Coming soon to a bookshop near you…

two for joy invitation twoThis is going to be an extremely short post, because it is both the week before the publication of my first book,  Two for Joy, and half term, so I’m juggling lots of different balls.

Publication day is 6th June, a week tomorrow, and between now and then I have to bake and decorate 150 cupcakes and transport them to the launch party venue (a post in its own right, I suspect), liaise with my publisher over publicity materials, keep track of the guest list so that we order the correct amount of wine (probably the most important thing of all), write various articles about my writing, and give a radio interview and a newspaper interview, which makes me feel rather celeb-ish.

In my non-author life I have a small girl on holiday from nursery (in fact today was spent skiving at the seaside, digging for shells, and eating ice cream on the pier), the wedding of a good friend to attend, and all the normal cooking, cleaning, shopping jobs which haven’t shown the respect surely due to a best-selling-author-to-be, and somehow disappeared.

But despite, or perhaps because of, the busyness, it’s an extremely exciting time, and moments like taking delivery of real life copies of Two for Joy, receiving an email from one of my favourite authors, Katie Fforde, (she’s going to read my book!), and seeing my first review on Amazon, make it all more than worthwhile.



bg920No, it’s not me who’s had a facelift. Even though some mornings the bleary-eyed woman gazing back at me from the bathroom mirror looks as though she could do with one, I’m afraid my personal preparations for my upcoming book launch are more likely to be of the new-concealer-and-a-blow-dry variety.

But eagle-eyed habitual readers will notice that my website has had a recent re-vamp. When I started writing a blog last summer, I was a totally unpublished writer, and the idea that I would get a book deal seemed a distant dream. What I had discovered, however, was that I loved writing, and so blogging seemed to be the perfect solution as it meant I could inflict my musings on the world at will, with no concerns about niggling details such as publishers or contracts. It also, happily, meant that when I did get an offer for my book, and someone at my publishers asked me about my ‘online presence’ I was able to reply airily “Well, of course, I’ve got my blog…”, instead of stammering that I had once sold an exercise bike I ill-advisedly purchased in a fit of post-Christmas body panic on Ebay.

I was aware though that my ‘online presence’ was still a bit sketchy and unprofessional looking, and this is where my fabulous expert-blogger sister-in-law came into play. She moved my site over to WordPress, set up some pages, advised me on content, and gave me a strict instruction that I should blog at least once a week. Which, give or take, I have. And a few months later the stats do seem to indicate that someone other than my mum is reading it, so I’ve been pretty chuffed.

However, the fact that Two for Joy has the nicest cover I’ve ever seen on a book (no, of course I’m not biased), made me feel I should up my game even further, and so I employed a graphic and web-designer friend of a friend to pretty things up a bit more, and the results are now live. I’m really pleased with it, and am already planning more content to go with the lovely design, in order to avoid a fur-coat-and-no-knickers situation. Which would be both unethical and draughty. Reading Two for Joy you will see that there is quite a lot of eating and drinking going on, and I’m working on some tie-in recipes, but I would also really welcome any other feedback on the kind of thing you’d like to see on a writer’s website. Let me know.

The Virgin Gardener

photo-2I have never really got the concept of gardening as a pleasurable leisure activity. In my last three homes there has been something which passes for a garden in London (in the first it was six foot square of concrete paving), and, because I totally get the concept of whiling away a summer evening in the garden with a bottle of rose, occasionally I had to make some kind of an effort, even if it was just to clear a pathway between the door and the table. But it was always very much a household chore, up there with washing the kitchen floor on my list of preferred ways to spend a weekend.

But this year, something strange has happened. Perhaps it is simply the early onset of middle-age, or perhaps the influence of reading books by Laetitia Maklouf who is basically the Nigella of the gardening world (and the title of whose first book I’ve borrowed for this blog post), but I now do have a sneaking interest in my garden, and have actually enjoyed spending time working in it.

Last week my parents came down to spend a few days, and my dad, who is an extremely keen gardener, brought down various seedlings which he had been nurturing in his greenhouse, and was now entrusting to me. Anna had helped him plant some of the seeds when we were in Liverpool at Easter, and she’s very proud of ‘her’ runner bean and marigold plants. My dad also took me to the garden centre – I steadfastly maintain that you don’t need a car in London, but trips to the garden centre are one of the things which do call this conviction into question. So, the result of all this activity is that in my small courtyard garden (doesn’t that sound nicer than back yard?) I now have runner beans, strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries, tomatoes, courgettes, sweet peas, marigolds, lupins, rosemary, mint, thyme, chives and sage, plus basil and parsley on the kitchen windowsill. Oh and lots and lots of geraniums,  as experience has shown me that even I find it difficult to kill a geranium.

Of course when I say I have all those things, in most cases what I really mean is that I have the theoretical potential to have them by the end of the summer, should I get the next four months of watering, feeding and pest control right. If I had one, I wouldn’t be cancelling the order for the organic veggie box just yet. But I am pretty excited about the potential.

I’ve been going out several times a day to check how everything’s doing, and carefully feeling the soil to check moisture levels. The torrential rain and gale-force winds of the last couple of days have upset me not just because of my pledge never to wear my winter coat again, but because of my little seedling babies, not to mention my Mediterranean herbs which like dry soil and sunshine, having to battle these unseasonable conditions. Certainly forgetting to water them wouldn’t be a problem this week.

So watch this space. I still have lots to do to create the garden space I’m now dreaming of, and I still have a sneaky suspicion that I’m always going to prefer the sitting-around-with-a-glass-of-vino aspect of my gardening life, but I am starting to see that I could get creative satisfaction from gardening as well as cooking and writing, and at least Anna, thanks mainly to my dad’s efforts, will get to see that our food doesn’t automatically come in polystyrene trays from Sainsbury’s.

Home Exchange


When I decided not to go back to work after Anna was born we had to do a lot of very careful budgeting to ensure that we could still afford to live. Everything we spent money on got listed, and we worked out what we could still afford. Some things – mortgage, council tax, fuel bills etc were a given, as was food, although the way I shop and cook had to change significantly. We allocated sums of money for clothes, shoes, one-off household expenses, mobile phone bills, travel costs within London etc, and with a few tweaks here and there (and me coming to the painful realisation that clothes shopping could no longer feature as one of my primary recreational activities), it all looked as though it was working out.

Then we realised that we’d failed to allocate any money for holidays, and that, no matter which way we looked at it, there just wasn’t going to be a lot of money left over. On Twitter this would no doubt be hashtagged as a first worldproblem, and of course it is. However, travel is very important to us, and we want Anna to grow up with a sense of adventure too, so finding a solution mattered.

I’d just been reading India Knight’s fabulous book Thrift (my go-to solution to any problem being to read a book on the subject), and she suggested home exchanges as a great way of holidaying for virtually nothing. I suddenly thought that maybe we could give that a whirl. The more we considered it, the more advantages there seemed to be. Hotels with small children are miserable – who wants to be confined to their room, eating an over-priced room service burger, unable to talk above a whisper every night of their holiday? Or even downstairs in the hotel restaurant, baby monitor balanced precariously on table, refusing to talk in case you miss something, and sending your husband up to ‘just check’ every five minutes anyway. No, of course I’m not speaking from experience…

With a home exchange you can put your child to bed and retire to a comfortable living room, and then maybe cook dinner with some lovely local ingredients you picked up at the market earlier. You don’t have to worry about finding restaurants which cater to picky toddler appetites, because if all else fails you can pop to the supermarket and buy a bag of pasta. And, as it often seems to be families with young children who go in for home exchange, your little darling has a whole set of new toys to play with, and you don’t have to worry about carting all the changing mat/highchair/travel cot paraphenalia with you.

It’s absolutely fascinating getting a window into someone else’s way of living, and you get far more of a handle on the country’s culture by actually living it. Our first home exchange was to Paris, and it went perfectly. Despite my panics about the house being trashed in some way, it was left immaculate, and our exchange partner even fixed a dodgy hinge on a cupboard door for us. Then we had a non-simultaneous exchange last summer – we went to Santa Margarita on the Italian Riviera for a blissful 1o days in May, and then descended on first my parents and then my husband’s during the Olympics so that the Italian couple could stay in our house (in a host borough, I might add). The Italian Riviera is notorious as a playground of the rich and famous, and accommodation prices are eyewateringly expensive – we could never have afforded that holiday in any other way, and yet it was one of the best we’ve ever had. We had a week in Strasbourg last autumn, staying in a city centre apartment with views of the cathedral. And now we’ve just got back from an impulsive bank holiday weekend in Amsterdam, organised just a week in advance.

In every case, our exchange partners, with whom we communicate by email, text and phone prior to and, if necessary, during, the exchange have been totally charming and friendly, and have taken impeccable care of our house. The website we use is basically internet dating for houses, with enticing photos and glowing descriptions galore. My biggest worry at first was that no-one would want to swap with us – how exciting can a bog-standard Victorian terrace in East London be? Very, turned out to be the answer. Living in London it is easy to forget that it is one of the most visited cities in the world for a reason, and we are surrounded by amazing attractions and sights which people will travel vast distances to experience. And as London is also an incredibly expensive city, with even the most basic hotel room costing upwards of £100 a night, the attraction of staying for free in a comfortable family home is suddenly a little clearer.

And although we haven’t gone far afield, with exchanges to France, Italy and The Netherlands, nonetheless the culture shocks can be quite amazing, and I’m sure that works both ways. The house we stayed in in Amsterdam was very modern, and kitted out with every mod con. Turning on the downstairs lights required a page of instructions and a remote control with fourteen buttons. The self-cleaning whirlpool bath had a whole booklet of instructions. And one of the highlights of the holiday was speculating on just what the robot, which the note from our hosts informed us came out between 1330 and 1430, might get up to. We found some of these gadgets slightly intimidating, but the poor Dutch family arriving at our house must have felt they were plumbing the depths of Dickensian squalor. Our most modern gadget is probably the microwave, and given that I inherited that from my nan, and  it wasn’t new when she died nearly eight years ago, it isn’t exactly the latest model. We have no walk-in shower, no jacuzzi bath, and the only thing with a remote control is our tiny 12 inch telly. I did leave them some homemade muffins, though.

We’re currently planning an August exchange to Corsica, and have grand plans for venturing beyond Europe next year, and frankly it is down to home exchange that we can afford these breaks, and aren’t looking forward to another long weekend in Skegness.

It’s a Northern thing

One Sunday morning, a couple of weeks ago, we were pottering around the house, and Anna was chatting away to my husband about the sleeping accommodation for her toy cat. “Why not let the cat sleep in this basket?” he suggested.

She gave him a very strange look, and said “Silly Daddy! Why do you say ‘barsket’ instead of ‘bAsket’?”

That’s my girl, I thought, but the battlelines were being drawn.

As I have mentioned before, I’m from Liverpool, and so the way I talk  is completely different to my Hampstead-and-grammar-school husband’s well-modulated vowels. To be honest, accents have always been a bit of an issue for me. Because I don’t really have a strong Scouse accent either. At school I was tormented for ‘talking posh’, which made me a snob, of course. Then when I went to Oxford for university, one Eton-educated young man of my acquaintance claimed not to be able to understand me at all as “your accent is simply too strong”, so I couldn’t win. Too posh for Liverpool, not posh enough for Oxford.

My accent is, in reality, is what someone described to me recently as ‘generic soft Northern’. Some people can detect the Scouse in it, but actually the way I talk seems to owe as much to my dad’s Yorkshire roots as to my Liverpool ones, and of course Oxford, Birmingham and now East London have probably added their own indefinable something along the way.

One thing is for sure, though, I sit on the grAss, never the grarse. When I read fairy stories, my princesses live in cAstles, not carstles, and my cat would only ever sleep in a bAsket. And as I’m the person who spends the most time with Anna, she’s clearly picked up my vowel sounds. I find that amazingly gratifying; my little East London baby, (born in the same hospital as David Beckham, innit), is clinging on to a little bit of her linguistic heritage, and in an age where television is almost obliterating a lot of regional accents this is very comforting to me.

Not so much my husband. He goes round muttering darkly about ‘the Queen’s English’, and ‘BBC English’, and, certainly when I’m around, his current rendition of bedtime stories would actually have the Queen running off for elocution lessons, should she ever hear them.

Of course, it’s all irrelevant. In September Anna’s main influences will become her teacher and her classmates, and, as one of the things I love best about the area we live in is that it is a complete cultural and linguistic melting pot, she could end up speaking with almost any accent at all. But it’s all swings and roundabouts – one of my best friends from school is a primary school teacher, and now lives in Cambridgeshire, where a whole generation of children are growing up with a seemingly random Scouse accent.