Something for a rainy day

Sophie Caldecott

Shaking it off (and dropping the pompoms) with Taylor Swift


Yes, I had a brief moment of doubt when I heard Taylor Swift’s new song, ‘Shake It Off’. ‘Where’s the banjo gone?!’, I panicked. But then I gave it another listen, and she won me over like she always does.

It’s the Taylor we know and love, doing her thing bigger and better than ever before. Saying she can’t branch out from country music is like saying a writer can only write poetry and never try writing a play, or that a painter can only paint in watercolours and not try their hand at oils. In the video for the song, she is simultaneously celebrating the awesome skills of all kinds of different dance genres, while laughing at her own inability to keep up with their cool moves.

‘Selling millions of records doesn’t make me feel cool’, Taylor says in this outtakes video. This song is such an incandescently joyful celebration of ‘dancing to the beat of your own drum’. I love the bit at the end of the video where she dances like a goon with her fans. As Sarah Ditum wrote recently, it makes me hopeful for the future of humanity.

I wrote about how I fell in love with Taylor Swift early last year on my old blog, and I think now is a good moment to share that again. Here’s to dropping the pompoms!

*   *   *

I remember the moment that I first heard a Taylor Swift song. It was the summer of 2009; I was getting ready for a party with some friends when suddenly ‘Love Story’ came on and they were singing along at the top of their voices. I winced and said something along the lines of ‘You can’t seriously like this?!’

I remember the moment that I first started liking Taylor, too. It was the autumn of 2009 and I was in a friend’s room at college. We were in a silly mood and ‘You Belong With Me’ came on and we just started dancing like no one was watching. From that moment on, listening to Taylor made me feel happy – all I had to do was to forget about what it was cool or not cool to be into, and just let myself enjoy it. ‘Love Story’ remained one of my least favourite songs (the whole point of Romeo and Juliet is that their families hate each other and it’s a tragedy – hardly a love story I’d like to emulate), but, as I quickly discovered, this girl can really write a tune. And you know what, if you’re not taking it all too seriously, you start to see the skill in her lyric writing, too. I love the line in ‘Fearless’ that goes ‘[You] run your hands through your hair/Absent-mindedly making me want you’. For all her clichéd moments of kissing in the rain and seeing fireworks when she makes eye contact with a hottie across a crowded room, she has a very real talent for rendering emotional moments very clearly, and for throwing in unexpectedly fresh lines that give a depth to what, at first glance, looks pretty shallow.

I tried to keep my Taylor loving in a special guilty pleasures box for a while, along with Michael Bublé (he has a voice like melted chocolate!) and B*witched (their album was the first album my older sister ever owned on tape, and who doesn’t love doing a little Irish jig to that bridge in C’est La Vie?!). But recently, she’s been escaping from that box more and more, and the more I see and hear of her, the more I admire her and am not ashamed to admit it.

I love the way she doesn’t try to act cool and cover up her wide eyed enthusiasm about things, her borderline crazy keen crushes, and her snappy way with words. Her lyrics aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, but they give you the comfortable sense that you’ve found a friend who understands you, and assigns value to your emotional experiences. Occasionally, you recognise with a pleasant shock something you’ve experienced over and over again parcelled up into a neat little one liner: ‘[You're] So casually cruel in the name of being honest.’ As the New York Times writes, ‘Ms. Swift has excelled at capturing the fresh sting, as if arriving at a feeling for the first time.’

Taylor has a talent for writing catchy tunes and lyrics that have more substance and humour to them than your average young pop star. She’s playful, intense, giddy, overdramatic, a hopeless romantic who can poke fun at herself with lines like: ‘You would hide away and find your peace of mind/with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine’. People make fun of her for being so surprised and excited when she wins awards, and I love her response: ‘It’s just hard when you get excited about stuff. It’s like, if you win an award, isn’t that crazy? … How do you sit there and be like “Oh, another Grammy. I guess I’m gonna get that now”?’

Oh, Taylor! I really get that. I get being so excited about a new friend that you develop a kind of friend crush and act a little too keen. How many times in life does our fear of how we’ll come across to others prevent us from saying something nice to someone, or doing something nice for them? Half the time we don’t make the effort to reach out for fear of looking ‘uncool’ or weirdly intense. What is ‘cool’, anyway, and why does it matter? My favourite people in the world are genuinely so interested in others, having so much fun, that they don’t seem to waste any thought or energy worrying about whether or not other people think they’re ‘cool’.

I have this theory that there are two types of people in the world, the wavers and the nodders. The nodders don’t want to make themselves vulnerable to rejection, so they opt for a non-committal nod when they see someone they know in the street, whereas the wavers throw caution to the wind and flap their arms around happily (rather awkward if someone ignores you and you end up having to pretend you were fighting with a pigeon or something). Taylor is a waver through and through, and I love that she is inspiring other people to be a little more open-hearted and starry-eyed, too. She is the physical embodiment of the fearlessness I wrote about in my blog post ‘Our secret weapon, or Making lemonade’.

Taylor’s goofy, fearless, anti-cool is special because it’s so rare in the world of pop; it invites people to be kind to themselves and to others in a way that goes so far beyond Lady Gaga’s acceptance of misfits (I would feel far too uncool to hang out with Lady Gaga, but I get the impression you could have just as much unselfconscious fun with Taylor dressed up for the Grammys as you would do in your PJs at a girls’ night in). Whatever she’s singing about, Taylor always makes you feel like she’s on your side, or that you’re in on a joke together. She’s not competing with you; she’s your biggest cheerleader.

In a culture inundated with pop stars like the Pussy Cat Dolls gyrating to the lyrics ‘Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?’, Taylor stands out as an unexpected slap-in-the-face type of reminder that we women really are in this empowerment business together, and ‘sexy’ is way overrated. Stars who can’t seem to stop pouting long enough to show any personality bother me, not because they’re pretty or sexy, but because their public lives seem to be about striking one long attractive pose, perpetuating the idea that women in their ideal form are empty vessels for male sexual fantasy. It’s the same issue that I wrote about in relation to what makes a woman funny – she has to be able to stop thinking about whether or not she’s coming across as sexually desirable. Kate Winslet and Tina Fey are just two examples of gorgeous, funny, clever, and personality filled women who show up the idea that some women are just too gorgeous to play a diverse range of characters or to make themselves look foolish as the fallacy that it is.

Taylor’s song (a bonus track on the Target exclusive edition of her latest album, Red) ‘Girl At Home‘ is such a refreshing break from the rest of popular culture. In this song, Taylor stands up to the false idea that desire is something that should dictate how we behave, without any thought to how our actions might impact someone else. ‘I just want to make sure you understand perfectly you’re the kind of man who makes me sad’, she says to the sleaze bag who tries to make a move on her despite having ‘a girl at home’. ‘I don’t even know her, but I feel a responsibility to do what’s upstanding and right, it’s kind of like a code, yeah?’ Oh, Taylor, I love you.

Then there’s her relentless energy, hard work, optimism, and ambition; it’s astonishing and inspiring that she has been writing her own songs and pushing for musical success from such an early age. As Jess Holland points out, ‘Let’s not forget that she started writing songs at 12 and got signed at 14. When Bob Dylan was the age she is now – 22 – he’d only just switched from covers and Woody Guthrie impressions to his own stuff. Just saying.’

And even if all of this is worthless to you, one thing you can take away from it is that Taylor Swift is the ultimate weapon against hipsters and music snobs. Seriously. Flick your hair and giggle like her and they’ll stiffen uncomfortably. Sing a line from one of her songs and they’ll start twitching. Play her music at top volume, and they’ll run a mile. It’s a fun game – trust me, I used to be that hipster, until Taylor stole my heart.

The Great British Bake Off-inspired florentines | Recipe

chocolate florentines recipe, The Great British Bake Off, florentine recipe with ginger and cranberries, how to make florentines

I’m addicted to The Great British Bake Off. I don’t know why, but I am. I can see very clearly why it should be incredibly dull; pretty much everything about it has stayed the same over the course of its five seasons, from the soundtrack, the challenges, the episode structure and order, to the set inside the legendary Bake Off tent. At some point during pretty much every season someone mistakes salt for sugar, has a disastrous bake with a soggy bottom, or ends up crying quietly into their apron on national television because Mary Berry was disappointed with their flavours.

My husband can’t begin to fathom why I love it so (and I don’t blame him), but he’s realised that I tend to make yummy things during Bake Off season, so he supports me in my addiction. He has even started watching it with me occasionally, alternating between mocking it gently, and putting in requests for things for me to try baking myself. I think he’s even starting to enjoy watching it despite himself.

But you know, I think it is precisely it’s unchanging format and the predictability of the show that makes it so very comforting to watch. It’s so English; it’s like teatime and village fetes and country bake sales and talking about the weather in the corner shop. The judges are exacting, but generally in a polite, British way. And the presenters have a silly, sweet, pantomime-ish humour that adds a large dose of charm to the proceedings; they are always quick to cheer up the underdog when it’s going badly for them, or when their time to leave the tent comes. It’s lovely to get to know each new round of contestants through the stories of the things that they bake. This is reality TV at its gentlest and most unobtrusive.

I also love the way the show encourages me to try out new things. After watching the biscuit round, I decided to try making florentines for the first time – something I’ve enjoyed eating but never tried baking. I combined and adapted a few different recipes because I like my florentines to have a hint of ginger, and they came out really well. Here’s the recipe I used, in case you’d like to try them yourselves.

Making florentines, florentines recipe, The Great British Bake Off, easy chocolate florentines


- 150g (5oz) unsalted butter

- 175g (6oz) caster sugar

- 4 tablespoons double cream

- 2 tablespoons maple syrup

-  2 teaspoons (approx.) ginger powder

- 50g (2oz) plain flour

- 200g (7oz) flaked almonds

- 3 tablespoons mixed sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and pine nuts

- 100g (3 1/2oz) dried cranberries

- 150g (5oz) good quality dark chocolate

Grease several large baking sheets and preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.

Combine the nuts, seeds and cranberries with the flour in a bowl. Melt the butter gently in a pan and stir in the sugar. Increase the heat and bring the mixture to the boil, before quickly removing the pan from the heat and stirring in the cream and maple syrup – it should look like a caramel mixture now. Then add the ginger and stir well again.

Pour the caramel-like mixture over the nuts mixture and stir until everything is evenly combined. Now drop evenly sized smallish heaped dollops of the mixture onto the baking sheets, making sure to leave a few inches of space around each one (they will spread like crazy!). Bake in the preheated oven for 7 minutes.

When you take them out, leave the oven on. If they are anything like mine, they will have spread across pretty much the whole tray, but don’t worry – grab a round cookie cutter/mould that is the size you’d like your florentines to be, and shape them into those rounds. The mixture should be very sticky and starting to hold a little, but still malleable enough to shape in the cutter with your fingers and a spoon. I like my florentines to be quite thick, so I packed them pretty densely when I reshaped them. When you’ve shaped them all, put them back in the oven for another 3-4 minutes to bake until they are going golden around the edges.

Remove from the oven and leave them to cool on the baking tray for 5 minutes or so, before putting them in the fridge to finish solidifying. You can break off any bits of the hardened caramel ‘glue’ that has run over to make a more neatly shaped round, if you like. If you don’t have enough baking trays or oven space, you’ll have mixture to spare, so you can now bake up the rest.

Next, melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water, and then leave to cool for 10 minutes or so. Lay the florentines out on baking paper upside down, and spread the melted chocolate in a layer over the bottoms. Leave it to cool some more for a few minutes once you’ve spread it, but before it’s is completely set you can drag a fork over the chocolate in several rows to make the traditional wiggly pattern. (I forgot to do this, otherwise I’d include a picture to show you what I mean!) Finally, transfer them carefully, chocolate side still up, to the fridge again so that they can finish setting. You can store them in a tin at room temperature once they have set completely. Enjoy!

chocolate florentines, The Great British Bake Off, Mary Berry, how to make florentines, easy florentines recipe

Reflections on Rio

Rio, Brazil, Santa Teresa district, travel

Last summer I had the opportunity to visit Rio de Janeiro to participate in a conference on environmental ethics and theology in conjunction with Pope Francis’ visit for World Youth Day 2013. I recently found a disposable camera that I thought I had lost and got some grainy, dark snaps developed that brought it all back.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, botanic gardens, Christo Redemptor, Christ the Redeemer statue

Rio had fascinated me for a long time before I travelled there, and the week I spent there last July only deepened that fascination; I hope I can go back some day to explore some more. I love the way it is nestled between the luscious rainforest and the turquoise ocean, watched over by the giant Cristo Redentor statue who towers above the city with his outstretched arms. I love the hectic tangle of streets, the sudden, steep hills and broken cobbles, the open air cafes where you can sit beneath the trees sipping iced fruit juice with wild orchids and monkeys quarrelling in the branches overhead. I love the way that even in the most built up areas of town there are giant cracks in the concrete and steep rock faces covered in creeping green foliage behind the fancy hotels and apartment blocks. It’s as if the rainforest cannot be subdued and is waiting for the chance to take back the city.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

There is something about Rio that doesn’t quite make sense, like a surreal sequence in a Baz Luhrmann film. Its heart is wild and untamed, and I felt like I was about to tip off the edge of the world, like I couldn’t quite trust gravity to behave normally. I have a suspicion that I don’t think I could feel like I had ‘understood’ Rio even if I lived there for a very long time.

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

And then there’s the fact that the extremes of wealth and poverty are such close neighbours. It’s a city where the wealthiest people regularly travel to work by helicopter, while the poorest live just around the corner from their mansions and helipads in slums. While I was there, the group I was with visited one of the favelas that had been recently ‘cleaned up’ (meaning that the drug gangs were supposedly rooted out and a strong police presence had been established). The favelas aren’t just on the outskirts of the city; they sprang up to fill Rio’s empty pockets, spreading their sprawl of ramshackle pavements and buildings wherever and however they could, up the mountainsides without any particular regard for safety or comfort. You know when you’re in a favela because they are sectioned off from the normal streets of Rio with walls and gates, and you feel as if you’ve suddenly entered a makeshift cardboard box world designed by children, not for real living.

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

The narrow, winding streets were filthy, and great knotted masses of electrical wires hung down so low overhead that you had to occasionally stoop to avoid them. Every now and again we would pass a pile of rubble, and our guide told us that they were houses that had collapsed in a landslide, or just because they hadn’t been built with proper foundations. We stopped in a smallish concrete alcove that our guide told us was a marketplace, and he pointed to the multiple small holes and dents in the walls around us and said that this was the spot of a big drug raid when the police had taken over the area – the holes were bullet marks.

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

Despite the very obvious poverty and signs of struggle all around, we passed many homes that had flat screen TVs playing in the background. I realised then that my understanding of extreme poverty was very limited, and that things were a lot more complex than I had thought. Our guide talked about how many of the people in the favelas are getting by okay, working in the city. The favelas are unauthorised, and therefore outside of the city council’s remit, so they don’t pay tax. They may not have clean water, safe housing, safe electrical wiring, or a particularly pleasant living environment because the council doesn’t look after those things for them, or come to take away the rubbish and clean the streets, but in some senses they are free to build whatever life they can out of scraps there on the mountainside. Things that I think of as ‘luxuries’, like televisions, for example, are actually considered a staple of life. After all, technology doesn’t cost so much anymore.

This article, This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps, reminded me of what saw in the favela, and my own reactions to it. I realised that poverty doesn’t always look the way we think it will. I also find myself returning again and again to George Monbiot’s essay, The Gift of Death, thinking about the surplus and cheapness of stuff. Our world is in the strange situation where the cost of material goods has plummeted, but meanwhile ‘the cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty — including education, health care and child care — has soared’, as this article from the New York Times explains. This, apparently, is what some economists call ‘the Walmart effect’, resulting in ‘falling prices for a huge array of manufactured goods.’

‘Since the 1980s, for instance, the real price of a midrange color television has plummeted about tenfold, and televisions today are crisper, bigger, lighter and often Internet-connected. Similarly, the effective price of clothing, bicycles, small appliances, processed foods — virtually anything produced in a factory — has followed a downward trajectory.’

Now, every time I am tempted to judge someone begging on the street because they have a debit card or a smartphone I need to remember Rio. I need to remember that poverty is complicated, and that you can never know all about someone’s story and their struggles by just looking at them.

Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, inspirational quotes

I love Kenco’s new ‘Coffee vs Gangs‘ project – they are trying to help young people break out of the cycle of drug gangs and poverty by giving them jobs on coffee farms. Although it’s in Honduras, it made me think of the favelas in Rio.


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