I’ve had a busy old life so far: packing quiches in a refrigerated factory, painting theatres at the Edinburgh Festival, photocopying tenancy agreements for Charlie Brooks (Janine from Eastenders), selling books to customers who insist 1984 was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, for the last seven years, working in publishing.

Then I got a three-book deal because in the publishing world I KNOW WHERE THE BODIES ARE BURIED and it was the only way to keep me quiet.

I hope you enjoy them. (The books, not the bodies.)

It's Nice That

Rock My Wedding

The Bloggess

100 Layer Cake

Offbeat Bride

The Flick

Martha Stewart Weddings

The Vagenda

Weddings on Pinterest

Brides up North

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:

Empathy, always empathy.

A tiny voice

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:

image

Still.

Back to nesting*.

*dancing to 6 Music, eating cold lamb offcuts. Because maternity leave, yeah?

The Truth about Publication Day

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. 

The kindness of mothers (not including me)

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!

Miserable (yeah, I *did*)

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.

The real true truthy truth about babies

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

- Tuesdays.”

FACT.

Quoted with the v kind permission of the author - read the whole great thing here

Pretty thorough research

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…).

Anyway, here’s to a swell 2013.

The Poem That Ruined Christmas

image

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?

IN SUMMARY

Yes and YES

No

Merry Christmas to all, etc.

The Christmas Kitchen Pt 2

image

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.

image

(We’d actually eaten half of this before I remembered to take a shot of its innards.)

The Christmas Kitchen pt 1

Because I like cooking (and eating) and think there are plenty of good recipes around at this time of year that I’m happy for the kids to be involved with (unlike, say, a roast; made up mostly of raw meat, knives, and boiling oil) I find it’s a great time to get them away from their ‘books’ and ‘toys’ and into the kitchen to make my friends some gifts. 

Two favourites for this time of year, both pretty foolproof and delicious, are Dan Lepard’s Stollen Bars, and these Dutch biscuits (hunted down because I wanted something I could stick mixed peel in). 

A few points:

1. I didn’t have any ground cardamom - I have the pods, but we’ve lost the mortar and pestle (or given it to the charity shop in one of our frenzied clearouts). So for both recipes I did without, although I’m a bit sorry with the Stollen bars. It really adds something there. 

2. I’d add a tiny dash more glycerine to the Stollen bars - might try with 2tsp? Maybe not. But the serving suggestions are BONKERS: for this to serve 6 to 8, you’d be looking at portions the size of sandwiches. I cut them into double-bite size (still huge) which gives around 25 portions. Much better. 

3. Particularly with the biscuits, I tend to lob in whatever spices I have in my cupboard. If I’m short on ground cardamom and ground cloves, I’ll just smell around and go for cinnamon, ginger, allspice, mixed spice and/or nutmeg. Yom. 

As I say, these are really easy recipes, both for nervous bakers and for children to do too. It’s in no way compulsory to weigh out the ingredients for the more complicated of these recipes (the Stollen bars) but it does help to quell any pathetic urges to pretend to be doing a cookery programme on TV. 

Anyway, go, cook. Enjoy.