Hilary Mantel and Kate Middleton. TL;DR? "Because the internet"

Background: Hilary Mantel said some interesting things about our fascination with the breeding habits of the monarchy. I liked the observation about how writing about the wives of Henry VIII tends to fit with moral trends of the author’s time. The Daily Mail (and others) preferred the bit about Kate Middleton being “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.” And then used it to talk more about the royal pregnancy while Twitter got cross.

A friend messaged me earlier:

“Pip, why is everyone getting so angry about Hilary Mantel?”

I used to write about celebs for a living so I field a surprising number of these kinds of queries from baffled friends who want a quick answer when a Twitter storm hits or when they can’t remember which charges Lindsay Lohan is currently in court for.

Usually I give as in-depth an account as I can (or as they will pay attention to) and the conversation moves on. That or, if the story has been a tawdry one, I send a picture of a red panda giving another red panda a high five by way of an apology for human nature.

Today… what’s the point? The answer is “Because the internet.”

Look, we all know the Daily Mail is good at trolling the internet, at linkbaiting, at manufactured outrage for initial page views and then settling back for a second round of traffic as the inevitable waves of Daily Mail detesters land crashing on the provocative text beach in a froth of tweets, comments and indignation. Oh, and then soaking up the third wave of page views as pictures and phrases in the sidebar ‘o’ shame catch your eye and you can be outraged about them too. Maybe a fourth as the rest of the world asks “What are you guys talking about?”

It’s not unique to the DM, particularly not using Kate Middleton (the artist formerly known as) to generate traffic, they just happen to execute it spectacularly. Award-winningly, even.

But if you stop and think for a moment, this whole thing isn’t really about Kate Middleton. Sure, she’s the focus of this round, but you’re noticing it because she’s ubiquitous enough that everyone feels they can give an opinion and because it involves talking about women’s bodies and women’s representations in the media. There’s also the delicious irony that by sensationalising Mantel’s essay the papers are doing the very thing Mantel is holding up for comment. Prime fodder for observers of pop culture.

Except, delicious irony? Really? It’s the god-knows-how-manyth time this has happened. Seeing it as story riddled with laziness and an improper understanding of the source material means you probably aren’t cynical enough.

Perhaps it’s easier if you take Kate out of the equation. She’s just too loaded a subject.
Look elsewhere and you can see the same sort of thing going on across the whole internet. Peer at all the speculative articles about the upcoming generation of games consoles or any physics story touching on the nature of the universe or whatever other topic takes your fancy.

Now look at all the stories asking questions in an attempt to lure you in for the payoff of an answer. Look at the headlines asking whether the Xbox 720 have a built in, like, I dunno, toaster oven? Look at articles covering mild scientific discoveries whose opening paragraphs feature at least one reference of the end of humanity or the universe or some other dramatic thing because that’s what people en masse like to click on or be outraged by or have some kind of instant emotional gratification from.

It’s a case of curating a press release or an interview with a very specific goal in mind: eyeballs not accuracy.

The accuracy isn’t the point. Going back to Kate, Why on earth would the DM be trying to give a precis of Hilary Mantel’s essay? Their readers (whether native or dragged in through a link) are interested in Kate and Mantel definitely did mention her using the phrase: “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own”. That’s where the relevance ends for this type of reportage. It doesn’t matter that that point was part of a wide-ranging and interesting essay because Kate wasn’t namechecked in that bit. Besides, removing the rest of the context means you can update the article with as many pictures of Windsor Womb Watch as you like.

So yeah. I ended up writing about it. But it’s not new. It’s how we are continuing to landscape the internet through our clicks and our outrage.

We’re a shitty, salacious Capability Brown.

The time fashion said "Y'know what, Hamlet? Up yours."

“We love how these artists grasped at nature as a way of expressing pain, Frida [Kahlo] even ended up drawing flowers on herself”

Thus spake Fyodor Podgorny, one half of Fyodor Golan, as he described the first fashion show that meant anything to me.

Les Fleurs Du Mal was the duo’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection, named for the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Looking back at the dresses themselves they’re versatile enough to make a beautiful cover shot or part of a multi-page shoot, but my interest was in the styling which teased out the hints of the malign.

Millais’ Ophelia is certainly present in the wet, bedraggled hair, the flowers, the gold neck braces threatening to choke and the morbid makeup but, rather than the oversaturated passivity of her Pre-Raphaelite tragedy, Fyodor Golan offered up something active, something angry. Theirs was an Ophelia who had had quite enough of lying in that fucking stream or bathtub or whatever with a drowning bouquet, thankyouverymuch, and d’you know what, Hamlet? Up. Yours.

Murder, She Wrote – Birds Of A Feather

I am watching Birds of a Feather – an episode from season one of Murder, She Wrote. In order to make it feel like I’m doing something productive (and also because once upon a time I actually did TV recaps as part of my job) here is what happened. I watched it so you didn’t have to, essentially.


Howard, a man in a white suit who has clearly watched too much Saturday Night Fever joins Martin Landau for a jog. Martin Landau is incredibly fashion forward in his velour tracksuit which neatly anticipates JLo’s iconic Juicy Couture look by about twenty years. Unfortunately at some point in the intervening decades the velour tracksuit connection between form and function was lost, meaning Landau’s jogging seems hopelessly dated.

Martin Landau is unimpressed by Howard’s pleas to stop making him do something degrading. Howard will therefore be murder suspect number one and the degrading thing will turn out to be, like, taking the bins out or something.


Vicky (Jessica Fletcher’s niece) is chatting to a vicar about her wedding. Her suggestion that it be an “intimate” occasion elicits an odd reaction which has nothing to do with the plot. The actor has clearly decided that vicars are not on board with intimacy. He later fails to wince at some blasphemy so I have put a cross next to “accuracy” on my Murder, She Wrote scorecard.

Clearly out of his depth, the vicar suggests making the whole tedious thing “festive” by adding flowers. The way he says “festive” reminds me of the way my grandmother delivered all her finest backhanded compliments. “Don’t you look nice when you don’t have your hair the way you usually do?” Thanks, granny vicar!

Howard finally appears. He is the groom. Really Vicky? You didn’t think you could do better? “I do have the little tots waiting in the rehearsal hall,” complains the vicar. He is talking about how the wedding rehearsal is interfering with choir practice but modern ecclesiastical scandal has rather affected my ability to read that kind of line without it being a wry aside. It’s like when your mum tells you she’s off for a facial and you deeply regret knowing so much about porn.

Howard and his fiance have a row in the middle of the aisle and he offers her a lipstick-covered hanky which inflames the situation further. Howard is a moron. Why would he put a hanky covered in pink grease in the pocket of a pristine white suit?


Jessica is being a jerk about the local restaurant’s lobster options. “Are you sure these are Maine lobsters?” she asks. “Maybe they have jet lag.”

Shut up and stop being so one-percenty, Jessica.

“We’ll take the first two that move.”

Now THAT is a line which crosses generational and situational divides, equally appropriate when being a dick about ordering lobster and when on the pull in a sleazy nightclub on student night. Or so I’ve heard.

But while Jessica is capable of infinite lobster snobbery (snobster? lobbery? lobstobbery?) she is also an old lush. “Glass of white wine” is as specific as she manages and doesn’t even bother to sample it first. As someone who recently had a glass of white wine which I suspect was equal parts ham and Ronseal I’d say that was foolhardy at best.

While Jessica is eying the wine, Vicky is doing Backstory.

Howard is an actor turned insurance salesman. Vicky confesses that she knows Howard has lost his job but that he hasn’t told her and keeps missing their evening dates before turning up covered in perfume and lipstick. He has also festooned his apartment with matchboxes from a particular club. Howard is either an arsonist or a plot device moron trying to keep a secret.

“If I love him how can I justify spying on him?” wails Vicky.

“For your own piece of mind I think you have to,” answers Jessica Fletcher, moral spirograph, who has sensed that this club may contain more wine.


Some guy called Freddie wants to leave, or get more money or something. I am not really paying attention because it’s not about Jessica and no-one’s dead yet.

Jessica and Vicky arrive without a reservation but some really hamfisted namedropping gets the pair a seat. Martin Landau’s wife arrives during a comedy set by someone who makes a joke Jessica doesn’t approve of. The comedian will now turn out to be the murderer.

Felix (who the hell is Felix?) is sent to warn Martin Landau that his wife is hanging about but bumps into a woman in a monumentally unflattering belted dress which makes me think of Kate Middleton and her endless wardrobe of dresses in NO EXCITING COLOURS WHATSOEVER. Kate Middleton tells Felix that she will tell Martin Landau about the wife situation. Good old Kate Middleton, she really is so kind.

The club suddenly (I say suddenly as if you hadn’t been expecting this but, seriously, it’s kind of been building since the lipstick hanky) turns out to be a drag bar and a woman wearing the remains of a flocked velvet tablecloth crashes through the room and onto Jessica’s table pursued by Kate Middleton. It turns out to be Howard The Moron who has been moonlighting at the club (the explanation given later is, like, “that’s showbiz” or something). He is instantly arrested and confined to his dressing room.

Sidenote: The main impact of this drag club setting appears to be that the actors keep removing their wigs for dramatic effect. I am on board with this as a direction.

A policeman guarding the dressing room lets Vicky in because he is shit at his job.

Vicky is not repulsed by Howard’s dreadful taste in dresses – maybe she has decided that they fall into the category of “festive” – and the pair start getting it on. Obviously hilarity ensues when the police are unsure which one to charge. They go for “the tall one”.


Kate Middleton witnessed the aftermath of the murder and is chatting on about it while the police are all “What, this gun here?”

Squawking from the corner alerts everyone to the fact that Jessica is harassing a cockatiel. She is asked to leave.


Jessica blackmails the police into letting her help with the investigation. They then leave her alone with Howard The Moron because they too are shit at their jobs.

Jessica instantly believes Howard’s version of events (that he was shouting at the back of a chair which happened to contain a dead man while waving a gun about). This is probably because Howard is too deeply stupid to have made anything as convoluted as that up.


Martin Landau’s wife is banging some dude who isn’t/wasn’t Martin Landau and fires Kate Middleton for knowing about it. Kate Middleton immediately tells Jessica everything about it and calls Martin Landau’s wife “Lucrezia Borgia in furs”. This comparison bothers me far more than it should because I’m pretty sure Lucrezia Borgia would have had far more furs than Martin Landau’s wife. Hell, the woman could probably have passed for a gigantic stoat in wintertime, loaded up with a ton of ermine. For God’s sake Kate Middleton, work on your historical comparisons.


Event chunter along at not enough of a pace so I am not going scene by scene. Martin Landau’s wife and the dude she is banging have a villainous encounter on the waterfront. There is lacklustre kissing and they both suspect each other. Jessica pops in to discuss Alcatraz with the comedian who is clearly the murderer, because FORESHADOWING. Then the comedian tries to make himself look innocent by staging an attempt on his own life, so that was a nice diversion.

Eventually Jessica goes for a lie down in her noisy hotel room and holds a pillow over her ears. She is probably massively hungover from all the wine.

This is the EUREKA moment we have been waiting for. She was harrassing the cockatiel earlier because of a feather she found. And where there are feathers there are either birds or – far more likely – pillows being used as impromptu gun silencers before being replaced by ones from the murderer’s dressing room which have been sun bleached because of the window with the view of Alcatraz.

On that basis the comedian goes to prison, Vicky marries Howard The Moron and Howard The Moron gets a job two days a week on a daytime soap opera. I decide that Vicky’s story is the great tragedy of the piece and try to remember if she turns up in later series to update us on what is clearly going to be a disastrous union.

Jessica just laughs.


Things I found that I had written during darker days

One of the disconcerting things about depression is its wordlessness. It’s a sickness of the vocabulary as much as it is of the synapses or the serotonin reuptake modules. Rather than sketching ideas in conversation with friends you find yourself turning your adjectives and nouns to another purpose – containing the spillage inside your brain by describing it, identifying it, pinning it to a board. But you’re building a sandcastle while the tide is coming in, taking arms against a sea of troubles.

The letters simply tumble and sink away.

The scraps below are attempts at describing or identifying or pinning from various times. I don’t know what to do with them so I am going to leave them here.

Occasionally words are too scratchy. The verbal paintbox I use to sketch the money to pay the rent dries out and crackles. Sentences can be constructed but the brush strokes are crabbed and small rather than languorous and fluid. Thoughts get constrained into boxes. Living things cooped up like battery hens without the room to flap or flutter. The crabbed writing and the crabbed thinking loop in some horrible recursive version of stupidity, a creeping idiocy.

Stunted thoughts and phrases cluster together like soap scum in the sink, bobbing on the plug-tide. Islands of the stuff spreading like a rootless, moronic mulch against a sea of sleeplessness and wordless frustration. Eutrophication in reverse. Blooms and blooms of worthless sludge sucking at the oxygen and drowning. A tangle of Ophelia’s flowers and Lizzie Siddall’s body in John Everett Millais’ bathtub.

The current drags as much as it pushes and where language ebbs, pictures flow. Nuance and feeling crawl through fingers framing an iPhone camera although they will later refuse to type.

A mouse scurries from one side of the tube tracks to the other. A furry foreigner. Without language there is no way to connect with or comprehend the creature. No sense of even being in the same epoch. Train approaching. There it is. In your mind you fall and the jolt of pain as the front of the tube catches your shoulder comes through like an echo from another world – that other reality. Nausea rises. You blink. The train stops.

On the brink of 2013

Around this time last year I was sitting in the bath, fully clothed, with my laptop on my knees.

I was hiding from a mouse that I’d spotted scampering across the living room having figured that he or she wouldn’t be able to climb past the overhang of the edge of the tub so I could rest easy and carry on my hitherto solitary celebrations.

The celebrations themselves consisted of DVDs — I can’t remember which so probably just a mixture of US television comedies — and the Sprite left over from my Happy Meal. I’m not entirely sure whether the fact I had “grown-upped” the Sprite with liberal glugs of some homemade sloe gin makes this tableau more or less depressing.

So yes. Sitting in a bathtub, wearing lots of outdoor clothes in case the mouse somehow tried to touch my bare skin, drinking gin out of a Happy Meal cup and completely unable to enjoy or remember Modern Family.

I considered sleeping in that tub.

I also didn’t go back into the living room until my boyfriend at the time came home except for a trip (clad in wellies, gloves and a hat) to poke a mousetrap stuffed with apple and peanut butter through the door with a broom.

I’m not even going to concede that this was damaging to gender stereotype advances because, you know what? ANYONE can be scared of a mouse.

The fact that I later discovered said mouse had died, frazzled against the power pack of the boyfriend’s computer and that the way I found this out was by mistaking the corpse for an old apple core and almost putting my hand through it… Well let’s just say that species has not endeared itself to me any further.

This year I am hoping for better things. I have a house party I am about to head to, I live with a flatmate who has a cat and therefore a wonderful lack of mice, and I have even more sloe gin than last year.

But the end of this year has been a strange one.

In an email to a friend I described returning to London to find it feeling far less like home than before I went to see my family for Christmas. Like the holidays grabbed at the chessboard and shook it around just as the shape of a game was forming. Rootlessness, perhaps? Realising that the pieces which you had mentally fixed in place because that’s how you have to play are actually no more attached to their actual squares than you are to your metaphorical one.

A slightly odd sensation, then, but one filled with potential and with the idea that you take your own potential moves with you wherever you go.

I’m not sure what the next year will hold and I don’t believe that change comes from a calendar tick but I think it’s best to say that perhaps I am a person in flux and the flux will be the curious thing about 2013.

The fascinating world of granite!

I started finding out about granite after reading that it was naturally radioactive. I hadn’t really given it much consideration before and suddenly felt very ignorant. Then I ended up staying awake until 5am reading more and more about it! For the information about radiation you can skip through to the end, but there was also plenty of other interesting stuff I found out so I’ve popped that in too.

**What on earth is granite?**

So let’s start with the absolute basics. Granite is an intrusive igneous rock – that just means it is formed below the surface of the earth as magma or lava cools. Because the cooling happens underground it takes a very long time and that allows the rock to form large crystals which are visible to the naked eye. That’s why granite can end up looking like a rocky fruit cake.

Granite is composed of between 20-60 percent quartz (silicon dioxide), lots of feldspar (a family of silicate minerals) and then a selection of other minerals which give it different darknesses and textures. To work out if something is a true granite or just a granitoid you need to know the relative proportions of quartz and feldspars. There’s even a helpful triangle to help with that – the bits in green are the true granites:

How it works is you find out the percentage quartz in the rock and plot that as a horizontal line, then you look at the feldspar content and work out the what percentage of that is plagioclase feldspar as opposed to alkali feldspar. That goes along the base of the triangle. Then you draw a line from that point on the base to the apex of the triangle and the zone where it intersects the horizontal line will tell you what kind of rock you have. Neat!

So what’s so interesting about granite? Well, it turns out there’s a lot.

**Granite is a magnetic encyclopaedia**

The crystals of feldspar and quartz which make up the majority of granite are sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field (the magnetosphere) as they cool. Once they have solidified they contain a snapshot of the polarity and intensity of the magnetosphere which is called a paleomagnetic record. Provided the rocks aren’t contaminated by heat at a later date you can use them to read the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field billions of years ago. Smaller magnetic inclusions (the name given to the crystals) give more accurate results as they are less vulnerable to temperature changes.

John Tarduno of the University of Rochester used this property of granite to look at how the Earth’s magnetic field worked 3.2 billion years ago and found that the strength of the ancient field was at least 50 percent of the current one. That’s important because the magnetosphere is what protects the ozone layer from being destroyed by solar winds and the ozone layer protects the earth from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Without the magnetosphere life on earth wouldn’t be possible.

Another neat touch was that because the magnetic properties recorded by the crystals include the polarity of the Earth’s magnetosphere so Tarduno could check whether the rock had been contaminated at a later date by comparing the polarity with other samples of a similar age.

**Granite dominates the land, basalt owns the sea**

Both granite and basalt are igneous rocks, created when magma cools and solidifies but in terms of distribution, the continents are dominated by granite while the ocean floor belongs to basalt;. One of the differences between basalt and granite is that granite crystals are visible to the naked eye while basalt has much finer grains. This happens because on land the magma cools at a far slower rate giving the minerals time to grow larger while magma released underwater cools a lot faster making for teeny tiny crystals and that’s a massive part of why you will find granite on the continents but basalt in the ocean beds.

**Granite shows an ancient supercontinent linked the US and Antarctica**

A lump of granite found on the Nimrod Glacier near the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica had such a specific mineral composition that geologists were able to identify it as being related to a unique belt of rock which runs through parts of North America including California and New Mexico. The belt actually stops abruptly on the West Coast of the US hinting that a chunk of rock which used to be part of the supercontinent Rodinia — a precursor of Pangaea — had rifted away, eventually coming to rest in what is now Antarctica.

**Granite countertops can cause radiation exposure**

Most stone has the potential to emit radiation so the fact that granite can do so shouldn’t necessarily set alarm bells ringing, however granite has developed a bit of a radioactive reputation because some of its forms contain elevated concentrations of naturally-occurring radioactive materials.

Uranium 238 and thorium 232 are two such materials and can both cause radioactive gases like radon to be released into the surrounding atmosphere as they decay. In living areas — especially those with bad ventilation — the radon gas can accumulate and be inhaled potentially causing lung cancer.

Apparently there aren’t consumer guidelines for radiation safety when the emissions come from naturally occurring materials but using the safety standards which apply to controllable radiation sources a study by Daniel Steck of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota (yeah, I had to look that up and check it wasn’t a spoof place name) discovered that putting lots of granite in small living spaces with poor ventilation can generate levels of radon which would be considered excessive.

The thing is, it depends completely on individual types of granite as to the level of risk. Most of the hoo-hah seems to focus around granite countertops and other home renovation materials but it also means that cellars carved into granite rock or towns built on granite foundations could experience radiation-related problems too.

**Granite radiation at Grand Central Station**

While writing this I found something which sounds suspiciously like an urban legend stating that the granite in Grand Central Station in New York emits more radiation than would be permissible at a nuclear power plant. After a bit of investigating it looks like this isn’t an urban legend but neither is it the cause for concern that it’s phrased as.

According to MIT the average annual background radiation dose for humans is 300 mrem and there’s a safe limit of 500 mrem for children and pregnant women. Grand Central exposes employees to 120 mrem per year (I don’t know how accurate that last figure is but it’s the only one I could find). That means that working at Grand Central will give you an annual radiation dose of around 420 mrem – still very much within the safe exposure zone for humans.

Basically, this all says more about the strict regulations governing nuclear power plants than it does about granite in Grand Central!


How hex codes work

You might be familiar with hex codes if you’ve ever tinkered about with HTML or CSS while working on a website – they’re the six-character alphanumeric strings preceded by a hash symbol which reference a particular colour; #000000 for black, for example.

But despite having known about them and having used them for years I realised that I had never looked into how they worked. I’m also nursing a stupid cold and who among you HASN’T become obsessed with something you’ve used in CSS when feeling under the weather? EXACTLY.

**Now let’s begin**

The “hex” in hex codes is short for hexadecimal. This means that you are working with a base-16 system and explains why you see letters as well as numbers in the codes — in day to day counting we use a base-10 system which means that for base-16 we need to find a way of representing an extra six digits. As such the numbers 0-15 become the characters 0, 1 ,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, and F in hexadecimal.

The six digits of each hex code are divided into three pairs, which correspond to the amount of red, green and blue needed to create the colour. The first two digits ALWAYS deal with the amount of red, the second two with the green and the final two with the blue. There are 256 different combinations of digits in each pair (16×16) so each different permutation can represent one of 256 possible intensities of that colour channel with 00 being the least intense and FF being the most. That’s why #000000 shows up as black as all the colour channels are on their lowest intensity and #FFFFFF maps to white — everything is on maximum strength.

256 different possible values for each of the RGB colour channels means over 16 million potential colours at your disposal. However, back in the day, not all electronic displays could make sense of all these different options — as it goes, even the human eye struggles to distinguish more than 10 million of them — so web-safe colours were introduced to offer a level of standardisation.

You can tell web-safe colours at a glance because they only use the digits 0, 3, 6, 9, C and F, and each pair of digits matches (#33FF99, for example). They correspond to 0%, 20%, 40%, 60%, 80% and 100% intensity of each channel. As a result there are only 6 possible values for each colour channel and 216 potential colours — perfect for monitors limited to a palette of only 256 colours.

It wasn’t a foolproof system but generally provided a decent solution. In case you were wondering there was actually an even smaller colour palette devised of super-duper web-safe colours to prevent mishaps but nowadays it seems a little redundant because advances in technology mean that most electronic displays you encounter on a regular basis are more than capable of dealing with a wider range of colours. That said, it’s always good design practice to remember not everyone has up-to-the-moment tech at their disposal!

I use hex codes most often in CSS when I’m tweaking the look of a blog. In CSS you can actually use a shorthand form of hex code which only involves three digits. These triple digit codes only shorten pairs of identical digits though, hence #4499CC would become #49C but #80FF00 would need to remain as a six digit code. CSS also allows you to use all manner of different systems to tell it which colours you fancy using but I love the modularity of hex codes and find them strangely beautiful so I always use them for preference.

**And finally**

If you ever want to translate RGB numerical values (such as rgb (255,0,0) which is bright red) into a hex code you can do it as follows:

  1. Take the red value first
  2. Work out how many 16s are in the number (this is basically primary school division – you want whole numbers and remainders NOT decimal places)
  3. Translate the whole number into a 0-F digit. This will be the first digit in the pair.
  4. Translate the remainder into a 0-F digit. This is the second digit in the pair.
  5. Repeat for the green and blue values.
  6. When you have your three pairs of digits list them in RGB order after a # symbol. Voila!

To go the other way and translate a hex code into numerical RBG values you reverse the process:

  1. Divide the code into three pairs of digits.
  2. Starting with the red pair, convert each digit in the pair to a decimal number (0-9 stay the same while A-F map to 10-15)
  3. Multiply the first number in the pair by 16 and then add the second number.
  4. Repeat for the green and blue values.
  5. You then represent the numerical values you get from this process in the format rgb(255,0,0)