Back to blogging

I’m pretty sure 3 months is the longest I’ve ever gone without writing a blog post since I first started blogging about six years ago. Where have I been? I wish I could list all the exciting non-blog related things I’ve been up to, but sadly it’s not been anything of the kind. The summer holidays are always tricky for me to find any time to write, and this year was no exception. In fact, the opposite, as it’s the first summer I’ve had two non-napping children, so it felt like finding the time to clean my teeth or brush my hair was a challenge, let alone commit my thoughts to cyber-space. That’s not all it is, though. The children went back to school and nursery respectively in mid-September, and yet I still haven’t managed to blog.

sea

So, what’s been going on? To be honest I’m not totally sure. I could, truthfully, say that I have been busy. I’ve had discussions and meetings with Anna’s school about getting the right support for her dyslexia, and we’ve been to Open Days for secondary schools as we start considering all the options (definitely a blog post in its own right!). We’ve had a new boiler fitted with all the upheaval that entailed, and I’ve been trying to catch up with all the domestic and administrative tasks which were utterly neglected over the summer. I had my handbag stolen, and have spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone to banks and so on cancelling cards and getting new ones and changing card details I have stored online, and replacing membership cards and so on. I’ve taken both children for eye tests (always a bit of an expedition as our excellent optician isn’t very local) and Sophia has had settling in days at nursery which I needed to be there for. Sophia has dropped her afternoon naps, so that is two hours, which I used to fill with domestic life admin, cut out of my day. She has also been quite clingy, uncharacteristically so, as she adjusts to a new nursery setting, new teachers, new friends.

But I think all these are probably excuses rather than reasons. My head just hasn’t been in the right place to write. Often I’ve found that writing helps exorcise my demons, but for some reason this autumn I haven’t felt able to start. We had some lovely times over the summer, but there were also some things I found very tough.

Sophia starting school nursery feels like such a big milestone, bringing the question of what I will do with my life when she starts proper school next September front and centre of my mind when I’m not really in a place to deal with all the emotional implications of it. One of the things that makes me saddest and angriest is that the PTSD and anxiety I have experienced since Sophia was born have robbed me of some of her baby and toddlerhood. It hasn’t been all bad, of course not, and I have lots of positive memories. But so much of my time with her has been over-shadowed by panicky what-ifs, and I want it back.

Even those feelings aren’t straightforward, though, and my mind feels like a heap of spaghetti I’m meant to be able to separate neatly into its constituent strands. Because while I am mourning my baby starting to grow up I am also well into my tenth year as a stay-at-home mum, and starting to feel I might be ready for something else. Obviously I have worked during that time – I’ve published 2 novels and a novella, as well as serving as a trustee for the NCT – but an awfully large percentage of my life has been lived in my head and in my house, and it is possible that I might be ready for a change.

I’m at a bit of a writing impasse at the moment. I have a completed manuscript of a new novel, and several chapters of another. What I don’t have is a literary agent, as she is retiring, or an editor at my publishers, as she got another job! There are options. I could throw myself into finding a new agent and discussing all my writing options with them, and sooner or later there will be a new editor at Hodder, but it all feels a bit over-whelming. I’m also conscious that writing is a brilliant job in many ways, but it doesn’t necessarily satisfy my new craving for interaction with the world outside my head and home and family.

path

What this would look like opens up a whole new can of spaghetti. I don’t think going back to my old career in healthcare management is a realistic option. Should I look for a local, part-time role, paid or voluntary, and carry on writing the rest of the time? Or look for a completely fresh career, possibly complete with re-training? And how does any of that combine with my husband’s extremely demanding role running his own business, and the continual, and sometimes competing, demands of two young children? When Anna was a baby I thought that ‘starting school’ pretty much meant she would be off my hands and I could resume normal life! I now know better – 9am -3pm, 5 days a week, with time for assemblies and plays and reading mornings and maths workshops and parent-teacher meetings and coffee mornings and medical appointments and time off sick actually doesn’t equate to very much child-free time at all! Obviously many families don’t have the luxury of choice; both partners have to work outside the home and juggle all this just so that the bills get paid. But given I am fortunate enough, at the moment, to have a choice, I feel like there is a lot of pressure on me (pretty much entirely from inside my head) to make the right one for the wellbeing of the whole family.

I’m not sure if I have any followers left after a 3 month hiatus, but for anyone who is still reading thank you for bearing with me through this brain dump. I’m afraid there will quite possibly be more introspective posts over the coming weeks and months as I attempt to make all these decisions.

In the meantime, as we mark World Mental Health Day this week, not to mention Baby Loss Awareness Week, a reminder that it is ok not to be ok. I have been very not ok at times. Miscarriages and birth trauma have led me to dark places of panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, crippling health anxiety, a leaden weight in my chest crushing the happiness out of what should have been my brightest moments. For eighteen months I was too ashamed of these feelings even to admit them, and that shame in large part led to the feeling of missing out on Sophia’s babyhood which I am now experiencing. Thanks to private therapy to deal with PTSD, and NHS funded CBT to help with health anxiety, and an awful lot of love and patience from my husband and family and friends I am getting there, and the sunshine is back in my life, a lot of the time at least. If anyone reading this is struggling then, please, try to open up to someone. It’s ok not to be ok.

rainbow 2

Advertisements

A decade in the ‘Stow

walthanstow stadiumI’m a bit late with this post, as we actually moved to Walthamstow in December 2007, but never mind. I still feel in the mood for a bit of reflection on my life over the last ten years in this amazing corner of North-East London.

This is by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life, and the changes which have taken place, in my own life and the place I’m living it, are absolutely staggering. When my boyfriend (now husband) and I moved to Walthamstow we were classic DINKYs (double-income, no kids yet), and although we were very proud of owning our first home, a little two-up, two-down Victorian terrace, our professional and social lives were very much centred around central London. I left Walthamstow at 7.30am every week day to go for a swim at my Fitzrovia gym before work. I ate breakfast and lunch at my desk. After work, more often than not, I’d meet friends and/or boyfriend for a drink or meal in town, and get home in time to go to bed and repeat the whole cycle again. Evenings I did come home earlier were usually because I was tired, and didn’t want to go out, and so were spent slumped on the sofa with an M&S ready meal rather than out and about in my neighbourhood.

The last ten years have seen me have two babies, quit my job in town in favour of life as a stay-at-home-mum and writer, start a blog, publish two novels and a novella, get married, buy a slightly bigger terraced house in the adjacent street to our first, make some brilliant local friends, and then most recently my husband has quit his job in town to found a start-up business based in, of course, Walthamstow. Our lives are now inextricably entwined with this community. It used to be the place we returned to from our lives elsewhere to lay our heads, now, to a large extent, Walthamstow is our lives.

Walthamstow has changed along with us. We live in the area known as the village. Unlike many so-called urban villages, this is rooted in more than estate-agent speak. The parish church of St Mary’s was listed in the Doomsday Book, and it is surrounded by a collection of old almshouses. If you squint and ignore the traffic, you can imagine a little rural community here in the middle ages. Grand houses, like the Morris family home (now the William Morris gallery) were built around Walthamstow and Leytonstone by upper-class families as rural retreats, still within easy travelling distance of London. Then came the railway, and the streets upon streets of Victorian terraces with the pubs and shops to serve the rapidly expanding community of City workers, attracted by the relative affordability of the area and the easy commute. La plus ça change…

We moved here ten years ago because it was the nicest place, with good transport links, that we could afford to buy a whole, albeit small, house to ourselves. We paid £300,000 for our little house. Extortionate, really, even then, for what was essentially built as a worker’s cottage. But we were lucky, we had good salaries, we had saved hard, and we had a legacy which went towards our deposit. Looking at Rightmove today, a two-bedroomed house on the same street or a neighbouring one seems to sell for around £625,000-650,000. An unbelievable increase, and this is after the political and economic uncertainty around Brexit has reversed house-price growth in London. The three-bedroomed house we upgraded too, after much soul-searching and back-of-envelope budgeting as to its affordability, cost £420,000. A three-bedroomed house on our road is for sale today for £900,000. There is absolutely no way we could now afford to buy our own house, or even the house we moved out of five years ago to acquire more space for our growing family.

This has a massive impact on the character of the area. Perhaps nothing illustrates it better than the picture at the top of this blog – Walthamstow Stadium has been converted from being that bastion of traditional working class culture, a dog racing stadium, to a block of stylish modern, rather expensive,  apartments. Some of it, from my point of view at least, is a very positive impact. I am writing this blog post sat in the cafe of our local organic sourdough bakery, Today Bread. I know, could I be more of an East London cliche? The bread is delicious, healthy and ethical, but at £4 a loaf (and selling out like hot cakes every day) it certainly reflects a more affluent neighbourhood.

There are several different layers now, in Walthamstow society. The authentic East-End community of people born and bred here and first-generation immigrant communities from Asia or the Caribbean who I can only imagine must view the influx of hipsters with MacBooks and interesting facial hair, and young mums dashing off to baby yoga with a significant degree of resentment that their children and grandchildren have been totally priced out of their own community. My husband and I are part of the first wave of that influx – public sector workers, people in the arts – who moved to Walthamstow a decade or so ago because we liked the pretty streets, diverse community and amazing transport links. Are we a problem, creating spiralling house prices, or a positive force for economic regeneration? Probably both. Now in our thirties and forties, we know we could no longer afford to buy here ourselves, but we benefit from the fabulous array of new cafes, restaurants, bars, gastro pubs, arts venues and pop-up shops enabled by the new wave of incomers – people priced out of ultra-trendy Hackney and Shoreditch and creating a demand for organic juices and almond-milk flat whites here in Walthamstow.

I adore where I live. The combination of old and new, the melding and merging of immigrant communities from around the world, a modern foodie culture but great sense of history in fantastic local museums William Morris Gallery and Vestry House, and the sense of belonging I get from living, shopping, educating my children, working and socialising in one fantastically warm and supportive community. As a Scouser by birth and upbringing, when I first moved to London I really didn’t get the almost tribal passion with which Londoners identified with ‘their’ area. The horror of a North Londoner being expected to go South of the river, or a West-End girl accepting a party invite East of Aldwych seemed deeply puzzling. Now I get it. I have given birth to two East Londoners (one born in Leytonstone, one in Hackney), and my life, community and roots now run very deep here. A decade in Walthamstow has made me an East Londoner through and through.

 

#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.

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.