Twenty-Fourth Day of Advent: Christmas

xmas cakeWell, I had to end with Christmas, didn’t I? Regular readers of this blog and my Advent posts in particular will probably have picked up that I absolutely adore Christmas. I don’t want anything Christmassy to intrude until December because I feel it spoils it, but from 1 December, bring it on. I love the carols, the candles, the cooking, the eating, the choosing gifts and receiving them, the little family rituals, the cheesy Christmas tunes, Anna’s palpable excitement (which is about to shoot off the scale). Everything.

I also love the message of Christmas. I blogged before about my ambivalent relationship with Christianity, but equally how can I not warm to the message of Peace on Earth? One of my absolute favourite carols is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and I can’t hear it without crying. Partly because it was my Nanna’s favourite and so reminds me of her, and partly because of the verse

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Somehow Christmas brings alive the possibility that we might hush our noise and listen to the angel song. There is so much redolent symbolism. Stars and candles giving light, angels giving messages of peace and love, the evergreens with which we decorate our home reminding us even though the days are the shortest and darkest new life will return.

I love spending time with family and friends. Of course that isn’t, and shouldn’t, be confined to Christmas. But life can get so busy that it’s great when Christmas forces us to pause and take time away from work and day to day responsibilities and worries. In fact, Christmas brings together almost everything that makes me happy which I’ve blogged about this Advent. Family, friends, husband, daughters, food, home, baking are all crucial to making my Christmas special.

Thank you for reading my blog this Advent. I’ve been so touched by all your comments and the positive feedback I’ve had. I’ll be back after Christmas, but in the meantime I and going to turn on the TV for Carols From Kings, and wish you and your families a very happy Christmas however you are celebrating.


Twenty-third Day of Advent: Holidays

We’re nearly there, folks! My blogathon (that’s a thing, yes?) is almost complete, and my cookathon is about to begin. Tomorrow I will peel and prep veg, ice the Christmas cake, make mince pies and a Yule Log, fish pie and sage and onion stuffing and, most crucially, I will compose the Christmas Day Timetable, by which I stand or fail. I’m a bit nervous about it all, as this is the first year I have cooked Christmas dinner without my dad here to help me. However, I’ve hopefully  made my life easier by scheduling lunch for 4pm. My plans to get ahead of the game by making things and freezing them hasn’t gone that well. I do have a a container of frozen cranberry sauce, and cinnamon buns for breakfast on Christmas morning, but the rest is still to do. Perhaps with all this going on it isn’t a coincidence that I felt inspired to write about holidays today.

I love holidays and travel, whether near or far. Whenever I listen to Moon River and hear the line “two drifters, off to see the world; there’s such a lot of world to see” I feel a thrill. There is such a lot of world, and I do so want to see as much of it as possible! One of the great things about holidays is the chance to explore somewhere new, try new food, learn a few words of a new language, see how different things can be, even between neighbouring countries.

rye castleI also relish how much easier I find it to focus on what really matters; just being with and enjoying husband and children, when we’re away from home. We had a mini-holiday today. Or day-trip, if you want to be pedantic. We went to Rye, which is a real favourite of ours. It’s one of the old cinque ports; a gorgeous little town of half-timbered houses on streets which wind around and tumble steeply down to the reclaimed marshland. At the top of the town is the sweetest little castle you’ll ever see. I love the contrast between the bleak expanses of sky and estuary and the cosy little pubs and teashops with log fires galore.

If I’d been at home today I would have filled the time with jobs. I would have cleaned and vacuumed, changed beds, washed floors, hung Christmas cards and goodness knows what else. As it was I cuddled Sophia and chatted with Anna and joked with my husband. I also ate an amazing lunch at the fabulous George in Rye. Oh, and became proud co-owner of a life-sized plush penguin. I don’t quite know how that happened. I can’t honestly say it was down to either of the children. Perhaps something to do with me having a glass of very nice Sauvignon Blanc and my husband having a pint of beer with lunch? Or Christmas spirit? I don’t know, but we were walking past a little toy shop and saw the most adorable penguins in the window. Husbandpetrarch noticed them first – he absolutely adores penguins – and it was a little bit like love at first sight for all of us. Before we knew where we were Petrarch, as he was subsequently christened, had joined the family. You see, holidays make you so much more receptive to new experiences.

And maybe all those jobs still need doing, but I can just be a little busier tomorrow, or even (shock horror) leave some of them until after Christmas. Holidays, even incredibly short ones, are very good at restoring perspective.

Sophia was a brilliant travelling companion at three months old when we took her on a two week journey across Europe by train. She is now slightly more challenging as sitting still, even when accompanied by a penguin the same size as her, isn’t really her forte. That being the case, I’m not quite sure how holidays will pan out this year, so it’s encouraging to discover that I can feel totally refreshed by just one day out an hour’s train journey from London. And then, of course, there’s also that elusive spa break to look forward to…in the meantime, I’m going to continue ignoring the housework and go and watch Love Actually.

Twenty-second Day of Advent: My extended family

My extended family is really not all that extended. My mum is the only child of two only children. My dad is the eldest of three, but his sister does not have children, and his brother just has one child. I have one younger brother who is married but yet to have children. I married someone who has one half-brother, and he and his partner do not have children. Husband’s dad was an only child. His mum has one sister, who has three children, two of whom are now married with three children between them.That is pretty much it.

Growing up in Liverpool, a lot of my friends and classmates came of Irish Catholic heritage, and they all had loads of cousins. Seriously, loads. My oldest friend’s mum is one of nine, and her dad one of three, and most of her aunties and uncles were married with two or three kids of their own. I loved tagging along to their family parties and barbecues and marvelling at how a whole room could be full to bursting with just immediate family, and feeling rather jealous at all the cousins her own age she had to hang out with.

However, luckily for me, what I miss out on in quantity I make up for in quality. Sadly my grandparents are all dead now. I never knew my mum’s dad as he died when she was a child, but I was fortunate enough to have really strong, close relationships with my three remaining grandparents. They were all very different characters, but I loved them very, very much, and learnt a huge amount from them.

My Nanna was my mum’s mum. She lived fairly near us and, as she was a widow and my mum an only child, she spent a lot of time with us when I was growing up. Weekends, Christmas, Easter, holidays – she was always there, and a fundamental part of our family structure. She taught me to knit and sew – I do both very badly, but that certainly isn’t Nanna’s fault, as she was extremely skilled. She told great stories – fairy stories when I was little, and then about her life as a little girl and a young woman in the War when I was older. I think when someone dies there are always regrets, and one of mine is that I didn’t ask enough questions. Somehow we think the people we love will always be there, and now she is not I realise how much I would like to know but never got round to asking. She was a lovely, generous, sociable woman, and absolutely showered me and my brother with love.

Granny and Grandad, my dad’s parents, lived in Sheffield, so we didn’t get to see them as often, but when we did it was always a real treat. As I got older, Granny and I used to write to one another, and those letters continued up to her death just before Anna was born. It wasn’t a particularly profound correspondence, but we just enjoyed filling each other in on the details of our lives as it helped to bridge the physical distance. Granny was a cookery teacher and a brilliant home cook, and there is no doubt that I get my passion for food and cooking for my family and friends from her. I remember vividly as a little girl kneeling on the bench at Granny’s kitchen table, helping weigh out cake ingredients in her old fashioned scales with their brass weights. Nearly thirty years later that memory still has the power to warm me, and that is because of the warmth of the love I experienced from her then. Granny and Grandad were also keen walkers, and I used to adore going out into the Derbyshire countryside with them. They knew al about birds and trees and wild flowers, and used to help me collect leaves or petals to press and put into a scrapbook. When Anna asks me a question about trees or flowers now I still mentally refer to those scrapbooks.

Grandad was a kind, gentle, funny man. He hadn’t had the chance of much formal education, but he had an incredible feel for words. He loved listening to poetry on the radio or talking books, and he constantly made up little puns, plays on words, jokes, rhymes and riddles, all of which delighted me as a child, and now with adult hindsight I can see showed his instinct for using language creatively. Grandad once told me, when I was in my early teens, that if he lived long enough to see me graduate from university he would die happy. I am very pleased that he did, and it gave me huge pleasure to see how proud all my grandparents were of me. They all managed to be encouraging without pressurising me, and that often helped me when the academic going got tough.

Of course, they were all equally proud of my little brother, as am I. I am still in awe that someone from the same gene pool as me managed not only to get an A at Maths A-level, but then went on to qualify as an accountant. I know we definitely are related though, as I remember, aged 3, lying against my mum’s bump to feel him kick, and I remember by dad telling me in the middle of the night that I now had a baby brother. We pretty much managed to escape the worst of sibling battles and rivalry, perhaps because we are so different, and it was just brilliant having someone to share my childhood with, and now someone to share the memories with. Having that with him, as well as the unquestioning knowledge that when the chips are down he would be there for me, just as I would be for him, is one of the main reasons I was so anxious that Anna had a sibling. My brother also showed incredibly good taste in women when he married my amazing sister-in-law. In the old cliche, I didn’t lose a brother, but I very much feel that I gained a sister, and feel so lucky to have her in my life. They are a fantastic uncle and aunt to their nieces, and are absolutely adored by Anna and, I am sure, will be by Sophia once she can express herself a little more clearly.

I have also been extraordinarily lucky in my family-by-marriage. I have talked before about how warm and welcoming my parents-in-law both were to me from the very beginning, and that has never changed. Far from being the disaster area popular culture reports it to be, my MIL and I manage to sustain a loving family relationship, to work well together, as she is my literary agent, and she also enables me actually to get some time to write by helping to look after her granddaughters every Monday afternoon. I have also been welcomed into her extended family, and get-togethers with my aunt by marriage and her children and grandchildren are a huge pleasure – partly because they are all lovely people, and partly because when I see Anna playing with her cousins-several-times-removed I hope she is getting a little bit of the experience I envied my friend when I was a child. Like me, Anna and Sophia are going to have a fairly small extended family, but, also like me, I know that with the grandparents and aunt and uncle they have, they will get as much love as they would with a family three times the size.



Twenty-first Day of Advent: London

I have debated whether to include London in this series. Not because I doubt it makes me happy, but because I have blogged about my love for it extensively before. However, we took the girls into the West End this evening to see the Christmas lights, and that decided me. oxford st

My wonderful, crazy, busy, crowded, chaotic, exciting, vibrant, lively, lovely city makes me too happy not to earn its place. We’re so lucky to be a 20 minute tube away from the heart of it. Husband is off work now, so I left him in charge of the children and I went into town a bit earlier, so I could give blood. A combination of that not taking as long as I expected, and Sophia’s nap at home being longer than usual meant that I ended up having an hour to kill before the rest of my family joined me.

It was very strange. The office where I used to work is on the next block to the Donor Centre, and so this is very much my old stamping ground, but it has changed so much. The cafes I used to frequent have mostly changed, but I had fun doing a little window shopping and then having an indulgent Cioccolata Fiorentina in Carluccio’s whilst re-reading Katie Fforde’s feel-good novel The Rose Revived which is a pre-Christmas must for me. carnaby street

When the others arrived we wandered through the streets of Mayfair, admiring the magical fairyland lights and gazing in awe at the window displays of shops too posh for us to think of even walking into. I saw a pair of pretty, delicate diamond and emerald ear-rings in one Bond Street jewellers, and although they were a mere snip at £6995,00, husband did not respond particularly positively to my suggestion that they’d be a nice little extra stocking filler. We looped back up Carnaby Street – one of my favourite streets in Central London, and always with amazing Christmas lights, and finished up by having spelt flat breads topped with all sorts of delicious things at Flat Planet. This place is a family favourite of ours, and it was the first time we’d taken Sophia since she started on proper food;  happily she seemed to enjoy it as much as we did. And I have a triple chocolate Ben’s cookie in a bag, just waiting for me to devour very shortly. I might even have a Bailey’s with it – after all, it is Christmas!

Twentieth Day of Advent: Me-time

Virginia Woolf famously declared that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. I am not financially dependent on my writing (which is just as well!), and although I don’t quite run to a room of my own, I don’t really feel lack of physical space causes me any problems. Perhaps because my writing doesn’t quite reach Ms Woolf’s literary standards, or perhaps because I am incurably nosy, but my favourite place to write is in a familiar, moderately busy cafe. When it is going well I get so immersed I don’t notice what’s going on around me, and when the Muse hasn’t visited then I can eat cake, eavesdrop and people-watch.

The thing which is lacking in my life at the moment is mental space, head space, me-time, call it what you will. Of course, this is the other side of the coin of that which makes me very happy indeed – my lovely daughters. I am also very happy that I get to be a stay-at-home mum and so see as much of them as possible. But if there is a downside, it is a lack of time to myself, for writing or reading or bathing or even going to the toilet. A joke has been doing the round on Facebook recently:

beautiful-pink-unicorn-10063789Santa Claus: So, Mum, what would you like for Christmas?

Mum: I’d like a beautiful unicorn please.

Santa Claus: Oh, come on, be realistic.

Mum: [sighs] Oh, ok. What I’d really like is five minutes to do a wee by myself and drink a cup of coffee while it is still hot.

Santa Claus: So, what colour unicorn were you thinking of?

There is probably a slightly manic edge to my laughter there.

I am in awe of households with children where both parents work outside the home. Their lives must be challenging in ways I can’t even imagine. But there just might be some benefits too. My husband habitually gets off the tube a couple of stops early and walks the last bit to work through a park. He’ll casually mention that he popped into Pret at lunchtime for a coffee and a sandwich. If he’s lucky enough to get a seat on the tube and manages to avoid being hit by the flying pig then he might read the paper on his way home. He misses out on stuff too, but I do envy those microscopic moments of time when he is only his own responsibility.

But there is an upside, other than all the quality time with my amazing children. No, I am not saying that in a sarcastic tone. The upside is that you become very good at making the most of the time you got, and it makes you disproportionately happy. Yesterday, husband, as he often does, volunteered to take Sophia with him when he took Anna to her swimming lesson. That meant I got over two hours to myself. During that time I made a macaroni cheese for tea, cleared the kitchen and washed up, vacuumed the dining room, living room, stairs, landing, our room and Sophia’s room, contemplated vacuuming Anna’s room and decided there was just too much stuff on the floor and so settled for making the bed and doing a quick tidy round, hung out a load of wet washing and put the dry stuff away, cleared a bookcase which Sophia had been perilously close to pulling over, found new homes for all the books and took the bookcase upstairs out of the way, wrote my blog post, and still had time to sit with my book and a sneaky slice of rocky road for at least ten minutes. Excuse me if this is over-sharing, but I even did an unaccompanied wee.

A lot of what I did were fairly mundane domestic chores, but just doing them by myself, while bopping along to some cheesy Christmas tunes instead of either simultaneously entertaining Sophia or stopping her throwing herself downstairs, or creeping round terrified I might wake her up, made me feel incredibly lighthearted. Having some space and a bit of me-time also meant that I felt much more enthusiastic and energetic about mothering when the children got back.

Today has been slightly different. Husband needed to do a bit of work this morning, so while writing this post I have also been making a frittata, super-glueing a dragonfly and watching the baby monitor wondering why Sophia is most definitely not asleep. I still feel pretty happy, though.