thank you neon

Husband and I were talking over dinner last night, and somehow the subject of who we were most grateful to came up. We challenged each other to name the five people in our lives to whom we felt we owed the most gratitude, excluding people we were related to. It was a thought-provoking discussion. After a little consideration, my list, in chronological order. looked like this:

  1. Mrs Wadsworth – she was my English teacher in years 9, 10 and 11, and she really inspired me with the love of the subject I went on to study at university. I had always loved to read, but she helped me to go further, to think about and analyse what I had read, and to get more out of reading by doing so. She gave me confidence in my ability. She also gave my friend and me a catchphrase we regularly use to this day – “Don’t worry, just work”. This was in the run-up to our GCSEs when it was easy to get paralysed by panic, and to spend longer working out your revision timetable than actually revising. Mrs Wadsworth’s breezy “don’t worry, just work” was excellent ‘get on and bloody do it’ advice, which I still remind myself of frequently when I have a difficult or unpleasant task I am anxious about. Stop fretting and get it done!
  2. Mrs Wilson – was my Head of 6th Form. It was she who persuaded me to go to Merton College, Oxford, for a student open day when I was in Year 12. I was highly sceptical, convinced that Oxford would be snobbish, elitest and not for people like me. However, Mrs Wilson stuck to her guns, and in doing so did me one of the biggest favours of my life. It only took ten minutes wandering round Merton’s exquisitely beautiful quads and garden for the chip on my shoulder to vanish, replaced by a steely determination that this is where I would study. I succeeded, and had three incredibly happy years, made some amazing friends, and met the love of my life.
  3. Jo Naylor was the Infant Feeding Advisor at the hospital where Anna was born eight years ago. For one reason or another we didn’t get off to the best start with breastfeeding, and I found many of the midwives looking after me to be unhelpful at best. But Jo was amazing. Warm and caring and sensitive, but also sharing my total bloodyminded determination that this baby was going to be breastfed. She gave me confidence in my body and in my baby when I needed it most. She taught me to express and finger feed so that I could be sure of Anna getting some food, even before she was able to latch on properly. She visited me several times a day when I was in hospital, and then came to see us at home afterwards. We got there, and I am so grateful to her because breastfeeding my babies has given me some of the most precious memories of my life, as well as hopefully getting them off to the healthiest start possible.
  4. Professor Lesley Regan – runs the Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary’s Paddington. We were referred here for investigations after my third miscarriage. I saw many lovely junior doctors and nurses, and had a plethora of scans and blood tests, culminating in an operation to see what was going on in my slightly defective womb. They discovered that half my womb was actually missing, a condition known as a unicornucate uterus. The doctor who performed the operation and gave me the results was incredulous that I had already had a full term pregnancy, and was extremely pessimistic about my chances of doing so again, and I was heartbroken. We then had an appointment with Professor Regan herself. She looked at my notes, and commented that she would never have believed my anatomy to be compatible with carrying a healthy baby to term. However, she said, you’ve done it once, so I don’t see any reason whatsoever why you can’t do it again. Those words imbued us with the confidence we needed to try again, and risk putting ourselves through the heartbreak of miscarriage again. She also advised us, contrary to our inclination to wait for a few years to let ourselves heal mentally, that I was nearly 33, that I wasn’t particularly young in child-bearing terms, especially as I had had complications, and that we should get on with it. I was pregnant with the baby who turned out to be Sophia two months later. I didn’t see Professor Regan again, but her clinic was then fantastic at supporting us through those tense and panicky early weeks of pregnancy.
  5. Francesca Best – Francesca was the commissioning editor at Hodder and Stoughton who made the decision to publish my first novel, Two For Joy. This achievement is one of the things I am proudest of, and I will always be grateful to Francesca for spotting my potential and giving me the chance. She was also a brilliant editor to chat with and work with and helped me bring my work up to a standard I wouldn’t have believed possible, and which, indeed, wouldn’t have been without her input.

So there’s my top five! Of course it’s an artificial list in many ways, because the rules of our game excluding family meant that I had to miss out many of the people (my parents, grandparents and husband spring to mind) to whom I actually owe the biggest debts of gratitude for their constant and ongoing support and inspiration. I am also lucky enough to have many friends to whom I am grateful for many things, but the five people above are ones who gave me what I needed at crucial pivot points in my life, and indeed have influenced for the better the whole course of my life.

What about you? Who are the people who have made the the biggest difference to your life, and to whom you are most grateful?

Being Kind

Last week was not a good week. It kicked off with Sophia ill with a high temperature and a cough. The cough was worst at night, so we were getting woken up every couple of hours by  distressed little girl. Then I discovered Anna had nits (again), and so we had to add daily assaults with the nitty gritty comb into our daily routine, which was popular with everyone. The weather was cold, grey, foggy and, it turns out, poisonous. Air quality in London hit a record low, and it felt impossible to get properly warm. Then Anna fell off the climbing frame at school and hit her head, and then vomited, and then complained her vision was blurry, so we ended up at the GP and then being sent off to A&E. She only had a mild concussion, and is fine now, but it was fun at the time. Then Sophia fell downstairs, top to bottom – she was totally unharmed, but this was the morning after the night in A&E, so my nerves were pretty shattered. The week was rounded off by Sophia falling off the bouncy castle at a party on Sunday and having one of her seizures. And this is before even thinking about the terrifying and depressing political developments in America.

But yesterday, even though it was Monday, and (still) January and (still) cold things suddenly felt better. I had a text message telling me that some friends of ours had had a baby daughter at the weekend, and baby news always makes me happy. I took Anna out for a hot chocolate and some quality mother and daughter time whilst my MIL looked after Sophia, and was reminded how lucky I am to have this bright, funny, imaginative girl. I went out for dinner with my closest friend from those early, blurry, sleep-deprived first baby days and we had a proper catch-up and marvelled at the passing of time which means we are now parents to nearly-eight-year-olds. And after pre-school, Sophia asked if she could sit on my knee to have lunch instead of going in her high chair. I agreed, and she leant back into me, snuggling her head against my chest, and said contentedly “Love you” for the very first time.

Someone I know from years back posted on Facebook this morning that protests against Trump’s policies or against Brexit, are utterly pointless, and instead we should be directing our efforts to loving our friends and family, volunteering at church, supporting colleagues at work and taking the time to be nice to people who we come across in daily life. I couldn’t agree, or disagree, more.

Being kind to the people around us is what we should be doing anyway, and all the more so when there seems to be such a dearth of kindness in high places. And the only way to get though these dark political times is to take time to appreciate and value the little things – sharing a meal with someone you love, the sleepy weight of a child on your lap, a conversation with a friend. But right now I also think those of us who believe in hope not hate should try to do a little more, go a little further, and make our voices heard just as clearly as those I firmly believe are far fewer in number but shout much louder.

This morning I have followed More United‘s advice as to what we can do to fight the horrendous ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the US – a ban which is going to tear families and friends apart. I donated some money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting the ban. I posted a supportive message on my MP’s Facebook page, as Stella Creasy is being very vocal in encouraging the British Government to speak out, and MPs who are taking this stance need our support, just as those who are not speaking out need to know that this is something their constituents care about. And I co-signed the letter which Hope Not Hate are sending to Theresa May, asking her to unequivocally condemn Trump’s actions.

None of this took very long out of my day, and none of it stops me also continuing to try  (even though I don’t always succeed) to be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, neighbour and friend. Love and hope are stronger than hatred and fear, and we can, and must, prove that.


National Trust: Speke Hall

The lovely thing about National Trust membership is that you don’t have to commit to a whole day out if you don’t want to, there are so many lovely places to just dip in and out of.

One of these is Speke Hall in Liverpool, ten minutes or so drive from where my parents live.

A couple of weeks ago Anna was staying with Nanna and Grandad by herself and they went for a full day out to Speke. Anna is fascinated by history, and she loved looking round Speke Hall itself, a beautiful Tudor Manor house, and spotting the priest’s hole and spy holes which tell of the owning family’s Catholic faith at a time when that was persecuted. She also loved the new Childe of Hale trail which celebrates a local hero – the Childe of Hale, John Myddelton, was an astounding nine foot three inches tall. And, being seven she also thoroughly enjoyed the woodland adventure playground complete with zip wire, and the millionaire’s shortbread in the tearoom afterwards! I wasn’t there, but I may as well have been because I’ve heard all about it!

This week, Anna is off in Cornwall with Daddy and Granny, and Sophia and I have come to stay with my parents for a few days. Apart from some very welcome cosseting following Sophia’s frightening experience we didn’t have many plans. It was such a lovely day today, though, that we decided to pop into Speke Hall this morning.

Sophia’s interest in historic houses and historic figures is perhaps understandably at a pre-embryonic stage, so today we headed straight for the playground for smaller children. Sophia busied herself clambering up the ladder and whee-ing down the slide, and then we went and played ball on one of the open grassy spaces with beautiful views across the Mersey estuary.IMG_4590

After a stroll through the pretty orchards and walled kitchen garden, an increasing grumpiness and sleepiness (from Sophia, rather than my parents) indicated it was probably lunchtime and nap time, so we headed for home. We’d only been there for an hour, but to my mind little excursions like that are what add up to making family membership of the NT so worthwhile, and there’s no sense of guilt that you haven’t ‘made the most’ of your admission fee.IMG_4589

Incidentally, down in Cornwall my husband has taken Anna to St Michael’s Mount (National Trust), and they’ve been walking on the coastal path (National Trust) and are off to the beach this afternoon (National Trust!), so we’re definitely getting good value for money.

And now it’s a lazy sunny afternoon, and I’m gazing out at my dad’s beautiful garden, having a chance to blog whilst my parents entertain Sophia. Earlier we had lunch in the garden, with tomatoes plucked from the vine literally seconds before eating, and the obligatory Magnum to follow and possibly, just possibly, I am allowing myself to relax fractionally.


Wake up and smell the roses

Things have been pretty quiet on the blog lately. Like many people, I have been in something of a state of shock following the result of last month’s referendum. I’m not exaggerating to say that it feels something like a bereavement, and at the moment I am caught somewhere between anger and denial in the stages of grief.

In my more optimistic moments I can’t believe that we will do something as cataclysmic, as momentous, as disastrous, as leaving the EU on the basis of a very close result following such a horribly untruthful and misleading campaign. Leaders of the Leave campaign have already reneged on their promise – a promise they knew they could never keep – of an extra 350 million a week for the NHS.

I am so angry that the Remain campaign didn’t challenge the entire premise of this referendum. EU citizens living in Britain could not vote in it. Ex-pat Brits living in EU countries could not vote in it. 16 and 17 year olds could not vote in it, despite their futures being very materially at stake. We had no idea what we were voting for, because no-one (still) has the vaguest, remotest idea what Brexit will look like. Such a flawed plebiscite surely cannot justify such an enormous step, and one which the majority of the MPs we elect to make such decisions, do not support.

In a country that suddenly seems motivated by hate and fear, with an economic, political and social future which looks uncertain at best, bleak at worst, my blog which is deliberately small-scale and domestic feels trivial, inconsequential, even pointless.

And yet…When under pressure to cut funding for the arts in order to support the war effort, Winston Churchill riposted “But then what, exactly, are we fighting for?”. There are many reasons for believing that Britain’s future is brighter in Europe, but my own reasons for desiring it so strongly are very personal, relating to peace and security and opportunity for my children, and the delight I feel in living in a city, a country, which welcomes the world. The kind of things, in other words, that I often blog about.rose close up

My other reason for continuing to blog about the little things, is that these are what keep me sane. When the bubble of anger and panic gets too big to contain and my head and chest feel like they are going to explode, then kissing my babies, or baking a cake or smelling a rose helps me regain a little perspective.

We went to Polesden Lacey yesterday as a birthday day-out treat for my husband. It’s a gorgeous National Trust property in Surrey, a Regency period house which was bought by a Mrs Greville and transformed into the ultimate location for delightful and decadent Edwardian house-parties. Edward VII himself was at Mrs Greville’s first house-party in 1909, a few years later the Duke of York (subsequently George VI) honeymooned there. If you ever wondered what life was like inside Downton Abbey, this is the place to go. rose garden

There are also utterly beautiful and spectacular gardens, including the most lovely rose garden I think I have ever seen.

We braved the rain for a 90 minute walk from the local station (lack of car ownership can be a bit of a drawback when visiting National Trust properties!). Anna found an Enid Blyton book she hadn’t read before in the second hand bookshop. The rain cleared enough for us to enjoy our picnic (complete with four different types of cheese, houmous, Cava and strawberries), and to explore the gardens. Then the children went off to the play area, and I got to immerse myself in period drama land inside the house itself. By this time we were all pretty shattered, and very relieved to discover a mini-bus back to the station!

pink roses

I am still angry. I have never been more angry. And I think we have to be angry. We have to keep fighting. We have to make the positive case for Europe and inclusion and openness. We have to fight hatred and racism and xenophobia. But I think, probably, we also have to carry on living our lives and smelling the roses.



Literal sunshine and metaphorical showers

Social media mean that inspirational statements, or cliches, or truisms – I think the terminology depends on how cynical you’re feeling that day – are everywhere. Some of them are more than a little twee. Others I really do think we can learn from. And, of all of them, the one I really feel I need to apply is the one about life not being about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain.dancing in the rain

This weekend, the warmest and sunniest May weekend on record, has involved a lot of dancing in the rain for me.

It started inauspiciously on Friday afternoon. I had just settled Sophia for her nap and was about to work my way through a huge list of jobs which would leave the house organised and gleaming and me free to enjoy the weekend. Then my mobile rang, and I heard the dreaded words “Is that Anna’s mum? I’m calling from the office at school…”

Anna had an infected toe, apparently. I wasn’t massively sympathetic at first, assuming that it would be a blister from her new sandal.Only after she got home and I peeled back the plaster to take a look did I realised that it probably was infected, and I needed to a) be a bit nicer and b) take her to the doctors. By the time of our appointment, two hours later, she couldn’t put her foot on the floor without extreme pain. I ended up wheeling her round to the doctors in Sophia’s buggy, whilst carrying Sophia in the sling. I really appreciated the warm weather that walk.

We were prescribed antibiotics, so I manoeuvred us all to the chemist, and then home. We dosed Anna up, and then made the most of the sunny evening and my husband being home early to have shop-bought pizzas and salad for tea in the garden. And I managed not to fret about the list of undone jobs or Anna’s sore toe, or the fact that I hadn’t made the pizzas myself from scratch, and just enjoy that experience. It helped that I couldn’t see the chaos inside the house.

Poor Anna’s foot got worse and worse, and she had a really horrible night. Of all the plans we’d made for Saturday – husband had work to get done, we wanted to make the most of the weather, I still had all the housework to do – two of the family spending the morning in A&E wasn’t even on the short-list, but that’s what Anna and my husband ended up doing anyway. I tidied up a bit, and worried a bit more, and then realised that there was no point Sophia and I being stuck at home for the sake of it. I had missed breakfast in all the kerfuffle, so I decided that Sophia and I would walk round to our local cafe together. She enjoyed the walk. I enjoyed the freedom of being out without a pram. And we both enjoyed the babycino, apple and rhubarb juice and chocolate muffin. Yes, I know, she shouldn’t have had any chocolate muffin, but it was only a little bit. I was still worried about Anna, and felt sorry for them being stuck in hospital, but I also enjoyed a little window of self-indulgence with Sophia.

That evening my friend was due to babysit while husband and I went out for dinner. I agonised over whether Anna would be alright, but she was so exhausted after her broken night the night before that she was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. We were only going out locally, so decided to risk it, and I left my friend with a cup of tea and lots of admonitions to phone us if she was at all worried.

Husband and I enjoyed a glass of prosecco in the evening sunshine, and had just placed our food orders when my phone rang. Anna was still fast asleep, but it was Sophia who had woken up, inconsolable and seemingly in pain. I raced home to administer Calpol, breast-milk and reassurance, before sprinting back to the restaurant once she’d settled to sleep once more. We managed to finish our dinner and get home before she woke up again a couple of hours later. An unconventional model for a romantic night out and, given that I wore heels for the first time in months, I could have done with a bit less running, but I’m still glad we had that blissful hour sitting together in the sunshine.

By yesterday it was clear that Sophia had an ear infection. Anna’s sore toe had already put paid to tentative plans for a trip to the seaside in any case, and so we settled for a quiet day at home. Husband finally got his work done. Sophia was feeling so poorly she had an epic three hour nap, and Anna and I got to watch an episode of ‘Just Add Magic’ – her new favourite TV programme, and bake a cake together. Then with everyone Calpolled to the max, we put the littlest one in the pram, and the bigger one in the buggy, and wheeled them round to the garden of Vestry House Museum – our favourite local spot, and where we held our wedding reception – for a picnic. It was blissfully peaceful, and Anna lay and soaked up some sunshine, Sophia toddled happily on the grass and tried to eat daisies, even though she’d refused all other food all day, and I ate lots of grilled aubergines stuffed with goats cheese from our fab local Italian deli.

My tendency is to think that I will relax and enjoy myself as soon as. As soon as the house is tidy. As soon as I’ve lost a stone. As soon as Sophia is sleeping through the night. As soon as the weather gets better. As soon as whichever child is poorly at that moment gets better. This weekend I spent Friday afternoon carting a sick child and a grumpy baby to the doctors. Friday evening and night looking after a sick child who was in so much pain it made my heart ache for her, and debating with my husband if/when we should take her to hospital. Saturday looking after baby and tidying house while worrying about sick child. Saturday evening, which I’d been looking forward to for weeks, was interrupted by sick child #2, giving me someone else to worry about. Sunday was at home with two poorly girls whilst everyone else in the whole world (or on my Facebook feed anyway) was at the seaside.

But I actually managed to enjoy the windows of time between crises, and appreciate them all the more for their brevity, rather than writing the whole weekend off and planning to have fun next weekend, as soon as. Learning, in fact, to dance in the rain.