So, today, I was absolutely clear that I had loads of domestic chores and cleaning to do. I knew that I needed to do the out-and-about ones straight after school drop-off, then go home and get on with the cleaning. I sat down and made a list. A really long list. And that was without even trying my usual trick of writing down jobs I’ve already done for the satisfaction of immediately crossing them off. I didn’t matter that there was loads to do, though, because there’s six hours of the school day, and you can get an awful lot done in that length of time.

Things started off pretty well. I went off to the sorting office to collect a parcel. I’d forgotten to take a bag with me to put it in, so had to proceed with a large cardboard box wedged uncomfortably under my arm, but that’s not a major problem. I queued in the post office, and then the next job was to pop to the chemist’s, but I got distracted by a 40% off sale in the Body Shop and bought a few Christmas presents en route. Then to Boots, and then home. Half way home I caught myself thinking how nice it was not to have a heavy awkward box to carry any more. I stopped, brain whirring. I was meant to still have the parcel. That was why I had gone out in the first place. I mentally retraced my steps, and then physically retraced them, luckily tracking the parcel down in the Body Shop.

By the time I got home it was 10.45, which is still loads of time. But first of all I needed to write the list. Then check my emails. And Facebook. And Twitter. But 11.15 is plenty of time. Once I’d phoned my mum I could get going. I stuck a load of laundry on, and then remembered that my sister-in-law had been to the hospital fracture clinic about her broken elbow, and I’d like to see how she was. I’d start on the cleaning once I’d spoken to her. Three-quarters of an hour later she, in the nicest possible way, pointed out that she was extremely hungry and could I please stop talking and let her go and get some lunch.

1pm is ok though, because you always work faster with a tight deadline. I definitely had time to check my emails again. And Facebook. And Twitter. Then I picked up an armful of the flotsam and jetsam washed up at the bottom of the stairs and put it all away. The trouble is, by this time, I was starting to feel hungry myself. I decided that much the best thing to do would be to pop out to the local cafe and have a sandwich while blogging, because that would save time preparing lunch, and I’d be multi-tasking while eating it. I could get on with the jobs after that.

Somehow the upshot of all this is the utterly unpredictable result that my to-do list remains pretty much untouched. But it’s ok, I have a plan. After school drop-off tomorrow I need to pop to the supermarket, but then I’ve got the whole of the school day to get all the jobs done. Which is loads of time…


A home of one’s own

I’ve lived in London for the past eight years, and I can’t really imagine living anywhere else. I certainly wouldn’t say no to a few months in New York, and every so often I’m almost seduced by the idea of seaside living, but generally I’m passionate about my adopted city in all its dynamic, exciting, vibrant, diverse glory. However…as house prices continue to rise, I share the worries of commentators such as Rosamund Urwin  and Richard Godwin in the Evening Standard, who postulate that the exorbitant cost of housing is going to erode all those things which have made London such a wonderful and desirable place to live in the first place.

I read recently that, with global financial uncertainty showing no signs of ending, London property is increasingly seen as a failsafe investment in the way that gold or American dollars once were. And that’s the nub of the problem. For every luxury apartment sold as an investment to foreign businessmen who have no intention whatsoever of actually living in it, through to every terraced house bought as a buy-to-let investment in lieu of a pension, that is one less property where talented, creative young people can afford to live, one less property where still-quite-young people can start a family.

Nearly seventy years ago my late father-in-law, then aged eighteen, moved back to London from New York where he had spent his teenage years. He wanted to be a writer. He lived with relatives for a bit, and after a while rented a studio flat in a modern block on the Hampstead borders. His writing was experimental and intellectual, and, as such, had limited commercial appeal. He supplemented the income from his novels, plays and poetry with other bits and pieces – some translation work here, a review piece there. Many years later, now married to his second wife, they raised the money to buy the studio flat, and to extend it out onto the balcony, creating a room for the baby who was going to grow up to be (amongst other things) my husband. He grew up there, his dad continuing to write critically acclaimed but non-commercial books, his mum pursuing a career in publishing – starting off as a secretary and working her way up to become Editorial Director at BBC Books. She now runs her own literary agency, and still lives in the flat my father-in-law moved into so many years ago. When we go to visit, my daughter sleeps in the study where her grandfather used to write.

It’s a great area of London, sandwiched between Primrose Hill, Camden Town, Belsize Park, Hampstead. It’s just a half hour walk across Regent’s Park to the West End, but half an hour in the other direction takes you to the centre of Hampstead Heath where you could be a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of London Town. I’ve spent a lot of time in the area since meeting my husband fourteen years ago and I’m very fond of it, but the intellectual, bohemian culture has been almost totally submerged under the influx of American investment bankers. The idea that a young man in his twenties could buy a modest flat and live there while he pursued his literary ambitions,  contributed to the intellectual life of the nation, and raised a family, is unthinkable.

Fair enough, you could say. Hampstead was a cheap and cheerful option in the 1950s because it wasn’t Mayfair, Park Lane, or anywhere else in the upper echelons of the Monopoly board, but with the huge advantages of its hilltop location, the Heath and the beautiful Georgian houses it was always going to gentrify. But what about Walthamstow?

When we moved here, six years ago, it was because we were fed up with renting and couldn’t dream of affording somewhere to buy in Clapham, where we had been living. Ironically, Clapham, home of the eponymous omnibus which famously signifies the ordinary and mundane, had become far too expensive for a couple of twenty-something graduates in middle-management roles. We spent weekend after weekend walking round different parts of London, trying to identify those areas with the magic triumvirate of good transport links, liveability and affordability. Walthamstow was the obvious choice. Twenty minutes down the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus, seventeen minutes on British Rail into the City. A great selection of independent shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants. And our budget, which (literally) wouldn’t have bought us a garage in Hampstead, secured a lovely little Victorian terrace in the Village area of Walthamstow.

I absolutely love Walthamstow and have put down very deep roots here. These are the streets I’ve walked, catatonic with sleeplessness trying to get my baby to nap, the parks where she took tentative baby steps and the swings I’ve pushed her on, the registry office where we got married, the museum garden where we had our wedding reception and a hundred picnics, the cafe where I wrote my first book, and the shop/gallery where I launched it. The church hall where my daughter attended pre-school, and the church where we’ve sung carols. The friends I’ve made at baby groups, toy library and the school gates. The butcher, pizza chef, hairdresser, fishmonger, newsagent, pharmacist and local MP all of whom I know by name.

I can’t be hypocritical enough to complain about gentrification – I benefit from the gastro-pubs, vintage market, organic vegetables and posh cakes as much as the next thirty-something, sometime Bugaboo Bee pushing, Converse wearing woolly liberal mother. HoweverI discovered last week that Walthamstow, which I thought of as a refuge for normal people, creative people, public sector workers, in the ever-increasing madness of the London property market, is in serious danger of losing that status.

Some friends of ours, currently living in a one bedroom flat in South West London with their baby daughter, are looking to buy a family home. We recommended Walthamstow enthusiastically, and last week they came to have a look round and register with some estate agents. Depressingly, their budget (the same amount, by the way, as bought our little house six years ago) caused the estate agents to look at them with eyebrows raised in disbelief. We’re happy to buy something which needs work doing, they explained, but the response, pretty much was ‘you should be so lucky’. This couple both have degrees and masters degrees from top universities, and they’ve chosen to use these skills to bring history to life for others by working in the museum sector. It’s not an especially high-earning profession, but it should be enough for a couple, both working full-time, to buy a family home in a pleasant but ordinary area. It isn’t.

Which is what leads me to worry that property prices are ultimately going to kill London. I’ve got nothing against bankers, lawyers and management consultants per se, but a city populated entirely by these professions wouldn’t be able to lay any claim to being the greatest in the world. What makes London so intoxicating and fascinating is the mixture – nurses, teachers, artists, academics, writers, waiters, chefs, shop assistants – living in the same communities, sharing experiences and ideas, forming a cohesive whole.

Last night’s Homes and Property section in the Evening Standard suggested that an average three-bedroom house in Walthamstow Village is now ‘worth’ £650,000. A couple would need to be earning around £200,000 a year and have saved a deposit of £60,000 to afford that. The privilege we enjoy of owning our own house in an area of London we love is an accident of chronology. If starting now, there’s no way we could afford to buy the house we live in. I feel both lucky and guilty. If something doesn’t change then London risks becoming a wealthy, but sterile, ghetto.

I don’t pretend to know what the solution is, but I do know that we have to stop seeing rising house prices as a cause for national celebration, or falling house prices as an indication of economic gloom. I know that stamp duty has become a regressive taxation. I know that ceasing to build social housing and continuing to sell off what we’ve got provides no sort of sustainable solution. I know that bricks and mortar should be treated as homes not investments. And I know that what will keep Walthamstow, and, indeed, London, awesome, is finding a way in which it is not only the very wealthy who can afford to live here.

Words over Waltham Forest

Logo_FinalSo, last night was my first ever proper, grown-up-author event. Waltham Forest, the London borough where I live, has been hosting its first literary festival over the past few weeks, and judging by the buzz on the streets (well, more the school gates really), it’s proving to be an absolute runaway success. When you manage to secure names like Carol Ann Duffy, Dorothy Koomson and Martina Cole you have to be on to a pretty good thing. Last night I was lucky enough to be a part of it, with a Girls Night In event at the local library.

It was a joint event with another first-time author, Jamie Baywood, and followed a simple format – short ‘how I came to write’ talk from both of us, then we each read from our respective books, before taking questions from the floor. I’ve been really nervous for the last few days thinking about it, and have been waking up sweating from classic anxiety dreams, but, when it came down to it it, was just hugely enjoyable.

Every so often my old job required me to deliver a Powerpoint presentation, or talk the Board through a paper I’d written. These were black days on my Outlook calendar, dreaded for weeks in advance, and requiring very large quantities of chocolate and/or alcohol to recover from. This was the kind of feeling I had been anticipating with dread, but it couldn’t have been more different. It turns out that there is a huge difference between presenting budget figures or policy proposals to an audience whose entire purpose is to critically challenge them, and talking about the reading and writing I love so much with an audience who are similarly motivated.

The atmosphere was friendly, interested and supportive. The questions were intelligent and thought-provoking but never hostile or threatening. My fellow author, the host for the evening, and the organisers were a delight to meet. I genuinely loved every minute of it, and was walking on air as I came out of Walthamstow Library at 9pm last night. I am so excited to have been part of such a lovely event, and very proud to live somewhere which sponsors and supports the written and spoken word like this.

My evening ended fantastically too, as I headed off to the pub with my publicist from Hodder who’d come along to support me. I didn’t need alcohol to calm me down this time, but a couple of glasses of sauvignon blanc, a platter of houmous, tzatziki and pitta and a good gossip is never a bad way to round things off. Of course it meant that I wasn’t in bed until 11.30pm, which, pathetically, is an extremely late night for me these days, but my good mood was such that I was even (relatively) undaunted by a 6am wake-up. Which really is unprecedented.

Best laid plans

Last week’s post was full of my recent social whirl and my plans for half term. With the benefit of hindsight it reminds me of an old Spanish proverb – “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”. Pretty much as I was writing last week’s post, Anna was busy cultivating an ear infection which segued seamlessly into a tummy bug, so we haven’t been anywhere or done anything all week.

My husband was away last weekend, and my parents were coming to keep me and Anna company. I had all sorts of plans (you see, that word again). We were going to go on a lovely autumn walk through Epping Forest; I’d even bought a little wildlife spotting book so to keep one step ahead of my daughter’s insatiable thirst for information. This would be followed by a visit to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, as my mum is fascinated by Tudor history, and then a lovely lazy lunch in a nice cafe I’d discovered. I’d also wondered if I could talk my dad into giving me a little help sorting the garden for autumn – I’m no expert, but have a vague idea there’s something you’re meant to do with bulbs at this time of year?

I’d planned that on Saturday night I’d cook a delicious risotto for the grown-ups to enjoy with a bottle of wine after Anna had gone to bed, whereas on Sunday we’d all enjoy a traditional roast dinner together. On Monday my parents were leaving just after Anna’s bedtime, so I’d decided to make a big cottage pie which they could have with Anna for an early evening meal before their 5 hour journey home, with the leftovers for my husband and I to have when he got home later.

Where to start? I hadn’t known Anna was going to be poorly, and therefore hadn’t taken into account how clingy she would be. Normally she is more than happy for Nanna and Grandad to put her to bed (I suspect she has far more fun with them than with me), so at around 7pm on Saturday evening I despatched the three of them upstairs and began preparing a risotto. Just when it had reached that crucial needs-constant-stirring-stage the anguished wails filtered down from upstairs. “Where’s Mummy? I want my mummy”. La la la. Stir stir stir. I’ve never been any good at ignoring Anna crying, though, so I sprinted upstairs, yelling at my dad to get downstairs and stir, dammit, stir.

I cuddled, soothed and read the bedtime story with most of my mind on risotto, and (luckily she was very tired) got her settled in record time. My dad had saved the risotto, and it was delicious, although my image of a relaxed evening of leisurely eating, sipping our wine, was replaced by me glugging desperately from the bottle on the worktop I’d opened for cooking and spooning risotto down double-quick before the inevitable call from upstairs for water, or a cuddle, or to rescue whichever soft toy had escaped down the side of the bed.

On Sunday Anna did seem a little brighter, so we decided to risk the trip to Epping Forest. What I hadn’t bargained on when I made my original plans were the hurricane strength winds which were starting to sweep the British Isles, making a walk in the woods seem somewhat less appealing. Especially for a child with ear-ache. We did explore the lovely Visitors Centre, and my mum got to see Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, but Anna clearly wasn’t very well, and low-level whinging was the constant background music. The leisurely lunch was more like cramming food into our mouths as fast as we could so that we could get home before the whinging escalated to a full-scale meltdown. Fact no-one ever tells you about parenthood Number 3722 – you eat more meals more quickly than you would ever have dreamed possible.

The roast chicken dinner went wrong when I opened the packaging on said chicken only to be overwhelmed by the sickly sweet stench of rotting meat. Cue a mad dash to the supermarket before they closed, both to get my money back and purchase something else for dinner. Chicken pieces seemed like a good idea; after all, there was no time to cook an entire chicken now before Anna’s bedtime, but with chicken pieces I could at least still serve the roast potatoes, gravy, stuffing (made into balls and cooked separately) and veg which I’d planned. Unfortunately what I didn’t take into account was that I don’t normally cook with chicken pieces like that, and I had no idea at all how long they would take. Longer than I expected, is the inevitable answer. I  always used to get very stressed making roast dinners – my husband still loves to tell the story of when, driven to despair by my gravy, I threw an entire tray of roast potatoes across the kitchen. I wouldn’t advise it as a stress relief strategy to be honest. Anyway, recently I feel like I have nailed a roast chicken dinner, but the lack of a chicken had thrown me off a bit. There weren’t enough pan juices to make proper gravy, so I turned to the Bisto, only to find that there was a scant teaspoon left in the tub. Nevermind, in the back of the cupboard I spotted a sample packet which had come with a magazine at some point. Only after making the gravy did I notice the word ‘Beef’ on the front of the packet. When I took the chicken pieces out of the oven to serve and started cutting one up for Anna I noticed a distinctly bloody tinge to the meat. Panicked now, as everything else was ready, I shoved them back in the oven, turned it up to Gas Nine, and basically roasted hell out of them. Fifteen minutes later (and forty-five minutes later than I’d originally planned) we sat down to a delicious meal of dried up chicken with beef gravy, overly-crispy stuffing and over-cooked veg. Yummy.

I ran out of time the next morning to make soup for lunch, and so popped out to the local shop for a couple of cans of trusty Heinz Tomato. My dad asked me to pick a newspaper up for him while I was out. I forgot completely. Blaming my memory lapse on lack of sleep, I served soup and then realised with horror that the mince to make cottage pie was still in the depths of the freezer. There was no way I had time to defrost it in time to make a 5.30pm meal. A quick rifle through the store cupboard and I decided that cottage pie would now be tuna  and sweetcorn pasta bake. On the bright side, the pasta was tasty, and a spare pack of mince meant that we could have chilli for dinner the next night.

Needless to say, the weather meant that my plans of giving the garden a good autumn sort out were confined to dodging torrential rain showers to try and clear fallen leaves off the path and out of the drains, so my bulbs are still unplanted.

My parents went home, and the next day Anna’s ear infection turned into an upset tummy. So, this half term we haven’t seen friends, made Hallow’een cakes, been to the Museum of Childhood or gone pumpkin carving. We’ve watched Cbeebies. Pretty much nonstop actually. Anna’s TV viewing has always been quite restricted, and limited to select programmes viewed on i-Player at a carefully specified time of day, so she has, of course,  been overwhelmed by the pleasure of totally indiscriminate viewing, and keeps on repeating in tones of delighted wonderment “Cbeebies is on all day. ALL day! It doesn’t ever stop.”

“Only when you’re poorly, darling.” I keep on repeating.

“Am I still poorly today?” she asks anxiously each morning. So far the answer, unfortunately, has been “yes”, but I dread to think how we’re going to cope with the withdrawal symptoms when she is well enough to get dressed and resume normal life.

It’s been horrible seeing Anna so unwell, and I’m really disappointed that she’s missed out on all the treats we’d planned. “I don’t like this, Mummy, I really don’t,” she’s kept saying imploringly, and it is so hard not to be able to make her better. My heart goes out to parents of children who are seriously sick.

I’ve also got a major case of cabin fever myself. I had a hospital appointment on Wednesday afternoon, and my husband came home early to look after Anna. I felt positively excited, it literally was the social highlight of the week – even being turned into a human pincushion as the nurse tried, and failed, to find a suitable vein to take a blood sample didn’t feel as bad as it might have done compared to yet another episode of Zingzillas. And if I managed a sneaky half hour afterwards, in a cafe near the station, with my kindle and a hot chocolate, well, I think that was justified, don’t  you?