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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

New Year, New Food

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No, don’t be silly, of course this isn’t a diet or detox post. I hope you know me better than that by now. There is a time and a place for healthy eating, but I’m not sure that it’s January. This is actually about a little New Year challenge I have set for myself.

My calendar this year is a free one I got with the (free) Waitrose magazine. And I am challenging myself to cook the recipe of the month every month this year and then blog about it. I’m not stupid, I have been through first and checked that they all look edible (and manageable), but of course they do, this is Waitrose!

I love cooking, and I love browsing through my numerous recipe books, but very frequently I seem to be rushing to plan a week’s menus, and I get stuck in a rut and can only think of the things we ate the week before. This will hopefully be a prompt to try new ingredients, new combinations, new techniques, and maybe shake things up just a little bit.

January’s recipe is Shakshuka Egg Flatbreads. I absolutely love Shakshuka, or a variation on it, and it is a regular evening meal at our house. I have on occasion (when cooking for a visiting vegetarian) even made my own flatbreads to go with it, as opposed to sticking a couple of pitta breads in the toaster, which is what I tend to do on an ordinary Tuesday evening. But I had never thought of combining the two.

The recipe is for four, and I am pretty confident that there’s no way my children are going to be eating these (even if I lie through my teeth and tell them it’s pizza!), but I reckon that I could make the full quantity and then freeze two before the eggs go on, and then I’ll have a quick evening meal for another busy day.

So, all I have to do now is get on with making it!

Back to normality

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Well, there we are. Christmas is all over for another year. I followed my own advice, and successfully avoided festive fatigue, and we had a really lovely and relaxing time.

It helped very much that, after having Christmas at home, we went to my brother and sister-in-law’s for a few days. It was great to see them and catch up, and as always I’m reminded that 4:2 adults to children is a very helpful ratio. It really does take a village to raise a child, and seeing the children doing and learning things with their aunt and uncle (sewing, yoga, juggling!) which they’re definitely not going to get from their parents, is lovely.

It was also a few days off cooking, and away from the Christmas chaos of my own house. What is it about Christmas that means suddenly there is no surface in the house which isn’t covered with new toys/games, wrapping paper, packaging, sellotape, dirty crockery or glasses, crumbs? Or is that just me? There were only 5 of us for Christmas Day, but from the mess we made you would think that there were at least double that number! It didn’t help that the dishwasher conked out on December 23rd, and we couldn’t get an engineer to fix it until 2nd January!

However, the children went back to school and preschool yesterday, and I began the process of getting organised. We will take the decorations down tonight, and then I can arrange new bits and pieces nicely, and perhaps replace the desiccated holly with a nice big bunch of spring flowers.

Of course, it isn’t spring yet, there’s still a long old haul of dark, cold and wet days. I don’t mind too much, though. I’m not starting a new restrictive diet or crazy exercise regime (although possibly adding some food groups other than cheese, chocolate and sausage, and a little more exercise than lifting the remote control might be a good idea), and I’mm happy to hygge on down for the next couple of months. I’ve got a few projects on the go, and with Sophia moving to 15 hours a week at preschool I’ll have a bit more time to pursue them.

So yeah, bring it on January! Happy New Year, everyone.

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.

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