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 can’t write this book! FIRE THE CONFETTI CANNON!

Someone retweeted this into my timeline the other day. 

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. 

The World is our Lobster

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. 

Who knows if it’s my dad’s fast-failing health, my dear sister's life on the other side of the globe, or maddening encounters with M (and soon to be F's) primary school and the education system as a whole - but all I think about at the moment is the five of us fleeing our lovely new house and raising ourselves on boats and beaches and abandoned castles and leafy hillsides as we work our way around the globe with eight languages between us (current number: one and a half and a few words) and a chance to learn some *really* useful skills (because I just can't shake the zombie/apocalypse terrors that films like this just don’t help, and obviously we must raise the kids to know animal husbandry, basic botany, midwifery & medical care, engineering, and weaponry & self-defense). 

But we have no money to do it, and we have no guts. Best just wait until the sea levels rise and we’re all forced into stilted abodes and savage battles for the last pack of antibiotics. 

The Most Amazing Summer Salad in the World

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. 

Bien manger. 

#YesAllWomen

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.

Answers on a postcard, please. 

DANCE, everyone! It’s ice cream time!

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.

You need: 

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. 

Enjoy. 

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.

image

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.)