Celebrating #WorldBookDay 2016

Celebrating #WorldBookDay 2016

Her Brilliant Career_Rachel CookeToday is World Book Day and my Facebook timeline is full of wonderful photos of children dressing up as their favourite characters from fiction. So far, I can see Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, several Harry Potters, ditto Hermione Granger, a cute Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mr Bump (from the Mr. Men books), Veruca Salt and a very impressive Tamora, Queen of the Goths from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. This is such a great idea, as is anything which encourages reading. And a literary poll of memorable children’s novel characters has revealed that heroines and female villains outnumber heroes and male baddies – but the top hero and the top villain are both male: Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, respectively. Two of my favourite heroines appear in that list, too: Jo March from ‘Little Women’ and Anne Shirley from the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ series.

A website that I really love, even more so since my niece was born a few years ago (“though she be but little she is fierce”) is A Mighty Girl   which dubs itself as the world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for ‘smart, confident, and courageous girls’. Their book section alone has over 2,000 girl-empowering books starring stellar Mighty Girl characters.

Some recent reads of my own (and note that, coincidentally, a couple of them are priced at 99p today, 3rd March, for the Kindle editions), by either fabulous female authors and/or which feature strong, thought provoking heroines and real life women, are:


  • The Interestings, The Position and The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. I think I first stumbled over a Meg Wolitzer novel as a Kindle Deal of the Day and since then have worked my way through the rest of her output. Often set in New York, always featuring smart characters and definitely worthy of a read, particularly if, like me, you love the work of writers like Alison Lurie and Anne Tyler. Start with The Wife and see if you can spot the plot twist.
  • Rebel of the SandsRebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton. A great new Young Adult novel; read my review here.
  • The Help – Kathryn Stockett. I re-read this recently, following a holiday to the USA and was reminded again of what a powerful book it is (and a first, rejected by many publishers, novel too) and also what a great job they made of the film adaptation. So many great female characters, both heroines and villains. Chocolate pie, anyone?
  • Life After Life – Kate Atkinson. This is rapidly becoming my new comfort read – I love twentieth century history and fiction at the best of times; Atkinson’s telling of Ursula’s birth in 1910 and then her varied, potential lives is a modern classic and one to which I return time and time again (appropriately).

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

  • Summertime – Vanessa Lafaye. Another holiday read, this is also a first novel and tells the story of a huge hurricane which hit the Florida Keys in the 1930s. Very thought provoking images of race and place.
  • This Charming Man – Marian Keyes. Not her most recent novel but I think, her best – an amazing depiction of domestic violence and the “charming man” who inflicts it upon a number of very different women.
  • Just One Damn Thing After Another – Jodi Taylor. The first in the brilliant “Chronicles of St. Mary’s” series of novels about time travelling, tea fuelled historian Max.
  • The Versions of Us – Laura Barnett. Not the first time I’ve raved  about this book, I know, but the characters seems to have taken up residence in my head.
  • The Light Years – Elizabeth Jane Howard. This would probably be my desert island book. A much missed, under rated writer and the author of this, the first in the Cazalet quartet. And then read about her actual childhood and the life she led which gave rise to the fictionalised account in her autobiography, Slipstream.


I’ve had something of a phase of reading about women’s lives in the twentieth century of late, as evidenced by some of these choices, starting with: Her Brilliant Career: 10 Extraordinary Women of the 1950s by Rachel Cooke
Shamefully, I hadn’t heard of any of these women before I read this book; it was a real eye opener to learn more about women working as architects and film producers, at a time when women in general were being urged back into the home after their brief period of wartime liberation. (And I also love the cover, see above). Which brings me neatly to:

  • The Fifties Mystique – Jessica Mann: in which we get to learn about why the 1950s Fifties Mystique_Jessica Mannweren’t (spoiler alert) actually All That for women, in spite of the current vogue for re-casting history in a more favourable, vintage light.
  • Debs at War: 1939-1945 – Anne de Courcy. I came to this having read the author’s excellent book on the women who sailed to India to find husbands  and also because I wanted to read more about women in World War 2 after one of my re-reads of Life after Life. This really opened my eyes as to how the lives of upper class women were changed beyond measure by their involvement in war work – as nurses, drivers, code crackers at Bletchley Park and pilots.
  • A Curious Career – Lynn Barber. The fearless interviewer ‘Barber of Fleet Street’ describes how she fell into a career as a journalist and recalls some of her more memorable interviews and encounters. She is also the author of ‘An Education’, another example of a great book and a worthy on-screen interpretation. The film also stars Carey Mulligan, seen more recently in ‘Suffragette’, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite actors.
  • I Am Malala. Read my review here.
  • My Life in Houses – Margaret Forster. This is Forster’s last work of non-fiction, before her recent sad death and tells her life story through the medium of all the places she’s lived. As much of a social history of housing (I can’t imagine a young married couple now being able to buy a Whole House in north London in their early twenties) as it is her memoir, it’s a charming read and she will be much missed; I have all of her books. And finally, but by way of a contrast:
  • The Big Fat Surprise: Why Meat, Butter and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet – Nina Teicholz  Something of a crossover read for me, combining as it does my interest in food with a very solidly researched book by a female writer. I first read this in 2014 and it’s completely changed my approach to food, cookery and weight loss.

Happy reading.




Does the #genderpaygap start at pocket money time?

Does the #genderpaygap start at pocket money time?

To continue a gender pay gap shaped theme, here is a re-blog of a great article written by Dr. Suzanne Doyle-Morris of The InclusIQ Institute and republished here with her kind permission. (I’ve long been a fan of her work and her first book, Beyond the Boys’ Club, is listed on my recommended reading  page.)

Once you’ve read Suzanne’s article, keep scrolling down to see a joyous piece of film footage from 106 year old Virginia McLaurin.

We all like to think the gender pay gap is a workplace issue, but it seems gender based discrepancies start much younger. The Sunday Times commissioned their own research (£ for the full article) discovering that even the best intentioned of parents are paying sons more, £11.47 on average per week for 14 year olds, compared to £10.67 for their daughters of the same age for pocket money. It may initially sound relatively minor for children, but just like the pay gap amongst adults, it soon adds up. Those few pence every week total an £80 difference each year. However, it’s not just teens who are affected. Other research by the Halifax discovered boys aged 8-11 get £5.06 per week in pocket money compared to their sisters’ £4.85.

And these discrepancies are vital, as they impact how children relate to money. Various studies show the giving of an allowance or pocket money increases ‘monetary competence’. In tests, children with monetary competence spent less when given ‘credit’ and were more accurate in guessing the prices of familiar items. These are undeniably important lessons for any child to learn. It makes us at InclusIQ  wonder: ‘What are the messages we send by giving girls less’? Are we subconsciously preparing daughters for a lifetime of ‘making do’ with less money; a reality which eventually leads to higher rates of poverty amongst female pensioners?

Gender Pay Gap_he said she said

No doubt parents aim to be fair between their own children of either gender. However, this inexplicable discrepancy remains. It reminds us of the differences we see at organisations that are sure they pay people equally and based on merit. However, when we help them look at their internal figures, the evidence doesn’t quite tell the same story – particularly when it comes to discretionary pay. Internally managers always cite seemingly plausible excuses why these differences remain. However, rather than spend time on the creating excuses, we should be creating a fairer world for our current and certainly future workforce. That clearly starts with pocket money.

The Feel Good Story of the Week (other than Adele winning All the Brits) was about a dancing 106 year old from South Carolina. As she and her parents picked cotton and shucked corn in the fields, it never occurred to the young Virginia McLaurin that she might one day eat in the same restaurants as white people. And the notion that she would live to see the country elect a black president, and that one day she’d be invited to the White House and clasp his hands and dance with him for all the world to see? Impossible. And yet it happened — and was captured in a video released by the White House of McLaurin meeting the Obamas during a Black History Month celebration last week.

The Washington Post describes the moment Virginia got to see the footage of herself (complete with blue nails) dancing with the Obamas:

Then finally, deep into the afternoon on Monday, McLaurin got to watch the moment that had made her famous. Her eyes were fixed on the iPhone in her lap, as she sat in a backroom of Busboys and Poets restaurant near U Street —  in front of a mural of civil rights icons. Her mouth dropped open: There she was, dancing with her beloved president. She seemed almost as amazed by the technology that was allowing her to relive it all.

“Where can I get one of these?” she asked about the smartphone video. “I wish this was mine.”

For a few hours over lunch, she reflected on her life and those precious few minutes she had fulfilling a dream she didn’t even know to entertain until 2008.


Here’s the film footage. Just wonderful.

Showing support for the Malala Fund

Showing support for the Malala Fund

I have three pairs of TOMS wedge shoes in my wardrobe; they are, in fashion blogger parlance, quite the “workhorse” of footwear in terms of their comfort, style and ability to carry me as many miles as my Fitbit can manage.

What I also like about TOMS, the company,  is their support for global communities, through their philanthropic model of donating one pair of shoes to a child in need for each pair purchased – this is their famous One for One™ programme.

Malala Fund logoHaving reviewed Malala’s memoir and watched her film last year, I was so pleased to see that TOMS have now set up a partnership with The Malala Fund and created this beautiful scarf, in order to raise money to support Malala’s work to educate and empower girls.

The scarf carries a quotation from Malala and features a beautiful pattern inspired by traditional Islamic artistry and prints. Malala Fund TOMS scarf

“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” 

100% of the purchase price goes to the fund – what a wonderful idea. I would love to think of people buying the scarf and then wearing it to start a conversation about Malala and her work,  particularly on each Malala Day (12 July).

This week, I’m watching: Mumbai High – the Musical

This week, I’m watching: Mumbai High – the Musical

… and I urge you to do the same, if you’re at all interested in India, or education, or musicals, or how other people live; or even if none of those things float your boat but you’re at a loose end and can get access to the BBC iPlayer for the next month or so.

This one hour film,  recently shown on BBC4 as part of their wonderful India season (click on the “India” tag in the cloud to

(c) BBC
(c) BBC

the right of this post on the main blog site for my previous posts about India) tells the story of five children from the Mumbai slum of Dharavi – their backgrounds, homes, families, hopes and dreams (Raj wants to be a doctor, Mary wants to play football with David Beckham). It’s shot using a standard documentary format but is also interspersed with Bollywood/Glee style musical numbers where the children and their teachers sing, in multiple languages, and dance.

I once wrote that India, my favourite country in the world,  finds a new way to uplift you and yet break your heart every day – and this beautiful, moving, funny, emotional film encapsulates that.

Do watch it if you can – and let me know if it speaks to you the way it speaks to me.

Here’s a clip of Iffat, aged 12, telling us how she can speak six languages and gets 100% in all her subjects at school:


Ellen DeGeneres’ new GapKids line blows away gender stereotypes

Ellen DeGeneres’ new GapKids line blows away gender stereotypes

Love this story – it has all my favourite ingredients: authenticity, blowing away gender stereotypes, clothes and Ellen. Best line:

“The clothing collection and accompanying ad campaign “encourages girls everywhere to be themselves, do what makes them happy and take pride in who they are,” according to a statement by GapKids.”

Hope we get this range in the UK.


“Be you.”

Ellen DeGeneres breathed new life into that old cliche at Sunday night’s Teen Choice Awards, telling her fans to be proud of their individuality. “I want to make sure that everyone knows that what makes you different right now, makes you stand out later in life,” she said. “So you should be proud of being different, you should be proud of who you are.”

DeGeneres has long been a proponent of embracing your true self—from being one of the first big celebrities to come out as gay, to infusing her unique, goofy spirit into the Ellen Show, to launching a lifestyle brand that sells clothes that mirror her own “non-gender-specific” style.

Today, DeGeneres rolled out her latest individuality-touting endeavor, GapKids x ED, a collaboration between DeGeneres’ ED line and the Gap. The clothing collection and accompanying ad campaign “encourages girls everywhere to be themselves, do what…

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Supporting Plan

Supporting Plan

Plan_talks_Sticker_logoLast week, Plan contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in working with them to provide blogging and social media support for their campaigns to support girls around the world. Apparently,  they want someone who writes about  “… life, money, girls with a healthy dose of humour …” and so it seems that I fit the bill! More importantly, I’m a long standing supporter of their work and have blogged and attended events about it before: when I raised over £300 to support their “Girls’ Night In” campaign in 2009;  at the launch of the Plan book, “Because I Am a Girl” in January 2010 and then a few months later at their International Women’s Day event at the House of Commons. It seems that I’ve just missed their event featuring Angelina Jolie and William Hague, but I’ve been invited along to learn more about their plans and how they’d like to use social media to raise awareness: so that’s where I’ll be on Tuesday afternoon. This workshop will be followed by a “Plan Talks” event featuring their long term supporter, author and broadcaster Kathy Lette,  who I remember as being fabulous at the book launch event four years ago. I’ll write about that later this week.

Cleo in Wonderland

Cleo in Wonderland

Today is my last day in Goa; tomorrow I fly home via Mumbai,  after another month in this beautiful, heartbreaking, bewitching, chaotic, colourful, frustrating country.

It’s been a busy week, with a mixture of freelance writing, charity work for Educators’ Trust India and, unexpectedly,  a sidebar trip to Chennai.

Monday saw me spending the day working on the “Volunteer with Us” section of their website,  and hammering out the framework by which ETI can take on around 20 volunteers for the 2011/2012 tourist season.  We also identified 20 children who are in need of monthly sponsors and talked about how that model will work … feel free to email me if you’d like more details.

On Tuesday I went back to the slum with the Morning Light project and spent five hours there, washing the children, handing out samosas and being in charge of Operation Underwear.  Two Swedish supporters,  Jane and Bjorn,  donated a large shopping bag full of assorted pairs of differently sized knickers … so we had a system going whereby we washed the kids,  treated their hair for nits and they then lined up in order to receive a new pair of pants.

(Over which they then re-dressed themselves in their filthy old clothes.)

Jane also provided each child with a Mickey Mouse toothbrush,  so we had an “up and down, side to side, rinse and SPIT” teeth brushing lesson in the open air.

Two children were particularly affectionate this week; brother and sister,  they came running over as soon as they saw me and then attached themselves to me for the duration of my visit,  each one clinging to a hand. Diego translated for me and I learned that the lady with them,  whom I had assumed was their mum,  is in fact their nanni – they are the children of her son and she is raising them,  as their mother died a few years ago.  I was so sad to leave them – lots of hugs all round and they cried when we drove away.  I wonder if I’ll ever see them again?

On Wednesday I spent a long, dusty and above all HOT morning at Anjuna market;  until this trip,  it’s just been the place that I visit to shop and sightsee and take colourful photos,  but this time,  I spent the morning working with Diego on the ETI fund raising stall.  I gave out leaflets,  explained what we do (“we run schools for slum children” – how about that for an elevator pitch?) and took donations of clothes, toiletries, books and money.  Some very clear national divides emerged between the passersby: Indian tourists walked straight on,  Russians stopped to look and then barked “No!” or even,  charmingly, “F*ck off!” if you offered them a leaflet; Americans were friendly, interested but usually backpacking, so had very little money to offer but always managed around 100 rupees (c. £1.40) as a donation,  with an apology that it couldn’t be more; northern Europeans from places such as Germany and Scandinavia didn’t want to chat but always stuffed a generous donation into my collecting box before walking on.

Most of the money came from the British tourists,  who were uniformly friendly, positive, supportive and generous – it gladdened my heart to meet so many lovely people,  who gave so freely of their time and their possessions. I only did four hours there and was knackered at the end of it – and there’s poor Diego,  doing a 12 hour day week in, week out, every Wednesday.  What a star.

Thursday saw a complete gear change for me;  I cobbled together a vaguely “smart” outfit from things in my traveller’s wardrobe plus some borrowed shoes and flew to Chennai on the other side of India for a business meeting-cum-interview.  After three weeks in the universal melting pot of Goa,  it felt strange to be on a plane where I was the only woman aside from the staff and the only westerner – everyone else was a dark skinned business man with a laptop and a bushy moustache.  Upon arrival at Chennai airport, I saw a billboard welcoming the England cricket team and a sign saying “hello Thompson mr”  and was then whisked away to the Sheraton hotel,  courtesy of my hosts.

TV! Hot water! Room service! A vibrating massage chair … what a contrast to the start of my week.

My “Alice down the rabbit hole” feeling continued the next day,  when I managed to have an interview, meet the England cricket team (obtaining some autographs for my taxi driver Satish in the process – he is now “Top Man in Goa”, apparently), chat to the Sky Sports camera team and meet my friend Priya from Bangalore for lunch … before flying back to Goa to head up the ETI team in a pub quiz – which we won!

Yesterday I rested,  before going to a wedding in the evening.  I knew neither bride (Feliciana) or groom (Romeo)  but was invited as a guest through my friend Renee; her landlord is the bride’s uncle (or something). So Satish drove us through the twilight to a huge, open air wedding venue,  where we joined around 500 other people in celebrating their marriage. Fireworks, confetti, party poppers, spray string, fabulous food,  Bollywood dance moves and a free bar …

Today I’m blogging, packing,  saying goodbye to my friends (although quite a few people have already left for home;  this is the Big Exodus weekend) and then heading out to a concert by the ETI children – they’re performing some dance moves – like this – at a local restaurant and we’re hoping to raise a few more donations from it.

I’m leaving on a jet plane,  don’t know when I’ll be back again – but I hope it’s soon.