Tuesday, 26 July 2011

'Treasure Island' at Bristol Old Vic

Hot on the damp heels of Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas show Swallows and Amazons is their equally watery al fresco summer adventure: Treasure Island.

Bristol’s famous theatre may be undergoing some careful renovations inside, but that won’t stop the wonderful Bristol Old Vic from putting on a show. And since they can’t perform indoors, they’ve simply erected an amazing stage and seating arena on the cobbles in the front of their historic venue.

Tucked away behind a seemingly incongruous collection of scaffolding and green baize is a suitably ramshackle corridor that leads you to the temporary stage, complete with ushers wearing pirate hats and with toy parrots on their shoulders, guiding you to your seat and tempting you with a programme (which is well worth the cost – not least for the useful vocabulary sheet, and DIY hat).

Mother Nature blessed us with a balmy July evening, and Bristol’s seagulls swooped and squawked above our heads, adding a real sense of atmosphere to this famous sea-faring adventure. One that was brought to life by a multi-talented cast of just eight, who assume a variety of roles and slip between them with seamless professionalism. The plentiful references to Bristol in speech and song were warmly appreciated by the happy audience, too.

The tale of Jim Hawkins and his quest to find the buried gold on Treasure Island is well known and well loved, and is rightly a much-loved classic. Jim’s confrontations with the legendary Long John Silver have been lapped up by generations – who manage to gloss over the blood shed and greed to enjoy the boy’s own adventure at face value.

All of the cast are fantastic. But the stars of the show are clearly Jim (Jonny Weldon) and the wonderful Long John Silver himself (Tristan Sturrock). And while Jonny is a relative newcomer, a quick glance at the programme reveals why Tristan is as good as he is: he’s been a part of the Kneehigh theatre group for more than 20 years (surely the finest theatre group in England, on which note – I urge you to see their show The Wild Bride at St George’s this October: NB, buy your ticket soon, as last week they’d virtually sold out every night).

This production of Treasure Island includes a few respectful nods to its predecessor Swallows and Amazons (incorporating the musicians into the cast; the passing of the ship at the end), but this only adds to the feeling of inclusivity that the audience feels at joining Bristol Old Vic for yet another stellar production.

We Bristolians are truly lucky to have such an amazing theatre on our doorsteps. And I can’t wait until they reopen their main doors and unveil their brand new theatre inside.

Treasure Island is playing until August 26 – go and see it while you can. You can book tickets in person at the Bristol Old Vic box office, or by buying from their website here.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Women of Twitter

I bloody love Twitter. I love Grace Dent, too. So when she wrote a book about Twitter, well, that was like heaven in paperback form.

When I joined Twitter last December, Grace was one of the first people I followed. Not deliberately – but so many other people I knew followed and Retweeted her, that I needed to join in to keep up. And never once has my finger hovered over the ‘Unfollow button, which it has for many others.

Grace’s book, How To Leave Twitter, is brilliant for many reasons. Here’s some of them:

- It’s very funny.
- It’s very funny because it’s so true to life.
- If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re screwed.
- Grace loves Twitter but she knows where to draw the line.
- The line is somewhere near the WiFi ‘off’ button.
- But she always comes back, because that’s the magic of Twitter.

Twitter is an amazing network of people you know, people you didn’t know you wanted to know, a few desperate celebrities trying to cling to the last hint of fame to bolster their flagging egos now they haven’t had a TV show for 15 years (Wincey Willis, I’m looking at you), and, of course, the lovely Martin Kemp from Spandau Ballet (who I heart. Big time).

Grace acknowledges all of this, and more. Because she also recognises that Twitter is governed by an amazing network of witty, snarky, wise and savvy women – who know what’s going on in the world, who’s doing it, and what needs to be done to make things better. Which is why the strongest part of her wonderful book is where she laments that all too often women are denied a voice on TV – yet on Twitter, we can talk as long as we like, unedited.

As she says, on TV women are often “screen parsley stuck on the side of the plate”, pointing out that “no one would really notice if you scraped them into the bin”. Grace points out there are hours and hours of TV screen time every day devoted to men (“potatoes in jumpers”) being able to tell us what they think. BUT WHERE ARE THE WOMEN? Since no one wants to hear what we have to say, we’re all on Twitter… in our millions.

Here are some of my favourite funny women on Twitter: @gracedent, @scouserachel, @DawnHFoster, @caitlinmoran, @soul_of_twit, @sueperkins, @gail_brand. There are many more, though. MANY.

(In the interests of equality, I should stress that I also know there are some amusing men on Twitter, too: @wowser, @GarethAveyard, @RealBobMortimer, @Headspill, @StephenMangan… oh, and some others.)

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Depression in the digital age

Until I had depression, I didn’t understand what it was. If I said I was depressed, it was usually because of something inconsequential like staying late at work. That’s not being depressed, that’s being fed up – at worst, pissed off. But it’s not being depressed.

Depression is the complete and utter, all-consuming gloom. It’s the dark cloud that saps your energy, your spark and sometimes your will to live. It can be the torment of countless, endless, sleepless nights, trying to remember to breathe slowly while staring at the ceiling and knowing (knowing) you are the only person in the whole wide world who is awake at that time. And it is a thousand other permutations of barely living misery. Depression cannot be overstated.

So for people who don’t understand depression to say they’re depressed ‘cos there’s no milk for their tea, is really rather insulting.

But it’s also understandable. Because if they haven’t experienced depression themselves, or seen someone they are close to experience it, why would they understand it? Depression is one of those things that people just don’t talk about because it’s to do with “mental health” and the unfortunate link that having “mental health problems” makes to someone therefore “being mental” and having “the people in white coats come and take them away”. Depression is not glamorous, even if celebrities come out and say they have mental health problems, too. Sadly, unless handled well (Catherine Zeta Jones, Stephen Fry), they often get mocked for it (Kerry Katona, Charlie Sheen).

Which is why the internet is a wonderful thing. The essential charity Mind has a website that is filled with an endless stream of priceless resources, support and advice. In my early days of depression, I nervously visited their website worrying it might be tracked in my internet history file, and another user of my computer would then judge me as “mental”. This never happened. But what did happen was that I found lifelines such as plain English factsheets explaining why feeling the way I did was OK, and audio files of relaxation sessions to ease me through a panic attack, which I could burn to a CD and play endlessly. Mind’s website, which is laid out in such a simple yet unpatronising way (perfect for those visiting in a less than clam state), is straightforward, easy to use and unendingly supportive.

Extensions of the Mind website (and similar organisations) are their Facebook and Twitter profiles (@MindCharity, @the_elephant_, @timetochange, @Rethink_), and associated #timetochange and #whatstigma hashtags… plus more I’ve probably forgotten, apologies. All of these are updated throughout the day with useful suggestions, relevant news stories and interesting links – and you should follow them all.

Bizarrely, a further extension of how social media helps to challenge ignorance and offer unconditional support, is (surprisingly – to me, at least) through the Twitter timeline. In real life, I feel too embarrassed to tell all but my closest friends that I have depression – it just never comes up in conversation. I certainly don’t tell my employer, even though I’m 99% sure they’d be supportive. And I don’t shout about it on Twitter… but slowly, over the months I’ve spent in the Twittersphere, I’ve seen a few hints from people I follow (who I don’t know in real life, but I follow because they post amusing or insightful commentary on the news, or funny pictures of puppies in berets, or because they were once in a band I liked) that maybe some of them have depression, too. And while I obviously don’t feel pleased that they do, it is also incredibly reassuring to know that there must be thousands of other people out there (people who are pretty much like me) who do their best to get on with their lives, but some days it’s just not happening. And so when someone I follow suddenly apologises for being on Twitter that day, and saying they should never log on when “the black dog” is around, a light bulb of affinity and connection clicks in my mind.

Like anywhere, Twitter obviously has its negative characters, but like anywhere, they are outweighed by the genuinely kind and generous people who populate the community. And in 10+ years of being online, I’ve never found that anywhere like I have on Twitter. Twitter is addictive because it is a 24/7 stream of news, jokes and funny pictures of cats on a mocked up front page of The Guardian. But it’s also addictive because among the anger and resentment at the bastards who are ruining our country and crippling us financially, there is a real sense of camaraderie and team spirit. There are sometimes people on Twitter who, when having a bad time, tweet about what a shit day they’ve had – and receive messages of genuine support from total strangers. Which is sometimes what you need, because often it’s easier to tell your problems to a stranger than it is to those you’re closest to in real life. I’m not saying that joining Twitter is the answer to depression, but it is certainly an amazing support network – even if people don’t realise that’s what they’re doing.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Laurie Penny... looking familiar

A few weeks ago, I bought Laurie Penny’s short book Meat Market. I’d planned to blog a review of it but, after reading, was left feeling so “meh” about the book that I never did.

At £9.99 (less via Amazon) for 68 pages, Meat Market patently isn’t good value. But I knew this before I paid. However, after reading it I wondered how the publishers (Zero Books) were justifying £9.99 for what constitutes little more than a badly-edited pamphlet.

This aside, the content of Meat Market left me underwhelmed. Not so much in the message Laurie was imparting (ie, that women are items to be consumed), but more because I didn’t feel I was reading anything new in her book, or that I had learnt anything from it. I wondered what the point of Meat Market was.

Meat Market constitutes four brief chapters, which loosely inform each other, but none of them feels like new writing from Laurie. And here comes the big problem. Some quotes within this book appear to NOT be new. (If I'm wrong, then please forgive me writing this humble blog post.)

ONE: On page 18, Laurie quotes Finn Mackay (who Laurie calls ‘MacKay’, and the proof readers never corrected). No source is given in the footnotes, leading me to assume this is an interview Finn gave to Laurie for Meat Market. But when I contacted Finn yesterday to ask if she had been interviewed by Laurie for the book, Finn not only had no knowledge that she was even mentioned in the book, but said: “She never interviewed me or told me she was using quotes in her book. It must be from conversations years ago. I don’t think I’ve even spoken to her [Laurie] for about two years.” In fact, the quote Laurie uses by Finn was originally printed here.

TWO: Laurie attempts to pick apart some views made by Julie Bindel. While on page 38 Laurie states that she is quoting Julie from a 2009 article, on page 42 Laurie makes the claim that she interviewed Julie specifically for Meat Market for the subsequent quote (“… Bindel, when I spoke to her in the process of writing this book, emphasised …”) . A fact Julie refuted yesterday in a Tweet to me: “She [Laurie] said she interviewed me for her crap book. All lies. She never did.” A lengthy Twitter discussion broke out between Julie and Laurie, and Laurie confirms that the quotes she attributes to Julie as new and for the book were in fact based on a 2009 phone call. Laurie said: “I interviewed you in the autumn of 2009, on the telephone. It lasted about an hour! I can dig out the transcripts if you like…” But it’s the same quote attributed to Julie as being gathered in the preparation for Meat Market that Laurie uses here. Laurie later Tweeted to clarify: “that article was extended into c3 of my book. Just because you [Julie] don't like what you said doesn't make me a liar for writing it down”. (NB: I’m not calling Laurie a liar about anything, but I do wish it had been made clear to readers that some of the book had been available in other formats prior to publication.)

So, while I originally was left feeling cheated by Laurie’s book because of how unsubstantial and dated much of the content felt to me, there are now at least two instances of people quoted not even knowing they were going to appear in this book.

This made me wonder about the book in general, so I went on Google and put in “Laurie Penny” alongside the names of a few random others quoted in Meat Market. And this is what I found:

P2 – Dr Petra Boynton’s quote is from Laurie’s article here.

P13 – Dita von Teese’s quote is from Laurie’s article here.

P23-24 – Anorexic Hannah’s quotes are from Laurie’s article here.

P39-44 – Sally Outen’s quotes, trans Amy’s quotes, AND trans Kasper’s quotes, are all from two of Laurie’s articles here and here.

And, I was very surprised to see that quotes on page 62 from Judith Ramirez are identical to those printed in a March 1988 New Internationalist article by Jane Story.

- Is Laurie re-using quotes? If so, I wonder what people think about this?

- If this is true, I wonder why it was not made clear that parts of Meat Market have been previously published – as is usual when this is the case?

- I also wonder why the Judith Ramirez quotes (from 1988, and for your reference Laurie was born in 1986) are presented as if Judith spoke to Laurie, rather than being credited to where they appear to have come from. (Perhaps I'm wrong about this, and Judith did repeat herself verbatim to Laurie during her research for this book.)

Friday, 15 July 2011

That's Not My Name

Adult women who self-identify as ‘Miss’ baffle and frustrate me in equal measures. Of all the tick-box options on forms, there is no more insulting suggestion than ‘Miss’ – and no equivalent belittling option for men.

When signing up for Crabtree & Evelyn’s points card recently, I was confronted with only three options: ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. “But I’m none of those,” I told the shop assistant. She looked at me like I was mad, and immediately looked at my left hand – presumably to check there was no ring there. Except, hmm, I wear an engagement ring, so I can’t be the bitter spinster she’d presumed. To cut the story short, I ended up ticking ‘Mr’ – and today I received a mail-out from Crabtree & Evelyn in which I was thankfully addressed with no title at all: surely the most agreeable result to the tedious title dilemma.

The problem with ‘Miss’ as I see it is that it immediately identifies that woman as unmarried, unwanted, undesirable, and failing to fulfil her role in society: as a man’s wife and as a child’s mother. Which is such a load of balls. It’s been a long time since unmarried men were referred to as ‘Master’, only to become ‘Mr’ after marriage to an agreeable woman. So why should women still be classified and identified by this tag that clearly marks out who is, and who is not, fulfilling their societal role?

In 2006, in an attempt to circumnavigate this problem, I spent £20 buying a square foot of an ancestral estate in Scotland in order to legally obtain the right to be ‘Lady’ instead of the problematic ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’. The paperwork promptly arrived, I framed my certificate of title and filed my land deeds carefully… and then felt too shy to act on my preposterous new title. (Although there have been a few occasions I’ve used it and been both pleasantly surprised, and disgustingly appalled, in equal measures by the sudden change in tone it creates in the other half of whatever exchange I’m having.)

So, aborting my attempt to be a ‘Lady’, I reverted to ‘Ms’ and continued to froth at the mouth when patriarchal bastards insisted on calling me by the wrong title. To such a degree that I have been known to:

a) Return an electricity bill unpaid as it was incorrectly addressed to ‘Miss’.

b) Change banks as, after four years of my business, they wilfully refused to correct my title to ‘Ms’, despite me NEVER having ticked any ‘Miss’ box.

c) Write a letter to my landlord (who, before I moved in, informed all the utilities companies that I was ‘Miss’, presumably because I was unmarried) explaining that he had my name wrong.

d) Repeatedly attempt to explain to my confused father that his 33-year-old daughter is not a ‘Miss’ – nor will she be a ‘Mrs’ after her wedding.

In 2011, why do we even need titles? It is an extremely archaic form of address that is surely redundant in the contemporary world. After all, if we no longer address our colleagues, teachers, and acquaintances as ‘Mr Name’ or ‘Mrs His-Name’, why do we need these cumbersome introductions? It strikes me as nothing more than a hangover from an old-fashioned, patriarchal system of control. And it’s time it went.

Book Review: Jennifer Egan “A Visit From The Goon Squad”

If time is on my side, I read approximately two books a week. The divide is fairly evenly split between fiction and non-fiction, old and new releases, female and male authors. But the soaraway Book Of The Year 2011 to date is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad.

Based on the recommendation of a trustworthy brother, I snapped it up and devoured it instantly… racing through the chapters and abandoning the TV for several days in order to lie on the sofa, sip wine and read – and re-read – the carefully constructed chapters of this book, that cross all manner of timescapes, genre and literary permutation.

A Visit From The Goon Squad has (so far) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (among a raft of other accolades), been a New York Times bestseller in 2010 (hardback) and 2011 (paperback), and is currently in production by the wondrous HBO for an upcoming TV adaptation. For this, I cannot wait. (But will.)

The goon squad of the title refers to the thuggery of union activists in the 19th Century. However, for this book, Egan is reclaiming the 19th Century ‘goon squad’ to refer to the heavy-handed tactics of that cruel creature known as Time on her protagonists – who experience the remorseless effects of time (past, present and future) in increasingly stark ways.

While some have declared this book to be no more than a series of loosely connected short stories, I don’t think this is true. Yes, each chapter of A Visit From The Goon Squad places a different person at the centre of the narrative, but each chapter (whether the chronology of it precedes or postdates the previous) also builds on the story arc of the whole book, to ultimately create something I can’t recall ever having seen in another novel. So perhaps those who’ve called Egan’s latest book a “post, post modern book” (eg the Wall Street Journal) are right, although Egan herself refutes that in the link here.

In some tenuous way or another, the many characters and protagonists in A Visit From the Goon Squad are connected to music executive Bennie Salazar and his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha. But the volume of characters is not confusing, the unidentified leaps through time make sense, and the reader’s emotional investment in the characters is extraordinary considering the fleeting time we spend with them.

And time is what we cannot escape in this book. However subtly the concept is inferred, we always sense a dark clouded clock looming over the heads of the characters as they try to eek an existence. Speaking to The Daily Beast in 2010, Egan said: “Time is the stealth goon, the one you ignore because you are so busy worrying about the goons right in front of you.” And this quote seems to underscore the simple message at the root at the heart of an intricate book of complexly interwoven stories about being lost to time.

Monday, 11 July 2011

“She said, There’s something in the M Shed…”

Last month, Bristol’s museum of the people opened – two years late and £8m over budget. We went and checked it out yesterday.

The hype built the M Shed into something spectacular, and the accompanying photos really did indicate this was going to be phenomenal. So expectations were high. Not least because The Daily Telegraph billed the M Shed as “a community attic over two floors, like Bristol’s very own Smithsonian” – which is the most bizarrely over-the-top review I’ve ever read.

I wanted to like the M Shed, I really did. I wanted to leave my cynical head at the door, go in, and embrace all that is great about the city I live in and love. But it just didn’t impress me. The words “missed trick” spring very loudly to mind.

There are three permanent galleries, devoted to the People, Places and Life of Bristolians, plus an exhibition space that (when it opens in August with a Martin Parr show) will house changing exhibitions.

Around the walls of the Places gallery are sections devoted to the different areas of Bristol. But what becomes apparent is that some areas don’t have much to say for themselves – Hartcliffe, I’m largely looking at you! So, while Bedminster is represented by images of the Tobacco Factory and graffiti cans, Hartcliffe is represented by a Morrison’s carrier bag and a tin of own-band peaches. Seriously. What the what?

The biggest draw seemed to be an enormous ariel map of Bristol on the floor, over which people were desperately trying to find their own houses. But it struck me as self-defeating that people had come all the way to a museum to look at a tiny representation of their own home… rather than the wealth of historical (and not so historical) objects gathered here, of which there are around 3,000.

Yet the curators of the M Shed don’t seem to know what to do with the historical objects they’ve been presented with. So you have, for instance, a tiny silk shoe from the 1200s displayed alongside a 1970s cigarette vending machine. With no explanation why. But there is a lack of information throughout: the information that is provided is scant and dumbed-down, and woefully lacking in, well, information.

Walking round the M Shed is a confusing experience. It looks like someone put a load of stuff in a room with no thought regarding logic, and then walked off and brandished their behaviour an exciting new move in the way people interact with museums. I’m all for reinterpreting museums and the way people interact with the past… but this isn’t working, yet.

After our visit, my Northern Irish companion wondered what we were supposed to have taken away from the M Shed. Because with it’s admirable decision to try and mix ‘real’ people’s histories alongside ‘noted’ people’s histories, there’s a sense of confused clutter, and the feeling that not much of importance happened in Bristol. And if that’s the impression that non-Bristolians have after visiting the city’s new museum, then that’s terrible.

It is baffling that the M Shed doesn’t have a few breakaway sections that really explores some of the things the city is best known for in more detail – slavery, pirates, pop culture etc. Bristol is teeming with influential pop culture, yet there was little sense of it here. There were some old cinema seats used to show some film clips (hard to see as the lighting was unsympathetic, but potentially would have been interesting), and as a fan of cinema architecture I was itching to know where they came from. There were no guides to ask and no information on the walls about this, but I learned via Bristol Culture’s blog today they are from the old Broadway Cinema in Knowle (thank you, Bristol Culture). There are a bizarrely chosen handful of tickets to gigs in Bristol, yet the ticket to see the Undertones, for instance, is actually for a reformed gig in 2005, not their 1970s heyday. This is not interesting or historical.

This continued lack of attention to detail, and general lack of information, suggests the whole museum was hastily thrown together with little research, care or thought for what people might take away from it.

The M Shed is a nice (if acoustically noisy) space to visit, and the viewing platforms at the top are obviously a treat (See photo above). The simple exterior and the architectural staircase inside are pleasing, but the exhibition spaces themselves are uninspired. It’s unimpressive that after only a month, around half of the interactive elements have signs saying “Out of Order” on, as do some of the toilets. After a month?!

I hope that these are all just teething problems and the M Shed finds its feet. There is still work to be done for this museum to actually share any information or educate people about Bristol, and I really hope it achieves it – because, right now, the M Shed seems to be functioning only as an inferior extension of @Bristol. Come on, M Shed, justify the £27m spend, and give us some information about Bristol.

Friday, 8 July 2011

NotW: "When you were good you were very, very good..."

There’s one topic that’s at the top of everyone’s Twitter timeline: and that’s the closure of the News of the World following the phone hacking scandal, and their other gross misdeeds that have been revealed as a result.

Let there be no doubt, I was as appalled as anyone by the allegations that the NotW had been hacking into Milly Dowler’s voicemail and deleting messages, and then using this to generate gut-wrenching interviews from her family. This is unforgivable. Just as the rest of hackgate was extreme foul play.

But I’m not convinced the NotW needed to fold. It is a British newspaper with a 168-year history and the closure of another British business saddens me. Especially a print journalism business.

To work on the NotW requires the utmost journalistic skill and talent, and it’s a safe bet that those who work there are at the absolute top of their game. You don’t need to personally like the type of stories published by the NotW (the kiss and tells, the celebrity tittle tattle, the lurid exposes), that’s largely a matter of personal taste – and I’d wager that the majority of people rubbing their hands together at the closure of the NotW never read it in the first place.

To all the people gleeful at the paper’s shamefaced closure, just remember that there are hundreds of highly skilled people who are suddenly out of work… despite the majority being guilty of nothing worse than keeping their heads down and getting on with their jobs. We are in a time of recession, which affects everyone in every industry: so being highly skilled isn’t going to help the recently redundant from the NotW anymore than it’s going to help a friend of mine made redundant from a business magazine last week. As for the idea that the NUJ is going to be able to swing them a good deal: that’s just laughable.

There are many people (as far as I can see, none of whom work in journalism) who crow that working for a red top requires nothing more than the ability to make up stories. If that was what the NotW staff did, the paper would have folded a week after it launched in 1843. When I spent five years working for one of the UK’s biggest tabloid moguls, I quickly got sick of people assuming all I did was invent celebrity rumours for a living. I boredly replied that if that was what we did, we’d have the knickers sued off us every week and we’d close. Along with all the other newspapers and magazines that were apparently making stuff up. I can assure you that the fact checking was stringent, and the arguments with the enormous legal team to prove that what we were saying was true were lengthy. And tedious. But necessary.

What is also clear from the gloating coffin-chasers in the past 24 hours is that they don’t seem to realise the volume of talented people involved in putting together a paper like the NotW. They seem to be branding everyone as ‘reporters’, when in fact the reporters make up a tiny percentage of the people who would have seen the paper go to press each Saturday. The reporters may have received the by-line, but the printed paper would not have become a reality without tireless work from: page planners, flatplanners, sub-editors, proof readers, lawyers, editors, photographers, picture researchers, picture editors, designers, production editors, print managers, advertisers, sales teams, distributors, printers, secretaries, receptionists, PAs (this is an incomplete list). Reporters are a tiny part of the production machine, even if they are all you see.

So, while I deplore the phone hacking and interference in the cases or murder victims and missing people, I am also deeply saddened by the loss of the NotW and by the gleeful abandonment with which many have responded to its demise.

Bye, bye, NotW. When you were good you were very, very good. But when you were bad you were horrid.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Feminist Fairy Godmother

This fantastic cartoon by Tom Gauld was posted on Twitter last night, and I've fallen in love with it. So I just wanted to share. Enjoy.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Royal Mail

Back in early April, I sent a note to the future Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in anticipation of their wedding. In which I suggested it would be a lovely gesture if they wanted to chose to contribute a small token to my upcoming marriage, seeing as how we taxpayers are obliged to contribute to the cost of theirs... even if we can't afford it.

Here is my original letter:

Dear Ms Middleton and Prince William,

Congratulations on your forthcoming wedding. I hope you have a lovely day and a very happy future together. It certainly looks like it will be a very grand occasion from the press coverage that I’ve seen so far.

My fiancé and I are also getting married this year, on 28 October, and we are very excited to be getting married in the same year as such an important royal wedding. However, ours will be a much smaller affair than yours, owing to the fact that we earn low incomes and are struggling to keep our heads above water.

I was wondering whether – since, as taxpayers, my fiancé and I are obliged to contribute to the cost of your wedding – whether you would like to contribute anything towards the cost of our wedding? I appreciate this is an unorthodox request, but since we have had no choice about contributing to your ceremony (despite our low incomes, and the fact that only this week I’ve had to ring the electricity board to explain I cannot make the minimum payments), it would mean so much to us to know that you had chosen to support our ceremony.

I’m not sure what your final wedding budget is (some estimates say £20,000,000), but ours is £2,000: a fortune to us. So anything you could contribute would mean so much to both of us, as well as to our friends and family who are not only helping to pay towards your wedding, but are also chipping in to help my fiancé and me make our smaller-scale day as magical as possible.

Wishing you every happiness,

Well, they replied today... and while it doesn't look like they're coughing up, they do sound like they have lovely manners. Or, rather, their lady in waiting does.

Is a feminist wedding even possible?

I’m a feminist yet I’m getting married. We’re doing our best to make it as anti-traditional as possible, but there’s ultimately no getting away from the fact that conventional, heterosexual marriage is a deeply patriarchal system. Which sadly isn’t sexy.

This begs the question of why we’re getting married at all, especially since we have no desire for children. The simple answer is that we want to spend our lives together, and we want to make a commitment to each other in front of our family and friends. It’s quite straightforward.

So we’ve done the obvious things: it will be a registry office (and we’ve requested a female registrar); my father will not ‘give me away’, instead my fiancé and I will enter the registry room together; there will be no top table; there will be no all-male line-up for speeches and toasts; and as far as possible we are using local, small businesses and services to help us with supplies.

Couple all this with our strict £2,000 budget for everything, and this really is a teeny tiny wedding (yep, I know, we could do it for under £200 if we tried). My dress cost £110, which (smug face) I think is pretty good going.

But a thorny issue is that of my surname. Do I keep my ‘maiden’ name (what an awful expression), or do I assume my husband’s surname? Do I become ‘Mrs’ or do I remain ‘Ms’? While I know that ultimately, whatever I decide, people will call me ‘Mrs HisFirstName HisSurname’ (presumably the same people who willfully insist on calling me by the insulting title ‘Miss’ now), there is still an element of choice for me. If not for my husband-to-be, who will retain his gender-neutral title of ‘Dr’.

I’ve had endless conversations about this with feminist friends for months and still reached no happy conclusion. Some are horrified I’m considering changing my surname, others think it’s not a big deal. But of all the anti-traditional, anti-patriarchal statements to make via marriage, the name issue seems the biggest. As it’s the ultimate statement of your identity to the outside world.

In a joint refusal to double-barrel our names, the upshot is I probably will become ‘Ms HisSurname’… but I feel like I’m letting the side down. There needs to be a better solution…