Tuesday, 2 July 2013

It’s the little things…

I've been gone.  I'm not really sorry, because I've just been feeling too awful to be sorry. But I have been feeling a bit guilty, and now I'm back I can definitely confirm that the little things really do make a difference. Because the moment this tiny baby inside me hit the size of a kidney bean, it was like I was riding the Mary Rose after a candy floss and cherryade binge - all day. Morning sickness?! Pah! Bizarrely, my pregnancy app has just informed me it's now the size of a banana (?!), and this very moment is the first time in 13 weeks I felt I could say anything at all without punctuating every sentence with the phrase, "feel sick." Oh yes, I've been fun to be around these last few months...
One thing I have been dwelling on a lot lately, as my brain has slowly turned to porridge and I fight the urge to drink entire jugs of chicken stock, has been what a massive difference something so tiny can make. Because aside from the excitement and terror and fuzziness that comes with finding out that in a few months time you are going to have your very own wrinkly-faced (and hopefully not too angry) little creature to love and look after, there has been a slow creeping realisation about what this means for me. I mean, I'm not a young blushing 20-something - I've had plenty of time to get all selfish and stuck in my ways. Years and years have gone by in which I've been able to do exactly what I wanted. I've had acres of time to devote to naval gazing and writing mile-long lists of resolutions and ambitions. Life has been about me, me, me, and unfortunately I'm not sure I've used it very wisely until now. And now, all those things that really matter to me, have to take second place. Because I already know that nothing is going to be more important than this little kicking banana. Anyway, in an attempt to make the most of my last four months sans enfant, i've signed up to this month's Camp Nano in an attempt to have a first draft complete by mid August. I only need to write 1600 words a day to do it which takes me about an hour and a half. Yup, just an hour and a half a day to a first draft in six weeks. Oh, and apparently if I spend fifteen minutes four times a week doing the Matt Roberts arm workout I can also have arms like Sam Cam and Michelle Obama.  Ah, I feel better already. It really is the little things...

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Life is Long… if you know how to use it

This blog was supposed to be about how miffed I am with winter. How this time last year I was basking in the sunshine in a flimsy dress at my friend’s wedding, rather than sat at my desk, wrapped in a rug with a hot water bottle on my lap watching a few pathetic snowflakes float past the window.  I was all set to write about how much I loathe winter; how it saps my motivation, feeds on my good nature, and since it appears to be depriving us of spring for yet another month, how I’m going to make a blanket fort under which I’ll sit and read Harry Potter until flipflops became viable footwear again.
  Then I opened the paper and saw the news about Iain Banks, and realised how very silly I am. He’s only 59, has written around 30 books since he was 30 years old; in 2008, The Times voted him one of Britain’s best writers since 1945, and he only has a few months left to live. He once said, “I write because I love it... [and]... I’ve spent most of my life trying to do it better.” And I can’t stop thinking about that. About how sad I am for him and his family, but also about how much time I waste in excuses. How every week, every month, every season, there’s a fresh reason as to why I haven’t done the things I really want to do. I read some Seneca earlier this year, who is all about how life is long - if you know how to use it. That had quite an impact on me at the time, but I clearly promptly forgot that lesson. The news of Iain Banks has brought it back to me though with a resounding drum. And so spring may not have arrived yet, but I mustn’t wait around for a new season, or anything else when I find myself feeling low, unmotivated or uninspired. Instead, we all need to start owning our time again right now, so that 29 years down the line, we might all be lucky enough to look back and say, 'I've spent it doing the thing I love.'

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Busy is a Four Letter Word

“Hello, how are you?”
“Busy! Busy, busy, busy. I don’t even have time to go to the loo. I’d hate not to be busy though, wouldn’t you?”

Erm, well, no actually. I’d love it. Love it more than the invention of a calorie-free Cadbury’s Crème egg, or being a contestant on a Supermarket Sweep in Waitrose. You know this is clearly a big deal - I love Waitrose. Busyness may be the new moral virtue, but I’d in fact much rather work about six and a half hours a day and spend the rest of the time staring out the window, going for a walk, working my way through my unread bookshelves, and drinking bottomless pots of tea with my mates. Who wouldn’t? Fact is, we can’t. For a start that would be ‘lazy’ and being lazy is BAD. And then of course, we need to earn money so that we can buy stuff and do stuff, and then when all that stuff has worn us down so we can just about update our FB status with the word ‘Ugh’, we can then maybe afford a few days holiday during which we can try to forget all that stuff for a while.

I’ve never really had time to think about it before, but isn't this just totally bonkers? Surely the meaning of life isn't diarising yourself in to exhaustion? I thought all this technology was supposed to make our lives easier. But I guess that’s exactly it; computers can do it all for us, which means we are no longer valued for our skills, but in fact paid for our proficiency at multi-tasking an unending barrage of stuff. Oh, and on top of that, most of us have a sneaking suspicion that what we do makes absolutely no meaningful difference whatsoever, and we therefore cram the scrap of life we have leftover with as much as possible so we have no time to think about how stupid it all is. Basically, if you’re not so stressed you put the cat in the cot and the baby out the cat flap, you’re not trying hard enough.

But I now know that this is not only crazy stressful, but that being lazy is actually good for you. I don’t mean the stuff your face with leftover kebab while watching Jeremy Kyle lazy. I mean allowing lazy to become an acceptable part of everyday, and not a dirty word. Because we need it. I’m not making this up just because I want an excuse to finish Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookshop which I started a month a go and am not even half way through despite being desperate to know what it’s all about. There are actual scientific facts here that tell us that all this doing and never being is wrong. I mean catastrophically wrong – unless you want to be an anxious, psychologically imbalanced, heart attack prone, intolerant maniac, with a toxic soup of stress hormones bubbling away inside of you. Personally, I have enough of those in my life already. So this is how I propose to introduce a bit more calm and contemplation to my everyday life:

Daydream more Some would say this isn’t possible, but there is a difference between an overactive imagination and a lovely daydream. It’s also the only way I’m going to figure out the novel I’m writing so I’m going to allow myself at least 10 minutes daydreaming a day. Daydreaming is also supposed to dampen down cortisol and enhance your problem-solving skills, so I’ll have a bit of that too thank you.

Whistle Tom Hodgkinson of The Idler Academy suggested taking up the ukulele to strum your stresses away. Musical instruments cost money though even teeny tiny ones, so I think whistling is the next best thing. I mean, have you ever heard of an unhappy whistler? I rest my case.

Buy less I have this terrible habit of whenever I feel stressed or unhappy I buy things. It could be anything from a small box of coloured mini bulldog clips (yesterday), to a cashmere granddad top from Hush (which I’ll inevitably return and therefore have to pay £8 in p&p for the pleasure). I’m going to stop that. Because spending money, involves having to work stupid hours and not getting to see the people you love.

Go for more walks… I do walk quite a lot as it happens, but usually just to the shops which only serves me to feel a little more miserable and stressed because of all the things I’ve bought/ decide I need but can’t afford. But walking is so good for the soul. If you have an obliging companion it's also particularly good for talking about some pretty natty issue (like in the car where it’s easier to say stuff you’d never dream of saying otherwise, because eye contact is not possible). It also means I should probably get a dog. Which leads me to…

Get a pet… Because I can't remember being happier than when i used to lay on the floor with my dog Bessie and rub her silky ears over my mouth. Gross isn't it. But true. So my pet of choice would be a dog. But I guess you could get a cat instead, or a house rabbit (although I’ve heard some pretty disturbing ejaculation stories). Just don’t get anything that lives in a cage because if you’re anything like me you’ll feel sorry for it, let it wander freely around the house, and then you will have a hamster stuck somewhere behind the living room wall chewing up the electrics.

Read proper books… I know every woman’s magazine says this (I’ve probably written it a million times myself, sorry), but I need to stop using technology every waking moment. When I started relaying this advice in just about every health piece I wrote about three years ago, it made me aware of the fact that when I spend all day plugged in, I feel this little walnut-sized ball of anxiety in my chest. So switch off. Read a book. Write stuff with a proper pen and paper.  Have a snooze on the settee. Sew (since that's what everyone's doing these days). Just don’t look at a screen every waking moment.

I think that's enough to be getting along with. Although if you have any top calming ideas i'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Journey Girl Travels… to the ends of the earth

Well, she travels to the tippy toe of England actually, Cornwall, which is hardly the ends of the earth; I don’t think the ends of the earth would have lovely things like butter-thick clotted cream, flaky-pastried pasties and Roskillys ice cream, would they? And this is my excuse for having been absent from the blogosphere this past week. Because the one and only bad thing about holidays is that the week before you head off to melt away your troubles and remember what it feels like to be a student with absolutely NOTHING to do (except with more to eat than a bowl of frozen peas and a kinder egg), you become so busy and so stressed, you inadvertently counteract any health benefits you are later hoping to enjoy.

But anyway, we are here, and I am supposed not to get all stressed about work right now so let's talk about happy things... Like Cornwall. Even so, yesterday (day 3 of our holiday), is the first time both of us felt truly relaxed. We were eating at the time of course, since much of our enjoyment does seem to stem from what we are currently shovelling down our gullets (see above). But we had just completed a blustery, quad-burning 5-mile walk from The Lizard to Kynance Cove and back, and therefore thoroughly deserved the subsequent sustenance of a massive doorstep cheese and ham sandwich (him) and a buttery JP with mature cheddar cheese (me) followed by a River Cottage steak and ale pie later that evening for tea.

I am currently writing this with a pot of tea, and a slice of toasted sourdough topped with butter and squashed banana, in a slate-floored kitchen, next to a rayburn, listening to the wind that appears to be trying to rattle off the roof tiles. I quite possible have never felt happier.

Here are a few highlights of our Cornish adventure (and I apologise for the photography skills, I keep meaning to get my sister to teach me how...)

So we stopped in Axminster at River Cottage's Canteen on the way. Will had the most amazeballs sausage sandwich which I secretly wished I'd had too. Instead I had poached eggs and mushrooms on toast which was also pretty darn good...

We arrived at our accommodation (the most picturesque little cottage on the top of a cliff with the sea one way, rolling fields the other) and decided that it was time we found the nearest pub, which was all the way down there at the bottom of that cove....

Inside, the locals were playing a Cornish card game called Euchre which I think is a bit like Trumps. We didn't join in the card playing (cards are also now forbidden for fear we garotte each other over a game of Black Jack), but we did join in the drinking, which made the journey back up the cliff face in the pitch black a lot easier than it rightfully should have been. 

Yesterday we walked from the Lizard to the little cafe at Kynance Cove where we rewarded our efforts with a coffee and a slice of carrot cake. Followed by the bargainous purchase of a box of England's most southerly eggs which had been left on the steps of a house right on the edge of the south-west coastal path. They were ours for the princely sum of £1.30.
They are seriously big eggs. Poor hens...
Right really need to get washed and dressed now. Can't be too studenty even if i am on holidays. Bye for now.xx

Thursday, 14 February 2013

How to write a love letter

There once was a time when I wanted nothing more on 14th February than to receive a box of chocolates the size of a dustbin lid, and a bunch of red roses so wide that I’d have to rearrange the furniture before squeezing it through the front door. It never happened, but I’m not bitter. Mainly because I realise gestures such as these are just not my husband’s thing. In fact, if he did ever do any of the above (which he wouldn’t), it would simply be because he was expected to (which he isn’t), which, I think you’ll agree, is about as romantic as a mail-merged Valentine’s card from your local MP. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not a wholesale damner of Valentine’s Day. Anything that encourages a bit of love-spreading and togetherness amidst the daily drudge gets a big thumbs up from me. But for it to count, surely you have to decide the moment is right? Rather than in fact wishing you were eating spag bog in front of the telly tonight instead of getting all dressed up for a poncey meal somewhere out...in the cold…at the end of a very long week…just cos Clinton Cards says so. Or is that just me?
  Because you know you love each other. It’s in all the little things you do on all the ordinary days of the year when you’re not required to spend twenty quid on a foil-wrapped chocolate heart and stuffed toy to show you really care; like when he puts the hot water bottle on your side of the bed, or you buy him a walnut whip when you dash in to M&S to grab a pair of tights. And perhaps you don’t tell each other everyday that those are the things that really count - perhaps you don’t tell each other at all. But you’re not going to be anymore enlightened by a mass-produced card either, are you? So, here’s my plan – it starts with a blank piece of paper and a pen. I don’t have to be Shakespeare, it doesn’t have to rhyme, it doesn’t even have to be more than a couple of words long if that sums it all up. I might not know the right words straight away – they might come to me on the train, on the phone, in the shower – today, tomorrow, next month, or in a year. But when it happens, I’m going to write the person who makes the little things matter, a love letter. My mum, my best friend, my sister, my husband, my dog – a love letter, isn’t a romantic preserve. I’ll tell them the little things I know only they know about me, and the little things only I know about them. I won’t even need a card - some A4 binder paper, or even a napkin will do. There’s no need to wait until next February the 14th. I’ll just write it all down, leave it by the toaster, slip it under their pillow, hide it inside their bag. Tell them ‘I love you’ without even having to say those three words.

Ps. If you want to read some beautiful letters, look no further than one of my favourite blogs – Letters of Note. My favourites are in fact letters from three fathers to their sons – John Steinbeck on falling in love, Ronald Reagan on getting married and Ted Hughes on living like a mighty river.

Pps. I’m still hopeful a ginormous bar of Toblerone might be on it’s way home from Waterloo this evening - there’s no point in wasting a good excuse for chocolate, now is there?

Monday, 4 February 2013

Making More Hours in the Day

 I’ve often wondered what life would have held had I been born a lark rather than a night owl. Surely I’d have a couple of novels under my belt, be fluent in Cantonese and possess an immaculately folded underwear drawer. Because although technically I am awake the same amount of time as your average early riser, when you’ve sprung out of bed at 5am you’ll be less inclined to spend the next two hours scrolling through your facebook newsfeed and watching re-runs of Glee. I am a night owl and it’s genetic. Nothing short of an early morning flight to somewhere hot with highly alcoholic watermelon-flavoured beverages can entice me out of bed before I absolutely have to. When I was a toddler the only way Mum could do the school run was by transferring me and my bed covers to our little orange Citroen Diane (AKA Mr Bump due to its lack of seatbelts and suspension) and driving around with me splayed across the backseats as though drugged. When it was my turn to go to school Mum took inspiration from that most popular movie of the day, Superman, meaning I would climb into bed sporting my Care Bear pyjamas, and emerge washed and fully dressed in my tunic, tights and blazer. Ta-daaa!
  I never grew out of it, of course, because, as I said, it’s genetic. But anyone who accidentally wakes me before the allotted time is no longer met with the kind of blind rage that could boil a cup of tepid tea. I’ve come to accept that getting out of bed before I’m good and ready is a simple fact of life. I spend the first 20 minutes of everyday a walking hazard: my limbs behave as though I am being operated by a drunken puppeteer, I bounce off worktops and door handles, my tongue and brain refuse to work in unison, and loud noises and bright lights prompt me to squeeze my eyes shut tightly and sway on the spot. By the time I switch on BBC Breakfast I am too traumatized to even sigh. And so starts another day.
  And then last year at Swanwick Writers Summer School I met the lovely Jackie Buxton, also a night owl – she can’t change, it’s genetic don’t you know. Erm, except she did. Because while I was clawing my way around my bedroom at 7am trying to find the shower, she had been up for two hours, been for a run, eaten breakfast, made herself look utterly gorgeous, and no doubt written another chapter of her book (which she has now finished). She called it ‘Larkism’ and had been practicing it for a couple of months when we met. If she could do it, she assured me, anyone could.
  I’d love to say that I took this advice and now, five months on, bounce out of bed laughing with glee at the thought of never having seen 5am on purpose, ready to complete a circuit of 100 squats and lunges, clear my inbox, wash down the bathroom and digest the business section of The Guardian before breakfast. I did not. Instead I decided that Jackie had in fact somehow had her genetic molecules scrambled (perhaps through proximity to a meteor strike or bite from a radioactive spider) and therefore was the one exception to the ‘can’t-change-a-night-owl’ rule. The ONE exception. Meaning statistically speaking there was no point me trying.
  This morning, I took a jaunt over to her fantastic blog Agenthood and Submissionsville, however, in which she happened to be talking about how her larkism is still going strong. Needless to say, she is now on her second novel, sings in a choir, teaches three creative writing classes, is learning a foreign language, keeping fit, and finding time to be a wife and mum. Surely there are not enough hours in the day? Oh yeah… got it now. So this week, I’m seriously contemplating Larkism. Because there really are not enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do (ie get all Cath Kidstony with my sewing machine, all David Bailey with my camera, all Audrey Tatou with my French and all Jackie Buxton with my novel). I’m contemplating Larkism in much the same way a person might contemplate voluntary root canal surgery – I know it will do me good, but can’t quite see beyond the butt-clenching pain. Hmm…. any others of you done it? I need persuading...

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

FIELD NOTES: Joanna Brennan, Pump Street Bakery, Orford Suffolk

Writing for a living can be a pretty lonely occupation, but the pay-off is that you get to pick the brains of and be inspired by some pretty awesome people who have done some pretty awesome things. Like Joanna Brennan at Pump Street Bakery who quit her job as a speech therapist in London and moved to rural Suffolk to set up a café and bakery with her Dad, Chris, a hobby baker who’d spent 30 years in IT. Two years of hard-slog later, and they’ve just picked up Best Food Producer 2012 at the BBC Food and Farming Awards – quite an achievement for a pair whose only culinary training has been a lifelong passion for good, honest food. You can read the full story and see some mouth-watering photos of the pastries and bread that I could have gorged on until next Christmas, in this month’s Country Living Magazine (February 2013), which incidentally also includes a handy guide for anyone inspired by Jo’s story. But, aside from Chris’s simply incredible Eccles Cakes that I’ve been obsessing about since my visit last autumn, let me just quickly share with you one other thing that’s stuck with me from my trip. I asked Jo why she thought Pump Street has been so successful, when so many established businesses were struggling. “Because we didn’t do it for the money, we did it because it was something we really cared about,” she said, squinting in the sunshine as we chatted outside the pink-washed café over which she now lives.  “If you want to succeed at something, you’ve got to put your heart into it. People respond to that.”
Jo’s answering questions on starting your dream café/bakery today from 1-2pm on the Country Living forum 

Friday, 25 January 2013

The Secret to my (brother's) Success

  I’m not a particularly competitive person. I couldn’t care less if I win at Connect 4, or if I end up with four little cheese slices in my Trivial Pursuit roundel. The side effect of this is that my husband thinks he is some kind of board game genius, which is fine – because we both know the truth: I simply pick my battles. In the ‘Spot the Monkey Puzzle Tree’ car game, for example, my superior observational skills are most certainly graded A*. Sadly that particular game has now been banned since I accidentally nearly killed us both during one particularly close-run round. Other than that, I’m usually quite happy, chugging along at my own pace, and measuring my achievements and failures against my very own successometer. Then, something happened – it was last night in fact - my brother handed me his finished novel.
  I suppose I might as well admit it– my sister is also writing a novel, and as you know I have a lifetime’s work of unfinished stories under my belt, so we are in fact the slightly madder and less productive version of the Brontes. Anyway, despite being the only one among the three of us who hasn’t spent a couple of decades drooling over the prospect of becoming an author, he woke up one day with an idea, flipped open his laptop and wrote it in between being annoyingly successful in his career, relocating from Brussels to London, and doing arm-curls with his one-year-old son. He finally typed ‘The End’ two years later on a plane home from Australia earlier this month. Then just because this all seemed a little bit too easy, he left his laptop on said plane with no printed or backed up version of his novel in existence, and it then flew off to Sri Lanka - ‘The End’ indeed.
  Except, by some miracle, the plane did return to the icy runways of old Blighty, complete with laptop, and brother and novel were gratefully reunited. I now have a copy of the finished manuscript on my desk. I’ve only had it for about twelve hours (eight of which I’ve been asleep), but I’m already on page 37, and I can honestly say, without a hint of sisterly affection or family bias… it totally sucks. Sorry - that’s what I was hoping to be able to say of someone who just decides to sit down and write a novel on a whim. Unfortunately, it far from sucks. I love it. I cannot put it down. I hate my brother. For a fraction of a second I have a glimpse of what it might be like for what’s his name Miliband, secretly eaten up with sibling rivalry. How the hell did he do it?! I internally scream.
  But then, over a plate of spaghetti hoops on toast (nursery food is an eternal healer), it hit me: it’s all about confidence. That is exactly the difference between him and me. Because although I have ideas coming out of my ears, and no problem bashing out a couple of thousand words a day, one thing has been holding me back - the fear that it will suck. My brother, on the other hand, inherited the confidence gene. He has unfailing, unflinching self-confidence in everything he puts his mind to, and although he still can’t ice skate backwards, nine times out of ten that means he reaches his goals.
 So sitting here, looking at his manuscript I am feeling very proud, slightly jealous, but most of all, amazingly motivated. Not in a competitive way, but in a ‘Jeez Louise let’s get cracking cos I reckon I can really do this!’ kinda way. Which is great, because learning to be more confident is probably going to get me further than learning to being more competitive. Anyone know where I put the Connect 4….? (Ahem).

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Time is Now

So it’s the third week of January, and despite your meticulously thought-out New Year’s resolutions, you’ve already swapped your evening gym sessions for a box set, a couple of bottles of wine have sneaked into the fridge, and you’re glumly resigned to another zombie-year of eat, sleep, work and living for the weekend. Well, don’t beat yourself up about it. As far as I’m concerned, New Year’s Resolutions should be banned. When it’s so cold I have to sit at my desk in a scarf and gloves with a hot water bottle shoved up my jumper, what do you think’s going to make me feel better?
a) A detox.
b) A militaristic timetable and 500-point goal-oriented to-do list
c) Merrily shovelling the remnants of a holiday-size tin of Quality Street in my mouth.

I’ve always felt life would be so much better if all the things you didn’t do or change on 1st January were still up for grabs in March or November with no guilt attached. Where you could be walking down the High Street one Wednesday afternoon in say September, and stop dead and think, ‘I want my life to be that, not this. And it’s gonna happen right now.’ Well actually, it can be as simple as that. Let me tell you a story:

Three years ago I was very unhappy, which baffled me because things were pretty good. I had a nice flat on the Northern Line, I’d met the guy I was going to end up with, and had not long landed the job I’d been chasing for the whole of my career. Life was pretty cushty.  I mean, I was too busy and stressed with work to enjoy the time I had with the people who really mattered, or do any of the things I really loved doing, and I moped into my Weetabix every morning, and spent every evening dreading the next day - but life was perfect, right?

My Dad began to die. He was 62 years old and it took one short, painful year. But before he died, he gave me an utter gift – he told me that he wanted to see me happy, and that if that meant making some pretty scary decisions, I had to make them, and had to make them right now.

And so I did. I jacked in the best-paid job I’d ever had, with nothing else to go to, during a recession, with just enough money in the bank to pay the next month’s rent. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in life: the scarier the path you choose, the better the destination. And I didn’t wait until the calendar flipped another year, or until the ‘perfect time,’ because now I knew there was no such thing. I resigned there and then on an overcast day in September, safe in the knowledge that on whichever journey I was about to embark, at least I was holding the map.
So that’s it. The End. 

Well, The Beginning really...

Because since then I’ve been self-employed, and putting food in the fridge and pennies in my purse every month – it’s not been easy, but I’ve nailed the basics. I’ve also had two years of breathing space and time to think about where I really want to be in life, and most importantly, how I’m going to get there. And that is what this blog is about.

So now that I’ve stopped panicking (mostly) about where the next job’s coming from, figured out how to keep myself in steady supply of cheddar cheese and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, got over the shock of no longer working in an office 9-5, and actually started to enjoy life, I have decided to get cracking on a few of the things I spend a lot of time talking about, but not actually doing. Like finishing a novel for one. I have a deadline, the word count is ticking, the plot is thickening and I’m feeling good. Because what's that old saying? "It's not the destination that counts, it's the journey." And as long I'm enjoying that, I'll take all the blunders and false starts along the way with a spring in my step.