Two months of nothing new

Back at the beginning of the year I set myself the challenge of getting through a year of only buying pre-loved or vintage things for myself, the children and the house. Two months in and I thought it was time to review how it’s all been going.

Over the years I seem, somehow (ahem) to have ended up on the mailing list of quite a few of my favourite shops. First thing I’ve learnt is that the Cath Kidston, Boden, Joules, Toast and Jojo Maman Bebe catalogues have to go straight from the doormat to the recycling bin. I just don’t want to look at beautiful things I can’t have for another year!

The second thing I’ve learnt is that I can still get some lovely clothes by going pre-loved. I have recently acquired a beautiful navy and white polka dot dress, a denim tunic dress, some black skinny jeans (mummy essential!), a vintage look denim jacket and a floral maxi dress (anticipating summer  will arrive at some point) for myself, and a stunningly pretty tulip-skirted Jigsaw dress, a Cath Kidston denim skirt and some Gap shorts for Anna via my local Facebook Sell or Swap group. One of my favourite items of clothing Sophia has at the moment is a bright stripy cardi I picked up in the BHF charity shop near us, and she also has a gorgeous pink cotton dress with a bird-cage print from the same source for when the weather warms up.

My total spend has probably been about £40 – which you could easily pay for one item of new adult clothing.

The third thing I’ve learnt is that Ebay can be great, but needs to be treated with extreme caution. Not being able to try stuff on is a problem. I bought a dress for Anna, intended for immediate use, but it is actually something she will need to grow into. Probably in a  couple of years’ time, by which point the tiered tulle style of skirt she craves aged nearly eight might not be what she wants to wear at all! I’m absolutely thrilled with the vintage Cath Kidston shirt dress I picked up for a fiver, and it’s so versatile – it looks great now with thick tights, biker boots and a v-neck jumper over the top, but in a couple of months time it can be worn over leggings with some Converse, and then by itself with sandals once I’m brave enough to get my legs out. The other dress I purchased recently was less successful, however. I put it on this morning, and Sophia, who is developing quite an eye for these things, immediately declared “No. Mummy not wear dat dress. Dat dress not nishe dress. Mummy wear nishe pwitty dress.” Surveying myself in the mirror, it was clear the child had a point. How is it possible for something which is technically the right size to totally flatten your bust, whilst doubling the size of your hips and tummy, and halving the length of your legs? I pretty quickly swapped it for an old favourite jumper dress which does meet with my sternest critic’s approval. And is warm and comfortable too.

January and February is one birthday after another for us. My dad, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, several friends and several children of friends all have beginning of year birthdays. I stuck to the principle of challenging myself to consider whether there was a present they would really like which didn’t involve buying ‘things’, and only heading to the shops if there really wasn’t. So, my dad got home-made chutney and lemon curd (he is impossible to buy for anyway!), my sister-in-law got some vintage 1960s ear-rings and a second-hand book in perfect condition, one friend got a vintage brooch, another friend got a bag I had bought for myself last year and never used but which I knew she loved, another friend’s daughter got a super-cute vintage pinafore dress, and my mother-in-law got a year’s membership of the Royal Festival Hall. These all seemed pretty popular, and actually in many cases, the challenge of not just heading to a shopping mall and waving my credit card around meant that they got a better and more thoughtful present as a result.

So, what have I bought new? Keeping within my self-imposed rules I have bought some knickers and socks for Anna, some shoes for Sophia as her feet had grown, and two pairs black opaques for myself. It’s honestly not exaggerating to say that the cost of these (and they were from Next, Clarks and M&S, so not particularly high-end brands) cost more than all the other clothes I have bought put together! Boden were kind enough to send me a £10 voucher for my birthday (I suspect an unwelcome side effect of this experiment will be that I won’t be a similarly valued customer this time next year!), and I used it to buy Sophia some new vests, having tried and failed to source some second hand. The voucher expired within a fortnight and was non-transferrable, so it seemed silly to waste it. I did buy some new children’s books as other presents, too. Unfortunately secondhand children’s books don’t tend to be a condition I am happy to gift. I also slipped up and bought myself a magazine – it was popped in the trolley at the supermarket checkout without thinking, and it was only when I got home I realised what I’d done. And finally, I have replaced our milk pan, as its nonstick lining started to peel off, and I didn’t really think that was a healthy addition to the children’s morning porridge!

Writing it all down like this, it is shocking just how much money I spend, even when I’m not buying anything new! I am definitely getting a lot more bang for my buck this way, but I think I need to treat Ebay with much more caution during the rest of the year, and possibly consult Sophia before clicking the bid button. And keep my fingers crossed that my family and friends are as entranced by their pre-loved or home-made presents as I hope they are!

I had a fantastic response on social media to the idea of this challenge, with lots of people saying that they felt inspired to do something similar. Do let me know how it’s going for all of you too!



My February Books

Feb booksThe Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

This book caught my eye last month when I was reading the January book reviews of one of my favourite bloggers, Mostly Yummy Mummy. She strongly recommended this fascinating account of a British journalist’s decision to move, for her husband’s job, to one of the most remote parts of Denmark. She made it her mission to discover why this cold and dark country regularly tops world happiness polls. Part sociology, part memoir, part lifestyle, this is always brilliantly, wittily written and certainly made me long to be Danish. It’s highly unlikely my husband will be offered a job in Denmark any time soon, but if he was this book would tempt me into encouraging him to accept. With my political hat on I found it interesting and inspiring that Danes are willing and proud to pay high taxes in order to provide top quality public services for everyone, and that this has resulted in an equal, contented and economically successful society. There’s a lesson there, Mr Osborne…

The Light Years, Marking Time & Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Wow! My best friend and fellow bookworm bought me all five of the Cazalet chronicles for Christmas, and I love her more than ever for it. I’ve read the first three, and am half way through the fourth, and I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed reading anything so much. The novels are a proper old-fashioned family saga, following the lives of the extended upper-middle class Cazalet family in the years leading up to, during and immediately after the second world war.

Howard has a superb gift for evoking that world and drawing you so deeply in to the lives of her characters that they feel almost more real than the people around you. She switches effortlessly from character to character, storyline to storyline, skilfully treading the fine line between dissatisfaction and satiety. I wept, agonised and laughed along with the main protagonists, but I also particularly enjoyed the intricate pen portraits of incidental characters who would be passed over by many other novelists.

These are the kind of books you can’t stop reading (I hope I haven’t neglected my children too severely), but never want to end. They are also books I know I will read again and again, and the characters will live vividly in my head for the foreseeable future. If you haven’t read these, get to a library or bookshop immediately, you have a treat in store.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, Carry On, Jeeves, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Thank You, Jeeves Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

February hasn’t been the best month ever for me, as I seem to have been feeling unwell for most of it. I was so ill with tonsillitis that I actually ended up spending three or four days in bed, which is almost unheard of. At the time I was in the middle of the second Cazalet novel, and, although I was loving it, I felt too headachy and under the weather to properly appreciate it, and I wanted a good old comfort read. My husband is a huge P.G. Wodehouse fan, as was my late father-in-law, so we have a huge stash of his work, and husband suggested there was nothing better as a feel-good-pick-me-up. I took him at his word, and motored through five Jeeves novels during my enforced rest.

One of them had an introduction which included this quote from Evelyn Waugh:

Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity which may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t have put it better myself. One of my favourite things about reading is that there are worlds and people I can visit whenever I want to. Anya Seton can take me to medieval England, L.M. Montgomery to late Victorian/Edwardian Canada, Maeve Binchey to 1950s Ireland. Whatever is happening in my own life, those alternate realities will never change. And frankly, when you are lying in bed in the 21st century, feeling miserably sorry for yourself, and worrying about your husband being left on his own to cope with two poorly, grumpy children, and the housework all piling up, then escaping to a 1920s Piccadilly bachelor flat, or luxurious country house, with a butler on hand to smooth all life’s difficulties is pretty good. When this world is depicted so hilariously and in such deliciously rich language, then being ill in bed becomes almost a pleasure.

Nigellissima by Nigella Lawson

My husband got me this for my birthday, knowing that I love a good cookery book, and I especially love a Nigella cookery book. I adore her writing style, and her recipes tend to be my go-to favourites. They always work, they’re always delicious, and they suit my slightly freestyle kind of cooking. I haven’t actually made anything from this book yet, but there are loads of dishes I’m dying to try. Chilli Crab Risotto, Eggs in Purgatory, Prawn Pasta Rosa, Cappuccino Pavlova or instant Chocolate Orange Mousse, anyone?



Coming of Age

Picture 152

Yesterday was my thirty-fifth birthday. I have always joked that I have been naturally 35 since I was about 17, so it’s quite nice that my biological age has caught up with my psychological one. My mum described me as now being “old young as opposed to young young”, and I can live with that.

I was absolutely useless as being young young. I hate late nights and night clubs and loud music. I’m not particularly keen on film or TV, so I never quite know who the latest celebrity is – or not until they’re interviewed in the Guardian Weekend magazine, anyway.   My alcoholic drinks of choice are G&T, prosecco or half-decent wine. Even in my student days I never drank so much that I threw up or passed out, and since having children my dread of having a hangover is so pathological that I stop at half a bottle (of wine rather than gin) unless I have childcare lined up for the next day as well.

I like being at home and making a home. I like baking and cooking. I like having friends round for dinner. I like lighting a candle and setting the table properly and cooking a delicious meal to share with my husband while we talk about life, love and everything (‘everything’ could be Anna’s spelling test, whether the filter on the dishwasher needs emptying or geopolitics). I like snuggling under a blanket on the sofa with a good book, or cuddling up with a DVD and a takeaway. I like romantic dinners or family brunches at local restaurants. I like early nights and warm pyjamas and cashmere cardies. I like meeting friends for lunch or coffee or drinks in places where we can actually hear ourselves think and have proper conversations. I like notebooks and pens and Cath Kidston floral prints, and think Great British Bake-Off is practically the best television ever. I was definitely doing hygge before it became an Instagram watchword.

I realise that quite a lot of that makes me sound 75 rather than 35, but there are a few things which hopefully make me ‘old young’ rather than young old.

I also like travel and adventure. Maybe not that adventurous by some standards, but I love home swap holidays which give us a little window into another culture, and travelling across Europe by train, even (especially!) with two young children in tow. I like fish finger sandwiches and nachos eaten messily with my fingers while I read. I like being out and about in London Town, exploring as many different areas and trying as many different foods as I can. I like shopping for and wearing new clothes. I like my Mac Book Air and my blog and other people’s blogs and Instagram, and I think that Sherlock is absolutely and indisputably the best television ever.

I like this stage of my life. I like being established, in my home and in my relationship, but still having the potential to travel or explore different career options. I love having young children and generally revel in the sweet responsibility of being so needed and loved, whilst also having a tiny part of me looking forward to the greater freedom I will have again when the children grow older.

One of my personal challenges for this year is to relish the moment. That was very easy yesterday, because the moments included champagne, chocolate cake, prawn and chilli linguine, presents and cards. But today is a better test. Today I have a clingy teething baby, a head cold that has stolen my sense of smell, a mountain of dirty laundry, a 6 year old with conjunctivitis and torrential rain being lashed against the windows by the 50mph winds, but I still feel pretty content. One of the things which gets in the way of me appreciating the moment is a superstitious dread of tempting fate. I can’t shake that completely, but while I cross my fingers, touch wood, look out for black cats while avoiding ladders and single magpies I will risk saying that thirty-five feels pretty good.


Eighth day of Advent: My parents

I came across a re-write of Philip Larkin’s infamous poem, This Be the Verse on Facebook a few weeks ago. Now, I probably have a higher than average tolerance for schmaltz and sentimentality, but for me this poem (below) does manage to be sweet and moving without tipping over into saccharine. It also really spoke to me.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

I had an idyllically happy childhood, thanks mainly to my lovely parents. It was fairly traditional – mum, dad and 2.4 kids. Not sure who the .4 was, but my little brother is pretty nice too. We had family treats and traditions – I remember gazing out of the window with my mum on Hallow’een trying to spot witches on broomsticks in the night sky. Bundling up in every layer of clothes we possessed to go into the garden and wave sparklers around while my dad fought with matches and fireworks on Bonfire Night. Piling into my parents’ bed with our stockings (pillowcases in our house, actually!) on Christmas morning to see what Father Christmas had brought. Unbirthday presents were another tradition – the year my little brother was one, my parents were concerned that four year old me might be jealous at him getting lots of presents and attention on his birthday, so they bought me an ‘unbirthday’ present. When it was my birthday a few months later I wanted to know what little bro was getting for his ‘unbirthday’ present, and thus a tradition was started which lasted until I left home.

When I was very little my mum would save packets and boxes from the kitchen, and then play shop with me for hours on end. Whenever we walked anywhere with him, Dad played a game called Fast Walk, Slow Walk – perhaps you had to be there to fully appreciate it, but it would always end up with me and my brother sprinting along trying to catch up with my dad before collapsing into helpless giggles. The books of my early childhood – Shirley Hughes, Janet and Alan Ahlberg, Helen Nichol and Jan Pienkowski – remain vivid in my memory as they were patiently read to me so often, and I take so much pleasure in re-visiting them now with my children.

When I was ill, however hot and miserable I felt, my mum’s hands were always cool and gentle on my forehead and hot Ribena made by her or my dad undoubtedly had magic cure-all properties. Even as an adult, when I returned home after a minor op a couple of years ago, still woozy from the anaesthetic and sore from the taxi ride, my parents were here looking after Anna, and the relief of my mum tucking me up in bed and my dad making his convalescent special of scrambled eggs on toast for my tea was indescribable.

When I was a teenager, they showed their love in different ways. My dad would pick me up from wherever I’d been out to on a Friday night, but still be up to make me breakfast and take me to the station to get the train into town for my Saturday job’s 8.30am start. My mum made sure we were never out of Dairy Milk when I had exams to revise for. And that is another huge thing I am grateful to my parents for. I didn’t grow up in an area, or go to a school, where going to Oxford was the norm. My teachers felt I had the potential to try, though, and my mum and dad were endlessly encouraging. From spending hours testing me on chemistry formulae or French irregular verbs, to driving me down to Oxford for my interview, to straightforward bribery when they promised me £20 for every A* I got at GCSE, £15 for every A, £10 for every B, and so on they did everything they could to give me ambitions and then help me achieve them.

Since I have grown up and had my own children, I appreciate them even more. I also, perhaps, now appreciate them more as people in their own rights, and not just ‘mumndad’. My mum struggles sometimes with health issues, which makes the time and effort she puts into co-ordinating and volunteering frequently at her local Food Bank all the more admirable. She is also one of the wisest people I know, and my first port of call for advice on any subject from my children’s health (she had an evening phone call just last week as I was worrying about Sophia after her accident), to what colour boots I should buy, to the best approach to pursuing my writing career. My dad is the most selfless person I know and is constantly putting himself last through doing things for other people. His family are often the beneficiaries, but since retirement he has become a volunteer for the Samaritans, also works hard for the local food bank, served as a school governor at a local primary school and does pastoral work at church.

From my mum I have inherited my love of books and reading, and an interest in history. From my dad I get my sense of humour and chronic impatience with any kind of instruction manual.

They are also generous, thoughtful and incredibly loving grandparents, and it makes me very happy to watch them playing with, helping, reading to, teaching and caring for their granddaughters, and seeing the pleasure my girls get out of being with them.

My mum and dad set the benchmark for me. I want to give my children as happy a childhood as my they gave me, and I would love it if, when they reach adulthood themselves, my daughters regard me with as much love, affection, respect, pride and admiration as I feel for my parents.

They Tuck You Up

Adrian Mitchell
They tuck you up, your mum and dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

They were tucked up when they were small,
(Pink perfume, blue tobacco-smoke),
By those whose kiss healed any fall,
Whose laughter doubled any joke.

Man hands on happiness to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
And have some cheerful kids yourself.

Fourth Day of Advent: The little things

My first few posts in this series have been about really big things. My husband and daughters are obviously the foundation of all my happiness, and, I would argue, the NHS is a foundation stone of the nation’s. Generally speaking I think that experiences and people make me happier than things and possessions, and I suspect that these Advent posts will reflect that. On a day to day basis, though, there are lots of little things, which are only things, but which make me smile, or give me a happy glow each time I see them.

A few years ago my friend bought me a set of Cath Kidston tea-cups for my birthday. I love them. They sit on the dresser in my dining room looking beautiful, and they’re the perfect size for an indulgent cup of hot chocolate. So it would be rude not to indulge really.cup

I have a necklace, just a simple silver heart on a chain, which my husband bought me for my 25th birthday. I wear it a lot because it seems to go with everything and because it makes me feel loved and special.

The free beauty magazine Boots produce every couple of months, makes me happy. As does the free Waitrose food magazine and those nice little recipe cards you often get in supermarkets. They make me especially happy once I’ve filed them away in my special recipe folder. I know, I’m a geek.

For me the very first stage of preparing for Christmas is getting my Nigella Christmas cookery book down off the shelf, and starting to plan menus for all our various festive get togethers. This year was even better as my Christmas organiser, a present last Christmas, also got it’s first outing. I know, I’m a geek.

candleI had a mini shopping trip around Walthamstow this morning, buying Christmas cards and a few other little stocking filler bits and pieces, and, a real treat for me – my Christmas scented candle. In life before children I lit candles a lot. I find them beautiful and romantic and fascinating just to gaze at. We ate dinner by candlelight most evenings and I loved nothing more than soaking in a candlelit bath for hours on end. Somehow there hasn’t seemed to be as much time for that over the last few years, to say nothing of the obvious risks of having candles anywhere near little fingers. I still have candles in my bathroom, but generally the closest I get to using them is giving them an ineffectual swipe with a damp cloth every few weeks (months) to remove the dust which has built up. I’m also fussy. Cheap scented candles never smell anything but artificial to me, and always remind me of toilet cleaner. I do know I’m weird about smells – I’m almost phobic about those warm wet wipes you get in Chinese restaurants or on aeroplanes because I find the fake citrus scent so upsetting. Which my husband thinks is hilarious. Rather than have a cheap candle I’d much rather put a simple tea-light in my oil burner with a few drops of lavender or bergamot essential oil. But luxury, high-end, organic, frankly pricey, scented candles are another matter. I only let myself buy one a year, at the beginning of December, and then I light it every evening, and often during the day if we have guests. I always choose something that feels seasonal – this year I’ve gone for orange and clove. It’s in pride of place on the mantlepiece, and I’m really looking forward to lighting it for the first time this evening.

All little things, but ones which I appreciate every time I use them or wear them or see them, and add their little bit to my daily happiness.