Why the NCT just wasn’t for me: Part 1

I’ve always been a keeno in class. First to put my hand up, often have an answer, like getting my voice heard. I LOVE learning. New things, old things, classrooms, field trips, night classes, tricksy languages: you name it, I’ve had a go.

So when it comes to the subject of having a baby, WELL, how steep is that learning curve? None steeper. I’m going to read the best-written books, I’m going to go to ALL the classes I can muster, and download every Your Baby, Week-by-Week planner there is.

A few friends mention the NCT. Sure I’ve heard of them before, and when you’re not-pregnant, you don’t give the Natural Childbirth Trust a second thought. “It’s a great way to make friends. It costs a bit, but it’s worth it. You get an instant friendship group”.

Let’s face it: one of the easiest times to sell someone something is when you’re getting ready to have a baby. You can write off almost any cost eg see Bugaboo or Tripp Trapp – because hell, the precious child of yours who you’ve not even met yet, deserves the best of everything.

So, an NCT course. Sounds good. Useful. I talk to the other half. See what he thinks. Talking in groups really isn’t his thing. I suspect many dads-to-be would consider themselves falling into this category.

I can’t lie: he isn’t keen. He makes the very good point that we’re already booked on to an NHS antenatal class that probably covers everything we need. And it doesn’t cost anything. Why do two courses when you can do one?

Fair point, I say. But the N-C-T’s good because… natural… leading charity… social network and so on. Fast forward a few conversations: the other half comes round to my way of thinking and we’re booked on the ‘Bumps to Babies’ course. At the cost of around £160.

The course consists of six sessions: four antenatal, two postnatal. The first session feels like a cross between going on holiday and going to war. Excitement mixes with fear, which mingles with the unknown and unexpected. It is late summer and the city has never looked more beautiful.

We meet six other couples in a scuffed-up, comfortable room in a community centre. The women, like me, are heavily pregnant. The men seem sure of their purpose there and not to mind their supporting role. We’re all a little fluttery, wide-eyed and eager to get started.

Folk seem nice. Funny. Friendly. There’s so much to take in. And impart. How many times do you tell ‘your’ story when you’re pregnant? Breech, gestational diabetes. Twins, elective C-section. First baby, no problems. Sheesh. So we all tell our stories, a few disclose gender, some others, (mother’s) age too.

The teacher, I think, is a bit too cool for school. Glib, casual, sunglasses on head. I urge inwardly: make more of an effort, love. These are our first children we’re talking about here. And we’ve paid you good money to get you and your organisation’s take on things. Step up your game some.

But she doesn’t. We kick things off with a terrible ice-breaker. We do group chats, ‘break out’, and make obvious lists. Of pros and cons. Of hopes and fears. Apart from someone asking when you can start having sex again (postnatally) (a bloke), it’s without incident. We get back together as a group, feed back, and it’s you know, all a bit bland, sliced white loaf.

We have tea/coffee/water in the break. You see who’s having caffeine/who isn’t. Who’s really into natural childbirth. Who’s neurotic, who’s laid-back. The worriers. The risk-takers. We flit around each other, moths looking for light, cavedwellers for heat, all first day at school, looking for signs in common, references to recognise.

We feed back some bloody more and I wonder: where’s the content? Where’s the information, you know, the expertise, the hard facts we’re paying out for? I mean, I’m not averse to co-creation, but hell, this is ridiculous.

“And now, time’s nearly up, so we’ll dim the lights and finish off with some massage.” Whaaaaat? Sure, we could do that at home. I also worry how my other half is going to cope with admittedly totally above-board massage in front of others. Hmmmm…I needn’t have been concerned, because as soon as we start, I have to ask him to stop. He’s actually massaging my poor, world-weary, baby-heavy back like he’s roughly ironing a shirt. STOP PLEASE!

And before we can fall about laughing for too long at the ridiculousness of this group massage situation, suddenly and thankfully, time’s up. Till next week. We file out, stepping closer to parenthood, to our mid-sized cars, and drive off into the early autumn night, clutching our bumps, and sometimes, each other.


The Sheffield (Print) School

On Wednesday night I stepped from a moody January evening into the Millennium Gallery’s new Printing Sheffield exhibition with an expectant heart and a curious mind. People dear to me were showing work, along with folk I’d admired for ages and new talent too. How could you possibly represent the exploding Sheffield printmaking scene in a single exhibition? Whose work would hang next to whose, and would there be a Sheffield theme shared throughout? To say I had Sheffield on my mind as I clapped eyes on the tidy-sized crowd spilling out of the exhibition doors would be understating the case.

The fruits of labour of 30 contemporary printmakers began to hove into view. Spectators were by turns giddy and intent, hugely absorbed in what they had come to see. I could steal initial glimpses of prints, through heads, bodies and conversations. A riot of colour, form, text and place announced its presence as I manoeuvred my way through the clusters of guests round pretty much every piece of work. I started to get a tingly sensation: I was in no doubt that what I was witnessing here was very special indeed.

The fact is, Printing Sheffield more than does justice to contemporary printmaking and art in Sheffield right now. Landscape, street, pastoral, abstract, figurative: a panoply of styles and traditions combine to give the visitor a rich experience of the artistic prowess going on all around them in studios and attics in our city’s streets. The exhibition affords the city’s printmaking stars their rightful place, status and kudos: in a major regional museum.

I loved ALL of the work: that’s no exaggeration or sweet talking or small thing. Mentioning individual artists seems churlish, as each printmaker deserves your attention, time and understanding. But hell, it’s my blog, so I will pick my personal highlights:

Florence Blanchard’s urban abstracts, paens to science that manage to be both minimal and majestic

Paul Morrison’s frieze of golden flora, a luxe pastoral for modern times

Kid Acne’s ‘Oh My Days’ print, for the vernacular it celebrates and the specific place in time it conveys

Jonathan Wilkinson’s The Motorway and The Meadows plate, a fitting commemoration of one of South Yorkshire’s great lost landmarks (and yes, reader, I’m also married to him)

Kate Thornton’s bird-shaped map of Sheffield: a clever take on our greener-than-green city (and in spite of my inbuilt Northern Irish superstition, I’ve got a thing about birds)

James Green’s linocut donkey prints: a deft fusing of form and content, full of folk and soul

Jane Elliot’s playful contemporary pastorals of treehouses and alpine settings: ultra-delicate and oh so carefree

Peter York’s panorama woodcut of woodland for its sheer depth and texture, a love-letter to Sheffield trees

Looking at the body formed by this set of diverse printmakers, I was struck by the feeling that I was looking not just at a remarkable exhibition, but a movement. Call it the Sheffield School, or the Sheffield Print School: there’s no doubt that the community making art, prints and crafts in Sheffield is already achieving big things. Printing Sheffield emanates a huge confidence and artistic largesse. You can tell that these are artists working in their prime, they know their minds and their style, and that’s exciting and powerful to observe. I’d bet my bottom dollar (or pound single, for that matter)  that the talent Printing Sheffield shows off in one of the north’s great museums will do for printmaking doing that thing we’re not so great at in this city: putting it on the map.

Printing Sheffield is now at Millennium Gallery, Sheffield and runs till 15 June 2014. Open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm; Sunday 11am-4pm.


Measuring out Sheffield with coffee spoons

I am never as happy as when I’m in cafés. I am a caffeinista, you could say, always on the hunt for new places to hang out, drink mind-blowing coffee and span time, as I’m sure the line in Buffalo 66 goes (not spend time). But this blog post isn’t all about me , oh no no. It’s actually more about how a city or place’s cafés speak volumes about the cultural state of things. In other, and local, words: Sheffield, at last, is getting the café culture it deserves.

I’ve lived in Sheffield 14 years now (shhhh!) and while that’s not a lifetime, it’s a fair swathe of adult life. For a very long time,  I would wager, there was no café scene at all. Rare and wonderful joints like Casablanca’s – as it was known in my time in Sheffield – (also went by the name of Mr Kyte’s; now The Green Room) gave us hope, but for the most part, coffee and conversation took place in terraced houses, bars and greasy spoons. The super-duper Showroom, of course, has held its own for 15-20 years now as a home for all things artistic and a place for the countercultural to meet. A honorary mention must also go to Bukowski’s cafe/wine bar which existed decadently and dangerously for a flash in the early 2000s, when it felt that Sheffield was really having a Bacchanalian/Berlin moment (cf Absynthesis in the Drums).

But while I’m tempted to get all misty-eyed about those rollicking film/art/spoken word times of the mid-noughties, I’ve got a serious point to make here. I do believe Sheffield’s got a new spring in its step, a South Yorkshire swagger, that shows its growing self-belief. We have serious creative, craft, entrepreneurial and food communities here now who are taking risks, getting noticed, going places.  Creatives, thinkers and doers need places to meet and talk. That’s what cafés have traditionally been about, for centuries.  A space for socialising, conversation, community. There’s finally an air of transformation about our city, as neighbourhoods start to sprout the cafes (and shops) that locals want in places like Heeley/Meersbrook, Abbeydale/London Road (see ohgosh’s ace map) and Sharrow Vale. Even though there’s still argy-bargy aplenty about the future of the city centre, The Moor development’s taking shape and interesting things are happening again on Division Street (parts are still a battleground).

My point is, Sheffield’s evolved culturally over the past few years, no doubt about it. It’s in part due to the efforts of the City of Culture bid, that was a game-raiser, and it’s also down to a collective of creative thinkers and doers who get their hands dirty doing things, connecting people, making a living and supporting one another. We have food bloggers like Feast and Glory who do excellent work promoting the city’s food scene and pioneers like Our Favourite Places who celebrate our culture tirelessly. *Obviously* the Glastonbury Arctics-generated 0114 hashtag had a hand in things as well.  And the Jessica Ennis afterglow. The fact is,  for the first time, it feels like Sheffield no longer Manchester or Leeds’ poor relation, and the café society that’s emerging is a big, traffic-stopping neon sign that proves it.

Here are my favourite new cafés round and about:

Homemade by Thelma’s

Recently relocated from Sharrow Vale to bigger premises smack bang in the middle of Nether Edge, Homemade by Thelma’s is my idea of the perfect café.  Three veggie salads a day to die for, hearty US and Mediterranean-style sandwiches, and divine cake. Think Ottolenghi meets Nigella: what a heady mix. Bistro nights will be starting up soon too, and packed they will rightly be.

Tamper, Seller’s Wheel

A stylish, post-industrial coffee bar in the heart of the CIQ, with New Zealand creds and seriously cool coffee. The service is splendid, the crockery has vintage touches, and the coffee is probably the best in the city. Food is imaginative, brunchy and artesan. Arrive early. It gets busy. What can I say? It’s top-class.

Amici & Bici

Occupying the pleasing corner spot between Abbeydale and Chipping House Road, Amici & Bici is the Sheffield outpost of the growing trend of bike cafés sweeping the nation. Superb coffee, doorstep sandwiches, comfort food in mid-century modern-inspired surroundings.  Plenty of high chairs too, which is handy if you have small kids. I like it. This corner of Abbeydale should definitely be able to support Amici and Bragazzi’s.

Cafe des Amis

A Turkish/Mediterranean café  that’s brought decent coffee, wifi and falafel to a long-starved Meersbrook massive. The coffee’s strong (can you handle it?), the service’s zippy and the food is Turkish with a French twist. Ideal for family lunches or solo missions with laptop/time out alike.

Cafe Ceres

Not strictly new, but Café Ceres opened new premises on Hunter’s Bar roundabout last year. It gets a special mention in my café  list because their all-day veggie breakfast is awesome, the aesthetic is all gingham and teacups, plus they have a capacious upstairs, which is dead handy given just how thriving  Sheffield’s cafe society can be of a time-pressed lunchtime.

One last plea to independent coffeehouses across the city and further afield: don’t forget the baby-changing facilities!  Many of your daytime customers are going to be parents on leave, after all.

And remember: anytime is coffeetime…


Top of the Lake? Top of the class

I finally tuned in to watch Top of the Lake last night, Jane Campion’s new six-part drama for the BBC. I knew it was going to be good, but blow me down, I didn’t know it’d be that good.  After an hour of pure unadulterated enjoyment, I got to thinking: why do we need great dramas on our telebox? And more specifically: what is it about Top of the Lake that has got it just right?

I like Jane Campion, and her oddball, muted, family-writ-large take on filmmaking and art. Being a copywriter by trade, and mad about Mad Men, I also adore Elisabeth Moss, the lead actress who plays Robin, the detective. And while we’re on the subject, me and box sets, we’re like that. Specifically: Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Curb… and errr, True Blood. For a series or two. And homegrown dramas don’t get much better than The Hour. So far, so good.

The opening scenes of episode one of Top of the Lake were filled with artistic risk as well as promise. Painterly scenes of extreme natural beauty navigated by humans who were as disturbed as the surroundings were unknowable. The threat of suicide, violence, and weirdness – one of the hardest things of all for many viewers to accept straight up. Taboos and archetypes, subversion of the natural order of things, a bent copper and a cultish overlord. A woman representing justice, facing obstacles, but following intuition and battling her own complicated past. And then, undeniably, the nod to Twin Peaks and Lynch.

So why is Top of the Lake so gloriously unturnoffable? I’d wager that it’s down to the power of its story. Co-written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee, Campion talks about the co-writing process here.  I also think our appetite for offbeat crime is at an all-time high, thanks to those clever Scandinavian noir writers. Top of the Lake is a whodunnit at heart, that specialises in subcultures peopled by richly-painted characters. Each character has a past, or the potential of a past that you can’t wait to find out about. The landscapes of New Zealand’s south island make you gasp. Plus they’re a battleground. The societal transgressions portrayed will be dealt with by a few different kinds of law. Hugely strong wills will clash in ways you don’t expect. Conflict between two tribes, divided by gender lines.

But let’s get back to where I started. What is it about watching a currently-airing drama, that’s so different to bedding down with a box-set? In this asynchronous on-demand age, why should when and how an episode’s aired matter? For me, it absolutely does. The idea of ‘event’ television or drama is still important. Of building an audience through building suspense and creating a shared viewing experience. I don’t know why, but I do still feel that 80’s child magic of watching a drama, a film or a documentary on TV that airs in a particular time slot. Hell, I’m all for gorging on box sets like the next person: hit me with the next episode! Another, and another! But what do you MEAN it’s finished? And yet I can’t help but feel that tuning in, together as a nation, once a week, to a programme you are very much looking forward to teaches us an all-round commendable lesson: in art, as in life, good things are worth waiting for. (And sharing).

The verdict on Top of the Lake? That’s me, all summer. Hooked till September. When’s episode two?


Third time lucky

Blogging and me, we go back a bit. 2005ish, to be precise. Our history’s chequered and our future, who knows? Because all roads were pointing here, I’ve decided to set up this new blog to ramble on about some things that matter to me. You know, those thoughts, experiences and encounters that keep you awake at night, or take you into the middle distance in the day, for better, or for worse.

My first blog was about my small world, crimes against feminism and frothy trips with dear friends. My second blog took a more ahem, literary turn, and inhabited different imaginary people’s heads for a spell. Then, in between times, I blogged over here about cultural stuff for a while, helped out my good pal with some posts and hell, even give professional advice on the stuff here. I also had a baby. Which knocked blogging and then some for six for a while.

This, my third blog, is a bit more laid-back when it comes to mission statements. You may well recognise where the title comes from: and if you said James Joyce and Ulysses, you’d be dead right. ‘Mutely craving to adore’ is part of the sentence that famously took Joyce a whole day to write: “With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore”. It’s a sentence that’s stayed with me for twenty years, a symbol of the time needed to do things right and well. Leopold Bloom experiences this craving in Ulysses when he sees some mannequins in the window in a high-end Irish department store, Brown Thomas.

And it’s sometimes how I feel when I see things I want to connect with. Because there are occasions, even as a writer, I don’t know what to say. Emotion gets in the way. So there’ll be writing-related posts. And literature. A spot of shopping, mainly the middle section rather than high-end. Manners and politeness will figure. Good customer service will make the grade. The fate of our cities, Sheffield in particular, as we try and forge and be the high street and neighbourhoods we want to have. And who could forget Ireland, dear Ireland? Oh, the lot of the exile. But mainly, these humble posts are about mutely craving to adore many things. And sometimes failing.