Category Archives: Soul Food And Sanity Savers

Why Trump was the last straw that poked me off Facebook

 

Bless this Scottish legend. We were all with you in spirit.

Bless this Scottish balloon-wielder. We were all with you in spirit.

It was Donald Trump wot did it.

Did what? Oh, well, aside from bringing incendiary fascism into public discourse, cultivating a urine-flavoured candyfloss hairstyle, and delivering all his speeches in a voice that sounds like an old man farting into a set of bagpipes, which you’d think would be enough to be going on with – he was also the last straw that poked me off Facebook.

I don’t mean the Facebook ‘avoidance’ I’ve been practising for a year or so, where I delete the app from my phone and ten minutes later open the page in Safari. I mean that I use it for a couple of essential pages (this blog’s page being one of them) and have ceremoniously deleted everything else. Including my entire News Feed. Oh my giddy aunt, it actually feels good.

I’ve been a loyal Facebooker since its early days, where all your statuses had to begin with ‘Rachel is’ (there’s a grammatical tangle-in-waiting) and that was about all there was to do. It’s been a useful thing for me. For every auto-playing Russian video or SHARE IF YOU TOO HAVE A SON MADE OF RAINBOWS meme, there was a baby announcement from a friend I don’t see often enough. Or a photo album from family halfway across the world. Irreplaceable things. Real things. But then Facebook started putting posts your friends have liked on the News Feed. And that meant an unavoidable crapstorm of opinions.

Surely (I thought) it’s not true that I like people less when I know their take on current affairs? I don’t think it is. It’s just that normally, you find out people’s opinions in very small doses. Face-to-face, and if you happen to be talking about it. Even with your friends, that happens relatively rarely. ‘Oh dear’, you might think. ‘My friend is somewhere else on the political spectrum. Oh well, they have many delightful qualities and, since we’re in conversation, we can find some common ground’. You are both considering what you’re saying, and saying it deliberately. This is how it is meant to be. Unless your friend is a newspaper columnist, that’s how it’s always been.

Then once Facebook changed their algorithms, second-hand opinions were all over the place. At first, this is only mildly annoying: ‘Oh, my friend has a friend I’ve never heard of and that friend is having a baby shower, and my friend has marked this with a Love’, you think. ‘Unnecessary information for me. But good for them’.

Then someone that you knew in high school and didn’t like all that much to begin with has a spouse who went to a party and was photographed in various stages of ‘banter’. She has Liked all these photographs. You have not spoken to your acquaintance in fifteen years. You have never met their spouse. You did not go to the party, though if you had you would have been strongly tempted to whack the spouse in the chops with their own comedy inflatable. Why is this in your News Feed, you think. You have already spent too long thinking about this party. Was the party imaginary? What is the point of your life?

Then, heaven forbid, something controversial happens in the political sphere. Someone you know likes a ranty post that makes all the points you disagree with. You feel a bit nauseated. Do they really think like this, you wonder. All the time? People – myself included – will like a post that says things that are more strident or extreme than anything they’d put on their own wall. Sometimes the posts that are liked are racist. Sometimes they are offensive. Doesn’t matter whether your Facebook friend said them or not: all of them appear on your News Feed, with their name attached.

The time this was a bigoted rant by Donald Trump, liked by someone I like in real life, something deep inside snapped in half. YOU ARE A TRUMP SUPPORTER, FRIEND. AND NOW HE IS ON MY NEWS FEED. IT’S LIKE YOU CAME OVER TO MY HOUSE AND SMEARED DOG FAECES ON MY FRONT DOOR AND THEN MADE ME COME AND SMELL IT.

I took a good look at my feed and counted the last twenty posts. Five of them were actual things my friends had written. Fifteen were posts they had liked, that had nothing to do with them or me. So I checked that I was following enough people on Instagram, and decided to jump the blue ship.

I tell you, it’s made me feel so much better. (I didn’t even mention the fact that I have zero self-control when it comes to social media, so I also have a zillion hours more free time.) I thought it would be difficult – and I was lamentably behind on the new Reading IKEA news – but it’s honestly been more of a relief than I imagined.

I kind of miss the Russian dude making his dog lip-sync Happy Birthday. Remind me to look him up on YouTube.

no I'm blooming well not

no I’m blooming well not

 

If Brexit’s getting a bit much, here are three things you can watch instead

Oh, my loves. We’re all going to hell in a handcart, aren’t we? You could’ve been a junior writer in the tenth season of Lost, and you’d have rejected this weekend as a bit far-fetched. The pound gone off a cliff, the prime minister resigned, the opposition imploding, more money wiped from the markets than we would’ve paid in several decades of EU membership, every single ludicrous promise from the Leave side retracted by Friday lunchtime, and openly racist slurs being reported in their hundreds. I don’t know how it looks to you overseas readers but here, oh, we’re in so much pain. I watch the news, and hard, blind pain settles on my chest like a weight. I’ve remembered why grief is so often described as ‘suffocating’ (you’ll know this yourself, of course: everyone has a grief to call their own). It’s because it comes up suddenly from somewhere dark and deep, and presses on you so heavily that you can’t breathe.

We have to keep watching the news, because it won’t help to pretend this isn’t happening. In particular this ugly, ignorant strain of racism we’ve uncovered, this infestation of maggots we exposed when we kicked over the the old wood that hid them, needs stamping into oblivion. We owe them that, all the thousands of people who came here from other places and now prop up our health service, care for our elderly and generally get their hands dirty for our good.

But I am exhausted from rage and despair and fear. And sometimes you need a break from the news, somewhere to crawl into while your heart slows down. Here are three things to watch when Brexit gets a bit much.

Adele setting fire to Glastonbury

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It’s a difficult time to be proud of being British, but if anyone’s in our plus column, it’s Adele. Her 90-minute set at Glastonbury was total joy: she brought little girls out of the crowd to take selfies, interrupted herself to tell someone he looked just like Brian Harvey from East 17, and restarted a song after two bars because she wanted to sing it better. She’s like the best friend we all want who also happens to sing gorgeously emotional songs. I watched it this afternoon while working, and felt bathed in chummy solidarity. Make You Feel My Love was the bit where I cried. Where was yours?

It’s on iPlayer, here: Glastonbury part 3, and Adele comes on at about 74 minutes in.

A freaking wonderful documentary about the fall of Anne Boleyn

The hair, the HAIR.

The hair, the HAIR.

Give me poorly acted sepia reconstructions in period costume! Give me Fake Henry taking mass in slow motion and looking with dead fish eyes at Fake Anne Boleyn! Give me the Tudor Historians out in force! Alison Weir hates Cromwell with the fire of a thousand suns, so is here as usual going ‘IT WAS HIM, THE SNAKE’. Suzannah Lipscomb dripping with glorious hair and hand gestures. David Starkey rocking tiny yellow spectacles and dropping truth bombs about Henry all over. Hilary Mantel being Hilary Mantel, and the wisest and best creature on this earth. The machinations that went into bringing down Anne Boleyn were diabolical, and I LOVE them. I want to see a remake of the Avengers, only with Tudor historians bursting into buildings to examine old documents. David Starkey drop kicks the librarian while Alison Weir sets fire to Cromwell’s portrait. This treasure is on iPlayer, here.

Kilts and stubbly intrigue in Outlander

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I only knew one thing about Outlander before we started watching it on a whim on Friday night: that lots of people were out-of-their-heads obsessed with it. Now that we’re halfway through Season 1, I know why: it’s like X-chromosome crack. The first hour was a bit rambly and confusing, as gutsy nurse Claire and her husband Frank pootle around Inverness after the end of WW2. Then Claire touches some magic standing stones and they catapult her back to the 18th century, as standing stones do, the dogs! Trapped in a Scotland full of tartan, rolled r’s and misogyny, she ends up marrying a Highlander for Reasons. He’s called Jamie, but he might’s well be called This One’s For You, Female Viewers, with his kilt, canny combination of steel and adoration, and pecs that look like two hearty flesh basketballs jostling for position. He is like a tartan-clad puppy in human form. He is the 18th century’s answer to Channing Tatum. Poor old boring Frank wears mustard jumpers, and cannot compete. And then the vistas are sweeping, the relationships are more thoughtful than your average potboiler, and the costumes are gorgeous. There are rather too many histrionic sex scenes for this viewer – Outlander feels about nipples the way it feels about candles and mead: at least one in every other scene – and I spent the series middle with my finger on fast-forward as a result. But what will happen when we get to Culloden, eh? I CANNAE WAIT TO FIND OUT.

Outlander is on Amazon Prime, now, and also on DVD via Amazon.

Keep your chin up, dear ones. I don’t know how this is going to work out, but we’ll make the best of what we’ve got once we know where we’re going. And we’ve still got Adele. Don’t forget Adele.

The week in stuff

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Hello, you lovely things! You may be out for dinner at a restaurant or clinking glasses together at a swanky bar, but we all know where the REAL action is: here on my sofa, still wearing workout gear from my appalling jog/walk earlier, sporting a fringe that looks like a small, dying patch of forehead bracken, talking about our WEEK IN STUFF.

Half-term week! We spent the first bit of it in the New Forest having a beautiful time (see above), then took the train to Reading Museum, still conquering everything with its collecting policy of ‘strange bits and bobs’, then spent the latter part of the week with grandparents and cousins.

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Today I took the boys to see Zootropolis, which you absolutely must see as soon as possible. It is clever, funny, sharp, poignant; features Idris Elba as a giant, brusque water buffalo (exactly the creature you suspect would be Idris Elba’s patronus, in a different life); and has a scrappy, feminist bunny cop as the main character. Imagine a young Peggy Carter, at the beginning of her career and confidence, with fuzzy ears. Jason Bateman also plays a criminal fox sidekick, and if you thought you only had room in your heartlands for ONE weirdly but unstoppably attractive animated fox, well, think again.

Imagine if this guy and Robin Hood were in the SAME FILM. *dead*

Imagine if this guy and Robin Hood were in the SAME FILM. *dead*

The excellence of this film just about made up for the fact that the boys had to emergency-wee SEVEN TIMES between the two of them, and that during one of these expulsions, I dropped a public toilet seat down too fast and splattered my face with my son’s waste. Let’s pretend that it was just my son’s urine, and not that of several mingled Basingstoke strangers. Let’s also pretend that some of it didn’t go in my mouth. Hashtag motherhood, you guys.

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Our rap name: the Pee-Eyed Peas.

Tim got to choose the film a couple of nights ago, and chose a classic Roger Moore Bond, A View to a Kill. Look. Maybe I just don’t GET Bond when it’s not Daniel Craig being craggy and beautiful. But watching Roger Moore flick random women into his bed every ten minutes, with only an eyebrow and an assumption that it was his due, made me want to flick him into a moving aeroplane propeller. Also Grace Jones wears an eyewatering leotard (google it). I hope they paid her extra for it.

Did you watch the BBC version of Midsummer Night’s Dream on Bank Holiday Monday? (It’s here on iPlayer if you missed it.) I love Maxine Peake with the fire of a thousand suns, but I…didn’t like this very much. The sort-of unwritten rule with Shakespeare is that you get to change the setting and time and costumes and anything else you like, really – except the WORDS AND PLOT. Russell T. Davies has been TARDISing too long. (Didn’t Matt Lucas make an unexpectedly wonderful Bottom, though?)

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I was totally delighted to find a Kate Atkinson book, When Will There Be Good News?, at the library last week, and got through it in a day. Whenever I do this I feel like writing a new serenity prayer: Grant me the strength to stop reading excellent books in one go after midnight, the courage to stop reading terrible books before that, and the wisdom to know the difference. Anyway, I was thrilled to find that one of my all-time favourite authors took a detour into crime fiction, and it was just, oh, completely worth staying up till 1am for. I wanted to give it a standing ovation, but I knew Ted would be waking up in five hours and didn’t want to push my luck.

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Speaking of books: did you go through a phase in your early teens where all you read was dystopian fiction set after nuclear disasters, where the main characters ate the limbs of their siblings and such? I did, and still remember the covers – all grey landscapes and orange hazmat suits – with a kind of chilly horror. BBC Radio are having a dystopian fiction moment at the minute, and have serialised Brave New World and Never Let Me Go. I’m listening to the latter while houseworking this week, and it’s great. 10/10, would dystope again.

I looked these up specifically for this post and NOW I WANT TO CRY.

I looked these up specifically for this post and NOW I WANT TO CRY. I’m pretty sure he eats that kid he’s holding.

On in our Sesame Street car this week: the CD letter is T, so The Beatles, The Feeling, The Killers, The Postal Service. The number is 72, i.e. the number of times the boys yelled Yellow Submarine all around Tesco *face palm*.

Our real soundtrack is constant, unstoppable chatter, of course.

T: I wanna tell you a story.

Me: Ok, great.

T: Once there was a little boy called Mummy…

Me: I might need to stop you there.

***

H: This car is made in China, right?

Me: Yes.

H: Then why does it have shiny wheels?

Me: What do you mean, why? Toy factories in China can make anything.

H: No, but China just has horses and carriages and things.

Me: *wondering if this is going somewhere problematic* What? No, it doesn’t.

H: That’s all they’ve got in Mulan.

Now try explaining the sixth century and contemporary Chinese politics to a four-year-old. You have thirty seconds before the next toilet trip. Good luck.

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Live a little. Like your body.

Text and image via Caroline Caldwell.

Text and image via Caroline Caldwell.

On Sunday morning I got up, showered, and put on tights, pencil skirt, short-sleeved blouse. We were travelling to a family baptism, and while Tim’s family are, without qualification, the nicest people I have ever come across, I get a bit quivery about these things beforehand. My Stress Items that morning included the 100% likelihood that T would dirty his pants at some point during the day, and the Introvert’s Dilemma, i.e., the real possibility that I would forget how to talk and smile like a human when faced with large crowds of people. The clothes were on the stress list too. What did my arms look like, exposed like this? Would my skirt ride up when I bent over small children? Did I look fat? I went out to the car, on edge. I applied lipstick outside the lines as we drove down country lanes.

Anyway, all Stress Items were relatively unnecessary, as always, and we had a lovely time. On Monday morning I got up, showered, and put on a printed blouse, a bright jumper, a pair of skinny jeans, Hogwarts socks and leather trainers. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt overpowering, heady relief. I wear a version of this outfit almost every day. It gives me permission not to worry about belly overhang or wobbly thighs. I can leap to grab a wipe in an emergency and rough-handle a pushchair over tree-roots and mud. I can do anything, and it feels most like being myself. Oh, the buzz of returning confidence nearly knocked me over. I went out cheerfully. I smashed my to-do list.

Accepting how you look and wearing things you love seem to me to be two sides of the same coin. They say: I inhabit this body with appreciation and without shame. I deserve to take up space. I deserve to be happy, regardless of what shape I might see in the mirror. It’s not a message women get from many places. The more I think about feminism, the more I realise that when you don’t find what you need around you, then you have to get on and carve it out yourself.

Accepting how you look and wearing things you love seem to me to be two sides of the same coin. They say: I inhabit this body with appreciation, and without shame.

I would have saved myself decades of Stress Items if I’d concentrated on loving what I saw in the mirror, rather than wishing I saw something else. I felt out of place as a teenager with a slight, flat-chested frame, at a time when my peers were filling bras and having their straps twanged in class (sometimes I think that if teenage boys weren’t necessary for the propagation of the species, they would be caged and quietly sedated). Pregnant-me couldn’t control how much she weighed or how big she got at all, and to my shame – there’s that word again – it was one of the hardest things about it. I don’t want to repeat that mistake if I head towards pregnancy again (a possibility we still haven’t ruled out).

As Caroline Caldwell says, ‘In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act’.

I am ready to be rebellious.

So, instead of Stress Items, I have set out four Items of Body Appreciation for myself.

one, Eat More of the Good Stuff (Along With the Less Good Stuff; I’m Not a Sadist)

Hi, here comes a person who could live entirely on beige foods – bread, cheese, potatoes, custard – and call it good. While I will defend the noble carb to my dying breath, I do feel and look worse (I’m talking flaky nails and spotty skin here, not fat) when I’m not eating a properly balanced diet. I will not hear of cutting out food groups, ESPECIALLY the nice ones, COME ON, but I have been making huge efforts to buy in nuts, fruit, unusual vegetables, fish and spinach, and eat more of the good stuff. The best thing about it is that I feel like I’m taking care of myself. No, the best thing about it is that I’m still eating chocolate. But the first one is the other best thing.

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two, Walk Fast Every Day

I’m not in a running phase right now – the pure hatred has temporarily overcome the benefits – but I love walking and, with the school run, usually get through about five miles a day. The effect it has on me is miraculous: the air, the birdsong, the woods, the feeling of boots in mud, the muscle strain of lugging the pushchair over bumpy ground… I am more relaxed, more expansive, and feel better about everything. When it pours and we can’t get out, I feel basically the opposite of all that.

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three, No Weigh-Ins Unless I Have Excellent and Pressing Reason

I wrote about this here, and I’m sticking to it. If I’m prioritising points one and two, there is no reason on earth that I need to know what numbers are on the scale. How could you – you, with all your history and your loves and struggles and hormone waves and mysterious depths – know anything about yourself from a number? It. Is. Irrelevant. After a lifetime of anxiously totting up each pound, I’m trying so hard to let it go. Like Elsa, but about love handles.

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four, Never Ever Ever Trash Talk My Body In Front of My Kids

H wore just a t-shirt to school the other day, for the first time, but demurred about showing his arms. ‘What on earth’s the matter?’ I asked him.

‘I don’t want people to see these’, he said. Pointing to two minuscule freckles on one skinny forearm. It was the first time I’d ever heard him criticise his body, which in his four-and-a-half years has only ever been something that could run, jump, climb, laugh. For a moment I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

I have never trash-talked freckles in front of him – I have approximately seventeen thousand; what would be the point – so it’s possible that he’s got that from someone else. But he has certainly seen me stepping on the scales, and pulling handfuls of chub away from my hips, though I try not to say anything negative out loud. How dare I? How dare I teach him about body anxiety – huffing my discontent about the belly that grew him – before he’s even learned to read?

In a world in which they will learn which parts of them are acceptable and which are not, and very quickly, the only thing I can do is surround them with countermessages of acceptance and love, as strongly as I can. They deserve to love themselves. They can only do that if we show them how it’s done.

I’m going to practise how it’s done.

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The week in stuff

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I have rice pudding. There is a boy asleep in the room next door (wearing pull-ups, so come what farting may, literally). The time is ripe for a Week in Stuff, my friends.

One day I’ll publish H’s best auditions for King of the Melodramas. This, yesterday:

me: Hen, can you get your socks on, please.

H: I can’t, because COMPLETELY I AM NOT LOVED.

me: …

me: get your socks on.

I never worry about getting enough exercise, because I get so much practise eye-rolling with H it’ll take me all the way to the world championships one day.

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This very week we’re in the middle of is potty-training week, which means we’ve done precisely nothing. More about that later, when I can tell how well it’s gone. Last week, though: the weather was astonishingly good, and T and I spent our mornings rambling around outside and our afternoons walking through woods for the school run. The Roman town at Silchester is just round the corner from us, and it’s a gorgeous circular walk on top of the old walls, with a convenient church bench in the middle for a refreshing biscuit. Or seven.

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I taught a workshop on Shakespeare – my beautiful bearded genius – at a convention at the weekend. They were a jolly bunch, and submitted to acting out the St Crispin’s Day speech and drawing on Shakespeare beards in good humour. Especially appropriate, then, to come home and watch the new cycle of The Hollow Crown, which is the BBC’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays. The old series covered Richard II through to Henry V – perhaps it will be enough for me to tell you that Tom Hiddleston plays Henry V, but if not, Ben Whishaw is the most exquisite Richard II, and Sir Pat Stew knocks John of Gaunt’s speeches out. of. the. park, as is his wont. This new series covers Henry VI and Richard III, and the mighty Cumberbatch plays Richard III. Even if Shakespeare’s not your thing, this adaptation is accessible and savage, and Cheekbones Cumberbatch is a Machiavellian nephew-murdering charismatic sociopath, so, you know, get on down (the first episode of the new series is on iPlayer, here; Benedict isn’t in it till this week).

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On the recommendation of a friend, I read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air this week, written by a gifted neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with cancer. It’s a philosophical, lyrically written book, very powerful. If you’ve only got one cancer memoir in you (and I wouldn’t blame you if you did) I think Kate Gross’ Late Fragments just has the edge over this one for beauty and honesty, but Kalanithi was a fascinating, complex man and his written ending comes like a gut punch.

I am also – with somewhat less gravity – now horribly addicted to Ann Cleeves’ Shetland books, which were made into a BBC series over the last couple of years. You may have seen it: Douglas Henshall prowling around solving Shetland Island murders, in his grandad’s coat. I want him to come and solve my murders. It’s cool, I can arrange for some. Anyway, the earliest books are a bit clunky (‘Perez was very sensitive. He said something sensitively, because he was very sensitive’ YES OK WE GET IT) but get better as they go, and from the first are atmospheric and totally brilliant. My only issue is that the TV version changed a lot of the details, so when a character died from a stabbing yesterday, when I was expecting her to die of a brain tumour some years hence, I was FURIOUS AND SADDENED BEYOND REASON.

Ooh, look at him. Solving murders. On a headland. In plaid.

Ooh, look at him. Solving murders. On a headland. In plaid.

Ben Folds in the car this week. I came to this important realisation about The Luckiest (almost wrote The Lickiest then, which would’ve been a very different kind of song) on about day three:

Book club yesterday. So I made The Cake. You know how Sherlock Holmes calls Irene Adler The Woman? This is The Cake, and is living proof that you can throw absolutely anything into a bundt tin – indeed, you are almost obliged to throw in the easiest cake mix you can find – and it’ll look ornamental and impressive anyway. I use Betty Crocker’s Devil Food mix for this one, flick melted Nutella all over it when it’s out, and add chopped nuts or strawberries afterwards if I’m feeling terribly fancy. It takes almost no time and zero skill. Truly, The Cake, you are a cake for all of us.

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Last thing. Superheros minus their CGI do really fantastic jumps.

View post on imgur.com

 

Leap, tiny Thor! You’re welcome.

The week in stuff

 

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I don’t know if I’ll do these regularly or even if I’ll keep the name: I’m just reading/watching/listening to quite a bit at the minute and like talking about it. And I LOVE other people’s weekly round-ups, so here’s mine. 

Nearly the end of April. Yikes. I spent the past week solo parenting while Tim was in Houston getting flooded and eating steak (and oh, alright, doing work as well). The way I work when Tim is away goes a bit like this:

days 1-4 – I am a BOSS PARENT I am the most EFFICIENT ON EARTH this human society cannot HOLD ME AND MY CLEAN KITCHEN SURFACES

day 5 – we all hate each other; I lock myself in the bathroom in order to have forty seconds where no one is asking me to do something

days 6-7 – he’s coming back soon darlings, I’ve got my second wind; do you want ice cream?

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I have a couple of lighted-up memories from solo week: coming back from a meeting with the boys, past their bedtime, and coming across a sunset over a field of rapeseed;

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spending a morning with T hunting for bluebells in Sulham woods, finding them, then worrying about the legal ramifications of having a two-year-old accidentally sit on a protected flower;

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running off for an end-of-week sleepover at Tim’s parents’, and dallying round antique shops, cafes and canals on Saturday morning. I wish you all a mother-in-law trained in full-body massage and generous with her Friday evenings. It’s magic.

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The good thing about having evenings entirely by yourself is that you get to set bedtime at 7pm   p r e c i s e l y and then spend three hours watching back-to-back Alias episodes. Have you ever watched Alias? Early JJ Abrams effort, where a lot of the flaws and strengths of Lost and his film work are already apparent. Jennifer Garner is this beautiful, wig-wearing, muscle-bearing spy, and Victor Garber is her Spy Daddy and also the best character ever. It’s bonkers, and I loved it passionately as a teenager, and I’ve been so enjoying revisiting all the outfits and techno beats. I also recorded a video of myself lip-synching to the intro with chocolate ice cream on my jumper, so there’s that.

SO BEAUTIFUL SO 2000s

SO BEAUTIFUL SO 2000s

One afternoon in our local library – which is tiny and quite limited but still a library (PLEASE DON’T SHUT IT DOWN, COUNCIL) – I was chasing a boy past the non-fiction, and found a miraculous hoard of new books. So I have read Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto (wonderful, hilarious, inspiring) and Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl (I think Dunham has done a mighty and important thing with her career, but I didn’t enjoy this much).

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I also found Poems That Make Grown Women Cry, which (disregarding the slightly off-putting title) is a compendium of famous women’s favourite sad poems. It’s as much an insight into the woman as the poem, so I’ve loved it. And I don’t know if you can read this, but please look it up if you can’t: it’s Jackie Kay’s choice, and I had to put the book down to sob harder. ‘I am a shore rocking you off’. Oh, my goodness.

I was so sad to hear about Victoria Wood passing away suddenly this week. She was a huge part of my childhood and I adored her. I remember my parents’ ancient VHS of An Audience With Victoria Wood, and getting into trouble for singing bits of Let’s Do It out loud. I’ve read a couple of lovely tributes: this one from Lucy Mangan, and this one from Sali Hughes were my favourites. And we watched a retrospective of her career – made when she was still alive, so she’s in it, wonderfully – which is on BBC iPlayer here (you’ll need a British IP address for that one).

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‘SMEAR AN AVOCADO ON ME LOWER PORTIONS!’

I taught a lesson at church yesterday on the refugee crisis and what we can do to help, and remembered the month when Humans of New York went to Greece to interview refugees. I used one of the stories in the lesson, and greatly appreciated revisiting the rest. They’re all here, and classic HONY: touching, vulnerable, very human, and such necessary reading still.

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Last of all. I don’t care what your political leanings are: if you look at these photos of President Obama meeting Prince George in his dressing gown and pyjamas and don’t melt into a puddle of joy and love, you might be dead inside.

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That dressing gown though.

How to bake with a toddler without losing it,* in eight easy steps

*totally losing it

STEP ONE: 

look at how freakishly red and shiny your apples are, come over a bit Snow White, decide that today is the day you will bake an apple cake.

‘Do you want to make a cake with me?’

‘Oh, YESTH. I wanna mix it.’

The drums of doom have already begun in your head.

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STEP TWO: 

‘Aprons! Put this on.’

‘I don’ want this on.’

‘It’s your apron, darling, you need it to keep your clothes nice and clean.’

‘I DON’ WANT THIS ON.’

Get it on him eventually by allowing him to dip his finger in the sugar you have already spilled. A good start.

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STEP THREE:

The Dorset apple cake you have chosen is a glorious chuck-everything-in-the-mixer-and-press-go recipe, so you get chucking while the two-year-old busies himself trying to stick his whisk into the moving parts and giving you tiny heart-attacks as you lunge to save his fingers each time.

He distracts you so much you accidentally add twice as much of one ingredient, so have to add twice as much of the other ingredients too, and now you have more cake than a human family can possibly eat without dying, thanks two-year-old.

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STEP FOUR: 

‘I need ter mix it now.’

‘Ok, cool.’

It doesn’t need mixing anymore, especially not ineptly with a whisk, flicking bits of batter hither and yon. He is cute enough that you let it slide.

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STEP FIVE: 

You have thought ahead and cored, peeled and sliced three apples (your least favourite task) before you got the toddler involved. You present him with a bowl of sliced apples and he lets out a tiny scream.

‘I eat the apples. Mummy. My turn.’

‘We’re going to put them on the -‘

‘I WANT THE APPLES.’

You didn’t even know he liked apples, but you let him eat them while you pour cake batter into the tin. You probably have too much anyway. He eats so many his poos are off the pH scale for three days.

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STEP SIX:

In order to get him off the remaining apples, you give him the beater to lick. Shut up. Our grandparents were wrong and it’s totally alright to lick the beater.

No one gets salmonella, because you LIVE IN THE UK AND THE RED LION SIGN MEANS THEY’RE FINE AND SALMONELLA IS MORE OR LESS NOT A THING HERE, SAY SCIENTISTS.

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STEP SEVEN:

Cinnamon through a sieve. He sneezes worryingly near the cake mix. You decide it is naptime.

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STEP EIGHT:

The smell of baking apples wafts seductively through your house. The toddler is asleep. You clean up the mess, and put the kettle on. Just when you’re about to wake him up for the school run, you find a browning apple slice stuck to your left bottom cheek.

Then there is cake, and you and your apple-bottomed, flour-covered, frizzy-haired self are very glad indeed.

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PS: eat this cake warm from the oven, eat it with a dollop of cold custard, eat it with a sense of gladness at being alive.

Recipe here. Step-by-step from the first time I made it here.

Harry Potter and my teenaged life

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‘No story lives unless someone wants to listen. The stories we love best do live in us forever. So whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.’

J.K. Rowling

What makes a story?

I am thirteen, and stuck on youth camp for the first time. I hate everything from the endless dreary rain to the mandatory team-building to the foot-smelling canvas tents. My aunt, knowing me perhaps better than I realise, has sent me away with a new book. It’s a paperback I’ve never seen before, unremarkable, with a young, brown-bearded man on the back wearing an outlandish outfit.

One evening when I am especially homesick, I sit in the tent (breathing shallowly) and open it. ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of Number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much‘. And I am gone, from all of it: the tent, the smell, the damp pants. Gone until I’ve finished it, when I peel myself reluctantly out of that world and back into mine. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am fourteen, and on holiday on the Scottish border. I am walking through Berwick-Upon-Tweed when I see it in a bookshop window, purple and silver: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I want it immediately, but my parents are not given to buying expensive hardback books on a whim. They tell me I must wait for the paperback. The longing for it, for the continuation of the story I know is in there, makes me sick. I have lived and breathed in books for as long as I can remember, but it’s the first time I’ve wanted a book enough for it to hurt.

Not the last, though. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am sixteen, and the film of Philosopher’s Stone is about to be released. My friends and I are dizzily obsessed with it, marinating in it: devouring every trailer and press photo, making complex Potter jokes, speaking mostly in quotes. The fourth book is out by now, and it’s big enough for the midnight openings, for me to buy the hardback immediately and read it in one gulp, expense be damned.

I know these characters like family. I sit in my classes, frizzy-haired, hyper-competent and horribly uncool, and console myself with Hermione Granger. She is not cool at all. She is unfashionable and earnest, fierce and grounded, unable to drop her point long after she should’ve done, driven by book-love and doing the right thing and absolute loyalty. I might never be that wonderful, but I love her. So I lift up my head and answer another question. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am eighteen, and have my pre-ordered copy of Order of the Phoenix in my hands. There’s a sense of gathering darkness in these books now: the cheery end-of-term feasts that close the early books are long gone, and any of these beloved characters might be in for the chop. At the end of Phoenix, of course, someone is.

I am eighteen, and by now I know real heartbreak, real betrayal, real end-of-the-world, can’t-get-out-of-bed despair. And so I get it, forcefully and finally. I lie in bed and I cry tears for Sirius Black that are also for me. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am twenty-two, and Deathly Hallows is finally here. Potter-mania is at fever-pitch, and I feel like one of the sage elder members of a giant, excitable family. I pick up my copy at midnight and stay up all night and all the next day reading it. It’s a war book, Hallows, and it’s as grim and hopeless as a war book should be. Characters are killed off left and right, with horrible suddenness, until I am numb from it. The eleven-year-olds I met in a canvas tent have been written into desperate, brave, traumatised seventeen-year-olds fighting an almost-impossible battle. There’s heroism and love, self-sacrifice and secrets.

I pull myself out of the final pages, as I’ve done all those times before, and feel like I’ve been battered with a stick. And also that this is it, the end, and I can’t bear to lose them. That most of all. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am twenty-six, and hugely, unbearably pregnant with our first child. And we waddle to the cinema for the last Harry Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part 2. I am swirling with feelings about impending motherhood, so close now – will I be adequate, will we be alright, what kind of childhood will I give this unknown baby in my belly – and watching the final struggles of these characters I’ve loved since I was a child myself is an emotional counterweight that feels right. I am not ready to say goodbye to them or to the person I’ve been all this time. But it’s about to happen, all the same.

The camera pulls back from Harry, Ron and Hermione standing on a broken bridge, holding hands, sunlight on their bloodied faces. I shift heavily in my seat, put a hand on the boy kicking my ribs and think ‘I will read this to you, one day‘.

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He’s not old enough yet, but I will.

That’s a story, isn’t it? What a story. It hasn’t left me since.

Five books…to help your kids love words

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I’m trying hard to be casually enthusiastic about numbers with H at the moment. I am naturally a words person, and numbers both bore and frighten me. Which isn’t so bad for me, because my days of mental maths tests are over. But I do not want to pass it on to them, and my coverage of Things You Need To Know tends to be a tad one-sided without me realising it. I am always up for a discussion of Magic E or cat poems, but keep forgetting that at some point he’ll need to be able to count to twenty without missing out fifteen. My bad, my bad.

Still. Just because you’re talking happily about numbers, doesn’t mean you can’t stealthily push your words agenda in other ways. Like, for example, picture books. There are some books, even for quite young children, that are so giddy, so nerdily joyful about wordsmithery, that I feel like it can’t help but sink in.

More importantly, I think if your child is finding reading a chore, these word-obsessed little stories might help put some of the fun back into it.

These are five of the best. MWA HA HA.

This Is My Book, by Mick Inkpen

This is my bookBefore anyone could stop him, the Snapdragon bit off the K, and part of the B of Book. 

“This is my Poo!”

It was a very naughty thing to do.

This was one of the first books – years ago – that we got from the library and loved so much we bought our own. It’s an imaginative riff on storytelling, in terms a two-year-old can understand: the Snapdragon keeps eating the letters on the page, and it’s up to the Bookmouse to find a new, scary word to stop him. It’s clever and it’s funny, and it’s delicious to read out loud. Even better than Kipper, Inkpen.

 

Oi, Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field

oi frog‘What about a chair?’ said the frog.

‘I wouldn’t mind sitting on a chair.’

Hares sit on chairs‘, said the cat.

This gloriously colourful, caustically funny little story sees a cat educating a frog about all the things he can’t sit on. No, he can’t sit on a mat, because only cats sit on mats. Only foxes sit on boxes. Only pumas sit on satsumas. You get the idea – and so will your small people, as they’ll take in the rhyming patterns and start guessing as you go along. The illustrations are fantastic and there’s a great twist at the end. Can’t recommend this one enough.

 

Grill Pan Eddy, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

grill pan eddyWe fetched a trap with a snare – Snap! Snap!

Which we baited with brown bready. 

But he tripped the latch with a safety match

Oh, we couldn’t catch Grill Pan Eddy!

Speaking of rhymes! If you like your poems to come with pure joy, this is the book you want. It tells the story of a family trying to get rid of a crafty mouse, in hilarious bouncy rhyme. Like Tadpole’s Promise, another book by this husband-and-wife team, it goes somewhere a little darker than you’d expect, but it’s all the better for that. So much fun to read aloud and clap along to. The boys adore it.

PS, we searched for a copy of this for months a few years ago and ended up with a ex-library copy – but it looks like it’s back in print via Amazon. I don’t usually recommend buying books from Amazon, but in this case go go goooooooo.

 

On Sudden Hill, by Linda Sarah and Benji Davies

on sudden hillSometimes they’re dragon-slayers,

side-by-side house dwellers

and skyscraper dancers. 

But Birt feels strange.

You know, now that I think about it, it’s very rare to find a picture book for young children that is truly, lyrically beautiful. I suppose the urge to simplify and make the story accessible is (rightly) the priority. This book is that rare thing: the illustrations are sensitive and lovely, the story is heartfelt, and the language is gorgeous. ‘One Monday (it’s cramping cold)’: I think of that description every time I come out into a frosty morning. The story – about two best friends who become three, making one feel pushed out – is something real and important for this age group. I think basically everyone should have it on their shelves.

 

The Book With No Pictures, by B. J. Novak

book with no picturesHere is how books work. 

Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say. 

No matter what. 

You might have seen the video of the author reading this to a group of children laughing so hard they can’t sit up properly. I can tell you it’s not an act: one of my boys has actually thrown up from laughing at this. Which might not sound like much of a recommendation, but it is. The concept is a clever one: no pictures, just silly words and sentences the grown-up reading the book has to say, even when they don’t want to. Words can be mischievous! Words can create character! Words can make you laugh so much you throw up onto your mother’s jumper! What better lesson is there?

Happy reading, nerds-in-training. Much love.

My walls, my rules (+ art print GIVEAWAY!)

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You will never find me on a home improvement blog. I have no colour sense, and no idea how to ‘style’ corners (whatever that means). But you will have to prise my wall art out of my cold, dead fingers.

Everything on our walls is meaningful to us, and it makes even our sad old magnolia paint – of which there is rather a lot – feel cosier. Our living room doesn’t ever get much light thanks to the row of oak trees just outside, so we’ve filled the room with soft greys, old wooden furniture, far too many blankets, and a jewel-coloured Van Gogh. When I saw that Van Gogh in the flesh, in a museum in Paris, on one of the best trips we’ve ever taken together, I cried. I think about that every time I see it.

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Then there’s the couple of old maps reminding us of places we’ve been and would like to go; a fantastic Sherlock portrait that induces a pleasant Benedict Cumberbatch meditation every time I sneak over to turn up the thermostat; a David Hockney I carried back from the Tate Modern for our downstairs loo (The Splash: something that often, regrettably, happens in there); the mother-and-baby painting that used to sit in our dining room when I was a child and reminds me now of all the mothers who’ve made me; and of course the ‘Courage, dear heart’ print hanging over our bed. I need to read that one about twelve times a day.

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None of it’s particularly styled. But it all means something, and I love that. It makes me feel at home.

SO. Imagine how delighted I was when my sister-in-law Bryony Dick got in touch to say she’d hand-lettered a quote from this very blog. Something…I wrote…up there…on a wall…*hyperventilating*. You can find Bryony’s Etsy shop here – including a limited run of this hand-lettered print – but I have one RIGHT HERE to give away to one of you lovely lot! All you have to do is enter below, using your Facebook account or your email. I hope it might make you feel like all of your days have the potential for something marvellous.

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(Bryony also has a Zazzle shop, in which my absolute favourite has to be the Wives of Henry VIII badges. What a PERFECT OPENING to explain to a hapless stranger why Anne of Cleves is my all-time fave.)

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