My March Books

I absolutely definitely do not have time to write this blog post! We are off to France for a week on Saturday, and I have a lot to do to get ready. It is a home exchange holiday, so in addition to all the usual pre-holiday prep of packing and so on, we also have to leave the house in tip-top condition for our guest family. And, of course, the children need feeding, watering and entertaining as usual. Just to make life even more fun, our drinking water went off this morning, and so I spent quite a lot of time I definitely did not have boiling and cooling water, and organising an emergency plumber. And then a lady from First Utility called to have a matey chat about my kilowatt unit costs and how I could be reducing them. It felt too important to hang up, but wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending 20 minutes of Sophia’s precious nap time!

However. If I don’t write my March books up today, then it won’t happen until mid-April, so I have despatched Anna to tidy her bedroom (possibly for ‘tidy’ read ‘curl up on her bean-bag and listen to her Paddington CD), and Sophia is in her cot. The chatting and burbling indicate that she is in no way asleep, but I am choosing to ignore that for the time being and call it nap-time. So, March books here we go.

March booksCasting Off  and All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

It feels like a long time since I finished the final two novels in Howard’s amazing family saga, right back at the very beginning of March. Having absolutely loved the first three in the series, these two definitely did not disappoint. We follow the lives of the Cazalets into the social change and economic uncertainty of the years immediately following the Second World War. The characters whom we met as children are now grown up, many of them with children of their own. The intimacy of the writing is such that every turn of the plot feels like news or gossip about old friends. “Ooh, Polly’s had twins!” or “Thank goodness Hugh has met someone else at last.” or “I always thought that Wills was probably gay”. I absolutely loved, loved, loved these books, and know that I will return to them again and again.

A Summer at Sea by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde is one of my top go-to authors for romantic escapism and comfort reading. I can also report *gets ready to boast* that she is an absolutely delightful person. I met her at the Romantic Novelists Association awards when my own book, Two for Joy was short-listed for Contemporary Novel of the Year a couple of years ago. Sadly I didn’t win, but it was fantastic to meet Katie, and she was kind enough to say that she had really enjoyed my books, which was a fantastic compliment. Anyway, a new Katie Fforde is always cause for celebration, and although I buy most of my books in our fantastic local Waterstone’s, when I saw this on special offer in Sainsbury’s as I did the weekly food shop one rainy Monday morning I just couldn’t resist.

Emily, the central protagonist, is a midwife – a career I seriously considered myself for a while – so it was particularly interesting for me. As always, Fforde has obviously done her research very thoroughly. Throw in some beautiful Scottish Highlands scenery, a heavily pregnant best friend and a ruggedly handsome Scottish doctor, and you’ve got a total feel-good read which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

I don’t like writing negative reviews. I understand very well just how much effort goes into writing a book, and it feels downright churlish to publicly tear all that to pieces because it doesn’t meet your personal taste. I would never say I enjoyed something I didn’t, but prefer to operate on the principle of ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. In this case, though, the author has been dead for many years, and so is unlikely to be hurt by my saying that this was one book I just couldn’t finish. I got about half way through, but found both characters and plot so implausible I was actually looking for excuses not t0 read! I decided enough was enough, and just skim-read to the end to discover whodunnit. I won’t be counting the book as one of my 52, but I have included it here for completeness.

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster

After not enjoying Murder of a Lady I was looking for something to really get my teeth into, when this book by Margaret Forster caught my eye on a display in Waterstone’s. I still had book tokens from my birthday, so was able to treat myself, and I’m really glad I did.

The book does what it says on the tin. It is an account by Forster of every house she lived in during her nearly 80 years. She was born in a  two-up, two-down council house in Carlisle, and ended up with two homes, one in affluent Dartmouth Park on the borders of Hampstead Heath in London, and a holiday home in the Lake District. The book covers the personal – the story of her family, education, marriage, children, career and the illness which ultimately killed her, and the socio-political – how our homes and what we expect from them has changed over the course of the 20th and early 21st century.

Forster’s personality shines through her vivid descriptions, and so it was particularly poignant reading it just a few weeks after she died. The enormous importance and significance of ‘home’ to her is also something I feel very strongly myself, and so there was that fantastic chord of recognition which is one of the chief pleasures of reading.

Death in Devon by Ian Sansom

I wasn’t sure if I was going to love or hate this book before I read it.  It is the second in a new series of detective fiction set in the 1930s. They are a very deliberate ironic pastiche of the Golden Age crime novels I love so much, and at first I wasn’t sure if I would find the satire annoying. In the end, I didn’t. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that it was an affectionate, ironic satire, rather than a biting attack, and I enjoyed it. The narrator, a Spanish Civil War veteran, is highly likeable, and the plot was cleverly thought out, with a shock ending in the best tradition of Golden Age fiction. I will definitely be looking out for more books in this series.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

I had a bit of a Wodehouse-fest last month when I wasn’t well. Thankfully I haven’t had tonsillitis this month, but we did have an evening with a financial advisor talking about life insurance. The intellectual effort of trying to bend my mind around figures and statistics and probabilities and the pros and cons of different models, combined with the existential horror of contemplating a scenario where I am a widow with two young children, or my babies have been left motherless or orphaned meant that by the time our (very nice, helpful, friendly and intelligent) financial advisor left, I was in no fit state for anything but a mug of hot Ribena, bed and an instalment of Jeeves and Wooster. That made everything ok again.

 

 

The weekend that was

I love the posts my blogger friend, Chiswick Mum, writes about her family weekends, and as, in keeping with my new policy of dragging myself out of hibernation, I actually have something to blog about, I’ve shamelessly nicked the idea. I hope she will forgive me, and take it in the spirit of ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’.

Saturday was a fairly quiet domestic day, but we still fitted a lot in. Husband popped out to our local shop first thing and bought fresh pastries for breakfast, and then took Anna off to the first of her new swimming lessons. Thankfully, teacher, pool and lesson content all met with her approval. Sophia had her nap while they were out, which meant I had time to shower, wash my hair, condition my hair, shave my legs and apply body lotion – normally, assuming I get time to wash at all, I have to choose just one of the above.

I also managed to make a pizza for lunch, and then while that was cooking we took Sophia for her first ever walk outside. She toddled proudly up and down our street, and was so thrilled to be out in the world. If a baby’s character is any predictor of the adult they become, then I suspect Sophia will be an adventurer, and husband and I will have to resign ourselves to our relationship with her consisting of monthly text messages such as ‘In Brazil now. Going rafting up Amazon tomorrow! Love you, S x’, because she certainly seems determined to explore the limits of her world.

eggsI hadn’t been looking forward to the afternoon, because I had to help Anna with her school ‘decorate an egg for Easter’ competition. I am really not good at things like that, and while previously Anna has been content with slapping some paint in the general direction of a hard-boiled egg, this year she has ambitions to win, and had decided on an ‘under the sea’ theme. To say I was trepidatious about the task of helping her create an octopus, a mermaid, a diver and a fish out of hard-boiled eggs would be an understatement, but somehow we managed it, and were actually both fairly proud of the result. I don’t think she probably will win (for context, on the way into school this morning I saw a pirate ship populated by boiled egg pirates, and a whole football pitch of eggy players), but we enjoyed messing around with paints and sequins and bits of material, and I also realised Anna had never come across the word ‘bikini’ when she requested that I help her cut out the mermaid’s ‘waterproof bra’!nest cakes

In the mood for Easter crafting, we then made Easter nest crispy cakes. And when I say ‘we’, I actually mean Anna, because apart from me lifting the hot bowl in and out of the microwave, my oh-so-grown-up little girl made them entirely herself. My vital role was to test the mini eggs were up to scratch, and I did so exhaustively. Happy to report that they were, and I even managed to save some for the cakes.

I completed the day’s cookathon by making a big pan of veggie chilli for dinner, and a batch of cinnamon buns ready for Sunday breakfast.

Yesterday we were off to Oxford. Despite it being the place husband and I met, and pretty much my favourite place in the world, we’ve only taken Anna a couple of times, once when she was just a baby, and Sophia had only been in utero. I was overcome by the huge wave of nostalgia I always feel in Oxford, but I absolutely loved seeing our daughters running around playing in the beautiful garden where their father and I shared our first kiss, nearly seventeen years ago. A & S Merton

We went to a lovely Thai restaurant for lunch and, once again, I was very proud of Anna and realised just how grown up she is becoming as she was willing to try all the unfamiliar food on offer. Pork belly with Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. Sweet chilli noodles. Beansprouts and bamboo. Stir-fried prawns with chilli. Actually, the thing she liked best was the egg-fried rice, but just a year or two ago she would have refused to try any of it.

After lunch we did a quick tour of Oxford’s greatest hits – Merton Street, a peek into Christ Church meadows (which are sadly inaccessible with a pram), Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera, High Street, Turl Street before finishing up at Blackwell’s for a browse and a coffee before we got the park and ride bus back to the new Oxford Parkway station.

We broke our journey home with a twenty minute dash into the Bicester Village retail extravaganza so we could pop into the Cath Kidston outlet for some new cereal bowls. I won’t go into details as to why we needed new ones. Suffice it to say that, a couple of weeks ago, I accidentally left the stair gate which normally blocks off the kitchen doorway open. I was extremely disappointed that we didn’t have longer in Bicester Village as I discovered that the Clarks shop there is doing an exclusive collaboration with Orla Kiely,and the resulting shoes are the stuff of my dreams. I am plotting whether I can manage a quick dash back at some point. I know it’s not exactly on the doorstep, but they really were divine.

Finally the children had a picnic tea on the train home – good old-fashioned cheese and ham sandwiches after their taste adventure at lunchtime – and we all got home tired but happy. It was a wonderful weekend, and I felt that we got the balance between domestic pottering and adventures further afield just right. The only thing missing was a trip into central London, so I will have to put that on my wish-list for another time. merton

Out of Hibernation

Perhaps it is just the lighter mornings that make the difference. Forcing myself out of bed for the day when it is still dark just feels SO wrong. I’m a morning person, more or less, but the dark cold mornings of January and February really get me down. The weather is (shh, whisper it) slightly better this last couple of days as well, and there is definitely a certain softness in the air. I know, I know, it will probably be snowing before the week is out.

Whatever the reason, I feel like I am coming back to life. Participating in life rather than standing on the sidelines of other people’s.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find my horizons shrink when I have a baby. To a large extent they have to, because keeping a tiny and totally dependent human being alive is fairly demanding, and doesn’t really allow much headspace for anything else, especially when you have an older child to take care of as well. But at nearly fifteen months, the umbilical cord is no longer tying me so closely to Sophia. She is toddling, feeding herself and starting to communicate –  I think ‘talk’ would be putting it too strongly, but she is getting very good at conveying her opinions! She doesn’t need breastfeeding during the day any more (let’s not talk about nighttime), which is another thing which frees me up considerably.

Suddenly I discovered that I wanted to get some kind of life back which didn’t totally revolve around the children. After my husband sensibly talking me down from the massive wave of guilt which overcame me at that realisation (“How can I want anything other than my precious babies? Am I really selfish? What about women who can’t have children and would give anything to have their lives limited in this way?), I decided to make a few changes.

laptopThe most significant is that my MIL has agreed to babysit Sophia sometimes so that I can start my third novel. The first of these sessions was last Thursday, and it was absolute heaven. I met my MIL at her local station, handed Sophia over for a play at Granny’s house, and ensconced myself in a cafe with my laptop. I already had a plot all worked out, and so actually managed to get a chapter and a half written in the time available. It felt amazing to be writing again, and as an interesting but positive side effect, I noticed that I had so much more patience and energy with the children that afternoon after having a bit of time for me.

I am also trying to make plans to see people. I know, radical.  Friendships have been on a back burner over the past year as all my time and energy has been focussed on my nuclear family, but I am missing my friends, and I am determined start seeing them again. We kicked this new resolution off on Friday by visiting a really good friend who I met through NCT classes when we were brand new first-time mums. We (and our babies) were inseparable for that first couple of years, but then life started to move on. She had a second baby, and then went on to set up her own business. I started writing. The children started different schools and evenings and weekends started to get eaten up with their social lives with their new classmates. Suddenly, from seeing each other several times a week, we were text message buddies. It made me sad on Friday to see how uneasy the children were with each other at first. Luckily it wasn’t long before they bonded over a ‘pizza picnic’, and were soon charging round the house having one of the noisiest games of hide-and-seek I’ve ever witnessed, and my friend and I munched chips and dips and gossiped, if not to our hearts’ content, then certainly a lot more than we’d been able to for a long time.Sophia bus

I’m also going to get out and about with Sophia a bit more during the week. This week we went to the London Transport Museum where she totally ignored the attractive and colourful toddler area in favour of toddling as fast as she could from one vintage bus to another and back again. She loved it, and I had really enjoyed my walk from Liverpool Street Station to Covent Garden – and we both enjoyed having lunch with husband afterwards.

So, that’s how I am dragging myself out of hibernation and back into the world. Working on a new book, trying to see friends more, and getting out and exploring the world again. What about you? Are you starting to feel those spring-time vibes, and does it inspire you to make some changes?

Seven Up

7 cakeMy lovely eldest girl turned seven last week. As one of my NCT friends pointed out, seven years is quite a long time. Despite frequently still feeling like rank amateurs, we can’t really pull off the ‘new parent’ thing any more – parenting is now very much business as usual and we do have to at least pretend we know what we’re doing.

I’ve never felt less like that than for two hours on Thursday evening when we hosted a treasure hunt party, in our house, for ten 6 and 7 year olds. I had spent hours writing the clues, printing them, mounting them on coloured card, buying appropriate ‘treasure’, planning the food and other games and prizes, baking and decorating the cake and so on, but, with hindsight, attending a course on crowd control run by the Met Police would have been better preparation. Individually they’re all lovely kids, it’s just en masse that I struggled. It didn’t help that the birthday girl was also completely overwhelmed by the noise, chaos and excitement, and spent half the party in tears. I did learn three valuable lessons, though:

  1. I do not have a gift with groups of children. Teaching is not, and never will be, a viable career option.
  2. Our house feels a lot smaller with ten children in it.
  3. Party entertainers really, really, really earn their money.

Time is a funny thing. In one way it seems like I’ve had Anna in my life forever, in another it seems impossible that my tiny little baby is this lively, leggy, chatty girl with her own very strong character and opinions. When exactly did that happen?

I can vaguely remember my pre-parenting life. I used to get up around 7am and leave the house within a few minutes so that I could have a swim before work. After my swim, I’d  have a luxurious shower, blow dry my hair and apply make-up before grabbing breakfast at Pret a Manger to eat at my desk. Work was busy and stressful. If I had time I’d go and grab a sandwich or salad from M&S at lunchtime, but lunchtime often didn’t come round until about 4pm. I’d keep a bowl of grapes on my desk to keep me going. I’d normally finish work at about 7pm, and then either go out for a drink with a colleague, or meet up with friends or my husband for dinner. If I was going home it would often be via M&S or Waitrose for semi-ready meals – bagged salads, pre-prepared veg, fresh pasta and sauce or fishcakes. Sometimes I’d go to a lecture at the LSE, or to the theatre or the cinema, or do a bit of shopping. At the weekend we’d lie in and then either go into town to meet friends, take a day trip our of London, or perhaps have people over for dinner. Several times a year we’d go away for the weekend. I do remember all this, but it no longer really resonates – it all feels like something I read about, or which happened to someone else.

For the last seven years I get up at about 6.30am. If I want a shower I have to grab it quickly before my husband leaves for work, because otherwise it won’t happen. I make porridge and toast for the children, and grab some for myself, normally accompanied by a hot chocolate in the hope that sugar and fat will replace the sleep I’ve missed out on. Then I start the frenetic rushing and nagging which ensures that Anna arrives at school on time, clean, fed and dressed with all the correct paraphernalia for that day. I do my shopping or errands while Sophia naps in her pram, and then either go to a toddler group or come home to play with Sophia until lunchtime, whilst simultaneously trying to get a load of laundry on and run the hoover round. Lunch, eaten with Sophia, will probably be something – beans, cheese, eggs, houmous – on toast. While Sophia has her afternoon nap I race against the clock to do the rest of the housework, start preparing dinner and complete any household admin. By the time she wakes up it’s time to go and collect Anna, then prepare snacks (healthy ones for the children, and a sneaky chocolate biscuit or three in the kitchen for me), and then manage the competing demands of both children until teatime. After clearing up the carefully prepared food which is now smeared over children, highchair, table and floor it’s bath time for Sophia. I get her settled and then come down to spend a little quality time alone with Anna before getting her to bed. Once she’s in bed I tidy up, try and remember what needs to be got ready for the morning and prepare grown-up dinner, before collapsing in an exhausted heap as my husband gets home. Looking at the opportunities for exercise (zero) against the opportunities – I would argue requirements – for sugary snacks it isn’t hard to see why I’m nearly two stone heavier than I was seven years ago.

The way I spend my time and energy is so different now it can be hard to reconcile the two Helens. On some level I still think of myself as a young urban professional who is having a career break to bring up her children. However, Anna’s seventh birthday marks seven years since I last went out to work. I had just turned 28 then, and had been working for, yes, seven years since graduation. I have now been a stay-at-home mum for half my working life. I have done other things in that seven years, most significantly publishing two novels. But that girl-about-town with her Blackberry and her disposable income availing herself of all the amenities of the big city has gone, and even while appreciating what I’ve got, I can’t help missing her a little bit.

What the last seven years have given me, though, is (in my totally unbiased opinion) the loveliest little girl in the world, and bringing her and her sister up and watching them grow is the greatest privilege I can imagine. Another seven years and I’ll have a teenager; probably moody, definitely spreading her wings and fighting for her independence. The sense I sometimes have now of being totally overwhelmed and subsumed by the strength of my children’s physical and emotional need for me will be changing and I will no doubt miss it. I will probably be wishing Anna needed me more, or at least admitted that she did!