Category Archives: Soul Food And Sanity Savers

Love after love [and birth]

 

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott, Love After Love

 

It’s that last line I think about at 11pm. However hard I try, it’s never earlier than that. I load up her night’s bottles onto a tray, take off my day’s sick-spattered clothes and sit down in front of the mirror. I find the skincare pots and tubes I’ve been using since Imogen arrived, and line them up carefully in front of me. Cleanser. Toner pads. Hydrating serum. Moisturiser. You’re supposed to cleanse twice and I only do that sometimes, in the mornings, when it’s been a rough night. Even so, this routine is about seven light years away from Take Off Makeup Most Nights; Use Cream When Feeling Fancy, which has been my go-to for oh, the past fifteen years.

I sit, I exhale, I rub fresh-smelling things into my exhausted face, and I think: sit. Feast on your life.

It is entirely possible that when you have a small baby – say, less than six months old – that you will feel close to madness at times. Your other children, if you have them, still need feeding and clothing and relationshipping; your spouse would probably like a conversation every now and again; your baby thinks any moment not being held is a moment wasted. And partly you crave those connections, and partly you want very much to run away to sea, where you might have to climb rigging but at least it will be quiet.

I have felt it, tickling away at the edges of my consciousness: the growing suspicion that a padded room would be a nice place to spend a long weekend, provided they gave you a book.

I have to remind myself all the time, so I’m reminding you too: this. is. totally. normal.

Since the padded room isn’t a serious option, I’ve tried hard to be exaggeratedly gentle with myself over the past few weeks. There are things that fill me up, and I’ve tried to do them whenever I can. You will find me opening the fridge and cupboards on food shopping day, because looking at our shelves crammed with fresh food – that I will use to feed them, that will do them good – makes me feel competent and satisfied.

At lunchtime I set the table for one, fussily, folding a single napkin under my knife and fork.

I write tick lists on my phone every morning, and include things like ‘Shower’ and ‘Dry hair’ so I have lots of easy wins.

I’m making huge efforts to exercise. I buy only my favourite ice cream. I downloaded a meditation app. I spent a little money on clothes that fit better.

I signed up for a creative writing course I didn’t have time for, and insisted on making the time. I write at the desk once a week, with the door closed, gently turning away all comers, and Tim brings my dinner on a tray. It feels odd, and good. I think maybe I haven’t taken myself seriously for a while, but I’d like to, now.

Give back your heart to itself. Sit. Feast on your life. 

Save the rigging for another day.

2016: the things underneath

I know, I think this might be the latest I’ve ever posted one of these. And I was just going to leave it – it feels irrelevant to relive 2016 halfway through January, not to say depressing – but I was surprised: it cheered me right up. Looking through all our photos, remembering the small, lovely things that happened in-between and underneath and despite the cataclysmic world events. Perhaps there’s something to be salvaged there, after all.

Anyway, here’s a map of 2016 in photos, tweets about bodily functions, and interesting things to read. Feels like it was made for your next long bathroom break, so hey: take fifteen minutes on me behind a locked door, while your children yell for status updates on your evacuations.

The January where we had literally no idea what was coming

An American broccoli and cheese soup recipe.
Frozen broccoli – ok
Cornstarch – um
1 loaf processed cheese food GET OUT GET OUT GET IN THE SEA

***

I know I should turn my nose up at chicken dippers, but I can’t ever truly disapprove of apostrophe-shaped food.

I read and loved:

This TOTALLY CONVINCING take-down of why Aragorn had no right to the throne of Gondor.

And I wrote: 

An impassioned defence of Always Taking The Damn Nap, Yes Always.

 

The February Heath Ledger and I Were Not The Same

Hey casual acquaintances! Just to say all my weirdness stems from my laser-focussed and obsessive attempts to seem less weird.

***

Sometimes I think that Heath Ledger dancing to Golden Years in A Knight’s Tale is one of the most exquisite moments in our human history.

(It is, though.)

I read and loved: 

This convincing explanation for why Harry Potter in Book Five is the absolute worst.

A gorgeous thing about To Kill a Mockingbird and our inner Scout Finches.

And I wrote: 

Something about David Bowie, and hawks, and dancing with toddlers (this is my favourite thing I wrote all year. Peaked early).

A controversial (as it turned out) article about how all two-year-olds are irrational tyrants, and we should definitely stop saying they aren’t.

 

The March We Survived A Transatlantic Flight With Small Children

2YO: I want a snack

Me: what kind? You’re already eating porridge

2YO: a…a green snack

Me: be more specific

2YO: I waaaant…porridge

***

I remember being a kid and consciously deciding that Belle ate the Be Our Guest food off-screen, because otherwise the waste was too annoying.

I read and loved:

Hilary Mantel (argh!) on Henry VIII’s bearded, Queen-stealing best friend (argh!).

This thing that basically confirmed my suspicion that Ben Affleck is a forever dirtbag.

And I wrote:

About Harry Potter and my teenaged life (terrible photos aplenty).

This piece for Selfish Mother about what happens once you’re out of the newlywed unicorn phase.

 

The April We Saw Lots of Beautiful America (Before, You Know, All That)

2YO, gagging gently, w. soap dispenser: urgh, soap

Me: did you put soap in your mouth?

2YO: yep

Me: why?!

4YO, wearily: it looks like syrup

***

Ate my 1st avocado-on-toast, so now I go to Instagram Heaven where all surfaces are white & food comes with hydrangea heads at a polite distance.

I read and loved:

This fascinating long-read about a woman with no long-term memory.

A gorgeous tribute to the late, great Victoria Wood.

And I wrote:

A piece about the most reliably thorny question in our marriage: who’s doing all the work?

 

The May It Was Actually Warm, No, I’m Being Serious, Take Your Coat Off

Getting a bit of Stockholm syndrome with this Eurovision presenter: he’s got more attractive the more HOURS this has gone on.

***

Went for my first run in about six months today, and this evening my legs are like ‘can u not’.

I read and loved: 

This invaluable collection of beauty recommendations for all age groups, by Sali Hughes (whom I love).

And I wrote: 

An article about body acceptance and shame.

An ode to babies-no-longer-babies.

And a Selfish Mother piece I had to screw up all my courage for, about gender-flipping periods.

 

The June We Spent Mostly Outside, Trying To Ignore That Other News Thing

I am making lists and 2YO is in the garden.

Me: you alright out there?

2YO. Yes! Do some work, OK?

Me: …ok.

***

Boy sneezes deliberately on the back of brother’s neck: a new low in sibling warfare.

I read and loved:

If Barack Obama Were Your Dad (gave myself whiplash clicking on this too fast).

The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’ Wife, a juicy saga about academic detective work, history and fraud.

And I wrote: 

A bit of hope for the toddler mothers: it’s going to get better.

A piece for TalkMum about keeping your hobbies and self intact after children arrive.

 

The July Outlander Finally Went Too Far

The fact that Claire would eat a Hershey bar after growing up in England is the most unbelievable thing in the Outlander book series so far.

***

Ten minutes into the car journey, I am now convinced that the thing on my rear wiper is a decent chunk of brown bread. #parenting

I read and loved:

This unbelievably cheering profile of a man who was stabbed on the Tube, and bounced back like a legend (I’m being flippant because I can’t do justice to it in a sentence: go read).

‘I Will Bear Witness, Though Heavy Laden’ (sob).

And I wrote: 

T’s three-year-old birthday letter.

A teary goodbye to H’s first year at school.

 

The August With All The Secret Cheese Crackers and Crying

The thing I have learned is you shouldn’t start using any phrase ironically bc your brain is like ‘cool, incorporating into vocab forever’. I am now a person who says ‘100%’ when I mean ‘definitely, absolutely’, so I am only fit for The Apprentice and quiet shame.

***

Sat here in an empty house wincing, aloud, over gingerbread avalanches. What a time to be alive. #GBBO

I read and loved:

What came next after Bones inexplicably reversed death and never mentioned it again in that Star Trek film (BEST. BEST.)

A hilarious look through a seventies Happy Bride cookbook.

And I wrote: 

H’s five-year-old birthday letter.

An angry post about token girls and token helicopters in kids’ TV.

 

The September of School, and Nursery, and Babies

Parental maths: if I did breakfast yesterday and last Sunday but @mrjeffcoat got up with 3YO in the night, who does breakfast today? Show your working.

***

I just accidentally sat on a big blob of breakfast porridge and for a moment thought I’d managed to poop my pants by osmosis #miracle

I read and loved: 

I am sorry about both of these, but I weep with laughter every time: this calculation of the exact amount of banter in that photo of the Eton boys meeting Vladimir Putin (remember that?); also, this weird and wonderful thing about the fox on Splash Mountain coming disturbingly to life.

The power of internet friendships, by the founders of The Toast (I love them both, and this is beautiful).

And I wrote: 

An honest appraisal of the first trimester, third time around (spoiler: it sucks).

A piece for TalkMum about five things you shouldn’t worry about when your baby starts school.

 

The October Facebook Sassed Back

Since I shut down my Facebook newsfeed (<3) I get this message there instead: ‘You’d have more items if you added more friends’. Pure sass.

***

Me: it’s wet. Let’s just walk in our woods and then fetch something to bake.

5YO: or! We could play here in the warm and then have a calm lunch.

I read and loved: 

This lovely bittersweet article about tracking our different lives on Google Maps.

I will read anything that trashes ‘clean eating’ for the dangerous nonsense it is: this is sensible and good.

And I wrote: 

When is a roast chicken not a roast chicken? When it’s this.

 

The November We Won’t Talk About Except In Trivialities Like The Below

Marriage is two consecutive text messages: one recording in loving detail the consistency of our child’s vomit, the next, filthy innuendo.

***

Me: [sigh] 5YO, just let him do what he wants  

This is the youngest-child-rearing policy I never meant to have, yet somehow do have at 5.30pm

I read and loved:

How a Kashmiri mother’s cooking bound her to her daughter.

Behind the scenes of a full-time carer in Anne of Green Gables – one of the best things I read all year, this.

And I wrote:

This about why it’s important to be a bit of a rubbish parent sometimes.

 

The December We Stayed Home For Christmas And Now We’ll Never Do Anything Else

5YO: so then you tie our laces together

Me: right. Why?

5YO: for the game

Me: I want you to know I’m doing this against my better judgement

***

Does it hurt?’

‘I’ve got other stuff that hurts more’

‘Like what?’ 

‘Things from my past’ <-the point where I decided this book was Not Good

I read and loved: 

Something we desperately needed by this point: eight ordinary heroes from 2016

And this very heartfelt, touching letter to the midwife who blew in with the snow

And I wrote: 

An installment of Notes from the Trenches with, could it be, a little less excrement than usual?

Maybe the small things in this year will turn out to be unexpectedly cheering too? Here’s hoping.

2017 feels like the year for a different kind of resolution

Do you get the feeling that resolutions aren’t quite in vogue at the minute? I’ve seen a lot this week about chucking out the diet plans and exercise regimes in favour of cozying up on the sofa, without trying to hang your sense of well-being on a set of tick boxes or numbers on a scale.

With all this I heartily, heartily agree. I am always anti-diet: why anyone would add voluntary self-deprivation to a month that is already going to be cold, dark, wet and hard work without any of your input, I have no idea; also I am especially anti-diet now I am shaped like a cheeseburger and basically fuelled by them too, but let’s say that’s my issue rather than yours.

And I know what the tyranny of the tick-box is like. As though powering through an arbitrary list of tasks/getting a certain number of likes/seeing the number I want on a weighing scale somehow gives me permission to be happy. It’s seductive (because it pretends to be controllable), and it’s also bull. I am more complex than any sum of my parts, worth more than a list of conditions anyone has set, even when I’ve set them – and so are you.

Still, despite all that: I believe in the power of writing things down.

It’s because some things are true but easy to forget. It’s because writing things down makes them audible, ordered, and always within reach. I was reading the other day about the earliest example of the written word – it’s a 5000-year-old clay tablet from Mesopotamia about beer rations, which only shows that human beings have been interested in the same things since always. (The tablet is the size of a computer mouse, and the British Museum has loads but has to keep baking them in a SPECIAL ANCIENT TABLET KILN to preserve them properly; I mean, the whole piece was wonderful.) Anyway, a professor of philosophy talks about how writing not only enables complex thought but calls things into being that didn’t exist before. Writing things down made it possible for us to create, and more, more vitally and wonderfully: to hold onto our creations when human chaos barges in to foul things up. As it tends to.

So I spent last night’s episode of Silent Witness (SILENT WITNESS IS BACK, YOU GUYS) carefully putting my intentions this year into writing. Nothing too prescriptive or number-driven. Pinned between ink and paper, my resolution to be kind to myself, and my husband, and my multiplying children.

Take your small kindnesses. Carve them deep into clay. Bake them hard and fast.

Until you can see them. Until they’re something real.

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals

 

Hey, we made it. And I for one am grateful to know that in any year, even one as unsettling and sad as this one has been, there are some Christmas constants: a Christmas-eve-eve viewing of Home Alone (this year, for the first time, they got the jokes and roared), pancakes, hot-radiator-and-pine-needle smells, this reason-for-the-season video, a frantic search for a Christmas tree video song that’s much cooler than we are, lazily blinking fairy lights in the semi-darkness, and at least one slightly awkward smile in our Christmas photo. This year I count three…and a half?

I have explained seventy-two times that today is only Christmas Eve, and so Father Christmas will come tonight, and today is not present-opening day.

Oh man, I love it all.

Happy Christmas to you, dear friends. I wish you quiet, and peace, and time with those you love.

What does Father Christmas eat for breakfast? Weeto-ho-hos. (Sorry.)

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Forget personality types – this is all I want to know right now: are you a short-and-sweet Christmas person, or a tree-up-in-November person?

Mostly I like to keep my Christmas in December. I think it’s more magical when it’s extra-concentrated. Like condensed milk straight from the tin (YES). That is, until we got an invitation to have breakfast with Father Christmas at Wyevale Garden Centre last Saturday. At the end of November. But it was breakfast with Father Christmas! How could we refuse?

Of course, breakfast meant quite an early start. When we arrived at our local Sherfield-on-Loddon branch, minutes after it opened and with no other cars in the car park, we wondered at first whether we’d arrived in the right place. Awkwardly we shuffled through deserted aisles of greenery and scented candles, watching nodding Father Christmasses and tiny battery-powered trains moving eerily for an audience of no one.

‘This is, um, weird’, Tim whispered to me, while the boys tried to warm their hands on a pretend fire. It sort of was.

Then, huzzah, it turned out that we were in the right place after all. Elf-ladies ushered us and a few other families into the restaurant area, where we found a gorgeous Christmassy table laid up for us. H and T had name badges and colouring mats waiting for them, and there were crackers to pull and photo props to pose with (which they loved).

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Barely were our comedy moustaches in place when the cooked breakfasts arrived. The boys recently decided that bacon is their favourite food item in the whole world (same, guys, same), so they were hilariously excited. The staff were lovely, coming to check on us frequently and refilling our giant hot chocolates whenever we looked around.

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After breakfast came snowman cookies to decorate, with sprinkles, marshmallows and little tubes of icing. H and T were already beside themselves by this point, so got stuck in and really enjoyed it. Bacon, chocolate, marshmallows, royal icing, Elton John’s majestic ‘Step Into Christmas’ bouncing along in the background: check. ENTER SANTA.

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I am sorry to tell you, if you’re new to this parenting lark, that Christmas is where you become a wobbly sap of a human being. This is the first year both boys have been old enough to properly ‘get’ the Father Christmas thing, and it’s already melting the ice around my curmudgeonly heart. They gathered the children all together on the carpet and made them shout for Santa and, oh, oh. Look at their faces.

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Spoiler alert: he arrived.

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The lovely thing was that after he greeted all of them together, everyone went back to their tables and each family got some time to themselves: a little chat with Father Christmas, lots of photo time, and then their present (which was included in the ticket, huzzah). When it came to our turn, T whispered frantically ‘I want to show Santa my cookie!’ – then, alas, ran so hard with the plate in his hands that he dropped the cookie and broke it…twice. But Father Christmas soon cheered him up. It was ADORABLE. Is it always like this, parents?! Am I going to cry every December from now on?

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Once we’d waved goodbye to Santa, we had loads of time and space to finish eating and drinking, (re)decorating broken cookies and gathering up our things. We saved the presents to open in the car and they both loved them. Then we got to go home, still well before lunchtime, and huddle up together on the sofa all day. It felt like such a treat.

I don’t know if Father Christmas is a really central part of the festivities for you, but for me he’s never really been the lynchpin of the whole thing. My favourite parts of December tend to be Christmas trees, carols, food, nativities – though I don’t know whether that’s the adult in me talking now. This year, suddenly, I am in love with it; every little bit of it. They were so utterly thrilled by the experience that it set our December off beautifully. Even if it was still in late November. Bah (un)humbug.

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Disclosure: we were invited to try Breakfast with Father Christmas, which was jolly lovely of Wyevale Garden Centres, but (as the photos show, I hope) all the festive glee was ours. They also do a Tea with Father Christmas, if early mornings and bacon aren’t your thing. You can look up the whole schedule for December here. We’re definitely going again next year!

October, you beauty

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Hello.

Here I am, which is unusual enough, because whenever I have a spare hour and have to decide between Lying Still or Anything Else, the Lying Still tends to win. It’s frustrating having to slow down, especially now the sickness has gone (whee!). I like to get on. I keep having to remember not to define myself by things I can’t always do.

I feel quite anxious about this pregnancy, in a way I didn’t with the others. Oddly my visits to the midwife make this worse, not better. Most of the time I can assume (or tell myself to assume) that everything’s fine. When I go to the midwife, I have to wait the agonising three minutes before she finds the heartbeat, and get test results back where ‘this is a little unusual, but nothing to worry about’, I mean CLEARLY I WILL NOW WORRY ABOUT THAT THING, WHAT DO YOU TAKE ME FOR.

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Still, without the sickness, I am gathering myself together again, bit by bit. Folding some laundry. Taking the boys out for walks in the woods. Making proper dinners, and eating them. Meeting deadlines, cleaning the kitchen. Reducing my snack breaks from seventeen a day to an entirely reasonable eight. On Sunday I wore a dress that I loved, and pushed Tim off to bed while the boys and I went exploring and did not eat a single bag of beef crisps all day, and it felt like the best day of my life.

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Yesterday I baked a new kind of apple cake that turned out to smell (like apples) a great deal better than it tasted (mostly like baking powder). Still, the baking was therapeutic, and it was a much cheaper way to make the house smell nice than dropping £30 on a White Company candle.

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I feel like doing a Rocky air-punch on the rare occasions I get to hand out fat slices of homemade cake after school. It makes me feel like Mary Poppins. Although –

H: ‘What are these on top?’

Me: ‘They’re called almonds.’

H: ‘Urgh.’

Me: ‘They won’t taste of much by themselves. You’re supposed to eat them with the cake.’

[Five minutes pass]

Me: ‘H, haven’t you started yet?’

H: ‘No, I’m taking out all of the Normons, because they look awful.’

Take that, Normons. Sorry for the body-shaming.

We’ve got our back-to-school bugs and September Rages mostly out of the way now, I hope (T is feeling ‘asspalootely better’, if you ask him). Both boys have settled into their new routines. We cycle to school whenever the weather’s kind, and then after school H and I do a mad dash from one playground to the other, a mile and a half away. T comes bursting out of nursery, jumper sleeves rolled up to the elbows, usually filthy and clutching all his bags, which he hands over to me before they race their bikes home. H would always win, except that T cheats.

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See? Cheating.

See? Cheating.

It feels like autumn has been slow in coming, but now we have crunchy leaves, misty mornings, and reddening holly berries all over the place. There’s a whole colony of enterprising mushrooms growing out of the gigantic pile of horse poo down the road, and I feel compelled to point them out every time we pass, for educational reasons. While also holding my breath. Motherhood is weird.

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I’ve been reading a lot. There’s something about cold weather that gives me permission to retire with a blanket and a book – which is what I really want to be doing all the time anyway. I read a very unusual book (From A Clear Blue Sky) about grief and siblings by Timothy Knatchbull, who was on Lord Mountbatten’s sabotaged boat when it was bombed by the IRA in 1979 (Mountbatten was his grandfather, and Timothy was in his mid-teens). Timothy survived, and so did his parents – just – but his twin brother Nicholas died. Years later he wrote the book to come to terms with the griefs he’d buried at the time. It’s not political at all, very honest and completely fascinating. I thought it was wonderful.

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I’ve also reread The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver has never written a better), Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (because I watched the BBC adaptation, and missed it), an Agatha Christie every other week (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. FLAWLESS) and last week got hold of David Mitchell’s new-ish novel, The Bone Clocks. Which is as mad as David Mitchell ever is, and as delightful. And if poetry’s your jam, or you would like it to be, you must get hold of The Emergency Poet. It was compiled by a superhero woman who literally bought a discontinued ambulance and drove around in it, offering consoling poems to people who were struggling. What a life! It’s a gorgeous thing.

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Are you watching Poldark? It’s as beautiful as ever to look at, but I’ve been put off a bit this series by the fact that Ross Poldark is kind of a jerk. Look, screenwriters, if you want us to believe that everyone likes him, you have to give us some reason why. It can’t always be scything topless and glistening in golden fields. That combination of getting into debt, being surly and condescending to his wife and galloping worryingly near cliff edges is not calculated to set the heart afire.

Also Bake-Off. BAKE-OFF. Every episode brings us closer to the last one ever, and the fact that this series is so delicious is both helping and hurting. Like eating an entire plate of Tudor pies in one go (I would. Did you see them? I WOULD).

Who ate all the pies? (Me, probably.)

Who ate all the pies? (Me, probably.)

T helped me watch the first Harry Potter film a few weeks ago. Some observations:

‘Dumbledore! He’s the master…head’. (‘Headmaster?’ ‘Yeah.’)

‘Look, it’s Yogrid!’

‘Harry is using a… a feather crayon.’

‘My-knee? Who’s My-knee?’

(Harry, onscreen: ‘And Snape wasn’t blinking.’) ‘I’m blinking. Look.’

[sigh] ‘I am weally not a-pwessed.’

I’ll win him over eventually.

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Chicken, and all my other love stories





When I want to give them Sunday, I give them roast dinner.

Food is my love language; it’s the tongue I speak with most feeling. I remember bleary bouts of flu as a child, interrupted with lunch trays of velvety rich Heinz tomato soup, buttered crumpets cut into tiny triangles, webs of melted cheese skittering over the top. It’s the meal I go back to when I feel in need of succor, the one I make when someone else is. I snip the crumpets into triangles with kitchen scissors, and lick the butter as it runs down my wrists.

Yorkshire being Yorkshire, and Sunday being Sunday, we made and ate roast dinners every week after church – not just in our house, but in everyone else’s too. We banished our younger siblings to the carrot-and-potato peeling, while we applied ourselves to the tricky bits. Mixing the Yorkshire pudding batter by sight, watching for the proper glub-glub drip off the end of the whisk. Crumbling unwrapped stock cubes into a pan of meat juices in order: two chicken, one lamb, one Oxo, one spoonful of marmite, stir. My mum added precisely the right amount of salt into the boiling mass of potatoes with a flick of the wrist. Vegetables, stuffing, crispy-skinned chicken, gravy: it rose and steamed and crisped and browned, until it was done and we ate and poured lakes and lakes of the gravy onto the food we’d made together.

We did that every week, and called it Sunday Dinner, and I never knew it was possible to do anything else.

The south has given me food-love too, or it’s probably more accurate to say that adulthood has, and the south is where I’ve spent it. We have our own special dinners now, food that means more than food: pancakes on Saturday mornings, pints of Phish food ice cream from the carton on Friday nights. I know what their favourites are, and plan steaming lasagnes for Tim after a hard day, sausage pie with buttery pastry for Henry, cheesy pesto pasta for my heathen toddler.

But when I want a special Sunday, when I want to offer them something in my open hands that means comfort and care and togetherness, I buy a whole chicken. Tim has never been trained in the roast dinner dance, so I direct him to vegetables while I whisk creamy Yorkshire pudding batter, toss salt over boiling potatoes, unwrap gravy stock cubes and lie them ready on the counter like surgical instruments.

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I make a diagram with lots of arrows to make sure I know when everything comes in and out. Open the oven door, slam it shut. Roast and stir and carve. Good glasses on the table, pretty napkins on the mats. Until it’s all ready and I push it towards them, watch them pour lakes and lakes of gravy on their plates, and eat.

And they don’t speak my language, of course. A roast dinner is not a Sunday Dinner, not in their world. If I made a roast dinner every week they’d get bored. They wouldn’t understand that I am offering them Sunday afternoon, a childhood, a warm kitchen exhaling the smell of roast chicken. All my love, and the best of gifts I know how to give them.

They don’t speak that language at all, but I hope they see my open hands; that somehow, we are communicating love through chicken – love and love through all my wordless, clumsy signs.

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This feels like the stuff childhood is made of

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Sometimes I disconnect during our camping trip to Dorset – mind buzzing up and away from its normal constraints under all that empty sky – and wonder what our ancestors would think, if they could see us leaving our safe, waterproof Life Boxes to sleep under a flimsy, pegged-down balloon. Voluntarily huddling round open flames to cook our dinner and warm our bones.

I’m not putting myself forward as a candidate for the Stone Ages or anything, but camping really isn’t as mad as it sounds. Sometimes. This time, the boys a tiny bit older, the weather better, friends and their baby with us, and all our plans working out like a dream – it felt like five days of bliss. Even though there is such a thing as camping hair, and it visits my head with the wroth of a thousand fuzz-fires. I just try not to look in mirrors.

Camping haaaaaair

Camping haaaaaair

Our little experiments, back when we first tried this in 2012, have solidified into traditions we look forward to for weeks. Plan to arrive before dark. Actually arrive after dark, and put up tent in glare of headlights and frayed tempers. Eat breakfast overlooking the valley and the steam train. On the sunniest day we head to the beach, all purple heather and white sand. This year H surprised us by galloping into the sea first thing, and staying in there most of the day. Apparently he’s not afraid of water anymore? I wonder if I will ever learn not to assume his dislikes and fears are permanent. Probably not, but it’s one of those occasions where it’s nice to be proven wrong over and over again.

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After a hot and windy day in Studland bay, we drove into Corfe for the Purbeck Film Festival, which runs an open-air cinema every year in the castle grounds. We order hefty boxes of fish and chips from the local pub, and eat them under blankets, waiting for the sun to set. This year we watched the new, live-action Jungle Book, which Tim and I thought was ace, and both boys decided was ‘weally scary, actually’. (It was, a bit.)

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The next day we went to Brownsea Island, surely the Enid-Blytonest day trip ever invented. We park on Studland Bay, take a chain ferry over to Sandbanks, and then a little yellow boat over to the island. Brownsea is a nature reserve (red squirrels! Peacock babies!), and also the place where the first Scout camp was held in 1907, though it’s much older than that: a solitary hermit monk set up camp there in the 9th century – lording it up spectacularly, I’m sure – and it hasn’t been left alone since. These days there are amazing clifftop views, lots of bright heather, a cracking wooden adventure playground in the middle, and lovely forest for little hikes. The island is small enough that even the longest hike is a doable challenge for toddler legs. It’s my favourite day, this one. No matter how many people get off the boat with you, you always feel like you’ve got the place to yourself.

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Then, of course, the castle day. I keep expecting H and T to get bored of coming to Corfe Castle, but they haven’t yet: they loved it this year more than ever. We got there on the steam train – always a pants-wettingly exciting experience for these two – and then had a good ramble around the ruins.

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And a sword fight. Can I get one of these furred tabards for casual leisure wear? It was like being embraced by a bear who respected personal boundaries.

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We always take the same photo in this window, and it always takes us at LEAST half an hour to find it again. Which leads to me bellowing across a crowded castle yard ‘I’ve found it! I recognise the mould patterns!’

They are very distinctive mould patterns, to be fair.

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(If you open this in a new tab, it’s bigger.)

That evening I settled into my million layers and read a book under a duvet, while Tim and our friends played cards, and Teddy wailed through firmly-zipped canvas ‘BUT I WANT TO KEEP THIS HOLIDAY FOREVER AND EVERRRR’.

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The next morning we packed up, loaded the car, and drove away in the direction of Durdle Door.  We’d never actually been to Durdle Door – silly, because it’s one of the main tourist attractions in the county – and it was busy, but utterly breathtaking. Not a beach ideal for little ones, because it’s pebbles rather than sand, and you have to climb an awfully large hill to get back to the car. But the view! I couldn’t stop looking.

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On the road out we always pass a little footpath sign that marks 2 1/4 miles to Corfe Castle, and I think ‘one day, when their legs are long enough’. Maybe in a few years. In a few years they’ll spend rainy mornings reading in their sleeping bags. In a few years, we can cycle. It’s rather a lovely thing, knowing that your August bank holiday is only going to get better and better – even if that’s not true, alas, of your hair.

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(The castle, the island and the beach car park are all owned by the National Trust – we already use our yearly membership to death, but even if we didn’t, this one holiday would make it even out. The steam train, the film festival and the little ferry (still free for under-sixes!) tend to be our only activity expenses, which is extremely happy-making.)

Something to bake (with kids): strawberry cheesecake muffins

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Sometimes you bake with kids and it’s a dream. They get on well, they take turns, everyone’s laughing and just a little flour-smudged in a photogenic way, like you’re in a Cath Kidston advert and someone’s about to present you with a lifetime supply of floral patterns.

Then other times you bake with kids and they screech and elbow each other and drop eggs and poke dirty fingers into the mixture and throw flour around by the bucketload. Generally speaking, if I post something about baking and the boys are in the photos from the start, we’ve had the Cath Kidston scenario. If they’re only in the last photo, eating the cake, then…it was a crapocolypse.

You may draw your own conclusions from the photos below.

Still! Flour-flinging aside, these strawberry cheesecake muffins are great to make with little ones. Like most muffins, the method is simple enough; the assembly involves enough detail to be interesting but not so much that they can get it wrong. I will defend my lacklustre Muffin Feelings to the death: they give you a sky-high calorie hit for what is, let’s face it, a pretty uninteresting mouthful of crumbs. I’d rather have proper squishy cake or pie any old day of the week. But these are delicious, and less stodgy than they should be because of the surprise strawberry-and-cheesecake filling baked into the middle.

The recipe is here (weirdly, this sad little misspelled page is the only version of it I can find online, but it must be an official BBC Good Food bake, since it’s in my book). Mix your wet and dry ingredients separately, then combine. Apparently you should mix sparingly after that, because the less you touch it the lighter the muffins will be. I always find it difficult to overcome my fear of leaving lumps in things – a hangover from a lifetime of making Yorkshire puddings, I reckon – but in this case you have the universe’s permission to leave the lumps just chilling in there. Outrageous.

Then comes the assembly: fill half the case with batter, then get your willing children to push in strawberry halves with chubby fingers. Tell them every time not to push the strawberry to the bottom, then watch as they push the strawberry to the bottom. Add a spoonful of the cheesecake mixture, then top with more muffin batter.

They take fifteen minutes in a hot oven and come out as proud and glorious golden mounds. You’ll be tempted to eat them immediately, but remember that there’s a boiled strawberry lurking in the middle somewhere, and it’ll be like sticking your tongue into a volcano. Wait ten minutes. Then eat with caution, and many ‘mmm’ noises.

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All the Feelings I Had During Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, in Order

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Jamie Parker as Harry Potter. Photo: Manuel Harlan

WARNING: this post contains the sort of mild, vague-detail spoilers that you can find in any of the newspaper reviews that came out this week. You may wish to be completely unspoiled till the script comes out on Sunday, and if so, you have my hearty permission to withdraw. 

It’s been three weeks since we went to London and saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and I still think about it once every other day, probably. Sat in the nosebleed seats at the crumbly-Victorian Palace Theatre, all gold leaf and red velvet, I listened to a group of students behind us having self-consciously arty conversation, and the couple in their mid-forties on our right talking about DIY, and thought how strange it was that Harry Potter had gathered us all here in one place. Had the lady next to me read Deathly Hallows on the Tube, in one of those subdued-cover adult editions so as to draw less attention? Had the kids in their early twenties followed Harry and Voldemort from the moment they were old enough to read? I wondered this because, as the lights went down and rose again on Platform 9 3/4, a great, collective gasp went up from the audience, whoever they were: a sort of yearning, joyful, bittersweet nostalgia. We were back, after years of being away.

It took only a few minutes for the old characters to reassert themselves. Jamie Parker was recognisably Harry, Harry with twenty years under his belt: still damaged, heroic, emotional, sometimes bullish to the point of being obnoxious. (There was a moment towards the end of Part One when he went Full Book Five Harry. And we all thought ‘Man. We don’t miss Book Five Harry’.) Noma Dumezweni made a calmly authoritative Hermione, clearly having spent a couple of decades Getting Stuff Done. Paul Thornley is a loose and hilarious Ron: still wise-cracking, still clumsily sincere. Ginny (Poppy Miller) and Draco (Alex Price) got a little less room to breathe, but still established their characters and gave a sense of growth and change.

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Paul Thornley as Ron Weasley and Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The new characters had a tougher sell, having to create a personality in a few strokes without a wave of audience goodwill to ride on. They were wonderful: Rose Weasley (Cherrelle Skeete) fiery and stubborn; Albus Potter (Sam Clemmett) totally convincing as a prickly, whiny fifteen-year-old resenting his famous father’s legacy; Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle) a sweet, nerdy goofball who got huge laughs every time he opened his mouth.

The plot (without giving any important details away) takes the form of a complex, time-travelling quest full of alternative realities, prophecies, hauntings and the return of friends and foes. There were enough revelations to power a million new Tumblr posts, and we all gasped in unison and clutched each other’s hands. There were several moments where beloved, long-lost characters walked back on stage and the entire audience let out cries of welcome and sadness. Characters resolved old issues and laid lingering demons to rest. I’m making it sound like an emotional orgy. Imagine thousands of Potterheads together, reading a new, eighth book aloud: it sort of was.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

What really made it, though, were the special effects. The movies let you see the magic, of course, but you’re always at a remove, on the other side of the screen. Watching magic in front of your eyes is something else. Actors changing instantly into wizard’s robes, taking Polyjuice potion, leaping up and down moving staircases, using the secret entrance to the Ministry of Magic, having a magic duel, complete with flying chairs, flashes and bangs: all so delightful that our mouths fell open. Other set pieces – a dreamy underwater scene, a fiery Patronus dancing in the dark, Dementors extending skeletal hands from fluttering cloaks – were so atmospherically beautiful we held our breaths until they were done.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

It was the very thing. The real thing. It did what books and theatre do better than any other medium, I think: it brought Harry Potter back to life around us, letting us back into a world we’d left years ago, returning to find that everything was different, but still, essentially and marvellously, just the same.

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2many feelings 2handle.

250 000 more seats are being released on 4th August (for shows in 2017). GET SOME, even if you have to pay in blood.

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