with no little trepidation that, this week, I start a Masters degree in Gender Studies at the University of Leeds.

My first assignment is to write about a text that inspired me to study this course I'm struggling. I was born into a family in which political activism comes as naturally as breathing. My mum raised me as a feminist and I grew up in a house lined with books by Germaine Greer, Audre Lorde, Sheila Rowbotham and numerous other feminist luminaries. When I was at school (and later, during my undergraduate degree) I was the person who brought every discussion back to feminism or queer theory. Whether discussing the works of Charlotte Bronte or the sociology of the city, my preoccupying thought was always, "what's the feminist perspective on this?"

It's difficult, therefore, to pinpoint a single text or moment in time that made me think, "Aha! I want to study gender!" Honestly, as long as I can remember in my adult life, this course has been my dream. I still have, stashed away somewhere, the Gender Studies MA prospectus from 2001. And every few years since then I've opened the Leeds University website and idly looked through the course content thinking, "If only." But it always felt like an impossible goal - too far away from my work in Leicester, too competitive for someone with my crappy degree and, most importantly, too expensive.

As with so many things in our unfortunately couple-centric world, what seemed impossible when I was on my own became within reach once I met a partner. Since Thomas moved in I've been able to put more into savings than was possible before and, because he now has a three year contract at Loughborough University on a very decent salary, we're able to take the financial hit of me cutting my hours at work. More than anything, though, he has been my cheerleader and chief encourager, telling me that of course I should apply, that of course I'd be accepted, and that of course I'll manage the work. Whenever I have wobbles about the huge reading list or the added stress, I have an actual academic on hand to talk me down, find the journal articles I need, make me cups of tea, and remind me just what the hell Harvard referencing is.

I have no doubt that the next two years will be challenging. That at times, between the workload and the six hour weekly commutes, I'll feel like giving up. But for now, at least, I'm looking forward to being one of those excited and fresh-faced (ahem) students again. Because how many people can say that their dreams come true?

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Public Saying To All Our Friends: Our Wedding Ceremony

When you're planning a wedding ceremony from scratch there's so much to think about. We wanted ours to be entirely different from the traditional legal wedding ceremony, both in wording and in structure. We wanted it to reflect our values, as individuals and as a couple, and to be explicitly feminist. Most importantly, we wanted it to be fun.

We'd chosen Leicester's Guildhall for our ceremony for a number of reasons, chief amongst which was OH MY GOD JUST LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL IT IS! It was also, being a council-run venue, reasonably priced, and the staff were amazing and totally on board with our plans for a quirky, untraditional ceremony.
Having greeted all our guests together (which was lovely and something I'd highly recommend, as it gave me a chance to say hello to everyone - and admire their outfits - instead of sitting somewhere 'backstage', as brides usually do, feeling increasingly nervous), everyone was seated ready to begin. Instead of entering separately or, god forbid, me being 'given away' by my dad, we walked into the ceremony hall together to the strains of Sam Cooke's You Send Me.

Our friend Richard was officiating the ceremony for us, partly because as a teacher, he had the perfect voice to fill the hall and the confidence to stand up in front of 70 people. Although he confessed later that he'd felt anxious about it, you'd never have guessed.
Richard opened with a beautifully written, and very funny, speech, and was followed by Julia, Thomas's sister, reading the Marge Piercy poem that I shared in my last wedding post. We'd decided to have all the speeches within the ceremony, rather than at the party afterwards, so two of Thomas's best friends - Bart and Tim - gave what became the equivalent of a best man's speech (I certainly wasn't expecting the word "balls" to be bandied around quite so much!). My mum also spoke, beautifully and movingly, and two friends - Cara and Mathijs - both gave readings.
"In my opinion the best thing you can you do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person will still think the sun shines out of your ass. That’s the kind of person that’s worth sticking with."
From the film Juno

We'd chosen our readings carefully because we wanted them to reflect not just the ethos of our day but also the person reading. So Julia, one of the bravest and most awesome feminists I know, got the Marge Piercy poem. Cara seemed perfectly suited to the extract from Juno (plus it has the bonus of being short, as she wasn't wild about having to speak in public). Finally, Mathijs read a quote from the film Frida which we knew would suit his oratory style and, for us, summed up everything we hoped for about our marriage.

"I don't believe in marriage... I think at worst it's a hostile political act, a way for small-minded men to keep women in the house and out of the way, wrapped up in the guise of tradition and conservative religious nonsense. At best, it's a happy delusion - these two people who truly love each other and have no idea how truly miserable they're about to make each other. But, when two people know that, and they decide with eyes wide open to face each other and get married anyway, then I don't think it's conservative or delusional. I think it's radical and courageous and very romantic."
From the film Frida
My strongest memory of my whole wedding day - but particularly of the ceremony - is of laughter. We'd wanted it to feel relaxed and joyful, and for people to feel more involved in proceedings than  the traditional ceremony usually allows. Having a friend officiate and therefore removing the legal stuff meant every single word was meaningful and personal to us. But we retained some bits of a traditional ceremony, for example exchanging rings and saying vows, although our vows were ones we'd written together:


"I commit myself to our life together because I love who you are now
and who you are yet to become.
I promise to stand with you and to fight with you for everything we believe in.
I promise to support your freedom to be, to grow and to do all you wish."
And then, all too soon, it was time for Prosecco and cake in the Guildhall courtyard, and a chance to properly catch up with people (I recall a lot of hugging and squealing, most of it from me).

It's been wonderful, while writing this, to reflect on our ceremony and I'm very glad to say that with the benefit of hindsight there's nothing we'd do differently. We had so very many lovely comments afterwards, saying how much people had enjoyed and been moved by the ceremony. I'm going to end by quoting our friend Rose who, the day afterwards, wrote the following on Instagram:
"I'm not a fan of weddings [preach!]. They are largely tedious exercises in conspicuous consumption in the services of an archaic institution. But Janet and Thomas's was utterly joyous and felt totally authentic to them as a couple." Wedding goals achieved.
All photographs by James Mottram Photography

My other wedding posts: