Fun with the kids this summer: The Power of Poison (!)

Kids… Poison… Well, as irritating as they get sometimes, I don’t think those are things people usually put together. I joke, of course, but despite its unsettling topic, this intriguing and beautifully curated exhibition – adapted from one created by the American Museum of Natural History in New York – is a fun family-friendly activity perfect for the upcoming summer holidays.

For one reason or another, work has been quite crazy lately, so I’ve been really trying to make the most of downtime and focussing on doing fun things with my daughter. The PR team behind The Power of Poison kindly invited me to a VIP family day at the exhibition, and it was simply perfect timing; a chance to do something out of the ordinary together that was child-focussed and might even teach us all a thing or two. We do take her to museums relatively regularly – she’s developing a healthy fondness for my favourite place in all of London, the V&A, and it’s been heartening to see how many places go out of their way to offer activities for younger visitors. Two weeks later, though, she’s still telling us that the Power of Poison was her favourite ever, and promises it isn’t just because there was a Mad Hatter’s tea party and facepainting afterwards (the much appreciated VIP bit!).

At a little under 5, my daughter is probably at the younger end to fully appreciate the details of the exhibition, but it’s a curious little treasure for all ages. Making the most of the dark, labyrinthine space of the Old Truman Brewery, the collection is wonderfully immersive, plunging you immediately into a jungle scene with a mixture of real and fake reptiles and bugs, deftly teaching the difference between poisonous and venomous. Kids are given a fun activity sheet which encourages them to actually read the display information and answer questions, and then it’s on to the next few rooms, with  a mixture of models, projections and video to keep visitors of any age interested.

My favourite was a beautifully projected shadow-theatre rendition of the stories of Hercules and Medea onto Greek urns; there was also a stunning book of poisons as a lead-in to a section on poison in literature that I gawped at for a while, and a truly eerie Snow White in her glass coffin. Anything Alice is bound to attract my attention, and the section on mercury poisoning and the Mad Hatter was very elegantly arranged. On top of all of this, there is then the detective section; at all times there are iPads set up in front of displays that allow children to work through three poisoning scenarios – a dog that might have eaten something in the yard, a ship’s crew that suffer terrible illness and a decidedly dead owl – and solve the mystery by collecting clues and examining symptoms. Throughout the day in this room there are also live and pre-recorded presentations that take the audience through a real-life case of poisoning and the history of the use of forensic evidence in British courts, all in a child-accessible yet engaging way.

I had previously been to the Art of the Brick exhibition in the same space and had found it a little bit oppressive – but also, sadly, I just didn’t feel particularly moved by that particular collection (technically brilliant, but it just felt a bit lacking in story, or depth). The Power of Poison uses the space so much more effectively, and really delights in casting a creepy yet captivating light over what is a dim cocoon of a place. Although we were fortunate to be given some tickets for the purposes of this post, it’s definitely an experience I would have paid for, at £9 for adults and £5 for children (with concessionary prices, family, group and school tickets available).

The Power of Poison runs daily at the Old Truman Brewery in London until the Sunday 6th September, and you can book in advance online.

Disclaimer: For the purposes of this review we were invited to a family day including exhibition entry, tea and facepainting. All opinions are our own.

A Year of Living Sugar-Free

A year ago, almost to the day, I began an experiment: quitting sugar.

A friend of mine, Erin, was raving about it, and – skeptical though I was – I knew I couldn’t continue living with the bizarre relationship I had with food. I’m a restrictive eater / binger of old, and every time I thought I’d cracked the formula for eating really well (I’m a great fan of the principles of the HAES movement) I would, sooner rather than later, come to realise that my internal cues about satiety and my visual ideas of portion control were so heartily messed up I didn’t even know where to begin. I’d made a fair amount of progress in getting rid of some of the worst habits, but I still wasn’t in the place I wanted to be. I needed a line in the sand, a way to move along that line towards freedom from the ridiculous deprivation and overindulgence cycles that – at least from what I’ve observed – seem to plague a lot of women in our privileged society.

Where we have ready access to food, we don’t seem to know how to use it without abusing it; plus I work in London, and am lucky to be able to eat out a lot. More to the point, I bloody love food (I’m not sure I can separate it from love) and cooking, feeding people and being fed. Like, I give people who talk about being ‘so full’ after half their ‘delicious’ breakfast some serious side-eye, because I have been a member of the clean plate club since birth. I wanted to enjoy that relationship more without feeling so damn guilty and compulsive about it.

So I thought “what the hell? I can’t make things any worse”. The programme my friend was on was Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar, so I read the books, found most of it made sense (even if some of it was a bit scientifically woolly and made huge assumptions about budget and accessibility) and started out on week one of the plan. The ‘sugar’ in question with IQS is actually fructose, specifically, and I had a lot of questions about this as I’d always been told fruit – most commonly associated with fructose although table sugar is 50% fructose – was ‘good’ sugar, yet always found bananas (supposed to fill you up for hours) left me ravenous, apples gave me acid stomach and my beloved citrus fruit made me nibbly as hell.  I dipped into David Gillespie and Robert Lustig and gradually came to believe that ditching the fructose was indeed a good health move. Even after I reintroduced some fruits I kept it fairly low fructose and felt better for that (because contrary to misconceptions you do still eat fruit; I tend towards berries and apricots these days, with the occasional kiwi, apple or pear thrown in).

After the eight weeks were up I found I didn’t really want to stop. And a year later I know I don’t want to, even if it’s not always easy for me. I really believe I’ve made a substantial amount of the progress I’ve been looking for and mostly it’s come as a huge relief. While I won’t pretend that everything is now 100% perfect and I never have weird cravings or madly snacky days, they are considerably fewer and my approach to eating is considerably more free.

The fact is, I live and work in a world full of temptations and quitting sugar has made me feel so much better. Of course, I am not immune to making a less sensible choice in this ongoing experiment. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not. You live and learn. Plus I still have some chronically unhealthy habits (is there an I Quit Crisps programme? Because I really need help. I Quit Sitting Down A Lot would be great too). But on the whole quitting sugar is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I have no intention of ever permanently going back on the white stuff.

So, here are some of the things I have experienced in a year of living sugarless (yes, I heard that in my head as ‘Mississippilessly?!’). As with any personal account – just put a bullet in my sugar head if I start calling it a ‘journey’, yes? – your mileage is bound to vary, but I wanted to give a bit of a warts and all, ups and downs perspective with as much balance as I can bring to the discussion. Zealotry and glowing before-and-after testimonials are unconvincing to me; they seem like a wagon you fall off, an infatuation you grow out of. This is going sugar free after the honeymoon, when the toothpaste caps come off and the toilet seat stays up.

Lets start at the lowest point. If you’ve never gone sugar free you’re probably wondering about what happens when you decide that a slice or three of birthday cake never hurt anyone. Well, a little reframing goes a long way. If I thought of every time I had sugar as ‘backsliding’, ‘coming off the wagon’ or ‘being naughty’, I would be no better off than I was before quitting. I’d just be miserably restricted and the vast, vast majority of the time I don’t think about being sugar free at all until someone else points it out. Unless it’s something like an afternoon tea where almost everything is doused in sugar and I want to avoid feeling the effects too much, I don’t make consciously sugar free choices. I just eat stuff that I like and it usually doesn’t contain much sugar because now sugary stuff is not very appealing most of the time.

Once in a while I do  splash out and if I think negative thoughts my lovely Erin points out that it’s an experiment. No one is coercing me to do this; on the contrary, a lot of marketing, my friend’s eating habits and the reaction of anyone I talk to about this would suggest the pressure is all going the other way. I continued living sugar free after my initial curious commitment because I felt a lot better. My skin improved. My health measures improved. I felt comfortable with the changes to my body. From now on, I choose whether or not to continue, whether or not to make a different choice, how I want to listen to my body’s and mind’s desires. I’m probably never not going to want ice cream, and I’m comfortable with that; if it’s really good ice cream, or, you know, it’s not but I really feel like it, then I’ll have ice cream. Usually, actually, eating sugary stuff really validates me not wanting to eat it more often since I invariably get headaches, sickness or dizziness (I’m sure some might say psychosomatic, but I’ve sometimes found out after the fact and still felt terrible, so…).

That said, I think it can be helpful to re-quit if something has happened to make it all feel a bit like hard work. Eating out a lot, a special occasion, working long hours, stress, illness (or, in my case, a back op – worry not, I’m totally fixed now), going on holiday or some other general disruption to the eating routine knocks me out for anything from a day or two to several weeks and I find myself making food choices that leave me sluggish, snacking, grumpy and constantly hungry (many of the issues I managed to move away from by doing the programme in the first place). Twice in the past year I had a bit of a ‘reboot’ – a few weeks more strictly, consciously sugar free – to lift myself out of it and feel better.

You’d be forgiven for asking yourself if the programme really works if it’s not a permanent ‘fix’, but – contrary to some of the marketing – the original book was really much more what you’d call guidelines. Also, we live in the real world, and not a lab. As soon as it’s embraced as a specific diet programme, quitting sugar fails in doing the very thing I did it for – being free to make food choices based on what I will enjoy eating, without a cloud of sugar cravings and energy slumps hanging over me. But I can only do it if it’s fun, and positive. If it moved from “I don’t fancy that because it makes me feel a bit crappy / I like that savoury thing better” to “I can’t have that because it’s demonically possessed evilsugar and I promised myself / my friend / Sarah Wilson / the world / God that I wouldn’t”, I’d just give it up as a bad job. That way madness lies.

I have just one diety habit, and it’s one not actually ever mentioned or recommended on the programme. I still habitually track my food intake out of curiosity, but I do not consciously adapt what I eat to suit it. I don’t work to goals in my tracking app, just observe what I’m having. That’s sometimes how I realise there has been a correlation in more disordered eating and feeling rougher. But it’s something I think can easily make quitting sugar turn into a weird competition with yourself, so it’s not actually something I recommend – I just wanted to be totally honest. It’s something that’s become a bit of a habit, and I rather like having data about myself to look back on. Marketer’s occupational hazard, I guess…

I realise all of the above sounds negative, which is weird for a decision that has made me very happy. So here are some of the things being sugar free has done for me.

I cook more, and better. And I’m more creative and less wasteful. Recipes that use up bendy veg, a freezer full of homemade stock after every roast dinner; it’s bloody great. I need to step up my game because I’m still spending way to much on lunch instead of generating more leftovers, but I’m generally moving in a fresh, lovely food direction that is making me fuller and happier without me having to spend any more money (boxed sugary stuff is expensive, man).

I’ve also been introduced to new ingredients that I probably wouldn’t have used. While I’m not a coconut fanatic, and regularly reduce the amount used in recipes, I really enjoy using coconut oil in stir fries and granola (and, erm, on my daughter’s dry skin patches on her face, though not from the same jar). In my everyday eating post I mentioned adding chia seeds to Ready Brek (not very JERF of me, is it?!), and I find them kind of fascinating because they do make quick breakfasts more filling and add a bit of texture.  I was already a nut butter fan, but in seeking out sugar and added oil-free versions I’ve become obsessed with crunchy Biona peanut butter (no, I’m not paid to say any of this, yes, I know it’s a legume and not a nut).  I’m not a full-on convert to almond milk, but I do love it for chai and in oatmeal.

Weirdly, I now appreciate sweet stuff a lot more, as I really enjoy the tingly tartness of a fresh, ruby raspberry rather than the increasingly sickening taste of, say, cupcake frosting. I never did do much in the way of artificial sweeteners (aspartame doesn’t agree with me and I’m a full fat or go home kinda gal), so I use glucose in the form of rice malt syrup on the few occasions I cannot fathom not adding sweetness (eg to pancakes). I had a splash of maple on holiday and it actually tasted weird to me now as I’ve grown used to my syrup not having a strong taste. Lovely, because maple syrup is lovely, and I definitely enjoyed it, but it’s funny how tastes change.

It’s funny how I’ve changed.

When I look ahead, I find it impossible to imagine a time when I might want to eat large amounts of sugar again. I don’t know that I’d have felt entirely confident saying that at the end of the programme, or even six months ago, because I know that people fall in and out of these patterns in their lives. But right now, a year on, it seems really, really unlikely. And I’m happy with that.

Here’s to another year, and all it has to show for itself.

Consent and conversations with young children (or why I ask permission for cuddles at night)

The other day I ended up staying late at work and heading out for dinner with some colleagues (friends, really and all, for what it’s worth, currently child free). While we were waiting for food I got a text from my husband about how our daughter’s bedtime had gone, and it listed the number of cuddles and kisses I could give her when I got home.

I got some baffled looks at this, so I tried to explain. My daughter knows that the last thing I will do every night before I go to bed will be to stick my head around her door and check in on her. My commute is around an hour and a half long, so I inevitably miss a fair number of bedtimes, and therefore bedtime cuddles. She doesn’t want to miss out on these altogether, but also knows she’ll be asleep when I get in. So she gives me a certain number of cuddles and kisses I can deliver when I arrive. It’s usually hilariously specific yet not – “ten or eleven kisses, and two or three hugs” – and sometimes she’ll be super prescriptive about exact kiss placement on her face, and sometimes not. And I only ever carry out exactly what she says, though I’ll admit if she gives me a choice of numbers of kisses I’ll invariably go for the maximum.

I basically got a ‘but why?’ to all this, and I tried to elaborate. The main message I’m trying to get across to the kid is that her body is her own (as I’ve written about before) and that doesn’t change when she’s asleep. We’ve talked about respecting each other’s boundaries a lot during wakefulness – one of her favourite games is the ‘Stop Go Tickle Game’, where she gets to dictate exactly how much I tickle her tummy and around her neck – but now that she’s left the infant stage where she’s unable to communicate preference, I want to demonstrate to her that this respect continues 24 hours a day. Of course I could just pay lip service to it and then smother her little chubby cheeks in mummy kisses as soon as she’s out – she wouldn’t know I’d broken her trust, but I would. And it would be heartbreaking.

The reaction I mostly got was ‘that’s fascinating’, and I’ve no doubt it sounds a lot like weird, handwringing, liberal overthinking. Even if it is, I’d rather overthink this stuff than not think about it at all. When you’re raising a girl, one of the topics you cannot ignore is personal safety; we live in a world where female autonomy and bodily integrity is not sacrosanct. In the slightest. I was very much taught about the practicalities of navigating a life around this as a youngster and a teen – personal alarms, not walking alone, self-defence classes, holding keys as weapons. And while I think that teaching a few defensive strategies has an element of common sense to it, I also think that focussing entirely on that basically says “this is your responsibility, as a girl” – and it’s blatantly not. I cannot, in raising a girl, control what other people will do around her. But I can help fight a culture that suggests that she can. To me, the best way to do that is to continually reinforce her confidence in her own boundaries.

This makes it sound like we all sit there politely asking each other for cuddles as you might ask to pass the salt, and anyone who has ever seen our family in real life would find this pretty hilarious. We’re a seriously huggy bunch (as anyone who has ever gone drinking with me will know); we just place emphasis on the fact that the word ‘no’ is important. More recently we’ve also talked about non-verbal cues as well; when my daughter told me she sometimes wanted to say ‘stop’ in the tickle game but was laughing too hard, I suggested she use a gesture instead and she decided on holding her hand up like a traffic police officer. It’s a constantly evolving process and negotiation, because the paradox of being a child is being taught that you have agency but told you have to go to school, must have your jabs, should eat your greens and will go to bed by a certain time. Parents exist in the land of I Know What’s Best For You, and to my mind she will trust in me offering up this sometimes bitter medicine (we recently had a belated phase two of the MMR, and it was not fun) if the rest of the time the sweet, sweet sugar is confidence in her own autonomy and ability to make decisions and choices that feel right to her. I position myself as the guardian of her safety and health – my number one job as Mama, part and parcel with loving her more than anyone else in the world – and her as the guardian of her personal space. And it’s a partnership which involves her direction and leadership as well as mine, until she’s old enough to take the reins entirely.

Of course I second-guess myself occasionally. For example, does making an agreement beforehand convey consent when one is asleep? For the moment I go with it because on those occasions where we haven’t spoken for some reason so I just poke my head in and leave it at that, she’s disappointed at ‘missing out’ on cuddles when we speak the next morning. She often proactively announces to her dad, without being asked, how much affection she wants doled out when I get home. But eventually I guess my mad work schedule will differ and she’ll get older and less concerned with missed bedtimes and this will all change.

But what won’t change, ever, is my respect for her. So I will carry on having what might seem like needlessly complex rituals in order to reinforce this for her because I really believe it’s important.

Is this something you ever think or worry about with your children or relatives’ children? Do you have family routines and behaviours which seem baffling to others but underscore an important message from your perspective? I strongly suspect I’m not the only one…

Why it’s a great, brave, beautiful Tomorrowland (here be spoilers)

Other people’s opinions… who needs ’em, right? I jest, of course, but with a film like Tomorrowland (aka Tomorrowland: A World Beyond in the UK) there is bound to be an even more splintered variety. A publicity campaign that revealed very little about the story. A vision of retro-futurism that has to appeal both to baby boomer nostalgia and a brand new audience for whom 1964 is as far away from their birth as WWII was from their parents’. An ambitious anti-cynicism message – and here, I warn you again that, while I’m not going to wallow in spoilerific spoilerism, there are some things ahead that probably will give away more than you need to know. I really enjoyed going in blank, so if you haven’t seen the film yet but are expending a little of your generous curiosity towards me, perhaps bookmark this for later? I’ll still be waffling away when you’re done watching.

When I reviewed Tomorrowland, I made some references to the fact that it made important moves from a feminist perspective. On greater reflection, I think it actually goes further than I thought. There are really two strands here – character in the film and characterisation beyond the film – and both of them are extremely promising. I won’t repeat myself too much, but within the film you have two female characters that are independent, intelligent and resist female stereotyping. And it’s not by being a Strong Female Character, but by virtue of being a well-written character who happens to be female. There is also very little male gaze and romance, and such as there is (more on this in a moment) is really about friendship and shared vision. There’s some ass-kicking, but though it’s delivered by an incongruously shaped character – that of a 11-year-old girl – by then, you’re already aware that she’s not human.

So many times, when a physically or emotionally strong female character is delivered to us, it comes from a place of born exceptionalism, or pain. Now, Casey is repeatedly characterised as ‘special’, but it’s to do with her optimistic outlook, not her born or trained physical assets. She has woes and worries – her obsession with halting the dismantling of the NASA platform is more about saving her dad’s job than it is about advancing the ambitions of humanity to build a better world – and a clearly absent mother, but she is not defined by her father’s pain or her mother’s invisibility. Later on, she falls in with Frank because of what he can do for her, and when she helps him it’s out of basic human decency, and not because of anything she feels she owes him (to be honest, they never seem all that fond of each other beyond their shared goals and connection to Athena). There’s no Bella clumsiness, Katniss rage or Buffy strength powering Casey, nor flirty ditziness or emo contrariness. She has achieved what many male characters but few female ones do – a character arc that relies on her growing and becoming more confident in herself and her ability to get stuff done without any superhuman qualities or reference at any point to her physical appearance or romantic aspirations. We have Mikey Walsh levels of faith, here, and an Indiana Jones attachment to a hat – the latter of which is even used as a vehicle to deliver a broadside to the embittered narrative that’s meant to drive most heroes.

So what of actual romance? Well, there is some. And it’s between an ageing cynic and a robot child. Kind of. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, two characters separated by a world of humanity and several decades have to reconcile their feelings towards one another – and one of them has only programmed emotions. Crucially, what we don’t have here is a robot that wants to be human (another female-ish character who is content in herself!), but in a very delicate, beautifully handled scene Athena and Frank have to deal with forty years of unresolved hurt and confusion and in doing so it is Frank who is mostly changed. And therein lies the other great female-friendly power of this film: all the rollicking emotional rollercoaster – all the feelings of love and betrayal – belong to a boy, and a man. In one movie, all the logical thought and optimistic foresight belong to female characters, a rare sight; even rarer, all the drama belongs to men. Between Frank Walker and David Nix we have characters who have, effectively, given up because they’re angry and bitter and feel slighted – one mostly by a single person, the other by the world at large. If there’s a statement as powerful as allowing women to be coolly logical, it’s surely allowing men to display real emotion.

And now, the world beyond. I think what often confuses people outside the Disneyverse is a sense of a bit of a disconnect between product and marketing. Let’s take Tangled as an example, since it’s one of my favourites. Rapunzel is actually a pretty kick-ass heroine, and even on the DVD cover she’s quite fierce – feet planted firmly apart, stern grin and frying pan aloft. But by the time you hit the merchandising – all iridescent princess dresses and batted eyelashes – it’s hard to convince anyone who hasn’t seen the film that she’s actually a pretty rounded and interesting character. I can watch Tangled til the cows come home, but as an adult I don’t really buy any merchandise associated with it because for me it doesn’t really reflect what I love about the film. With Tomorrowland, though, it’s hard to see where there can even be any opportunity for the marketing to be in any way different from the creative property. A few people have pointed out posters that just feature Frank but, despite being someone who’s had a few ‘where’s Natasha?’ moments, I actually think this is a good thing; there are two separate stories here, Frank’s and Casey’s, and I think it’s fine to have marketing devoted to each. And when it comes to merchandise, the most obvious piece – that glorious pin – is as gender neutral as it gets. If you get into costumes and appearance, Casey largely wears jeans, hoodies and a NASA cap. Athena has a couple of dresses, but they’re more retro-futuristic cosplay than tiaras and sparkles (no, there’s nothing wrong with tiaras and sparkles, it’s just nice to have a change). I’m all for backpacks that look like jetpacks, you know? I simply can’t see where this could possibly do anything other than celebrate the gorgeous vintage World’s Fair design inspiration and the general sense of optimism and adventure that is so key to the film.

And therein lies the last part of why I think Tomorrowland is, on the whole, pretty ace. When was the last time you can remember a high stakes potential blockbuster – one without franchise surety, but with star power and a hugely respected directorial force – with such an unambiguously positive message? Morality in Tomorrowland is embedded within having an optimistic vision for humankind, and then – importantly – taking the next step to work towards it. It’s a hell of a sermon – Lindelof has admitted he’d like people to feel a bit guilty – and though there was only one point in the film where I felt it was laid on a bit thick, it’s a bloody important one. It’s a message I’d like my daughter to hear, to take action on. Even though I already want to be a decent human being, which to me means at least trying to put kindness and compassion at the centre of everything, I was unsettled into thinking I’m probably not trying hard enough. The spring’s big tentpole release already covered the ambiguities of riding roughshod over other people’s misgivings when you’re focussed on creating a better tomorrow, but the difference between Tony Stark’s megalomania (I will protect the Earth!) and Casey Newton’s inclusive forward thinking (what can we do to fix this?) is patently obvious. And, much as I love me a complex, morally uncertain superhero narrative, sometimes an undiluted shot of positivity to the arm is exactly what’s needed as an antidote to a pervading sense of the world going to hell in a handbasket.

Sometimes you watch a film and love it, but later can’t quite quantify what it was that made you love it. With Tomorrowland I’ve had the opposite with an increasing sense of certainty that its detractors – and there are a few, especially in the Twitter Disney echo chamber that I sort of love and am fearful of at the same time – are either missing these strengths or considering them unimportant. Since arguing the case on Twitter is a 140 character exercise in frustration, I thought I’d be better served by simply laying it all out here – where I have a hope in hell of landing my point.

If you’re still with me, congratulations, you’re a great big nerd. I like great big nerds, whether or not they agree with me, so let’s talk. Go.

A day out in Bexhill-on-Sea: the De la Warr Pavilion, the Little British Tea Shop and Eras of Style

This post is actually long overdue. It was (gasp) MARCH when I footled off to Bexhill to spend a day with a good friend and explore the loveliness of a classic British seaside town. But it hasn’t left me, because – especially for a born Londoner who has only managed to take herself further away from water by moving to the Home Counties – there is something so very lovely about the British coast, the jumbled mix of hipster-chic and genuinely crumbling, the proliferation of junk shops and charity outlets and the immediate sense of letting out a big breath you didn’t know you were holding the moment you leave the city. Bexhill isn’t one of the classic treasures (usually in Wales or Cornwall) that you see dotted around tourist websites, all vying for a Portmeirion-esque chocolate boxness that is very, very pretty but somehow unconvincing as a living town. Bexhill is not a town of summer homes. Even in the cold, damp English springtime it was alive and well, keeping calm and carrying on.

Memories of Ladybird - a truly excellent story!

Memories of Ladybird – a truly excellent story!

Our ostensible reason for meeting there – K’s parents live in Bexhill but she’s actually based in St Leonard’s – was to visit the Ladybird by Design exhibition at the De la Warr Pavilion, which was absolutely wonderful, and – though it has completed its run in Bexhill –  is due to arrive in London in July. I’d recommend a visit to the DLWP any day, whatever the exhibits – it’s a lovely space, beautifully situated. Go in, have a coffee, browse the little shop crammed tastefully with quirky prints, arty bags and cute knick-knacks. There are lots of planned family activities too; for the Ladybird exhibition there was an entire wall covered with memories and experiences of Ladybird books from visitors aged 5-95. My favourite (pictured) was a wonderful note from a woman who had, as a child, become the basis for some of the classic illustrations!

Having spent a couple of hours digging around the wonderfully curated galleries and picking up a few treats at the gift shop (an amazing late 50s living room print now hangs over my retro dressing table), we considered what we could do with the rest of our day. That led us to the Little British Tea Shop, which was practically guaranteed to appeal to me on every single score. Vintage decor and mismatched crockery? Check. Bountiful savoury options (including a savoury only tea)? Check. A proper, lengthy, loose leaf tea menu with everything from builder’s to oolong? CHECK. We sat in the kitschest and cutest of window seats and shared a crumpet smeared with salty butter and a delicious cuppa and it was glorious. I was wearing a 1960s fuchsia Lane Bryant suit skirt from my vintage collection, but bitterly regretted not having a 40s number and pin curls  in (I haven’t mastered Victory rolls yet). The service is friendly and warm and practically out of a film. And the prices are distinctly un-London at around £14.50 for afternoon tea for two.

Much of the rest of the day was spent wandering around the shops; I picked up a lovely fabric shoulder bag for our holiday to Florida, and a birthday treat for myself of a shrink plastic watercolour octopus brooch. There is what I can only refer to as an embarrassment of charity shops – then again, the intersecting local high streets in Bucks where I live have nine of them within a mile radius – and independent shops crammed with a mixture of local arts and crafts and general souvenir tat. A bit like walking into Not on the High Street (on the high street)…

Jaf-argh!

Jaf-argh!

That was when K suggested we pop to the antiques warehouse up past the police station; it was a short walk out of town, but entirely worth every minute. I want to go back with a truck and someone else’s credit card. Eras of Style is a mammoth two-story treasure trove packed to the gills with vintage furniture, records, toys… you name it. It’s a little light on clothing, but crammed with practically everything else. I fell in love with at least three separate tables (so. much. G-Plan.) and I adored the more random bits and bobs like the 60s fairground attraction car and some crazy bits of Disney memorabilia like Jafar here, hanging out in the coffee shop. The cafe is itself worth a visit, with nice tea, multiple cake options – I spotted gluten-free ones, too – and apparently now a specialism in bagels (I am SO going back).

Sea air, wonderful places to have tea, art and vintage style. And the wonderful thing is that this kind of footprint is repeated readily across Britain, and should be loved and treasured for what it is. I do worry that one too many hipsters like me and the places risk being gentrified; then again, a lot of these towns have suffered rising unemployment and could do with an investment of cash and love (preferably from people with an interest in staying in, rather than exploiting and running from, the area). I often wish I could travel further, wider and more often (how ungrateful that sounds after a trip to Florida!) but I also forget that there are little jewels on my doorstep – a drive or cheap train trip away. I’m aware that, especially from a distance, I’ve romanticised things a bit, but I do want to make it a habit to explore more of what’s right in front of me, and make the most of the beauty of home.

What’s your favourite hidden (or not so hidden) British treasure? Where should I visit next?

Film review: Tomorrowland: A World Beyond European Premiere

Me in my genuine 1940s finery with my genuine, erm, 2015 Haunted Mansion souvenir.

Me in my genuine 1940s premiere finery with my genuine, erm, 2015 Haunted Mansion souvenir.

For a film about the future, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond sure feels like stepping into the past. In this joyful retro-futuristic romp, The Incredibles director Brad Bird and LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof have created a relentlessly upbeat, Spielberg-reminiscent family adventure with its eyes on creating a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

It’s 1964, and young Frank Walker is enjoying the sights and sounds of the World’s Fair, including Walt Disney’s It’s a Small World and Carousel of Progress. Everyone is looking ahead to a world of gadgets and gizmos aplenty; Frank himself is toting a new invention to enter into an innovation contest.

Fast forward 50 years, and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), eternal optimist and tech nerd, is battling the closure of the NASA platform where her dad works and the negative attitudes of her peers and teachers, all forecasting doom and dystopia. It’s not looking good – until a strange vintage pin turns up in her possession…

Hugh Laurie making people laugh? Never.

Hugh Laurie making people laugh? Never.

Tomorrowland (to use its simpler US title), rests on the premise that at some point post-1970 our outlook on the future went from chasing dreams to ducking nightmares. And looking at some of most popular and successful franchises around today – although, yes, dystopia in cinema is nothing new exactly – it’s hard to disagree. Somewhere along the line, our vision became more universally dim; less Jetsons, more genocide. And the disaster is invariably man-made. No meteror extinguishes our old-fashioned thinking; we’re dinosaurs on a collision course with our own greed – or worse, apathy. Tomorrowland explores what the world could be like if we rediscovered that spark of enthusiasm – and what that could mean for humanity now. But to have nostalgia for an imagined future, you have to go back to the place that future was envisaged from, and in doing so Bird has also tapped into the childhoods of his core audience; I felt more than anything like I was watching some of the classics of my own upbringing – but for the first time and without the dated haircuts. It was Flight of the Navigator, War Games… maybe even ET, only new and shiny.

Okay, I squeed a little.

Okay, I squeed a little.

In many ways, it’s a shame to give too many details away about Tomorrowland. To me it felt primarily like an old-school family adventure movie – although my daughter, not yet five, is not the key audience, I wouldn’t actually have any problem with her watching it – but also like a film made by Disney fans for Disney fans (but enjoyed by everyone else). Certainly a ride on It’s a Small World will never feel exactly the same… Crucially, though, Tomorrowland doesn’t just revisit the past for the sake of it and then wallow in nostalgic baby-boomery; it does attempt to move the discussion along beyond rediscovery, into action.

Clooney! The guy on the right = joy.

Clooney! The guy on the right = joy.

Just over four weeks ago, I was actually sitting in Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress – and it was a really weird experience. For one, it was one of the few classic attractions I couldn’t remember from childhood; I’d completely blanked it out (or maybe we hadn’t visited? Seems unlikely, though; I remember every version of the Spaceship Earth narration since 1984 – we were that kind of family). Despite frequent updates until the early 90s, it hasn’t aged as spectacularly well as one might hope; progress by this definition largely meant technology – not people. All innovations are presented – as well they might be in view of the domestic preoccupations of 1964 – in terms of household convenience. Women are generally sewing or losing weight or gossiping on the phone, right up until the most modern, forward-thinking scene. It’s all a bit old-fashioned in a generally uncomfortable way. In Tomorrowland, the very essence of futuristic thinking is rooted in humanity, and progress is from the earth to the stars, not from the kitchen to the living room. Besides which, humanity is embodied primarily not in Frank – in spite of Clooney’s global star power – but in the body of a young female character who is not sassy or ditzy or seeking male approval or especially representative of anything other than being an intelligent teenage girl.

Do I look worried because Alex Zane is about to tap-dance on my husband's head?

Do I look worried because Alex Zane is about to tap-dance on my husband’s head?

Better yet – and here, I shall be deliberately vague – key relationships in the film revolve around another female character, the mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Impressively she is both the lynchpin of which the emotional core of the film and its coolest, most logical mind; it is Walker’s adult male that is the most unhinged and uncontrolled. When is the last time we’ve seen that kind of dynamic presented to young girls? I remember watching what is still one of my favourite films, Jurassic Park, and being utterly frustrated that seven-year-old Lex of the book, who had good reason to be scared due to her young age, had been turned into a snivelling teenager on screen, reassured about “veggiesauruses”. In Casey and Athena we have a couple of bright, shining examples of how a female character can be a character first and female second.

Few films are perfect, and Tomorrowland has its flaws – though I’d argue that most are a direct consequence of its strengths. For one, it is so invested in character and delivering its message that plot can feel a bit rushed; fully three quarters of the film is devoted to setting up what turns out to be a pretty fast pay-off. Still, I didn’t actually notice that until later, when Ramona asked me about the story (she’s something of a Joe Friday about these things). Unsurprisingly for a movie based on a themed land from one man’s dream, there’s a strong emphasis on individual, special visionaries needed to inspire the rest of humanity that I’m not entirely sure I agree with, but it did force me to think about it. Interestingly, the villain here – Hugh Laurie’s David Nix – is not actually outright evil for the most part; to be a bad guy here is to have had the optimism kicked out of you (bad news for Eeyore, I guess). When introducing the film, Bird had difficulty defining the genre into which it fits, because there isn’t just one; while that can be jarring at times, when the film takes an unexpected turn, it’s also refreshing.

Smug people are smug.

Smug people are smug.

In the end, I found myself unwilling to pull at Tomorrowland‘s threads too hard because I enjoyed the whole fabric so much; it’s such a cosy blanket of positivity and hope that I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to unravel it. Also, I really, really want one of those badges.

Disclosure: To make the entire experience altogether more amazing, I was privileged enough to be able to see it at the European premiere, where I edged past Clooney and Laurie on the blue carpet (sadly nowhere near Bird, of whom I am entirely in awe) to the strains of There’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow whilst wearing my favourite vintage dress and a Haunted Mansion scarf because apparently I CAN DO THAT NOW. I am very grateful to the lovely team at @Disney_UK who invited me along and made my week. However, I can assure you the thoughts above are entirely my own (and indeed, who else would want to claim them?).

Update: I’ve had MOAR THOUGHTS about Tomorrowland, and specifically the feminism and insight therein But there are spoilers. So tread carefully.

Ten Tips for Surviving Walt Disney World with Young Children

CarouselI’ve slightly irritated myself before I’ve even started this post by putting ‘surviving’ in the headline. To be honest, I’ve done it to pander to the kinds of ways I see people talking about this (ergo, perhaps, searching for it). Let me reassure you, there is no survival involved, although you might occasionally get a bit shirty with one another. It is, genuinely, meant to be fun. Sure, there’ll be at least one moment where you’ll threaten to sell your kids to Mickey for a Dole Whip and five minutes’ peace, but come on. You’re in Walt Disney World. You are not suffering. That happens when you get home.

So, that said, there are certainly ways to make the process smoother and ensure that more of the family gets to tick off the things on the wish list without too many rows. I warn you now: most of these are going to involve planning. You don’t need to be 100% military about this – there is room for a certain amount of flow-going – but there is a phenomenal amount to do and see and the best way to avoid missing lots of it is to lay it all out, at least roughly, before you set foot on the plane.

I’ve assumed here that you’re a first timer or you haven’t been in at least 5 years, since some of these systems came into use, but also that you have looked into it a bit and have an idea what you want to see and do.

1. Book your attraction tickets

A lot of packages will include this, but if not – get it sorted. Not only will it allow you to get to grips with Fastpass+ and dining bookings, you get UK special prices that generally involve, say, 14 days for the price of 7.

If you’re staying on site, you’ll get issued a Magic Band which is your ticket, potentially credit card and room key in one, all strapped to your wrist; if not, you can buy one when you get there. It offers the convenience of having your ticket (and therefore FastPasses) to hand at all times, and you can add charging privileges – for the adults only. Plus it’s a customisable accessory and souvenir, I suppose. But there aren’t any massive advantages to it if you’re off-site – and it does make it easier to spend!

Topiary

2. Work out a daily park plan

Use a crowd calendar to identify the typically least busy day for each park, and map out a plan for which days you’ll be where. This will help you start doing all your pre-booking.

3. Download the My Disney Experience app

Add your tickets and / or Magic Bands, and you’re ready to go with all your advance bookings from the day your booking slots open (more on this in a moment). Add your entire party under one account – and for goodness’ sake give each person a nickname so you can easily plan who goes where – and then you can do group and sub-group bookings super easily. You can also bookmark plans and consult the app for wait times  and directions when you’re in the park. The wait times tend to be quite accurate, updating about 5 minutes after they update at the attraction itself (considerably more promptly than Universal’s app, and the whole thing is much more easily navigable too).

4. Make ADRs – Advance Dining Reservations

If you’re staying on-site, these can be made 190 days out; for the rest of the world it’s 180 days. You want to be on this ON THE DAY if you’re going at a popular time of year (any school holiday) and want to get into Be Our Guest. Particularly if you have a big party. Be a little flexible if you can; obviously 12-2 is peak lunch time so if you’re prepared to battle through on $5 Mickey pretzels and supermarket snacks in your backpack in order to get to a popular place at 3pm, do it. Also, you have until 24 hours before to cancel, so book fast and think about it afterwards – just remember to cancel before that time or you’ll get charged $10 per person for no-shows.

Character meals can be super expensive, but tend to be worthwhile as a one-off. As we weren’t sure of getting into any princessy meet n greets, we did the Akershus breakfast in Epcot. For four adults and two kids it was a whopping $260 all in, but the girls got to meet four princesses (Belle, Aurora, Snow White and Ariel), pose for photos and get autographs, and go on a ‘princess procession’ round the room with them. The food was pretty good too; a plate of bacon, sausage, eggs and breakfast potato casserole was brought to the table and there were pastries, breads, cold cuts, the odd Norwegian nod (eg smoked salmon and herring) and fruits, cereals and yogurts at the buffet. [More on food in Florida]

People Mover5. Get to know FP+

The new Fastpass+ system sounds complicated but is easy enough to get used to. It works like this:

– 30 days out, you can book up to 3 FP+ attractions per day (only one park at a time, so you can’t do, say, 1 at Magic Kingdom and 2 at Epcot for the same day). You can do this on the app or the My Disney Experience website.
– The bookings give you an hour-long slot to turn up at an attraction and go into the non-standby queue; this can be as short as a walk-on or maybe up to 15 minutes. When standby queues at busy times run up to anywhere between 1 and 3 hours, it’s a godsend. Be warned, though – meet n greets such as Fairytale Hall to see Anna & Elsa are often booked up solidly weeks ahead and are hard to get into.
– On the day, if you burn through you FP+ bookings, you can add one further one at a time on a rolling basis. You’ll need to do this in person at a FP+ kiosk in the park.

So, for example: you’ve got Soarin’ booked for 09:20-10:20, Spaceship Earth at 11:00-12:00 and Test Track at 14:15-15:15. Once you’ve done Test Track, make your way over to a FP+ kiosk and see what’s still available for you to squeeze onto for the rest of the day (at busy times of year, I can guarantee it won’t be Soarin’…)

6. Plan for the weather

Florida has tropical weather. You will need sun protection, particularly for kids, and you should plan for rainstorms, particularly in the summer (cheap plastic ponchos also come in handy on water rides). Although usually April temperatures are around 25 degrees (Centigrade), when we went this year it was solidly 30-33 degrees.

Kids – especially youngsters like my 4yo daughter and niece – can struggle in the heat, compounded by a LOT of walking (it’s huge, really it is). You won’t want massively heavy bags if you can avoid it, but do buy small bottles of water that you can refill at the water fountains, which are practically everywhere (and always near a loo). Stay hydrated and don’t be overly ambitious with plans (got a FP+ for Soarin’ at 11:50 and reckon you can be at Via Napoli for lunch at 12:05? Nope. Italy is at the furthest point over in the World Showcase and that walk takes longer than you think…). Consider taking or hiring a stroller for the very youngest. Our girls were fine walking, but 3yos and younger will need help and you won’t want a baby in a sling all day in that weather.

7. Don’t forget the shows

Not every attraction is a ride. Shows tend to have large capacity and are a welcome air conditioning break when the sun is high and your patience with tantrums is low.

8. Set a souvenir budget and let the kids control it

Each of the kids we had with us had a purse with their souvenir budget in it. They were reminded we were going to Universal as well (home of minions! And Marvel Super Hero Island! And Seuss Landing!), and encouraged not just to buy the first thing they liked. But they were also given a certain amount of autonomy over their spending money and allowed to choose their own treats to take home. This obviously is a bit much to ask for the youngest, but it worked really well with both the four-year-olds and the eight-year-old. And it prevents any demands for anything ridiculously expensive or arguments over who gets what.

9. Set aside time for non-park activities

Obviously this depends to a certain extent on how long you’re there, but remember that Florida has lots more to offer than just Walt Disney World – not to mention some fairly decent outlet shopping. At the very least opt for a day or two in a water park which will help recharge your batteries for another day of trekking around the parks.

10. Remember Child Swap

Kids vary in sensitivity and interest levels, and some rides are simply going to be too intense or out of bounds due to height restrictions. When you join the queue, speak to a Cast Member and they’ll take you through how to do a ‘Child Swap’. Generally speaking, you line up as normal but then at some point one rider (or couple, if, like us, there are four adults*) gets funnelled off to ride while the other one(s) sit in a waiting room; afterwards, you swap. The kid spends the whole time in the waiting room. (Actually, the waiting rooms at the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions over at Universal are awesome; you get to watch bits of the films and see the incredible ride queues.) Anyway, the point is there’s no need for the adults to miss out on seeking thrills just because there are young ‘uns in tow.

*To be honest, this is tip number 11: safety in numbers. If you have any option at all to go as a bigger group with aunts and uncles, grandparents or good friends, take it. You can find cheaper shared accommodation options, it’s much easier to be able to split into groups – for example, my nephew hates Frozen and the girls have no idea who Indiana Jones is, so guess how we divided up for shows at Hollywood Studios? – AND you can take a date or solo night off to do stuff without someone needing to show you something / go to the toilet / annoy their sibling every 45 minutes. I appreciate this is not an option for everyone, but it’s one to grab with both hands if you have it. 

Are you a WDW veteran? Got any better tips for families? Share ’em in the comments.

And just in case you were wondering, there’s no disclaimer because this was just a family holiday and no payment or freebies exchanged hands to make this post possible. Just a long-held obsession with the place…