Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

50

February 8, 2014

So it’s here. The number 50 birthday bus pulled up outside my house and I jumped on board. I’m sitting upstairs at the front, peering down at the drivers head and so far it’s a perfectly nice ride with comfy seats and plenty to look at.

old image of number 50 bus

Ting, ting, fares please!

As is often the case, waiting for the bus to arrive was painful. It took forever and I got cold and wet, because while actually being 50 doesn’t really bother me, this impeding birthday did provide me with an opportunity to examine all aspects of my own life with a powerful electron magnifying glass.

A friend actually gave me a magnifying glass as a birthday present, but I don’t think I need it. As usual I scrutinised myself and I didn’t much like what I saw. Sigh.

And then when I’d got my knickers in a proper twist about my teeny life and universe I tried to work out how to celebrate my birthday. Party? Dance? Dinner? Day out? Night in? Night away? Grown ups only? All inclusive? Shouldn’t care. Doesn’t matter. Yes it does. Aaaggghhh…

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz WW Denlow illustration

“I’m melting, I’m melting”. W.W. Denlow from ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’.

Eventually I chose my mode of celebration: tea and cake with friends. Phew. And then with perfect timing, my very own knight in shining armour rode in and whisked me off to Naples for a surprise weekend. Oh the excitement!

Naples as I can now report, is a fabulous city that lives and breathes its own history. It stands in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius which could blow at any time. In fact an eruption is overdue, so this great natural time bomb is a powerful presence. And while the streets are coated in a layer of grime, noise and graffiti – all of which I quite like, there is history everywhere; beneath the pavements, behind the walls and in the daily life of the city.

Naples collage

In a dim and dark back alley, we saw a family chapel filled with the most beautiful and extravagant renaissance art, as well as two human bodies stripped of everything but their circulatory systems – a mass of veins and arteries. And inside an anonymous apartment a bed pushed into the wall revealed steps to a roman theatre, recently unearthed in the family’s cellar. Excavations now continue underneath 89 occupied apartments.

Naples collage

We were taken on a candlelit tour through the tunnels and caverns of the old Roman aquaduct that was later used in the last war as a bomb shelter and by nuns to store wine. I also understand it was a place of horrendous torture. That wasn’t on the tour. We came across a shrine to football’s Maradona in a coffee shop and visited an exhibition of tiny nativity scenes that we could only see with a magnifying glass and torch. The smallest was set into a seed and the head of each tiny figure was made with a single grain from a pear’s flesh.

collage naples

And so in Naples I was reminded that there are wonderful things to see everywhere; just look carefully and shine light into dark corners to see unexpected treasures. I think perhaps the magnifying glass I was given will turn out to be a splendid present after all. Note to self: remember to appreciate what I see.

Back home and revitalised, our initial idea to have a few friends over for tea grew like topsy (who’s topsy?) into a vintage afternoon tea for…errr…sixty five people. And we invited guests to bake a ‘Showstopper’ cake as on The Great British Bake Off TV show.

A good party (when you’re under 10 or over 40) starts with an invite to set the scene and inspire. I put mine together on Powerpoint, using lots of fonts that are all listed at the bottom of the post.

bake off birthday invite

On the invite I made it clear that people didn’t have to bake and I’m so glad I did. Not everyone is a born baker or has time. I don’t want people to feel guilty, I just want them to be there. We would’ve had way too much cake anyway and that would just be obscene.

So we ended up with a ratio of one cake to about 6 guests. Maybe this could be supervised (i.e. check who is and isn’t going to bake), but I did a quick guestimate and thankfully it worked out perfectly.

felt bunting

The final week was a blur of organisation and preparation. I kept decs simple; paper balls and fans in the kitchen and homemade triangular felt bunting in the (newly painted) dining room. The vintage china came out, Carole brought her supplies too and so the tea table was ready to receive cake! Lots of cake.

vintage teacups & pot

The fun really started when Fergus and Erin and our girls donned their pinnies and chefs hats and got baking. We set up workstations on trestle tables and they had an adult each to help. We managed oven space amd time carefully, covered the kitchen in flour, had a LOT of fun and ended up with some great cakes.

bake off collage
I can wholeheartedly recommend the bake off idea, whether or not you have children to hand. Guests bringing cake to the table is lovely and it can work for many ages and occasions. Of course it also reduces the cooking workload, but don’t be under any illusion that the party becomes easy. There’s still plenty to do and buy and organise, but it’s all so worth it.

Come the day, the first knock at the door; guests arrive with cake and smiles and tea is served!

tea table

ta da!

There were savoury treats as well as sweet. Carole and Ross rolled up their sleeves and made a shop’s worth of cucumber, ham and cheese sandwiches and stuffed 100 mini bagels from the Rinkoff Bakery with salmon and cream cheese (maybe a little too much Ross) and there were homemade sausage rolls. We served fizz, tea and fruit punch in vintage teacups and lemonade in bottles with straws for the kids.

Oh and the flowers. Marie filled vintage cups with beautiful posies of flowers and dotted them about the place. Everywhere. Beautiful. She’s a professional florist and it shows of course, but you could achieve a similar if simpler effect with little tied bunches of spring flowers.

Vintage flowers collage

I love that the whole party was a group effort and it suited me perfectly that the cakes were the centre of attention, not me. It is slightly (very?) ironic that while I love creating parties I’d rather not be at them! On the day I just want to hide and let everyone else enjoy themselves.

bake off cakes collage

Erin’s white chocolate and raspberry tarts, Fergus’s disco brownies, Alice’s mehndi lime cake and Elsa’s birthday cake biscuits

The true stars were the cakes and their bakers. We even had cakes from two friends who’ve never baked before – yay!

We planned to do some judging but I couldn’t bring myself to choose one over another. They were all winners to me. Judge for yourself.

cakes collage

So cake and friends turned out to be the perfect birthday for me and now here I am sitting on that number 50 bus. I’ve paid my fare and I don’t mind being onboard one little bit. I have opportunities to explore, grow and change right into middle and old age (hopefully!), so the journey promises to be an interesting one. For these days, while our children grow up faster we have the chance to stay young for longer. Three cheers to that!

Oh and three little cheers to Tumblr for easing the path into 50-ness. I’ve just signed up for a Tumblr account and had to write my age to register. Declaring it openly was definitely a test of my cheerfulness at turning 50. This is Tumblr’s response…

Tumblr registration page

Thanks Tumblr. Bring it on!

50 cushion

Credits:

  • Number 50 bus photo by JGS Smith
  • Various birthday pics: Ross Sleight & Miklos Kiss
  • Invite fonts: Cursif, Postino Std, Carnivalee Freakshow, American Typewriter, Ecuyer DAX, Copperplate, Bernard MT Condensed, JFRingmaster, Baskerville
  • Luverly ’50’ cushion by ‘Of Little Consequence’
  • Danny, Carole & Ross – amazing, thank you xxx

Twelfth Night and a new year

January 6, 2014

So Twelfth Night is upon us and it’s time to put everything Christmassy away for another year.

pile of abandonned Christmas trees

No they’re not ours. We didn’t even have a proper Christmas tree this year. How’s that for restraint…

But first there’s still time to wish everyone a Happy New Year, which I will do here with cake, well pie. Alice’s mince pies to be precise which we stamped with my cookie alphabet stamp set. They may not be the most elegant pies but they were deee-l-i-c-i-o-u-s. So Happy New Year one and all!

New year mince pies

Putting Christmas away is a big palaver in our house, mainly because Christmas in our house is a big palaver and you can’t have one without the other.  

So away it all must go and each year we squeeze a little bit more stuff into a loft space that I swear gets a little bit smaller each year. Hmmm. Every year I question the merits of OTT decorations and this year is no different. But this year the whole de-Christmassing is even messier than usual, both literally and figuratively.

String of Christmas cards and merry christmas sign

Literally because there’s the aftermath of two friends’ Christmas parties I decorated as well as our home decs to clear away. At times like this I envy the folk with sheds and minimal festive tendencies – I so wish I could stick to a twig and an artfully arranged biscuit, but I can’t and so there’s a lot to do. Ho ho, blinkin’ ho!

Santas on a shelf

Figuratively it’s messy this year because I start 2014 debating new career options and actually my Christmassy trinkets are at the heart of my big questions for the new year.

As I wrap each bauble in tissue paper, I ponder my future. Should my love of parties and festive sparkle fuel a new career direction? Is this the time to try and create a job from something I love doing? Or is it best kept as an occasional madness at home? Way down at the other end of the spectrum is it maybe such a big (obscene even) waste of energy, money and resources that I should scale down/stop doing this stuff and focus on other, more important things?

vintage glass Christmas baubles

My vintage baubles. I love the little pieces of thin thread they are nearly always strung with…

But I’m supposed to be true to myself right? We all are. And I love, love the sparkle and festiveness of Christmas, and other occasions come to that. I enjoy creating special events and settings. I do wish I could say something more worthwhile about this, but I can’t. It is what it is. So here I am, still a-wondering and a-pondering…

close up bauble

But perhaps this confusion is somewhat justified, after all this is my first new year for more than 25 when I haven’t known what the next 12 months might hold. I know, incidentally that I am lucky to have these choices at all. And sometimes that fact even makes me see sense. Not always though.

candles and christmas trees

The confusion I feel is possibly further exacerbated by the teensy weensy, insignificant point that I will soon be celebrating 50 years on this planet. Ho hum. Lets move on, shall we? Suffice to say it’s quite tricky approaching 50 without knowing where I’m going or what I’m doing and it’s extra tricky being a person with an endless ability to question, cross examine and flay myself at every available opportunity!

Nativity scene

The nativity, placed in a homemade bathroom. My most favourite ever carboot sale find.

Anyway I refuse (today at least) to get the better of myself. Instead I will do as I might tell you to do when you’re being hard on yourself: look at what a fab person you are and remember what you do really well; consider your achievements for last year and pat yourself on the back. Then look forward with renewed vigour (or at least a little less doubt). There. Isn’t that just a bit better? 

So in the spirit of practising what I preach, I shall finish off this 12th Night post with some jars of Christmassiness I (we, of course) made this year, for my friends Sarah and Matt’s party, to bring some extra special sparkle to their already splendid party. I’m quite pleased with these little fellas. There. I said it. What are you pleased about? Go on. Say it. And feel it. Well done you.

Christmas jars

In all we made 16 festive scenes. Here are a few of them and also some tips on how to make your own next year. I mean this year…Eek.

3 christmas jars

Three cute figures, three cute scenes.

Once you’ve found suitable friends for your jars (but therein lies quite a task) they’re pretty easy to make, though surprisingly time-consuming if I’m honest.

A key to success is LOTS of fake snow for an instant festive feel. On some jars we even dotted glue on the insides of the glass and swirled snow inside to look like snowfall.

DSC00982

SO happy to find a skip lorry ready to deliver a Christmas tree!

Ribbons and bells can also bring something extra – but don’t over do it and sometimes just let the contents speak for themselves.

Clockwork santa in a jar

Here’s my favourite clockwork Santa

Skiing santa in a jar

And of course we have Santa on skis, delivering presents to all the little children. Hurrah!

Each jar is lit from within. LEDs are either attached to the lid or hidden in the snow. The right lighting really is important. Use ice white lights sparingly – they tend to glare unkindly.

miniature reindeer in a jar

A herd of miniature reindeer beneath a starry sky

 This fellow (he’s an ink stamper) sits on a bed of snow lit from within.

snowman in a jar

Simple and sweet.

Finally, something all homes should have at Christmastime and that my dear friends, is a Christmas pig. If you don’t already have one then be thankful that you have a whole year, well 352 days to acquire one. Just listen to this: 

Rolf Harris – The Wonderful Christmas Pig

…It’s all in one of our favourite Christmas songs! On the other hand you may or may not choose to buy this book: The Christmas Pig – a fable I just found and which I’m not sure I’ll be buying. No offence Kinky and I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I think I’ll stick to the song. Though all things considered, maybe I should…

Christmas pig in a jar

Hooray for the Christmas Pig!

So as we begin 2014 I leave you with the wonderful Christmas Pig and I wish you a happy and peaceful new year.

Oh and I hope your thoughts and Christmas dec boxes are neatly packaged and much more sorted than mine! X

Party time

October 24, 2013
Alice and 1st birthday cake

Alice’s 1st birthday. I know it doesn’t look as though she likes cake, but she does. A lot.

So our little girl, our little girl is 10 – years – old.

How did this happen? How did we get here so soon? I can hardly believe it. Her childhood, which at one time seemed like a new permanent state of being, is slipping by as she grows up. In the distance I can already see an end to this hands-on parenting, though I’ve no doubt it will be replaced by another, more subtle but equally important (and difficult) variety.

It seems like a lifetime ago that we were changing nappies and experimenting with strange vegetable purees. So long ago that when I meet new babies I scarcely know what to do with them, though maybe I’m less scared than I used to be. Clearly I am not from the ‘mother earth’ mould, rather I occupy a parenting world in outer space that involves aliens and strange planets, small steps and giant leaps.

Talking of which Alice recently expressed a desire to start walking to school on her own.

“Okay” said I

…sadly and nervously.

But next morning, after sleeping on the idea she had revised her plan. She suggested that we should both go, but on opposite sides of the street.

A fine idea.

“Which side do you want to walk on?” I asked her.

“Ummm, I don’t know, which side do you want to walk on?”

“I don’t know sweetheart, you choose”…

Silence, as we walked to the end of our street.

And at the top of the road when the decision needed to be made, her hand slipped into mine.

“I know Mummy. Let’s walk together”.

Yes let’s.

But already her big sister Elsa, aged 12 and 3/4s (she’s not too old for the months to count) is armed with mobile phone and bus pass to take her to and from secondary school every day. And so the land of looking after two independent Misses draws ever nearer. But while they might be ready to take on the World, I’m not. Really I’m not.

So at this important birthday for Alice I am reminded to enjoy these final young years before they disappear forever.

pink birthday rubber duck

I think it’s important to mark time by celebrating. We humans have done it since… well for the longest time and I think it matters; to mark our development and our journeys through life, in style.

Very soon after Alice was born I calculated that there’d be very limited opportunities to celebrate these special birthdays and Christmases with excessive frivolity and sparkle. Here’s what I worked out…

celebration formulaI hope you can all see that the amount of time we spend celebrating these very special occasions with our children is tiny and therefore not to be wasted. 0.6% for heavens sake! Plus of course a year is a very long time when you’ve only got four or five of them under your belt, so each birthday has increased significance for a young child. If I was worth my mathmatical salt I’d be able to create a formula with ‘n’s and ‘x’s to include this ‘increased significance’ factor, but I’m not so I can’t.

party dishes

For me, this all means parties – proper parties with homespun themes, decs from the loft (plus a few new ones), some great games and delicious food. Over the years we’ve been under the sea with dolphins and fish and then over it, on a pirate adventure. We’ve stopped off at the seaside, complete with sand and beach huts in the kitchen, walked through a magic sweet garden and explored a wild jungle.

It’s been brilliant fun, but it’s hard work and I don’t suggest everyone should do it, or feel like they should. In fact my one hesitation when putting on these big parties has been that I might make other parents feel they’ve got to match up. I hope they don’t – I just want their kids to dive in and enjoy it all while they’re here.

Parties can be a very expensive business too, but I avoid commercial themes and we try to make stuff, recycle and reuse, borrow and lend. Our children have made great things at school that we’ve been able to use – I saved about 50 metres of skull and crossbone bunting from the school bin and rescued 20 sets of fairy wings the kids had made. I also love researching online, compiling and creating ideas and then pulling it all together, down to the littlest details.

Of course this world of party madness isn’t for everyone; but whatever your particular approach, try and find a way to make these occasions special and memorable.

sweet party decorations

The majority of our themed parties have been for Elsa, because actually Alice isn’t one for big parties.  But while Alice’s celebrations are a lot more, well… small, she still likes (and expects) all the trimmings and plenty of cake.

So this year we began as ever, with decs galore. Of course having started on decoration heaven all those years ago, we have a high standard to live up to so it’s become the norm for Danny and I to be up ’til 3am the night before a birthday party. As the years wear on this increasingly takes its toll, so consider upfront what you’re letting yourself in for! It’s so worth it though and I hope we’re creating really great and enduring memories for our girls and their friends, come to that.

birthday banners

Alongside the decs and atmosphere, the party games really matter, but I don’t find them nearly so easy. There’s a pressure to keep everyone entertained and happy that I find quite hard at times. However, over the years we’ve tested lots of party games, so here are some of our favourites – some classics and one or two that are not for the faint-hearted:

1. The chocolate game: essentially the children have to try and eat pieces from a large chocolate bar using a knife and fork while wearing a selection of hastily added clothes. Assemble a pile of clothes such as a wig, hat, gloves, scarf, sunglasses and ear muffs. There must be some oversized gloves and ideally everthing should be bright and/or ridiculous. The children sit in a circle and take turns to throw a dice until someone throws a six. That child must don ALL the special clothes provided and then start trying to eat the chocolate using only the cutlery. Meanwhile the rest of the children continue to throw the dice. When another six is thrown the next child dons the clothes and so on…

2. Lucky (face) dip: Three washing up bowls containing a number of sweets and each filled with a sticky, gritty or other suitable substance. E.g, Bowl 1 is full of squirty cream, bowl 2 contains feathers and bowl 3 is full of sugar. In turn the children dip their head into each bowl in an effort to retrieve the hidden sweets. By the end they are effectively tarred and feathered! Towels and wet wipes essential.

Girl with face smeared in cream

3. Musical statues with poses: a classic with a twist. While the music is playing tell the children that when it stops they must strike a pose in the style of… It could be an animal, an emotion, a job, a famous person etc. The poses can be tailored to fit any theme. The poses are usually great fun and mean interim prizes can be awarded, otherwise I think musical statues can be disappointing for the first few out.

4. Pass the Parcel: no party would be complete without it. As often as not one of us has to dash off in the middle of the party to wrap it ‘cos it got forgotten amid the chaos. We’ve often done it with dares/actions between the layers which works really well. Oh, along the way I’ve seen parents rig Pass the Parcel in the birthday child’s favour. Please don’t.

5. Edible nappies: one of the best, undoubtedly. Kids who’ve come to our parties talk about it to this day. Open up about six disposable nappies and (in the microwave) melt a different chocolate bar into each one. The children have to identify the chocolate bars by whatever means: sniffing, proding or even tasting the oh-too-realistic chocolate poo. This game results in equal measures of hilarity and disgust. I often bring the opened poo-ey nappies out on a silver tray. You can give each child pencil and paper (or divide them into teams) and have them write down their answers, or just make it a revolting free for all!

nappy game collage

6. Cheese ball relay race: two teams, a straw per person, two bowls of cheese balls and empty bowls at the other end of the room. Suck the cheese balls onto the ends of the straws and transport them one by one to the other bowl, in a relay race. Shrieking and cheating usually ensues. Great with extra long straws if you can find them. Other relay races work well too. We played ‘sandy pants’ at our seaside party; kids donned swimming trunks over their clothes into which they scooped handfuls of sand to carry from one bucket to another. At Halloween we’ve transported handfuls of goo between cauldrons…

The final element of course is the birthday tea. Over the years we’ve done all sorts, from make your own pizzas to a pirates feast and an ice cream parlour, but this year Alice asked for a classic old-fashioned birthday tea; tiny triangular sandwiches; white bread (crusts off, natch) lightly buttered and filled with thinly sliced cucumber, marmite (Nigella’s tip: smush the marmite and butter together before spreading), egg and cress and cream cheese. Also crisps, twiglets, jelly and ice cream and cake, LOTS of cake.

Alice loves cake. Which is fortunate since I quite like making it.

First, in Alice’s honour I massacred a sophisticated coconut and marscarpone cake by Dan Lepard. He baked it beautifully for his very own wedding and I wrecked his lovely creation by baking it in brightly-coloured layers. The garish sponges were tinted to match the 10 owl birthday candles on top and then hidden beneath a delicous cream marscarpone icing.

owl cake

Colourful? Yes. A surprise for Alice? Yes. A big hit? Yes. Delicious? Yes. Recommended? Yes. Sophisticated? No. Sorry Mr Lepard.

striped birthday cake cu

And was this the most kitsch offering on the birthday tea table?

Nope. That accolade would go either to the jelly or the cupcakes.

I found a giant jelly baby mould online and in order to make it chewy like the real thing added lots of jelly babies to the packet of proper jelly. Actually I ordered some special chewy Japanese konnyaku jelly but it didn’t arrive in time so this was my solution.  We loved this and I think Mr Giant Jelly Baby may become a new tradition in our house – wibble wobble, wibble wobble… Sorry ’bout the pic, it doesn’t do him justice.

giant jelly baby jelly

And so, finally, on to the cupcakes. Bubblegum cupcakes. I woke up in the night dreaming of these. Next day I discovered they’ve been done before (of course), but unperturbed I made them anyway. Classic vanilla cupcakes piped with bubblegum buttercream and flavoured with a few drops from a little bottle of magic bubblegum flavouring. Oh how I love the interweb.

bubblegum cupcakes

They were glorious; more bubble-gummy than bubblegum itself, and surprisingly delicious, considering I don’t like bubblegum. Mind you one is definitely enough. Two would certainly necessitate a lie down.

And lie down we did at the end of the weekend – happy and tired. Alice proclaimed it one of her best birthdays yet – hooray!

And then, the very next morning

I kid you not.

Alice came downstairs

Aged 10 years and 1 day

And she said to me,

“I’m going to walk to school on my own today”.

“Oh. Okay…”

Alice walks IMG_5695

Gulp.

Unwelcome guests

October 4, 2013

I am surrounded by people more intelligent, more creative, more beautiful, more socially able and more witty than I. These nagging self-doubts are my demons. They loiter in my mind like little hoodlums and take it in turns to cause trouble.

Unfortunately they turn up more often than I’d like and when two or more of these unpleasant ‘friends’ rear their ugly heads together, my fragile ego and self-regard is toppled.  When all of them arrive at once I am totally floored.

Of course my aforementioned lack of intelligence and social ability means that once they arrive I can’t get rid of them! So they stay as long as they like; drinking my drink, eating my food and generally wreaking havoc.

Most recently they gatecrashed a lovely family wedding I went to when Danny’s cousin Al married her Andy. She deserves this happiness so much and the day was full of joy and emotion and colour.

wedding cards collage

Beforehand a small group of us worked hard to help Al and Andy create their special day. I made cakes (the best use yet of our crop of blackberries) and arranged flowers. It was great to get my baking mojo back and after creating 20 table arrangements of herbs and wax flowers I think I can now create an adequate tied bunch.

wedding collage

Danny was my invaluable backup as ever. He lets me shine and create while he quietly beavers away and helps make my good things happen. By the end of Friday I felt great about what we’d achieved and like everyone was excited for the next day. I couldn’t sleep for goodness sake!

But I was aware that my unwanted friends were also smartening up and getting ready for the big day. I think perhaps their invite arrived at just about the time I felt good about myself?

Come the day, Al and her daughter Isabel, who are beautiful on the worst of days, surpassed even themselves. They looked stunning.  Andy, the guests (and their super cool vintage cars) looked amazing and our lucky girls were bridesmaids, along with little Ruby. They joined the ranks of the beautiful and I was almost overwhelmed.

wedding bridesmaids

And as we (I at least) often do at such occasions I held a mirror up to myself and I did not like what I saw. That’s when those unwanted friends of mine arrived. They came while I was getting ready, stayed all day and gradually pushed the other wedding guests away. As the day wore on I saw less of the celebrations and more of my uninvited friends.

wedding band

The Carraways play their hearts out.

Unfortunately, like most unwanted guests they then refused to leave. And since I don’t know how to despatch them, I just waited and hoped for them to go, wishing they’d leave me alone. Eventually they did but it took about a week. I’m not sure what made them go, I just realised one morning that they’d gone. A relief.

I think most of us have unwanted guests like these who come to visit from time to time, but some people are able to overcome them or ignore them more easily than others. So I’d like to develop a strategy for dealing with these unwelcome friends in future, or rather, develop some strategy which would be better than no strategy at all, as I’ve had until now.

Perhaps this blog post is a start? This is the first time I’ve ever viewed these self-confidence issues of mine as unwelcome guests. Maybe giving them an identity will help me deal with them in future. Maybe I can just tell them to leave. I’ve never been very good at telling people to go away but maybe I need to learn.

Then perhaps one day they’ll leave me alone to celebrate and enjoy occasions without their interference and maybe one day they’ll stop coming at all. Now wouldn’t that be nice!

Finally, it is important to say that despite these unwelcome wedding guests of mine, it was a beautiful day that I wouldn’t have missed for anything and will remember for all the right reasons.

wedding group

Big love and congratulations Al and Andy x

Autumn riches – blackberry heaven!

September 27, 2013

Summer in all its glory, has come and gone. And as if to make sure we understood, the weather turned bad overnight and gave us all a nasty turn. This week though we are back to lovely Autumnal days; cool sunshine, turning leaves and ripening fruit.

Living as we do in the big metropolis with a weeny (but so glad we have it) garden, our fruit-growing abilities are somewhat limited, however we do have a thornless blackberry, which always provides us with heavy crops of delicious blackberries in the late Summer and Autumn.

blackberries in a colander

All you folk who live out of London will be laughing into your tea at the idea of planting a blackberry bush. Is she mad? Just go blackberrying. Well yes I would, but I haven’t found a reliable crop near us and anyway there’s something quite lovely about striding (all of a dozen steps) to the end of our garden and plucking a few ripe juicy fruits to add to my breakfast bowl each morning.

Don’t get me wrong, if we’re in the countryside then I love nothing more than scratching my arms to pieces in order to gather a bowl or bagful of lovely ripe blackberries, but this is our easy urban alternative.

As a fruiting plant to cultivate, a blackberry bush has to be the easiest as it requires barely any maintenance. Each year it puts forth two, or when it’s feeling particularly happy three, new shoots from the base. In their first year these new shoots grow and climb and sprout leaves. They are eager to please and grow vigorously. In their second year these same branches will flower and then bear fruit, while down below another two branches begin sprouting ready for serious growth the following year.

All I do each year in late Autumn is cut down the two or three branches that have just fruited, leaving next year’s growth ready to flower (and then fruit) the following Spring. I also clip the ends of those new branches so that they bush out rather than continuing to fire out longer and longer stems. How easy is that! I have never fed it – well maybe when feeding other nearby plants, but not because it needs it.

branch of blackberries

Of course it’s quite unruly, especially if left completely to its own devices, but I can tie back the branches easily enough and its somewhat random and wild growth suits our somewhat errr random and wild garden.

This year we’ve had a bumper crop; all that Summer sunshine has produced an abundance of plump sweet fruit. In the countryside blackberries can vary from tiny, hard, hairy fellas to sweet, round juicy beauties, and the two can be in brambles right next to each other – overall I think there are around 150 varieties of wild blackberries. Of course the glorious challenge is in reaching the juiciest, which are inevitably the ones that are tantalisingly just out of reach. Those fellas are definitely worth fighting for, but there’s also something very nice and London-ish about being able to pick a bowlful of consistently big and juicy blackberries from our garden without spending time removing small thorns from our forearms afterwards. It’s theraputic as, although we’re in the middle of London, our garden is very quiet and to lose oneself in something so sweet and satisfying is a joy.

bowl of blackberries and a book

The book is a great read: Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

So what have we done with this year’s lush fruit? Well apart from eating them straight off the bush, I have as I mentioned, been scattering them on my summer breakfast oats for the past few weeks. I soak oats and some chia seeds with milk and a squeeze of lemon juice overnight and serve them cold with fruit and yoghurt.

overnight oats with blackberries

The basic recipe is courtesy of my favourite cookery blog: My New Roots written by Sarah-Britton who-is-a-culinary-genius. Her recipes have had greater influence on my diet in recent years than anyone else’s. So if you’re in the mood for a dietary revamp head over to My New Roots and dive in. Highlights for me include her totally addictive kale crisps which are and her best lentil salad ever, which is. Oh and I must mention our most recent find: Flavour Bomb Greens and Noodles. Go on, you won’t regret it!

Alongside the daily blackberry pickings we’ve also had 3 bumper crops so far. With the first, in the heat of summer, I made a blackberry sage water – fruit and sage leaves muddled together (with a muddler – woo hoo!) and topped up with sparkling water.

blackberry sage water

While I sipped on my delicate flavoured water I made a batch of blackberry ripple ice creams that went down a storm with the troops. A simple concoction of custard, condensed milk and of course blackberries, these beauts are based on a recipe for raspberry ripple ice creams. They would be good to make with the children, if any of the mixture made it into the moulds that is. Although we loved them there’s still one left in the fridge because none of us can bear to eat the last one. Maybe we’ll put it out for Father Christmas – it’ll make a nice change from mince pies.

blackberry ripple ice cream

With the last of that crop I made an upside-down blackberry cake, courtesy of Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall. I forgot to take a picture. A nice alternative to a classic apple and blackberry crumble or pie but there’s a reason why those two are classics.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to harvest number two. I’ve made blackberry cordial before and homemade mure – a blackberry liqueur but this time I fancied blackberry jam. A peruse online and I found a recipe for blackberry jam with mint and ginger. End result: delicious but a bit runny and not particularly well-spiced. I couldn’t taste the mint or the ginger, though Danny could tell there were other flavours. Not convinced, I re-boiled the jam with some more ginger and mint. Now it zings and sings!

Crop number three has given us more breakfast berries, as well as an intense smooth blackberry puree for ice cream and finally blackberry five spice sauce to accompany grilled chicken (duck or pork). Delicious. It shall be repeated. Incidentally the recipe requires the sauce to be made in a Vitamix. I made it in a pan and strained it afterwards. Easy peasy.

As an extra special addition we sprinkled on some freshly ground szechuan pepper – our first crop EVER from our very own szechuan pepper tree.

As you chew Szechuan peppercorns (the pink shells actually) they release fascinating flavours known as ‘ma’ and ‘la’. They are a complex taste sensation that left my bottom lip partially numb for half an hour after trying my first one! Try it, it’s amazing. Oh you don’t have a szechuan pepper tree? Really? Oh, right, well my mistake…

szechuan pepper bush

I love our little peppercorn tree – its leaves smell citrusy (because it’s a citrus) and deserve a little rub on the way past. It came from Otter Farm in Devon which is run by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s farming chum Mark Diacono. Mark has a lot to say about szechuan pepper just here. He has made it his mission to grow more unusual crops and fruit trees, especially now that things are hotting up a little in the U.K. Have a look online and see if you can’t be tempted…

blackberries tipped into a bowl

Overall I’ve come to the conclusion, that having a small garden, we are better off growing fruit and veg that aren’t easy to buy. Last year we grew strawberries, but what’s the point when we can buy punnets of English grown strawberries in season? So instead we’ve switched to growing alpine strawberries. We don’t get many but each one is a little powerhouse of intense flavour and a really special treat, especially eaten straight off the plant.

So as we come to the end of this growing season, I am looking forward to the next with eager excitement. Time to consult some books, do some research and buy some seeds. And in the meantime I feel a blackberry and apple crumble coming on. Why don’t you get out there and do some blackberrying too – there’s still time for one of the best seasonal treats there is and it’s totally free! Quick, before it starts raining again.

I had too much to dream last night…

August 4, 2013

Last night I had a dream that presented a pinsharp, disturbing reality that I lived in until I awoke. And it has left me with a mixed feeling of distress and serenity which will probably last a while. I hope it does.

Electric Prunes EP cover

The Electric Prunes, “I had too much to dream last night”

In short I dreamt that I was on my deathbed, soon to die (from illness, not trauma) and struggling to breathe. There’s the distressing part.

And while living these last moments, I dreamt about a conversation I had with someone, I know not who, about how it felt to be dying.  This was my reply, to my own surprise…

“Oh it’s okay, there are no regrets” I said, “Everything I’ve done has made me who I am and has led me here to this very point at this very time and it’s all okay. Really. Everyone has their time and this is mine. It’s alright.”

And as I sit here now in the garden with an early morning cup of tea, I am very surprised by this response and it is this that has induced a sense of calmness in me. This feeling of acceptance about my own mortality is new, something I’ve never experienced before. Prior to this I’ve considered death largely with fear and loathing and I’ve imagined the horror of it.

garden wide_4724

Of course as I wait for the number 50 birthday bus to pull up outside our house next year, my own mortality is something I’ve become more aware of lately. I am definitely no longer a member of the invincible and eternal youth club and actually I’m very glad about that.

But until this dream I have viewed my own death largely with dread and its bony hand has also made me feel guilty; guilty that I should be doing so much MORE with my life, be a BETTER person while I’m here, be MORE GRATEFUL for all that I have and that I should be STRONGER than I am.

But this dream has given me a new sense of calmness; about the life I lead now and what my future decisions might be.  It will be okay and I am okay. I don’t have to fight and I don’t need to spend quite so much time thinking about what I should and could do or plotting a new career trajectory, I can be me, accept being me and maybe even enjoy being me.

gdn blackberry_4716

Actually the dream has made me think that I need to enjoy being me as much as possible. And if that doesn’t involve saving the World and/or conquering my fear of scary roller coasters, well that’s fine. In an almost reckless way it makes me think ‘sod it girl, just do what you do well and what you enjoy to the very best of your abilities – have fun with it and stop trying to be someone else, someone better. Indulge almost, in yourself and accept that while others may think differently of you – that’s okay. Stop worrying about what they all think”.

And if my way of making a mark on the World will be just a little thing or two, then that’s fine too. Of course I have my two lovely children, but I didn’t have them in order to make a mark (at least I don’t think I did); they are their own people and they have their own lives to lead, their own marks to make.

Of course I don’t mean that I should live a selfish life – whatever I do I should be mindful of others and hopefully helpful too, sometimes if not always. I am part of a family, a community and a society and my mission, should I choose to accept it, is to contribute to those groups as well as stand up as an individual and of course from such contributions, satisfaction and fulfillment comes. But that dream last night and my feelings this morning and this post are about me.

A counsellor I know once told me that each of us is like a precious, cut stone with many facets, some of which shine in the light and some of which stay in the shadows. And she told me that we can turn our stone so that different facets glint in the light while others recede into shade. But while we can change the position and angle of our precious stone we cannot change it – we are who we are.

garden pink flower_4699

To take this analogy which I like a lot (but liking is not the same as living) a bit further, perhaps I could also try a touch of polishing; bring out the shine a bit more.

This new morning sense I have that maybe I can (and should) enjoy who I am, as I have that opportunity, is of course borne out of self-acceptance. And this for me is the holy grail – acceptance. Not happiness, but acceptance. Who came up with happiness as the ultimate goal anyway? Personally I think that ‘happiness’ as a state of being is a myth. Just like ‘work-life balance’; another nonsensical nirvana that very few, or even none of us is able to reach. They are over-used terms that leave us all feeling like we’re failing. Or is that just me?!

Pah! to happiness. Pah! to work-life balance. Acceptance is where it’s at!

Acceptance of who we are as individuals, what we are formed of – good points and bad, talents and shortcomings.

gdn yellow flowers_4731

It has also made me think that when I consider my possible future career or job, that maybe I don’t need to conquer the world with a small business idea, or push to find a fancy pants role in a shiny company. Maybe a decent-ish job to which I can contribute something genuinely useful will be quite sufficient thank you; a job that forms part of my life not all of it and leaves enough brain space to enjoy the rest of life, spend more time with the girls as they grow up and hone my practice of enjoying being me.

Of course finding that mythical job is another thing, and it’s also another blog post, but for here and now just indulge me in the thought that this exists as a concept and maybe it’s what I want. Perhaps I can stop chasing dreams that don’t exist.

I can’t say I embrace the idea of death, but this morning I feel a new sense of calm about it that I’ve never experienced before. Death is, inevitably, something that will come to all of us. And while we’ve become used to controlling (or believing we control) most things in our lives; this little number keeps us guessing, which bothers us no end. And of course for some people death comes all too soon and all too painfully. But maybe when we consider it we can at least hope to feel at ease with it, not afeared by it.

gdn hydrangea_4713

Having written all this (and on my third cup of tea in the garden) I suddenly remembered a Guardian article I read a couple of years ago about dying patients greatest regrets, as recorded by an Australian palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware. There is a book; “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” too, but for now, here are the headlines.

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying…

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

It sent a shiver down my spine just now – I’m clearly on the right track. Now all I need to do is stay on it. Let’s all try… x

Down the rabbit hole. And back again.

July 19, 2013

I met an old friend for coffee the other day and was extolling the joys and virtues of blogging to him. I told him how it stretches my mind and how writing it takes me along pathways I don’t even realise exist, until I put virtual pen to virtual paper.

At its absolute best that’s what blogging does for me – takes me on surprise journeys through my own mind, creating links where I didn’t realise there were links and taking me along avenues of thought I wouldn’t otherwise visit. Nothing profound you understand, I’m not smart enough for that, but meandering, ambling strolls that I enjoy and always hope others will too.

tudor canal narrow boat

It’s amazing how the act of writing a few particular words at a certain moment can take me off down a certain little track. And had I written different words at that very moment then the pathway would be completely different. Without getting too deep and meaningless, it makes me think that maybe I should be able to influence how I feel and react to stuff that happens in life by crafting my response to it. But that’s a post for another day…

After I left the coffee shop and my friend Jon, I thought to myself, so if it’s so great why haven’t you written a blog post for ages, missus? I could contemplate my navel here and come up with complex reasons why, and indeed there are some questions in my mind about audience, expectations, hopes and self-doubt, but in the main, life’s just been too busy, so I lost sight of the blogging thread for a while. Anyway I’ve found it now, it was in a corner, peeping out from beneath some must-do paperwork that I still haven’t done.

So what busy-ness is that then? Is that where the word business comes from by the way? Well; husband absent for over 3 weeks, a loooooong weekend at Glastonbury and then friends staying with us for nearly two weeks out of three (they arrived on the doorstep 30 minutes after I downed my Glastonbury backpack!) and now a cling-on ride on the ‘end-of-term-comet’ that we parents board before the Summer holidays.

All this has meant I’ve had my head down for several weeks now, pulled along by everything going on around me. Mostly it’s been okay and sometimes great, but at other times I’ve felt like I’m being dragged along. So I fight against the tide. I’m not sure why really.

It’s true that it has been tricky at times, with all this stuff going on, but it’s also true that I have a tendency sometimes to make life harder for myself (and no doubt others) than it needs to be. I find that if my hopes and (high?) expectations aren’t met I’m crestfallen, dismayed and upset. Not sure why. And of course this takes me back to the first paragraph. Couldn’t I change those moods and influence those feelings by choosing how I interpret events and happenings; choosing which path I follow. Certainly in principle, but in practice…?

In any event it’s been full on and I do feel like I’ve been down the proverbial rabbit hole for a bit too long. So it’s nice to be back in the fresh air, especially as I can see that with all this sunshine, the lettuces are doing rather well up here. Mmmm…

Glastonbury sign

Before the crowds!

At Glastonbury we were literally down a rabbit hole, well not literally, literally you understand, but in a weenie club called the Rabbit Hole where we witnessed one of my aforementioned wished for festival highlights. In this instance Keith Allen and his famous-actor-y mates performing “Hit me with your Rhythm Stick” in Japanese and Welsh, though not at the same time. They made a fine job of it and such is Keith Allen’s charisma and joie de vivre that the tiny audience of about 40 (out of 170,000 Glasto punters) enjoyed themselves very much indeed.

Rabbit hole club with Keith Allen singing

Down the rabbit hole with Keith Allen and friends

I could talk about Glastonbury for a loooooong time, but I’ve been so remiss in filing my report that it is most definitely yesterday’s news. In fact that particular newspaper has been used for chips and recycled into toilet paper by now.

But while I don’t feel a blow by blow account is in order, I will give you a taste of my Glastonbury Festival; which was bigger, bolder and brighter than I imagined it could be. As it’s 13 years since I last went (B.C.), the sheer scale of it now is mind-blowing. And yet while there are missions and must-see moments to pursue and long journeys to make across field and hill, there’s also (if you allow yourself) plenty of opportunity to hang out and just be; watching the Glastonbury World go by; dipping in and out of the madness as you see fit.

Board man at glasto

Board man

I think so long as you don’t try and see it all then you won’t be disappointed. Danny for one refused to go to the John Peel stage because it was just too far away, but with about 99 other stages to visit, stumble upon or avoid it’s probably good that we struck one off our list!

I daresay we missed some cracking music there but we had our own musical highlights including Alt-J (twice), the Hives (with a frontman who knows how to play a festival), daily breakfast with our friends Foghorn Leghorn on stage, the glory of Nick Cave on the Pyramid stage (who needs the Rolling Stones) and our finest musical moment of all: Nile Rodgers and Chic.

If I could write ‘Chic’ in sparkling, glittering, shimmering colours right here and now, I would, but I can’t, so instead I’ll just tell you: Chic were amazing and fabulous and wonderful and had the whole crowd dancing and singing to their parade of endless hits.

Glastonbury sign post at night

This long weekend was peppered with weird and wonderful sights, sounds, tastes and experiences to behold, but for me the bestest part of all was Shangri-la – a mind boggling world of fantastic clubs set in a post-apocalyptic World. Each club was crazier than the last: try the Horse Meat Disco with obligatory ‘taches for all and a transvestite catwalk show in which half the contestants looked like they’d spent all day creating their look while the other half looked like they’d backed out of their tents and were wearing whatever got attached on the way out.

Day of the Dead dancers at Glasto

Danny taught them the bus driver dance. Their repotoire is complete.

Then there was the Copper Dollar club with Day of the Dead dancing skelis whooping it up to fine electro-swing tunes. Of course obligatory in any post-apocalyptic World there was also Heaven, Hell and Purgatory to visit. We spent Saturday afternoon in Hell, except it was heaven: dancing to Norman Jay tunes in the sun. That was the first real day of scorching sunshine, it felt amazing and special – little did we know!

Heaven (you had to win to get in) was entirely white inside! Wellies off at the door please! And the piece de resistance: a row of white porcelain toilets right in the centre of the club. Heaven indeed in the middle of Glastonbury!

Underground club Glastonbury

The London Underground club in Block 9. Glad we missed the last train home.

And after another dance, some tea and a cheese toastie at the House of Ideas (Jules Verne rusting submarine-ish club complete with tunnel to the bar and leather wing-backed chairs should you want a nice sit down!), guess what? Non-drinking, non-smoking, non-anything me was the one still dancing and whooping it up at 4.30 a.m… Woo hoo!

Glasto Peely's dog_4241

And I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to wake up each day knowing I wasn’t going to have a hangover. Do you know that moment? The one when you first come to, where you first check out the state of your body and mind, before you actually wake up. Too often in the past, that moment has been defined for me with ‘oh no, I’m going to have a hangover’. Well not any more! I can so recommend it. I know I’m getting all evangelical here, but I hope not preachy – it wouldn’t do any good to preach anyhow, would it. All I can just say is that for me life after drink is a lot easier and better than life with it.

Cloud 9 sign at Glasto

Cloud 9 indeed

Ironically what one might do here is offer a toast, a ‘cheers’ to that! Because that’s what we do of course, celebrate everything with a drink! Ee gads. Well instead I shall celebrate with cake.

This is a ‘cake’ I invented, that you can EASILY reproduce, providing you have access to a watermelon. It’s perfect for this beautiful summer weather and best of all it requires NO BAKING whatsoever. Who wants to bake in this heat? Me sir. I want to bake myself, but I don’t want to bake cakes. No sir.

Watermelon cake

What could be easier!

So get making, not baking and allow your creation to cool in the fridge before you cut yourself a large slice, pour yourself a glass of lemonade and enjoy this wonderful sunshine. Cheers!

Slice of watermelon cake

Happy sunny weekend one and all!

Glastonbury here I come…

June 26, 2013

..when I’ve finished writing lists that is.

I can’t wait! Danny has been there for a week already; helping to build the many bars that will serve pints and pints of beer to the 170,000 people who are limbering up to descend on this corner of Somerset over the next few days.

Glastonbury  set up: flowers and tents

Those pretty flowers won’t stand a chance…

It is an extraordinary event – a veritable town constructed in the middle of otherwise peaceful farmers fields, all for one long weekend of revelry and mayhem. It takes a good half hour to walk from one side of the site to the other and that’s now, before the crowds arrive to slow you down. It’s an astonishing transformation that happens because of the 30,000 people involved in the staging and set up of Glastonbury.

Glastonbury set up: tent pegs

Since time immemorial humans have held festivals; spectacular occasions at which to rejoice in the delights of being alive. Festivals are about escapism and celebration and I’m definitely up for both. I think I’ve loved parties (or at least the idea of them!) ever since my 6th or 7th birthday which was crowned with a 3D polystyrene fairy castle with lights in the turrets, built for me by my Dad. And now I can’t wait to go to Glastonbury with all its spires and magical kingdoms.

Glastonbury tree spraying

I have no idea…

I haven’t been since having the girls 12 years ago. More recently we’ve diverted our festival attention to family-focussed, smaller festivals like Green Man, Latitude, Truck and the tiniest and bestest of all: Wood Festival – yay!

But now the girls are getting a bit older and we can leave them on their own with tins of beans we’ve begun to sneak off for occasional grown-up festival moments. Last September we went to Portmeirion for Festival No. 6. which was absolutely fab, bar camping on a hill which I really don’t recommend.

Portmeirion festival no6 w/s

Portmeirion is very special to me, having spent many childhood Summer holidays in nearby Portmadog. We’d make an annual pilgrimage to Portmeirion village via the ‘train bach‘ and a secret over-the-fence back entrance that has long since been closed up. Walks in the woods, on the beach and in, out and around the wonderful architecture of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. All this first fuelled my love of quirkiness in all its glorious forms.

If you haven’t been to Portmeirion please put it on your list of essential places to visit. It is spectacular and wondrous. If you don’t believe me, then follow all the hollywood stars, famous authors, top musicians and King Zog of Albania, all of whom have stayed here since the 1920s.

Portmeirion village

Just like Portmeirion, the thing I am most looking forward to at Glastonbury is the crazy architecture and the make-believe worlds which here will only exist for a few short, heady days. I hear tales of Block 9 with derelict buildings, abandoned New York cabs and a tube train, jostling for attention with the Unfairground – another dystopia built with plywood, paint and heaps of creativity.  Strange landscapes looming out of the countryside, that will only come alive at night once the live music finally subsides. I can’t wait. I think perhaps I would’ve, could’ve, should’ve done something in this kind of world, had life taken different turns. But I’m very happy to enjoy the magic rather than create it.

Glastonbury sign at night

Glastonbury in lights. Quilted lights of course.

And there are a few favourite haunts of old to revisit. The Tiny Tea tent in the Green Fields will be a daily destination for, err, tea. And now that I don’t drink alcohol it might be my bar of choice rather than the cider bus. This Glastonbury will doubtless be a very different experience for me because of the absence of booze, though none the worse I’m quite sure. I daresay some things will stay the same – like the mud and the toilets however I don’t think the grass will talk to me this time.

Glastonbury meeting place

In two days time there’ll be a thousand people on this spot alone…

And if the toilets are all too much without the numbing effects of drink then I’m in the luxurious position of being able to retreat to staff quarters. Danny and co. are working (hard I might say, 12 hour days mostly) for Avalon who provide many of the bars and the hospitality, so we camp in their staff enclosure complete with showers and toilets, which based on past experience will mostly work and mostly contain toilet roll. What more could a girl want. Not much actually; I’m quite happy to slum it and I definitely don’t need a hairdryer or an iron. It’s not a wedding is it?

Glastonbury Tiny Tea Tent

The Tiny Tea Tent takes shape

Being builders and seasoned Glastonbury workers, Danny’s gang have honed the art of a top-notch camp that is the envy of other crews on site. A well-equipped kitchen with fridge-freezer, stereo system and communal dining table all await. Torquay Mark is camp chef, turning out risotto, cheesecake and not a burnt sausage in sight. This year they’ve thankfully rejected the widescreen tv that invaded their camp for one year only! I kid you not: last year one of their number was found watching the bands on telly rather than going to see them play live in the next field. Oh so wrong!

Glastonbury camp

Camp Glastonbury

Slightly bizarrely perhaps, the music is a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve never chosen a particular festival because x, y, or z band are playing, though of course I won’t go to a festival that favours music I don’t like. But I go for the event itself, for the joy of it, to spend time with friends, play with the kids and see some great music at the same time. It is also true that as I ahem, mature, I have less and less idea who any of the bands are anyway. My first look at the line up for Glastonbury and I was a bit lost after the Rolling Stones and a handful of others. So it’s lucky that I like a surprise.

All I seek is my ‘festival highlight’ – it’s a quest, a mission of mine to experience at least one special moment and I haven’t yet been to a festival that has failed to deliver. We always find great musical moments though often not by the bands we expected greatness from. Gotan Project, Tunng, Gruff Rhys (thank you very much), John Grant, New Order, Future Islands – these have all been surprise highlights from past festivals.

Glastonbury bar building

I have high hopes that this expedition to Glastonbury will be no different and I can’t wait to experience it all through new, clear eyes. Mind you, with the organisation and planning that’s involved in getting me out of the house, my eyes will still be bleary, just for different reasons.

Honestly, will all you parents who are reading this please take a moment to congratulate yourselves for all that you do in the name of parenting. Writing detailed notes regarding the girls commitments for just a few days is like writing military manouvers and it makes me realise exactly how much is involved in this parenting game. So really, well done to all of us. Three cheers!

Glastonbury flags

What’s a festival without flags?

And while I’m here I offer another big cheer to the grandparents without whom I would not be going at all. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And to those lovely girls who will be entertaining themselves and their grandparents for the long weekend without us. Love you X

So just before I go and pack my essential festival sparkle and wellies (actually my wellies have sparkle), here are a few random festival camping tips from the bottom of our rucksack, just for you:

1. Wet wipes, take loads of wet wipes. And carry them round with you…

2. Take clothes for cold weather. Unless it’s a scorcher the evenings will still get cold.

3. Don’t try and fold your sleeping bag neatly – stuff it in the bag. It’s the best way and it’s very satisfying when we spend most of our lives trying to create order from chaos!

4. Boys; please don’t wee up the perimeter fences. Someone has to dismantle them afterwards.

5. Take an edible treat or two. A couple of bars of lovely chocolate can brighten the dullest day.

6. Snuggle up close with your valuables.

7. Pack your festival skirt. And wear it. Whatever the weather.

silver skirt

Told you I needed it.

See you on the other side…

“A bargain, a bargain…

June 21, 2013

..there’s nothing like a bargain;

Give me six for three, or four for the price of two…

There’s nothing takes your money like a bargain!”

Lyrics from “A Bargain” by Mr Boom, Scottish folk singer

I’ve been spending rather too much time (and money) in the local charity shops recently. Nothing new there as my friends will attest, but after buying another two unmissable bargain jackets on Monday I’m beginning to make myself feel a little sickened by my own excess.

And while this excessive spending is going on I’m also being dripfed information about better, more sustainable living. It’s coming at me from many angles and I’m hearing it loud and clear!

I like the two jackets, they are good buys and I’m sure I’ll wear them, but I far from need them and they’ll join a growing collection of lovely-bargain-secondhand-couldn’t-resist-won’t-see-the-like-again-fits-perfectly-only-£3.50-each jackets that I have hanging in my Danny’s, wardrobe.

And at the same time there’s a slowly expanding bin bag of clothes I’m getting ready to take to the aforementioned charity shops, in order to replenish their now dwindled stock. There’s obviously a nice cycle going on here but symbiotic though it is, on another level it’s not that healthy. And at the end of the day I’m not sure I’m ahead, except perhaps in jackets.

In the last couple of weeks alone and alongside secondhand clothes I have also – okay this is confession time – acquired:

collage of recent bargain purchases

  • One black urn/vase. £4. Laughter and mirth from friends who decide I’ve bought my own funeral urn. Turns out to be Wedgwood and rather nice. Smaller version on ebay for £88. Who’s laughing now?
  • Two ‘chalk’ pens in fluoro colours £1.60 each (yellow one matches the kitchen shelf of course), reduced in WHSmith and suitable for writing on…
  • One ornate white plaster picture frame with chalk board (slightly damaged) from Roman Road market. £10. Bargain? Maybe, but where’s it going to hang?
  • Six ‘silver’ (EPNS) table/serving spoons in a bundle from carboot sale. £3. I’ve actually needed some of these for over a year. Honest.
  • One small side plate featuring cross-channel ferries. 50p. Will work well with industrial machinery placemats and oil rig coasters I already have. Have re-arranged the crockery shelf to accommodate.
  • One pack of badges featuring cartoon eyes. 50p. Small. Good. Shall I wear on a jacket or leave in the packet?
  • One pair unworn black converse trainers for Elsa from carboot sale. £4. Result.
  • Set of six Terry Thomas DVDs £5 and secondhand book on farting £1, both for Father’s Day and from the carboot sale. That’s how cheap we are!

So you get the picture. Oh but wait, I’m withholding vital evidence from the trial, me Lud. On top of all this I actually bought a NEW item of clothing, which I hardly ever do. I blame this particular blip on my friend Rachel who MADE me go shopping with her! Having sat in a changing room for 2 hours to help her re-vamp her flagging wardrobe, I practically ran to Monki afterwards – my favourite/only high street shop destination of the moment, which has a bloomin’ sale on and so I bought a silver skirt, reduced to £12. It was the only one left/a bargain/perfect festival wear – take your pick, all applied at the time. 

silver skirt

Exhibit A

I really do like curating objects and clothes, and what I wear and what I collect is a reflection of me. And it matters to me. However when I’m once again trying to squeeze things into corners of the house and am putting things out in order to make space, then the value of these purchases becomes very questionable. Oh and just ask Alice what she thinks about my extensive ‘bargain wardobe’ in the mornings when I’m faffing about trying to decide what to wear. For the school run. Sigh.

I know that some people (though not many people I know) will be laughing into their Gucci handbags at my idea of excess, but it IS excessive to keep buying stuff I really don’t need just because it temporarily lightens my day and satisfies some other imaginary need.

If I compare my consumption with that of my Grandma it is as though we’re from completely different times, not just a couple of generations apart. It feels like an after effect of the Second World War. Maybe we, as a society, went on a shopping spree to celebrate and we just haven’t stopped buying since; buoyed up by ever-increasing (until now) relative amounts of disposable income.

And consumption and acquisition have become irrevocably linked to identity. Once our basic psychological needs are satisfied, we seek ‘higher’ forms of satisfaction, such as the desire to be identified as an individual; unique, different, better than those around us and it seems that we (I) often achieve this through spending money rather than other, more productive creative means. It’s probably an inevitable aspect of a capitalist society in which the primary concern is for individual wellbeing, not that of society and the earth itself. But it ain’t good.

And to get properly gloomy for a moment – while I’m here I may as well lay out my complete apocalyptic thesis of doom – while I believe that capitalism is a deeply flawed system that is slowly beginning to unravel, it’s going to take a lot longer before it completely fails. I don’t think we’ve learned much from the recent financial crises – nothing much has changed and I think we’ll have our hand forced before we take the drastic action required to save us from ourselves. The World is changing, irrevocably and I sincerely hope we come out the other side stronger and better. I also hope that the journey to ‘the other side’ is not too painful.

I don’t think we will ever return to the same level of wealth that we’ve had until recently. And rightly so, frankly. We need to get to a point where clothes, goods, flights etc. cost what they should, based the amount of labour, resources and processes involved in producing them. In that way we will limit their consumption to a more sustainable level.

Blimey, I have to take a break here to say that I can’t believe I’m writing all this. Last week I was blogging about mangoes for goodness sake. But it’s the joy of blogging and this post is a reflection of what is preoccupying my charity shop of a mind right now. I’m not massively bright or politically aware, so you’ll be able to argue, pick holes and find far more eloquent accounts about the current state of the World we live in than this effort, but it’s what I know (or believe) in my gut, to be true.

Ultimately of course I hope I’m completely wrong. There’s another part of me that recognises that throughout history human beings have had something terrible, a demon, to dwell and focus on and that perhaps my fear is just that; the modern monster, the current trendy apocolyptic terror for those of us who can afford to seek an abstract fear.

But really – I shouldn’t be able to buy a silver skirt for £12 should I? And if it’s available for that price I shouldn’t buy it, should I? But I am weak and I am a magpie and I am indoctrinated and so I bought that skirt and played my part. But this isn’t a tale of complete doom. In writing this I also acknowledge a possible key to change.

If I believe that we are all culpable by our small wanton acts, for the current mess we’re in then presumably I must also believe that we can all influence it for the better as well, if we make some changes. Small, positive steps by each of us can contribute to a much better story for the future. What we can’t do is devolve ourselves of all responsibility for the mess or for solving it.

Our friend Lucy suggested to me that we ‘start by planting a lettuce in a window box’. She’s right; small steps lead to big changes. We do all have the ability to contribute and we should all do our bit to change the world we live in for the better. But it’s a small step and I must sign up to more than a couple of homegrown lettuces.

lettuces and strawberry plant collage

To help us get to a better place there are growing numbers of people and groups who are leading by example and showing us the positive steps we can take towards a better, healthier and more sustainable way of living. The clamour for a different way of life is growing and I hope it gets so loud we can’t ignore it, though I realise we’re a long way off that yet.

So here are the inspiring articles and happenings that crossed my path this week. Mere morsels to whet your appetite…

1. Guardian article: Transition Towns

2. BBC News article: food swapping

3. JoJo Tulloh‘s new book “The Modern Peasant’: a veritable feast of edible essays on sustainable food production in an urban environment. JoJo spoke at my local WI meeting at which there was also a food swap. My first taste of the WI – inspiring and enlightening.

4. Observer article: Britain’s New Peasants down on the Farm

Have a read of the articles, look around and see what’s happening in your area and maybe you’ll be inspired like me, because it’s not hopeless. It can’t be.

Disclaimer: I’m sure I’ll be reporting from the charity shops again before long, for this is no overnight conversion. But I’m beginning to act with a little more conscience and I won’t be buying any more silver skirts. Oh and if next week I’m blogging about Gucci handbags then batton down the hatches: there is no hope.

Ain’t no sunshine when you’ve gone…

June 14, 2013

In the absence of proper sun in the sky, it falls upon each of us to create some of our own, for life is no good without it.

At Alice’s school some of the children have created some much needed sunshine on the walls and it is a bright and cheery sight indeed…

kids sunflower painting collage

Meanwhile at home we’ve achieved our own major success, with help from a boxful of these…

box of alphonso mangoes

I like mangoes ALL the time, but life is truly enhanced in Spring and early Summer when two of the best mango varieties, which also happen to have two of the shortest seasons, arrive in town.

For a few short weeks in the Spring and early Summer, boxes of them are stacked up outside our local Asian supermarkets. Life is indeed brightened by their presence. The mango carnival has arrived, in my head anyway. First up are the all-singing, all-dancing Alphonsos and they are followed, heel hot, by the equally delicious, slightly more diminutive Honey mangoes.

You can’t buy either variety singly; not easily anyway, but who’d only want to buy just one of these anyhow? Their flesh is fragrant, sweet, juicy, velvety and totally irresistable; a boxful lasts a mere few days around here.  Last weekend we bought a precious box of Alphonsos from the legendary Taj Stores in Brick Lane and in the car on the way home as the anticipation grew, so their sweet scent wafted through from the boot to us in the front. Mmmm…

Opening a box of Alphonsos is like opening a Christmas present. Actually it’s better because you KNOW you’re going to love what’s inside. There’s a little bit of friction on lifting the lid, as if it’s reluctant to give up the treasure within, but once off there’s just a rough tissue paper cover between you and the golden jewels inside. Each fruit is carefully wrapped in its own newspaper nest, protected for the long journey from India to East End.

mangoes in paper

Usually I might say, I try to shop mindfully – I shop locally, use supermarkets infrequently and minimise food miles when I can. I also love the seasonality of food, so currently we’re also enjoying the delights of English asparagus and peas. Incidentally, earlier this week I made a delicious rapeseed mayonnaise or ‘rouille’; recipe via the Guardian, in which to dip our asparagus spears. Yum. And it’s still going strong – salad, sandwiches and supper all covered alongside a simple cooked chicken. Cooks notes: extreme patience needed for adding the oil drop by drop. And though it seems like a lot of oil it’s just right.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, I’m afraid my best efforts with food miles and local produce fly completely out of the window when the Alphonso and Honey mangoes arrive. I am definitely no saint and they are certainly a guilty pleasure.

Of course there are many delicious things you can cook and create with mangoes. Pork and mango is a great combination and mango salads are delish as are mango creams. Such dishes feature at discerning restaurants at this time of year. But in my opinion the BEST way to eat these sweet and succulent beauties is in the privacy of your own home, where you can bask in the full glory and wonder of their un-adorned flesh.

Alphonso mango flesh is sliced away from the stone, after peeling in my book. This is usually a slippery and none too elegant affair, but the resulting heap is absolutely delectable. Eat straight off the board – I do – or if you’re really restrained, transfer to a bowl, for a modicum of decorum before devouring.

A unique preparation technique for honey mangoes adds another layer of excitement and keeps everything together; until you get it near your mouth, that is. Select your fruit and (after giving it a good, deep, appreciative sniff) slice in half across its middle and around the thin stone. Twist the two cut halves in opposite directions and one half of the mango will pull away. Twist and remove the slippery stone from the other half (elegance matters not) and then simply spoon the sweet flesh straight into your expectant, drooling mouth.

mango half and spoon

Bliss.

And when you’ve finished spooning the succulent flesh into your mouth, there is still one final treat in store – as if it could get any better. Pick up your mango stone, pop it in your mouth and suck. The juiciest, sweetest flesh clings to the stone and it is your duty to leave none; not one juicy vestige, behind.

Sinfully gorgeous, it is essential to end up with juice running down your arm and a big, sweet grin on your face!

You may also find you are left with a mostly dry and slightly hairy stone. With the addition of some felt pen eyes this can be turned into a temporary pet for the children to enjoy. Honey the hamster always enjoys her short time with us. Of course she can’t stay very long though…

And when you’ve finally finished, rather than wipe any juicy dribbles away or heaven forbid, wash them off; why not just rub them in – mango is known for its skin-replenishing properties, you know. Hurrah!

Pile of Alphonso mango flesh on chopping board

No self-respecting restaurant would allow you to indulge in this kind of behaviour. Well they could, but they won’t, so this is a fine example of home food prep (I can hardly call it cooking) outgunning even the classiest restaurant.

So that means that as well as everything else, eating these delights at home actually SAVES you the expense of a posh night out!

Now, I’m sorry to bring the tone down at this point, but I feel that amid this joy we must spare a thought for a group of sad individuals who, according to our learned friend Rod, suffer a strain of dermatitis that arises from skin contact with mangoes. These tragic souls come out in a nasty rash, bless ’em. Mind you Rod assures us that they can still eat mango, so long as it doesn’t touch the sides on the way in. Where there’s a will there’s a way, I say.

So there we have it; my suggested sunshine substitute. I utterly, utterly recommend, encourage and cajole you to seek out your nearest Asian supermarket or greengrocer and find out what the fuss is about for yourself. I know you have to buy a boxful, but I promise you won’t regret it; why not share the love with your friends and neighbours.

The Alphonso season only lasts a couple more weeks, then the honey mangoes will arrive for even less time. So hurry, while stocks last! Between these two delectable fruits we should be kept in sunshine through much of this miserable season that is, or at least may be, our summer. And should the sun actually come out then you can enjoy these little beauties outside, in the sun. Even more heavenly.

Very important note. Please, please, don’t be under any illusion that the average supermarket mango is an adequate substitute for this slice of heaven.

It. Is. Not.

Why not let us know how you get on AND share your top tips for bringing some much-needed sunshine into your life.

Happy weekend everyone.

poppy in the gutter

Finally and by way of a special bonus I offer you my secret recipe for an instant and really cheap holiday – we all need one of those from time to time. When going to bed switch your sheets and pillows round and sleep at the other end. In the morning you’ll awake in unfamiliar surroundings and for a few blissful seconds, you’ll think you’re on holiday. Joy.


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