Ten reasons why The Queen can stay, by a usually-fervent republican


They’ve said it all…

I’m conflicted. A state of being that I appreciate befits me many more times a day than there are days in the week, but, on this issue, I’m especially conflicted. You see, I would usually call myself a republican, and happily so.

And yet, over the most ridiculously royalist past few days – I’ve found elements of my resolve crumbling like shortbread in a cup of English Breakfast.

Only a few short days ago, this blogpost could very easily have been the simplest of rants on my utter disbelief at how the entire nation ‒ usually able to contain itself with dignified decorum and the stiff upper lip for which we are known when disaster strikes, such as during the London bombings ‒ suddenly falls over itself in a bunting-strewn haze of anachronistic, imperialistic, faux-nostalgic, mindless and vomit-inducing fervour whenever anything remotely royal threatens to present itself on any sort of national level.

Flag waving

Flag waving….wow, just wow

The sponsored national love-in that was the Royal Wedding was bad enough; the Diamond Jubilee threatened levels of bunting on a frankly apocalyptic scale…

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Songs to love sunshine by

Me, when the sun shines

Me, when the sun shines

This top 20 list – a scarily effective editorial trope used by lazy journalists everywhere (ahem *clears throat*) – is a propos of nothing except the fact that, after weeks of bone-crushingly, spirit-sappingly terrible weather, the past few days have been gloriously, fabulously, holiday-in-the-Med, sandcastles-on-the-beach hot, across the whole of the UK.

Nothing cheers me up like a bout of hot weather.

I truly feel like a completely different person when the days are long, the evenings are warm, and the sun beams resolutely through the clouds with a perpetually happy glow.

None of the things I’d been struggling with before the sun decided to shine have really gone away – I still don’t sleep enough, I still struggle with my weight, I still worry about making the right career choices and about money, I still never have enough time to do stuff and I still don’t update this blog enough, but frankly ‒ as I sit here writing this on my lunch break, in the nearby park, undisturbed and with the sun on my warm legs, as people sit, sunbathe, read, eat, laugh; dogs play; birds sing; and sunlight dapples the grass under the trees’ cool shade ‒ I genuinely don’t care.

For now, bathed in light, life in London is good, the living is easy, and my ‘problems’ have been replaced with songs ‒ songs of summer – in my head and on my iPod.

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It all ends with Euston: The Northern Line seat-to-point correlation

When your main form of transport is by Tube, don’t think that closer necessarily equals better

This occurred to me as I squeezed myself between door and other commuters on my way home last night (see fabulously scientific and precise graph, absolutely in no way cobbled together in MS Paint. Obviously).

In any case, when I move to a totally different part of London in the next few months, my situation will change dramatically. For the purposes of this blogpost, all you need to know is that I’ll go back to living ‘at the end of a line’ (having already done so for 2 years before moving to where I am currently), and, while being virtually guaranteed a seat in such situations due to my travelling SO FAR AWAY, the fact that it takes so long may mean it’s only marginally worth it – however, as the graphs shows, there are downsides to being closer, too. Sigh.

I should also point out here that the desire to get a seat is not merely a primeval urge on my part to hoof fellow commuters out the way and sink into the not-so-comfortable space with a short-lived sense of smug satisfaction at being the Seat Queen – it’s also because you can only really ‘do stuff’ on the Tube when you’re in a seat, be it have a nice little snooze, get in to a good book, make notes, have a proper think, etc. Londoners may be experts at using the Tube, and yes, while I can do all those aforementioned things while standing, often without even needing to hold on to a pole (‘Advanced Tube Surfing’, if you will), the sweet glow of dropping into a perfectly vacated, fairly-and-squarely-and-politely obtained seat when you still have enough stops left to go to make it worthwhile is near priceless at the end of a long day when you live at the end of the line (or a few stops prior).

And then, there’s NOT living at the end of the line. Closer, yes, but, as the graph shows, the ‘free seats’ to ‘point of trying to get it’ law makes this less viable than you might otherwise believe.

Basically, you get really, really good at standing up – which is mitigated only slightly if, by some wonderful chance, you’ve bagged the neat little space next to the door on the side you need to get off from, in which you can nestle and even book-read without obviously being in anyone’s way, and casually slip out of on to your home platform without so much as brushing past another passenger. And, because you can lean on to the partition glass inside, you don’t even need to hold on to a pole, or make awkward non-eye-contact with your fellow travellers. Genius.

Downsides include not being in prime position to nab a seat should one become empty (as everyone knows, this is located in the seat aisles, in everyone’s way to the point where, when seat-sitters jump up to leave, it’s almost as if you’re doing everyone a FAVOUR by falling to the now-empty seat.)

But, well, as the graph above demonstrates, for my current commute, it’s hardly worth it.

Bascially, my friends, it all ends with Euston.

Review: Women In India Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery

Uniting my twin loves of women’s rights and India, I knew I had to see this exhibition. And I wasn’t disappointed – it powerfully showcases a fantastically colourful patchwork of women’s changing opportunities across the contemporary sub-continent

Outside the Saatchi Gallery...finally

Outside the Saatchi Gallery...finally

Women’s rights, and the history thereof, is one of my most passionate interests. I have rarely been as interested or as animated about studying anything than I was during my first term of my third year at Cambridge, reading about women’s fight for the vote, Mary Wollstonecraft’s early battle hymn for education and equality, the purple and green symbolism of the cat-and-mouse beleaguered Suffragettes and their less ‘militant’ Suffragist counterparts, women’s domination by men and society as a whole, women’s attempts to live alongside men, as men themselves struggled to maintain an understanding of what manliness means in a rapidly-changing world, where women’s ‘place’ is no longer taken for granted. It’s a cliché that after studying feminism at Uni, women become militantly feminist, placard-toting activists who hate men, and refuse to shave their armpits as an act of rebellion, but frankly, who gives a shit – none of those descriptions fit me, and I’m just grateful that I had the chance to understand, even briefly, the complex attitudes that continue to define the relations between the sexes.

To this end, I still consume books, magazine articles, online debates and community-hall-based discussions on so-called ‘feminist’ issues as much as my schedule and wallet can handle. When one intern at work took up the role as a stopgap between finishing her ‘Gender Studies’ MA and starting work, I was immediately on the Internet to Google, casting myself in dreams in which I have endless pots of money to fund a life in which I flit happily about university libraries endlessly reading and writing about the activities of militant, strong women, who are now and then redefining what it means to impress and succeed because of who you are; what it means to be completely at ease with, but not solely defined by, your gender or your ‘place’ – or about women for whom life has dealt a poor hand, and their struggle to overcome this injustice.

The strands of struggle and wildly varying definitions of equality and feminism continue, of course, to weave themselves inexorably through men and women’s lives today, but in Britain, it is often suggested that the war for equality has been ‘won’. While this, in so many ways, is patently nonsense, women on the whole in this country arguably have it much better than at most times in history, and have it much better, one could also posit, than the many millions of women in third world countries, who are shackled not just by their gender, but by poverty, poor education, retrogressive laws, poor sanitation facilities and much, much more. It is easy to think that, for all the small struggles that women continue to face on a daily basis in this, most liberal and, still, even post-recession, rich of countries, women in far-flung, poverty-stricken nations have but a snowball’s chance in hell of ever achieving an equal, dignified society for their populations, the women included.

Which is why the Saatchi Gallery’s photographic exhibition, ‘Women Changing India’ was so deeply inspiring – it proved that this does not have to be the case.

India – why I love it

India is one of my small obsessions as well – as far as I can remember, I have always been mesmerised by the glorious colours, the expansive architecture, the packed bazaars, the crowds of people, the melting pot of a hundred thousand different cultures and religions, all jostling for space in a sea of saris and gleefully decorated bangles. As my article here laments, I have never been, but I am currently saving money with a dedication I have never before felt in a bid to get to the sub-continent, to see once and for all what it’s really like, and decide for myself if I truly love it (or, as some ominously warn me I might, loathe it) once I’m actually there.

When I saw that London was playing host to a travelling exhibition of photographs about Indian women and their role in their booming society, that this was the last weekend it was on, and what’s more, that it was free, I knew I had to go. Photographs about pioneering women, and Indian women, come to that? Sounds made for me.

Women’s place in Indian culture

Women who have benefitted from a loan

Loans can help women raise themselves out of poverty

I was expecting to be transfixed by the beautiful colours of the clothes and landscapes, as I usually am whenever confronted with India. But, bar the snippet of information given to advertise the event on various websites, I didn’t really know what to expect when it came to the content of the photographs themselves. Because sadly, when it comes to Indian women, for all their unabashedly kitsch, wonderfully decorated and riotously coloured attire, they often seem woefully hidden – especially the poorer ones. It seems that middle class Indian women may resemble more and more their Western counterparts in dress, thought, manner and desires, pushing the boundaries in everything from education (becoming doctors and lawyers) to redefining their love lives (with many espousing the Western concept of a ‘love match’ rather than an arranged marriage). But for poorer Indian women, it seems life can so easily become nothing but a drudge of cooking, child-rearing (preferably boys), illiteracy and servitude.

My knowledge of women in India comes mostly from my study of the sub-continent ‒ again in that halcyon third year ‒ where the place for many seemed entirely built on the problems inherent in the caste system, along with female infanticide, illiteracy, lack of political power, poverty, ignorance, early marriage, rape, and sati (the now outlawed but still-to-be-found practice of burning widows on the pyre with their dead husbands). India always looks to be full of women, but lamentably bereft of them when it comes to actual financial power, dignity, education or influence.

I was itching to find out more, and desperate to see this exhibition, which seemed to be focusing on the more human, hidden, female angle on India’s incredible economic boom.

Sloanes, Saatchi and saris

So off I went – and it’s just as well as I was so interested. If it had been anything else, I would have given up and gone home, so unexpectedly difficult was it for me to find the gallery, deeply nestled as it is in the heart of well-heeled (and therefore entirely self-satisfied and markedly smug, it has, unfortunately, to be said) London district of Sloane Square. But the gallery, once found, is an oasis of peace and creativity. Before this trip, I hadn’t had the chance to go, the gallery not marking one of the most famous posts of the London exhibition circuit, overshadowed by its grander, more central cousins, the National, the Portrait, the British, and not much advertised on my usual journeys on public transport around the capital. Nonetheless, two trains, some walking, much Google-mapping, road-crossing and brow-furrowing later, I found it, white and beautiful in the middle of some not-especially hidden (why was it so difficult to find?!) greenery and expensive-looking cafés. Its tall columns looked impassively out over a manicured, impressive lawn, and I took a few photos to take it all in before wandering relaxedly inside to immerse myself in sari fabric and, I was promised, inspirational women. I wasn’t disappointed.

The exhibition was pleasingly large, but just small enough to take in everything – exactly the right size for a properly intense browse. The variety of images was impressive, and while I couldn’t quite work out exactly which route visitors were intended to take around the place, each picture presented a fantastic snapshot into the varied, and often heavily-embroidered (literally), lives of women at the vanguard of the sub-continent’s changing social and economic landscape. The photos were grouped by categories such as ‘Banking on Ourselves’, ‘Generation Now’ and ‘Women at the Grassroots’, and presented a patchwork mix of the ever-increasing choices that women, both rural and urban, rich and poor, have in today’s India.

Cultural context: women’s changing roles

History was not much talked about as the images and quotations of famous Indian businesswomen, artists, filmmakers, politicians and entrepreneurs took the stage, impressing on visitors that they were the future in a vast and complex world. I felt that the exhibition suffered somewhat from this total lack of explicit background context – someone who had not studied India might wonder what was so revolutionary about Indian women driving taxis, or embroidering ‒ but the happiness, peace, enthusiasm and dedication writ across the faces of all those captured on film was evident to see – these were women pursuing their dreams, and coming out better for it on the other side. The variety of the roles that women now find accessible to them was clearly displayed throughout the exhibition, and was almost overwhelming in its scope.

Women making a difference

Women making a difference

There were students of engineering, biology and technology; young, all-female taxi drivers negotiating the crazy Mumbai streets, trained in self-defence; traditional embroiderers wearing bangles up to their elbows, starting their own businesses to keep their ancient trades alive; policewomen taking their place alongside super-tough men to guard the entrances of India’s mushrooming shopping malls; and the powerful politicians running the old system of ‘panchayats’ – essentially local village councils run by members of the community. This was an example of women defiantly taking up powerful roles despite deep-rooted opposition and patriarchy-based prejudice.

In 1992, the Indian Parliament passed a quota that compelled the newly-powerful panchayats to have at least 40% of their ranks filled with women, but, as is so often the case, changing a law does not mean changing a mindset. Indian women who populate the panchayats still face opposition, and must, as well as becoming involved in political life, usually also keep the household running, making food, washing clothes and fetching water.

Women are becoming instrumental in local politics

Women are becoming instrumental in local politics

It’s an age old problem that seems strikingly similar to the issues still faced by women today in this country: how to get involved with life outside the home, while also maintaining order within it; a daunting task which society still sees as your own. These unexpected flashes of recognition I felt while looking at a culture that looked so different to my own, were at once startling and heart-warming. The question of how to combine the often conflicting options of independence with the spectre of commitment to relationships and future family life seems pertinent to me, even during these years of apparent lack of responsibility, and youthful freedom.

The women photographed for the exhibition seem inspirationally capable, juggling their still- new roles with determination and strength, while the personal images interspersed with more public ones hinted at the vulnerability and braveness that sits just beyond the surface. The display was at once breath-taking and extraordinarily compelling.

Making a real difference

Deserving of special mention was the place given in the exhibition to Ela Bhatt, a diminutive, grey-haired but determined-looking old woman who in the seventies began the revolutionary financial collective the ‘Self Employed Women’s Association’ (SEWA) to help often landless, slum-dwelling and/or illiterate women to gain loans that they would otherwise never have had access to.

Ela Bhatt, who set up the SEWA

Ela Bhatt, who set up the SEWA

In setting up the SEWA, Bhatt gave hitherto powerless women the chance to sell their products, make a profit, and not only prove that they could pay their loans back, but improve the lives of themselves and those around them, and show that women can make a difference if given a real chance. Just as happily, the women involved in education and in the historic Mumbai film industry, are shining examples of the ways in which India demonstrates to the world that women can and will lead in what might have seemed closed shops to them just a few years earlier. Many of the photographs chronicled the widespread education available in India, especially to the growing middle classes, and showed how this access to learning can empower a woman to make her own money, and choose her actions herself rather than at the behest of an overbearing family or husband. The images of women sitting in polished lecture halls, enraptured, having fun, smiling and socialising with others, were particularly powerful.

New York educated lawyer in Indian clothing

A New York educated lawyer...

Getting ready for work at the Supreme Court

Getting ready for work at the Supreme Court

The case of a New-York educated lawyer returned to her home country and now winning cases in the Indian Supreme Court was also especially edifying. Having graduated from extremely well-regarded Columbia University, she practised law at a high level in America before deciding to come back to India, and is now a top lawyer there. The contrasts in her life were palpable and glorious. From a photo of her looking all the world like a traditional Indian daughter, clad in colourful sari veil holding rose petals as part of a traditional festival, to another of her dressing in sober, western clothes to take up another hard-hitting case at work, her role at the edge of the new India looked evident.

Bollywood meets feminism

At the heart of the Mumbai film industry

At the heart of the Mumbai film industry

Notwithstanding, I wasn’t wholly convinced by the section of the exhibition about the Mumbai film industry. While I could see the advantage of having women as directors of films that don’t always cast women as mute objects of the male gaze, the fact that one of the women the photographs concentrated on came from an established film family, in that she is married to one of the most famous male film stars in Bollywood, made for a less convincing tale of women working their way up from the grassroots.

Her achievements in themselves, however, are still very impressive, and her clear contribution to the industry undeniable. But while photos of women working behind the scenes, as gaffers, technicians, choreographers or writers gave a snapshot into how the industry is changing, with film stars and the films they appear in still generally adhering to the traditional roles of ‘look beautiful, thin, long-haired and gorgeous, be desired, meet boy, fall in love with boy, defy family, come back, be forgiven, marry boy’, it’s hard to be convinced, by these set of photographs anyway, and from the scant knowledge I have of major Bollywood films, that the wholesale sexism that once ran rampant through the industry has been entirely eradicated. Maybe I just don’t know enough about it – I’m willing to be proven wrong. Director Farah Khan was quoted by the exhibition as saying ‘I believe we have true democracy in the film industry’ – and she would know. I just couldn’t really see it myself – although I could be expecting too much – a female gaffer and director is still an undeniable step forward, so perhaps it’s just the first on a much longer road to real equality.

Has Bollywood really changed?

Has Bollywood really changed its views towards women?

Finally came a short film, complete with fantastically foot-tapping traditional Indian music, chronicling one of the photographer’s journeys throughout parts of India to capture her images. Much of it was unnecessary commentary, largely overshadowed by the power of the final photographs, and full of clichés about women’s empowerment, but, sadly, it’s quite difficult to write about women’s rights without sounding at least a little trite, and clichés are often there because they happen to point to a wider truth in any case. The film, and the input from some of the photographers themselves was a clever way to end the show – not only did it seem to place the pictures in contemporary context, it also brought them closer, making them seem part of a wider journey, and not just still moments in time from another world. The music helped, couching the women within their native environment and showing them as just some of the many millions doing the same as them within India. The women seemed inspirational and typical; both revolutionary and routine.

Poverty is universal

The last panel, about iconic women, and how women are rife throughout Hindu theology, with the goddesses Sita, Shakti, Kali, Lakshmi, Radha potent examples of a women’s ability to rule and define, both inspired and troubled me. Yes, it laid out why women’s role in society is paramount, why women have the power to lead, to create, to manage, and run a family all at the same time, but it also seemed to suggest that women started out as superior to the man, and that improving women’s conditions in India meant remembering that, and reverting to it. It complained about how women were seen as merely the ‘rib’ of the man, and then proceeded to explain why men are nothing but the ‘sterile’ ‘ribs’ of women.

This kind of man-bashing, and total lack of irony when it comes to some feminist principles, annoys me and baffles me in equal measure. Female equality isn’t about dominating men, it’s about creating a society where men and women are equally valued, for whatever they choose to do, however they choose to do it. It’s about giving both sexes the tools to become economically independent, and giving both sexes the space and opportunities to maximise their abilities. Giving women equality and choices doesn’t have to mean taking them away from men – it means setting out a pattern in which there is room for everyone, removing the barriers to all. It’s why, to take it back to a more familiar example, the suffragettes’ should be remembered not just for their fight for the suffrage not just of women, but for everyone – for ‘universal suffrage’.

Balancing the books: Women at the SEWA

Balancing the books: Women at the SEWA

Poverty, ignorance and illiteracy in India is universal – but these photos, by and large, showed ways in which women are finally managing to work their way out of it, without their gender being an issue. That was what was so inspiring, women working for women, depending on themselves, becoming beacons of power and changing attitudes across the sub-continent. The power of India, its economic boom and cultural richness is unmistakeable, and women, this exhibition proudly showed, are getting up and taking the portion that they are due. I felt inspired, if not a little overwhelmed. There’s still so much left to do in this country, especially among the poor, the uneducated, the rural.

But if these women can find small, but snowballing, ways to achieve what they want, then bloody hell, so should I. And first of all, I’m going to get to India, and see it, in all its unabashed, colourful, game-changing glory. The exhibition wasn’t perfect, but it was thought-provoking, wide-ranging and laid out in such a way that made complex obstacles of issues look surmountable – and made me want to see the country all the more.

Good lessons for life

Good lessons for life

Beyond that, my only complaint was that there were no postcards or posters of any of it in the Saatchi shop, beyond a hugely heavy hardback ‘catalogue’ priced at an eyebrow-raising £27 ‒ hence my furtive and rather poor-quality snapshots of the images behind glass as I went round for a second time capturing my favourite elements. Nobody was stopping me from taking photos, but I felt that a stridently-coloured poster would have been the perfect end to an intensely interesting show. If you want to see it though, you’d better be quick – it leaves for Europe on 29th September, moving just as quickly and intensely as the country of India itself.

Chanda Kochhar is one of the only female CEOs in India

Chanda Kochhar is one of the only female CEOs in India

The ‘Women Changing India’ exhibition is supported by BNP Paribas, in association with the Read India programme, helping improve the literacy and arithmetic skills of children aged 6-14, in underprivileged communities around the world, including in India.

The exhibition was first shown around India, including in Mumbai and Chennai, and in 2011 will travel to London, Brussels, Paris and Milan.

Film review: One Day

Please be aware – this review contains major plot spoilers (which won’t, in my opinion, ruin your experience of the film or even the book, but I’m just warning you…)

One Day - the film

One Day - the film poster

I was expecting to hate it. I was expecting to get annoyed and frustrated; get all het up at the injustice of it all, and rail against the dazzle of celebrity ruining what was a surprisingly comforting, cry-and-laugh-out-loud, easy-to-read, get-wrapped-up-in, and most importantly, down-to-Earth, English book. Anne Hathaway? As Emma Morley? Intelligent, working-class, witty but unconfident, vulnerable, Edinburgh University-going, Yorkshire-girl Emma Morley? You don’t mean the same Anne Hathaway that played the plain-to-dazzling New York magazine assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, with the perfect smile, glossy hair, red carpet-tiny waist and unmistakeably American accent? Oh, you do. Riiight. Cue much cynical eye-rolling and exasperated hand-wringing at Hollywood’s slavish kowtowing to the bottom line rather than the integrity of a simple, well-told and much loved story. In the past week, Hathaway has appeared on a BBC list of actors who have served up terrible accents in films (including the infamous cockney of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins), while Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour even broadcast a programme asking whether ‘beautiful actresses can or should play plain girls’, prefacing it by saying that ‘if the world was fair, an unknown but talented Yorkshire actress would have played Emma Morley’. I was prepared to feel the same, and I dutifully paid for my ticket, found my seat, folded my arms, and waited.

I wasn’t prepared to actually, gasp, like it. But like it, I did.

One Day

One Day - your tube-travelling companion

At one point, One Day was the book everyone was reading on the tube. You couldn’t move for people engrossed in the orange and white cover, interesting but just ubiquitous enough for me to not actually want to read it. I’ve always been like that; bit behind the curve, always thinking that if it’s worth getting interested in it, I’ll get round to it eventually.

American medical drama Grey’s Anatomy is another example; steadfastly refused to watch it while it was A Big Thing; unashamed fan now it’s dropped off most of my friends’ radar. I do this, I think, because I refuse to feel like some sheep being shepherded by the latest trends (immune to the consumerist battle-axe, me). In fact, I blatantly go out of my way NOT to read the latest bestseller, not to wear the recent fashions (as if they’d look good on me anyway), simply because (I like to tell myself) I prefer the enjoyment of discovering something in a way that makes me feel that I myself have just stumbled across it. Read something just because everyone else is, pah! No imagination! Some would call this stubborn, others pretentious, others delusional. It is all these things, but hear me out. I do usually get around to reading or watching whatever the big thing is, and, almost invariably, realise what I’ve been missing, and then unabashedly jump on whatever bandwagon is now still trailing behind it, feeling happy that I’ve finally found the thing, but smug that I’ve missed the crowds. It’s like a tourist trap without the tourists. Best of both worlds.

Alas, I read One Day in exactly this manner. I borrowed a dog-eared copy from an acquaintance, simply to see what I’d missed, amid rumours they were making a film of it. And I read it in two days – if I didn’t have a job, I’d have read in in about three hours. I could not put it down. Almost immediately, I loved it like an old friend, carried it around with me, hunkered down in bed with it and wrapped myself around the casual words like the duvet around my shoulders. I became one of those people on the tube with it! I laughed and leaked tears of recognition, nostalgia and sadness as Dexter and Emma graduated from University, talked about the future, went off to teach English in Europe and find themselves in India (Dexter; I’ve just completed my TEFL qualification and am saving for a much-longed-for trip to the sub-continent), wilted slowly in a job going nowhere (Emma; I long to try something different, and spent six long months unemployed thinking no-one would ever give me a chance), and then taking wildly different directions in careers that ultimately, end up OK. The book had exactly the right dose of realism and banality, with just the amount of hope and love needed to stave off the black cloud of total depression. It was, in effect, life, in a book – with a sprinkling of sentimentality just to keep it interesting. Not a perfect book, not an epic, but a paperback with meaning. It grabbed a place in my heart and wouldn’t leave.

And so, when I heard there was a film being made, I was apprehensive but intrigued. Most film adaptations are, frankly, crap. Only Chocolat, helped hugely by the presence of a simply delectable Johnny Depp, deserves to be called ‘better than the book’. All others, while complementary, cannot be seen without reading the original text – see The Time Traveller’s Wife, or all the Harry Potter films, for more details. Adaptations gloss over intricacies; they shorten, they merge, they beautify, they change, they simplify, they ruin. This adaptation of One Day, which I happily discovered was directed by the very fantastic Lone Scherfig of wonderfully fantastic film An Education, did all of these things except the very latter.

Admittedly, elements of the book were taken out. Simply watching the film, we know much less about the characters’ inner dialogues. We know much less of Emma’s several disastrous relationships prior to her final one. We know much less about her lack of confidence, her haphazard career, her emotional letters to her wandering paramour, her sense of helplessness, her struggle to publish her novels, her changing feelings towards Dexter. We know much less about Dexter’s own hidden turmoil, his contradictions, his flaws, his shifting personality from young and carefree to older and more wretched. We feel much less for his family when he arrives to see his ill mother, still-drunk from the night before. We know far less about the tenderness he feels for his daughter, and the pain following his divorce, and his steadfast ability to recover after losing his best friend. What we see is but half the story. But somehow, it still works.

The film capitalises on what film does best, and what books cannot quite, for all their descriptions, offer: the wonders of light and sound. Throughout, the sweeping views and dismal yet soft light of Edinburgh, the noise and jarring technicolour of nineties television, the grating quality of the crap flats Emma lives in when she first moves to London, the awful but hilarious tragedy of her former flatmate getting married to the tune of Robbie Williams’ classic nineties hit ‘Angels’, all help bring the film closer. We may know less about the characters, but we are no less involved in their story for it – everything feels raw; real.

Rachel Portman, who also worked on the inimitably wonderful score for Chocolat, again excels here, with the music never getting in the way of the script, always enhancing the scene, building eventually to a truly beautiful, jazz-infused blend of sound when Emma comes running after a dejected Dexter during some of the later scenes in Paris. It helps present a sensitive, if slightly patchy, rendition of these characters’ muddle through their own lives.

Anne Hathaway, One Day

The ever-watchable Anne Hathaway, and Jim Sturgess, scrub up well as their much-loved characters, Emma and Dexter

And, for all the watchwords on Hathaway’s mis-casting, by the end, I came to love her just as much as the other, more-obviously-cast characters. Ok, so she is a little gorgeous to truly pull off Emma’s complete lack of confidence and shabby, ‘normal-girl’ appearance. And her accent wavers like a tree branch in the wind, but she still convinces as Emma, still scrubs up pretty well as a pale-skinned, not-especially-groomed, bookish girl from up North. Jim Sturgess, who I admit to not consciously knowing before this film, is absolutely spot on as Dexter, going effortlessly from slightly-annoying yet boyishly-confident graduate to lost and lonely father and widower, wearing the lines, grey hair and heavy shoulder of near-middle age just as well as the tanned, toned, polished and spoiled nonchalance of youth. Rafe Spall, as Emma’s doomed boyfriend Ian, is also fantastic, capturing the trying-too-hard yet heartbreaking sweetness, and, crucially, tragically unfunny, demeanour of the character author David Nicholls paints so brilliantly in the book. Spall steals the scene after Emma’s death, delivering an exchange between himself and Dexter in such a touching, heartfelt way that the vulnerability and simple humanity of both men are revealed anew. Dexter’s father doesn’t quite corner the role I’d imagined from the book as a well-meaning, softly-spoken, quietly heartbroken older man trying to set his son on the right road while dealing with the bone-crushing sadness of his wife’s terminal cancer. This dad was more a character of angry ridicule, which jarred slightly – although Dexter’s mother, as the one-time glamorous beauty, was more on the mark. However, girl-of-the moment Romola Garai pleasantly surprises as Dexter’s sometime-wife Sylvie. I imagined her to be much skinnier and spikier in the book than shown here, but she does bring a perhaps-needed sympathy to the character, fleshing out the somewhat obvious ‘villain’ role given to her in the book into something more understandable, maternal and touching. Through her portrayal, we see some of Dexter’s pain following Emma’s death, some of his desire to improve himself following the birth of his daughter – his longing to find himself after long, lost years.

On a similar note, congratulations must go to the makeup team of this film, which charms entirely in its portrayal of the two leads over two critical decades. Emma is pretty ageless, her clothes becoming more refined and her hair slightly choppier, although her gradual eyebags do suggest two decades of full-time work may have impacted somewhat. On the other hand, Dexter’s transition from beautiful twenty-something, to sweaty, drug-addicted thirty-something, to arrestingly-gorgeous salt-and-pepper forty-something is a delight to behold (Sturgess’s melt-in-the-mouth smile does have something to do with my appreciation of this, I’ll admit).

So while One Day wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t the crushing disappointment I’d been dreading either. More than once, the entire cinema including myself laughed out loud – at the biting wit, at the matter-of-factness, at the recognisable yet hilarious dreariness of everyday life and the tender sense of lost hope – while my friends, who (shame on them!) hadn’t yet read to the end of the book, clapped their hands over their mouths in suitable shock at the moment when poor Emma is mowed down by a truck as she cycles home. There wasn’t a dry eye among us when the penny dropped that the lives we’d hitherto invested so much into had to continue without the girl we’d been rooting for. The film, while missing out huge chunks of the plot, was wholly engaging, enveloping the entire audience in a warm state of contentment, tempered just enough with the lingering sensation that life never quite seems to turn in to what you thought it would; to what you think it is. Yes, the film made me want to take the book out again, and savour the forgotten-intricacies of the story like flavours in a subtly-spiced sauce, but that doesn’t mean I dismiss it entirely. It sits alongside the book – the soundtrack, if you will, playing along in the background to bring a bit of real life to what will always be, sadly but ultimately, just words on a page.

I expected to hate it – I was wrong. Like the book says on its instantly recognisable front cover: in word form or film, One Day is quite simply, ‘a modern-day classic’ – and one day, when I look back on it in years to come, it may well become my own annual time-capsule, a quick-fire shortcut to these halcyon days of being young, single, free but frustrated in the post-post-graduation, recession-hit London haze. I don’t know what the future will bring, but, as One Day addresses, neither does anyone. Better grab the opportunities as they come your way, it suggests, or it might be too late. Life, it says, has a habit of not working out the way you want. That’s what makes it so interesting, and, like this film – ultimately, and breathtakingly, bittersweet.

Riots: The view from London

Hackney TV riots

Riots erupt in Hackney, as covered by BBC News (photo by Stuart Bannocks)

For most of us, it began properly late yesterday afternoon. Rumours and first pictures of riots on the streets of Hackney suggested that a situation which had previously been contained to the northerly borough of Tottenham had suddenly spread much closer to home. Colleagues in the office decided to leave earlier than planned as phone calls of closed roads started to come in, and the BBC launched a live feed as the first suggestions of a serious situation hung jaggedly in the air.

By the time I got home, the situation had escalated beyond belief. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the apparently literally burning screen as the minutes ticked by, only succumbing to the thought of my 6:45am alarm clock at a still-riotous 2am. A straw poll of colleagues suggests I wasn’t the only one gripped to the news as fresh pockets of violence erupted all over the capital, including a truly horrifying blaze in Croydon. Hurried texts and Facebook posts to friends and family to check if all was OK as reports from breathless and scared journalists flooded in from borough after borough (and eventually, other parts of the country as well) revealed to me just how much my life has seeped into the fabric of the city. Except for Tottenham, I know someone who has lived, or is currently living or working, in pretty much every area affected. To be connected, however tenuously, to some semblance of ‘community’ in the local area in which I am currently living, is a very rare sensation for me.

I often balk at the catch-all word ‘community’, with its faux-political overtones and suggestions of peeling-paint town halls, and as a one-time ex-pat who has moved schools, homes and neighbourhoods more times than I care to count at the moment, have as such cultivated a benign but resolutely unattached stance to most places I live in. I like them yes, I travel through them yes, but I don’t belong. Where I am at any given moment usually feels temporary, even if I’ve been there a while. I’m aware that living arrangements can change quickly, and know that to get too attached to a place (or indeed, a person) for too long leaves you wide open to pain and the unquenchable sensation of loss when, as seems inevitable, you need to leave. Usually, I quite like it this way, because to me, belonging isn’t physical, it’s mental; emotional. But, watching the devastation across several hours last night, I began to understand what ‘community’ might mean to so many, but to so many of the looters, seems to mean tragically nothing. I was suddenly struck by a tender sense of belonging. It may not have been my street, or a friend’s street, that was burning, but it could have been – and in many cases rioting and looting was taking place mere minutes down the road (my house included). The pictures, so like scenes from a tragic film, were now suddenly real.

Ken Livingstone

Former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone

Reasons have been given by some to try and explain (but not justify) the behaviour of the rioters, some of which were as young as 12 or 13. The divisive Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee has tweeted (to a chorus of dissent, as expected) that ‘cut[ting] EMA, benefit, youth service, holiday schemes, police, estate maintenance, speed inequality’ is a recipe for disaster (being clear not to justify the riots), while former London Mayor and hopeful Mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone appeared somewhat controversially, and some say cynically, on the BBC News channel criticising the Government’s policing strategy. He went on to connect the violence with ‘anger and disaffection’, saying that young men (and, one sorely hopes, he means young women as well) ‘have no prospect of a job’ and ‘feel that no-one at the top of society cares about them or speaks for them’. Because belonging isn’t just about staying in one place for long enough – it’s much, much more. Perhaps only people who, for whatever reason, feel they have absolutely nothing to lose risk injury and punishment for a new pair of trainers?

Basically, though, as both Toynbee and Livingstone admitted, much of the violence seems to stem from boredom, lack of respect, lack of connection with the local community, a deeply worrying sense of entitlement, and above all, a staggeringly wanton, reckless disregard for the law – or as Livingstone admitted, ‘out and out theft’. Possibly one of the most devastating pictures of the violence was the YouTube video showing youths helping a young, dazed and injured man to his feet, before another looter steps into the frame and simply helps himself to the contents of the still-stunned victim’s rucksack. Beyond the searing orange fire balls punctuating the night air amid bottles thrown at riot police, it is scenes like this that are so shocking – such callous treatment of defenceless people on perfectly normal streets seems to speak of an ugly,  extremely frightening vein of criminality running deep in the psyche of those rampaging through the capital. I would not even begin to suggest that I know the reasons behind it or solutions to solve it, but evidence of a serious problem is clear.

However, coincidentally, and seemingly unconnectedly, yesterday I also spent a good half hour looking over the ‘Acts of Kindness’ website. This, an art project by the London Underground, features a series of artworks and testimonials from travellers who, when travelling via London’s most central network, have been struck by unexpected outreaches of help from the usually impassive, busy commuters. Tears gathered in my eyes as I read stories of random commuters looking after the embarrassed, lost, ill, drunk, clumsy, vulnerable and frightened Tube travellers, with no expectation of recognition or thanks. But for the grace of whatever you believe in, the stories remind you, it could be you in these situations ‒ and you benefitting from the kindness of strangers. It might not shout so loudly, it might not force police helicopters out over sleeping streets (thank God), it may not burn businesses to the ground, but kindness is out there, and while meek and apparently rare, the effects are much longer lasting than the physical devastation ever will be.

The general response, over Twitter and Facebook, and among people I know, is of sheer disbelief, horror, condemnation of the violence, and mobilisation for good. Already volunteers are being amassed to help clear up the mess, while donations for those who have lost their homes and livelihoods were already being sought late last night. The video of the Hackney woman shouting decisively and eruditely at the criminals destroying her streets has already gone viral as people seek to share her point of view across social networks. As usual, when something widely devastating occurs in this capital, the people band together. It may not be anything as horrific as the London terrorist attacks of 2005 (four years before I moved here), it may be simply a case of out-of-control youths ransacking anywhere they can get away with without rhyme, reason or cause, and it may only (as unpopular, perhaps, as this is to admit) as yet be affecting small pockets of certain areas, but it’s still shocking when places you know, and in which friends live, suddenly erupt in flames on your television screen.

But as Londoners rally round, and the rest of the country reacts with fear, shock and disgust, a show of strength is emerging. Prime Minister David Cameron, fresh from a week and a bit in sunny Tuscany, may have done the right thing in coming home from holiday ‒ albeit a worrying belated response matched only by Boris Johnson’s own lackadaisical approach, although he is home now nonetheless ‒ but despite his much-needed appearance, said nothing that Londoners themselves had not already asserted hours before. It’s not clear exactly what the fallout from the riots will be, what effect it will have on the organisation of the police, or, even, the less-pressing concern of the damage done to the international image of the capital, as newsreaders keep irrelevantly reminding us, one year before the still-unpopular Olympics come to the city.

But while groups of fatally misled, criminal youths might have robbed small businesses and set the city alight, they certainly do not speak for London. London, this great, antique, crumbling, majestic, dynamic, grubby, multi-coloured, crowded, evolving and beautiful city, now more connected via social media like never before, will speak and is speaking ‒ as ever, for itself.

Video: Riot clean up in Clapham Junction – helpers applaud police