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Archive for April, 2011

Quick: where were you when the Pope came to Ireland? Me, I’ve got no idea. Before I’m excommunicated, I should point out that’s because I’m not Irish, and wasn’t living in Ireland at the time of the papal visit.

Ask me, though, where I was for the Queen’s Silver Jublilee (two years before all Irish babies started being called John Paul) or where I was for Charles and Diana’s wedding, and I’m sorted. I can describe the bunting, my dress (no, I wasn’t invited, but that didn’t stop me dressing up), our village street party, the works.

Here’s the thing. I’m not Royalist, but I’m hugely pro big, communal events. It’s a relatively unfashionable stance, but I ADORE those nation-binding moments.  The non-demonstrative English most often break down the reserve (and break down) at sporting events. Jonny Wilkinson’s last-ditch drop kick in the Rugby World Cup. Tiny Michael Owen’s mazy run against Argentina in 1998 (if only I’d had to Google that date; but alas, no).  These are times when we drop our polite ‘each wo/man is an island’ masks and stand together, roaring our heads off. For me, nothing can beat that sort of collective emotion.

It’s something I’ve always liked about weddings, too. Whenever I’m on my way to a wedding, I think about all the other people who’ve woken up that morning and thought, ‘today I’m going to see X&X get married’. There’s something incredibly rousing about the collective spirit, the joint goodwill. I have no idea why it moves me so much, but it always has.

All together now...

(image c/o scripting.com)

God, even at the London marathon a couple of weeks ago, 24 miles in and feeling as if I was encased in a steel tube, I looked around at the crowds yelling encouragement at hordes of random strangers, heard the band playing (yes, really) and beamed a Cheshire cat grin of ‘I’m bloody DOING this’. Running long distances is the world’s dullest thing, usually. Running long distances with 40,000 other people and a crowd of probably double that is incredibly uplifting (though not so uplifting that I’d ever want to do it again).

It’s in that same vein that I’m looking forward to the Big Day today. I’m hardly going to be in my wedding finery, and I’m certainly not going to be down at Trafalgar Square, but it’s an Occasion, one that nobody is escaping, cynical or not. In this day and age, there’s a lot to be said for that.

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A few weeks ago I met a delegation of Swedish journalists on a visit to Dublin. Fresh from a visit to the Irish Times offices, they remarked on the fact that there seemed to be very few women in the newsroom. They pointed out that in Sweden, men and women are so evenly distributed across the workplace that equality is something that’s hardly even discussed any more. It’s taken for granted. Inequality is a historical curiosity, or something to be noticed in other countries.

I’d been thinking about this, off and on, when I first heard that Easter Sunday would see the publication of a biography of Rachel Beer. Beer (born in 1858) was the first woman editor of a national newspaper in Britain; actually, she edited two papers at the same time – both The Sunday Times and The Observer.

As a young woman, Beer deliberately delayed marrying, because she didn’t want to land up with someone who was interested only in her fortune (her family, the Sassoons, had amassed quite a pile through the opium and cotton trades) or in squashing her independence. She ended up marrying (for love) financier Frederick Beer, who inherited the Observer from his father. (Why has no-one ever written a will leaving me even, say, a local freesheet?) He’d converted from Judaism to Christianity, which caused Rachel’s mother, and other members of her staunchly Jewish family, to refuse to see her.

At any rate, Frederick installed his wife as editor of the Observer in 1891. It wasn’t just a rich woman’s hobby – there was no fooling about on the fringes of her husband’s work for Rachel Beer – but a real job. She wrote news copy and editorials, and sniffed out stories even though as a woman she was unable to gain access to the spaces where news stories developed: the House of Commons and the exclusive city clubs where gossipy politicians, tycoons and male editors sculled madeira and snorted snuff. One of her great scoops was persuading Count Esterhazy to admit to the forgery of the letters which had led to Captain Dreyfus’s conviction and life imprisonment for treason – ultimately Dreyfus was released and Esterhazy was court martialled.

In 1894 she bought the Sunday Times and edited it simultaneously with the Observer, but by 1896, Frederick had become seriously ill with tuberculosis, and by 1903 he was dead. His death devastated Rachel, and her family reported her behaviour as being increasingly erratic. They had her sectioned (always so convenient), the newspapers were sold, and she lived in care for the rest of her life.

No woman was to edit a Fleet Street newspaper for eighty years after Rachel Beer. It’s about time we took our hats off to her. This biography, First Lady of Fleet Street The Life, Fortune and Tragedy of Rachel Beer by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, was published on 24th April.

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It seems like a positively antediluvian method of keeping in touch with people these days, but when I was 10 or 11, pen pals were all the rage. Of course they were the rage for a long, long time before that, too – but it saddens me that the old-fashioned pen-pal, where you actually wrote and received letters on ink and paper, is a dying art.

I’ve always loved receiving letters. There’s a magic about receiving your very own letters in the post as a kid – a magic that vaporises as an adult, when you begin avoiding the letterbox for fear of another dread-inducing bill. I suppose in a way, it’s one of the first times you can assert a sort of grown-up privacy as a child, although I’m sure that my nosey siblings rooted out my ‘private’ correspondence, as I did theirs. (For the same reason, I avoided keeping a diary of any sort!).

I was your typical bookworm nerd as a kid – the sort of child who’d ask for extra homework when she was off sick from school and who raced ahead in workbooks at home on the weekends. That behaviour was shaken out of me by my second year of secondary school (‘rough’ is understating it), but a love of writing and especially receiving personal letters is something that has never left me. Acquiring a pen-pal was the logical step, so I swiped my Dad’s copy of Buy & Sell and got applying to the least strange-sounding people in the dedicated ‘Pen-Pals’ section.

I exchanged many letters with random people from the UK, New Zealand and America, but only three managed to stick. The first was a girl of my age from Kent; England seemed so ridiculously far away at the time that I didn’t even bother looking it up. The other two were from even further afield in Canada; one from rural Alberta, one from Ontario. We exchanged letters, inane facts about our families and very different lives and cultures, and tat and fancy papers bought from the pound shop and the dollar store for a couple of years, until school, and life, and the important business of being teenagers took over. Our letters grew further and further apart, until finally, they stopped.

There is a happy ending, though. The other week, though, I got an email from someone with the same first name as one of my Canadian pen-pals, wondering if I was the same person she’d exchanged letters dotted with glitter and stickers over fifteen years ago. She’d found some of those letters recently, googled my name, found my blog and recalled that I mentioned that I wanted to be a journalist “when I grew up” (it must have been after my dreams of being a vet were dashed, after someone pointed out that vets occasionally have to put their hands up animals’ bums). Our lives are still as different as they were back then – she’s now married, with two gorgeous young kids and a photography business in the same town that she grew up in – but it’s strange and wonderful to be back in touch with someone who knew you, back when you barely knew yourself. And sure, email doesn’t quite have the same effect as the drop of a letter onto the doormat, but, well, it’s still better than nothing.

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It might be that I only became hyper-sensitive about female TV characters after I had my own daughter, but I don’t think so. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t rolling my eyes over the hair-twirling, doe-eyed, boobalicious depictions of female “empowerment” in popular media, but then again, I am a product of The Age Of The Spice Girl (now, I know that it was also The Age Of Grunge, but I wasn’t bombarded with very many images of Courtney Love as I ran the gauntlet of pubescence. Probably just as well, now that I think about it).

Anyway, the message seemed to be that being obnoxiously loud, wearing a Wonderbra, and going out dancing with fourteen other girls was the essence of empowerment, which really got on my nerves, because I didn’t have fourteen girlfriends. It was more than likely the lingering discomfort of this baptism-by-Impulse-body-spray that made me such a cantankerous critic, so when I do come across a brilliant, real, intentionally likeable female character in pop culture media, I tend to expound her merits over-enthusiastically. And it’s not as if there are a shortage of real and likeable female characters on television! There are those who state that TV holds more opportunities for actresses, and they’re probably right.

Most of us have a television. For many of us, the television is on from tea time right through til bedtime. We are bombarded with information through the bloody thing, with a carousel of pretty products and powerful lifestyle options dazzling us every fifteen minutes. The ads themselves are pretty awful in terms of female characterisation – there’s the smug cow who teaches the menfolk how to use a washing machine, or the barely conscious waif offering her bones to the perfume gods. Yet, outside of the commercial breaks, you can find some brilliant ladies on prime-time television, making up, in a big way, for the amount of times I have to explain to my daughter that that’s not Cheryl’s own hair, or that subsisting on two bowls of Special K will make you malnourished rather than vivacious.

Great female characters on television are thick on the ground, but still, I think it’s a fact worth celebrating. So I thought I’d make a list!

I’ve left quite a few out, I know. In some cases I haven’t been familiar enough with the shows in question to add any of their characters, though I’ve heard people wax lyrical about this actress or that role – Mad Men, or Ugly Betty, Damages, etc. I haven’t made room for anyone too ridiculous (Patsy Stone, I love you, but you just ain’t real enough for this), anyone too martyr-like (much as it pains me to turn my back on you, Marge Simpson), or any characters who exist purely as a collection of wisecracks and whose traits change according to a pop culture Hot or Not index (yes, Lois Griffin, I’m looking at you). Nor am I including anyone who you’re not supposed to like or identify with (any of the glorious witches related to Tony Soprano by blood).

I can think of eight off the top of my head, just to get you started. Shall we crack on?


8: Donna Pinciotti – That 70s Show (Laura Prepon)

Oh, gosh, how delicious it was to have Donna Pinciotti as a female lead in a teen sitcom? She’s a outspoken, witty, and intelligent, and … and … a self-professed feminist! And not in any radical, man-hating, ridiculously over-the-top TV comedy way; Donna is self-possessed but never shrew-like, her beliefs and values merely part of who she is, neither a joke nor a burning flag to the audience. And yet, like many of us, she’s betrayed by her insecurities – her big feet, her fear of not being seen as feminine, her worries about her boyfriend’s loyalty. This makes her not only awesome, but real and flawed and very, very loveable. Donna really is a proper arse-kicking Girl Next Door.

7: Calamity Jane – Deadwood (Robin Weigert)

It’s not because Jane is such a tough cookie that I admire her. It’s because she’s such a crumbling cookie. Headstrong and foul-mouthed, she takes her place alongside the boys of Deadwood with an abrasive swagger that barely hides her insecurities, her fear of confrontation, and her heart of gold. Jane spends most of her time in Deadwood spitting and snarling, but we’re never in any doubt that she does so because she’s really not sure how else she’s supposed to fit in. She’s loyal and bright, but I think it’s when she admits to being terrified of Al Swearengen she ceased to be the stereotypical mannish broad and became someone you could really root for. A barrel of complexities and contradictions, constantly at war with herself; how could you not be on her side?

6: Clair Huxtable – The Cosby Show (Phylicia Rashād)

So yeah, Clair Huxtable was, traditionally enough, the feminine voice of reason on The Cosby Show, the calm and collected foil to her eccentric husband Cliff. This would hardly be notable if she wasn’t also professionally successful and devastatingly witty, and Cliff’s equal in every sense. Perhaps she’s not the most empathic character, for being outspoken is no “flaw”, but she’s elegant and fun and you wouldn’t be at all embarrassed about her turning up, all folded arms and raised eyebrows, at the nightclub you weren’t supposed to be at. You’d be terrified, but you wouldn’t be embarrassed. Clair was the original Mom Who Has It All, but unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, she wasn’t an insufferable knob about it.

Here she is being astoundingly awesome, reprimanding her daughter Vanessa for sneaking away to an out-of-town concert.

5: Lois Wilkerson – Malcolm In The Middle  (Jane Kaczmarek)

While Clair Huxtable is admirable for being the Mom Who Has It All, Lois Wilkerson is even more admirable for being The Mom Who Knows She Can’t Have It All But Is Going To Give It A Crazed Shot Anyway. Frazzled disciplinarian is her default setting, but she can’t see any other way to act when she’s mother to five sons and one extremely childish husband. And if frazzled disciplinarian is what she has to be, then by golly, she’s going to do it in the most rambunctious way possible. She’s a hard-working realist who’s far too hot-headed and yes, at times outright tyrannical to ever play victim, and because of this she’s both the heart of the show and the funniest character in it. I don’t wish she was my mother. But who said mothers are supposed to be perfect?

4: Sybil Fawlty – Fawlty Towers (Prunella Scales).

God, I love Sybil. I’ve loved her since I was a wee girl. I think she was my first real ranting inspiration; that scrumptiously scathing dressing-down she gives errant builder O’Reilly is one of the finest monologues ever filmed, I’m sure of it. And yet Sybil is much more than just a sharp-tongued bitch. Yes, she shows very little in the way of affection towards her husband Basil, but you can understand why. She’s extremely hardworking, professional, and self-reliant, much-loved by the guests, her staff, and her social circle; it’s only Basil that can no longer appreciate her for the gem she is. It’s implied that she’s working class, but she strives towards a better life by working hard, not by hanging on to her social superiors like her “aging, Brilliantine stick-insect” husband. The queen of the put-downs? That, and a whole lot more.

3: Claire Dunphy – Modern Family (Julie Bowen)

Claire is … dun dun DUUNNNN … a homemaker. She is a Mammy. That is what she does. But oh Lord, does she do it well. She’s protective of her children (and equally so of her hapless husband Phil), always concerned about making the right decisions for her family’s welfare, always trying to create the perfect home environment. It’s that she fails as often as succeeds that makes her so likeable. I’m not sure if any other contemporary character defines the challenges of modern motherhood quite as brilliantly; there’s a bit of all of us in Claire. She’s a nagging perfectionist who knows it. She’s a vixen who’s often gut-wrenchingly scuppered in her attempts to show it by her husband’s dim-wittedness and her soccer mom status. She’s an intelligent, reasonable woman constantly at odds with the insecure girl she keeps failing to hide from the audience. She is adorable.

2: Fran Katzenjammer – Black Books (Tamsin Greig)

Black Books is an absurd TV show. Bernard staples betting slips to Manny’s hands so he won’t lose them. Manny accidentally ingests The Little Book of Calm and turns alarmingly Messiah-like. But Fran is not as ludicrous as either of her male associates. She’s a very real person in a very strange world and that’s what makes her so bloody fun. Fran is kind, clever, manipulative, sarcastic, resourceful, impatient, unforgiving … the kind of train wreck you hope never, ever changes. She doesn’t settle down with either male lead (although it’s hinted that she had a brief sexual encounter with Bernard that she now won’t allow him to remember). She doesn’t have boyfriend issues (she’d rather just have sex). She doesn’t behave in a manner befitting of a lady; though she frequently tries to infuse her life with more respectability, prettier things, healthier pursuits, she always gives it all up ten minutes later in extreme irritation to return to her boozy, grouchy ways. Which of us can’t identify with that? I must moisturise more often. I must do yoga. I must take up a class. Oh, fuck it, I’ll just have this bottle of Shiraz and bitch with my best friend instead. And I love the fact that her best friend is a straight man on whom she has no designs whatsoever.

1: Turanga Leela – Futurama (Katey Sagal)

Futurama’s Leela is the least cartoony cartoon hero there ever was and probably ever will be. In fact, the only cartoonish thing about her is the fact that she has one eye and … well, was conceived by Matt Groening. Captain of the Planet Express delivery ship, pretty much because she was the only competent person around when her boss was doling out roles, Leela is your typical strong, independent chica – straight-talking, capable, athletic, a literal ass-kicker. She’s also vulnerable. Now, I know that the strong woman who’s also vulnerable is a grating cliché, but what I love about Leela is that she’s never vulnerable enough to stick with a shitty relationship because she’s afraid to be alone. She’s happy to boot a guy to the kerb (again, literally) if he doesn’t share her intrinsic decency; she refused lovelorn, slobbish Fry for years because she knew he wasn’t good enough for her. And for all her straight talking, she still has enough patience with her privileged friend Amy not to kick her into the teeth when she’s being condescending. Oh, and she had pity sex with Zapp Brannigan. And has regretted it horribly ever since. We’ve all been there, love!

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I discovered Hummingbird Cake while visiting friends in the Deep South during Easter a few years ago. They told me it got its name because each bite is so good that it makes a person hum with satisfaction! Once I tried a piece, I had to agree that it was aptly-named…

This cake became famous after it was submitted to the February 1978 issue of ‘Southern Living Magazine’ by one Mrs L.H. Wiggins of North Carolina. It has since been claimed as a Deep South recipe thanks to its quintessentially Southern ingredient, the pecan nut! The Southerners I know like to serve it over Easter but once I got home, armed with the recipe, I began to make use of it all year round.

Hummingbird Cake is like a cross between banana bread and carrot cake, except the cream cheese icing is richer due to the chopped pecans. Traditionally, it usually has three or more layers, but I stick to two because too many layers of icing can make it over sweet for my taste. It’s an easy cake to bake once you’ve all the ingredients in ‒ toasting the pecans is the only fiddly part of the recipe.

Ingredients:

110g pecans
390g plain flour, sifted
400g white sugar
3-4 medium-sized ripe bananas, mashed
227g can crushed pineapple ‒ don’t drain the juice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, beaten
180ml sunflower oil
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Icing:

60g unsalted butter at room temperature
227g cream cheese at room temperature
450g icing sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
55g finely chopped pecans

To garnish:

pecan halves

Method:

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Grease two 9 x 2 inch round cake tins and then line the bottom of the tins with a circle of baking paper.

Line a baking tray with more paper and then place the pecans on a baking tray. Bake for about 10 minutes or until lightly toasted. Let them cool and then chop finely.

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.

In another large bowl, mix together the eggs, oil, vanilla extract, pineapple, mashed bananas and finely chopped pecans.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir and mix thoroughly together.

Divide the batter evenly between the two tins and tap the side of each tin to level out each layer.

Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Remove the tins from oven. After about 10 minutes turn the tins onto a wire rack and let the layers cool completely before icing them. Remove the baking paper from each layer.

For the Icing, beat the butter and cream cheese with an electric whisk on low-speed until smooth.

Gradually add the sifted icing sugar and blend until smooth.

Mix in the vanilla extract.

Finally, stir in the finely chopped pecans.

To assemble, place one layer, top side down, onto your serving plate. Spread with about a third of the icing.

Place the other layer, top of cake facing up, onto the icing.

Spread the rest of the icing over the top and sides of the cake.

Garnish with pecan halves.

Refrigerate the cake for about an hour to give the icing time to set.

Regina de Búrca hails from the West of Ireland. She has been a Liverpool FC fan since the age of four. She writes books for teenagers and has a MA in writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She currently lives in Dublin. Twitter: @Regina_dB

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The Guys Next Door

Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.  ~Wayne W. Dyer

I’ve always thought of myself as open-minded, especially when it comes to matters of race. As someone who is of mixed race (half-Japanese, half-Caucasian), I am the product of two people who come from very different countries and backgrounds yet managed to create a life together.

The high school I attended in California was predominately Latino and African-American; in fact, Asians and Caucasians were the minority there. I went to college in San Francisco, a city that prides itself on its political correctness and my classmates represented all races and cultures. The point is I grew up in a diverse community. So it was a surprise when I recently had to face my own racist views.

My boyfriend lives in an apartment block in Dublin and his neighbors are from Pakistan. There are four guys, all in their mid-20s, all living in a one-bedroom apartment. My partner’s bedroom wall is on the other side of their sitting room, and about 3-4 times a week we are awoken by loud shouting emanating from their side of the wall. It usually starts around 2 a.m. and goes for an hour or two or three. We can’t understand what they are saying as they speak in their native language and it’s hard to tell if they are angry or jubilant. We both sleep with ear plugs but it still keeps us from getting a decent night’s sleep.

When I first asked my partner about the guys next door, he just said they were four Pakistani guys and that he’d never spoken to them but that he was quite suspicious of them. They go in and out all hours of the night and they have a constant stream of guests who seem to crash there for long periods of time. This is incredibly difficult to admit – especially publicly – but in my mind I created several scenarios of what they were up to and why. Were they part of some underground extreme Muslim sect infiltrating Dublin? Did their late-night arguments stem from disagreements over who was the leader of the group? Maybe one of the guys was getting too “westernized” and there was dissension among the ranks.

How can a 30-something, well-traveled, educated woman come to such narrow conclusions about people she’s never even spoken to? I’m struggling with an answer to that question. I remember how hurt and angry I felt when a kid at school once called me a “chink” and asked me if I knew how to use a fork and knife, because he knew I was part Japanese. But at least that kid put his racism right in my face – it was out there for all to see. It would seem subtle forms of racism are what pose a real threat to the forward movement and progress of humanity as a whole.

With the Pakistani neighbours I’m basing my views on what I’ve picked up from the media; most of what I see in the news about Pakistan or any Middle Eastern country is negative. If the media reports are to be believed, young Arab males are all busy plotting uprisings of some form or another and are all Islamic extremists who want to take over the world. Even the recent spate of “Arab Spring” related stories and images are tinged with pessimism.

If the point is to breed hysteria, it’s worked. And if racism is based on ignorance and fear, I’ve got both covered. When I see a group of Middle Eastern men on a flight, the first emotion I feel is fear. The second is guilt. I feel both when I think of confronting those guys next door.

I actually had an encounter with one of the guys in the elevator a few of weeks back. He spoke first.

“Hi, I’ve seen you around. I’m Aziz,” he said, warmly. He had a kind and gentle smile. We talked for a few minutes. I mentioned the noise – albeit in a somewhat joking manner so that my true annoyance would not become obvious – and he was very apologetic and said he’d mention it to his mates. He said they all worked odd hours and therefore stayed up very late. He mentioned that sometimes they just get carried away in conversation but that he was very sorry it disturbed us.

I left the discussion feeling relieved and stupid. I felt ashamed for letting myself get carried away with all that nonsense before, and surprised at becoming the kind of person I always stood up to in the past – an ignorant, narrow-minded twit. But that relief and change of heart was short-lived; when I heard them shouting loudly the day after our talk, the fear came back. A couple of weeks and several more sleepless nights later, it’s still here. I so want to go next door and have a neighbourly chat with them, but both my boyfriend and I wonder if it’s such a good idea. He tells me to just leave it as he has to live next door to them and doesn’t want any drama. I still wonder if there’s something sinister going on over there and my imagination is running wild with possibilities.

This is not something I’m proud of. If they were white or Asian, would I hesitate to go speak with them? I guess it would depend on how intimidating they looked or behaved. These neighbour guys are not at all physically intimidating, they are average height and weight and dress in nondescript clothing and they don’t really stand out at all. It’s not unusual for a group of 20-somethings to enjoy their freedom and take advantage of being away from their parents for possibly the first time in their lives – they’re probably just having fun and being lads. Maybe they’re just inconsiderate, noisy neighbours and nothing else. Why is it so hard for me to see past their ethnicity and believe this?

Ironically enough, that question is the other thing keeping me up at night.

Clare Kleinedler is an American freelance journalist living in Ireland. She writes the blogs An American in Ireland and The Hollywood Craic.

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The death this week of Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who played Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, has proved something of a “Diana” moment for science fiction fans. It’s not just me having this tearful response to the loss of someone I have never met. Middle-aged men who claim never to cry are telling The Guardian they’ve shed tears, while young viewers of the CBBC spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures leave pages of heartfelt tributes on a Newsround forum, saddened by Sladen’s death from cancer, aged 63.

So why did Sladen’s portrayal of Sarah Jane make such a connection? Regularly cited as Whovians’ favourite ever companion, she appeared in the series for three-and-a-half seasons from 1973 to 1976 during a period of high viewer ratings for Doctor Who. Indeed, the reason Sarah Jane is so feted partly relates to the overall strength of the show in the mid-1970s, when under producer Philip Hinchcliffe it achieved the mix of horror, humour, adventure and pathos that became the template for the tone of the show’s modern era.

The character of Sarah Jane, a critical element of this success, is introduced in a story called The Time Warrior opposite the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee). She is a spiky journalist who has infiltrated a military research centre by pretending to be her aunt, a virologist. The Doctor rumbles the ruse, but promises not to expose her, joking that he needs someone around to make coffee. “If you think I’m going to spend my time making cups of coffee for you…” she replies, automatically indignant. The writer, Robert Holmes, immediately establishes Sarah Jane as a modern feminist who will castigate anyone who treats her like a child.

Sarah Jane’s refusal to be patronised by either the paternal Doctor or her pompously chauvinistic co-companion Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) gives rise to some teasing. In the 1975 story The Ark in Space, for example, Sarah Jane volunteers for a dangerous mission but succumbs to tears as her body is jammed in one of the space station’s narrow cable conduits.

“That’s the trouble with girls like you,” the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) shouts up the shaft. “You think you’re tough but when you’re really up against it, you’ve no guts at all. Hundreds of lives at stake and you lie there blubbing.” The accusation incenses her and spurs her to winch herself out, only for the Doctor to reveal his reverse psychology tactic. “Conned again,” she says, relieved. “You’re a brute.”

It would be wrong to say Sarah Jane was the first feminist companion, as that title belongs to scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John), who appeared in a single series in 1970, only to be replaced by dolly bird Jo Grant (Katy Manning) – an ultra-screamer who was infinitely more likely to require rescuing. Sarah Jane’s era was bookended by the blonde helplessness of Jo and the instinctive aggression of warrior Leela (Louise Jameson), whose feminist appeal was inevitably undermined by her notoriously skimpy leather costume. Sarah Jane – or just plain Sarah as Tom Baker’s Doctor usually called her – exhibited both Leela’s toughness and Jo’s vulnerability. It was a practical combination for the show’s scriptwriters, as it meant she was brave enough to wander off on an alien planet, but prone enough to abduction to provide the Doctor with heroic opportunities.

So while Sarah Jane had her share of screaming companion moments, this was balanced by her daring and defiance, even when in danger. She was independent, chirpy and a little chippy. Sladen, described as “ferociously talented” by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, was skilled at controlled tremulousness and the kind of wide-eyed curiosity that blends into panic when confronted with evil.

Towards the end of her tenure, the character’s status as inquisitive reporter gave way to a more passive function, reflected in her softer styling. Sarah Jane was granted a wardrobe of Seventies fabulousness, with Christmassy jumpers, wide-collared shirts and sleeved floral dresses that would sell out in Topshop today. An Andy Pandy get-up in The Hand of Fear is probably best forgotten, but a pink nautical-themed trouser suit in The Android Invasion was a classic against the odds, while the hooded yellow raincoat in which she wanders around the planet Skaro in Genesis of the Daleks is sci-fi’s contribution to festival fashion.

I watched these episodes as a child when they were repeated in the 1980s on the satellite novelty known as Super Channel. Having waited two decades to see Sarah Jane again, her return in the 2006 episode School Reunion was brimful of the kind of emotion that only the trigger of childhood memories can produce. I like to think that the tenth Doctor, David Tennant, is not acting, but channelling his own fan-boy memories as he joyously greets Sarah Jane, who we learn is still an investigative journalist and still vocal when it comes to gender politics.

“You can tell you’re getting older. Your assistants are getting younger,” she says when introduced to companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Sarah Jane glumly suggests that she has found it difficult coping with life on Earth after her “taste of that splendour” in the Doctor’s Tardis. The Doctor, meanwhile, implies he didn’t come back for her all those years ago because his Time Lord lifespan is so much longer than that of humans, hinting at the unbearable sense of loss that comes from outliving those you love.

It was this appearance in School Reunion (written by Toby Whithouse) that reignited affection for Sarah Jane and prompted the commission of The Sarah Jane Adventures, a kids’ show in which she leads a band of teenagers through various perilous encounters with alien foes. The status of her character as wise matriarch stood out at a time when the BBC was attracting increasing amounts of flak for “disappearing” older women from our screens – another reason why Sladen’s contribution to television should be celebrated.

“It is not logical that you should feel sorrow,” says the robot to Sarah Jane in a 1974 story called, er, Robot. And yet I, like many fans of Doctor Who, just do. The fairy tale continues this Saturday, however, when the opening episode of its 32nd season looks set to be dedicated to Elisabeth Sladen.

Laura Slattery is a journalist with The Irish Times, where she hides down the back of the newsroom and blogs about commerce and current affairs at http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/theindex. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraSlattery


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Most tips about dating targeted at single women amount to a Sisyphean course of self-improvement, whether the focus is on their appearance as complicit with the beauty mandate or with interpersonal skills such as listening and hobby development, all are designed to make women a better match and ring ready, which culture has emphasised since they were knee-highs.   Instead of regarding every date as a potential Prince Charming, it might be more useful to utilise the Rochester Rule as a primary criterion for finding a good man.  Put simply, Charlotte Brontë’s novel unintentionally illustrates how much one can learn about a man from the way he treated women in past relationships, only her titular Jane Eyre was too much of an inexperienced sap to give the evidence full consideration.  When you have a man’s track record to consult, do so with the knowledge that he’s not going to be an entirely different man with you.  You can anticipate who he was with other women will remain consistent in the current relationship.  In the case of Brontë’s Edward Rochester, a man who locked his wife up in the attic for a decade, just to keep control of her dowry, Jane would have to wonder what he’d do once she became inconvenient, put on some weight or asked too much of him.  Marry him?  Reader, she should have busted ass for the nearest exit.

Edward Rochester stands as a familiar romantic figure in popular culture.  He’s usually attractive but in an unconventional fashion.   A Rochester presents himself as a ‘deep’ or ‘tortured’ soul, a misunderstood genius, a man prone to emotional outbursts, passionate exclamations and who makes wild demands on a lady.  After the 19th century original, there were several other men who fit the Rochester template, a leading man who should give women pause, including Charles Boyer in the classic Gaslight, Orson Welles, Ted Hughes, probably Richard Burton, Ike Turner, Charles Bukowski and Jack Nicholson.  The Rochester type gets off on treating women like crap, by building himself up through reminding women how little they matter in the end.  With outsized ego and a dissembling manner, Mr. Rochester manipulates women while remaining oblivious to the distress he causes.

Scarlett Johansson should take note of the Rochester Rule now that she’s moved in with Sean Penn.  Any dude who imagines a divine intervention in terms of licence to blow rails and buy women, where god commands:  ‘you’ve tortured yourself enough.  Two hookers and the eight ball are inside’ (starts 9:16 mark) probably isn’t going to cozy up to monogamy, especially when he likens it to self-imposed water boarding.  Penn rates close to Charlie Sheen’s level of wacked out entitlement, public rages, a total disregard for a woman’s well-being, with only a slight differential of talent in his favour.  Ms. Johansson, go ahead and have your fling, but do it without the mistaken belief that you can heal or redeem him.  Robin Wright tried that route and looks positively shell-shocked as a result.  Vagina ain’t the Red Cross, ladies.  Let the Rochester type save his own damn self.

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I’ve never been a huge fan of travelling. I can’t take people seriously when they talk about going away to ‘find themselves’ – I tend to want to point to them and go “Look, look, you’re right here! You don’t need to spend thousands of euros trekking across the desert or jungle, after all!”

A very large part of it is that travelling itself – actually moving from one place to another – does not agree with me. Boats make me seasick, while airports just depress me. This recent story about a six-year-old girl in the States being selected for an ‘enhanced pat-down’ while going through security dismays me, but honestly, fails to surprise me.

I’ve been on four short flights in the last month or so, to and from the UK. On the plus side, unlike travelling to the US, you don’t have to fill out wacky forms stating that you’ve never been involved with the Nazi Party. On the down side, there’s still the tedium of security to go through.

You can’t complain. No. You can’t complain, because then it looks like you’ve something to hide. I complained in a painfully polite way on one flight, when my contact lens solution was over the 100ml limit. Much in the same way as I wouldn’t bring the doctor’s original prescription with me if I had necessary medication – why on earth would you feel you needed to? – I didn’t have a letter from my optician stating the solution was necessary. I don’t stick things into my eyes on a near-daily basis for the fun of it, after all. But EU regulations are tricky little things – and, somewhat conveniently for those that work in airports, completely out of their hands. You can’t complain.

They’re small moments, but they accumulate. On another flight, a friend of mine had bottles of cosmetics tested. I asked whether they’d been under the limit. “Oh yes, of course they were,” she said calmly. “I think they were just doing a random check.” And then, seeing me getting cross and irritated by it, suggested we go for a cup of tea.

I freely admit that I’m not the most fun person to travel with when airports are involved. I do get annoyed. I do get bothered. I do get grumpy if I ask security folk what’s set off an alarm that necessitates my being patted down and they reply with a sentence that includes the word ‘random’. I do find the fact that you have a choice between the delay and expense of checking in a bag or having strangers scrutinise your hand luggage completely repulsive.

But I’m not apologetic about it. It should annoy us. It should seem invasive and intrusive – as many things in modern life are, of course, but there’s something particularly bothersome about airport security. It’s the way we accept it, grumbling quietly if at all, because we fear not being allowed to travel. Being labelled as disruptive or dangerous. Being troublesome. And we fear, perhaps, what might happen if the regulations weren’t there.

Only… I don’t feel safer travelling on a plane simply because a potential terrorist will have a limited amount of liquid. I don’t feel safer travelling on a plane because I’ve had a stranger (usually unattractive, alas) run their hands over me to ensure I don’t have a concealed weapon. I’m sure some people do. I’m sure that some of those who are nervous flyers find it vaguely reassuring to think that there are some measures in place to prevent certain kinds of disaster. I’m sure those who adore finding new places and, indeed, finding themselves, feel a bit of intrusion at one stage of their journey is nothing compared to the joys that follow. I’m sure that many people just get used to the strange dystopian universe that is airport security.

But I can’t. So I’ll continue to be grumpy, and complain. I’m honestly not sure what I can do about it, and I don’t travel enough to make it a mission of mine to pen endless letters or campaign or whatever might make some kind of a difference. (I suspect the answer involves getting the airlines on board, and lots of time that I don’t have.) I’ll just stay a decidedly un-fun person to be in an airport with. I still haven’t found a good enough reason not to be.

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My desk last summer, it has gotten so much worse!

I was fascinated by this collection of photos. Writers at their work stations; creating, pondering, posing and working.

The creative process in others has always held my interest, no matter the art. I am a terrible cook, but love to sit, glass of wine in hand, and watch my husband create magic in the kitchen from raw materials. I am in awe of people who can knit and/or design clothing. I can carry a tune but would flounder immediately if you asked me to create music. I cannot paint, but love to look at art.

But write? Write I can do, and have long loved this personal slice of creation pie. I am happiest at my desk, coffee to my right, a cat sprawled to my left. I realised recently that I spend more time here per day than I do sleeping.

Looking over the photos in the collection above the image that connected fully with me was that of Tennessee Williams. His scattergun desk closely resembles mine; cluttered, covered in books, a mess of creation. How on earth everyone else works from serene tidiness is beyond my ken. Where is their…stuff?

Let me give you a run down of my desk right this second.

Aside from my computer there are many books, some open, some stacked precariously, there’s the wine glass from last night as I worked over edits and beside that a cup stuffed with pens and pencils; most of the pens don’t work (why the heck don’t I throw them out?), a pack of tissues, junk jewelry, a paperweight, a tin of paint ( cookie dough) a manuscript belonging to Declan Burke (new book, dark and entertaining), a silver carriage clock, a lamp festooned with earrings, notebooks – most open onto pages covered in my indecipherable scrawling handwriting, dog nail clippers, two speakers, a cardboard tube containing the blown up cover of Missing Presumed Dead, a small feather duster I use to play chase with Bill the Cat, a stack of plastic files, a kit-kat wrapper, a page of reader’s notes, sunglasses and finally, a letter my daughter wrote to ‘sunta’ aged six where she asks for ‘a rising track and woky tacky’ and informs him she had been ‘very good’ as she ‘fond 20 pond’s’ and gave it ‘to the man in the shop.’

So what about it? Are you a Williams or a Christie? Neat or threatened by teetering piles? Can you work from your lap like one person I know (impossible, I don’t know how he does it!)? Or do you need space and order to write and think?

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