Publication Day

Yes, that’s right – March 19th is publication day for The Best, Most Awful Job (YOU CAN BUY IT HERE: Hive: http://bit.ly/bmajHive [for independent bookshops in the UK], Amazon: https://amzn.to/39MC0sO, Waterstones: http://bit.ly/2IMwM4l). There was supposed to be a launch party tonight, for which I was going to wear the long black spotted Ganni dress or the red Batsheva which is very tight on the upper arms. I considered doing something with my hair, like getting it blow dried, but that always looks a bit news-reader-y. I would certainly have painted my nails in a colour that didn’t pop against my scabby eczema fingers (still a problem and not getting any better with the constant hand-washing).  But, alas, like the world itself, the launch was cancelled.

Instead, we are having a virtual launch between 7:30 and 8:30pm GMT on Twitter and Instagram on Thursday eve where we will toast the book. This is not the same, but needs must. My contribution is a small video clip where I read out a paragraph from my essay, (including TWO of the ‘v’ words, so avoid if you find female anatomy chat alarming)…see below.

I am sad to say that the video reveals I am full of spots – one on the chin, one under the eye and one at the end of my nose like a mythic evil stepmother  – and more wrinkled than I would like, but I am also free of any viruses and therefore ALIVE!  In the misappropriated words of Sweet Brown, ain’t nobody got time for worrying ’bout their spots or fluffy hair or wrinkled eyes right now, so there you are. 

And so here we are. I’m not working right now – all of my steady writing gigs have slowly ebbed away over the last year, leaving me with a few badly paid ones (and some potential-but-as-yet-nothing-but-talk jobs which might well come to a big fat nought). But just as well I have nothing to do besides look after the baby and make endless meals because the schools will surely close soon. Having all six boys cluttering up my living room for weeks on end will be maddening and messy and shouty, but better than sending them (or me) off to the trenches – am I right? Perspective is all. And in between their “remote learning” (ha! sigh) I could probably get the boys to babysit while I go and brainstorm some brilliant way to make money for us all while we eat the last of the tinned tuna and boil up the sprouting potatoes.

The local Waitrose is of course completely bare in the toilet roll/disinfectant/hand sanitiser shelves, but the panicking public have also moved onto quite curious hoardings. There was no sea salt today, or baking paper, and the packets of Canadian Strong Bread Flour have vanished. Are we all now baking our own sourdough in the event of a civilisation collapse, I wonder? Luckily, the smaller Middle Eastern shops next door are not only full of Ottolenghi recipe staples, but also have aisles and aisles of rices and preserves and spices and tinned tomatoes and hunks of halal lamb.

The school whatsapp groups are full of feuding parents arguing whether or not the kids should still be in school, and there have been politely British virtual fights over the propagation of (mis)information of governmental policy. Meanwhile, Mark struggles over the word ‘corona’ and keeps talking about the ‘corner virus’ which both infuriates me and makes me laugh. He sometimes just mashes all the new words up and I hear him talking very enthusiastically to other people about ‘corner-19’ and I slink away.

Time For Pictures

Here are my big boys plugged into devices but looking quite cosy while they are at it. Imagine trying to get them to do some sort of educational work every day if the schools close…

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Here is the baby to cheer us all up while he plays the Bath Snorkel:

And here is the lovely Charlotte on her birthday in Camden at the Bingo. This was a few weekends ago, but it feels like a lifetime away, when we all socialised freely, took public transport, shared prosecco and sat near each other:

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I’m there gurning in the background in my questionable dress which I am sure adds girth in photos but hopefully not quite as much IRL. We didn’t win anything but the bingo was more fun than its retirement recreation reputation would suggest. And just look at that adorable Charlotte:

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But The Swim

The big news here, the thing I am taking a long time getting around to, is the tale of the Serpentine Swim. I met up with a new/old virtual friend who invited me to go for a swim in the Serpentine one morning last week. It was quite scary because I have only ever dipped my toe in over the summer months when it is still freezing but also quite green and slimy. In winter, it is freezing but without the algae. This is what it looked like on one of the photos I sometimes take when I am showing off about my morning run:

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Full of birds, feathers, some dodgy microscopic things and probably terrifying rusting shopping carts somewhere – sure. But I was undeterred because life is short and you should say YES to things that challenge you and swimming in the cold fresh water is very healthy and I have always admired the early morning be-capped pink wet bodies emerging out of the Serpentine when I go past slowly on my morning jog.

So I met up with Louise and her friend at 9am in the weak early spring sunlight, and they led me to the Serpentine Swimming Club’s tiny communal changing room filled with all sorts of people getting in or out of swimsuits and chatting to each other cheerily. It felt like camping or something – everyone squeezed in, towels wrapped around, discrete quick whipping on and off of things, steam and wet towels and goggles and, most fabulously, a table laden with cake crumbs, overhanging shared mugs and tea-making facilities. Everyone had a ruddy glow and a kind word – it was wonderful.

Anyway, the actual swimming was less of a ‘swim’ and more of an endurance test, a little like giving birth or getting a tooth drilled but wetter and a tiny bit less painful. I was advised to keep going once we got in, and not to forget to breathe. It was cold – shockingly cold – and clean and fresh. It felt like a satisfying slap. We front crawled to the end and most of the way back, and I was encouraged to get out because the cold gets to your organs pretty quickly. I rinsed off in the open air cold shower (which felt positively tropical in comparison) and squeezed back into the steamy communal changing room. Speedo onepiece stripped off, pinkish boobs strapped firmly back into my bra, jumper on, dungarees strapped, socks and trainers shoved back onto my numb feet, I gratefully sipped my searingly hot tea and accepted some banana loaf brought in by one of the Serpentine Swimming Club members.

Reader, the whole thing blew my mind. It felt like being let into the most secret, special thing. Shoved into that communal dressing room and then dipping into the expanse of the fresh, cold Serpentine, right in the middle of London in the middle of the week, there is this whole community of people – kind, welcoming, ordinary, extraordinary people. It costs £20 to join – you can swim any time from 5am to 9:30am all year round. I’m gonna do it. I want more of that tea and more of that cake and more of that freezing swanny dubious water.

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Finally, the baby today. He discovered the garden, mud and the sun. It’s been quite the week already.

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PS Buy the book!

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Another Mean Old Lady Says Her Thang

It’s been such a long time since an old lady had a go at me in public for my terrible parenting. I was beginning to think I had this gig objectively nailed, but that, alas, was not to be the case. On Monday, the newly arrived-from-Auckland-via-Hong-Kong Otis and I went out to Waitrose to buy some stuff. He didn’t want to wear a jacket, and I said:

“You have to wear a jacket or you can’t come”

and he said:

“No. I won’t”

and just like that I relented because WHO CARES and you’ll never learn anything if your mother shields you from atmospheric conditions by insisting on weather-appropriate clothing all the time. And if you can’t don a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans for a five minute walk up the road after a 30 hourish-long flight, then what do you really have in this world? You have nothing, is what. So he and I wandered up with the dog and the baby hanging off me in a sling and we went inside to buy whipped cream from a can because Otis said that was the only thing he felt like eating, and, although it wasn’t my usual choice of lunchtime food for an offspring, I went with it.

After we came out, me laden with two big heavy bags of shopping (not all whipped cream cans, mind) and with the big sling-bound baby which is convenient but eventually feels like your shoulders are breaking, I went to the bike racks to untie the dog. As I did, the bags beside me, the dog’s lead lying on the pissy ground, the baby straining his head back to get a better view and nearly falling out from the effort and the gravity and Otis beside me in his long sleeved shirt, looking quite excited about the whole whipped cream from a can thing, I heard a muttering behind me. I turn and there is an old lady, long hair in a grey braid, small and dressed in that ashram kind of way that you see sometimes, and she is muttering intently and staring at me. I strain to hear (while still trying to untie the dog, keeping the baby from crashing to the ground with one cupped palm and attempting with my feet to keep the bags from spilling out onto the pavement) and I hear her. She is saying:

“…something..something….NEGLECT….something…I should call the police…no child should be outside without a jacket….what kind of mother are you…something, something….shocking…poor boy, so cold…”

And I am a bit over all this by now. Like, quite a bit tired of it. Fairly unwilling to take the criticism on the chin because I am doing my best with only two arms (with scabby eczema hands) and I’d been looking after five kids and the dog with no husband or help for two weeks (and a constant stream of couch visitors, but that’s another story) and I thought I AM DONE.

I looked at her, straightened up and said, quite calmly:

“Lady, what is wrong with you? Why would you say those things to me? Can’t you see I am trying really hard and I am struggling with too much stuff? What’s the problem here? What do you want from me? And SPEAK UP, I can barely hear your nutty observations”

and she looked at me, smirked a little and said:

“Oh, I see! You’re AMERICAN” with what felt like some self-righteous joy to have ousted me not only as a Bad Mother but also from the US of A.

I pretty much ran into her then as I advanced, shoulders aching but squared, shopping bags gripped into my eczema-bleeding hands, baby shoved back into safe bosomy place, dog lead short and tight so he couldn’t trip me up on his way to smell some old dog piss, and I said, quite loudly:

“YES THAT’S RIGHT I’M AN AMERICAN WITH A NEW ZEALAND ACCENT” and I rolled my eyes in a very theatrical way and she hurried to the other side of the corner to get away from the big angry lady with a dog and baby and cold son and lots of cans of whipped cream.

It wasn’t my greatest comeback. I know that the poor old lady might have some sort of dementia or maybe she has just gotten to that age where, as a woman – when you’ve been serving everybody and getting them cups of tea for 50 years and you’ve had enough of wiping the toilet seat for specks/streams of wee every time you go and no one has thought to clear the table after dinner ever and the whole family suspect you do nothing all day but when you’ve run out of cereal or forgotten to put lunch money into their biometric account they get furious –  well, maybe she decided not to shut up any more. Maybe she decided that being accommodating all your life is a bit shit and the alternative is enormously liberating?

Even so. Otis was fine, because a little bit of cold won’t kill you, and READ THE ROOM, lady. I needed help, not a whispered lecture and a very bad unprompted interpretation of my accent. AM I RITE?

Now, here is a lovely thing, because the world is full of lovely things as well as mean old ladies. Barnaby made Remi a cardboard car and then he made him a cardboard house. (In viewing the video, please don’t be alarmed at all the stuff in my hallway. Eight people, two rooms, a dog – and one of us is a hoarder. It’s not all Bafta screenings and trips to Soho House, you know):

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House construction underway:

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Happy baby moves in:

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Likes his north-facing view:

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Here are Ned and Barnaby at the Tate. Guess what one of them drew on the walls?

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And here is me, in one of my awful attempts at bathroom selfies. I only include this because I am wearing a secondhand Chanel jacket from my beloved eBay. It’s very very very 80’s with the definite musty whiff of a long time in storage and puffy shoulders but it has lion’s head buttons and racing stripes. I think I love it but I can never be sure. I would canvas for opinions but I don’t take well to hearing other people’s, so let’s just go with it being awesome and challenging-in-a-good-way, shall we?

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Update On The Solo Parenting Sitch

It’s been nearly a week since Mark and Otis left to fly through the night, and day, then drive for hours into the summery afternoon half a world away with jetlaggy dust clouding their vision and sinusitis colonising their nasal passages – well, Mark’s vision and nasal passages, at least. They arrived, there are no signs of that pesky coronavirus even though they popped into Hong Kong for a few hours, and now they are both spending time with family. Hopefully my dear husband will be making the tea rather than getting it made for him, but this is really out of my hands.

With little to distract me, I Marie Kondo’ed my drawers and have finally emptied our spare fridge (the one in the entranceway, opposite the front door to the left of the buggy, tools, screws, hammers, golf accessories and a massive surfboard) of all the food that usually Mark would have eaten as Leftover Lunch. Oh, how I hate Leftover Lunch. Sure, Mark may have had to take a hit by spending all that money and inflicting upon himself several hours (30-something in total) on the flight, but I too have sacrificed. I have eaten through the old cornbread and the wet unidentifiable curry like someone who doesn’t like throwing away things, but who also really hates leftover food when they are on a kind of pseudo-fasting period in order to slim their arms down enough to reclaim all those lovely pre-pregnancy silk blouses bought at sample sales on the days that they felt a bit like Gillian Anderson. I didn’t want to eat all that stuff, but my parents are postwar and so I have been brought up to believe, quite rightly, that we do not waste a thing.

I would have fed the formerly delicious, now somewhat worryingly old bits of food to the dog but he stole half a massive traybake brownie from the kitchen table on the weekend and has been shitting tar everywhere and so I thought it wasn’t the most prudent of ideas. He is on a lot of water, frequent walks, a vet-watch and strictly No Chocolate Or Other Things That Might Kill Him Diet until that dog poo resembles once again the crumbling log we all hate to pick up. But pick up we do, of course because we are good dog people. It occurred me today that since Karzan fixed our gate, the dog has not run away even once, and thus no one has yelled at me for bad dog ownership. This is quite a turnaround.

So life without the others is really quite nice. The bed is now massive – a sea of a thing, something to roll over and thrash about in while I marvel at how there are no oily man-head smells wafting over to me throughout the night. The sheets stay clean and smelling of shampoo. The bedroom is tidy because I put all of Mark’s weird stuff away in his cupboards, hid the portable pizza oven in his wardrobe and wiped down all of the dust next to his bed. No wonder that guy always has some sort of sinus infection going on. I’ve gathered up all of his loose change and given it to the boys, chucked out some stashes of very old chocolate bars and recycled the things I felt needed recycling. I get to chose what we watch in the evening, working through The Hustle, For Sama, The Windsors and The Great Pottery Throwdown and in the evening I read for as long as I like. I do not need my earplugs. I can’t exactly sleep very well without him there which galls me, but all in all, I think it is a fine short term arrangement.

We have had two of the boy’s birthdays since he has been gone and I have been part of a complicated surprise 50th birthday party for a very tiny woolly headed little lamb friend – all of these things have been a bit tricky to pull off when solo parenting. Thank the Heavens and the Lord Above and the Angels for our babysitter and cleaner, who swoops in, looks after the kids and shines the flat like a Christmas bauble. I wouldn’t mind marrying her if she wasn’t already taken.

So Friday, as part of the 50th surprise birthday plans, we met the Little Birthday Lamb at Selfridges after she had been busy in the Soho editing suite (cool directing job, doncha know) with some cockamamie story about getting our makeup all done together so we could see her before we escorted her home so she could go out for dinner with her family. None of the story really worked but she had the grace to go with it and not examine the nonsense we were spouting from our as-yet-mildly-made-up lips. This is me, slightly apprehensive but up for what ever makeup they thought I would look most ‘party’ in, wearing my ever-present Batsheva party dress which I thought was the greatest until I saw some photos of what it did to my waist. Please ignore my fingers which look like I have killed somebody and forgotten to wash the blood off. It is really just an unfortunate combination of dermatitis and badly removed nail polish.

Behold – The Before:

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The AFTER:

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So horrible, and yet quite fun.

Here we all are, me with weird hair and a lot of waist-girth like an old drag queen oak tree with the other two lovelies who got better makeup. From left is MAC, the middle is Tom Ford, and mine is Pat McGrath. So beige! So eyeliner-y! Ugh, I can bear it no longer. Scroll down. 

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This is much more flattering because the light is not so department-store-harsh and we had all had had a drink. The pub makes everything better:

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I would TOTALLY do it again though. I paid £35, got 30 minutes on the chair, came out with an odd pancake face but also with very nice lipstick in a great enamel blue case – the cost was redeemable with a purchase, so of course you would. FYI the Tom Ford makeup sessions are free.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ned turned ten and I made him three cakes in total. As you do. Here are two banana chocolate cake triumphs:

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Tonight, we feast on GBK burgers and milkshakes (except for me because of that whole curry/cornbread mashup) and watch any kinds of movie we like. No one will be permitted to sit in Mark’s chair though – it just seems all wrong.

 

 

 

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Janublah

Oh, January. Oh, how you have teased me with your ups and downs. In the space of 29 days, I have gone from thinking I was highly employable, sought after, on the cusp of career greatness (throwing around ideas of the ‘critical mass of my content’, and blathering on about ‘years of honing my writing craft’ to everyone within earshot) to now having a to-do list that reads ‘make cake’, ‘fix button’ and ‘pay tax’. There is nothing in between for me except to look after the baby, walk the dog, keep checking the dregs of the Net-A-Porter and Matches sales and to continue making dinner for everyone.

Early January was looking good. After an overexcited New Year’s Eve where I started drinking celebratory things with lunch while playing Secret Hitler (which then ended, embarrassingly, with me leaving a NYE party at 6pm when the critical mass of my alcohol content spiralled, involving a long cold walk home and a lie down in a dark room to avoid the spinning ceiling) there was a 22 year wedding anniversary which we shared with a house guest celebrating a birthday and I ordered some good stuff in the sales, adding a second Batsheva puffed sleeve ’80s awkward dress to my collection and then copied my BDF Liz (that’s Best Dressed Friend) by buying the same green boiler suit that she wore so well in the heady days of June 2019. Here is me in the Batsheva madness on my way to the party on New Year’s Eve, already quite anaesthetised and thus feeling like taking photographs of myself in the toilet was quite necessary:

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And here is a photo of a photo of us and our wedding party a whole 22 years ago. Oh, if only things turned out as nicely romantic as you think it will when you are a 20 year old ding dong with a pudding face:

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So far, so Janu-very-good. There was also a mid-month food-laden book club where we discussed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and ate roasted aubergines, sourdough, dukkah, butternut squash galette and a tahini, lemon and white chocolate cake, Remi turned one and then three great worky things came all at once. There’s this book coming out in March which I have already told you all about (cringe but COME ON, I’M IN A BOOK!) so please pre-order if you fancy a most cracking read about mothering of the not-annoying kind, and a nice bit of legal event-y work that I will be involved in if the project goes ahead, and then, a few weeks ago, I was commissioned to write something fun for a very excellent magazine. That particular gig made me purple with giddy pleasure – I dashed it off in an afternoon and a half, filed a full week early like the approval-seeking A-type nerdy dolt that I am and waited for some confirmation that all was good so I could plaster the news all over my social media platforms like an over-eager middle-aged lady that I am. 

I didn’t hear anything back from the magazine commission for quite a few of my January days though, but I imagined in my most glass-half full moments that when the piece got read, it literally knocked everyone off their open-plan office chairs and then they died and no one in the whole office was alive to tell me how good it was. 

I really was beginning to think this might be the year I could claim to have a purpose outside of the baby factory. Of course, I love the baby factory aspect – specifically when it leads to the current baby who now walks and sleeps through the night thanks to a harsh cold turkey situation as a result of a hen’s weekend, but there is also a big fat chunk of me who loves writing and working and having stuff to do that has a wider audience than my unappreciative children and kind but distracted husband.

Here’s the baby on his birthday, just a tiny bit dirty but a lot happy (also, maybe, confused):

Then everything just dried up. The year stretches before me, a cool 11 months full of no scheduled work, no deadlines, my usual workload halved owing to that thing that always happens to magazines. The commission piece in the fun magazine ‘has not been pegged to an issue’, appaz, and I suspect I’ll need to rewrite it. It seems they did not fall off their chairs in a dazed admiration of my brilliance after all and no one was *that* into my honed written craft. There are more promises – nay, suggestions – of possible work, but what is a suggestion if not the absence of both actual work and cold hard cash? Also, my personal tax bill is £8000 and is due in two days.

So that’s all a bit of a sad thing, but there are even more other pressing issues than me indulging in a bit of New Year whinging. We have had a family emergency and so Mark is flying home tomorrow and taking Otis with him, via Hong Kong (masks and hand gel at the ready). This is tricky because of work and school and the unyielding Westminster Council re: term time absence and last minute flying costs and the fact that Mark and Otis will miss two kid’s birthdays and what would have been two birthday parties ON THE SAME DAY with many, many children and with now just me to manage all of that with a stroppy baby on my hip and a broken truck. Worse though, much worse, is that someone we love is sick and in pain and is very far away.

We knew we would get the news one day. It’s kind of written in the small print that when you choose to live this far away from your family, it can’t run smoothly forever and that you’ll one day get The Call and then everything suddenly shifts. You finally realise that nothing is constant or a given except maybe the inevitability of things going wrong, people growing old, lives becoming unstuck and painful and people feeling sick, sad or hurt. And so it is, and we will have to figure out how to recalibrate everything. It all feels very uncertain and like this is just the beginning.

So I’ve invested in some Pat McGrath gold eyeshadow (one of my Net-A-Porter sale dregs efforts) to lighten the mood. See below for my cack-handed attempts at looking catwalk on the school run:

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Do I remind you of anyone?

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Bacon and Old Hands

Happy New Year’s Eve, lovers! It’s 7:47am and the baby and I have been up, skyped my mum and dad, discussed financial planning, ate bacon, pulled the little wool bundles that accumulate every day off the new rug, rescued a baby’s little finger from an uncompromising door, drank two cups of coffee, eaten one nutella croissant and cuddled a dog. It’s going to be a good year, I can tell.

We’ve spent another Christmas week in Devon, this time in Tavistock in a farm cottage with a shared indoor heated pool and a jacuzzi. I love a communal swimming situation, especially when the weather is wet and blustery and you have six boys to entertain. I don’t really swim as such, more experiment with the exciting combination of various old bikinis and, this year, my Juicy Couture charity shop tracksuit, in a kind of early-supermarket-shop/glamorous Mediterranean holiday sartorial mashup. I like to keep the Devon locals on their toes. What will she wear today, on her way from the muddy communal washing machine shed, over the gravel path and into the steaming chloriney slightly mouldering swimming pool house? Diamante-encrusted velour trackpants, one size too small, with a baggy four year old mismatching bikini top with the elastic all gone? Why, yes. I was also lucky enough to have a guilty husband who felt like showering me with Devonshire gifts owing to his own giddy overspending a few weeks before, and so for Christmas, I was gifted not one but TWO vintage cocktail rings which of course went very well with the swimming pool costuming.

Unfortunately, my hands are not only full of unsightly dermatitis, but they are also sadly very old. It does help me cultivate my Grey Gardens mad old lady vibe, with my massive knuckles and increasing crepey skin, shining with oversized semi precious jewels. Just look!

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Aren’t they lovely? Once I get them resized to ‘Massive’, I will wear them every day, even if small babies and biggish boys get a little scratched by them on occasion. It’s what they call collateral damage, no? It’s all a trick of the eye – the older I get, the bigger I am, the more enormous and sparkling and oversized my things will become. This clever eye jiggery pokery could well convince the casual observer that I am tiny and about 26, if the mad old lady thing doesn’t fly.

Here we are a few days before Christmas, getting very cold on Bude beach:

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Here is Casper going on a jog with me down a little bridle path:

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And this is Christmas Eve. We ate a duck (I don’t love a duck, but it feels festive and Mark insists) and everyone enjoyed it except for Barnaby who was a bit cranky about the over salted roast potatoes. That there, those six different faces, assorted orthodontic work, hand-me-down-through-all-of-them clothes, floppy fringes in desperate need of cutting, surging hormones and varying appetites and oversensitive palates, is the sum total of fifteen years worth of human manufacturing. It sometimes takes my breath away.

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The kids wrote Christmas present wish lists which were refreshingly modest, thank goodness, and top of Otis’s was a microphone. I can’t begin to tell you how much we now hate that microphone:

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The other highlights from our week away were food related, as per. We found a farmshop which made us all happy – the kids were extremely excited by the fresh orange juice machine while I was partial to the bulk buy chocolate brazil nuts. We bought all of the scotch eggs from the deli which, on our second visit, the deli lady told me off for (“Next time, please call ahead and order your eight scotch eggs for your obviously very large family, otherwise our other customers will be disappointed”) and made our way through about 12 packets of delicious bacon. The kind of bacon which makes you realise you haven’t had proper bacon for a very long time…all non-watery and deliciously fattened and crusty on the rind. Mark got excited about the flavoured rum and we all went mad for the scones and clotted cream.

The TV wasn’t really working well, so that was a shame because I was expecting our week in Devon to be sleep-ins, followed by swimming (or fancy swim-costuming), followed by a bacon-y lunch, followed by a shopping trip to the massive Tescos for more prosecco/baby grows for about a pound/more clotted cream, followed by another swim and then some sort of seasonal Christmas movie. Instead, our evenings were spent watching documentaries about the Moroccan desert and episodes of Dragon’s Den.

We got home after a broken down truck/rental van situation and nine hours on the road to my other extra Christmas present surprise (which wasn’t a surprise at all because I bought it myself because I still have a lot of catching up to do after Mark’s exorbitant overspend). It is this – a vintage 1977 (my birth year, no less) Chanel bag from the most marvellous eBay, bought from a woman who purchased it in a vintage store in Paris who in turn got it from an old lady who has clearly looked after it very well. It has gold plated hardware and an inner pocket for love letters. I don’t actually have any love letters, so I put my Gail’s bakery loyalty card in there instead.  It is so lovely that I have finally forgiven Mark for his terribly advised overspend (have I made the anguish over the overspend clear enough, Dear Readers?). Behold:

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Happy New Year, everyone! Here’s to healthy family members and holidays and budgeting and good haircuts and regular exercise and cutting back the salt and less prosecco and more girlfriends and less hormonal rages and better sleep and love and pub quiz domination!

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Thankful

I know, I know – let’s not get all American about things, but Thanksgiving does make me pause to think about what I am grateful for – which is an excellent reflective habit to get into if you can. When I was growing up and I couldn’t sleep, my Dad said that it was a good idea to talk to God about things you were thankful for, and, because I did not have to share a room with four and a half small boys like my own sons do, I used to name all of the things I was grateful for out loud. It served me well, got me to sleep, and instilled a strong sense of perspective. When you start with the facts that you are thankful for your cosy bed, your soft pillow, your working roof, a full fridge, a stack of books by the bed, the safe street outside; you realise pretty quick you are in a very privileged position when stacked up against most of the world. That’s a really good thing to know and to carry with you.

Anyway. I am currently thankful for:

  1. Good television writing. We are watching Succession season two which has lines that make me guffaw, or shiver. I am thankful that there are people who can critique people in clever, sharp and damning ways like that, who tell epic stories for us while keeping us laughing. Storytelling is such a gift and I am thankful that I have such access to it. What a time to have wifi.
  2. These children of mine. Awful, delicious little ragbags. The baby is a perfect baby, as all babies are, the others are kind and funny and rude and naughty and fun, and the older ones are emerging into these complex, fascinating, annoying, brilliant people that I am so proud of. We have accidentally and quite cluelessly raised these boys who zip around London on buses and tubes, who make friends from Italy and Egypt and Russia, who sit exams and sing in choirs and play rugby and read manga comics and help look after their baby brother. They cook with me and they eat all together and at the end of the day they choose to sit close in our living room, deep in amongst the chaos of all those competing bodies. They let us to hug them and kiss them and tease them and teach them, and they argue about abolishing the monarchy and tell terrible made up jokes. What riches I have in them.
  3. Tea in the morning, brewed in a perfect teapot printed in gold and graphic dragonflies, and coffee after the school run with our flashy gleaming Rocket machine, then tea after dinner while watching TV with the boys. These are rituals that are much more than the sum of their parts. These are life affirming, slowed-down moments that brings us together for a short while. Tea-making for each other means we consider the other people in the room, deliberately and purposefully, punctuating the ends of the day with a kindness. Except when I make it, it tastes like brown water and plastic.
  4. London in Autumn. There are sample sales every day, the sun is bright, you get to wear your coat unbuttoned, things are cosy in the evening but you aren’t yet sick of the dark, red wine tastes better and running through the park in the morning is fast and properly exhilarating. Soup feels interesting rather than old people’s home-y and going to bed to read your book (Less by Andrew Sean Greer) at 9:30pm feels like a novelty. A cosy novelty. You bring out your puffy duvet from the back of the linen cupboard, your woollen rugs make sense, your jumpers get an airing and feel great and only slightly too hot and suffocating. OK, your paw paw ointment becomes a handbag essential because everyone has cracked lips and your eyes stream constantly when you walk to the tube and your mascara makes its way down your cheeks through your warm teardrops but still – Autumn! So cosy! So colourful! So squirrelly!
  5. Verna our cleaner. She comes twice a week to wipe things down and straighten things up and my goodness, she makes us all a much happier family.  She wipes out the fridge, changes the sheets, tidies up the couches, stacks things away nicely, deals with the recycling, makes the sinks gleam, and all these other things that make the flat seem twelve times bigger and everyone much nicer to each other. I wish for all the people in the world to have someone to do all that stuff for them. Not to overdo it, but I think she has made our marriage much better. More so than a date night, because, while they are important, you still get pissed off about the untidy red shelves in the hallway where Mark dumps his various acrylic work beanies which smell like scalp when you return from said date night, am I right? Whereas Verna sprinkles clean magic dust wherever she goes. I love her.
  6. Access to great things like the Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy. This city literally throws its cultural riches at you.
  7. Teachers! Oh my, the teachers. This week we have had teachers help both the biggest boys deal with bullies and one went out of his way to alert Mark and I with some concerns he has with my darling dingdong Noah, while the teachers at the new primary school keep being so loving and patient with Ned and Otis as they forge their way in to the still-new system. Such daily kindnesses right there.

In Pictures

Here I am in a Bella Freud sample sale jumper. Witness the joyful stripes! The cashmere mix! All for 80% off:

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The kids and I at Borough Market the day after the latest terror attack on London Bridge. We saw Police Commissioner Cressida Dick talking to stall holders with her terrifying bodyguard, casual and reassuring. Also the salt beef bagel was great:

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Excellent teen in excellent outfit. That’s all him, btw:

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Cutest baby in town crawling around the Turbine Hall at the Tate in velour trousers, just like his mother:

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So, tell me, Dear Readers. What are you thankful for?

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Op Shop

I have a very healthy relationship with charity shops, forged when my mother would take me to the Salvation Army’s Nearly New Shop for a rummage in the ’80s, back when I was small, skinny, and before my mullet got out of hand. When it was a perfectly reasonable Pageboy haircut, before puberty turned the shaggy shorter bits at the front into a big permy-looking halo of shame (I can’t find any photos of the actual mullet, but this is a marvellous one of me in my high school with HUGE glasses that you can have instead):

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Anyway, we would go, mum and I, and look around and though everything smelt bad and it was dusty and dark, it was laden with potential second-hand toy treasure. Later, when I was at University I bought many ’50s party dresses from retro shops on K’ Road and wore them to parties and for the occasional spot of dancing at The Box on High Street. In London, I’ve squirrelled out discarded YSL, Givenchy, Chanel, Isabel Marant and Christian Lacroix from various op shops and all sorts of peculiar sweaty smelling polyester frocks which can look quite designer-y if you choose well and which accommodate a burgeoning pregnancy bump as well as never crease. I know well of what I speak here. 

The Point, Though

There’s a great little Trinity Hospice shop near Queensway tube that often yields treasures, mostly from the book bit at the back. On Remembrance Sunday, I took half of the children for a walk to Notting Hill Gate so they could buy 10 donutty beignets from Paul Bakery, and on the way the Queen drove by us in her Bentley. We stopped and waited for the police escorts to send her through the streets and we were all in awe at her oldness and her realness and how close she was to us and our dog. Did she see Magic? Did she wave at us? Was she wearing some sort of diamond headgear? It was all too much queenly excitement for us all and we could only calm down by eating all the beignets.

Once we were over the drama, I went inside the Trinity Hospice shop to look for mid-century modern coffee table books or perhaps an unnoticed vintage Cartier ring while the kids and dog stayed outside arguing about Manga comics or something equally stupid. Then Noah came in and asked me in a breathless kind of way where Elton John lived and I said:

I DONT KNOW – MAYBE WINDSOR? MONOCO? – ANYWAY GET BACK TO THE BABY PLEASE

And ten minutes later, me laden with more books and a Juicy Couture tracksuit (more on that later), I exited the shop and went over to the kids lolling about in the bus stop and Noah told me that Elton John had just patted the dog. I said, looking frantically left and right for some signs of an ageing pop star with big glasses and a toupee:

WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?

And he said that was why he needed to know Elton John’s address and anyway, that was a whole ten minutes ago. We googled lots of photos because, having just seen Rocketman, I wanted to make sure that Noah knew Elton didn’t look like Taron Egerton. It turns out that Elton does indeed live in Holland Park a few roads away from where we were and Noah remained steadfast. It was Elton, he said. On the same day as the actual Queen! I really do love London.

And what’s more, that Most Special Day and that Most Special Hospice Shop gave me this:

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It has taken me 20 years to know that my happiness was going to lie in blue velour and diamantes. I am going to live in that little tracksuit number all Christmas. I might wear it out, even, with a BOOT or a HEEL. I am going to be the warmest and the chicest track-be-suited mid-40-year old in all of Devon, I imagine. Never mind the diamantes have come off a bit! Never mind it is snug across the bum! Never mind the children will be embarrassed and I am twenty years late to the jazzy tracksuit party! There’s a latent second hand 20 quid Juicy Couture princess in all of us, I think.

In Further Clothing and Accessory-Related News

I was out at The Cleveland Arms on Monday night at the pub quiz (as is our usual wont, and we very often win) and someone noticed my scabby wrists caused by the nickel allergy from the birthday Gucci watch. They said:

GET RID OF IT IF IT MAKES YOUR WRISTS ALL RASHY

and it was like the heavens opened and the angels sang and shone their light onto my atopic skin and I realised that yes, it was time to release my allergenic timepiece into the world of the potentially resold. It’s currently listed on eBay, as is my green £4000 Mary Katrantzou ball gown that I was going to wear to the book launch but which makes me look a little bit fatty in the arms. I will sell both those things, even if I die trying, and I will funnel the proceeds back into my paypal account so I can keep bidding on terrible 80’s YSL two piece skirt suits to wear to my non-existent office job.

Here is our new Petra Borner rug which has brightened up our lives and given us quite a bit of shedding wool to manually pick up once or twice a day:

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The baby, being a bit odd:

 

Most of the others on our way to Portobello Road on Saturday looking quite odd as well:

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Make Up Tutorial

That baby of mine works as an effective alarm clock in the week, getting me up at 6:30am pretty much on the dot every morning. This is obviously most excellent except for the weekends when it is a kind of mild pain the arse. It does allow me to drink coffee by myself without the others hearing the sound of the grinder and then whining about me making them hot chocolates, and I do get to start reading the last weekend paper supplements until Remi comes over to rip them, and I do then play with the baby for four or so minutes before I get a bit bored. From about 7am the boys all slowly traipse out of the bedroom, rubbing eyes and rumpled up in mismatching pyjamas, asking to play on my phone as soon as their eyes adjust to the light.

This morning I’ve been productive. I’ve shaped and baked a sourdough loaf, started a new one, despaired about the dishwasher backlog, wondered if we could afford a Saturday cleaner (no), made four hot chocolates (them) and two very strong double shot frothy flat whites (me), thought about going for a run (no), mused about a new social media strategy (can’t be arsed), read articles on adult autism, Thurston Moore and Felicity Jones, put the baby back to bed (lucky little bugger), put the washing on, eaten some cheese and checked Mark’s phone for anything interesting that I should know about (nothing). And it’s still only 8:38am.

Later, after I get increasingly cranky about the mess and get too hot and fret over the dog’s bowels, I will force everyone to Portobello to the food market bit under the Westway so I can buy really hot Korean buffalo chicken wings which I think about all week. The others all have their favourites too; Ned loves the Afghani chicken wraps, Noah goes for the crepes, Barnaby loves Korean chicken, eggs and rice, Casper opts for Cheeky Cheese Burgers with fries and Otis guzzles hot chips.

Here is what we look like eating crepes:

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The dog-running-away-problem, meanwhile, has been fixed because Karzan our handsome plumber friend took pity on me about the whole ‘mean bald men shouting at me’ situation and put a spring onto the gate. It slowly closes shut whenever kids/postmen leave the gate wide open, and Magic is too busy sleeping on the couch to realise he has about 15 seconds to sneak through before it closes shut. Viola! Our seven year long problem has been solved like…Magic.

In Other News

  1. Barnaby has decided to do the Duke of Edinburgh award so later today he is going to Hackney to volunteer his help with kids who have reading and writing difficulties. This gets him out of a history revision thing at school so it’s not all entirely altruistic, but it’s a start. Hopefully he will actually do as he says he is going to do and not, like, go to a cool Hackney cafe and just buy himself lunch.
  2. I’ve been to two press event launch things this week. One was all about eczema in kids and I showed the dermatologist lady my revolting wrist which is red and scaly and weeping and she told me it’s a nickel allergy – apparently I’m allergic to my new Gucci watch. Awesome. She suggested painting the back of the face with clear nail polish but I’m thinking I CANT IT’S A GUCCI WATCH. Instead, I’ll have to switch wrists when the scaling gets too gross. The second thing was a bit more exciting – we went to the penthouse at The Mandrake Hotel in Fitzrovia for a beauty event where I found myself a new lovely friend called Michelle from Fifty and Fab (we were the only ones over 35, I reckon). The hotel was all very ROCK N ROLL, painted black and confusingly laid out with wristbands at the door like we were going to a festival. Instead of an actual festival, we were taken to the top best room to watch Mary Greenwell (very famous and quite terrifying makeup artist) do a (very beautiful already and young) model’s face up, and listen to a skin doctor discuss best practices and learn about Imedeen which are supplements for the non-young ladies in da house. There were lots of very young beauty bloggers and influencers there and only about two of us who actually need Imedeen. I need Imedeen. I also need Mary Greenwell.  This is what I learned:

Drink water, sleep, don’t skip breakfast, buy a silk pillowcase, inject Profhilo, learn about your hormones, take milk thistle if you are going on a bender, take magnesium, leave three hours before your last meal before sleeping so that your body is skin repairing overnight instead of digesting, move more, ideally live in Bali, eat carbs in the evening, protein and good fats are your friend. Mary says to apply makeup with your fingers, to use brown eyeshadow everyday, to avoid the dark brow thing that everyone is wearing pretty badly, don’t contour, wear mascara everyday, don’t let your lipstick come half off over lunch because it looks awful, powder your t-zone and around the nose at the end of applying your makeup because it will stay all day and make sure your foundation isn’t too cakey.

They gave me some Imedeen capsules to take so I will report back. I am not entirely hopeful and suspect the injectables might be the only way to really claw back lost youth.

Speaking of youth – how sweet is my baby?

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Woeful tale (tail) ft. dogs and angry men

It is possible, entirely possible, that I am a bit oversensitive to other people’s criticism or perceived criticism of me and my parenting. This was very delicately pointed out by a friend of mine when I freaked out a few weeks ago because Casper (11) and Ned (9) weren’t served at a local food market because they had my card to use for payment instead of cash. I assumed they weren’t served because they were unaccompanied at 7am (in their school uniforms, with a handwritten note from me listing “Milk, Bananas, Croissants”, one of them clutching a reusable plastic bag to put the groceries in) but it looks like it might have been because the cashier knew the card wasn’t theirs, and therefore was perhaps stolen. The kids ran back home, she called me to check it was ok, and they ran back to buy their breakfast. So…extremely….conscientious of her, no?

I got really cross about it, of course, and felt that I was getting called out for sending the kids out into the world without me which is something that is seen by lots of people as quite a risky thing to do because of the Dangers Out There. I think the Dangers Out There are overstated. If the refusal to serve them was not about the Dangers Out There and was really about the kids having my card, I would argue that context is all. They weren’t buying fireworks or cigarettes, after all.

But in any case, it does seem as though I move through the world ready to take one glance or imagined ‘tsk’ as a full throttle assault on my parenting character. This has perhaps always been the case but got worse after a summer fiasco where I got myself into a handful of trouble because I left the baby in a tent for a few minutes with his brothers and a Child Protection Officer discovered the scene. It was brutal and public and shaming and terrifying and it has had real and lasting consequences on me, my sense of self, my confidence in my choices and in my parenting, and my friendships. So now, I am a totally unhinged about this stuff.

Cue yesterday then. A big bad day of getting-into-trouble-ness. The last day of the mid term holidays, after what has been a pleasant week with trips to Battersea Park for mini golf, long days in the sand at the Princess Diana Playground, walks through Mayfair, trips to Pret, Portobello and a full day in the rain making dens at Forest School.

We had plans to meet a new friend in Kensington Gardens, so there was some time pressure to get out of the flat by 10:45. After a week on holiday, this was a bit of a struggle – Ned and Casper were supposed to walk the dog but spent a lot of time ignoring the request or just saying NO, and Casper bookended that by fighting, screaming, talking back, arguing, knocking us all on the shoulder as he skulked past in a faux ‘wanna fight?’ kind of way, kicking things up and down the hall, chasing the others which lead them to hide in the bathrooms while he tried to kick the doors down. This was all while we were trying to get out of the flat and running out of time. Noah, meanwhile, was being lazy about his job hanging out the washing and pulled too hard on the line and broke the whole thing. There was wet washing everywhere, no way to dry anything, seven loads to do, and it was time to leave.

Casper wouldn’t let up with his constant assaults and I was getting angrier and angrier with him – I took his phone and said the next time he did something I would cancel the scout camp trip he was supposed to be going on this weekend. I asked him to drag the buggy up the stairs for me to give him a job and keep him occupied; he did it purposefully slowly and in the most difficult, passive aggressive way which meant that the postman couldn’t get through and I couldn’t get past to open the gate and he just made it all as hard, slow and awkward as he could. After I came up behind him and strapped the baby in, I exploded with rage – finally broken after the full morning of relentless baiting. I left the buggy and the gate still open with the other boys upstairs and asked them to watch things while I went back down to sort the fallout from our fight.

I apologised, though tried to explain that he has to learn to manage his behaviour better, especially when he can see that I am losing it. We were finally ready to get out of the flat but I saw there was a man waiting for me upstairs. It turns out that during the Casper drama, the dog had sneaked out past the kids who were watching the baby in his buggy (and also distracted by some impromptu hide and seek) and he had wandered down the road to his favourite rubbish bins. This man, someone I had never seen before, was all ready for me. He was furious – he had seen Magic a few streets away and had come back to our flat (not bringing the dog back, mind) to tell me that I was a terrible incompetent dog owner and the next time he saw Magic out on his own again, he was going to take him. I tried to explain, saying that I had asked the kids to keep watch while I was in the middle of something important and he said OH THAT MUST HAVE BEEN SO TOUGH FOR YOU in a very sarcastic kind of way and just kept repeating that I was incompetent and bad and that next time, he would take Magic away. He then took off, leaving me a shocked and embarrassed and upset but – there was a dog to find.

I sent the big kids off in one direction and I went in another. I found Magic, snuffling into some rubbish bags as per, and bought him home but the other boys were still on the hunt. I thought the two littlest had gone ahead to the park in all the confusion, so grabbed the baby and Casper and went there, incredibly late for our playdate, hoping to find them waiting for us. They weren’t there. The big boys weren’t there either, and didn’t have their phones with them, and probably had no keys for the flat.

Luckily, each big boy had a little one with them and they had scoured the streets for about an hour until they went back to the flat where Casper was waiting with keys.

In the afternoon, still upset about the random man who wants to steal the dog and who knows where we live and after feeling terrible about my inability to cope with Casper’s provocations, I was lying about all glumly and then a delivery man comes to give us a package and then the baby went to have a bath. A few minutes after, another man comes down our stairs with the dog. The delivery guy had left the gate open and Magic had slunk off again to the bins for afternoon tea. This new man had the same story – he had seen Magic out earlier and was beyond furious and told me that if he ever saw Magic out again he would call animal welfare and Magic would be taken from us. He said, just like the other guy, that we were incompetent dog owners and were a danger to Magic. I tried to explain that the delivery guy had left the gate open (there’s a big sign saying PLEASE CLOSE THE GATE) but he said that was my problem and I needed to sort it out. After he finished his tirade and stormed off, he bloody well left the gate open! I shouted after him THE GATE! THE GATE! and he turned around and I ran back inside because a) he was big, with a bald boiled gammon head and a face like an angry football hooligan and b) he knows where we live. When Mark got home half an hour later he was still standing at the spot he had turned around at. So now I think he’s gonna get us. And the dog. And you wonder why I think everyone wants to expose my crapness at looking after people and things?

PS I know we need a self-closing gate. I know.

In Other News

I haven’t yet been invited to anything where I can wear my £4000 Mary Katrantzou gown.

Mark has high blood pressure which makes me think we need life insurance. I hope it doesn’t mean that he sits down too much now.

I’ve been asked to contribute an essay on Motherhood for a new anthology. What larks! What irony! Anyway, it’s the first time I will be published in an actual book, so I am excited about that. You’ll all know the truth – that I am a bit crap – but for the essay, I’ve glossed over that bit. Out in March.

 

 

 

 

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Fresh beginnings

More on the Earnest Teacher Situation. About a week after Otis discovered his Magical Superpowers of Maternal Shame (whereby he gets his mother into trouble by grassing on her), I was asked to step aside and have a word after school with his teacher again.

This time, the issue stemmed from a PSHE day – PSHE standing for Personal, Social and Health Education. In this country, PSHE lessons start when the kids are four and they learn about hygiene and friends and personal space; it carries on over the years into more age-appropriate, thorny topics like puberty and sex. PSHE education for me is a non-issue because I believe that knowledge is power, and I don’t get very shy about talking about potentially awkward things. I want them to be informed about their bodies and its functions, and I want them to have the right messages regarding sex and porn and consent and love and pleasure (importantly, not just theirs…I don’t think we are taught to expect women to enjoy sex).  I haven’t had any of those moments with the boys where I feel unsure about how to answer a question or broach a topic because I figure life is like a farm and we are the cows and chickens and that life, birth, death and everything in between is just farmlife.  Beautiful, abundant, glorious, mysterious, scientific, Godly, good farmlife. Anyway, I digress.

So on the PSHE day, the five and six year olds were asked to write down any worries they have and post them into the Worry Box which the teachers then go through in case the kids highlight anything that seems peculiar and in need of further investigation. The teacher told me that Otis’s worry was very unusual. I internally rolled my eyes. It was this:

OTIS: “I am worried about Mum being in a cage, because she was kidnapped by a monster with very bulgy eyes and very sharp teeth and the key was buried underground. I couldn’t find the key and I only had ten minutes before the monster ate Mum. Then she was just bones.”

Cue the teacher deciding to check with me about this, and to ask why Otis might be worried about me being in a cage. I put on my most passive aggressive face and said I HAVE NO IDEA. Then she called him over and asked in a very sweet voice, “Why are you worried about your mum being in a cage?” Perhaps, she said, he was seeing something he shouldn’t be seeing?

I got a bit cross then. I said that with the best will in the world, a kid with four older brothers (three of whom are in secondary school), won’t be sheltered from everything. That, unlike many of the kids in her class, Otis has accidental exposure to things that will be undesirable from time to time, but that I could assure her I would do the best I could to keep him from seeing and hearing things he shouldn’t be. I said that context is everything. She seemed happy with that, but I walked away, cheeks ablaze, wondering what I had to do to prove to her that I wasn’t a Person of Interest. Also, wondering why Otis wasn’t being seen as a brilliant storyteller rather than a damaged innocent. I went straight over to the other school site and asked the teachers that I knew very well there  – 11 years well – why the new teacher had not spoken with them to check out how dodgy or not we were as a family. Because, at some point, you want to be able to get on with the job of childrearing without being nervous about the authorities. It is a hard enough job to do without being called in once a week.

SO

This, and the double-dropoff-two-school-sites thing and the stress and the drama and the morning shouting and the long ugly walk up the A40 to get to a school by 8:15 made me think it was time to go to the local school and so we did. The two middle littlest now go to the school that almost all the kids in our neighbourhood go to. It is tiny and it starts at nearly 9am and the best thing of all – the very best thing of all – is that it takes me 4 minutes and 38 seconds to get there. It means I have an hour extra in the mornings to go for a late 7am run and make coffee and read the paper and waft around in a dressing gown. It is like Saturday every day! I don’t know why I didn’t do it years ago.

ALSO

  1. I went to a Mary Katrantzou sample sale yesterday and bought a green maxi dress that was once a princely £4000 but was reduced to £200. I will never need to wear a silk high necked floor length butterfly jacquard gown, but I can. I just might.
  2. I turned 42 last week. I was given a lot of chocolate, bought myself a bit of an ugly expensive present (I had a tense eBay situation where I thought I had put in a bid for a flowery Gucci watch at a maximum £310 but discovered, after I won it, that I had used a “9” instead of a “3”), went to Ottolenghi for brunch and had a fight with the kids who decided to use our furniture as the base for a knife-throwing competition. I’ve had better birthdays.
  3. The baby has slapped cheek syndrome and has cried most of the night for about a week while four teeth have ripped through his gums. We are done in.
  4. I have started making sourdough and have become a sourdough bore. See my Instagram stories for proof of this.

AND

Buckwheat sourdough(complete with stray hair):

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Baby on a swing:

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Otis in a synagogue:

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Baby eating an Ottolenghi cinnamon brioche on my birthday:

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What happens when you accidentally run SLOWLY in a penis shape:

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