Gratitude

thank you neon

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

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

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

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

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My March Books

Better late than never, as they say. My less than grand plans for the Easter holidays took a rain check when Sophia was violently sick all over herself and her pram within ten minutes of me collecting Anna from school on the last day of term! We had a few days of poorly toddler, sleepless nights and frantic bleaching, but thankfully she was well enough to go up to Liverpool as we’d planned. What I was right about, however, is that I haven’t had much (any) time for blogging. Mother-in-law has stepped up to the plate this morning, however, and agreed to look after both my little darlings for a couple of hours, so I am sitting in a cafe, relishing the perfect peace of being responsible for no-one except myself and a laptop, and thinking that it might be a good idea to get my March books post written before I’ve entirely forgotten what I read!

The Unmumsy Mum Diary by Sarah Turner

I follow Sarah on social media, and love her wryly witty take on life with young children. I somehow missed her first book when it came out, but when I saw someone selling this on my local Facebook Sell or Swap page, I leapt at it. I really wasn’t disappointed. Sarah writes so well, and she can switch gears effortlessly from laugh-out-loud funny poo stories, to capturing the anxieties and frustrations of balancing work life and family life, to moving and bittersweet reflections on mothering without a mother, as sadly her own mum died when she was a teenager. Much as I love reading blog posts online, there is nothing quite as satisfying as curling up with a nice, fat hardback book to get stuck into, and this one was a real treat.

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

Another massively serendipitous moment in a year when I’m not buying anything new, was spotting Lisa Jewell’s latest novel on the free book-share stand in my daughter’s school reception! I have to say, the offerings there are normally more along the lines of ancient copies of Gina Ford – spines battered and broken where they have presumably been hurled across the room in frustration as parents realise that diligently as they have studied their child’s ideal routine, the baby doesn’t seem to have read the book at all. But this was freegan gold!

As I’ve said before, I do feel slightly guilty about second-hand books, because writers do have to eke a living out of writing them. However, for whatever reasons, lots of people don’t like to keep books once they have read them, and will pass them on to friends or charity shops or the book stall at the church bazaar. So someone is going to buy them second hand, and frankly it may as well be me.

I like the slightly darker and more suspense driven tone of Lisa Jewell’s most recent novels, and this one was a case in point. A man turns up on a beach in Yorkshire having lost his memory, and meanwhile a young woman in the South-East is investigating the disappearance of her brand-new husband. Discovering how these situations relate to each other takes us twenty-five years into the past, and Jewell is predictably skilful at juggling different viewpoints and time periods in a way which keeps the reader’s interest at fever pitch and never ends up being confusing.

My only criticism of this novel is that I would have liked it to be longer. There are several fascinating characters introduced, and in pursuing the central ‘mystery’ plot I felt like some of their stories were under-developed or side-lined, which is a shame as I still think that Lisa Jewell’s most luminous gift as a writer is her ability to create characters as compelling as people we meet in real life. I would have loved another couple of hundred pages to explore some of their stories a little bit more.

Charity Girl, Sprig Muslin, The Corinthian and Venetia by Georgette Heyer

After breaking out of the mould and reading two completely new books, I reverted to some more comfort reading. Actually, Charity Girl, Sprig Muslin and The Corinthian are all more or less new to me – Kindle purchases this month. I may have read them from the library when I was in my early teens, but my recollection was hazy enough to make me feel I was enjoying the treat of a new book. Heyer’s effervescent, sparkling wit is the perfect tonic, and whatever horrors may be happening in the 21st century I find it impossible not to be cheered up by a trip to Georgette Heyer’s Regency world. To misquote AA Milne – “no-one can be uncheered with a Georgette Heyer novel”. Or, as a meme I saw on Facebook this week had it – “Imagination is the only thing that stands between us and reality”.

Spring is in the air

It’s back to school for us today, but with a definite hint of spring in the air to soften the blow. Actually, I don’t mind too much, and am hoping that this term my offspring might be a bit healthier and we can actually settle into our new routine, which involves me being able to write while Sophia is at pre-school. Watch this space!

daffodils

We had a lovely half term. For the first part of it I took the children up to Liverpool to see my parents. The first morning we were there, they whisked the children off to the Storybarn in Calderstones Park, leaving me curled up in my pyjamas with a good book and a warm pain au chocolat. I then managed to stir myself to have a long, luxurious, uninterrupted shower – even more of a treat because our shower at home has been broken for three weeks and so I’ve been having baths and rinsing my hair under the taps with a tupperware tub!

The children had an amazing time at the Storybarn, and their enthusiasm definitely makes me think it’s something we’ll want to do again on a future visit to Liverpool. Anna especially absolutely loves books, reading, stories and the world of make-believe. She’s currently two and a half chapters into writing her own first novel – an adventure story which shows a strong Blytonesque influence, as well as a vivid imagination of her own, and she is rarely seen without her head in a book. Definitely like mother like daughter! Sophia loves stories too, but she also likes to be on the move, and Storybarn gave her lots of chances for active play as well. She was particularly taken with the giant bubble machine.

We had a lovely family time when my brother and sister-in-law came over for the day. The children had the time of their lives playing with Uncle Matt and Auntie Esther. They went for a walk in the woods and climbed on log bridges (Uncle Matt soaking his feet in a ditch to rescue Anna when she got stuck!), played a long game of Scrabble, which I had been teaching Anna the day before, read endless stories, had cuddles and generally gave them lots of the patient, loving, one-on-one attention which aunties and uncles are really good at.

We also went to the World Museum in Liverpool, where Anna enjoyed the dinosaur trail and Sophia marvelled at the enormous dinosaur skeleton and the tanks of tropical fish. And of course, no trip to Liverpool would be complete for us without a visit to the Waterstones in Liverpool One – one of my favourite bookshops in the country, and with such an incredible children’s area.

flap-reading

Back in London we had some lazy time at home, and I was self-sacrificially devoted enough to let Anna do painting and crafts. I know. It had better be a good Mother’s Day present. In the meantime I have two beaded, sequinned, beribboned octopus/jellyfish type creations to find homes for. We also headed to St Albans for the day to visit the Roman museum and remains because Anna is ‘doing’ Romans at school this term.

And this weekend the slightly lighter nights and warmer weather inspired me to start spring-cleaning. Anna and I cleared out her desk (bio-hazard suits would probably have been a good idea), and her art cupboard, and threw away bags of lidless felt-tips, broken crayons, screwed up coloured tissue paper etc etc. We spring-cleaned her playhouse as well, and then when she started to get bored and her sister woke up from her nap,husband took them both off to the park for a muddy game of football and I blitzed the rest of the house – surfaces dusted, floors hoovered and mopped, bathroom cleaned, beds changed – and then pottered off the the florists to buy a bunch of tulips and one of daffodils to let the spring inside.

My October Books

I am on Day Twelve of a horrible cold and cough, and getting very fed up of not being able to breathe through my nose, and feeling like my head is full of cotton wool and my limbs are full of lead. So this might not be the most sparkling blogpost ever, but hey, it’s the first day of November, so it’s time to review my October books.

october-books

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders

My mum saw this book reviewed and suggested I might like it too. She was right! This is, hopefully, the first of a new series of mysteries, featuring middle-aged Victorian widow Laetitia Rodd as the sleuth. Her brother is a famous barrister, and has taken to asking his Miss Marplesque sister to help him out with discreet enquiries in some of his cases. As she is living in genteel poverty, she is only too happy to oblige.

In this case, the discreet enquiries quickly lead to multiple murders. This novel was extremely well written, with more than a knowing nod to Dickens in both plot and style. Letty Rodd is an extremely engaging and pleasingly unlikely heroine, the plot was superbly constructed, and the atmosphere of Victorian upper middle-class life compellingly realistic. I’m looking forward to the next in the series being published!

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Back at the beginning of October, I was chatting with one of my friends, and she mentioned how much she loved Liane Moriarty’s books. I was pretty sure I hadn’t read any, but the name rang a vague bell. After  bit of rummaging on my bookshelves I remembered why – I had a Liane Moriarty novel which my sister-in-law passed on to me with a pile of other books she’d read with her book group, but which inexplicably I hadn’t got round to reading.

So I started straight away, and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read all year. Alice suffers a head injury which is fairly minor, other than for the fact that it wipes out her memory of the last ten years. She comes round believing that she is 29, happily married and pregnant with her first baby, so it comes as a shock to realise that she is now a mother of three schoolchildren, separated from her husband and estranged from her beloved sister.

This book is about how the things which shape our lives often aren’t big decisions, they are just an accumulation of tiny little ones, all seemingly insignificant, but which when taken together can drive our lives way off course. Most of us won’t have a brain injury to force us to take stock, but it made me want to pause and think seriously about my life decisions, what I really want to be doing and what I get funnelled into accidentally or because I feel it is somehow expected.

My friend described Moriarty’s books as being the kind that leave you feeling bereft when they end because you don’t want to leave the characters you’ve got to know. I found exactly the same, it was a book I didn’t want to end but equally couldn’t read fast enough.

Afternoon Tea in the Sunflower Cafe by Milly Johnson

A Spring Affair and The Yorkshire Pudding Club by Milly Johnson are two of my all time favourite comfort reads. I have enjoyed all her books, but they are the ones I have read again and again. Afternoon Tea in the Sunflower Cafe was a fun, light read, but I don’t think it will go down as an all time favourite.

The Year of Taking Chances and The Secrets of Happiness by Lucy Diamond

Two absolutely cracking ‘chick lit for grown ups’ books. They’re not perhaps books to make you think particularly deeply, but they are well-written, uplifting and all round feel-good reads.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

Another in the brilliant crime classics series being re-published by the British Library. This is definitely a murder mystery in its pure puzzle form. I didn’t enjoy it as much as some, including some by John Bude, as I felt the characters were somewhat superficial, and there to make the plot work, rather than the characters leading the plot. Having said that, it had interesting and original twist, was very cleverly and tightly plotted, and I managed to guess whodunnit, which is always satisfying!

 

My June Books

June books

I seem to be getting later and later with my monthly book posts, and my only excuse is that life seems to be busier and busier. It’s coming up to the end of term, which means a plethora of sports days, tea parties, end of year shows with the accompanying need to provide costumes and practise lines, dance routines and songs. We also spent a lot of time campaigning before the EU referendum – sadly to no avail. I must admit to finding the result, not to mention horrible fallout of increased racism and hate crime,  so demoralising and upsetting that I have really struggled to find my writing mojo over the last couple of weeks. I’ve also been a little bit unadventurous with my reading choices, with only two ‘new’ books again this month. It’s lucky that I read so much in February, as it means I’m just about on target, having reached half way through the year on 26 new books! Phew.

Toddler Taming by Christopher Green

Someone gave us this book when Anna was toddler age, but I never really looked at it. The toddler years weren’t particularly difficult with her (or maybe that’s just rose-tinted hindsight) but for whatever reason this had been sitting on my shelf for the last few years, but caught my eye recently. Because oh my goodness, would I like to know how to tame my toddler! She’s almost unfailingly good-natured, but can seem totally feral. She loves to run and jump and climb, but her risk evaluation skills are frankly extremely limited. She is constantly on the move, so much so that even getting her to sit still in her high chair for the duration of a meal is a challenge. When she has consumed just enough to sustain her for the next set of adventures, she has a tendency to throw her plate to one side to indicate she has finished, and then clamber to her feet. Safety harness? Pah. What do we think she is, a baby?

I’m not sure really if the book has left me much the wiser. As Dr Green points out, toddlers, like the adults they will become, have distinctive personalities, and it is impossible, not to mention undesirable, to try and erase those personality traits in order to create a toddler who complies with our notions of what makes life easy. One suggestion to cope with difficult mealtimes was to ensure that everything was totally prepared before you sat down to the meal – table set, drinks prepared, food all ready. What a good idea, thought I, and put the advice into practice at the next meal. Which is why, having filled Anna’s water cup and put it on the table, I came back into the dining room from collecting plates and cutlery in the kitchen, to find Sophia sitting on the table, soaked to the skin, having poured the contents of the water cup all over herself.  Epic mummy fail. I’m not at all sure my toddler is tameable.

Taken at the Flood and Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

I am passionate about Golden Age detective fiction, and Agatha Christie is arguably its greatest, certainly its most celebrated, proponent so of course I have read these books before. I realised this month however that I didn’t have copies of either of them, and hadn’t read them for several years. Baby brain means, therefore, that I may as well have not read them at all. Unfortunately this goes for anything I read before 2009, which is unfortunate given that I spent 3 years gaining a degree in English Literature, and so know I have read all the classics, even have a very fancy bit of paper to prove it, but have no actual memory of the seminal works themselves. Hey ho, maybe a project for retirement.

I had some money left on the Waterstone’s card my parents had bought me for my birthday, and so treated myself to these two very attractive editions when Sophia and I had our day out in central London recently. And all that I can say is that re-reading them was an absolute pure, indulgent pleasure. For me, Agatha Christie is the literary equivalent of warm bubble baths, cashmere cardies or hot chocolate (and can often be enjoyed in combination with one or more of these), which was just what I needed this rather unsettling month.

The Secret Diary of a New Mum Aged 43 and Three Quarters by Cari Rosen

This is an absolutely hilarious autobiographical account of one new mum’s journey through pregnancy and the first couple of years with her daughter. As the title indicates, she is an older mum, but I should think that mums of any age can relate to most of her anecdotes. Having had a fairly large age gap in between my girls, I don’t have that many local friends with children the same age as Sophia, so there is less of the constant swapping of tales of woe and development milestones than there was when Anna was a similar age. Books like this are great for creating that ‘all in this together’ feeling, and a reminder to see the funny side of parenting a young child.

After the Party by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell is one of my all-time most favourite ever authors. I absolutely love her ability to get inside the head of a huge range of characters, and her imaginative ability to create original and thought-provoking scenarios. Ralph’s Party was her first novel, and I have read it more times than I care to remember. It was my go-to comfort read as a twenty-something Londoner. After the Party picks up the story of the main protagonists, Ralph and Jem, a decade later, when cool inner-London flat-shares and drunken nights out have been swapped for life in the suburbs with two young children. The demands of this have placed an enormous strain on their relationship, and the novel looks at what happy ever after might be like in reality.

I read this when it first came out a few years ago, and to be honest found it hugely depressing, and not at all the uplifting experience a Lisa Jewell novel normally is. It is as brilliantly written as always, but Anna was a baby at the time, and the message I took from it was that it was impossible to have a baby (let alone two babies) and retain a happy, loving relationship and a sense of your own identity. For some reason I picked it up again this month, and enjoyed it a lot more second time. I think the main reason is that I am now more secure in my identity as a mother, wife and writer -it certainly isn’t easy balancing all three elements of my life, but it’s not as impossible as I feared it might be. I also know that, demanding as the sleep-deprived baby and toddler years undoubtedly are, things do get a bit easier, and with an older child there are many more opportunities for reclaiming a bit of time for yourself as well as enjoying  being with them.