Reframing the Conversation: Jersey Festival of Words, part one

The Jersey Festival of Words took place between the 26thand 30thSeptember. I was delighted to be invited back for the fourth year running, not only because Jersey’s such a beautiful place to spend a few days but also because it’s been a pleasure to watch this festival grow and bring such a wealth of interesting writers to the island.

Photograph by Peter Mourant.

One of the themes that runs (ha!) through this year’s events is a reframing of the conversation around exercise and women’s bodies. It’s no surprise to find journalist, runner, swimmer and author of two books about exercise –  Running Like a Girland Leap In– Alexandra Heminsley involved in this. On the Friday evening, Alex interviews Bryony Gordon whose book Eat, Drink, Runchronicles her journey from couch to running a marathon. Then on Saturday afternoon, Alex herself is interviewed by Cathy Rentzenbrink alongside Libby Page, author of debut novel The Lido.

Frankly, I could review Bryony’s event purely by using direct quotations. If you need a soundbite expressing things about exercise that other people (including myself) will recognise, she’s your woman.

Alex and Bryony begin by discussing the version of sport and exercise we’re sold. The idea, perpetuated right from primary school, that if you’re not good at sport you shouldn’t be doing it. This is followed by the marketing of running to women as something to do to make ourselves acceptable to others. Bryony: ‘I was scared of exercise…for me it was so rooted in self-loathing. I wanted to look like someone else.’ She began running ‘in desperation’ in the hope it would help her mental health. ‘I just needed to stay alive.’ It worked. Bryony realised there was a point where ‘I wasn’t doing it for the losses, I was doing it for the gains’.

Alex: Did you go quite slowly to begin with?
Bryony: What do you mean to begin with?

Bryony decided to run the marathon after thinking it ‘can’t be harder than the days when I can’t get out of bed’. Alex talks about how marathons are good for mental health because you’re ‘locked into a structure’ with the training regime. Bryony mentions the high that comes around mile 10 or 11, ‘I did that with my own body and that’s kind of magic’.

Having run the marathon in her underwear despite being told she needed to lose weight in order to do so, Bryony discusses the so-called ‘obesity crisis’ in relation to exercise. ‘When people who are overweight go out and show themselves and do exercise we’re all, “Put it away”. Obesity to me is as much a mental health problem as it is a physical one.’

It’s a theme that’s picked up again at the lido the following afternoon. ‘There’s no lean thigh or buff arm in the universe that will keep you exercising. It’s community and friendship,’ says Alex. This is echoed by Libby whose novel The Lido is about people coming together to save a local lido, making friends and enjoying swimming along the way.

Libby mentions how ‘community spaces are very much under threat’, linking the threatened closure of lidos to the rapidly disappearing libraries. She also mentions that one of her characters, Kate, who is in her 20s, suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She’s ‘feeling quite lost in the world’ and it’s the sense of community and the friendship with Rosemary, who’s in her 80s, which allows her to feel less alone.

Alex talks about the connection between swimming, breathing and stress and how helpful the sport can be for managing anxiety. You have to be calm, she says. She thought learning to swim outdoors would give her control over an element but there is no controlling the sea. She describes swimming in the sea as ‘completely intoxicating’. Libby adds that swimming outdoors ‘really changes your perspective of things’ and relates an anecdote about being interviewed at Brockwell Lido in the rain. She didn’t want to get into the water for photographs but ‘It was suddenly just beautiful’.

Cathy mentions that she lives by the sea. She’s been contemplating swimming but hasn’t plucked up the courage yet. Both Libby and Alex offer tips but it’s the benefits to mental health that are mentioned which hold the most appeal. Libby says, ‘It makes you really happy!’ while Alex tells us she was at the lido at 6am with Bryony before the latter’s flight back to London. They swam as the sun rose and Bryony said, ‘I’m going to hold this in my body all day now’.

After the event, a group of women descend the steps into the water. Cathy and I watch standing at the railings above. It looks like fun; it looks like something we might try soon.

In the Media, June 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.


It’s impossible to begin with anything other than the Stanford rape case. The victim’s court statement was published on Buzzfeed and went viral. The piece, along with responses from Brock Turner’s father and friends, including a female friend who defended him, have prompted some impassioned and powerful pieces: Louise O’Neill wrote, ‘20 minutes is an awfully long time when you’re the one being raped‘ in the Irish Examiner; Estelle B. Freedman, ‘When Feminists Take On Judges Over Rape‘ in The New York Times; Sarah Lunnie, ‘Maybe the word “rapist” is a problem: The utility of nouns and verbs, or accepting who we are and what we do‘ on Salon; Adrienne LaFrance, ‘What Happens When People Stop Talking About the Stanford Rape Case?‘ on The Atlantic; Kim Saumell, ‘I was never raped but…‘ on Medium; Rebecca Makkai, ‘The Power and Limitations of Victim-Impact Statements‘ in The New Yorker; Roe McDermott, ‘He Said Nothing‘ on The Coven; Glosswitch, ‘Does the outrage over the Stanford rape case do anything to help victims?‘ in the New Statesman


The other big news this fortnight was Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, taking The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. Justine Jordan wrote, ‘Sweary Lady’s riot of invention is a well-deserved winner of the Baileys prize‘ in The Guardian. While McInerney wrote about her working day for The Guardian and shared a secret in ‘Bad Behaviourism‘ on Scottish Book Trust

There’s a new series on Literary Hub about women writers in translation. Written by a group of translators, each fortnight they’re looking at a country and the women writers from there yet to be translated into English. So far they’ve covered Germany, China and Italy. I’ve added it to the regulars at the bottom of the page.

And finally, the excellent Jendella Benson has a new column on Media Diversified. This week’s is ‘How to Raise a Champion‘ and I’ve also added her to the list of regulars at the bottom of the page.


The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:


Personal essays/memoir:




Society and Politics:

Dan Phillips

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:


The interviews/profiles:


The regular columnists:


A few pieces I’ve enjoyed/found interesting in the last month.

Books wise the focus continues on the lack of coverage of books by women and on diversity in publishing. Syl Saller writes, ‘Why women-only initiatives are vital for the arts‘ followed by Alison Flood’s piece, ‘Publisher finds that writers’ influences are mostly male‘ both in The Guardian. The publisher is Sarah Davis-Gough of Tramp Press. Also quoted in the article is Deborah Smith, translator and publisher at Tilted Axis Press. On the And Other Books blog, she explains why Tilted Axis are having a year of publishing women. A woman much in the media of late is Harper Lee. Glynnis MacNichol writes ‘Harper Lee: the ‘great lie’ she didn’t write Mockingbird rears its head again‘ looking not just at Lee but other women who’s authorship has also been questioned.

Kerry Hudson gets angry and offers some solutions on the Writers’ Centre, Norwich’s website, ‘Lost Stories, Unheard Voices – Diversity in Literature‘. (Do read the piece by Nikesh Shukla that’s linked to at the bottom of that page also, you’ll be astonished.) In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Susan Barker, author of The Incarnations, looks at her own experience as someone mixed-race English and Chinese, raised in Britain but writing about China; ‘Should Ethnicity Limit What a Fiction Writer Can Write?

It’s unlikely you haven’t noticed that the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced this week. Dawn Foster wrote, ‘Summer’s here – so it’s time to grab a Booker and start reading‘ in The Independent and there are excellent interviews with longlisted authors Hanya Yanagihara and Anna Smaill.

In other recent topics, Roxane Gay writes about the outpouring for Cecil the Lion while Samuel DuBose, Sandra Bland and the 681 other black people killed by police in the USA so far this year. Aisha Mirza asks, ‘London’s super-diversity is a joy. Why would you ever want to leave?‘ in The Guardian.

While Nina Stibbe looks at her experience of moving to the countryside in The Independent, ‘When village life turns nasty: An author reveals the dark heart of the English countryside‘ and Hazel Davis looks at the power of online friendships in Standard Issue, ‘iFriends‘.

Lots of good things on The Pool, as always. Sali Hughes writes, ‘A magazine cover that can make the world better for women‘, ‘“Housing benefit saved me as a teenager”‘ and ‘Hasn’t lying about your age gotten really old?‘. Lauren Laverne asks ‘Is work/life balance a big, fat waste of time?‘, ‘Who’s looking after all those successful men’s kids?‘ and ‘Too busy to sleep?‘. Sam Baker met Amy Poehler and I’m not remotely envious. Honest. Anna James looks at the 10 ways J.K. Rowling changed our lives and Alexandra Heminsley celebrates marketing campaigns finally realising ‘Exercise is not about getting skinny‘.

There’s been a number of other articles about women’s bodies recently. Eva Wiseman looks at the damage done to children through anti-obesity messages, ‘Learning to love our bodies‘ in The Observer. Lindy West writes, ‘My wedding was perfect – and I was fat as hell the whole time‘ in The Guardian and Shelley Harris says, ‘This Woman Can‘ on her blog in relation to Daisy Buchanan’s ‘A Letter I Wrote To Myself About Getting Fat‘ on her blog.

Elizabeth Day’s ‘Stop Calling Women ‘Lovely’!‘ for Elle UK makes me want to punch the air and shout ‘Fuck, yes!’

And being Yorkshire born and bred and having left and returned to the county twice, I love Sophie Heawood’s piece ‘I’ve lived half my life in London, but I’ll always be a Yorkshire lass at heart‘ in The Guardian.

In the Media: 26th April 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

This week’s been all about friendship. The Cut declared it Friends Forever Week and ran a series of articles including, ‘The Friend Who Showed Me the Life I Could Have Had‘ by Nell Freudenberger; Emily Gould wrote, ‘Envy Nearly Wrecked My Best Friendship‘; Carina Chocano, ‘9 Friends Who Made Me Who I Am‘; Heather Havrilesky, ‘The Friend I’ve Been Fighting With for 20 Years‘; Clique-Stalking: Instagram’s Greatest Social Pleasure‘ by Maureen O’Connor, and ‘25 Famous Women on Female Friendship‘. While Megan O’Grady wrote ‘This Spring’s Literary Subject May Have You Calling Your Pals‘ in Vogue; Lauren Laverne says ‘It’s time to rehabilitate matchmaking‘ in The Pool, Sulagna Misra writes ‘How Captain America Helped Me Make Friends in the Real World‘ on Hello Giggles and Leesa Cross-Smith writes, ‘Broken Friendships & Knowing All Too Well‘ on Real Pants.

If you’re still to discover it, one of my favourite blogs Something Rhymed covers friendships between female writers and is run by two female writers who are also best friends, Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa. On the site this week, ‘Crying Tears of Laughter: Irenosen Okojie and Yvette Edwards‘.

And then there’s the Amy Schumer sketch with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Patricia Arquette and Tina Fey celebrating Louis-Dreyfus’ ‘Last Fuckable Day’. If you haven’t seen it yet, you must watch it RIGHT NOW! And when you’ve done that you can read Eleanor Margolis, ‘This Inside Amy Schumer sketch about the media’s treatment of “older” women is perfect‘ in the New Statesman and/or Lynn Enright, ‘Hollywood actresses skewer sexism and ageism brilliantly‘ in The Pool.

Unfortunately, it’s also been about Twitter trolls: Soraya Chemaly wrote in Time, ‘Twitter’s Safety and Free Speech Tightrope‘; Fiona Martin wrote ‘Women are silenced online, just as in real life. It will take more than Twitter to change that‘ in The Guardian; Sali Hughes wrote, ‘Trolls triumph by shutting down women’s voices‘ in The Pool

Congratulations to Yiyun Li who became the first woman to win the Sunday Times short story award and to Emily Bitto who won The Stella Prize this week.

In this week’s Harper Lee news, ‘Reese Witherspoon set to record Harper Lee’s new novel‘ reports Alison Flood in The Guardian.

And the woman with the most publicity this week is Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, who writes ‘How Writers Can Grow by Pretending to Be Other People‘ in The Atlantic, and is interviewed on Slate, in Cosmopolitan and on Longreads. While Stephanie Gorton Murphy writes, ‘The Uneasy Woman: Meghan Daum, Kate Bolick, and the Legacy of Ida Tarbell‘ on The Millions.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:


Society and Politics:

Music, Film and Television:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 11th January 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

K Barbican PK

(Photograph by Pedro Koechlin)

As it’s the first In the Media of the year, I’m going to begin by looking back at 2014 for a moment with pieces that appeared between Christmas and New Year. Katherine Angel’s brilliant piece, ‘Gender, blah, blah, blah‘ in The Los Angeles Review of Books; Jessie Burton, ‘Eggshells, Luck, Hope and Thanks‘ on her blog reflects on what a year it’s been for The Miniaturist; Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa ‘A Year of Hidden Friendships‘ on Something Rhymed; Rebecca Solnit, ‘Listen up, women are telling their story now‘ in The Guardian; Jia Tolentino, ‘The Promise in Elena Ferrante‘ on Jezebel; Charles Finch, also on Elena Ferrante for ‘A Year in Reading‘ for The Millions;  Ali Colluccio covers ‘The Best of Women in Comics 2014‘ on Panels, and  Elena Adler on ‘Why #ReadWomen 2014 has changed things, and why #ReadWomen matters‘ on her blog.

Looking forwards, there’s been a spotlight on diversity again this week with Celeste Ng writing about a male professor telling her there were few Asian-American women writers. There’s a fantastic list of writers at the bottom of the article. Nalo Hopkinson wrote ‘To anthology editors‘ on how to go about creating anthologies with a diversity of voices on her website; Alexis Teyie wrote this great piece, ‘Invoking the women in early African writing‘ on This Is Africa, while Lyn Gardner declared ‘Diversity is key to Creativity – and British Theatre’s Challenge for 2015‘ in The Guardian and Stella Duffy wrote, ‘Making Arts for All for ALL‘ on her blog.

While The White Review has kicked off the year with an all translation issue. You can read online pieces by Herta Müller (tr. Philip Boehm); poetry by Alejandra Pizarnik (tr. Yvette Seigert) and Angélica Freitas (tr. Hilary Kaplan); a short story by Tove Jansson (tr.  Thomas Teal); extracts from novels by Minae Mizumuru (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) and Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith), and an interview with Magdalena Tulli (tr. Bill Johnston).

(Photograph by Kuba Kolinski)

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

And the lists:

Running Like a Girl – Alexandra Heminsley

If, between 1991 and 2011, you’d asked me what I did for exercise, or to come to a class with you, or to join a gym, my response would’ve been ‘I don’t do exercise’. Until I was 13, I used to dance – an hour of ballet and an hour of tap a week. I stopped ballet when it was time to start pointe, I couldn’t face the thought of mangled feet, but I only stopped doing tap because my music teacher told me I had to. If I was serious about being a musician – which I was – then I needed that time for practice. In hindsight, this seems ridiculous. What difference would an hour a week – an hour which was good for my head, as well as my health – have made? But my parents and I didn’t know any professional classical musicians bar my teacher and her husband, so I stopped dancing. Oh, we did PE lessons at school, if you count long-fielding so the ball hardly ever gets near you and walking the cross-country track. I used to be the last person chosen for the various teams we had to divide into – can’t understand why! Then over the next twenty years there would be various attempts to join classes – step, street dance, yoga, pilates – and two gym memberships that would work out at approximately £200 per visit – but largely I stood by my claim that I ‘didn’t do exercise’.

Then lots of things happened – my relationship broke up; I moved city; I changed jobs; I developed chronic insomnia – and throughout all of this, I put on weight. Lots of weight. By September 2010, I decided I had to do something about it. My insomnia was under control; I’d moved to the countryside; I’d stepped down at work. Starting a new job was a bonus as it meant I could take healthy meals to work and no one would comment on them as they wouldn’t know any different. I joined WeightWatchers. I weighed 18 stone, five and a half pounds (257.5lbs) and I couldn’t walk upstairs without being out of breath and my joints cracking under the strain. I still didn’t do exercise though. Well, apart from the ½ mile I had to walk – uphill – from the bus stop to work and back. Eventually I realised that this was helping my weight loss and when, six months in and three stone (42lbs) lighter, my weight loss started to slow down I decided to start walking.

Initially, I just wanted to shift more weight and, knowing that me doing exercise would not be a pretty sight, I started doing a three and a half mile circuit round the outskirts of the small town I lived in, in the dark. This was a temporary measure, right? It’d shift those stubborn pounds and then I could go back to sitting on the sofa eating berries rather than chocolate. Wrong.

And it turned out to be wrong not because I had to exercise, but because I wanted to exercise – dear god, what had become of me?

This is what I’d learned: that exercise toned your body – I was in a dress size smaller than I had been the last time I was the same weight; that exercise cleared your head – all that time in the open, with nothing but fresh air and your thoughts; that exercise brought out the competitive side of me – even though I was only competing with myself, I was getting round my circuit quicker. Then I went on a longer – seven mile circuit – and eventually I signed up to do a 10 ½ mile midnight walk for a local hospice. Me, the woman who didn’t do exercise, walking, at night (of course!), for charity. I raised £250. I think my friends and family were just so bloody gobsmacked that I’d agreed to do it. Not only did I do it, that evening I walked the two miles uphill to the next village (and back) to listen to Jackie Kay talk about Red Dust Road without a single ache to show for it.

In September 2011 – now four stone, 12lbs (76lbs) lighter – I did what I should’ve done years ago and joined a dance class. And then I joined another one. I loved it. And although I was hopeless for the first few weeks, when the six week trial period was up, I could see how much I’d improved and how much fitter I’d become, even in such a short space of time. I went on to lose just under another stone and a half (20 ½lbs), making six stone, four and a half pounds (88 ½lbs) in total. I maintained that loss for over a year. How? Exercise.

Now, I’ve moved house and job – again – and live with my boyfriend and his little boy. It’s been easy to let the exercise slip and I’ve put a few pounds back on. Not only do I want to get rid of those, I want to lose the other two stone that I’d signed up to WeightWatchers wanting rid of. For one thing, I have a wardrobe of size 10 clothes that has moved house with me five times now and I’m determined to wear it! So, a few weeks ago we were out for dinner with our friends Kev and Sarah and Sarah mentioned running. My first instinct – I don’t do running.

‘Oh, I couldn’t run a hundred yards when I first started’, said Sarah and then went on to come up with a plan that involved the park near me – it’s one of the few flat places in a city built on seven hills – and talk of power-walking if necessary. Tentatively, I agreed. And then it snowed. What a shame.

But the idea niggled and then another Sarah (Sarah Rigby of Hutchinson) pointed me towards Alexandra Hemingley’s Running Like a Girl. What’s the worst that can happen, I thought? It’ll be sanctimonious drivel and I’ll have lost a few hours. So, on Saturday, I was in the pub waiting for my boyfriend to come back from the footie. I ordered a pint of stout and sat in a corner, Kindle in hand. He arrived somewhere around chapter four and I told him he wasn’t allowed to talk to me.

I wasn’t the sporty type, it was as simple as that. I was a curvy girl with little or no competitive spirit.

Yes! That was me.

That was it, I was going to run around the block. I had high hopes: hopes of the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel and the speed of a gazelle.

‘The arse of an athlete’ you say? Well, maybe I am interested.

Within seconds – not even minutes – my face had turned puce with intense heat and my chest was heaving.

The wobble of my thighs, the quake of my arse, the ridiculous jiggle of my boobs, they seemed to mock me as the Saturday dads stared at me in horror from the playground.

When I woke up the next morning I felt as if I had been run over by a truck. A big truck with huge grooved tyres.

Oh, I was so right about this. That’ll be me. Running is so not for me.

Heminsley goes on to say the same:

I remember being thirty, having total confidence that running was utterly beyond me…I wasn’t a runner and that was that.


But then, several months later, she decides to try again:

Finally I could see with startling clarity that the time I had spent experiencing any pain on account of running was embarrassingly outweighed by the amount of time that I felt good about it. I was aglow. I was invincible. I was thinking I might be able to do it again.

The next day I applied for the London Marathon.


But you know what? I’m interested in what it feels like to run the marathon. I’m in awe of people who can push their bodies to do amazing things – I can’t watch sporting events without crying at how incredible it all is. So I kept reading.

There are several things about this book that are really good:

  • it’s not sanctimonious or preachy. In fact, Heminsley details the times she’s been in pain; felt like she’s been unable to finish a run, and given up running altogether;
  • it’s funny! And full of tips about things that Heminsley wishes she’d known before she started (Including a hilarious story about needing the loo on a training run.);
  • it’s got a whole section to help you get started and answer any questions you might have, including equipment, make-up which will stay put while you run and possible injuries. Although apparently running won’t destroy your knees, which has always been one of my top reasons for not doing it. Oh.
  • the chapters where Heminsley talks about running marathons will restore your faith in humanity.

So, whether you run, whether you’re thinking about running, or whether you’re just interested in what it feels like to run a marathon or up and down Arthur’s Seat as part of a light instillation, this is the book for you.

One of the most interesting sections for me was the one about pioneering women who fought – by turning up and running in events they weren’t allowed to – for women to be able to run marathons. Did you know marathon running for women wasn’t an Olympic event until 1984? That’s within my lifetime and frankly, outrageous.

Has it convinced me to start running? Well, two things just might have – the opening line:

The secret that all runners keep is that they don’t do it for their bodies, but their minds.

and the fact that women weren’t allowed to compete in long distance runs until the 1960s and then the Olympic marathon until 1984. Anything that sticks two fingers up at the patriarchy, eh?

Heminsley says that she wants to ‘create a nation of runners, strong and proud!’. I might just join her but, for all our sakes, I’ll be doing it in the dark.



Thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.