Two months of nothing new

Back at the beginning of the year I set myself the challenge of getting through a year of only buying pre-loved or vintage things for myself, the children and the house. Two months in and I thought it was time to review how it’s all been going.

Over the years I seem, somehow (ahem) to have ended up on the mailing list of quite a few of my favourite shops. First thing I’ve learnt is that the Cath Kidston, Boden, Joules, Toast and Jojo Maman Bebe catalogues have to go straight from the doormat to the recycling bin. I just don’t want to look at beautiful things I can’t have for another year!

The second thing I’ve learnt is that I can still get some lovely clothes by going pre-loved. I have recently acquired a beautiful navy and white polka dot dress, a denim tunic dress, some black skinny jeans (mummy essential!), a vintage look denim jacket and a floral maxi dress (anticipating summer  will arrive at some point) for myself, and a stunningly pretty tulip-skirted Jigsaw dress, a Cath Kidston denim skirt and some Gap shorts for Anna via my local Facebook Sell or Swap group. One of my favourite items of clothing Sophia has at the moment is a bright stripy cardi I picked up in the BHF charity shop near us, and she also has a gorgeous pink cotton dress with a bird-cage print from the same source for when the weather warms up.

My total spend has probably been about £40 – which you could easily pay for one item of new adult clothing.

The third thing I’ve learnt is that Ebay can be great, but needs to be treated with extreme caution. Not being able to try stuff on is a problem. I bought a dress for Anna, intended for immediate use, but it is actually something she will need to grow into. Probably in a  couple of years’ time, by which point the tiered tulle style of skirt she craves aged nearly eight might not be what she wants to wear at all! I’m absolutely thrilled with the vintage Cath Kidston shirt dress I picked up for a fiver, and it’s so versatile – it looks great now with thick tights, biker boots and a v-neck jumper over the top, but in a couple of months time it can be worn over leggings with some Converse, and then by itself with sandals once I’m brave enough to get my legs out. The other dress I purchased recently was less successful, however. I put it on this morning, and Sophia, who is developing quite an eye for these things, immediately declared “No. Mummy not wear dat dress. Dat dress not nishe dress. Mummy wear nishe pwitty dress.” Surveying myself in the mirror, it was clear the child had a point. How is it possible for something which is technically the right size to totally flatten your bust, whilst doubling the size of your hips and tummy, and halving the length of your legs? I pretty quickly swapped it for an old favourite jumper dress which does meet with my sternest critic’s approval. And is warm and comfortable too.

January and February is one birthday after another for us. My dad, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, several friends and several children of friends all have beginning of year birthdays. I stuck to the principle of challenging myself to consider whether there was a present they would really like which didn’t involve buying ‘things’, and only heading to the shops if there really wasn’t. So, my dad got home-made chutney and lemon curd (he is impossible to buy for anyway!), my sister-in-law got some vintage 1960s ear-rings and a second-hand book in perfect condition, one friend got a vintage brooch, another friend got a bag I had bought for myself last year and never used but which I knew she loved, another friend’s daughter got a super-cute vintage pinafore dress, and my mother-in-law got a year’s membership of the Royal Festival Hall. These all seemed pretty popular, and actually in many cases, the challenge of not just heading to a shopping mall and waving my credit card around meant that they got a better and more thoughtful present as a result.

So, what have I bought new? Keeping within my self-imposed rules I have bought some knickers and socks for Anna, some shoes for Sophia as her feet had grown, and two pairs black opaques for myself. It’s honestly not exaggerating to say that the cost of these (and they were from Next, Clarks and M&S, so not particularly high-end brands) cost more than all the other clothes I have bought put together! Boden were kind enough to send me a £10 voucher for my birthday (I suspect an unwelcome side effect of this experiment will be that I won’t be a similarly valued customer this time next year!), and I used it to buy Sophia some new vests, having tried and failed to source some second hand. The voucher expired within a fortnight and was non-transferrable, so it seemed silly to waste it. I did buy some new children’s books as other presents, too. Unfortunately secondhand children’s books don’t tend to be a condition I am happy to gift. I also slipped up and bought myself a magazine – it was popped in the trolley at the supermarket checkout without thinking, and it was only when I got home I realised what I’d done. And finally, I have replaced our milk pan, as its nonstick lining started to peel off, and I didn’t really think that was a healthy addition to the children’s morning porridge!

Writing it all down like this, it is shocking just how much money I spend, even when I’m not buying anything new! I am definitely getting a lot more bang for my buck this way, but I think I need to treat Ebay with much more caution during the rest of the year, and possibly consult Sophia before clicking the bid button. And keep my fingers crossed that my family and friends are as entranced by their pre-loved or home-made presents as I hope they are!

I had a fantastic response on social media to the idea of this challenge, with lots of people saying that they felt inspired to do something similar. Do let me know how it’s going for all of you too!



Spring is in the air

It’s back to school for us today, but with a definite hint of spring in the air to soften the blow. Actually, I don’t mind too much, and am hoping that this term my offspring might be a bit healthier and we can actually settle into our new routine, which involves me being able to write while Sophia is at pre-school. Watch this space!


We had a lovely half term. For the first part of it I took the children up to Liverpool to see my parents. The first morning we were there, they whisked the children off to the Storybarn in Calderstones Park, leaving me curled up in my pyjamas with a good book and a warm pain au chocolat. I then managed to stir myself to have a long, luxurious, uninterrupted shower – even more of a treat because our shower at home has been broken for three weeks and so I’ve been having baths and rinsing my hair under the taps with a tupperware tub!

The children had an amazing time at the Storybarn, and their enthusiasm definitely makes me think it’s something we’ll want to do again on a future visit to Liverpool. Anna especially absolutely loves books, reading, stories and the world of make-believe. She’s currently two and a half chapters into writing her own first novel – an adventure story which shows a strong Blytonesque influence, as well as a vivid imagination of her own, and she is rarely seen without her head in a book. Definitely like mother like daughter! Sophia loves stories too, but she also likes to be on the move, and Storybarn gave her lots of chances for active play as well. She was particularly taken with the giant bubble machine.

We had a lovely family time when my brother and sister-in-law came over for the day. The children had the time of their lives playing with Uncle Matt and Auntie Esther. They went for a walk in the woods and climbed on log bridges (Uncle Matt soaking his feet in a ditch to rescue Anna when she got stuck!), played a long game of Scrabble, which I had been teaching Anna the day before, read endless stories, had cuddles and generally gave them lots of the patient, loving, one-on-one attention which aunties and uncles are really good at.

We also went to the World Museum in Liverpool, where Anna enjoyed the dinosaur trail and Sophia marvelled at the enormous dinosaur skeleton and the tanks of tropical fish. And of course, no trip to Liverpool would be complete for us without a visit to the Waterstones in Liverpool One – one of my favourite bookshops in the country, and with such an incredible children’s area.


Back in London we had some lazy time at home, and I was self-sacrificially devoted enough to let Anna do painting and crafts. I know. It had better be a good Mother’s Day present. In the meantime I have two beaded, sequinned, beribboned octopus/jellyfish type creations to find homes for. We also headed to St Albans for the day to visit the Roman museum and remains because Anna is ‘doing’ Romans at school this term.

And this weekend the slightly lighter nights and warmer weather inspired me to start spring-cleaning. Anna and I cleared out her desk (bio-hazard suits would probably have been a good idea), and her art cupboard, and threw away bags of lidless felt-tips, broken crayons, screwed up coloured tissue paper etc etc. We spring-cleaned her playhouse as well, and then when she started to get bored and her sister woke up from her nap,husband took them both off to the park for a muddy game of football and I blitzed the rest of the house – surfaces dusted, floors hoovered and mopped, bathroom cleaned, beds changed – and then pottered off the the florists to buy a bunch of tulips and one of daffodils to let the spring inside.

My January 2017 Books


Well, January did eventually come to an end! Actually quite a while ago now, but this post has been in my draft folder for a while, waiting for me to get a moment to finish it.

I know in some ways February isn’t much better – still dark, still cold etc, but I have a February birthday, which always cheers things up for me, and it’s also half term next week so we get a little break from the relentless school run routine. My books during January have been a really mixed bag, both in terms of genre and a mix of new reads and old favourites.

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy

This is my must-read-every-new-year book. Partly because it starts on New Year’s Eve, and follows the characters through a whole year in their lives. And partly because I find it a spirit-bolstering combination of comforting and inspiring. The central characters, Cathy and Tom, have been best friends since college, and are just in the process of fulfilling their dream of setting up their own catering company. The novel follows them as they battle to achieve their dream, through all sorts of family and relationship dramas and crises;  Binchy skilfully weaving in the stories of other protagonists as she goes. This novel always gives me a warm glow, and a desire to get up and get on with the new year. Just what you need in January.

The Sherlock Chronicles by Steve Tribe

I don’t watch very much telly, and what I do watch is usually courtesy of CBeebies. It’s not some kind of weird snobbery, it’s just that generally I prefer reading and talking to viewing. I don’t think I’m a very visual person really. However, husband and I did eventually come late to the Sherlock party; binge-watching the box-sets of the first two series, and then breathlessly waiting with half the country for subsequent series to be made and shown. It is quite simply the best television I have ever seen. I know. Even better than Charlie and Lola or Topsy and Tim. That good. And it’s not just because I inevitably have a lamentably cliched crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s just amazing. Fast-paced plot, witty dialogue, moving characterisation, breathless suspense, stunning cinematography. I really couldn’t love it more. I actually wasn’t such a fan of the last (ever?) episode, but the end of another horribly brief series still left me feeling more than a  little bereft, and I remembered that we’d been given this book as a present a couple of years ago when we first got into the series. I hadn’t read it at the time, but the day after the last series finished I put Sophia down for her nap, resolutely ignored all the things I ought to be doing, and curled up with this book and indulged myself.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

And then, of course, I wanted to re-read some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. I was struck anew by just how amazingly good these are. It’s very easy to see why they were the stories which spawned the wildly popular genre of detective fiction, not to mention thousands of films, television series, spoofs and translations. The acting in Sherlock is so compelling that I could hear all the dialogue in Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s voices, but that enhanced rather than detracted from my reading experience.

And in a little ‘how life changes’ vignette, I found a 1st class train ticket to Bristol, dating from 2006, tucked in the book. Over ten years ago – I was working for an organisation which generously provided 1st class travel for its employees, and I had a conference to attend in Bristol. Off to Paddington early one morning in my vertiginous heels and a business suit, tapping away on my laptop and Blackberry on the journey out, busy at a conference on medical regulation all day, and then sinking into my seat for the journey home and pulling a favourite book out of my smart little handbag. No first class travel, or conferences, or high heels in my life now, but I can still read and enjoy the same book in my cosy but chaotic house with my children sleeping (or not) upstairs. I think 25 year old Helen would be pretty happy at how most things have turned out for her a decade later, but slightly horrified at a) how little sleep I survive on and b) what I now feel constitutes a good shoe.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D.James

For me, P.D. James is one of the Golden Age Queens of Crime, who just happened to write in the second half of the 20th century (and well into the 21st!) rather than the first half. Writing in the modern age means her novels are often somewhat edgier, too much grit and realism to class as ‘cosy crime’, but they share with her earlier counterparts a strong focus on intricate and original plot, a vivid depiction of place, and a charismatic and often almost super-human detective. This is a collection of short stories from early in her career, two featuring Adam Dalgliesh and two not. I’m not a massive fan of the short story genre in general as I like to feel luxuriously submerged as I begin a new book, but I did enjoy this collection very much, and in the sad absence of any more novels from P.D.James  they are a lot better than nothing. I also pleased myself by guessing whodunnit in all of them.

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking and The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits.

These aren’t the kind of books you necessarily sit down and read cover to cover, but I have been enjoying dipping into them throughout January (and, indeed, into February). They were both Christmas presents – one bought by me for my husband, one bought by my husband for me! No-one can say we’re not well-suited. Hygge is a bit of an in-joke between us, because a few years ago, well before hygge was the in trend under discussion in every lifestyle supplement, husband read an article about it in The Economist. He told me about this concept of warmth, candles, blankets, cosiness, delicious drinks and food, sharing with family and close friends, mainly because it basically sums up how we tend to live.

Suddenly in 2016 the concept of hygge was being discussed everywhere, and I teased husband about being the first to spot it – possibly the first time ever he’s been ahead of the curve in identifying a lifestyle trend, as his interest is normally entirely taken up with politics, current affairs, business and technology.

Anyway, we both independently decided to buy the other a beautifully designed and presented book on hygge as a Christmas present. It turns out that, although I don’t believe either of us have any Danish blood, we have indeed always been devotees of the hygge lifestyle. For me it is so obvious as to be sheer common sense. Small intimate groups of family and/or friends are my happy place. Lighting candle or a fire provides spiritual  as well as physical warmth and light. Baking an indulgent cake or  kneading the dough for a batch of cinnamon buns or simmering a  tasty stew is an excellent way to demonstrate love. Curling up with a good book keeps the unpleasant realities of life at bay. Every sofa needs a blanket to be snuggled under. Hot chocolate is a necessity of life. Who wouldn’t agree with that as a manifesto for living? Especially in January and February!