Between me entering the shop and leaving three minutes later, the sky has bloomed from a dark bruise to the blow-to-the-head glow of a computer screen, and the rain is thick. The few people visible are clotted in shop doorways, staring up at the sky like peasants in an illuminated manuscript. I am alone on the pavements, John Wayne in a ghost town of pedestrianised shopping streets, feet sliding in his flip flops, plastic bag of M&S soup and Nice biscuits hanging from his curled fingers. All he’s thinking about is how quickly he can get back to the saloon, and whether his Amazon order of comic books might arrive there today.
It’s been such a class-A shitfuck of a day today, please just imagine me biting my lip so hard to keep from Saying The Things About The People that blood is gushing from between my gnashing jaws.
And with that magical image in place, come closer to me around the fire, sweet children, and let me tell you about my regrets. I’ve been thinking about this all recently anyway, while I was astride my poor, worn out, but never-to-be-spared hobby horse of Constant Feminism and occasionally switching to its tiny mule sidekick, Jesus But I Wish I’d Had Any Kind Of Feminist Education As A Young Woman At All, after a particularly dire piece in the Guardian the other week about Feminist Weddings (I’m not linking).
I’ve tried to be nice about it, but if you’ve changed your name on marriage, I think less of you. And I always will. I know that’s my problem, not yours, but there it is. This fantastic piece about a woman giving her child her surname, not her partner’s, made me delighted again that I’d kept mine after the wedding (Why doesn’t everyone? I just don’t get that. Can someone please explain it to me in slow, simple English so even I can understand why you would *change your name* to this guy’s? *waggles thumb at some dude over my shoulder*) but disappointed I’d not given more thought to the kids having mine as a surname. It took three weeks after getting the birth certificate for us to go back and request M to have my name even as a middle name, a naming pattern we’ve continued with the other two, but why just a middle name? Why would I do that? And so my mind travels back to our wedding: Why at our wedding would I not do a speech (although at least my bridesmaid did)? Why would my *dad* do a speech, but not my mother? Why would our tables all be named after Great Men in comedy, literature, exploration and more? I JUST CAN’T EVEN *claws face off, marries the four winds*
Anyway, I’m furious tonight, and this appears to be my punching bag. Bon soir, mes amis.
As this bug continues, I’m still sofa-bound and forced to watch all the films I’ve had taped for millennia (tiny violins play). Today’s: Beginners. I loved it so much more than I thought I would (CAVEAT: I still think Vanilla Sky is an excellent film and EVERYONE ELSE IS WRONG), considering I usually find Ew-Mac pretty much unwatchable, but he’s good, Melanie Laurent manages to avoid MPDG, and Christopher Plummer (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) is just fantastic. Achingly so.
Was it the right film for me to watch today? Maybe not. This is Ewan MacGregor’s character (Oliver Fields) with his father in the kitchen at a party, shortly after the father (Plummer, as Hal Fields) has been told he’s terminal.
OF in VO: He started telling everyone he was getting better.
OF: Why are you telling them you’re turning the corner?
HF: Oh, well…
OF: You have *stage 4* cancer.
HF: [sighs] It’s not as bad as it sounds.
OF: Pop. There is no stage 5.
HF: [chuckles] That’s not what it means!
OF: Well then what does it mean?
HF: It just means that it’s been through three other stages.
Yup. We well know that game. And later on, when Plummer is completely discharged from hospital care, referred instead to hospice care - we had that treat the other day. The final goodbye from the oncologist we liked so much. The hospital bed brought in. The rounds of medicine lined up by my mother in pill boxes ordered specially.
I know Hollywood illnesses are nothing to base a life on, but so much here echoes. But it was the stuff which doesn’t echo which makes me the most sad. Oliver Fields says of his father, ‘For the first time, I saw him really in love.’ Hal Fields’s final years, after he finally comes out in his seventies, are filled with activism, passion, singing, movie nights, parties, food, and love. Now, I’m not saying someone with three types of cancer plus a galloping case of PSP has any responsibility to show us what a whale of a time he’s having, but my god. If you don’t count contentment with sitting in an armchair reading the Daily Mail, I don’t remember the last time I ever thought my father was happy.
It was supposed to be a lovely day at my parents’ yesterday, me and J and the kids, enjoying my mother’s cooking (side-eye to camera), sitting in the garden, hanging out with my dad. Unfortunately, I’ve either developed Crohn’s Disease from nowhere in a matter of hours, or I’ve caught a stomach bug (My mother: “How can you have caught a bug?” Me: [stares meaningfully at our three sticky children who socialise daily with other sticky children]) which meant not only did I sleep our entire visit, but when I was awake on arrival and at departure, I did a fair impression of someone who was mocking Cancer Dad and his terminal bowel cancer (shuffled step, hunched over, swollen stomach). Real cool.
But it does mean that today, while the children are off picking up new bugs to bring home to us like dogs with a dead bird, I’ve been forced to do nothing but catch up with stuff on the telly recorder box. Hurray! Sadly it’s not on iPlayer anymore, but I’m sure you wizards could find some functioning link to The Battle of the Sexes, from the BBC’s Storyville strand (always excellent), about Billie Jean King and her match with professional troll and proud “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs.
Although the match is the framing device, naturally it’s about so much more than that. From how tiny the women’s prizes were compared to the men’s, to how few their competitions were - plenty of events were men’s tennis only - to how Billie Jean King along with eight others signed up for a dollar each to start their own pro tennis tour (boo, Virginia Wade) - right through to the match with Riggs, and beyond: to the excellent, incredible Venus Williams finally getting equal pay for women at Wimbledon.
But just to remind ourselves why a weary, ‘Sometimes, it’s not about feminism’ is bullshit: the film finishes with the reminder that tennis is still the only sport in which women and men are paid the same. Jesus.
Feeling a bit u ok hun/full of burning rage at the moment, when the temptation to dwell upon the much dickishness of the world seems overwhelming, so I thought I’d instead write a list of some of the wonderful things in the world. Yeah. That’s right. Move over Sister Maria, you’ve got some motherfucking competition.
1. We had M’s school Summer Fete this week, and I was on the cake stall. Parents who buy a 20p cake and refuse change from their proffered £1. They are my fave. We also raised more than twice what we’ve ever raised before. Joys.
2. Twitter, during things like the Germany-Brazil match the other night. In fact, Twitter generally. It’s such a good thing. You who pour such dismissive scorn upon it, you are geese. And anyone who ever DMs me to say they’re thinking of me on those shittier days. You are magical.
3. Rereading Peter Pan with the kids. Holy shit, that is such a fantastic book. Have you read it? You should. It’s good. Loopier than I ever remember. It’s so good.
5. I’ve got a chicken roasting in the oven right now. That smell is a beautiful, beautiful moment in a short, dark life (the chicken’s, not mine).
6. Tiny children who are kind to their tinier siblings. I *cannot* get enough of that shit at the moment.
7. Pistachio Magnums. The silver ones taste of evil and endless parental disappointment, but those pistachio ones are like perfect synthetic nutfulness.
8. Playing hide and seek in a public swimming pool. I never get tired of it.
9. The pile of books I’m building for my summer hols in a couple of weeks. Besides a day’s kayaking, the only thing J and I plan to do on that holiday is read in silence. I actually cry every time I think about it.
10. My awesome neighbour, who saw me as I came home after a horrific day yesterday and immediately took me on a 5k run. YOU ARE MY MEGA FAVE.
Now all I need is some Adventure Time DVDs, a stash of Cadbury’s Creations Jelly Popping Candy Shells (goddammit why have you disappeared from every shop in a 5 mile radius?) and an escape fund, and I am golden.
It literally gave me goosebumps. It had everything in there: dystopia, a girl doing a rough tough job, issues of female bodily autonomy and the implied criminalisation of that… I wanted to write that book so much I could taste it. As with all writing-related tweets, I didn’t just favourite it to get buried in the hundreds of articles I mean, eventually, to get round to reading. Instead I emailed it to myself, to sit in my inbox with the hundreds of literary prize details and inspirational snippets I mean, eventually, to get round to making the most of.
But as it stewed in my brain for the rest of the day, I had a slow, joyful realisation. I couldn’t write that book. Not in a million years. For whomever did get round to writing it, I would be first in line to buy that book by them on launch day, but I couldn’t write it, any more than I could write a nineteenth-century historically accurate thriller, or a hard SF war epic. I’d read the bejeesus out of both of those, but they are simply not in my brain to write. But the joy of that realisation was that the other stuff in my head - the nonfic about my parents’ families, the literary novel, the next women’s humour(ish) fiction book, the children’s picture book - is brewing so nicely, fattening up like the grapes in our back garden grapery (or whatever it’s called), and I know they will all come to fruition.
It turns out that actually, it’s pretty good to occasionally be reminded of what you can’t do. If only to remind yourself of the wonderful things you can.
It’s been two weeks now, and I can’t stop daydreaming about going off on some semi-global 9-10 month jaunt with J and the kids. Two flies in that lovely daydream ointment: 1. We add approx £7 to our savings each year. We need between £40-50k to even begin to manage the flights, food and roofs we’ll require. 2. The most number of days the five of us have spent together without childcare, school, work or babysitters scattering our gang is probably in the low single figures.
Still. How would this be for a trip?
London > Vancouver > Honolulu > Sydney > Christchurch >
Then it gets a bit vague. South-east Asia, which I’ve never visited before, and ending in Japan, which I have, and which I’d so like to visit with the kids. And do you know what? If nothing comes of this, it’s no disaster. There are enough adventures on these choppy waters right now that this happy fantasy is a simple pleasure.
This whole post starts with a sad story which is actually, for me, kind of a happy story. I made this recipe again last night and it was so beautiful and so magnificent and so exactly what my mouth wanted that even though my phone was - at most - eight steps from the table, I ate the whole thing before I remembered to take a photo. And it was so beautiful. Truly. So the sad part of this story is that I had to instead just take a photo of the original Sainsbury’s recipe card photo, as folded and mangled as it is. Also, mine looked better.
It was a good initial recipe, but I’ve made some teeeeny tweaks to make it perfect.
Serves 3 (I know that’s not a standard measure, but I think it’s perfect - two plus leftovers, or you and your two best buds. I’m sure you understand the concept of ‘three’.):
200g king prawns (I used frozen, defrosted them that morning, and saved £££)
1 red chilli, finely chopped
50g fresh coriander, finely chopped
2 limes, zest and juice of one, other cut into wedges
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp runny honey
1 tsp rice vinegar
2 x tins green lentils
2 avocados, peeled and sliced
200g radishes, finely sliced
1 tbsp sesame oil
4 pak choi
1. In a bowl, mix the prawns, half the chopped chilli and half the chopped coriander, the zest and half the lime juice together. Leave to develop into something magical while you do everything else.
2. Drain the lentils. Don’t just do what I did the first time I made this and vaguely tip the liquid out - put them in a sieve and preeeeesssss those bastards down. Don’t worry if a few of them disintegrate a bit - they’ll be in your mouth soon enough. But you want to get rid of as much liquid as you can, otherwise that salad will sloosh all over your plate.
3. In another bowl, mix the soy sauce, honey, rice vinegar, and remaining chilli, coriander and lime juice. Add the super-drained lentils, the sliced avocados and radishes and stir.
4. Over a medium-high heat, heat the sesame oil and cook the pak choi (with heart-ends snipped off) until wilted (approx 2 mins). Remove, plate, then add the prawns in their marinade to the pan and cook through for a minute.
5. While the prawns cook, pile the lentil-bowl-contents onto the plates of pak choi. After a minute, add the prawns on top. Squeeze the wedge of lime over that. Demolish. If you’re really hungry, serve with some nice sourdough and lashings of ice-cold butter.
I don’t think I should be kept away from electronic devices before bed because the blue light keeps my brain up for too long. I think I should be kept away from them because I have no chance of sleeping when my blood is boiling like this.
In the wake of the terrible murders in Santa Barbara, there have been essays written - two particularly excellent ones here and here - arguments started, and hashtags created. The #YesAllWomen tag has been trending for a while now, used by women to talk about their own experiences of abuse, assault, misogyny and male privilege. Despite the many, many women sharing on this tag, it’s still being dismissed. Obviously, we just. Don’t. Get it.
Silly women. Stupid fucking women, missing the point again. It’s not ABOUT you. Shut your mouths, and stop hating on men, you feminazis. Stop whining. Stop banging on about that stuff. Just… shush.
I am so angry. But more than that, I’m so tired. The anger wells up and then it saps my strength away, and I’m so exhausted that we’re still having these conversations, that I’m still always, always, always, intrinsically and inherently and inarguably bad, just by my gender. By my personhood.
I’m so angry and so tired that when I was eight and a half months pregnant with my first baby, and a man got on the bus after me and told me that he wished the baby was his, and all the ways he’d have got me pregnant, and I asked the bus driver to kick him off, and the bus driver just stopped the bus and turned his face away, that I got off the bus half way to my destination because not one person on that bus thought they’d back up a crying, heavily pregnant 26-year-old woman when a man was shouting aggressive sexual terms at her. I’m so angry and tired when I think of my fourteen-year-old self at a party with some public school boys, who at the end of the night when I didn’t want to do what they wanted, asked me in baffled voices, ‘But why did you think you’d been invited?’ and threw bottle caps at my head until I pretended to go to sleep. I’m so angry and tired when I think of the hundreds, hundreds of times I’ve managed to escape the threat of physical or sexual violence by explaining I already belong to another man (‘Oh, cool, sorry, I didn’t realise you had a boyfriend’) and how that didn’t feel like power, it felt like a foot on the top of my head. I’m angry and I’m tired when I tense up while walking past more than two men, and that I can tell - and have been able to for years - from half a street away whether they’ll say something or not, and I can feel my blood-pressure rise when I know I have to pass them anyway, and I find myself thinking of what I’m wearing, and making a note not to wear that outfit that way again. Because that’s my choice after all - if I don’t like the reaction, don’t wear those clothes. Yeah, totally my choice. And I’m angry and I’m tired at all the stuff I don’t even talk about. To anyone. Because it’s so usual and so common and so pointless to dwell upon because it only makes me angry and tired, and no one can go back and tell that past version of me back then that these things happen, and you could instead try - no. Wait. There is no other way to handle it. Not if you don’t want to get told by any and all authority figures that you shouldn’t have reacted. You shouldn’t have sworn at them. You shouldn’t have told them to fuck off because you were escalating it. And it’s not their fault if they react to that. I feel angry and tired at being taught at a young age by my white, hetero, Tory, middle-class surroundings that ‘disabled black lesbian’ was a punchline, a ridiculous example of liberalism gone mad, rather than a perfect example of how far our patriarchal society will go to explode intersectionality, and turn us against each other when it’s the best example of how they hate women, in one poisonous, brutish nutshell. I feel angry and tired at the thought of my sister saying to me with infinite weariness, ‘But not everything is about feminism, Sam.’ Do you know what? From where I’m standing, as a woman, it fucking feels that way. From music to advertising to film to politics to news reporting to economics to history to business to sports to policing to deep, deep internalised social constructs - it really fucking feels that way.
I feel so angry and tired, angry enough and tired enough that I might never get out of bed again, at the thought of trying to raise my daughters and son better than this. Trying to make them good people. And trying to even imagine how we can make inroads on the bullshit of the world around them.
Hello! After the success of the porridge recipe - you would not believe the number of people I have stopping me in the street to thank me for making their morning routine, and thus their life, so much easier - I’m now sharing this ice cream recipe. You don’t require a machine, and you only need to blitz it up from the freezer twice. Plus, it’s beyond divine once you put the finished thing in your mouth. Evidence A: the day after I was made redundant, I found half a box of this in our freezer, and ate it for breakfast. It turned the whole day into a thing of beauty. Evidence B: F has requested it instead of birthday cake. CASE CLOSED, Your Honour.
300ml whole milk
1 vanilla pod or 1/2tsp of vanilla extract
5 egg yolks
125g white caster sugar
300ml double cream
175g melted dark chocolate
1. In a saucepan, gently bring the milk and vanilla to a boil.
2. With a hand blender, whisk the yolks and sugar together in a bowl until they are thickened and pale. Like me in the winter hahahhaha
3. Into the same bowl, pour the warmed milk and vanilla, mix gently, then return the whole thing to the saucepan and heat again.
4. God, you have to heat even more gently now, and stir all the time to stop it curdling, until it’s thickened further and coats your stirring wooden spoon. But do you know what? If it does curdle, just blitz it with the hand blender again. It’s not a total disaster. (But it’s preferable not to.)
5. Once all nice and thick, take it off the heat, scrape out the vanilla seeds into it and take out the vanilla pod (if using), and stir in the cream. NOW, and only now, do you also stir in the just-melted chocolate. When I make it, the chocolate somehow spilts into a million shards, flavouring the ice cream but also leaving tiny nibs of chocolate which melt in your mouth when you eat it. I told you, it’s amazing. I hope it works out for you this way too.
6. Pour it into a wide tupperware box, and put it in the freezer. After 90 minutes or so, when it’s freezing at the edges, run the hand blender through it to loosen it up. Do it again another 90 mins or so later. That ought to do it.
7. When you want to eat it, it’s one fiiiiiiiiiiirm ice cream. This ain’t no Mr Whippy. (But it does mean it transports really well.) Give it time out of the freezer before serving to soften up, then eat, all at once, like it’s your sixth birthday.
I Came Off Twitter For A Week And This Is What I Achieved
1. On my first two days, I wrote thirteen thousand words for my upcoming book deadline. Yeah. I know. Someone get me a medal, quick, before the meaninglessness of the achievement sinks in.
2. My son said at bedtime that he was scared of the monsters coming in. Quick as a flash (aka undistracted by twitter), I replied that I’d had a meeting with the monsters and they’d promised not to come anymore - they hadn’t realised they were scaring him. He went to sleep secure in the knowledge that not only are monsters very much real, but that his mother is in cahoots with them. *high five*
3. Shortly after, I got so ill with tonsillitis that I was bedbound for almost four days (I got up in the middle to get my dental crown finished #hero). For 72 hours, I couldn’t eat a single thing bar a medicinal McFlurry*. I genuinely thought I might die. My bedroom was a bit like this.
4. I also had a minor breakdown. We don’t need to cover the details here; suffice to say I left the windows wiiiiiiide open for the neighbours (amateur) and subsequently received a stamp of approval from my loved ones to go holidaying on my own this summer ‘anywhere in the world’**. That almost makes up for all the horrible shit that caused it in the first place.
5. I finally introduced the kids to their first ever episode of Doctor Who. Looking at the cluster I had on the digibox (what do we call them now?), The Girl in the Fireplace seemed the safest option (it was either that, the episodes with the bloody Vashta Nerada, Midnight [BEYOND TERRIFYING] or the one where fascism takes over Britain and Donna (I love you, Donna) kills herself. Nope). Why yes, I had forgotten that the whole story was about crazed space robo-monsters cutting humans up to power their ship! Thanks for asking! But I’m also reasonably sure that any child of mine who goes on to be attracted to men will now always, always go for a skinny bloke on a horse who gives a good wink. But they’ll never be able to work out why.
6. A friend asked if I could name any good children’s books with a decent heroine with agency. I literally can’t think of anything I’d rather be thinking about, so stayed up til 1.30am collating my Power List***. I would otherwise have been on twitter.
Honourable mentions: washing, not eating the kids’ Easter chocolate, watching the first three eps of The Great British Sewing Bee (WHY CAN’T THEY JUST FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS AND STOP STITCHING RICKRACK BOWS TO EVERYTHING?), catching up on Mad Men 5, silent crying at Eleanor & Park, loving The Trip.
Then I missed you all too much and came back. Bonjour encore!
"You're not wearing your pendant." "No," said Polly. "Better safe than sorry," Granny said. "But think of being both at once," said Polly.*
I read this fantastic piece in The Atlantic two weeks ago, and I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s a goose-pimpling piece on how cultural and socially we’ve been programmed by a few, very rare abduction cases and the litigious nature of some parents (particularly in the US) to think good parenting is about keeping our children in view (and on rubberised floors) at all times.
Our kids are all under 7, but since reading that article I’m already so aware of all the things I’m doing that I once promised myself I wouldn’t. At the play area (which I confess, I find enormously boring - here’s a slide. Go down it. Walk along this padded, fenced in walkway. Walk back. Go down the slide again. These internationally-replicated play areas are *just* like hamster runs) there are fences the whole way around with only two gates out, leading just to the play area for the slightly older kids. Yet I can’t relax and read a book there. If there are ten seconds when I can’t see the (sensible, non-wandering-off) older two, I’m up, pacing the perimeter until I know exactly where they are and what they’re doing. In M’s last swimming lesson before the holidays, the whole class just had a free swim with floats and balls in the pool. As I watched M and buddy swim around, inventing pool-noodle games and splashing one another under the watchful eye of their swimming teachers, I suddenly became conscious of the weight of my stare, pressing, pressing, pressing down on them, squashing them until one day they finally just stop bouncing back into their own forms.
In the Atlantic piece, Hanna Rosin writes:
When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.
Although this lot are younger, I can’t see what’s going to change in those intervening years to make it any different. It’s all on a spectrum, and J and I are definitely on the slacker end of the parenting worrier scale, yet even for me The World’s Panickers are one of the major forces stopping us letting our children have space to grow - when I discussed it all with my parents last week, my dad’s response was a thoughtful, ‘Yes, their independence is important, isn’t it?’ My mum’s? ‘But what about all the paedophiles?’ Yup. That’s how I was raised to think about child safety, even when I was a free-roaming child myself. There are plenty of people giving panicky glares to children allowed to walk a street alone, and who’ll give you filth-on-toast once they realise the child is yours.
On top of that, the price you pay if you are in that 0.001% affected by the one in a million person, or the terrible, fluke accident, is too high to consider. My sister feeds me plenty of tales about friends of friends whose child was snatched and found only after helicopters were mobilised. And yet… what if we’re being both safe *and* sorry. What key piece of our kids are we taking from them when we’re paying for their ballet lessons and Scout groups and swimming classes and always, always going with them, all the time, every moment, watching, watching?
Friends I’ve discussed this with say that things were different when we were young (of course) - they knew all the houses on their street, so if anything went wrong they knew they could knock anywhere. I pointed out that they knew everyone *because* they played out there, while our kids know only the children in the house directly next door, despite at least ten houses on our street having kids of comparable ages. The playspace of these kids now is safely behind a closed front door.
My excellent mother-in-law said that she survived her husband taking their three precious children to moors scattered with giant, neck-breaking boulders by simply never going with them to watch. Perhaps that’s my best option.
And when I asked M how she’d feel about a play area filled with tyres, mattresses, streams and planks, with no adults around, just kids, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look so excited. Now we just need to find one.
NB: Looks like we now have two places to move to: North Wales and New Zealand. And check out the comment from a parent at the NZ school.
A super quick recipe which I stole wholesale from my friend
My friend was cooking this the other day while I was just briefly in their house, and it smelled so good that I went home and made my own hooky version. Here’s the recipe as texted to me last night when I still couldn’t remember the few various elements:
"From memory, I think I fried chorizo, added onion and carrot til soft, a tin of tomatoes and a tin of random pulses, salt and pepper and some lemon juice. Serve with couscous."
Move over, Nigella. For 4:
2-3 cartons/tins of chopped tomatoes
2 tins of butter beans/kidney beans/cannellini beans
Salt and pepper
Half a lemon
Couscous, with butter/olive oil stirred through
It’s so simple, and so unbelievably fast. I would estimate… 15 mins in total? And that’s a real 15 minutes, not a Jamie 15 minutes. For specifics: I slice the chorizo into rounds, chop the onion medium fine and dice the carrot finely (if I can be bothered - if not, I might stick in a couple of crushed garlic cloves instead; far quicker). I boil the kettle just before I put the tomatoes and beans in, then while it’s simmering through, I do the couscous.
I put in three cartons of chopped tomatoes last night, which served four and a bit of us with some leftovers for today’s lunch. Also, I used butter beans for this one, but I’ve previously used cannellini which had the added advantage of convincing an all-baked-beans-all-the-time child that the meal may actually be edible.
NB: Before we begin, the reason I’m even telling you this story is because it’s a foolproof day out in London (adaptable for pretty much any major city, really) for any child from 4-10ish. OK. With that out of the way, here we go.
Celebrating M’s sixth birthday – holy mackerel, where does the time go, etc. – and her non-godmother, Hannah, asked us what she might like for a gift. I suggested a day out with Han back in London – a milkshake, a film, a train home. But Hannah doesn’t do things by halves. No sir.
She arranged to meet me and M on the steps of St Pauls at noon, on a sunny, blue day. On our arrival, she handed M a small parcel and a large envelope. The envelope contained a handmade Mary Poppins card (or just ‘Poppins’, as she and the film are known in our extended family - she is staff after all, darling) and a large birthday badge; inside the card were six red envelopes, numbered one to six. M opened the first, and found a laminated image of the birdfeed seller from Poppins. Hannah handed over a bag of bread, and we headed round the side to feed the club-footed winged rats.
Envelope 2: a laminated image of the rooftops, chimney-sweeps a-jigging upon them. Han took us into a super-speedy glass lift and up to the top of the New Change building (which we agreed is very much one of those nightmarish conglomerate-owned ‘public’ spaces - I really recommend Anna Minton’s excellent book for more on this - but it has fantastic views, obviously, and was a swell treat whoever owns the thing) and lunch looking out over the skyline of the city (and where the staff kept pulling faces at M, rather pleasingly). I also tried to embarrass M by hollering Burt’s ‘Stibbin Doime’ at passing tourists, but six-year-olds don’t embarrass easy. I then tried to swing her out over the edge instead, a la the prancing sweeps. That ought to embed the day in her memory.
Envelopes 3 (with another parcel) and 4: a chalk drawing, plus two packs of chalk; and Poppins and the kids on the backs of the carousel horses. So down to the Southbank, where we climbed aboard the carousel (Hannah, to me: ‘Oh right. You want to come on too?’ Me: [shocked face] ‘OF COURSE.’), then began our art along the riverside. We handed out some chalks to baffled onlookers, and I added fiery breath to M’s pavement dog (MAJOR ERROR, only held back by judicious use of Scuffing Shoe Sole).
Envelope 5: Mrs Banks in her Suffragette sash (M: [nearly weeping due to fiery dog debacle] ‘But I don’t know what this is!’) and a walk over Westminster Bridge, behind the Parliament buildings to Victoria Tower Gardens, and the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. I explained to M what a goodie she was, and asked her to imagine believing in the rightness of something so much that you would repeatedly go to prison for it, and I started to choke up. Why yes, I am one cool dude, thanks for asking.
Then off we went, on the longest leg of our journey yet: envelope 6, a picture of old Dick van Accent selling kites, plus a long, thin, kite-shaped parcel*. A sprint, a bus, and a long, long walk later (although the walk did include a highlight of the day. Man in Red Trousers, sunglasses on head, iPhone in hand, staring at map and blocking pavement: [bellowing] ‘Darling, I think we’re past it!’ Us: ‘Oooh, too easy.’) and we were on Primrose Hill, where M absolutely nailed kite flying (Me: [on my back with my leg in a hole, after attempting to run down hill] ‘Take the kite, kiddo, and CONTINUE MY LEGACYYYYY!’ She did) while we marvelled at the fine day.
So there we have it. A Poppins tour of London, with bird feeding, rooftop views, carousel riding, chalk drawing, Suffragette celebrating and kite flying. I recommend it. Also recommended: having a Hannah in your life, but that may be slightly trickier.
*Note about kites: Han couldn’t believe that I’ve never successfully flown a kite before. I described the many hours I’ve spent with my family dragging expensive stunt kites (unholy bastards) through the scrub of various fields like nylon dog-skeletons, and had to concede that Mr Banks had it right: with tuppence for paper and string, you can have your own set of wings AKA a cheap diamond kite is unbeatable. Literally a child can fly it. And so can I! (sometimes.)
I’m doing this post because I can’t bear to be praised for something and not share it with the world, no matter how pointless and small-time the skill.
And after that introduction, let me move swiftly to the point: people genuinely seem to like my porridge. A lot. (*pauses for deafening silence*) I find this baffling (if pleasing) because my recipe is so, so, so, so easy. My professional chef brother-in-law has apparently been found furiously trying to recapture the magic of my porridge, and that’s probably the greatest praise I’ll ever receive in my life.
Here it is.
The ratio of the porridge is 1:1:1, porridge oats, milk, water. I use the cheapest, simplest oats I can find - nothing fancypants - plus milk (whole, obviously - I’m not a monster) and tap water.
1. Get a mug. Fill the mug with dry oats. Pour them into a pan.
2. Fill the empty mug with milk. Pour that in with the oats.
3. (I’m sorry I’m still spelling this out, but just in case.) Fill the empty mug with water. Pour that in with the oats and milk. You now have a clean mug too. You’re welcome.
4. Cook on a medium heat. I’ve now got gas, which is so much better (by which I mean quicker) but even on an electric hob I could put it on before I showered, and by the time I was pretty much dressed it would be ready for us all.
5. That’s it. This recipe produces something creamy and just the right consistency. Meddle with it at your peril. I eat it with a dash of cold milk and Maldon salt (Christ, I’m so middle class) or occasionally salt and golden syrup - when the boat is really being pushed out I may have some apple compote. But that’s it. You *can* put it all in a pan and soak it overnight, but that’s up to you.
I’ve never bought into the idea that parenthood – particularly motherhood – changes you dramatically. I’ve always taken it to be a toxic idea, one that cuts you off from your friends and your life at a time when you most need support and a sense of normality. Far younger than most of my circle when I married and had kids, I needed to dismiss this idea to keep my sanity and my ego intact. I was just the same. Nothing had changed. I worked in the same place, had the same parents and sisters, the same husband, the same friends, liked the same books and films and food and cities. I just had a noisy hedgehog to wheel or sling around with me now; and then I had another. They played with each other which left my hands free, and we still lived in London, Hub Of All Life, so things were still simple.
Then things, as they tend to do, stopped being quite so simple. We had one more baby, the final one, and suddenly our two-bed flat seemed a bit of a squeeze. I’d been made redundant from a job I had loved, but which had tied us to London, so we could finally get out of the city and find a home that would fit us all. We could go anywhere. We talked about Paris, and Japan, and we looked at international teaching jobs for J. Then my dad got ill – a whole bouquet of cancers blooming among his organs. My sister, brother-in-law and nephews extended their year-long stay in Australia to a tentative two, with a possible view to more. We moved house, out of the capital and into the Home Counties. One of the children stopped sleeping. The days got shorter and darker. J’s commute was over four hours a day.
And suddenly, suddenly, I had to admit that finally, definitely, parenthood had changed me. It had taken my choices from me. I was out of London, away from 98% of my friends, and with J stuck in traffic I found myself doing nothing but school runs, nursery drop-offs, swimming lessons, teas with school friends, Rainbows and coffee mornings and PTA meetings and desperately trying to cram in some reading around it all, to keep my hand in with work and my brain ticking over.
Any spare moments I have to myself are generally spent reading enraging, excellent feminist articles. J is barely in the door each night before I’ve turned on the blast furnace of rage and frustration at slut-shaming, mansplaining, intersectionality used as a stick with which to beat feminists, sexual assault conviction rates, institutionalised sexism and misogyny in film and TV and music and art and literature. I took him to see Bridget Christie the other week (Merry Christmas, darling!) and between the rib-aching laughter, I welled up furious tears at the things she said, that were so true and so right and so very fucking wrong. Why are we taking our children to supermarkets where women with legs-akimbo are on the front of almost any mag which isn’t The Lady? Why do I ache so much just walking down a street when ads for everything from deodorant to tights to cameras to cars are constantly, incessantly reminding us that women are objects, designed to look nice and to ornament the world of men? Why is it so fucking impossible to go to the library or the cinema without being reminded that the world is created and maintained only for white hetero men? And if you’re sick of hearing this, imagine how unbelievably sick I am of living it.
But all these things made me realise something else. I’ve been mother-shaming. Not in the sense that I like to do impressions of my mother’s European accent in a falsetto voice (although you know I love that) but that if someone defines herself as primarily a mother, I dismiss them. If I see that the first thing in your twitter bio is your maternal status, it’s massively unlikely that I’ll follow you back.
What the hell?
What the actual hell?
When I think of my very favourite women in my life, the majority these days are mothers, as I meet more and more in the life I have now. And because I am interesting, funny, smart and ambitious, so are they. Just like I haven’t been ‘dramatically changed’ since the birth of my children, neither have they. I don’t despair at boring, obsessive, martyred mothers, because I don’t befriend them. Just like I didn’t befriend boring, obsessive martyred people in my teens, or at Uni, or in my twenties. So why am I so ashamed of motherhood?
I wasn’t a fan of Gone, Girl. But that Cool Girl trope is true. And I bought into it just as much as the next person. When I think of the things I did and said and laughed at as a teenager, I despair at the lack of education and role model I had at that age. My daughter now asks constantly where the women are, why it’s only men, and that’s great. But there’s still so much internalised sexism on my part that I’ll be building in blind spots to my education of her and her siblings. Like a dismissal of and a shame about motherhood. Keep it quiet, love. You’ve had a baby, but no need to bang on about it. I understand and accept and tacitly condone the idea that it’s a nice hobby, that whole ‘perpetuation of the human race’, but it’s best to keep it under your hat if you want to be taken seriously. Motherhood is a niche area. It’s a fraction of the audience – not something everyone would ever care about. And the idea that you might actually be proud of raising kind, brave, funny, generous young people, who make you laugh, and make you cry with their selflessness, and who are interesting and boring at the same time, and who might actually have changed you for the better – even if you don’t buy into that whole thing about ‘making every decision for the children’ because frankly, that way madness lies – but who are on the whole A Good Thing… god. Heaven forbid, you boring Allsop-clone.
And if those were my feelings, why wouldn’t I feel as if my choices had been taken from me? In a society in which no value (or only a self-effacing, mocking value) is given to those who join a PTA in an attempt to make a school better for all the children, or those who clean and cook and discipline and drive and organise and launder and actually bear children are - because the latter is the one thing men can’t do, so its value is diminished in society until we’re embarrassed to even be doing it - just hobbyists, idiots who have made their cot-beds and now have to lie in them. And more than anything, I *must* remember that I have absolutely no right to demand respect for this job I’m doing. Alongside the one where I actually make money for myself.
So yes, I may have changed. But as long as I still feel that way in those dark subconscious cupboards of my soul, I haven’t changed nearly enough.
Oh, how much has happened since my last post. We’ve moved house, seen the kids put down new roots and watched the baby start speeding round the place. I’ve made more new friends in the last two months than I did in the last two years. I’ve starting watching Breaking Bad. J’s discovered my passion for spray-painting junk shop furniture, along with my inability to adequately prepare the area first. We’ve begun using a slow cooker.
In the wider family, my dad’s become more ill. From a simple tumble, to a treatable cancer, to two cancers, to a progressive neurological condition, the good news just keeps on failing to come. Despite having three kids, a mortgage and a marriage certificate, I - like most people in privileged, comfortable lives - feel like my age flatlined somewhere between 17 and 24, depending on my current mood. But with hospital appointments, medical jargon and his shrinking, shrinking prognoses, I’m having a juddering, breakneck rush into adulthood. Is adulthood simply what we say when we mean tough? Maybe. And how lucky I am that I’ve got to my thirties before feeling this way.
But this state is an earthquake, causing shake ups and shake downs and aftershocks; every time it seems that we’ve absorbed one bit of news, there’s more. It doesn’t stop, and from here on in, it’s not likely to. Such is life. There are cracks running through our family that will doubtless grow into ravines, and there’s a temptation to disappear, opt out.
More than saying I do, or pushing out some kids, or signing a document, however, this is an adulthood, and I’m engaging with it. The daughter in me says I need to, the human in me says it’s the good thing to do, and the writer in me whispers helpfully to me from the side of her mouth that, as with all these terrible things, it’s great material. You would not believe how much that final idea has helped me through tough moments in the past.
So off we go. The kindness of you all helps like you wouldn’t believe. Here’s hoping I can carry a bit of that light over to my parents.
Sometimes writing is a struggle, while on other happy occasions it feels like the words are tumbling out of my ears, and I have to rush to a computer or a pad to get them down, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, before they fall from my mind and vanish entirely. But what both situations have in common, I’ve realised, is a similar wonderful sense to falling asleep (which I love, and am – if I say so myself – extremely good at).
It means I can’t be aware of doing it, that my mind must be distracted from the task at hand. If I start thinking, OK, I’m writing, what am I writing? Why am I typing this word here? Look at me, writing writing writing la la la, then I’m lost; paralysed. But if I can do something like the flying trick in Hitch Hikers, yanking my mind away or gently asking it to look in the other direction, then everything goes swimmingly.
Just so I don’t either a) sound like I’m delusional about my skills (Oh, the words just fall out!) or b) give ammunition for anyone who isn’t a fan (Yeah, I bet you fucking wrote it without thinking) I will say that the editing process is like hard physical labour (only still sitting on the sofa with soothing jazz in the background), making me genuinely sweat and ache and gnash my teeth, dahhhhling. That’s the hard grafting of the foundations I’ve laid down by getting the words on the page.
So if you fancy writing something and you’ve not managed yet, that’s my Writing Tip of the Day. Just get something, anything down, and don’t worry about the quality or the direction. Just get something to shape. Good luck.
This blog is updated so sporadically, for any number of reasons. But it’s certainly not for lack of ideas – no sir, I can barely leave the house without coming up with a title, subject, and a good few paragraphs for killer blog posts. In case you don’t believe me, you sceptical beasts, I thought this rare published entry could be a little insight into those other entries that, sadly, don’t make the leap from my brain to my screen. You’re welcome.
Tips for new parents
Great gifts for new parents
Terrible gifts for new parents
Something observational about having a baby
A post about how the internet is already full of everything I could say about childbirth and parenthood, so I’m not going to say anything
A gif to represent the 99% on twitter who are sick of this debate
My guilt at my boredom of this discussion aka GIRL POWER
A gif of Jaqen H’ghar
A pic-heavy post of the worst culinary disasters my mother has produced
Something about my dad’s cancer – heartbreaking, self-effacing, potentially award-winning
A blog post where I just rip off my sister’s blog and try to pass her skills off as my own
A blog post to illustrate how since my sister and I have both joined Pinterest and follow one other, I’ve created yet another echo chamber in my online life (WARNING: contains colourful interiors)
Something about how I’ve become an accidental shut-in, due to terrible morning sickness, terrible fatigue in late pregnancy, Family Events (cross-post back to Dad’s Cancer Post) and a tendency to prefer Game of Thrones on our sofa to almost anything else
A bile-filled, rage-induced review of a recent fiction publication, aka The Worst Book I’ve Ever Read
A blog post reflecting on how the publishing industry pays my mortgage, and I really need to not bite that hand
Something about the stresses and horrors of moving house
Something about trying to write my next novel, which is about the stresses and horrors of moving house
Links to shoes I like, in the hope someone will buy them for me
A follow up post about how it’s almost my birthday
The Q&A with bestselling barnstormer Mhairi MacFarlane that I’ve been meaning to post for over a year
A wryly witty post about successful friends
A post about all the lists I make when I’m supposed to be working, but in fact am hyperventilating about all my successful friends
New rule, and semi-explanation for dearth of posts since I approached my due date, then watched as it waddled past in a spiteful, exhausting manner, while I'm also trying to buy a new house and ensure the other two kids still eat and wash and stuff
On any given day, either the baby gets a clean outfit, or I do.
What to expect when you interact with other humans
It’s so rare that some ‘humorous’ ‘lifestyle’ piece engages me at all, let alone makes me feel a burning wrath. But the Guardian Weekend extract from Hadley Freeman’s new book made me want to cry all of the tears. I don’t really have any strong feelings on her writing either way: sometimes her column is one of those ‘can’t believe I spent that time I’ll never get back reading this’, other times it’s sharp, witty and political.
The Guardian’s extract ranges from the former with ‘How to cheer up your friend who is depressed about being single without lying to them, patronising them or making them feel even worse’, which basically assumes that either a) all of her readers are 12 years old, or b) none of her readers have ever had a human relationship before, through to the latter, with ‘Talking about eating disorders without using a single photo of Kate Moss’, which is moving, pointed and angry. Despite her writing that ‘I don’t believe personal experience imbues one with expertise’ and that she has ‘no interest in contributing to that pile [of eating disorder memoirs]’, this section is fascinating; you can tell she actually feels something here, something that has moved and shaped and influenced her, not just something she’s typing to up her word count.
Then we’re fully into the enragement zone. ‘What to expect when your friends are expecting’. In summary (and I really am not being unfair here – this is what she says will happen):
1. After shagging, your friends will have a ‘sleep-depriving, bank-account-emptying bundle of joy’
2. Once the pregnancy is announced, you will ‘learn, in the most extraordinary detail, tales of your friends’ sex lives’
3. The last month of your friend’s pregnancy will be ‘the Gross-Out Stage’, as she will now be so accustomed to simply being ‘treated as a baby pod’ that she will now thoughtlessly use words and phrases to you like ‘mucus plug’, ‘leakage’, ‘dilate’ and ‘vaginal wall’
4. Your friend, having just given birth, will now ‘feel the need to describe the childbirth in varying amounts of detail’
5. Your friend – previously source of ‘chatty cups of tea and many ranting glasses of wine – will become a ‘mewling creature’, ‘covered in babysick’ and ‘living only from feed to feed, nap to nap’ – see what she did there? Your friend is now like a baby herself! Hahahhaha!
6. The only socialisation you now have with your friend is buying their child ridiculously expensive Petit Bateau outfits
7. You will now be so ‘indoctrinated with the thought that ringing a doorbell causes chaos’ that you text your own parents when you’re standing outside their house!
8. You can’t hope for a proper conversation – even if it seems like they’re listening, they’re actually only capable of wondering ‘has he swallowed a pound coin?! Has he stuck his fingers in a plug socket?!’
9. You’ll feel bad because your hilarious child-free adventures are ultimately empty compared to your friend’s attempt to raise a human
10. If they have a second child, don’t expect to hear from them for ‘at least the next five years!’
I’m actually shaking with anger right now. What a fucking load of toxic garbage. It’s exactly this kind of faux-casual ‘God, having kids wrecks your life, doesn’t it!’ rubbish that makes it really hard for (particularly, but not exclusively) women to feel like they are allowed to retain their personality after a baby. When I had my first kid, at 26, I slogged my guts out to reassure friends that I wasn’t about to transform into any of these clichés – not, I hasten to add, that you MUST avoid them; you will be tired, and probably covered with sick, and possibly unphased about showing your rack off to a whole tube carriage because, frankly, if you have to feed your baby you couldn’t really give a fuck if a stranger sees your nipple; and there are plenty of friends of friends I hear about who go down this path whole-hog – but I was young/selfish enough to want to keep my personality. I didn’t want to become one of those parents who say proudly ‘I haven’t read a book since I had the baby’, or that never has a night out or night away (bliss!) because The Baby Needs Me, and I was delighted to see that no one treated me differently. No one was tiptoeing around me, and because my friends and I are humans, with some previous experience of human interaction, I was able to gauge who I could tell about the amazing, fantastic, mindblowing and 100% hilarious experience of pushing that baby out, and who wouldn’t give the smallest monkeys about it. They, in turn, could also gauge that I still wanted to hear about their lives, as I always had done, having had a baby rather than a lobotomy. But slog it was to convince them, to begin with, exactly because of pieces like this.
And as the baby got older, yes, I may have had to occasionally tear my eyes from my pals’ to check that no coins were being swallowed, but those without experience of small children may not appreciate what a simple skill this is – I don’t have to graunchingly change gears to do a two-second check about the location of my spawn, nor does my reaching over to pull some blade from their grasp signal my sudden inability to hear and understand what my friend and I are continuing to talk about. It’s like anything that requires two-track multitasking: stirring one pan and checking the other isn’t boiling over, putting laundry in a washing machine and not adding metal kitchen utensils, answering the phone and breathing.
Each of the ten points of listed here vary from completely untrue – if you’ve got a relationship where you talk about your sex lives, why shouldn’t that continue? And if you haven’t, why should that start? I’ve never come across that pregnancy-banging-detail-insistence, hurt as it may make me feel (it doesn’t) – to the frankly juvenile – ugh! My friend’s having a baby and now she wants to talk about VAGINAL WALLS OH MY GOD I NEED SOME BLEACH AND A SCRUBBING BRUSH FOR MY EARS and NOW SHE’S HAD IT AND WANTS TO TALK ABOUT IT AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! God, it’s so tiresome. Just grow up. Vagina vagina vagina, etc.
Ultimately, I think what’s entirely missing from this extract is any sense of empathy, either from this nameless, shameless friend, or Hadley Freeman herself. We all have changes in our life, some chosen, some forced on us; some expected, some surprising, in good and bad ways. We lose parents, siblings, partners; we change jobs; we move house, city, country. We stop liking 20/20 on a night out. We start liking table tennis. We change. That is, really, one of the main features of being alive. But the point of these relationships that we build up over our time on earth is that, while it can be an enormous help to have someone who’s been through what you’re going through, it’s not essential. Friends can still love us and support us when their parents are still alive, when they’re still stuck in a job they hate, when they can’t stand our partner. And we can do the same for them. So when there’s yet another article on those life-wrecking babies and the zombie idiots their mothers turn into, I just want to weep. Can’t we all just be a little kinder (she says, having written a 1,300 word blog on this bullshit)? Can’t we all just be a bit more thoughtful? A pregnant shouldn’t have to live in terror of boring those around her with this terrifying, amazing experience they’re going through, and friends-of-pregnants shouldn’t have this pre-emptive idea that they’ve basically lost their friend until the infants fuck off out of the parental home.
So come on. Let’s stop this nonsense. To hugely butcher-phrase Singin’ in the Rain’s Don Lockwood:
Although you mightn’t guess it from the (in)frequency with which this blog is updated, I have ideas for it all the time: weddings, babies, this pregnancy which today feels like it’s been going on for approximately 48 months, the privatisation of the NHS, Thatcher and the funeral, the power of the gun lobby and other lobbyists in the US, Hilary Mantel and just how fantastic she is, excellent friends, great and not great books I’ve been reading, the joy of playlists, even the weather... I have these thoughts, and start writing the blog entry in my head - then I hear a voice. And it says exactly this:
Back to nesting*.
*dancing to 6 Music, eating cold lamb offcuts. Because maternity leave, yeah?
It’s not all bunches of roses and signings at Waterstones, you know. A factual look at a real publication day of a real-life author (me):
6.45am Alarm goes off. Snooze.
6.55am Snooze again.
7.05am Fairly sure by now that someone, somewhere in the flat must be preparing my Publication Day Celebratory Breakfast. Maybe they’re just distracted by bringing in all the bouquets? Hit snooze again.
7.08am Realise that J is on his way to work, and the kids are probably still asleep. The practicality of a four-year-old and a two-year-old conjuring up the breakfast I have in mind seems unlikely, if not dangerous. Finally get up.
7.10am Remember that my mother is also here (to look after the kids today) and am amazed that she hasn’t rustled up a feast. Make us all porridge, which I eat while having an argument about media coverage of benefit claimants with my mother. The children don’t contribute.
8am After filling myself full to the gills with porridge and apple compote (best winter breakfast in the world) realise that the celebratory breakfast is actually with my agent, in town, fairly soon. Frantically start throwing clothes on.
8.30am Quick listen to The Today Programme, just to check whether they’re discussing the groundbreaking and hilarious look at maternity, The Baby Diaries. John Humphrys shows no signs of having to stifle giggles: maybe Evan Davis has been assigned to the coverage. Give up, and decide to finally break out my Liberty print wedge Nike trainers I’ve been feeling guilty about buying since last summer.
9.30am After a sweaty, breakdown-ridden tube ride, meet my agent at the Soho Hotel. Finally. Order one of everything on the menu.
11.30am Remember that my agent has a job she needs to get back to. Release her from ‘breakfast’. Head to Foyles to buy myself a pub day present, and to do some work in their café.
11.45-3pm Write three blog posts and do some work from my paying life. Bump into the lovely Pushkin Press bigwigs. Learn how to pronounce Stefan Zweig’s name, finally, and feel very literary; also a bit tearful at the congratulatory pub day tweets from v nice twitter people, and emails from my publisher. Realise I’ve probably been here longer than most of the staff today, so head off to choose book for myself.
4pm Enjoy moment of clarity: even if I desperately want a new Jonathan Lethem or Edna O’Brien (and I do), if I come home with a new book when we’ve just shipped almost fifteen boxes of them to our various parents’, I might be dining alone tonight. Buy spinach instead.
5pm Home. After spending much of the day writing pieces that were pretty complimentary about my mother, I find that, rather than fixing the toilet, she has in fact re-broken it. She leaves us, with a confused look at my stomach and the words, ‘Are you sure you’re not due until April?’ When I flip the bird at the closing lift doors, I realise my daughter is behind me, and pretend to be scratching something off the lift button.
6.10-7.30pm Cooking with the infants. I’m an excellent cook (though I say so myself because it’s true), but somehow manage to overcook an entire batch of granola and produce a tray of brownies that are dryer than Dorothy Parker. I’m left with the best part of a kilo of burnt porridge oats and some mealy pecan cake. Mutter about Zadie Smith probably not having to deal with this on her pub days.
8pm Kids in bed, we start packing for our half term holiday, while I also cook for us. The menu: fillet steak, dauphinoise potatoes, spinach with nutmeg, mange tout and button mushrooms, all with a peppercorn sauce. Dessert: chocolate mousse. I have cleverly made three mousses, so I can eat the spare one when J goes to work tomorrow.
9pm We eat. J’s made a lovely table, and is delighted by the fact that there’s no limit on the potatoes. Lack of seconds is the price you pay in restaurants for not having to do your own washing up, I suppose. I’ve put Miles Davis on for backing music, but I can’t stop dancing to it. Distracting. We toast The Baby Diaries, check J’s copy has downloaded to his Kindle, then eat in silence for two minutes until our plates are empty.
10-midnight Celebrations are over. I’ve yet to receive my congratulatory telegram from Salman Rushdie, but there’s still so much packing to do and I can’t wait forever.
12.30am Bed. And so ends my second publication day. Good bits: second breakfasts and the kindness of twitter. Bad bits: all that burnt granola. But I’m sure Virginia Woolf went through exactly the same thing.
About two weeks ago, M complained of an itchy head. On cursory inspection, it was clear there was a whole battalion of lice breeding on there, to which my first reaction was this.
But to be a bit Pollyanna-ish about it, it turned out to be rather pleasant: every night the kids have a bath, have their hair slathered in conditioner, then I comb their locks until every one of those beasts is destroyed. They like the sensation, and it’s probably the first bit of physical bonding I’ve bothered to do with them since I carried them in my Haribo-flavoured womb. And do you have any idea how satisfying it is to pick those suckers out?
I asked J (who took the easy route out by shaving his head) if he’d do the same for me, and once the kids were tucked up, conditioned my own head to be combed free of the creatures. It turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of my life (and I speak as someone who just had gas and air for my labours hahaha, etc.). To be fair, there’s no reason someone who’s never had hair longer than 90s curtains would understand that the way through a hair knot is not to jag on it, harder and harder, until the only solution is to yank the hair ball entirely free from the scalp; but I lasted about ten minutes before I could stifle the sobs no longer, and thanked him for his efforts.
So by the time my mother arrived for her usually weekly visit last night, I was looking forward to seeing her more than usual (due to my dad taking a tumble on his daily run, she hadn’t been since The Louse Invasion). To give you some idea of how desperate I was, this is a woman I swore wouldn’t come anywhere near my hair since she’d offered a ten-year-old me a trim from my long plaits, and hadn’t let me rise from the seat until I looked like this. NO I’M NOT OVER IT. But (having frisked her for scissors) I sat down in front of her and handed her The Comb.
She combed my hair for over an hour. Over an hour. Rather than making fun of her accent or mocking her inability to start a single sentence without the word ‘appayently’, I should be giving that poor woman a medal, or at least letting her sleep in a bed, rather than her car, when she visits*. Poor thing.
But then the thought occurred to me: ultimately, whose fault is it that I don’t? Personally, I blame the mother.** And then we all lived happily ever after.
*of course she gets a bed. It just happens to be in a room without curtains.
**haha just kidding my mum! Please don’t stop your childcare! And being awesome! Hahahaha!
Even if a film is bad, I always enjoy going to the cinema. Even when it’s a cinema that’s been (perhaps rightly) criticised, I enjoy the darkness, the quiet, the lack of distractions (if things go as they should). And yet last night’s viewing of Les Misérables left me fuming. FUMING.
To give some context, I love musicals. I love choreography, I love songs, I love amazing lyrics melded with smart tunes, I love dazzling visuals and show-stopping numbers and moving moments all done to a catchy beat. And on top of that, I’m fairly fascinated by the French Revolution and it’s aftermath, thanks to a French mother and the chance to study that period with a great history teacher at school. So when trailers started appearing for Les Mis, I was giddy with excitement. To put it into further context, the one time I’d seen the stage show was September 11th 2001, so I was slightly distracted at the time by thoughts that we might come out of the theatre to a London no longer there. But I still loved the show. I can’t hear even a snippet of ‘One Day More’ without goosebumps - even bigger goosebumps with ‘Can You Hear the People Sing?’ (which I kept singing the opening lines of on a loop this morning to the kids, until my 100% excellent mother-in-law joined in with the rest of the lyrics which I’d failed to memorise and I was sufficiently stirred to form the barricades and turn our bedding into flags right there).
So my wrath was a surprise. From the very mixed reviews I’d heard, I was prepared for it not to be perfect; I was prepared for it to be flawed. But from the very, very opening moments, before JVJ has even opened his heavily bearded mouth, I felt my lip twitching a little bit. Why won’t the camera stay still? Why is there a perfectly arranged shot of perfectly lined-up men pulling on the ship’s ropes, then a swinging, out-of-focus series of quick-cut shots between people we don’t even know yet, when nothing has happened besides the orchestra striking up?
Things didn’t improve. It seems that despite the grand, epic nature of the music, the themes and the story, Tom Hooper had decided to shoot almost all of the film on handheld cameras, lending a woozy, dizzy feel to all of it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, very little of it was even in focus. IN FOCUS. This is BASIC FILM MAKING, HOOPER (some v interesting thoughts on that here). Jesus, I got cross. Key scenes lost any power by the audience being unable to see the singer’s face clearly, and my eyes got bored of squinting.
The editing, too, was unbelievably distracting. Putting aside the hugely rubbish habit of the quick-cuts in a scene or moment which required the precise opposite, key lines in songs would be thrown away by suddenly cutting to a different view - not in the middle of a verse, or even the middle of a line, but in the middle of a word. God, I’m getting so angry all over again. I acknowledge that because of the unique nature of what Hooper was attempting - live singing from each performer, rather than miming to pre-recorded tracks - the editing might have been a real bugger: the slightest error would mean the whole song might need to be shot again, rather than editing in the usual way with the fixed backing track keeping it all in line. But JESUS CHRIST. The ONE song in which Eddie Redmayne managed not to sound like he was slowly having the life wrung out of him by an amorous Eton mother (‘Empty Chairs, Empty Tables’) was completely crushed by having his lines chopped in two as the camera switched between ‘close up ear’ and ‘close up face’. Did I mention ? TOM HOOPER HEARTS THE CLOSE UPS. Still, it is now hilarious to sing ‘Cosette, Cosette’ in the manner of one having one’s throat sat upon. This editing was also horribly noticeable in the big numbers with tonnes of singers. In West Side Story's 'Quintet’, you can hear every word from every performer: you know just what their story is, their feelings, why they’re singing and what it signifies in contrast to the others. In Hooper’s versions of ‘One Day More’ and ‘Every Day/A Heart Full of Love’ there was very little way of telling what the hell was going on. Chaos. Shots were too tight, cut randomly, and sound levels were all over the place, meaning you’d be given a glimpse of someone half-way through a vowel (with the rest of the line lost completely) before the shot switched to someone else singing an entirely different word… If you feel exhausted reading this, think how I felt watching it.
And this Singing Live thing meant that the whole thing was laden with the sense of a sound stage. Rather than being epic, filthy, chaotic (in a good way), alive, the film felt like a series of stage sets, not least for numbers like ‘Lovely Ladies’ (hellooooo, big stagey props!), and with utter silence when people weren’t singing (and oh god, they just sing everything, all the time). Where was the background noise of the swarming streets? Where was the sound of the people who filled this dirty, busy city?
Some of the costume and makeup decisions seemed a bit weird too. Poor Samantha Barks, an utter star and all-round good-egg, made me gasp out loud the first (and brief) time the camera panned away from pore-scanning close-up to reveal her whole body. Something about the shape of her dress made her cinched-in waist look like a bad photoshopping job. And while the rest of Redmayne’s revolutionary chums had Mumford et Fils hair, he was landed with… well. If anyone can look at this google image search for him and tell me how it doesn’t appear that he walked into Hairdressing his first day on set and someone said, “Shit! We’re out of time. Just go on as you are, Eddie love,” I will give you a million of some, as-yet unspecified currency.
Fortunately, I had my husband to help with some of the more baffling points. As the film started, he leant over and whispered, ‘I’ve actually bothered to read this, so if you have any questions…’, making me snigger childishly. But I DID. Why was Gavroche/the Artful Dodgé so annoying? (In the book, he’s a much more important character, and older, too.) Who was that white-haired doctor-fellow who turned up after the barricade battle and just sang ‘YOOOOUUUUUU!’ at Marius from the stairs? (I’d forgotten the throwaway glimpse of Marius’s grandfather earlier, although apparently the book makes much more of this and it’s far more important - you like that? Why not read Dickens’s Dombey and Son, which does that broken family stuff awesomely!) Were there really so few men at the barricades? (Maybe only a few dozen in the book, although the film seemed to have ten at most. NICE EPIC FEEL, HOOPER.) Why does JVJ act like such a dick about sacrificing himself to justice when he’s just sung about how many lives rely on him? (His religious rebirth is much more explicit in the book, so his need to save an innocent man makes more sense.) Why do Hugh Jackman’s teeth become more and more like his drunken lookalike's in The Prestige? (Unknown.)
The one chance Hooper had to inject some contrast into the film (‘Master of the House’, which always makes me sing ‘Everyone’s a fruit and nut case’ in the chorus) he threw away completely, filming it in the same higgledy-piggledy close-up, handheld ugliness he films JVJ’s religious revelations, Fantine’s surrender to darkness and Gavroche’s death (hurray!). After all this, it seems almost churlish to start on Baron Cohen’s insistence on using twelve accents when one would do. But I’m certainly not the only one to have been bothered by the film’s flaws.
Nice things, though? At one point, it ended. And at least it wasn’t as bad as Skyfall.
If you feel like you just don’t have time to read a 300-plus page book, have I got great news for you! Marvellous @Lellymo has summed up very many of my feelings on pregnancy, childbirth, feeding and all that jazz, but so hilariously that I woke up everyone in my house laughing at it. Those slumbering fools. If you’ve bought in to any of the myths about any of this stuff, have a read and enjoy the sensation of weighty, placenta-laden scales being lifted from your eyes. (Oh, sorry.)
Her thoughts on boobs:
"You get lulled into a false sense of security at first, when you’re just making a few drops at a time of golden liquid called colostrum and that’s all the baby needs. Then a few days later your milk comes in and shit gets real, real quick. If you don’t know what to expect you might worry about how your breasts feel. So, I’ll tell you, they will feel like a big old tight bag of walnuts wrapped in a silk handkerchief. I give you this information so you don’t have to wander round going ‘does this feel normal or am I turning to stone’ and offering your tits to everyone you meet LIKE I DID.
Other boob stuff – when you feed your baby with one breast, the other one will feel all left out and start aching and producing milk as well. How splendid, you think, I am actually leaking milk. Congratulations, for it will also happen in the following circumstances:
- When your baby cries
- When another baby cries
- When you think about your baby a bit too hard
- When your boobs are too full
Quoted with the v kind permission of the author - read the whole great thing here.
Happy new year, everyone! There seems to be some rule about when you have to stop saying that to people, but since it takes me until March to catch up with everyone, my cut-off point is pretty flexible.
A marvellous Christmas was had by all, particularly since I knew I could (semi-) relax knowing The Baby Diaries had gone off to print at last, and also since my hilarious and lovely mother (a French woman v v defensive of her cooking skills) managed to forget EVERYTHING for the Christmas meal bar the meat she’d put in eight hours earlier. The ensuing chaos/team effort as most of the fifteen adults and infants piled into the kitchen to peel/chop/season/boil/steam the dinner into existence was quite heartwarming. Poor Maman.
I was given a free pass from most festive duties, though, as it turns out that “stomach bug" I had at the end of last year was actually crippling morning sickness. Having not had it with either of my two previous pregnancies, I had absolutely no idea what was going on, assuming it was just that norovirus craze sweeping the nation (just to clarify, I did know I was preg, but just believed that I had the virus at the same time). Jesus, I had no idea how bad it could be (and I didn’t even have it as tough as many do) - not just the vomiting, but the constant low-level nausea and exhaustion. Your body rebelling wildly and doing everything it can to make you as sad as possible. Shame on you, body. Shame. I did get to do so much reading, though, which filled me with joy: How To Be a Good Wife, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Dud Avocado, Gemma Bovery, and a reread of You Had Me At Hello. All so very, very good.
But! That means I have plenty to do this year. And YES, this baby was conjured up purely for research purposes for The Baby Diaries - I am nothing if not thorough - but I’ll be birthing this one, writing book three in the series, carrying on with my job (which, as a freelancer, no longer offers that lovely maternity leave/pay and a leaving lunch at the Wolseley), finding somewhere for us all to live in (five of us in a lovely but small two-bed flat starts to feel slightly ludicrous, but is also great research for my next book), and working on a few other projects that I’ve had my brain on for a while (pregnancy always seems to bring me back to my post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction collection, so we’ll see where that goes…).
A couple of years ago, my parents gave us two beautiful Robert Sabuda pop-up books for Christmas, The 12 Days of Christmas (above) and The Night Before Christmas. They’re both full of the charm, wit and quality associated with Sabuda’s work - a silver fork poking out of the goose pie for six geese a-laying, the charging reindeer coming in to land in the famous Christmas poem - but reading them four or five times a day, as I must throughout each December, I’m struck by a fresh thought: Clement Clarke Moore’s poem is terrible.
Some of this may come from the lack of emotional connection I have to it - it’s much more of an American thing, and I really only came to know of it through US films and TV programmes, while the 12 days has been sung to my kids from mid-September each year since they were born, and I’ve sung it countless times every year since I was a tiny youth - and some from the countless dire parodies littering the airwaves each festive season, but it’s really, truly dreadful.
Let’s take it step by step.
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
Fine. Crummy rhyming effort there (WITH CARE… BE THERE reminds me of the firework poems we all had to crank out when we were seven or so (IN THE SKY… UP SO HIGH)), but this is a children’s poem and sometimes you just need to suck it up.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads; And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap, Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
Why can’t these lines scan properly? And why is it “a long winter’s nap”? Is it because children famously sleep in so long on Christmas morning? But I’m sure Pam Ayres has already hilariously parodied this aspect, so I’m backing away. Here’s where it really starts to crumble.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow Gave the luster of midday to objects below, When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
Why is the author mistaking perspective for size? They aren’t REALLY tiny, are they? If someone sees something in the distance, they don’t say, “Hey, your mother’s just turned into our street - but something’s wrong… SHE’S TINY OMGGGGG AAAAAAHHHHHHH!” Why is he insistent on the sleigh being miniature? It’s just not directly in front of your face, you fool.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick. More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
How he can tell how quick and lively the driver is when he’s in miniature (and, I’m guessing, still some distance away) is, frankly, beyond me. And what’s more famously and colloquially swift than an eagle? Plus, those names are stupid. [Insert lazy Ian Hislop joke about the Jolie-Pitt children here.]
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky, So up to the house-top the coursers they flew, With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
This is where I start getting really angry. This is a Christmas poem, set in a country where there’s “new fallen snow”. It’s cold, a little damp, I suppose, and from the “luster of midday” it seems very still, very quiet. So WHY, in the name of ALL that is POETIC, would Moore choose the imagery of dry leaves in a wild hurricane? This isn’t chaos, it’s magic. It’s not an out of control, hot, dead time, it’s a moment of jingling bells and flying deer. Jesus Christ. This surely wins some kind of Bulwer-Lytton award for Terrible and Erroneous Imagery.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof The prancing and pawing of each little hoof. As I drew in my hand, and was turning around, Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
OK. So everything is still little, is it? Although that may explain how St. N gets down the chimney in “a bound”. But drew in your hand from what? And how did you see him bound down the chimney? Through your roof periscope?
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
Hey, Clement. I think that guy covered in soot and ashes climbing into your house might just be a peddler.
His eyes - how they twinkled! his dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath; He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
Ugh. These two paragraphs sum up everything that’s wrong with Christmas sentiment. His cheeks “like roses” (absurd). His droll little mouth. His belly that shakes when he laughs (Moore is guessing, since we don’t actually see him do more than drawing up his mouth) but is also little. Just like his sleigh.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself; A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
Why did you laugh “in spite of” yourself? Is a wink all it takes? Actually I get that. I’ll allow it.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk, And laying his finger aside of his nose, And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
Turned “with a jerk”? What a lovely physical motion to employ when you’ve just crept into someone’s house. More jerking and nodding in silence, please, St. Nicholas. Thx. He could have gone “straight to his task” and then “raised a flask”? Or “on to his purpose” then “wiped down the surface”? Think, Moore, think.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, And away they all flew like the down of a thistle. But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, "HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!"
It’s a lovely cry, a call to Children everywhere, one that is used beautifully in my new favourite Christmas book, The Empty Stocking. But again, that imagery. At least he’s got the colour right, this time - downy thistle is in fact white, and reminiscent of the winter season. But it’s also completely uncontrollable: anyone who’s ever blown one will know these seeds go anywhere they choose. But aren’t those teeny-weeny reindeer harnessed firmly to their microscopic sleigh? At the very least, aren’t they all flying in one direction? Isn’t someone in control of this thing?
Yule Log: ultimate Christmas joy. Having rummaged around for several different recipes (I was even toying with Delicious magazine’s salted caramel Yule log) I realised someone had already done the hard work for me, and plumped (AHAHHAAAHAHAHAA, because I ate so much) for Felicity Cloake’s excellent recipe. It’s flourless, so it’s very light, and that means the nutmeg and cinnamon really shine through - perfect Christmas flavours.
A few thoughts:
1. Does everyone else just understand a “Swiss roll tin” to just be a baking tray with grease proof paper? Is there actually a thing called a Swiss roll tin that is, in some key way, different?
2. I used just 100g of chestnut purée, mainly because I happened to find a tin at the back of the cupboard and that’s the size it happened to be. But I’m glad it was - the success of this recipe is how light it is, not sitting at the bottom of your stomach like a true log. So the 250g of chestnut purée recommended may have overwhelmed the flavour somewhat, but that may just be me.
3. I couldn’t make the ganache harden enough to draw bark-lines in it, but once I put the third layer on, I realised the smudges from the spatula gave a pleasing log-like effect instead.
4. I made my friend’s very nice child cry by refusing to give them any of this. KIDS HAVE NO SENSE OF HUMOUR.
As ever: cook, eat, enjoy.
(We’d actually eaten half of this before I remembered to take a shot of its innards.)