Time flies

Chatting with a friend after school drop-off this week we wondered how on earth we ever managed to work full-time and still do all the other stuff which seems to take up so much time these days. So what do I do with those 50+ hours a week I used to spend in paid employment?

Some of it, of course, is work that comes directly from having a child – school drop-offs and pick-ups, extra cooking, cleaning and laundry, not to mention actually looking after said child when they’re not in school.

Some of it is that I guess my values have changed a bit. When I last worked full-time it was a busy job, at least 10 hours a day, plus an hour each way commuting, I didn’t really spend that much time at home at all. Certainly not awake. On a typical work day I’d have left the house by 7am to go for a swim before work, and I rarely got home before 8pm, and that was assuming I wasn’t going out for a drink with friends or colleagues after work, or having a job-related crisis which demanded a late night in the office. I’d be home long enough to heat up whatever I’d chosen from the M&S Food Hall on my way home, maybe to watch a bit of telly or phone a friend, and then to crash in bed. At the weekend we’d sleep in late before heading off to meet friends for a lunch/brunch which invariably segued into drinks and dinner.

As typical DINKYs (Double Income, No Kids Yet) we just threw money at any problem which lack of time presented. When I got my last promotion I decided (with a huge amount of Northern Protestant guilt) to employ a cleaner for a few hours a week, and suddenly the post-lie-in Saturday morning cleaning session could be abandoned. Although I thought I cooked, at least 90% of the time I didn’t really. Breakfast was either a bowl of cereal at home or something picked up from Pret a Manger and eaten at my desk, lunch was grabbed (time permitting) at one of the many sandwich bars around my Central London office and eaten, yep, you’ve guessed, at my desk. If dinner wasn’t a meal out or a takeaway it was something like M&S fishcakes with salad or pasta with a tub of ready made sauce. Even when I did ‘proper’ cooking I thought nothing of short-cuts such as ready mashed potato, ready grated cheese or ready prepped veg.

Now it horrifies me to think of spending £2 on a 2 person serving of pre-mashed potato when for that amount I could buy sufficient potatoes to keep  all three of us in mash for at least six meals. Pretty much everything we eat is now cooked from scratch with ingredients close to their natural state. I do keep a jar of pasta sauce in the cupboard for emergencies (definition of emergency = my husband needs to cook dinner!), but I’ve discovered that in the time it takes for a pan of pasta to cook I can chop a few tomatoes, crush a garlic clove or two and cook them down in olive oil, bunging in some dried chilli flakes as I do so. Hey presto, penne arrabbiata for about 50p per serving. A lot of this kitchen activity is cost motivated- giving up a £50k salary means cutting back on the ready meals too. But also, I wouldn’t dream of giving Anna ready meals every night, so it seems hard to understand now why I ever thought it was a good idea to eat like that myself.

I really enjoy cooking, and my confidence and repertoire has grown considerably now it’s a day-in, day-out routine rather than for a once-in-a-blue moon dinner party. And I think, on the whole, we generally eat a lot more healthily and enjoyably than we’ve ever done. I can’t really say the same for cleaning. The luxury of  3 hours professional cleaning a week vanished at the same time as my maternity pay did, but unfortunately I don’t enjoy cleaning any more than I’ve ever done, and I’m not much better at it. Being at home all day means a) more mess made and b) no opportunity to walk out in the morning, close the door and forget about it, so it has to be done, and, as I’ve already discussed on this blog, it seems to take an inordinate length of time which I resent every second of.

Ok, so cleaning, cooking and childcare takes up a fair amount of time. How very progressive. What else? Well, there’s my writing, of course, and that’s fairly self-explanatory. And after a very intense period finishing my second novel I finally dispatched it to my editor, and so am enjoying a few blissful weeks of enforced leisure before she comes back to me with her comments and I need to start work again. During September I kept saying “When the book’s finished I’ll get round to…”

And the last ten days has been a complete whirl doing them all. I had a leisurely lunch with a good friend, and then we went to see the Lowry Exhibition at Tate Britain together. The art was amazing, and by the end of the afternoon my friend and I had literally talked ourselves hoarse with all the catching up. We went home physically tired, and with sore throats and feet, but mentally revitalised by the break from our normal routine. I went for lunch with another friend and her baby, making the most of the last little bit of R’s maternity leave, and I had a lovely time playing with gorgeous baby Lizzie as well as chatting to her mum. I had dinner with a friend from my graduate trainee days; glugging wine in an after-work venue again felt like stepping back to another self entirely. A mummy-friend babysat while my husband and I went out for a pop-up Eritrean meal in a local pub. I’ve had at least three coffee-and-gossip sessions with different friends I hadn’t seen much of recently. More prosaically I’ve chosen and ordered a new gas-fire, looked at stair-carpets, taken the kittens for their booster injections, started the first tentative forays into Christmas shopping, given all our paperwork a good sort out for the first time since the pre-baby bit of my maternity leave, booked a solicitor appointment for us to update our wills, tried (and almost certainly failed) to register for tax self-assessment, brought my bread-maker out of retirement and eschewed Warburton’s entirely, attended a school workshop on supporting your child to learn synthetic phonics and am due to give blood tomorrow. All interspersed with the Groundhog-Day-style laundry, cleaning, cooking, food shopping, and sweeping up of dead leaves from the front path.

I still have a long list of projects I haven’t got round to, but they, and everything else, are on hold now because next week is half term. Anna has almost completed 1/6 of her Reception year. She’s still absolutely loving school, but is also completely shattered, and I am so looking forward to a week of just hanging out together. She’s requested a visit to the Museum of Childhood, there’s a local pumpkin carving event, I have a recipe for chocolate-orange cobweb cakes, and we’ve got a couple of play-dates planned – all the things which used to form our old routine now feel like special and exciting treats, and I can’t wait. Turns out those 50 hours a week are pretty easy to fill really.


Love and parkin

For those of you who don’t know, parkin is  a special, and delicious, ginger cake made with oatmeal, traditionally baked in Yorkshire and Lancashire. As I have a foot in both camps – born and brought up in Liverpool but with my dad’s side of the family coming from Sheffield – this cake is something I grew up with, and it has come to have a very special place in my life and baking repertoire. Traditionally parkin was made for Bonfire Night, and I certainly associate it with autumn. I baked my first of the year this morning, even though the weather probably isn’t really cold enough to justify such nesting treats, and it has inspired a whole host of parkin related memories.

My recipe is handed down to me from my Granny, and I never bake parkin without thinking about her. It’s now nearly five years  since she died, and I still miss her very much, most of all when I am baking or pottering round my kitchen, as undoubtedly my love of cooking and of using the food I make as a way to show love for family and friends is something I inherited from her. I have very clear memories of standing at her kitchen table choosing the correct weight for her old-fashioned scales, or learning the difference between stirring and folding. We had all our best conversations in the kitchen. As my Grandad’s birthday was 1st November, we often spent October half-term in Sheffield with my grandparents to celebrate, and so, more often than not, parkin was on the menu. Sometimes Granny would have already baked it before we arrived, but my favourite times were when she hadn’t and so I got to help her.

When my brother and I were very small children my dad would do some fireworks in the back garden, and we’d have a packet of sparklers to share. November evenings seemed colder then, and so we’d both be bundled up in every hat, scarf and jumper we possessed. When they were finished and we came in, over-tired and over-excited, we used to strip off all the woolies and put them in a big pile in the middle of the living room floor, making a nest in which we could sit for our post firework supper of parkin (Granny had passed the recipe on to my mum) and hot Ribena.

In my first term at university I was really poorly with a horrible and long-lasting case of Fresher’s Flu. After a couple of weeks of feeling utterly miserable, barely able to leave my room, I phoned my parents in despair. Now that I’m a mum myself I can fully empathise with how hard that phone call must have been for them, and totally understand why they did the 300 mile round trip to see me as soon as humanly possible. They arrived laden with vitamin tablets, hot water bottles and tonics, but, best of all, my mum had baked me some parkin. The other two girls on my staircase were from County Durham and Huddersfield respectively, and during those first few weeks any strange predilection the three of us showed for the likes of brown sauce, black pudding or mushy peas was explained to our new friends from Down South as “it’s a Northern Thing”. It rapidly became a catch phrase. Parkin was another one of these Northern things, and it proved a very popular one – all sixteen portions of cake were gone within about an hour. I was very lucky to have made amazing friends very quickly, and because I wasn’t well enough to go out, they came to me. Especially when there was home-made cake. Ginger is meant to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and they may have helped, but it was the feeling of being loved, baked for and looked after which really helped my recovery.

Pretty much this time last year, Bonfire Night to be exact, my husband was away with work and, although I was suffering the total wipe-out exhaustion of early pregnancy, I had decided that after nursery Anna and I would bake parkin together (another Northern tradition for my Southern baby) before heading out to watch the fireworks display in a local park. Unfortunately during the morning I started with the cramping pains that warned me another miscarriage, my second in five months, was on the way. I gritted my teeth and carried on – picking  Anna up from nursery, making lunch, baking parkin. I was scared and in pain, trying to hold it together for Anna and worried that I wouldn’t be able to, but I did find comfort from the memories of my Granny which the baking evoked, and I knew that, when she was confronted with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, getting in the kitchen and getting on with it was the way she would have coped.parkin

By the time the cake was in the oven, and the resonant buttery-gingery smells were wafting through the house, I gave in, realising there was no way I was going to be taking Anna to the fireworks that evening. I installed her on the sofa with a dvd to watch and sent out a may-day. My husband wasn’t contactable, so my poor parents were the recipient of yet another distressed phone call. Once more they found themselves unexpectedly heading south to come and look after me.

And when the miscarriage turned out actually to be an ectopic pregnancy, and my parents stayed to look after Anna while my husband was at the hospital with me, I felt just slightly better knowing that there was a wholesome, comforting cake at home for them to all tuck into.

This morning is the first time I have baked parkin since that day last year – for the rest of last autumn and winter it simply felt too emotionally loaded. As I looked for the recipe in my file I worried about how I would cope, but in the event I was fine. There’s a new layer; as well as remembering my Granny, and thinking about the times my mum has baked it for me with love, I now also remember a baby who wasn’t to be. There’s a great solace in baking a recipe which has been handed down through the generations, which has been baked through illness and crisis and bereavement and war, and each time has provided a cake to nurture and sustain. That’s what my mother and grandmother have done for me, and what I in turn hope to do for my own daughter. I’ve included the recipe below in case you want to create some comforting memories of your own.




4oz margarine

4oz brown sugar

4oz golden syrup 

4oz medium oatmeal

4oz self raising flour

1 egg, beaten with 3 tablespoons of milk

2-3 teaspoons of ginger (to personal taste)


1) Pre-heat oven to 160 (Gas 3). Grease and line a 7 inch square tin.

2) Melt sugar, margarine and syrup gently together in a pan, don’t allow to boil.

3) Weigh out dry ingredients into a bowl. Pour melted sugar mixture onto dry ingredients and mix, alternating with the egg mixture. Combine into a fairly runny batter. Be warned, it doesn’t look especially pretty at this point!

4) Pour into tin and bake for one hour, or until golden and slightly risen, with a knife or skewer coming out clean. (You can see from my picture that I was quite heavy handed doing that today!).

This cake (unless eaten) keeps beautifully in a tin for up to a fortnight. In fact many aficionados feel it tastes better after a few days – I wouldn’t disagree, but it often doesn’t last that long!

Hair today

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks because I’ve been incredibly busy finishing my second novel, To Have and to Hold. I say ‘finishing’, what I actually mean is producing a sufficient number of words of sufficiently high standard to submit to my editor before my 15th October deadline. There are then many more iterations before it actually becomes the novel which will, all being well, be published next May. And I’ve done it. A few  people are reading it through for me, and then no doubt there’ll be changes and corrections, but right now I can bask in a sense of achievement, and relax after the enormous stress I always feel when I’m working to a deadline.

Prior to becoming a writer I had no real idea of the length of time it takes for a book, even a so-called finished book, to actually make it into print. I’m not alone – when I’ve mentioned to friends that I have to finish my next book by mid-October, the most common response is “Oh, out in time for Christmas, then?” Not quite. Although, when Hodder and Stoughton get to the point where they’re advertising a ‘new Helen Chandler’ for Christmas then I’ll know I’ve really arrived. And in the meantime, Two for Joy would, of course, make a wonderful Christmas present for yourself or someone else…

So today is pretty much the first day since Anna started school that I haven’t dropped her off at 9am, raced home, written madly for five hours and fifty-five minutes before racing to pick her up again. I went to the hairdressers to have my hair restored to its, ahem, natural blonde, as in the five months since I last had highlights an alarming amount of brown root had begun to appear. People often comment that Anna and I have exactly the same hair, and they’re right – texture, colour and style are all pretty similar. The difference is that I have to pay best part of £100 four times a year to keep mine looking like this, whereas her blonde highlights in light brown hair are entirely natural. As indeed were mine aged four.

Then I came home, ate lunch, did a load of laundry, fed the kittens, baked a cake for a friend to say thank you for a favour, and now I have just under half an hour to blog before pick-up time. Six hours can vanish pretty quickly, I’m discovering.

I now have two kittens climbing all over me and my laptop, indicating in their not-very-subtle fashion that they’d appreciate a bit of attention, so I’d better go.  Any typos this week, blame them.