#In Real Life

cocktails

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark for me as I met a woman I have been friends with for nearly five years for the very first time. Chiswick Mum blogs about her family life in leafy West London. Other than our East/West divide, we have loads in common – both born and raised Oop North, proud of those roots, but in love with our London lives, both Oxford English graduates, both passionate about reading and writing and books and making the most of the little moments of everyday life by blogging about them. Her son is only a little older than Anna, and so we are often at the same lifestyle stage with children as well. She also writes beautifully, and is one of a very few bloggers guaranteed to give me a little lift when a link to a new post appears in my emails.

Our friendship grew organically, if ‘organically’ is the right word for something which is purely a product of the digital age. Firstly commenting on each other’s posts, then following each other on Twitter and Instagram, and then eventually sharing email addresses. The honesty of her writing meant that I felt I knew Chiswick Mum better than many of the mums I see at the school gates every day, but with whom conversation doesn’t really progress beyond the weather or this week’s spelling list.

A New Year’s Resolution we both felt we could get behind was to meet up IRL (In Real Life).  Not easy when you’re juggling between you three children, a full-time job, two blogs and live on opposite sides of London, but last night we managed it, meeting for cocktails in a bar in Central London. It was bizarrely like a blind date. Or how I imagine a blind date must be; husband and I have been together since we were eighteen, so the dating world is a bit of a closed book to me.

I felt incredibly nervous. Would she actually recognise me from my profile picture? After all, that was taken about four years, 1.5 stone, 1 baby and a whole pile of stress ago, and real life sadly lacks soft focus filters.Would we really have anything in common? Would it be horrendously awkward? Would she actually like me?

I’m so glad we were both brave enough to take the plunge, because we had a brilliant evening, and she was every bit the warm, funny, interesting and engaging woman her blog led me to believe she would be. We got through three drinks each and a platter of bar snacks (got to love a girl who loves pork crackling) with no awkward silences, and the only reason we quit at three drinks was because we both had to be up at about 6am, her for work, me for Mummy Duties.We have, however, planned to meet up with children and partners for a picnic this summer, and another round of drinks whenever our respective commitments allow. Amongst other things she even helped me come up with a plot and title for my fourth novel!

Blogging and social media gets a lot of bad press at the moment. I read many articles implying that if you love Instagram/blogging/Twitter/Facebook then you must be disengaged from ‘real life’. Like many things, I’m sure you need to be careful to maintain a balance. A virtual hug will never replace a real one, and I know that I can be guilty at times of posting about how adorable/annoying my children are rather than actually playing with them! However, I do think that the wonderful world of blogging and social media enhances my life, and yesterday I made a brand new real life friend I would almost certainly never have met any other way. ‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, and so many more connections are made possible for me by my life online, and my real life is the richer for it.

Advertisements

All Change

Although it’s only been a couple of weeks since we got back from our Easter holidays break in France, it feels like several months because so much has been happening.

The main change relates particularly to my husband, but has had a big impact on the whole family. Some time ago he had an idea for starting his own business. For a while it was just that – an idea. Then as it took hold he began to work it up a little more in his spare time. He chatted to friends who either worked for themselves or had relevant experience, and the consensus seemed to be that it was a good idea. He started to work on it a little more seriously during the evening or at weekends. Eventually we realised that this was a concept we both whole-heartedly believed in, and the time had come either to forget the whole thing, or put our money where our mouths were, and for him to quit his (steady, well-paid, secure!) job in order to pursue it properly.

We ummed and ahhed – it’s not a decision anyone can take lightly, but when you have a large mortgage, two small children and a wife whose writing career is yet to keep the family in anything other than a few extra, occasional treats, it really needs thinking about.

Then another university friend suggested that husband did some part-time, freelance consultancy work to pay the mortgage and the bills and put food on the table while he spent the rest of the time getting his start-up started. That made us feel a lot more secure than simply him quitting his job, and us living off our savings while the new business (hopefully) got going, and so that is the option we went for.

It has big advantages – the main one obviously being to keep the money coming in, but also for husband to keep in touch with an industry he has spent most of his working life in, and is still deeply interested in. It has also meant, however, that he has effectively been setting up two new businesses – one as a consultant, and one as a fledgling entrepreneur – and so life has been pretty busy.

Since we got back from France, he has been working two days a week as a consultant, and the remaining five on starting to get his business off the ground. The consultancy days don’t feel any different to me as he still puts on a suit and tie, leaves the house around 8am and gets back roughly in time for Anna’s bedtime. The other days, however, are totally different. For one thing he is working from home. In practice that often means working from a cafe round the corner (for some reason he doesn’t find a Weetabix-smeared dining table and a marauding one-year-old round his feet particularly conducive to work), but he might pop home for lunch, or be around at the children’s tea-time for an hour or so. The payback for this is that he is equally likely to be working at 10pm because he needs to make a phone-call to someone in America, or on a Saturday morning because at 5pm on Friday he promised to get some figures back to someone first thing on Monday.

His work-life and our home-life have suddenly become much more entwined. Apart from my writing, we’ve both only ever worked at management level for large organisations, and so it is a shock that suddenly the support systems you take for granted in that environment – HR, IT, Finance, Procurement, Legal, your own PA – just aren’t there. Anything that needs doing we either have to do ourselves, or pay (and at the moment that means out of our own pockets) to have someone else do it. Quite a learning curve.

And as if life with two new business and two young children wasn’t complicated enough, something about seeing my husband all fired-up about his exciting project has inspired my own creative juices, and I have started work on my third novel. You know, in my spare time.

So, there we are. Life is currently busy, exciting, demanding, chaotic, challenging, fulfilling, stimulating and somewhat exhausting, but it very much feels like the right thing to be doing, right now. Wish us luck!

train

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.

 

 

Eleventh Day of Advent: Writing

Two For JoyOkay, so I know reading has already featured in this series, and now we’ve got writing, but I can faithfully promise that ‘rithmetic will not be making an appearance. Maths does not, never has and, I suspect, will never make me happy. Although I can’t say that any more, because apparently lots of children develop a negative attitude to maths because they’ve picked it up from their parents. And the reason that Britain is not so Great in international league tables is that it is socially acceptable, almost desirable, to be rubbish at maths. Educated, middle-class women like me, who might be embarrassed to say they couldn’t spell properly, or hadn’t read a book for five years, take a perverse pride in announcing that they can’t add up. So, I’m trying not to do that in front of Anna, but on this blog, which Anna is not going to be reading any time soon, I admit that maths do not get on. However, I digress.

The enjoyment I get from writing has been my most significant self discovery of the past few years. I have written at length on this blog, and elsewhere, as to how my need to reclaim some time and mental space for myself from the ups and downs of life as a fulltime mum led to me writing my first novel, Two for JoyI am still astonished, thrilled and, to be honest, bloody proud of myself that it got published. Not only that, but I went on to write a second novel, To Have and to Hold and a seasonal e-novella, On the Third Day of Christmas. Yay me! As I talked about in my social media post, some of the pleasure I get out of writing To Have covermy novels and my blog is the knowledge that my words are being read, my ideas are going out into the world and, hopefully, providing other people with enjoyment, interest or amusement. But it’s not just that. Simply the act of writing, sitting down with just my thoughts and my beloved Macbook, and creating something that wasn’t there before, and would never have existed without me, is exhilarating and uplifting. When I’ve had the chance of a few uninterrupted hours writing I get a real high. It’s harder to describe than it probably should be for a writer, but the best analogy I can come up with is that it is the mental equivalent of a spa.

Before it closed (sob, sob) my husband had treated me to a few different days at the Covent Garden Spa. I would swim a few leisurely lengths, relax in the delicious warmth of the jacuzzi, have a massage and stretch out on the loungers with a trashy magazine or a friend to gossip with, and it was sheer bliss. Muscles I didn’t know I had would stretch and relax. Heaven. Just writing this is making me long for a spa day! But a good writing session really does produce those feelings in my mind. To be honest, it is less good for my body – hours hunched over a laptop tend leads to cramped aching shoulders, stiff on the third day of christmas coverfingers and sore blurry eyes. But it’s worth it for the mental uplift.

I may not have gone further than my dining room table, or a local cafe, but writing, like reading, gives me an enormous sense of intellectual freedom and potential. It is also the chance to do something of my own in the world, rather than seeing myself only in relation to my family, much as I love them.

The Sixth Day of Advent: Reading

After my family, the great love of my life is undoubtedly reading. Ever since I can remember it has been absolutely fundamental to me. Discovering that English Literature was an academic subject, and I could effectively make it my job to read, felt like winning the jackpot. Some of my happiest moments ever have been immersed in a book, accessing worlds I could never have known any other way.

I get nervous going out without a book in my handbag, even if I’m only doing the school run. After all, you never know what might happen. And much as I love real books, and could never dream of giving them up, the invention of the Kindle has significantly improved the quality of my life. Going on holiday, especially backpacking round Europe was tricky, because I could never fit the volume of books necessary for a two week holiday into my bag. The only solution was to try and persuade my husband to take books I wanted to read as part of his allowance, and that was difficult as he normally favours political biographies or academic history books, which aren’t really my favourites. Almost inevitably we would end up in Lisbon or Budapest or Istanbul searching for an English Language bookshop so I could get my fix. Now I can just load up as many books as I want (Amazon one-click is a bit dangerous for my finances) onto my Kindle.

My Kindle was also fantastic during my pregnancy. I spent a lot of time waiting around in hospitals to see midwives or obstetricians, or have a scan or blood test. Later in my pregnancy I had a couple of scares and needed to spend a few hours being monitored to check that the baby was doing ok. As long as I had my charged Kindle in my bag, I was completely relaxed about the waits, even welcomed them.

bokcaseNow Anna is reading ‘chapter books’ as well, finding space for books in our house has become an ever more pressing issue. I recently had what I felt to be quite a brutal cull, asking myself in all honesty if each book was something either I would read again, or would want to lend to someone else. I amassed an enormous pile, in fact filled one of those huge blue Ikea bags, and staggered off to Oxfam with it.Unfortunately, that only made space for the books which had been piled up in the corner of the room, there wasn’t actually any more space for new ones. The solution was obvious. A local dad I know from the school-run is a carpenter and cabinet-maker, so I texted him and asked him to pop round to give us a quote for building more bookcases. Simple as.

When I set my website and blog up, one of the first things I wanted to do was put together some lists of my favourite books. Lists and books, it doesn’t get much better than that. One day when I have a bit of spare time I want to add lists of my favourite children’s books and my favourite cookery books as well.

It’s a brief blog this morning, as I am in sole charge of three children. My husband is working, and Anna had her best friend to sleep over last night. They were very good, and we all got much more sleep than I’d anticipated, but my concentration is limited as I am writing this while participating in a game which is a cross between princes and princesses and cops and robbers. on the third day of christmas coverI, needless to say, am playing the role of the servant. They are currently sitting, Anna wearing a green embroidered cloak which belonged to my mother-in-law in her hippy youth and her friend with an old purple silk scarf draped around his shoulders, compiling notes of all the heinous crimes which are being committed in their kingdom. These range from murder to failing to say thank you for a gift. But if you have a little bit more time on your hands than I do at the moment, and fancy a Christmassy read, then *shameless advertising plug coming up* do consider downloading my novella On the Third Day of Christmas...