Has it really been a year since the word and the concept of “lockdown” entered the national vocabulary? A full 12 months have passed during which all the little everyday things we took for granted were suddenly banned. It seems extraordinary, but somehow Britain adapted, and I think we should be rather proud of ourselves. We have discovered how to make do and put up with privations that would have previously been unthinkable; who could have guessed that lunching with friends, visiting family members or chatting in the supermarket would become illegal? I had always assumed that I would be fine “in prison”, as I have so much reading to catch up on – but one thing I’ve learnt about myself is that I am actually dependent on the real-life company of others. Phones and Zoom just aren’t the same as face-to-face conversations. I’ve been left feeling like a plant that needs watering, with the watering a metaphor for human interaction. I miss church, too. What has also struck me rather forcibly is the truth of the John Donne poem No Man Is an Island, because no matter how well things are going for me and how few of my actual friends have died so far, I have felt, on a subatomic level, the grief and worry of my fellow Britons. All the country has really had to keep us sane – or sane-ish – over the past year is television; already a central part of mine and my husband Giles’s lives due to our being on Gogglebox for the past six years.
In this pandemic I am one of the lucky ones – first and foremost I live with Neil, my husband; we get on with each other brilliantly and, over the past year, we have seen even more of each other than usual. We have been together for 50 years. Although we have had little hug-to-hug contact with our lovely family, there were a couple of opportunities to meet up when, briefly, restrictions allowed. Our eldest daughter lives with her husband in California, our youngest in London with her husband and two children. Our grandson was born days before the first lockdown so his first birthday is coming up. How we all wish we could give him first birthday hugs and kisses or read books and play peepo with his sister. How can you miss people so much when you have seen so little of them? We were so lucky to have been around when he was born and, though we were only there for a few days, what magical days they were. Neil came up too and we travelled back to Devon together. It was on our return journey that I began to feel ill; I’d had a few symptoms earlier but they were ignored in the general excitement. I went to bed and stayed there for a few days. Neil looked after me wonderfully as he always does but as I got better he began to feel poorly. His symptoms were worse than mine but we both weathered the storm. Because testing was only just being rolled out, neither of us was ever tested to confirm that we had had Covid but it was pretty clear that was what happened. It gradually dawned on us, as it must have for millions of people around the world, what a serious situation this was. Needless to say though, as we entered that first lockdown, we had no idea what a long haul we were all in for. Recovery for us was so much easier than for many – we have our garden and though Neil does not actively participate in day-to-day gardening it is part of his life. It has grown with us and our family and has so many connections and memories. The fact that, as the pandemic struck, primroses were starting to bloom and new shoots were bursting through the soil made it easier to cope with what was happening. It is surely the most optimistic time of the year, and it’s happening all over again! Gardening was not just a distraction, something to take our minds off the dreadfulness of what was happening; it encapsulated the inevitability of the triumph of nature. The passage of the seasons is inexorable, it happens no matter what. Coronavirus is not – human intervention can change its course. Being 75, I have needed to shield. Living surrounded by fields, we’re a bit out of the way for home grocery deliveries. Neil has done all the shopping and all the cooking but that is what he has done for many years. 2020 was the first year in 30 years that I missed Chelsea as either an exhibitor, a presenter or both. The amount of work, creativity and planning that this and other flower shows including the joyous Malvern Spring Festival entail, was wasted. It was heartbreaking especially for small nurseries, many of whom depend on the shows. Nobody runs a nursery to get rich quick – people do it for love. The way in which nurseries and garden centres have adapted their businesses to stay afloat is exemplary and it has meant that the gardening public, many of them new gardeners, have been able to source seeds and plants. Gardening has been a solace to millions during the pandemic. It has opened our eyes to how important contact with the natural world is. We are all part of it yet so many people are alienated from it by the way in which they are forced to live. In a world where we may feel helpless to change outcomes or be there for loved ones, gardening has given us the freedom to do something positive without restrictions – and to share. At one stage I could help Annie in California with pricking-out her veg seedlings and she could pass it on to friends all over the world. Social media has been an ongoing boon to spread and share the word. I’ve tried to improve my Instagram skills with huge help from my daughter Annie.
Smear tests are an unpleasant, but necessary, fact of life for women. Although cervical screening is estimated to save 5,000 lives a year in the UK, many women continue to put it off for any number of reasons - from having had a previously uncomfortable or painful experience, to embarrassment or cultural stigmas. But a new scheme is looking to change that. This week, it was revealed that more than 31,000 women in London are being offered “do-it-at-home” smear tests to check for early warnings of cervical cancer, as part of a pilot run by NHS England, Public Health England and King’s College London. Experts believe these swabs could be a “gamechanger” in encouraging more women to get screened. For many charities, it has been a long time coming. Denmark and Australia already offer DIY tests, and the UK is lagging behind. According to the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, there is a backlog of 1.5 million smear tests that are missed by women annually. The latest NHS figures show uptake is at a record low among women over 50, with 73.6 per cent taking up invitations, while just 70 per cent of younger women are coming forward. The pandemic has also had an impact: around 600,000 tests would have been carried out in the UK in April and May last year had screening services been operating normally, according to Jo's Trust - it's not known exactly how many have fallen through the cracks in the last year. Routine cervical screenings are now operating normally, but many women are still worried about attending. So could a DIY test be the answer? Here is everything you need to know... What is a DIY Smear Test? During a cervical smear, your GP inserts a speculum into the vagina and the brush is used to collect cells from the surface of the cervix. Although it is called a ‘smear’ test, the DIY test is actually undertaken with a swab, rather than a brush. Kate Sanger, of Jo’s Trust, says that this means the DIY tests are less invasive: you simply insert a swab into the vagina, and twist it around. The whole procedure takes a couple of minutes. Similar to an at-home Covid test (albeit in a different orifice), the swab is then placed in a prepaid envelope and sent off. If the results reveal a human papillomavirus infection (HPV), then their GP will invite you for a standard smear test to examine the cells in the cervix in more detail. The DIY test is currently being trialled in London: women aged 25-64, overdue for a check and living in Barnet, Camden, Islington, Newham or Tower Hamlets will be offered a kit by their GP, or in the post. How does it work? Cervical screening tests check for human papilloma virus (HPV) infection. Sarah Graham, journalist and founder of women's health site Hysterical Women, says that regular cervical screenings now use a method known as "HPV primary", before they check for abnormal cells. "When the sample is sent to the lab, the first thing that they check for is HPV, which is the virus that causes most cervical cancers. If the sample tests positive for HPV, then they will look to see if there are abnormal cells present,” explains Graham. The DIY test is the same, only it checks for HPV cells, which live in the vagina, without the need to brush the cervix. HPV causes 99 per cent of cervical cancers, so if it is not present then your risk is minimal. According to Cancer Research, 99.8 per cent of cervical cancer cases in the UK are preventable. Experts hope that long-term, DIY tests will reduce the number of diagnoses by catching the disease early. How does it feel? Pain is one of the main factors that puts women off getting a smear test - something recognised by Sanger and her colleagues. While some women don't feel anything, others can find the experience distressing. This could be because they have a tilted cervix, have previously experienced sexual trauma or have a condition known as cervical ectropion - where glandular cells typically found on the inside of the cervix are found on the outside. “For some people, it’s a really challenging test - so telling people to get on with it, and that it is quick and easy, can come across as shaming,” says Sanger. She hopes that people who feel pain during a smear may find the DIY test more comfortable. The swab is similar to a “long cosmetic cotton bud”, explains Sanger, and doesn’t require a speculum - which some women find painful. “It’s a very simple test; it’s just a swab of the vagina and it doesn’t need to touch the cervix,” she adds. Jess, 36, recently did a DIY smear test after finding the service was not currently available with her GP. Although she says she felt “sheepish” about the experience at first, and was concerned the swab wouldn’t hit the right place, she felt “more at ease” in the comfort of her own bathroom. “One leg on the bath and off you go. It didn’t hurt at all and you know, from that internal resistance, when you’ve found your cervix. In fact it was less uncomfortable than the cold, lubed-up clamp you’re normally subjected to,” she adds. Sanger says she has heard people concerned that they won’t be able to do the test properly - but assures women they don’t need to worry. “The research and evidence is really positive and shows the majority of people can do the test perfectly themselves,” she says. Will it be a gamechanger? The short answer is yes, it could be. This is partly because it will hopefully encourage a higher number of women get tested. Attendance at cervical cancer screenings reached an all time low in 2018, and research shows that fewer women have been attending screenings during the pandemic. A survey undertaken by Jo's Trust of 851 women in the first week of June 2020 suggested that 25 per cent worry they will catch coronavirus, while 13 per cent thought it was best to put off going. This adds to the reservations many women already have about screenings: a third of respondents in a survey undertaken in 2018 said they were too embarrassed to go for a smear test. As Sanger sees it, a test at home removes many of these anxieties. “Hopefully, it should overcome a lot of the different challenges and barriers that are faced when attending screening. Long term, we hope this will bring the rates down, because people will be more willing to do it in their own homes,” she says. The DIY tests are not intended to replace cervical screenings entirely, but they will help to screen people who would otherwise avoid attending an appointment. “These might be people with a past history of sexual assault, conditions such as vaginismus or trans men, and non binary people," says Graham. "There has also been a lot of regional variation over the pandemic: some people have been able to access services as normal, and others haven’t. Hopefully this will help to work through that backlog." What are the symptoms of cervical cancer? Graham stresses that it’s still important women are aware of the symptoms of cervical cancer, “because no screening process is perfect.” According to Cancer Research UK, the most common symptoms are: Unusual vaginal bleeding Pain or discomfort during sex Vaginal discharge Pain in the area between the hip bones (pelvis) She adds that cervical cancer screenings can also be a good time to have a general check in with your nurse, to chat about contraception, your cervix and your periods - so it is important to attend if you are over 25, and feel comfortable doing so.
This week, Boris and Carrie’s relationship was in the spotlight. The question being asked was whether Carrie Symonds has undue influence over the Prime Minister, but really, the issue perplexing some people seems to be: “Why would he listen to Her?” Happily, we can clear this one up right away: it’s because they are a couple – specifically, a Left brain, Right brain couple – and men listen to their partners. With a few exceptions, they listen pretty hard, because they respect their wives or girlfriends and, now that the world is no longer run exclusively by men, the female POV is rather useful. If Carrie is sticking her oar into government business, then we should be grateful for it; if she wasn’t banging on about green issues, animal welfare, needing women at the table, domestic violence, etc, Boris Johnson wouldn’t be giving any of it a second thought. Her holding him to account is part of the plan. These two are not exactly a union of opposites – after all, they met on the job – but they are that familiar marital type: the powerful man and the woman who has power over the powerful man, who have very different priorities. If anyone is genuinely surprised that Boris has found himself in one of these couples, they really haven’t been paying attention. Half the people we know are in Left brain, Right brain marriages (she was Remain he wasn’t; she wants the boys to learn ballet, he wants them to play rugby; she wanted a rescue dog, he didn’t) and the rest of us fall into the following categories: Our Rules marriage Dominic West and Catherine FitzGerald spring to mind. Lately they may have been more his rules, even so, you sense these two answer to no one’s expectations. Our Rules couples sign up for an adventure and both parties would rather anything than the stultifying predictability of a “My Wife and I” marriage. My Wife and I Marriage The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have an MWandIM: they’re a team, but you know William is on bins, carving and driving, while Kate’s in charge of everything on the domestic front and ego stroking. Plenty of that going on. Service to Her Marriage There are two in this marriage, but only one that really counts. The most obvious example, currently, would be the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry’s given up his family, friends, country, status, job and is all set to play a walk-on-role in the Oprah interview and Second Gentleman if the plan works out). Adorer Marriage This would be George and Amal Clooney – he’s only too happy to worship the ground she walks on and do her sewing and mending. It’s the traditional marriage in reverse and we can’t help but admire from afar. Tag Team marriage Thinking of David and Sam Cam here, Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory, all those couples who take turns at the helm and are perfectly capable of stepping back, switching roles, and taking their turn at being supportive while watching the other one shine. Properly modern really. Is it just me...
It had all started so promisingly. In 2008, my husband Ben and I left our jobs – him as a BBC correspondent and me as a PR director – to start our own communications agency. We had two small clients to start us off and we remortgaged our house. Little did we know the financial crisis would happen barely six months later, forcing us to abandon our plans and pivot quickly to selling what we knew we had the edge in – Ben’s skills as a media trainer and crisis consultant. We rented out our London home and moved back up to Lincolnshire to be near my parents, who could help look after our three children, Charlie, Sam and Mirabelle who are now 17, 13 and 9. The new strategy paid off. But it meant a life on the road for Ben, flying around the world advising senior executives and responding to crises. While I could advise him behind the scenes, the more he travelled the more disconnected I became from the business. To make matters more stressful, shortly after we moved, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, swiftly followed by my father being diagnosed with myeloma, to which we lost him six months later. Ben was riding high, doing career-defining work. But I was left at home literally holding the babies, struggling with the loss of my father and caring for my mother. This had not been the plan. A lot of the time I was a single parent and I can’t tell you how many school plays, sports days and parents’ evenings I attended alone. On one occasion we were all packed up ready to go off on holiday early the next morning when the telephone rang at 2am. A passenger aircraft had crashed in Russia and Ben was on a 6am flight to the company’s headquarters in Dubai. When they woke up, I had to explain to three small children that Daddy had gone to work and we were off on holiday on our own. In 2016, my mother entered a care home, and the children were all at school. We started to look at ways I could be more involved in the business, while Ben really wanted to stop travelling so much.
Normally, at this time of the year I’d be in Paris. I’ve been on the international fashion circuit for so long that my subconscious responds to the unfolding fashion seasons like a migrating bird. No need for a calendar. My schedule goes Resort, Couture, Catwalk, Capsule, Bridge… and repeat. This spring things are very different. For a start I have been on my own since December 29. This spring I am hammering the damp lath and plaster off a sagging attic ceiling and patching up an aluminium greenhouse that has seen better days. This spring I am learning ways to cook wild leeks and am up a ladder following YouTube directions on how to prune wisteria. And all because last summer I fell in crazy love with an old vicarage in Cornwall and, like true love demands, dropped everything that had been my life in London W11 and relocated to EX23. For 30 years my working life has been a cycle of fashion shows, networking lunches and product launches. Hand luggage was kept packed at all times with essentials for lightning trips to Milan, Paris, New York, Munich and Dubai. I had a walk-in wardrobe with options for everything from dinner with Karl Lagerfeld in Venice to lunch with Dries Van Noten and his dog in Antwerp. I was once invited to fly to Tokyo for the presentation of a watch strap. I have an address book stuffed with the contacts of VIP enablers and, in more normal times, could have got a restaurant table or theatre ticket on short notice just about anywhere. I have drawers full of items known affectionately as my “drag” – grazing chandelier earrings, bicep-length white leather gloves, a felt sombrero, a Givenchy couture evening skirt embroidered with shamrocks. I have kept it all because I have always had conceivable expectations that it might come in useful one day. For 30 years this was how I paid my bills… until Covid. In the first lockdown, the golden treadmill of fashion weeks and product launches stalled as an undercurrent of panic stirred: I spent my time on Zoom yoga, baking F standard sourdough and sympathising with a succession of clients as our world changed beyond recognition. But in June, while visiting friends at the seaside, my life changed. I spotted the house in the property section of a national newspaper and joined a long queue of people to view it. Like an old school cad, the rambling Victorian vicarage on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic played very hard to get. But the gods of the Cornish property market weren’t prepared for the kind of tenacity that gets a girl to the front of the queue at the Chanel sample sale.
Zara McDermott doesn’t like the term ‘influencer’. “People look down on it,” the 24-year-old model and former Love Island contestant tells me, distancing herself from the label – and it’s easy to see why. We’re speaking not long after a group of Instagrammers were widely criticised for exploiting an ‘essential work’ loophole to send poolside pictures from Dubai while the rest of us civilians stayed at home, following Covid restrictions. Now is not a great time to tell people you make your money by harnessing a gargantuan social media following. But that’s the negative side of the industry. There is a growing trend for influencers to use their platforms to promote positive change in the real, unfiltered world. And McDermott is one such example. While her Instagram page shows that she’s not afraid to post a selfie, she’s increasingly using her 1.5 million-strong following to speak out against revenge porn, the sharing of explicit images without consent. The influencer-turned-activist has teamed up with Refuge’s The Naked Threat campaign, to push for Parliament to criminalise the threat of revenge porn. While the practice itself is illegal, there is currently no law against the threat of doing so.
When I was 14, I was very shy, wore glasses, and didn’t look anything like the petite blonde girls in my class. I would have done anything to be as confident as they seemed - so, during the summer holiday, I straightened my hair, got contact lenses, and walked back into school as a different person. The popular girls started to pay me attention. They said that they wanted to set me up with their male friends at the boys' school over the road, and I started to join in their instant messaging groups at night. I was so excited - I thought I was finally going to be like them. But those boys had no intention of dating me; it was only later that I realised they were making fun of me and had told the boys I would do anything sexually. The atmosphere at my all-girls' school centred around pleasing boys. One day I received a message from Oscar*, one of the most popular boys in the year above at our neighbouring school. He was being so nice to me, and sent me a topless picture of himself. Then he said: "your turn." I had never sent naked pictures before, but speaking to him gave me the confidence to take them. I sent one in my bra, and one without; he never replied. Later, I found out the message had been from a different boy, who had changed his profile picture and name pretending to be Oscar. I'll never forget that next morning at school: walking into my classroom with all the girls sitting on the window ledge squealing with laughter. My pictures had been sent around. Everyone was talking about it, and practically the whole year group came into our classroom to laugh at me. It was crushing to realise that something that made me feel so confident and body positive was so hilarious to everyone else. One girl - who I thought was my friend - had printed the pictures off and posted them outside our headteacher’s office. Suddenly, everyone had access to the most intimate parts of me. People called me a slut and a slag, and thought that I was "easy". But there wasn’t a single conversation had or question asked by my teachers. No one asked if I was OK. They didn’t contact the police, and there was zero communication between the schools - despite the fact they are right opposite each other. Because of that, I convinced myself that there was nothing wrong with what had happened. I still have no idea where those pictures have ended up or how many people they were circulated to. It's a very frightening thought. Now, a few years on, I am also angry. I'm angry that no one acknowledged what took place, or that I was a victim. I'm angry that I was made to feel as if I was to blame. I have since struggled to trust people. In relationships, I have sent nudes to boyfriends and have then had flashbacks to what happened in school. Now, thanks in part to the Domestic Abuse Bill, there is finally a legal definition for what happened to me: revenge porn. Having a name to put to my experience - and the experiences of so many other young women - gives it the attention and gravitas that it deserves. I now work as a political staffer and think the DAB is a landmark because it recognises revenge porn, and even the threats to share it, as a crime - as well as other forms of abuse that don't leave physical scars. After nearly three years of delays, the Bill needs to be enshrined into law. Being a young victim of revenge porn can define your sense of self for the rest of your life. I hope that safeguarding in schools has improved since my experience and that they teach a comprehensive sex education. I hope young girls in a similar situation aren’t made to feel they are to blame - it is always the other party who has done something wrong by sharing images without your consent. As told to Maighna Nanu *Names have been changed
In a villa close to Dubai’s popular Jumeirah Beach, as tourists enjoyed the pale sands and sea, a nightmare was playing out. My best friend, Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, had been imprisoned by her own family – confined to one room. Inside there was only a bed and a television. Latifa could walk to the kitchen for food, but that was the extent of her freedom. She has had no access to fresh air or medical assistance since her incarceration in 2018. This week, a BBC Panorama documentary broadcast videos that she had secretly recorded from her “jail” and sent to me on a phone I had managed to smuggle to her via a third party.
During its 122-year history, Mr Fitzpatrick’s bar in Rawtenstall has endured enough crises to turn many to drink – two world wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and now Covid, to name but a few. But with Britain’s hospitality trade tanking and many pubs closing their doors for good, spirits are still high at Britain’s last original temperance bar, which has stood on Bank Street in the Lancashire mill town since 1899. Behind the bar and original stone fireplace are optics containing 29 flavours of home-made cordial: dandelion and burdock, cream soda, sarsaparilla and a curious concoction described as ‘blood tonic’. Due to being contractually obliged not to serve any alcohol on premises, owner Ashleigh Morley-Doidge has been able to stay open serving her soft drinks to take away during the pandemic. And business, as it has been ever since she took the bar over five years ago, is good. Morley-Doidge’s family also operates a separate company brewing the cordials and now regularly supplies the US, the United Arab Emirates, Europe and Japan. Here as well, demand is on the rise. “It is really interesting to see how many people don’t drink alcohol and are looking for something unusual and different,” says the 35-year-old. As the last man standing of the temperance bars that once proliferated across the country (and particularly the North) Mr Fitzpatrick’s remains something of a novelty in the modern era. But perhaps not for much longer. As revealed in The Telegraph earlier this month, ministers are contemplating a temporary booze ban as part of the roadmap out of lockdown, with pubs and restaurants allowed to open even as soon as April, permitted they do not serve alcohol. The move is being discussed to allay concerns from chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and others about the effect of drinking on social distancing and to avoid last year’s chaotic scenes of ‘Super Saturday’ when pubs reopened after the first lockdown. Whether or not this policy comes to pass, on a wider level the pandemic has reshaped our relationship with alcohol for better and worse. While drinking increased during lockdown, with many turning to it as a coping mechanism, experts believe that in the long term, pre-pandemic trends of abstinence – particularly among a younger generation – may be accelerated as we focus more on our health. “This crisis is a bit like others where things don’t go back entirely to what they were like before but instead build on what was already happening,” says Virginia Berridge, professor of history and health policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Pubs were already playing a much bigger role in serving non-alcoholic drinks and food. There has been a generational shift of people going to the pub for a convivial experience but not necessarily drinking huge amounts of alcohol.” Mr Fitzpatrick’s Bar was one of 40 established across the North West by the Fitzpatrick family who moved from Dublin across the Irish Sea in 1899. By then the temperance movement was at its peak, the first temperance hotel having opened in nearby Preston in 1833 by local reformer Joseph Livesey who invented the phrase ‘teetotal’. Livesey also published England’s first temperance publication, The Moral Reformer, focusing on the impact of the ‘demon drink’ on the working classes.
Quite how we’d manage to conduct meaningful lives without the regular pronouncements of Kirstie Allsopp is anyone’s guess. Luckily we haven’t had to try, because each time we’re wondering where to stick our washing machine, or what to do with an iron, up she pops with a helpful suggestion. When we say helpful, we mean in the same way it’s helpful for someone to point to the only other single person in the office when you’re single and say: “What about him?” It helps crystallise in your mind exactly what you don’t want. Take, as example, this sneak peek inside the House of Kirstie, offered on her Twitter feed this week:
TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp and I have little in common. She has two large houses, knits her own bunting and has a penchant for floral dresses. I do not. But this week I discovered we both share a belief in the therapeutic joys of ironing. Twitter followers scoffed at her proud pictures of pressed tea towels, while I looked at the before and after shots of her ironing pile with the admiration and envy usually reserved for weight-loss boasts. Kirstie and I are part of a tribe for whom the phrase to iron out life’s problems is taken literally. At first my ironing habit was a shameful secret, given that it started, in retro housewife style, with my husband’s work shirts almost two decades ago. Before long I’d spent a three-figure sum on a fancy steam-generator iron – an unwieldy robot with the dimensions of a large Christmas turkey. There is nothing more satisfying than the effortless ploughing of a smooth path through a crumpled linen sheet with my favourite household appliance. As my face gets ever more wrinkled, my iron performs instant Botox on the pillow cases.
What is yellow, round and cries – but grins at the same time? No, not a picture of Donald Trump leaving the White House. It's the laughing-crying emoji, which is commonly used to represent someone laughing so hard that tears are streaming down their face. Too commonly, it seems. The leaky smile is apparently sending shudders down the spines of Gen Z, who have officially declared that the emoji is dead. Yes, that’s right. Just as you were getting to grips with the millennial habit of attaching a spherical yellow face to the end of every sentence, the rules suddenly change. This week, Generation Z, or “Zoomers” as they are known on social media, declared the laughing crying emoji is no longer cool, because it is overused by boomers and millennials. Many took to the video-sharing app TikTok to make their feelings about the emoji known. One user, @kykythattiktoker, posted a video captioned: “if you use the crying laughing emoji non ironically we can’t be friends.”
Just as we finish binge-watching Bridgerton and head off in search of more flighty, upper-crust escapism, along comes a lockdown love-triangle drama worthy of Nancy Mitford. In fact, the principal leading man could have written the script himself. For The Crown’s Peter Morgan, 57, has suddenly ditched society beauty, Jemima Goldsmith, 47, to rebound back to his former girlfriend, actress Gillian Anderson, 52, with whom he had a four-year relationship, prior to leaving her last December. Jemima has now been similarly blindsided – she is said to be “shocked and confused” – now that Peter has boomeranged back to Gillian, joining her on set in the Czech Republic, where she is currently filming. Which is confusing enough, before we learn how Peter is said to have taken to referring to Jemima as “the one”, before seemingly performing a handbrake turn to get back with Gillian. While we onlookers gawp slack-jawed at it all, in the new society – where aristocracy and celebrity seamlessly blend (and to be a member is to be gorgeous, glossy, rich and unbelievably well-connected) – relationships spin on a different axis. Furious fallings-out are infra dig; everything is always tempered, because this social set is so intertwined, an awkward froideur would be terribly non-U. Chances are that, once lockdown ends, Jemima and Gillian, who are said to be old friends, will be back, side by side again, beaming for the flashbulbs. Last month, it was reported that Gillian was said to be merely “bemused” by how quickly Peter’s romance had progressed with Jemima, and maintained a dignified silence as friends remarked that Peter and Jemima had formed a “legitimate support bubble”.
Tracey Crouch clearly remembers the day she discovered a lump in her breast, because she had just been on a mammoth 30-mile ride on the bike she bought at the beginning of Lockdown 1. The former sports minister was aching so badly on June 14 last year that although she had already had a shower that day, she decided to jump in her four-year-old son Freddie’s bath later that evening. It was then that she found a “thickened area, shaped like a thumb” in her right breast. Announcing her diagnosis on Twitter 10 days later, the notoriously competitive, sports-mad Tory MP for Chatham and Aylesford signalled her intention to “go into this challenge studs up” while advising “everyone to check their bits n bobbins”. Seven months on and two surgeries – to remove two tumours, potentially cancerous tissue and lymph nodes – later, Crouch celebrated her last round of chemotherapy with a glass of fizz in January and her last round of radiotherapy this Tuesday with a tweet declaring: “Off to max out on life now”.
Oh great. So now we have another eco-stick (or log, as the case may be) to beat ourselves with: government data shows that wood burning stoves are the UK’s largest source of particulate air pollution. They contributed around 41,000 toxic tonnes of the stuff in 2019 alone. PM2.5, as the form of pollution is known, are miniscule fragments of carbon. Measuring less than 2.5 microns, they infiltrate the body and get lodged in the organs, causing health issues ranging from respiratory problems to eye irritation. According to the new data, domestic stoves are responsible for nearly two-fifths of the PM2.5 in our air, despite only eight per cent of the population using them. Speaking as a member of that eight per cent, I’m loath to give up my wood burner. Yes, the stoves produce almost three times the amount of PM2.5 as road traffic, but lighting an evening fire has been one of the few things in which I’ve found solace during lockdown. When your home starts to feel like something of a prison, isn’t it only natural that you want it to feel like more of a sanctuary? Even when the weather began to warm up after the first lockdown, I continued, for a few weeks, to haul a couple of logs in from the woodpile, lighting it even if only for one log’s worth of a burn. Look, I’m an Australian in London, all right? I like to be warm. That wasn’t all there was to it though. It was the ritual of it; the building blocks of kindling, the satisfying scrape and hiss of a match, the smell of wood smoke, the glow it cast over the room. As soon as autumn came around, another delivery of logs was made, and the nightly practice began again. It’s the first time since having the stove installed three years ago that we’ve run out of logs before the spring: another delivery was made last week. Whether this is due to more nights at home, a greater need for comfort or a combination of the two, I can’t be sure. What I do know is that I look forward to that time in the evenings, when the children have finished their home learning and the dog humphs on to the sofa, we can gather together in front of that flickering warmth. It’s a feeling akin to that first warming sip of red wine, which yes, I may also have allowed myself to enjoy without guilt during these interminable months. And now, for the bit where I try to straighten my halo... One of primary reasons for buying logs in bulk is to eliminate the need to run to the local store or garage to buy one of those net-bound bags: these tend to have a high moisture content, which means that the wood is harder to burn and emits more chemicals. Buying ready-to-burn dried logs from a Woodsure certified supplier (and storing them correctly) lowers the footprint somewhat. I’ve been toying with the idea of trying coffee logs; after these recent stats, I’m even more keen to give these a go. Should I defend myself further? OK, fine: I drive a hybrid car. I buy my cleaning products and most toiletries at the local zero waste store. I don’t smoke. I do, admittedly, tend to fly rather a lot – although not in the last year, obviously. I have long been passionate about eschewing the High Street and wearing second hand clothing. When the seven-year-old Nespresso machine gave up the ghost, it was replaced with a bean to cup version to reduce all of that pod waste and contribute to good, rich, compost (in fact, maybe I should have a bash at making my own logs?). I collect rainwater for my junglesque collection of houseplants – hey, they’re air purifying, aren’t they? What does this make me? Somebody doing my bit, where and as I can, or a self-righteous middle-class hypocrite? I don’t honestly know. What I do know is that I used to joke about the light from a wood-burning stove being more flattering, and how it’s the closest I get, these days, to the wild camping adventures of my youth. Over the past year, in the absence of hugs, friends and parents, my stove has taken on a far more primal and vital significance. PM2.5 or not, it’s here to stay. Would you give up a wood burning stove for the environment? Let us know in the comments section below.
After a tough and tumultuous year, Mother’s Day is a chance to show the women in your life just how much you appreciate them. Whilst there's no gift special enough to truly say ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you’, I think we can all agree that every mum could do with a little extra TLC right now. A thoughtful gift is bound to put a smile on their face. With that in mind, we’ve curated the best Mother’s Day gifts that every mum, friend or mother-figure would be thrilled to receive. From subscription boxes to the best of beauty, fragrance and homeware gifts, this is our guide to the best Mother's Day presents (you don't want to be caught empty handed on March 14, after all). 1. The White Company Cashmere Bed Socks £36, The White Company
My younger and only sibling, Frances, has a genetic disease called Cri Du Chat syndrome, a chromosomal condition which means she is severely learning disabled and has diabetes. When Covid reared its ugly head, my parents and I knew Frances was suddenly very vulnerable and that her life would shrink beyond all recognition. For a year, she has been pretty much housebound – for the first lockdown with Mum and Dad, because we couldn’t bear not to see her, and later, when it became too much for our parents, she went back to her supported living home where some of her complex needs were better met. When the pandemic first started, we worried she would struggle to cope without us because her family are her whole world. Frances, 53, is a force of nature, with fiery red hair and a temper to go with it. The truth is, living with her is exhausting for my elderly parents because her condition means that she can be controlling and is prone to outbursts. The syndrome affects around 1 in 50,000 live births and symptoms can include severe cognitive speech and motor disabilities and behavioural problems such as hyperactivity, aggression, outbursts and repetitive movements. Put it this way – there’s no good china left in my parents’ house. She also needs to be with people of a similar age so she is stimulated. The last thing we wanted was to let her go into a care home, but we also had to face the fact that her mental health, and that of my parents, was suffering too. For Frances to fathom the concept of a pandemic is impossible. It’s hard enough being learning disabled, but since Covid came along she has been bewildered and even further out of step with a world that is not always terribly kind. She loved watching Boris on the news, along with Casualty, her favourite TV show. She knew something huge was going on but didn’t have any idea how it would and could affect her life – and that she was more vulnerable than she had ever been. Yet Frances wasn’t deemed sufficiently at risk, and her vaccination scheduled for the sixth phase of the vaccine roll-out. Some days Frances was OK, and she would listen to her music or spend all day – and I mean that literally – on FaceTime contacting family and friends. During one of my two-hour radio shows, she’d sometimes ring me 20 times until I’d give in and pick up. Other times she just didn’t bother getting out of bed. There was so little for her to get up for. There are only so many jigsaws she can be enticed to do. She’d also given up on baths. All she’d do was sleep, eat, repeat, ad infinitum. This was worrying of course, but we knew we had to focus on what was most important: keeping her safe indoors until she was vaccinated. Then, we thought, we’d get her back to being the vibrant, chatty, social creature that she is. We thought she was protected. Except she wasn’t.
Hiya! Good to see you reading this little feature down here, I hope you enjoy it. So how are you doing? Oh, me? I’m fine, just at home, mostly – lockdown, and all that. But today I noticed a news story about how BPP University Law School in Leeds is offering students what is thought to be the first module in chit-chat and networking. “We often talk about good conversation as if it’s just exchanging information,” says Georgie Nightingall, the course leader. “But my experience with – my addiction to – good conversation suggests it’s more about expanding your perspectives and your relationships.” While I would never claim to be “addicted to” good conversation, or bad conversation, it makes me wonder – and I think you’ll agree, but I’ll let you get a word in later – what the do’s and don’ts of great chit-chat are. The trials and tribulations of tattle, if you will. Let’s talk it over. DON’T ask dull questions According to Nightingall, “asking small questions”, such as what you do and where you live, means “the person receiving that question assumes it’s not asked with genuine interest”. As a result, the answers will be boring, too. So when you bump into a stranger at your first post-Covid wedding, try opening with something compelling like: “Hey, the ancient Greeks used spider webs to make bandages, did you know that? I’m Neil.” Or maybe: “Hello, nice to meet you. Tell me, if we were on Bake Off, what do you think Paul would say about this wedding cake? And do it in a Scouse accent. Go.” If they run away, it’s their loss. DO give interesting answers The follow-up to the above, naturally. It’s too easy to give a conversation-ending “Yeah, fine thanks”, or “I’m an accountant”, when really you want to surprise your interlocutor. Nightingall recommends answering something dreary like “How are you?” with a number, which apparently morphs into an absorbing dialogue about how we could grade our mood numerically. It’s one option. Others include: bare-faced lying (“I am a gunge-operator for CBBC”), giving too much information (“Apart from the rash, I’m fine”), creepiness (“All the better now you’ve drifted into my purview, mademoiselle…”) and mystique (“Guess”). DON’T act like you’re online A common issue for students these days, it’s said, is that they’re far more used to socialising online than in person. After three lockdowns, we’re probably all in that category now. So remember: in face-to-face conversations, you don’t need to switch your microphone on to speak, you are allowed to talk over one another a bit, you can’t simply reply with a thumbs up or a cry-laugh face, you do not have the authority to Jackie Weaver them out of the chat for shouting, and you do need to wear trousers. DO ask reciprocal questions A basic one, but you’d be amazed how far people can get in a chat without remembering to ask a single question in return. A conversation is like a game of Scrabble: you see what they lay down and consider what’s in your arsenal to build on it. “And you?” works well if you’ve just been asked what your last meal on death row would be, but they might have already given their answer, in which case you need to start somewhere else on the board. In that example, try: “So who would you be most likely to have murdered, if you were on death row?” It’s relevant. It’s pressing. It’s dark. The answer is probably you. DON’T bring up anything potentially awkward Sex, politics and religion are the classic no-gos, but to that we should add: the toppling of controversial statues, whether you’d rat on your neighbour in lockdown, gender rights, the sex appeal of Rishi Sunak, baked beans on Weetabix, screen time for your children, pineapple on pizza, the BBC, whether it’s pronounced “Gif” or “Jif”, if James Bond should be cancelled or not, and literally anything to do with Harry and Meghan. DON’T forget to make eye contact A classic, but for a reason. If you look over your conversation partner’s shoulder, it looks as if you’d rather speak to somebody else. If you look at your shoes, it looks as if you forgot to tie your laces. If you look at the other person’s shoes, it looks as if you hate their shoes. If you look at your drink, you look like a lush. If you look at the ceiling, you look like Chicken Licken. If you look at their chest, you’re in line for a slap. The eyes have it; anything else is wrong. DO repeat a person’s name A decade ago, Nick Clegg won a cupboard in Downing Street for five years simply by noting down the name of the questioner in a town hall-style debate and repeating it in his answers. The same applies in conversation. “Apart from the nipples, nothing,” you can say, “and how about you, Cynthia, have you had any plastic surgery?” Cynthia will be charmed: interesting answer, reciprocal question, and you remembered her name. 10/10 chit-chat. DON’T overdo repeating a person’s name Once is enough. Start every answer with: “Well, Cynthia, I’m really glad you asked because it’s a vital question…” and you’ll look like Rory Stewart.
“Am I going mad?” As the founder of an ‘anti-woke’ citizens advice service that launched last month, Helen Pluckrose hears this question more than any other. “One of our purposes here at Counterweight is to provide reassurance that, no, you are not going mad. Your perceptions are correct here, and we want to help you have the understanding and the language to counter what you are being asked to do, think or say,” she explains. Pluckrose – a British author known for her critiques of ‘wokeism’ (or critical social justice, to give it its academic title) whose co-authored book, Cynical Theories, was a bestseller last year – set up the non-partisan organisation to combat ‘cancel culture’ in the workplace and elsewhere. “And the number of people who getting in touch…” she marvels, as she tells me about the clients of every religion, ethnicity and political belief that have flooded the site since it launched. “From social workers and teachers to the police, firefighters, paramedics and charities. Because there’s a real growing concern among humanitarian aid organisations and charities right now about funds that are being diverted away from essential care like food and clean water to be ploughed into the ‘diversity training’ of staff.” Pluckrose shakes her head. “Honestly, that’s the one currently making me angriest.” Last weekend, a survey revealed that almost half of Britons believe that freedom of speech in the UK is “under threat”, with 43 per cent afraid to speak their minds on immigration matters; 42 per cent said they were scared to speak openly about transgender rights. Those who contact Counterweight for help are asked to detail the ‘woke’ issue they are struggling with. They will then be triaged by Pluckrose’s five-strong team and either put in touch with a host of voluntary specialists that include parents, teachers, social workers, technicians, academics, lawyers and psychologists, or encouraged to join the Counterweight Discord server, where clients can get talking to one another in a bid to resolve their problem. Everything is kept confidential, “but there would be so much public sympathy if these cases were known about”, says Pluckrose. “We have a black engineer, for example, who is currently being disciplined for refusing to take Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training. And we have people in occupations where they are saving lives every day, but are in trouble for saying: ‘I don’t care what colour skin someone has – I will save them because that’s my job.’ We help them address the issue with their employers in the most effective way possible.” It’s not always about helping employees confront companies or older generations seeking assistance with a language they no longer recognise, however, but assisting younger individuals, some of them teens, who have been worked up into desperate states. “I had a panicked message from a teenage girl who had criticised a Black Lives Matter post on Instagram recently because it had made a horrible generalisation about white people,” recounts Pluckrose, “and she had been descended upon by a mob of outraged people, some of whom were at her school. I was really afraid that she was going to harm herself, so I told her to log out of her account and stop the apologising that would only feed the frenzy, and just let things die down.” When Pluckrose checked in on the girl later, she was relieved to find her feeling better – “but she wasn’t going to use Instagram again, and she certainly wasn’t going to criticise any social justice ideas again.” Conversely, another young woman who got in touch during lockdown “had got very into reading anti-racist books and had become consumed with obsessional thinking. She was asking us: ‘Is this my white fragility?’ ‘Am I selfishly protecting myself?’, and had got caught up in all these psychological questions.” Then there was the recent case of “a young man who was concerned that he was a terrible person because he had masturbated about a certain girl ‘without her consent’.”
It was late on a Saturday morning in early December when I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer; I’d have to get naked. To take a nude selfie - my first ever - and send it to someone I had never met. Above my bed sits Modigliani’s painting ‘Female Nude’ so I found myself looking to her for guidance on how to pose. The sitter’s peace with her body is reassuring. But I didn’t want to be sleepily passive in how I presented my body, but rather completely awake and in control. Why was I doing this at all? I blame my sister. After I saw her post her own nude portrait on Instagram (by artist @_in_the_buff__), I had texted to say how much I loved it. Not just the Hockney-esque electric blue and pink, but her confidence in saying to the world “this is my body”. It reminded me of the Sex and the City episode in which Samantha Jones announces that she is going to get naked portraits taken. There’s a stunned silence. “Isn’t that a little narcissistic? asks Miranda. It’s been nearly 20 years since that first aired and the conversation has most certainly changed. Like many women, I have a complicated relationship with my body. As a teen, I just wanted to be as tiny as Audrey Hepburn or Carrie Bradshaw, and controlled how many calories I ate. By the age of 17, I was so underweight - a doctor told me - that I was only having one period a year.It was a pivotal moment. I didn’t want to be so thin that I was doing my body damage. It would be some years yet before my relationship with food normalised and oddly enough, it was during the first lockdown when I noticed that it had relaxed. The pandemic acted as a bit of a reality check. And a part of me wanted to commemorate that shift in paint. And so, after much humming and haahing on my part, I decided to press ahead with my own naked portrait; taking selfie after naked selfie to send to the artist. Shirt on, shirt off; jeans on, jeans off…turns out that taking nude photographs for yourself isn’t half as nerve-racking as it might be for a lover. There was no need for posturing, pouting, or saucy thrusting.
On hearing the news that Meghan Markle is pregnant again, having suffered a miscarriage after the birth of her first child, my heart broke a little. While the news may seem joyous to most, I know only too well the heartache that can strike as you live through your third pregnancy, but as a mother of one. In July, Meghan miscarried her second child – my son Henry was 14 months old, exactly the same age as baby Archie was then, when I endured the same. Seeing those positive lines on a pregnancy test again, as I did four months after my miscarriage in 2014, fear presided over excitement. I smiled as I received congratulations while inside, my stomach churned as I prayed that this one would survive. I was consumed by worry and anxiety, which would bubble away and then resurface with every visit to the midwife; each appointment left me petrified that this could be the day I was told that this baby, too, just hadn’t made it. A drop of blood or mild cramp would bring memories of miscarriage pains flooding back, and panic would rise once more. Like Meghan, I had blossomed during my first pregnancy. I enjoyed (almost) every second and despite the initial morning sickness, and unavoidable aches and pains, I was frequently told pregnancy ‘suited me’. I couldn’t foresee any reason why my second experience would be any different. But it was. My husband Jamie and I had been so keen to involve Henry in my pregnancy that we decided to take him to our three-month scan; “Kiss the baby,” I’d been cooing at him for months, and he’d nestle in next to me and plant a gentle kiss on my swelling stomach. But lying on the bed as the sonographer skimmed the jelly-cold instrument over me, I immediately, instinctively, knew something was wrong. Questions were asked about dates, knowing looks exchanged, and then I was told: “There’s no heartbeat.” I let out a wail and my confused toddler clung to me as we were all ushered into a side room and told that the baby inside me would never be born. Hasty arrangements were made for an ‘evacuation’ procedure and we were sent home, walking back through a waiting room filled with smiling pregnant women. I was due to return the following day for the operation to remove the ‘blighted ovum’ in my womb – also known as my second child – but nature wouldn’t even allow that. Ready to leave for the hospital I leaned forward to kiss Henry goodbye. A searing pain ripped through me, my entire body cramped, my stomach lurched, and an agonising burn filled my legs as I felt myself falling. Meghan wrote of clinging to her first child as she felt her second falling from her, an unbearable pain I recognised from her words: too weak to stand, I crawled up the stairs away from Henry. He was terrified. And that’s where most of it happened. Blood, clots, tissue, it all fell from me, into the toilet. Miscarriage is painful and can often be extremely traumatic. Having already endured one labour I recognised all the feelings, the pains, the contractions. But my body wasn’t pushing out a living being, it was ridding itself of a lifeless foetus and all I could do was hope it was all over quickly. I was rushed to A&E and the clots and contractions just kept coming. It wasn’t over in minutes, there was no respite; I gave birth to dead cells for more than three hours. After an overnight stay in hospital I went home. No newborn to cradle, no flowers and cards from well-wishers, just me – battered, bruised, and completely helpless. The physical pain of a miscarriage can be equalled, if not exceeded, by the emotional trauma. But when you already have a child, to many it’s as if your experience isn’t quite so sad as it is for those who remain childless. “At least you know you can carry to term,” I was told, and “at least you’ve got Henry.” No comprehension of the utter sense of failure and overwhelming grief that consumed me. Jamie was devastated when I miscarried; with tears in his eyes he told me he had never felt such sadness, but it wasn’t his body, and when I fell pregnant again I think it cured the sadness for him. I don’t blame him, and his positivity was a support for me, but having endured both the physical and emotional trauma I couldn’t bounce back so quickly. The loss of her second baby is likely to still bear heavy on Meghan’s mind. When I fell pregnant again a few months after miscarrying, I didn’t put any pictures of my pregnant belly on Facebook until a month before my daughter was due; I was too scared that by publicly admitting it, I was somehow inviting fate to steal another baby from me. Instead of enjoying the thrill of a third pregnancy I spent it worrying that I would miscarry again. Jamie worried too, that flush of excitement and increasing joyful anticipation just wasn’t possible for either of us. I bled throughout, and suffered many complications, one involving a blue-light dash from Peppa Pig World to Southampton General Hospital as my body battled to keep hold of my daughter inside. Every day brought questions of whether things were OK, and a constant hyper-awareness of what was going on within. When you don’t feel that flutter, when the baby doesn’t stick to its regular wriggling schedule, inevitably the panic that something is wrong sets in. When my daughter Beatrice was born, it completed our family. As she grew past toddlerhood we did discuss trying for a third child – ultimately, the risk of something going wrong, and potentially threatening the happiness we had reached, convinced us otherwise. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still grieve for the one that didn’t make it. Read more on miscarriage: Don’t be afraid to reveal pregnancy before 12-week scan, say charities ‘I tried to play the strong man when my wife miscarried – but I was crumbling inside’ The hard conversations I had to have with my children after losing a baby
It was the following sentence, rattled off so casually by LBC presenter Maajid Nawaz on his weekend afternoon show, that left me standing slack-jawed by the kettle, long after it had boiled. According to the former activist turned radio host, the national debate about vaccine passports could be boiled down to a pithy one-liner: it’s about “not stamping on individual rights in the name of group rights”. Effectively forcing us to get the vaccine “doesn’t sit right with me”, he said. But there’s a word for that overarching social sacrifice, isn’t there? More than one, in fact: selflessness, altruism, humanitarianism, social conscience, public spirit… take your pick. So Nawaz’s sentence could baldly be rephrased: “We shouldn’t be stopped from privileging ourselves over others.” I’m glad my nine-year-old wasn’t there to hear it. From the moment a child is born, parents do everything they can to quash that instinctive but noxious instinct all the way through into adulthood. And we don’t just do it for society, urging kids at every turn to hold the door open for others, help others and think of others, but because only when armed with courtesy, grace, empathy and civility can they hope to enjoy life in the democracy they were lucky enough to be born into. Nawaz is right about one thing, though: it’s important to boil arguments down. Because as helpful as it has been to have a term to hide self-centeredness behind since the pandemic hit – and to use and abuse the excuse-all “personal rights” in order to avoid wearing masks, socially distancing or, indeed, adhering to any of the scientific guidelines drawn up to save lives – we cannot hope to emerge from the waking nightmare in which we’re all trapped together if we persist in concealing our true motivations behind lofty ideologies. The springboard for Nawaz’s discussion was the suggestion made by Dominic Raab on Sunday that, under plans currently being considered by the government, shops, restaurants and pubs could require customers to show vaccine passports.
By Hollywood standards, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s Valentine’s Day announcement that they are expecting their second child was positively low-key, comprised of a few lines from their spokesman and a single photograph, presumably taken in their Santa Barbara garden, in which Meghan is captured resting her head on her barefoot husband’s thigh, a hand cradling her blossoming bump. By contrast, fellow Californian, model Emily Ratajowski revealed her pregnancy in October by posing in a satin slip on the cover of American Vogue while Beverly Hills resident Katy Perry, announced she was carrying Orlando Bloom’s child via the medium of an elaborate music video last March. Still, the Sussexes’ artfully staged black and white snap is a far cry from the royal family’s traditionally exiguous pregnancy announcements and a sign that, when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, this time the privacy-obsessed couple will be doing things their own way. Which, if their approach to post-royal life is any indication, means it’s going to be more befitting of La La Land than England. Documenting the pregnancy With its bucolic setting and relaxed ‘we only have eyes for each other’ body language, the photograph released on Sunday looked an awful lot like a pregnancy photoshoot, now considered a rite of passage for most expectant Californian mums (Knapp’s Castle, a dilapidated mountaintop mansion offering panoramic views of Santa Barbara is a particularly trendy location). Of course, most Californian mums haven’t just won a High Court privacy battle against a British tabloid, or had the image shot remotely from London using an iPad, in the Sussex’s case by long-time friend and photographer Misan Harriman. And most would fully intend to plaster the shoot all over Instagram, whereas Harry and Meghan signed off their Sussex Royal social media channels last year, suggesting this style of artfully controlled peek-a-boo press release could be a sign of things to come. Baby shower
Almost a year since the first lockdown, and the pandemic continues to hold us in its stubborn grip. Schools remain closed until at least March; it’s half term but we can’t even take children to the playground; holidays – even in this country! – remain uncertain, and feeling uplifted is becoming a leaden struggle. On my personal rap sheet is the fact I can’t see our two older children – living, as they do, 200 miles away. That the calendar is blank. That leggings encrusted with this morning’s Weetabix are my default workwear. I’ve watched all the telly. I’ve eaten all the snacks. You hum it, I’ll play it. Retail therapy remains a faithful friend to us all in this pandemic. What else do we have left to break up the monotony, other than “emotional spending” on frivolous purchases, and the dopamine hit of the doorbell? New data from Mintel shows 53 per cent of British adults are shopping online more than we were at the start of last year. And while lockdown one had us panic buying bikes, paint and desk chairs, these days – with consumers under no illusions about the long road ahead – subscription box services are soaring. Half of all UK online shoppers are now treating themselves to a monthly delivery service according to the Royal Mail – up from 34 per cent before the pandemic hit. Shoppers are subscribing to boxes ranging from brownies to books to beauty products, along with popular meal subscription services such as Hello Fresh. With things feeling especially bleak right now, “friendship packages” and “mindfulness hampers” are proving popular. Hundreds of people are subscribing to the monthly Positivity Package – a sugar pink box of goodies brimming with key rings, cookies and can-do slogans. So can you find happiness in a box? I sign up to try, and a few days later, my little package of sunshine arrives. On the day it’s delivered through my letterbox, I’m struggling to believe a carefully curated parcel of mood-lifting treats and inspirational quotes will be enough to keep lockdown despair at bay. Rather than summoning the Dunkirk spirit, a heart-shaped cookie with the words “consider this a hug in a biscuit” jauntily inscribed into lemon fondant is likely to put me in an even worse mood. The monthly subscription – £17.99, with a minimum sign-up of three months and the contents changing with each delivery – merrily taps into the overhyped cult of gratitude and trend for positive thinking. Founder April Stevenson says the initiative is more than commercially opportunistic pandemic bandwagonism. “I actually came up with the idea back in December 2019,” explains April, who lives in Stockport and works in fashion as a product developer. “I’d been struggling with some personal issues which had left me feeling anxious and with a low mood. I had to take time off work because I felt so awful. I didn’t think tablets were the answer for me. But I needed something to make me feel upbeat and motivated. “At home I looked for things to distract me, such as reading, doing Sudoku, word searches and adult colouring books. Anything to help me through. It made me think ‘what if these things came with a positive message?’ ” She came up with the idea of delivering a box of therapeutic treats, on a monthly basis, with different themed contents. Then the stars aligned. Just as April was about to launch The Positivity Package in late February last year, we teetered towards the first lockdown and the nation slumped into collective hopelessness. The response has, she says, been astonishing. As others watched in despair as businesses disappeared, April has watched hers go from strength to strength and she already has hundreds of subscribers as well as those who buy one-off packages for either themselves or friends who need a boost. There is, admittedly, something positive about unwrapping the contents of the Positivity Package – who doesn’t like to get presents? In my box, I find a rather jolly desk calendar (sorry, “Note to Self Affirmation Desk stand” – with its monthly mood boosting message). The Little Book of Happiness, however, jammed with tea-towel slogans about how to savour the ordinary, is an acquired taste. Bleakness, you see, has calcified in my soul since the start of lockdown. But as I mooch further through the package I realise I need to chip the hard edges away if I’m going to benefit from this kind of service. I find a monthly affirmation sheet – on which I’m supposed to write down things that make me feel positive about myself – a practice which is, to be fair, proven to raise positive feelings and reduce stress. When I Blu Tack the sheet onto my study wall, it falls off. No – be positive. This is a question of more Blu Tack. Not less ambition. And so my desk is now a happy hub of optimism. I’ve placed the yellow Aventurine crystal – claimed by some to ease anxiety and expand the flow of creativity – next to my computer. Over a coffee break I do the “positivity crossword”. Five across: begins with S, clue “turn that frown upside down”. Yep, we’re in a world where no one feels stupid or incompetent. April is the first to admit her boxes aren’t a “magic wand” for negative feelings. “But on a day-to-day basis, there are things out there – small things – which can make us feel better,” she says. “And I want to bring that to people each month”. She’s certainly hit on an in demand commodity. In fact, someone get a memo to the Downing Street doom-mongers. April could make a packet.