Spelling those words since the early 80s / Purveyor of fine lines

I’ve had a busy old life so far: packing quiches in a refrigerated factory in blue plastic shoes, painting theatres at the Edinburgh Festival just so I could get free croissants from a daily breakfast show, photocopying tenancy agreements for Charlie Brooks (Janine from Eastenders), selling books to customers who insist 1984 was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and working in publishing for nine years. These days, I slave over a hot desk as an author and freelance copywriter.

Get in touch here to find out all the glorious words I could pour right into your brain.

It's Nice That

Oh Happy Day

The Bloggess

Yoruba Girl Dancing

You Are My Fave

What I'd Wear

I am a Leaf on the Wind

Gravity

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! 

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*it made me feel a great deal worse. I’m starting to suspect those guys behind the counter aren’t real doctors at all. 

**FYI, this is awesome.

***available on request 

"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.

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*Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones. Bally tumblr won’t do the quotes like I want them to.

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: 

100-200g chorizo

1 onion

1 carrot

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.  

Mangez.

A Very Poppins birthday

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. 

      image

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.

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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).image

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.image

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. 

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*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.)

Breakfast of Champions

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. 

Enjoy, mon braves!

On Mother-Shaming (in the bad sense)

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. 

x

Writing Secrets of the Pharoahs

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.

Tomorrow’s tip: An all-Haribo diet.

My To Do List Horror

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
  • Oh, Charlie Brooker’s basically done it already
  • My twitter addiction
  • The twitter boycott – my thoughts
  • My thoughts on twitter’s thoughts on the boycott
  • 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
  • Another Jaqen H’ghar gif