Shakespeare, the Kardashians and modern role models

Today, I WAS planning on writing a blogpost about why I love RuPaul’s Drag Race so much, but something else has caught my eye- a headteacher at a girls school asking girls to be more like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra than Kim Kardashian. She does also mention other characters- Beatrice, Rosalind and Viola- but it’s Cleo who really has captured the headlines.


I love Shakespeare, but have a few problems with this comparison. Firstly- yes, OK. Cleopatra is a ruler in her own right and is very powerful. But the story in the play revolves around her love affairs (and her power is somewhat tangled up in all of this) and she eventually kills herself as a result of her love for a man. So far, so feminist right?

Plus, I always find there’s an innate snobbery implied by suggesting that people turn to Shakespeare over modern media, as if it’s somehow better. As an English teacher, I know that Shakespeare is seen by the kids-and teachers of other subjects- as elitist, boring and unnecessarily difficult, that it’s not there to be enjoyed by everyone. Hell, I went to one of the worst schools in Leeds as a kid and could feel the antipathy radiating off my co-students whenever the name of Shakespeare was mentioned. (Also, it’s not just the kids who subscribe to this view. The one time I asked that we tried teaching Manga Shakespeare versions of Macbeth, I was looked at by some in my department like I’d grown three heads. Graphic novels also come under the ‘vulgar’ heading, apparently.) It drives me mad. Shakespeare writes about real life: feuds, scandal, romance, businesses gone awry, power-all of human life, in its devious and imperfect glory is there. Plus he could often be kind of a bit… sleazy. He would have loved the Kardashians.

Shakespeare would have been intrigued by today’s celebrities; imagine all the storylines he could have nicked off social media! I think he would also hate to have been seen as an either/or proposition; we kind of forget that he was a slightly shady character himself for much of his life and that acting and theatre owning wasn’t seen as a particularly illustrious career unless you got in with the royals, as he obviously did later on in his life. There was a reason that theatres were on the same side of the river as the bear bating pits and brothels.

Girls are not going to go out and change their behaviour because the head of a private school has created some lessons looking at how ‘inspirational’ some of Shakespeare’s women were (and let’s be honest- there’s scant pickings there. I think most of his women were weakly written, serving a purpose as a foil or a love interest. My favourites are Beatrice and Portia, and even they have issues.) However, I can’t dismiss any attempt to make Shakespeare’s work more accessible and enjoyable- I just wish we were more playful, more imaginative when it came to getting students to access the plays. I say this as someone who once got a bottom year 11 set to work out the issues in Macbeth for a speaking and listening exercise by performing a scene in which the characters were taking part in a Shakespearean version of Jeremy Kyle. It was… interesting, but they ended up doing pretty well in their coursework essays.

Would I choose Kim Kardashian as an ideal role model for young girls? Probably not. But then anyone I suggested as a role model would probably be viewed with suspicion because I’m seen as old, even though I’m a relatively young teacher. But here’s the thing- elders always recommend role models that they think are suitable because they see more ‘modern’ role models as ‘unsuitable’; it’s the old chestnut about the generation above despairing of the one below, forgetting that they too were once interested in people their parents disapproved of. And I bet they would have baulked at the suggestion that they go read Shakespeare instead of idolising whoever it was they had on their bedroom wall, too.


The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and The Road to World War One- Miranda Carter

3 emperors


I started this on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the war, as I thought it was a fitting time to start it. I’ve been interested in the last days of Imperial Russia and I watched the BBC drama 39 Days earlier this year, so I probably bought this book around then.

Anyway, the book is a tricky prospect: how do you combine the biographies of three quite frankly odd men who were bound together by family ties but separated by nation ideologies? The book not only looks at the lives of Nicholas II, George V and Wilhelm II but also the legacy of Queen Victoria and the effect of Edward VII’s charm and congeniality (the author jokes that at one point, she seriously considered naming the book ‘Four Emperors and an Empress’.) It’s an awesome task and one that Miranda Carter does well and with humour- which is not always an easy feat. 

I found the book engrossing, although difficult at times- getting into the various foreign policies of countries a hundred years ago is never going to be the stuff of the Edinburgh Fringe, although Carter does it well. It’s absurd how three men, none of whom seemed especially ready for their roles, held the key to international peace. Nicholas comes across as kind but deluded, George as pretty dull and Wilhelm as a man obsessed with machismo but lacking common sense. 

It’s hard, too, to not look at the events of the world then and compare them with now- I came away from the book feeling like although we’d lived through various revolutions, we haven’t learnt any lessons.

Books 2013: July

A bit of a mixed bag this month; lots more fiction than usual, which is unusual, but necessary. My brain needed a bit of a rest from really factual stuff!

*All images from Waterstones

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town- Mary Beard


This is actually a sneaky inclusion from June that I finished just after I published last month’s books. I read it in the run up to attending the exhibition at the British Museum and it was brilliant to read about some of the things we’d seen in the museum and their history. I love Mary Beard’s approach to history and this book is no exception; witty, full of interesting facts and not afraid to deal with some of the less unsightly areas of Roman life. I would also credit this with being partly responsible for me becoming interested in learning Latin. id bonum est.

The Damnation of John Donellan- Elizabeth Cooke


What do you get when you have a dead, syphilitic aristocrat who is a couple of months’ shy of his 21st birthday (and thus his inheritance), a mother who is perceived as a bit dim and a brother-in-law who, although seems devoted to his wife and children, has a bit of a reputation of a social upstart and past reprobate? The answer: a book very much in the mould of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, where social class, scandal and terrible legal defence combine to produce what could be one of the first high profile cases of miscarriage of justice.

Pompeii- Robert Harris


My boss insisted on lending me this after hearing me talk about the exhibition. I’d never read Robert Harris before (I’ve since been told that this isn’t his best work…) and I found that this book was a bit hit and miss. I found it hard to get into and the female characters were a bit frustrating. However, as a fictional account of Pompeii in the lead up to the eruption, it was very vivid. Also, if you like knowing about Roman aqueduct systems in your fiction, you’re in for a treat…

The Daughter of Time- Josephine Tey

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

This is another recommendation, this time from our school librarian. The Daughter of Time is apparently quite a famous mystery novel from the 1950s, but if you’re expecting a Miss Marple type, think again. The novel tells the story of a policeman who, in hospital for a few weeks after breaking his leg (ah, the old-style NHS!), is bored. His friend suggests that he do some historical detective work and he chooses the story of the Princes in the Tower. I’ve not really done it justice in my description, but it’s an interesting read, even if some of the theories about Richard III have since been debunked.

Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies- Hadley Freeman


I love reading Hadley Freeman’s work- it’s often like she’s written exactly what’s in my head, but with a slightly more fashionable twist. This book is no exception; a guide through life that is funny and thought provoking (the bits about new mums made me chortle and nod my head in agreement- Hadley later told me on Twitter that she’d written it for her sister who had just had a baby.) What I like about this is that although it’s a feminist book, it doesn’t hit you over the head with it, merely points out common sense. To anyone who isn’t sure if they’re a feminist: read this book.

Review: LoveTea Wild Excelsior Paksong Oolong

Recently, I was offered the chance to try a sample of one of LoveTea‘s monthly teas and was lucky enough to be sent a lovely Oolong tea called Wild Excelsior Paksong. SAM_0304

Oolong is not a type of tea that I usually drink; I am quite rigid in what I drink according to the time of year- black tea (especially Chai) in winter and green/white tea in spring and summer (although I always start the day with a black tea, I need my caffeine fix!) I’m not sure why oolong isn’t really on my radar, but it was very nice to have a change!

Wild Excelsior is a variety of oolong grown in the only tea garden in Laos and is so-called because it is a wild variety of tea plant. It’s a highly prized variety of the tea, as the Paksong garden only produces 30 tonnes a year.

Taste-wise, LoveTea say that this has a ‘delicate, roasted flavour with floral notes and buttery undertones.’  I would agree with this, although I thought it also tasted earthy but light, which is possibly a bit of an oxymoron! I brewed the tea as per the instructions and got a light yellow liquid. LoveTea also kindly sent some tea filters, which are larger than the usual ones I use. These allowed the leaves to gently unfurl and release their flavour.

You can re-steep good quality oolong leaves; apparently the best brewing is often the third, but I didn’t get chance as Benn threw away the teabag thinking it was done with! I will be trying this in future brewings though!

LoveTea have kindly offered my lovely readers 40% off their first month’s subscription. Just use the code POMFRETT40 when signing up! Brilliantly, there are a range of subscriptions to suit most pockets and no commitment, so you can try this risk-free. Let me know if you do and what you think of the service!


Book Q+A

I admitted on Twitter the other day that my blogging inspiration tank is running on empty at the moment. However, I did see this over on Skye‘s blog and decided it’d be a bit of fun while my brain takes some time to sort itself out.

One of my favourite bookshops, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, taken by me on honeymoon.

One of my favourite bookshops, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, taken by me on honeymoon.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading Merivel by Rose Tremain, a sequel to one of my favourite books from last year, Restoration. Instead of being set in the court of Charles II, the action has now moved to Versailles. I’m also reading a book about the effect of the Black Death on Europe, which is cheery.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read after you’ve finished this book?

I have a huge ‘to-read’ list, but I think I’ll read some of the books on my Kindle. I was recently sent a very interesting looking book which is so not my usual thing. I’m looking forward to having something utterly new! I also have a cracking Jean Harlow biography that needs reading too.

Five books you’ve always wanted to read but have never got round to?

This is hard, because I do read A LOT, both for pleasure and for work. I suppose A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood is the one I would most like to read (and really have no excuse not to have done.) I’d also like to read some Dostoyevsky and Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, as I love the film.

What magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?

I have Marie Claire, as I buy those for work (we use it as a case study for A-level students) and I have this month’s Red magazine, which I really enjoy, even though I think I’m a bit young for their target audience. Or maybe not, now I’m pushing 30!

What’s the worst book you ever read?

I really, really hated God Was A Rabbit. Sloppy editing (seriously, if the publishers can’t pick up on the wrong homophone being used, it really bugs me. Must be an English teacher thing.) I also thought the plot was ridiculous. If ONE of those unfortunate things happened to someone, you’d be amazed, but the whole litany of problems? UGH. I threw the book across the room when I finished it.

What book is really popular but you really hated?

The Great Gatsby. Ugh. Overrated by a mile. Saying that, love the aesthetic and will probably see the film. But if you want 1920s fabulousness, try reading some Evelyn Waugh instead.

What’s the one book you recommend to everybody?

Hmmm, either The Book Thief or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Both are fantastic in their way.

What are your three favourite poems?

Before I taught English, I hated poetry, but now I definitely have favourites. At our wedding, my sister read Love’s Philosophy by Shelley. No Coward Soul Is Mine by Emily Bronte is amazing and inspirational and otherwise, anything by William Blake would make my list. The only poem I can recite is Dulce et Decorum est by Wilfred Owen.

Where do you usually get your books?

I tend to buy secondhand, but I’m using the library much more these days as well!

Where do you usually read your books?

In the bath and in bed. Since having D, I’ve tried to make some time each day to read, even if it’s just ten minutes.

When you were little, did you have any reading habits?

I read everywhere I could. I also used to devour whole series of books, like Mallory Towers etc. From the age of about six, I would always ask for book tokens for birthdays and Christmas.

What’s the last book you stayed up half the night to read?

I just finished a biography of Marilyn Monroe. It wasn’t groundbreaking or anything- I just had to take it back to the library!

Have you ever ‘faked’ reading a book?

As an English teacher, I respectfully decline to answer this question, haha!

Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?

Yes! A book called Girl, Reading. I read it on honeymoon. It was a collection of short stories based on paintings of women reading. An interesting concept.

Image: For Books’ Sake

What was your favourite book as a child?

Hands down, Matilda! One of the great things about having my own child is that I’m slowly building up his library with all the books I had when I was little. I’m looking forward to introducing him to Roald Dahl when he’s older!

Which book changed your life?

I’d say The Book Thief. It’s a book that’s stayed with me for years and the only book to ever have made me cry twice! I’m not sure I could re-read it, but I have struck up conversations with strangers about it. Such a fabulous book.

What is your favourite passage from a book?

I’m not very good at remembering this kind of thing, but the quote I chose is from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte. It’s a book that, at the time I read it, surprised me. To say it’s written by a young, isolated woman in the mid-19th Century, it’s amazingly modern in some aspects of its outlook. This quote seems especially relevant to me at this time in my life:

“If you would have your son to walk honourably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them — not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone. “

Who are your top five favourite authors?

Sarah Waters

Karen Maitland

Anne Bronte

Haruki Murakami

Rose Tremain

What is your favourite classic book?

Either anything by Anne or Emily Bronte or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Five notable mentions?

I love Gone With The Wind and Breakfast at Tiffany’s is well worth a read. I’d also recommend checking out the catalogue of Persephone Books, especially books by Dorothy Whipple!




The Great Mascara Review: Maybelline The Rocket Volum’ Express

Before I go on, I would like to say I have issues with the name of this mascara. Why are we dropping the ‘e’ all of a sudden? I don’t get it. Anyway, on with the review!

Mascara #8: Maybelline The Rocket Volum’ Express (£7.99)

Image: Maybelline

I bought this when it first came out and was on special offer. To be honest, I didn’t have a massive amount of confidence, as I’d fallen foul of special offers before. So for a while, it sat in my mascara box (yes, I have a mascara box. I collected a load to try out, I still have a few. Shut up.) Then, one day, I lost a fairly ‘meh’ mascara that I was using. In fact, this other mascara was SO ‘meh’, I don’t even think I’ll bother reviewing it. I reached for the Maybelline and was pleasantly surprised for a couple of reasons.

1) We all know by now that stupid brushes are my bugbear. This one, as far as newfangled type brushes go, is OK. It’s easy to use and picks up just the right amount of mascara. I haven’t noticed clumping or my lashes sticking together, either. So I’m quite happy with this aspect.

2) The formula seems, for me, spot on. It’s not too dry or too wet, although I’ve seen reviews that have said it is watery- something I just haven’t ever noticed. I’m not wearing mascara every day at the moment, but I’m sure I would have noticed if it was slightly off. I have also worn this in the rain while wearing contact lenses and not noticed it shifting.

Would I repurchase? Heck, yes. I tend to get overexcited by a mascara and then eventually realise it’s pants, but this one (so far) has only been good for me. I have seen a lot of mixed reviews for it, but for me, it’s a winner. That said, I have a few more in my box left to review, so we’ll see.

Books 2013: January

I seem to be doing quite well on the reading front, considering I have a relatively new baby. However, I have until recently been reading ‘bitty’ types of books that you can dip in and out of, or fairly light novels. This month, I finished four books and gave up entirely on one.

Moranthology- Caitlin Moran


Image: Waterstones

I’m a big fan of Caitlin Moran; I once ambushed her outside Wagamama’s in Brighton and we had a very good chat for ten minutes which ended with her introducing me to her husband and daughters. Slightly surreal. Anyway, this is a collection of her columns, which for me (too stingy to pay for The Times in any guise) is brilliant. There’s all sorts of topics covered, from an interesting outing with Lady Gaga to mental health. Bonus points as well for the fact that there’s an essay about Anne Lister in here- my grandma is the person who translated the diaries from code, edited and published them. (You can buy my grandma’s book here, if you like.)

All Wound Up- Stephanie Pearl McPhee


All Wound Up: The Yarn Harlot Writes for a Spin

Image: Waterstones

Stephanie Pearl McPhee is a bit of a niche writer- her work is described as ‘knitting humour’. I’ve just started, tentatively when the baby’s colic allows it, knitting again in an evening, so this was a welcome read. Unlike the previous two books, there’s more of a mix of topics in this book of essays: parenting, cold weather and life in general are all covered, as well as one or two essays about knitting!

My Policeman- Bethan Roberts

My Policeman

Image: Waterstones

I picked this up expecting an interesting read- it was chosen as Brighton’s City Read last year and I was intrigued by the storyline. It’s set in 1950’s Brighton and tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a policeman, who falls in love with a gay man. Although I found this interesting from a historical point of view, I found the ending somewhat baffling and dissatisfying. The descriptions of Brighton are fantastic though.

The Killer of Little Shepherds- Douglas Starr

The Killer of Little Shepherds: The Case of the French Ripper and the Birth of Forensic Science

Image: Waterstones

This is a fascinating read. It tells two parallel, true stories: the first, the story of Joseph Vacher, a murderer who terrorised the whole of France in the 1890s and was termed the ‘French Ripper’ and that of Professor Alexandre Lacassagne, one of the founders of modern criminology and forensic pathological science. It’s a pacey book that’s easy to read (despite the tiny font!) and shows how modern policing developed during this time.

The Secret of Crickley Hall- James Herbert

Oh, this promised so much and delivered so little. I had to give up after thirty pages… the description was laboured, the characters were sketchy (who says to their daughter, “You know I still work freelance for women’s magazines from time to time.” ARGH.) and the American dad was a stereotype. Other than that, it was fine. Totally one for the charity shop pile, methinks.

What have you read this month?