Starter for ten


Photo by Magda Ehlers on

My eldest girl was ten last weekend. Her birth was, hands down, the best day of my life. (I was equally thrilled at her little sister’s birth 6 years later, but the day itself was somewhat compromised by the whole epidural-stopping-working-mid-caesarean section thing). I was 28 when she made me a mother, and it felt like that was what I had been waiting my whole life for. And I was right. Having my children has made me complete. I can’t imagine my life without them, and I feel in my bones that having them, loving them, raising them is the greatest thing I will ever or could ever do.

It’s not that I think women should be mothers if they don’t want to, or that they should want to, or that being a mother is the most important thing anyone can do, it’s just that’s the way it is for me. I remember being about 15, and having one of those intense conversations about the future you have at that age, with one of my closest male friends. He said that he didn’t really want children, couldn’t see the point and felt that life as a child could be so tough he didn’t want to deliberately inflict that on someone else. But then he looked at me, and said “I’d have kids if I ended up marrying you, though. It would be cruel not to – you were just born to be a mum”. Reader, I didn’t marry him. But I remember that statement as one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, even though I don’t think he even particularly meant it as a compliment.

Despite this sense of maternal vocation, I don’t want to fall into the trap of living my life solely for and through my children. It’s not healthy for them, and it certainly wouldn’t be good for me. Last week was International Women’s Day, and the theme was balance. That is something I am striving for in my life, although I’m not sure I always manage to achieve it. I am a mother. I love my girls so much it hurts, I would do anything for them, and they will always be my first priority. However, I am also a writer, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a citizen, a woman. A woman who wants to go for walks without stopping to pick up every stick, walk on every wall and listen to a constant stream of chatter. A woman who loves a long lunch or shared bottle of wine with a friend, or a theatre trip with her husband. A woman who would like to earn some proper money of her own. A woman who wants a place in the world unprefaced by the words ‘A’s mummy’.

The jump from one to two children skewed the balance for me. I haven’t published a book since my youngest was born, and I feel that the very differing demands of a 10 year old and a 4 year old often threaten to squeeze me out entirely. Finding the balance is elusive, and the moment I feel I might have achieved it, one of them suddenly has a high fever or a medical appointment or a workshop at school, and my carefully contrived house of cards collapses around me.

Ten years out of the formal workplace feels like a bit of a wake-up call to try and assess where things are going for me for the next ten years. In another ten years time I will have a 20 year old and a 14 year old, and be heading for 50 myself. I’m no longer naive enough to imagine that parenting will be magically easy by that point. Although some aspects of mothering a child who now (generally) sleeps through the night and can wipe her own bum and fasten her own shoes are undoubtedly much easier, there are new issues all the time. My big girl is intelligent, creative, loving, thoughtful, sensitive, and all together delightful, but helping her cope with the challenges presented by being neuro-divergant  (she has dyslexia and dyspraxia) in a neuro-typical world is far from easy, and I regularly have to put myself outside my non-confrontational and people-pleasing comfort zone to play the role of Mama Bear and fight for what she needs.

I am lucky that, at the moment, I don’t have a financial imperative to work. I know that makes me immensely privileged, but the downside to it is that anything I take on has to be sufficiently worthwhile to ‘justify’ time away from family life. The balance I am seeking is between being able to always prioritise my children and their needs, and enjoying them at the ages they are, whilst also clawing back some kind of independent life. It’s a work in, very slow, progress. Ten years in I can see that being a mother is everything, but it isn’t necessarily enough.


My February Books

feb 19 books

Well, February has been a short month, and a busy one, so it is a little bit light on new books. One of the problems is that two of this month’s books have inspired me to re-read other things, and so that has been reading time eaten up. I’ll have to up my game next month!

What I have read, however, has been excellent. Funnily enough, it has been three non-fiction books. This feels unusual for me, as I would normally describe myself as being a fiction-reader through and through, but thinking about the books which appeal to me these days, there is no doubt that non-fiction is a significant element.

The first of my books this month is The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards. This is part of the British Library Classic Crime series which has been re-issuing classic detective fiction from the first half of the twentieth century which had fallen out of favour and therefore out of print. Edwards edits the whole series and, in addition to writing detective fiction himself, is undoubtedly one of the leading experts on classic crime. The book was a thorough and detailed exploration of the genre, and as I consider myself a bit of an aficionado, I really enjoyed it. I would, however, say that Edwards’ style can be a little dry, and I’m not sure that this book would particularly appeal to a casual reader.

The second book this month, Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner was undoubtedly my favourite, and one of those books which is so rich and well-written you come to the end and just want to turn it over and start again from the beginning. Weiner is one of my favourite authors of contemporary women’s fiction, as well as being a feminist campaigner and all-round good egg.Hungry Heart is her memoir, taking the form of a series of beautifully written essays.

As a writer myself I was fascinated by her account of the way lines between fact and fiction can blur, and how therapeutic ‘writing it out’ can be. I couldn’t help going back to re-read Good in Bed and Certain Girls which seem to be her most autobiographical novels.

As a female writer, and a feminist, I was fired-up by her analysis of how sexist and misogynistic publishers, journalists and critics can be, and how dismissive of women’s voices. Overall Hungry Heart was laugh-out-loud funny, moving, compelling and inspiring – and you can’t really ask for more than that.

The final book this month is In Your Defence by Sarah Langford. Langford is a barrister, and this is a compilation of significant cases. It is largely factual, but she has changed names to protect identities, and in some chapters has merged details of several cases together to create one cohesive narrative. Other than studying Law A-level twenty years ago, I have no experience or knowledge of the legal world, and no particular interest, but something made this book leap out of the shelf at me, and I’m glad it did. It was fascinating to have a little window into such a different world, and of course that is one of the primary purposes of reading. To quote Dr Seuss ‘the more that you read, the more that you’ll know, the more that you know, the more places you’ll go.’ February may have been a bit light on books numerically, but it has taken me to many new places, so I’m ending the month happy with that.


All about Agatha

christie books

Regular readers of my blog may know that my over-riding literary passion is for Golden-Age detective fiction, particularly that of Queen of Crime Agatha Christie and her contemporary Dorothy L Sayers.

My mum is also a fan, and I was probably about 11 or 12 when she first suggested I tried Agatha Christie. The first novel I read was, coincidentally, the first Miss Marple book, Murder at the Vicarage, published in 1930. I can still see with absolute clarity the cover of my mum’s 1970s edition. I was instantly hooked, and have remained so over the last quarter century. In my last year at university we had to choose two special topics which we would research in detail before producing two two 5,000 word essays, which would count towards our Finals. My choices were Chaucer – fairly conventional – and Golden Age detective fiction – not very conventional at all. I was a solid 2.1 student, and my grades for all my Finals papers reflected this, all except my detective essay for which I got a First!

This month has really rekindled my fascination with all things Christie. First of all I discovered the most amazing podcast. Called ‘All About Agatha’ it is an in-depth analysis of all her 70+ novels and most of her 100+ short stories. It’s already been running for a couple of years, and as I only discovered it a couple of weeks ago I have a blissful amount of catch-up to do, and it will continue for a long while yet. The podcasters, Camper Donovan and Katherine Brobeck, are of course devoted Christie fans, but they aren’t afraid to criticise her either, especially when she seems to espouse views of xenophobia, racism, sexism or classism which do not translate well into the 21st century, and have always been the aspect of her work which made me most uncomfortable. Each episode is roughly an hour-long examination of character, clues, plot and setting, drilling down in incredible detail. You have to be a Christie geek to appreciate it, but I very much am, so that’s ok.

I’ve been slow to get off the mark with podcasts, but this one has been transformational. I’m actually enjoying cleaning or hanging out laundry or chopping vegetables as it gives me 10 minutes to tune in to Christie world and out of my own.

Completely coincidentally, my birthday present from my husband was tickets to go and see Agatha Christie’s famous play, Witness for the Prosecution, which is currently on in London. It is being shown in County Hall, the former seat of local government in London, and takes place in the Council Chamber. For a courtroom drama you simply couldn’t imagine a better setting.

I’m not a big fan of reading play scripts, as opposed to watching the play, and so I was coming to this completely new, which isn’t an experience I get with Agatha Christie very often any more. I found the whole play gripping, brilliantly acted and directed, and the twisty denouement was Christie at her stunning best. My husband is not a Christie, or crime, fan at all, and was very much there on sufferance because he knew I would love it, but he actually admitted that he was incredibly impressed, and it did demonstrate to him what all the fuss is about.

I also discovered, via the podcast, that there is a 1980s TV adaptation of the Tommy and Tuppence stories, now available on DVD, and as one of my birthday presents from my parents was an Amazon voucher I was able to order it straight away and am working my way through those episodes too.

The work of Christie, Sayers et al appeals to me on so many levels. The intellectual challenge of the puzzle, the window into a society now passed by and what we can learn about both that society and our own through reading, the pure escapist enjoyment of snuggling up with a classic crime novel. Researching my Finals essay when I was still at university is one of the happiest periods of my working life, probably the happiest, that I can remember. I said at the time that if I ever did a Masters it would have to be in detective fiction, and I have revisited that idea several times in the past 20-odd years, but the timing has never been quite right. Very probably it isn’t right now either, but I feel more certain than ever that it will be one day, and I will attempt to make the leap from Christie geek to Christie scholar.

My January Books

Whoo-hoo! We made it through January! I know February isn’t a favourite of most people either, but it’s my birthday month, and I love birthdays, so that always makes it feel special. And it’s a short month, in fact it always flashes past at the speed of light, because it’s my eldest’s birthday right at the beginning of March, and so there is always a lot to organise and plan for. Right now 4 weeks seems like a long time, but I know from experience it will pass in a heartbeat.

Anyway, January books. I’m pleased to report that I’m well on track for my 52 books in 2019, with five (new) books read last month.

The first was Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. This was thoughtfully left on my bedside table by my lovely sister-in-law when we stayed with them at the end of the school Christmas holidays. Staying with family both my children adore was the perfect time to start this page-turner, because they were totally happy playing with Uncle Matt and Auntie Esther while mummy buried her head in this compulsive read and ignored them. I love the way Moriarty can tackle serious issues; in this case the sometimes complicated ramifications of blended families,  domestic violence and date rape through the medium of a misleadingly frothy seeming novel. Despite the serious issues, she tackles them with a lightness of touch and black humour which makes for a compelling rather than depressing read.

I then moved onto non-fiction with a newly published book by a Walthamstow neighbour of mine, Annie Ridout. Her first book, The Freelance Mum is an inspiring and practical guide to combining flexible freelance work with caring for your children. As one of my objectives for this year is to get back into writing in a serious way, this book was the perfect kick up the backside, as well as providing some very sensible advice and pointers.

After reading Annie’s book I was all fired up with an urge to get our home and lives calmly organised so that I could maximise working potential of the fairly limited time my youngest is in nursery, rather than frittering it away on the domestic hamster wheel. Because everyone else was I tried, for the second time, to read Marie Kondo’s famous book The Lifechanging Magic of Tidiness, a modern decluttering bible. Unfortunately (and I’m sure this says more about me than Marie Kondo) I was unable to finish it again. Her method seems like it would work brilliantly for a child-free singleton, or maybe a retired couple whose children have flown the nest, but living with a chronically untidy husband with hoarding tendencies, and a chronically untidy 9 year old, and a 4 year old who likes things to be neat but much prefers to direct operations rather than participate, and in any case only sees our things as mess, not her own, I just couldn’t see myself ever being able to follow her method.

I did, however, totally buy in to the message that clutter, having too much stuff for the space available, is what makes day-to-day living and housework so time-consuming and dispiriting. Somehow I heard about two books by an American writer, Dana K White, called How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind and Decluttering at the Speed of Light. Immediately I felt that, as a stay-at-home mum and writer with three children she would have more idea where I was coming from. And within a few pages I was hooked. Unlike most cleaning, housekeeping or decluttering books or articles I have read, she doesn’t make the fatal error of assuming that the reader is naturally neat. Dana K White is a self-described slob, and she understands the mindset of those of us to whom housekeeping does not come naturally. If you are an instinctively tidy person then these books are absolutely not for you, as it will feel like several hundred pages of stating the totally bloody obvious. But for those of us on the more, umm, chaotic end of the spectrum I would say that it is these books, rather than Ms Kondo’s, which contain life changing magic.

I finished the month as I started it, with an absolutely cracking novel. Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce was an absolute unmitigated joy from beginning to end. Set during the London Blitz, it is the story of a young woman who dreams of a career as war correspondent but somehow ends up as secretary to the agony aunt of an old-fashioned women’s magazine. She can’t help but get drawn into the problems and lives of the women who write in for help, and this is where her own problems start. The characters were so real to me that it felt like reading non-fiction, a journal rather than a novel. It also brought the bravery of those who lived through the Blitz, and the peculiar nature of war on the home front, to life more vividly than almost anything I have ever read. It made me think a lot of my grandmother who was a young woman during the Blitz on Merseyside, and I remembered her first-hand accounts of picking her way through broken glass and rubble to get to work each morning, and had a new appreciation of just how that must have felt. Thought-provoking, moving, hilarious, memorable – what more do you want from a novel? This is a stunning debut from A J Pearce, and as a writer I am rather jealous, though as a reader I am delighted.


Everlasting January

Every year. Every year it gets me. Every year I am frankly smug at the beginning of January. We’ve had a lovely Christmas, but now it’s time to get back to real life, new year, new goals, new excitement, new challenges. Ok, so it’s cold now, but come on people, spring is just around the corner. Fast forward three weeks (Or three years? Who knows?) and I’m just over it. Over the freezing cold, the (still) dark mornings, the (still) dark evenings. The fact that a child’s request to go to the playground fills me with horror, so we either have over-energised children bouncing off the walls inside, or I go and spend 30 minutes freezing the very marrow of my bones so they can run some of it off.

There’s been a lot going on this January as well, which makes it feel longer I think. Some of it has been pretty rubbish. My husband’s office was broken into not once, not twice, but three times in the space of a week, and the police didn’t seem even remotely bothered. Running a start-up can be stressful enough at the best of times, and having three lots of computers stolen, three lots of replacement doors and locks to organise and pay for, three lots of reports to make to police officers who don’t even have the time/inclination to see you in person, three lots of insurance reports to file doesn’t exactly decrease that stress. Luckily he has a fantastic team, and they all really pulled together and kept on with business as usual, but I found it quite frightening to see just how deep the cuts to policing have bitten.

I have been having a flare-up of my ankylosing spondylitis which hasn’t been much fun. Looking back, it is something which often seems to happen in January. I don’t know if it’s eating a lot more red meat and sugary food over Christmas, or the hard work that goes into creating a lovely family Christmas, or just the cold weather, which always seems a bit of a trigger for me. Either way I have been feeling a bit sorry for myself with a sore foot (plantar fasciitis, which is very common with AS) and really bone-aching fatigue. One week I basically spent all the time my youngest was at nursery lying on the sofa to try and conserve energy for when I collected her, and subsequently I have felt much better than that, but still having to be very careful to manage my energy levels as even quite a normal level of exertion can wipe me out.

We saw an optometrist about my eldest’s eyes, as she is having problems with her distance vision which is not corrected by appropriate lenses. One possibility is that she has Irlen’s Syndrome (sometimes called Visual Stress Disorder), which is a problem with the brain’s ability to process visual information, rather than an issue with the eyes themselves. It isn’t the same as dyslexia, although around 50% of people with dyslexia are thought to be affected, and it can cause blurred vision, or the words to seem to move around the page. It seems likely that she is affected by that to some degree, but equally not all her symptoms are explained by this, so we are now awaiting an ophthalmologist appointment for further tests, which is all a bit worrying.

And then just a few days ago my poor Henry Cat was attacked by a vicious marauding cat in our garden, and has a nasty bite on his ear, which needed a hasty trip to the vets and now some antibiotics.

poorly henry

So all in all, nothing awful, but a bit of a feeling that things are rather relentless. However, in between all this, we have also been making the most of January with a positive whirl of social and cultural activity!

Our Christmas present to our 9 year old was tickets to see Matilda, the hit West End musical. my MIL had agreed to look after the 4 year old, and we went to see a matinee on Saturday, followed by a ‘grown-up’ dinner out. I had read really good reviews, and my little book-worm daughter adored the original Roald Dahl story, so I thought we were probably onto a good thing, but I was taken aback by how absolutely amazing it was. It was very well adapted, and the script, music, lyrics and choreography worked so beautifully together that it was an absolute sensory delight. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

matilda 1

My MIL had also decided to give ‘experience’ gifts this Christmas – tickets to a comedy show for my husband, and for a live cinema screening of the National Theatre’s Richard II for me. Coincidentally these were on consecutive nights just a couple of days after we saw Matilda! We saw James Acaster performing a brilliant one-man show in the West End, and then the next night had a complete contrast with some Shakespeare. Being somewhat (ok, totally) out of touch, I’d never heard of James Acaster, but he was absolutely hilarious. And as most of his show related to either Brexit or Bake-Off it was almost uncannily appropriate for us. Richard II was one of the plays I studied for A-level, and I don’t think you ever get to know any text quite like your A-level ones, so I have very strong opinions on Richard, and I wasn’t totally sure about this production. Simon Russell Beale was magnificent as Richard, and the language and themes are so powerful, poignant, thought-proving and relevant that it’s hard to go far wrong. However, I didn’t love the production which was based around the conceit of all the characters being continually shut up together in the same windowless room, in very simple modern costume. As many of the characters also doubled up it had the slightly disconcerting feeling of a GCSE Drama production in the school sports hall.

We also went as a family to see an exhibition at the British Library called Cats on the Page; which was a quirky and sweet look at the role of the cats in literature, both for adults and children. I love cats, and of course I love books, and some of my children’s favourite books – Slinky Malinki, Tabby McTat, Mog,Gobbolino, Atticus Claw, TS Eliot’s Cat poems – have featured feline protagonists that it was equally enjoyable for all of us.

cats on the page

Less cultural, but we also had an impromptu snowball fight in the street one bedtime, when the snow started falling thick and fast at about 6.30pm and miraculously settled. I decided trying to put them to bed under those circumstances was like holding the tide back, and most of my neighbours clearly thought the same as the front doors all opened and streams of excited children poured out. I’m so glad I was spontaneous as it was pretty much melted by the next morning. Which is pretty much my ideal snow – come quickly, look pretty, allow some rosy-cheeked, wholesome making of childhood memories, go again before getting grey/slushy/icy/necessitating days off school!

snow fight

We’ve also had friends we haven’t seen for ages over for dinner, and I had a lovely catch-up brunch on the South Bank with two friends from university last week, so there has definitely been more good than bad.

I’ve also treated myself to a great selection of new books with some Christmas money I got, so I’m doing well with my 2019 reading challenge so far, and will be reporting back on January’s choices at the end of the week.