27 July, 2014 / Books

My next book is finished! Hello flowers!

flowersIt’s a lovely feeling. I’ve actually emerged from my workroom and been out on big walks with the dog and drives in the country like old people do! Hence the pics of flowers. Jimmy unearthed a book called ‘The Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe’ which we’ve been taking on our jaunts. One of our sons asked, ‘Is it issued automatically when you turn 50?’ But I don’t care because I HAVE BEEN OUT OF THE HOUSE!

After months of grafting away, I can’t tell you what a relief this is. I used to find this part – sending a book to my editor, and waiting for her feedback – completely terrifying. I don’t anymore. Not because I think it’s perfect – every book comes bouncing back to me, requiring loads of fixes – but because it’s basically written which means the hard graft is done.

It’s also the first book I’ve managed to finish at home, with normal life going on around me, rather than hiding away in a hotel for a few days. There are several reasons for this. First, my kids have reached that age (boys 17, daughter 14) when they no longer want to converse with me. In fact, days – WEEKS – can go by and no one bothers me at all.  The older they get, the higher my daily word count. I’m hoping that, by the time my boys are 19, I’ll be dashing off 10,000 words a day.

Also, I realised how much I hate leaving my family to go away and work alone. It’s utterly miserable. Going away should involve much laughter and fun and chat and alcohol, but holing up in a hotel room to finish a book means no such pleasures are allowed. So you sit there, typing, feeling deprived of fun – and also horribly ungrateful because you’re in a hotel and should be enjoying yourself. Basically, much of it involves gazing mournfully out of a window which won’t open properly and wondering what everyone else is doing.

This time last year, I was in self-imposed exile in a Premier Inn in central Glasgow. Yes, I battered through the final chapters and got lots done. I wasn’t having to break off to throw a chicken in the oven or wash anyone’s pants. But I have never been so bloody lonely in all my born days. Only a friend dropping by to take me out for sushi – and sneaking out to Frasers to buy a ruinously expensive BB cream – saved me from tipping over into insanity.

I vowed to never put myself through that again. In fact I work better these days amidst the muddle of music and TV and people shouting and life going on about me – in other words, all the usual hubbub of home.  I also enjoy writing on trains and in coffee shops. But more than anything, after months and months of battering away at the keyboard there’s nothing nicer than not writing at all. To be idle of finger, and devoid of plot-related thoughts – to stop working and admire the flowers. By the way, ‘The Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe’ is an excellent reference guide, if you ever find yourself with time on your hands. 


19 July, 2014 / Parenting

The almighty trauma of the school photo

Facebook’s been full of school photos this week. Parents whose children have just left primary school have been posting pics of their children – sweet pictures showing big smiles. It struck me that, during the primary years, those regulation school photos (mottled grey/blue background, hair neatly combed) are fine, usually. It’s in secondary school that the whole business becomes something else entirely. 

Take this: Exhibit A. It’s my husband Jimmy, aged about five, with neat side parting and finger waves (his dad was a barber). It’s a lovely picture, I think. I like it so much, I persuaded him to use it on our wedding invitation.


Then there’s this: Exhibit B. That’s me at about seven, girlie swot in the school library in a polo neck sweater. I wasn’t embarrassed that Mum had sewn braid around the neck. In fact, I’d probably asked her to do it.


Then we come to Exhibit C when I’m about 13. I’m no longer happily parked behind a table of books. I am a seething mass of hormones and mortification. There’s so much wrong with this picture I don’t know where to start. 


By that point I had decided that my nose was so large, I had better do something to detract attention from it – hence the two low pigtails, which I hoped would make it look smaller. I’m not quite sure how that was supposed to work, but it was a trick I believe I’d read in Jackie magazine (big pigtails = smaller nose, in comparison!). I’m also caught in a half-blink, and my fringe was obviously cut by my mum, possibly during a power cut using those round-ended scissors that small children use to cut paper.

As a final touch, in the actual photo, inky blots are visible on the hand I’ve raised, as if waving feebly at the photographer. 

We keep reading how under stress teenagers are these days, with social media and the relentless pressure to be as skinny as Cara Delevigne. Okay, I didn’t have that to contend with. This picture was taken around 1978. Cara had yet to be born. And I never aspired to look like one of the models in my favourite magazine. But at least today’s teens are allowed to go to proper hairdressers and would surely remember to wash their hands before having a photo taken. 

Come to think of it, it’s been years since I have been offered a school photo ‘for approval’ from my kids’ school. Either the school has stopped doing them or my offspring have decided to not bring them home. Perhaps I’m a bad parent because I never think to ask. Back in the day, though, my own mum would ask, ‘Have your school photos arrived yet?’ and she’d snatch them from me, all excited. 

I remember her looking at this one in particular. ‘Oh,’ was all she said.

09 July, 2014 / Parenting

We left the kids home alone… for a week!

the screamMy kids’ school just had a talk about university applications. It was all about this course and that course and all I could think was, How can this be? That my boys will soon be applying for college or uni and washing their own pants?

It only seems like last week that I was shepherding them home from the park, dripping and filthy and attracting those ‘Look at those poor, sodden children!’ type looks. I walked through the park yesterday for the first time in about eight years. It’s been completely gentrified with a renovated paddling pool and loads of shiny new play equipment. In our day there’d been a burnt-out climbing frame and a stinky little hut full of fag butts.

But actually, I’m enjoying the fact that they’re older. The whole uni/college thing is thrilling to me because I didn’t go.  I left school at seventeen – the age my boys are now – and, thanks to my dad spotting a tiny recruitment ad in our local paper, applied for a job as a trainee journalist at DC Thomson in Dundee, publishers of Jackie magazine. 

Is anything more thrilling than leaving home? I was desperate to get the hell out. Having applied for art school, and failed to gain a place due to being pretty crappy at drawing, I realised how lucky I was to get a job of any description, let alone one on the magazine I’d loved since I was thirteen. The next three years were spent writing about blusher and how to make ‘Dave’ notice you. I lived in a bedsit, then flatshares, surviving on toast and beer, mostly. It was like being a student, without the lectures – the average age in the Jackie office was about nineteen.

Jimmy and I gave our boys a taste of independent living recently, and left them home alone for a week. We’d asked them if they wanted to come on holiday with us (our daughter had been whisked off to Spain by her friend’s family) and they replied with a resounding ‘NO THANKS.’ Then they proceeded to organise a ‘gathering’. Yes, I was worried about returning home to be greeted by inebriated teenagers and scowling police. But, desperate for a break, we set off.

Friends moan about not being ‘needed’ any more, and feeling redundant, but these days I think, what are you on about? Who wants to be needed every minute of the day? I’ve had seventeen years of being on hand, attending to my offspring’s every needs, and my reserves of patience and dutifulness have all run out – peeling the top off a pot of Petit Filous would break me now. Anyway, Jimmy and I had a marvellous time, doing the stuff we love to do – chatting, eating, looking at art, quaffing a bottle of rose over a salad nicoise at lunchtime. And we came home to a tidy house and no evidence of excessive partying.

My chilli plants had been watered. There was milk in the fridge. One of my boys reported that he’d made a Caesar salad – yes, an actual salad, with leaves. ‘Next time,’ he said, ‘you might as well go away for two weeks.’

30 May, 2014 / General

My husband, the Kitchen Lurker

J cooking and Sassy 006I love being cooked for. Nothing makes me happier than watching someone beavering away in their kitchen making something lovely for me. I decided that Jimmy could possibly be the father of my future children when I was perched on a stool in his tiny kitchen in Leyton back in ’94.

It was around our third date. I was sipping white wine. He was rustling up a Thai chicken curry from scratch (in those distant days, Thai curry was exotic in the extreme). He worked within striding distance of Chinatown, and at lunchtime he’d nipped out and bought all these fancy ingredients. Lemongrass! Some kind of stinking fishy block! And coconut milk! (I’d only ever encountered coconut in macaroon form before).

The curry was delicious. I planned to marry him as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Bear in mind that my own fridge housed a lump of Cheddar freckled with mould and a bottle of vodka.

While I am a slave to recipe books (things tend to go awry if I venture off piste), Jimmy is an instinctive cook. He chucks stuff in, utterly confident amidst all the hissing and sizzling. I do enjoy cooking, but only in my own, cautious, instruction-bound way. And this is where we come unstuck.

You see, he can’t just let me get on with it. He hovers, with a worried expression, making ‘helpful’ suggestions. Sometimes he prods things and he’s always standing precisely where I need to be. The more keenly he observes, the more my confidence plummets. He is a Kitchen Lurker, prone to the following:

  • Asking, ‘Does that need a bit of salt?’
  • Casually giving a pot a stir, even though there’s no heat on under it.
  • Shaking in random dried herbs which are not part of the recipe.
  • Dredging up the memory of my Terrible Mango Chicken Debacle and honking with laughter (note that this happened 20 years ago and only because I was bloody trying to impress him). 
  • Saying, ‘You could add a bit of Tabasco to that. Just, you know, an idea...’ 
  • Asking, ‘Are you sure it doesn’t need salt?’
  • Having a sniff of whatever I’m cooking and looking slightly concerned.
  • Adjusting the gas flame under a pan.
  • Actually throwing salt in, without permission!!
  • Remarking, ‘It’s okay, I’ll do this bit’ and muscling in – usually to fry steaks which, admittedly, I am always grateful for as mine tend to turn out ‘lightly poached.’

So yes, he is useful. And he’s a far better cook than I am. But, unless steak is involved, I do wish he’d take a leaf out of my book and sit back and watch and quietly drink his wine. 


05 May, 2014 / Family

Edging towards veggie

I wasn’t overjoyed when my 14 year-old daughter said she wanted to stop eating meat – and only have fish – soon followed by not wanting much fish at all. But then I thought, this is okay, I’ve wanted to do this for ages. Our two sons (aged 17) are confirmed carnivores and it’s been meat, meat, meat all the way for as long as I can remember. Whopping amounts of beef and chicken and lamb – it’s vastly expensive, and also feels a bit… unnecessary. Too heavy and fleshy and animally. So instead of moaning about all the extra work daughter’s meals would entail, I decided to go with it and join her and it’s been fine. Things may be more challenging if, or rather, when – she is a teenage girl after all – she goes fully veggie. But maybe I’ll join her in that too.

We’ve been scoffing loads of curries. My favourite Indian cookbook is by Rick Stein, accompanying his brilliant series – here’s Jimmy making daughter something spicy with peppers and haloumi (instead of paneer) which was SCRUMPTIOUS. If I’m cooking, I’ll generally knock up a chicken/lamb curry for the boys and a veggie one for daughter. It’s a tiny bit of extra work, but when you think about it, making any curry tends to involve raking around for about half a day to find all the blasted spices and then grating and chopping and destroying the whole kitchen and using every implement you have. So you might as well make two – or even three – curries rather than just the one. And of course, most freeze brilliantly so you can eat another day without grating more bleedin’ ginger.

Also – the wonderful Jack Monroe’s carrot and cumin burgers (from her cookbook, A Girl Called Jack, but the recipe is everywhere), which daughter makes for herself. They’re easy, delicious and – according to Jack – work out at 9p per burger. Although ours are frisbee-sized, compared to her dainty ones. Anyway, they beat their meaty counterparts hands down, I reckon.

We’ve also plundered Leon: Fast Vegetarian – it’s modern and fresh and doesn’t make you feel as you’ve been propelled back to Crank’s, circa 1983, in the days when veggie food was terribly farty and made you want to sleep, fartily, for a week. Daughter has made a yum butternut squash stew, and a sort of posh beans on toast thing, with an egg draped on top. The book recommends a kind of bean we didn’t have, so daughter used Heinz baked beans with the overly sugary sauce washed off (a Jack Monroe tip).

Fish-wise – as we still have fish about three times a week – a sort of spaghetti puttanesca-with-tuna is easy as pie (why do people say this? Pie recipes ramble on for page after page!) for teens to make. Another fave is a big slab of salmon dribbled with fish sauce, honey, a few flecks of chili and lime or lemon juice, all wrapped in a greaseproof paper parcel and baked.

This, too, is gleaned from a Leon book. I’m a little obsessed with Leon cookbooks. Everyone’s so jolly and you get the impression that no one looks at the clock and thinks, ‘Christ, teatime already, I really can’t be fagged cooking tonight.’ And there are always faded old photos of the contributors having big family holidays in the Dordogne in the 70s and we only went to Scotland or Wales. I used to dream about being propelled into a Famous Five story and now – Christ, I must be old – I want to live in a Leon cookbook. 

Anyway, back to our food thing here in our un-Leon world. It’s early days, I know, and true dyed-in-the-wool vegetarians might mock my excitement over our tentative steps towards a new way of eating. But daughter’s happy, as am I. I’m more energetic, my skin’s looking better and I haven’t felt remotely deprived. 

Also, after 17 years of trying to control what my kids eat, it’s immensely refreshing to throw in the towel and say, ‘Okay then – you decide.’ We’ve been poring over websites and cookbooks and it’s been a lovely thing. Any edging-towards-veggie tips gratefully received.