Category Archives: Features

The Sunday Times: How to Fail by Elizabeth Day review — even divorce has a bright side

Elizabeth Day’s immensely popular How to Fail podcast is a fascinating, thoughtful, honest, often moving series of interviews with successful people about the moments when their lives went wrong. It is a “celebration” not just of failure, but of learning through mistakes. So, Gina Miller shared with Day not her achievement in taking the government to court over Brexit, but how she failed her law degree. The novelist Sebastian Faulks spoke about his experience of depression, and Radio 4’s Mishal Husain talked about not landing her perfect job. Capitalising on the podcast, this memoir-style book weaves Day’s thoughts on moments of “failure” in her own life into the stories others shared with her in interviews.

It is an entertaining read that mixes confession with interview excerpts. She explores what she learnt from her inability to fit in at school, for instance, alongside Mad Men actress Christina Hendrick’s revelations about her teenage misfit years. She shares her dating disasters with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who later turned hers into material for Fleabag, her Bafta-winning television show. And she compares her writing career, which only flourished after she left full-time journalism, with that of Dolly Alderton, who found her writing voice after being let go from a TV production job.

In every upset, Day finds potential. In her ineptitude at sport, which sits alongside David Baddiel’s “failure” to become a professional footballer, she learns about not judging yourself. Exploring the “failure of families” through people such as Tara Westover, whose memoir Educated chronicled her life growing up with abusive, survivalist Mormon parents, Day sees an opportunity to gain a new perspective on life. Even her divorce in her thirties has an upside: selling her wedding dress also funds her podcast.


The Sunday Times: Island idyll shattered by a teenage murderer hungry for online fame

Bute seems far from the dark side of modern life — but did Aaron Campbell bring video violence to the savage killing of six-year-old Alesha?

Like many young people, Aaron Campbell wanted to be famous online. Growing up on the Isle of Bute, the teenager dreamed of being as popular as PewDiePie, the world’s best-known YouTuber, whose channel has 86m subscribers. Online, Campbell had a plethora of accounts. It is hard not to look at them now in light of the verdict last week that found the 16-year-old guilty of the abduction, rape and murder of six-year-old Alesha MacPhail — crimes the judge overseeing his trial described as “the most evil in the history of the court”.

The pathologist who examined Alesha found 117 “catastrophic” injuries on her small body, which was found dumped in woodland on the island.


Alesha MacPhail

Now much of Campbell’s online footprint feels menacing: he held accounts on the gaming website Twitch, where his profile page shows a disturbing collage of images that include one of a girl with blood falling from her eyes and mouth, and another of someone standing in a wooden area looking down at a grave.

On YouTube, Campbell — whose moniker was Poison3d Appl3 — posted hours of footage showing himself playing dark video games. In one he creeps through the gloomy corridors of a virtual house, as a crackly radio plays a news report about a man shooting his wife, son and six-year-old daughter. In Campbell’s other grim videos, a girl is heard screaming for her mother, and a dying foetus shown squirming in a sink. On Reddit, Campbell posted a video commentary on a horror game he had created.

Watching these clips makes you wonder what impact such violent video games had on his young mind. Could watching such horror repeatedly have left him immune to violence or led him to commit his crime? Yet, Campbell’s intentions do not seem dark. He used his online platforms to get attention. In videos he begs people to follow him, asking them to “please appreciate the video”, emphasising how long he spent creating them.


The Sunday Times: Katie Glass sings the praises of toyboys


Of all the things Heidi Klum, Kate Moss and I have in common, the least surprising is our taste for younger men. Having just got engaged to a man six years my junior, I’m delighted to find that not only have I signed up for six months of people asking, “So when are you having children?” but also I am on trend. Having a toyboy is in.

The 45-year-old supermodel Klum has just got engaged to a 29-year-old rocker called Tom Kaulitz. They announced their nuptials, as is now traditional, by posting a picture on Instagram with the caption “I said yes”. (As if anyone would be cruel enough to post about a proposal they had rejected.)

Klum’s news follows the blow-out wedding of the Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, 36, and her decade-younger pop-star husband, Nick Jonas, 26. Moss recently celebrated her 45th birthday in Paris with her 30-year-old boyfriend Nikolai von Bismarck, and Sienna Miller, 37, was snapped in New York kissing Lucas Zwirner, 27 — who, headlines helpfully explained, is her “much younger” boyfriend.

All my favourite women — Madonna, Moss, Joan Collins, the Wife of Bath — know the fun of having a younger beau. They feed you great music, take you to cool parties and explain how TicToc works.

I’ve nearly always dated younger partners. I don’t seek them out, but on dating websites I was shocked by the number of younger men who messaged me saying, “I like older women” — pretty painful for this thirtysomething. They trotted out the cliché that women reach their sexual peak later and told me they were looking for someone more mature than them. “Ha-ha-ha!” I’d cackle. “As if!” Indeed the main reason my current relationship works is that my younger partner is more mature than I am.




The Sunday Times: Katie Glass: my trans-Mongolian train ride with ‘Judge’ Rinder

judge rinder

I wanted to escape Christmas, and my celebrity best friend wanted to ride the Trans-Siberian railway, which is how, on December 21, I came to be landing in Moscow to spend a fortnight travelling across Russia by train with the television presenter, barrister and one-time Strictly Come Dancing contestant “Judge” Rob Rinder.

The Trans-Mongolian train we caught runs 4,863 miles from Moscow across Russia, through Mongolia, to Beijing. In summer it is the stuff of backpacker wish lists, but in winter, when temperatures plummet to the –30Cs, sensible tourists disappear. Even Muscovites looked stunned to hear about our trip, as we ran around their city buying supplies: caviar, vodka . . . Well, it was Christmas.

When we stepped inside our cupboard-sized cabin for the first time, we wondered if we’d made a huge mistake. We opened the vodka and we rolled out of Yaroslavsky station.

As we travelled, I snapped photographs on my iPhone of Dr Zhivago landscapes and snowy station platforms, where men stood smoking wearing shorts, despite it being –26C. I photographed ourprovodnitsa, the conductress in charge of our carriage, as well as the pretty silver mugs of tea she brought us, and the plates of pickled herring in the restaurant car. I tweeted a few of my holiday snaps, thinking maybe a few bored friends back in London might see them and begrudgingly click “like”.

In fact, as the train rocked me to sleep, my tweets travelled further than I ever would have imagined. Hundreds of Russians, somehow and for some reason, started coming across my posts, reading them, liking them, commenting and retweeting them onto the timelines of a few more hundred Russians, who did the same thing. By the time I woke up, I’d gone viral in Russia, which was not how I expected my 2018 to end.


The Sunday Times: Grab 2019 by the barbells — and try powerlifting to get fit


It was the kind of terrible idea you only have in January, overenthusiastic about a new year. Some readers will recall that as 2017 ended, I underwent a 12-week transformation from fat to … slightly less fat by doing a weightlifting-based fitness course. Much to my amazement, I enjoyed it. I got fit! Even more surprisingly, I discovered an exercise I was actually OK at. “You should enter a weightlifting competition,” someone suggested one day, as I managed the rare feat of looking competent while doing a deadlift. Obviously, I should have ignored them. Instead, I resolved on a new challenge — I really would enter a weightlifting competition.

Later, crying in an Epsom salt bath, feeling like I’d been punched in the head, hit by a bus, run a marathon and then been KO’d by Conor McGregor, I realised how stupid this was. As if I could compete against actual athletes. But then, what are new years for if not to find new ways to humiliate yourself?

powerlifting 2

Week 1
Gymbox is a cross between Pacha in Ibiza and London Zoo: a dark basement with a DJ booth, flashing neon lights and wire walls dividing the space into cages, each housing a different sporting species. In one menagerie, runners pound treadmills; in others, rowers pant back and forth; in another, aerial yoga bunnies twirl through the air. Amid them is the weightlifting area, with its intimidating steel frames and giant coloured weights.

On the first trip I meet Chloe, my coach. She is 28, beautiful, deadly serious and equipped with muscles of steel. She asks if I’m good at mornings. I say “No”. She says she’ll see me tomorrow at 8am.

The first thing I learn is that I will not be entering a weightlifting competition; I will be entering a powerlifting competition. If you think this distinction is irrelevant, you have never met a competitor for either. The differences are multiple, but, basically, while weightlifting involves heaving the weights overhead (in two lifts called the snatch and the clean and jerk), powerlifting involves three lifts: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift.


The Sunday Times Magazine: Having it all: what is it like to be bisexual in 2018?

bi sexual

When did I realise I was bisexual? I suppose the obvious answer is when I fell for a woman but still fancied men. I was 15 years old. Perhaps it should have been obvious earlier, given my mixed bag of teenage crushes: Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain, Germaine Greer and Leonard Cohen. If my first love was a girl, my first relationship was with a boy. Since then, my affections have haphazardly swung between genders with little fuss. As the presenter Courtney Act sweetly says in the new TV dating show The Bi Life (think Love Island with twice the chance of sex): “When I fall in love I don’t think about gender.” Or as I might more superficially put it: “I just kiss people based on whether I fancy them or not.” If my relationships haven’t fallen 50/50, that’s not down to desire, but laziness — going out with women takes so much more effort.

For some, coming out as bisexual is fraught with difficulty. Not for me. I suppose I was lucky growing up. My parents were divorced, so I rarely spoke to my dad about dating. My Ab Fab mother was desperate for a gay child, so I rather enjoyed not telling her when I started kissing a girl from school. If I’d hoped being bi might elicit some shock from my friends, it’s barely registered a flicker as I’ve come out to different friendship groups over the years. The more cynical ones just accuse me of finding something new to write about (as if!). The more annoying straight women see it as a chance to experiment. Someone asked me the other day if my female friends worry I fancy them. I hope not. If anything, being bi has clarified the distinctions between lovers and friends.

As I’ve got older, bisexuality has become less controversial, more fashion statement. As new generations reject traditional labels of gender, race and relationships, so the same thing has happened with sexuality. A YouGov survey in 2015 found that 23% of the population didn’t feel they were totally heterosexual. Among young people, that number jumped to 49% — almost enough for a sexual Brexit. The most recent Office for National Statistics survey into sexuality in 2016 found the number of people who identified as bisexual had increased by 45% in three years. It’s fair to suppose that percentage has only increased since.

I’ve always assumed we all exist somewhere in the middle of this Kinsey scale of attraction. Who doesn’t fancy Brad Pitt? Or wouldn’t experiment with Kate Moss if she tried it on? It rather amazes me anyone still finds bisexuality shocking when Tracey Emin has married a rock. Ritch C Savin-Williams, a psychologist specialising in gender studies at Cornell University in America, believes completely straight people don’t exist and that sexuality lies on a spectrum. He conducted a study of men and women watching porn, measuring pupil dilation, an indicator of arousal, and found even those claiming to be totally straight were turned on by same-sex fumbling. Porn channels regularly report their most popular category among women is “lesbian” (as it is for men).

I’ve often wondered if I’m bisexual for the same reason I became a journalist: I’m nosy. I never want to let an experience pass. Something suits me about “queerness” that stands outside boundaries. There’s an appeal in not having to limit yourself.


The Sunday Times: Smartphone generation give sex the kiss‑off

sex kiss off

We are in a sexual recession. We’re better protected — against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies — than ever. Pornography is ubiquitous. And we’re so frantically swiping right, we’re getting Tinder thumb. And yet, statistics suggest, young people today are not getting laid.

This month a long article in The Atlantic magazine by Kate Julian laid bare, in occasionally eye-watering detail, America’s sexual habits. One of Julian’s findings was that the average young adult in 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. The under-25s are the first generation getting less action than their parents. And it’s not because they’re snowflakes too busy eating avocado toast.

Julian labels this phenomenon the “sexual recession”. Let’s get the awful economics jokes out of the way now. Has a failure to stimulate our assets led to flaccid markets? Have limp-wristed layoffs caused widespread shrinkage? Or has the economy become backed up, deflating our endowments and leading to a lack of liquidity?

Grim as a sexual recession sounds, it’s certainly intriguing — and counterintuitive, when, according to many sources, we appear to live in a sexually fluid Sodom and Gomorrah.

Julian considers various reasons for this sexual drought: economic uncertainty, mental health problems, an obsession with technology, #MeToo having left people reluctant to flirt. Hook-up culture, dating apps and inhibitions caused by social-media beauty ideals also play their part. Porn is a frequently cited factor: first for replacing the effort of real-life encounters with lazy solo relief, and second for teaching men a sort of sex that women don’t want.