29 April, 2018 / General
I’m not quite sure why I signed up for the Edinburgh Marathon. But as my husband Jimmy had run no less than three (Inverness, Stirling and Amsterdam), I had a notion that I should give it a go too. After all, he had survived them and kept on wanting to do more. What sort of crazy behaviour was that?
‘Maybe I could do that,’ I thought, as I run too – ie, our local Parkrun pretty much every Saturday morning. That’s 5k – and a full marathon is only, er, 37k further. Hang on… THIRTY-SEVEN KILOMETRES FURTHER? Christ, was I thinking? I seriously needed to get my ass into gear.
As the weeks rolled on, Jimmy and I started going on 10k runs fairly regularly – then gradually upping to 20k. If I’m making this sound easy, it really wasn’t – setting off is always pretty torturous, and I got very grumpy and needed a lot of cajoling. I gulped down those energy gels that taste like pulped Jelly Babies, determined not to lose face. Still I couldn’t figure out how the heck a normal person – who spent pretty much her entire 20s and early 30s in the pub, and had gin stashed in her office desk drawer – could ever hope to run 26 blinking miles. I pictured myself being bundled up in a foil blanket, like a turkey, and carted away sobbing on marathon day. Running can make you feel great – but there are risks, obviously. At Parkrun last weekend, I heard a fellow runner announce to her friend, ‘And then he had to have his spleen removed!’
It’ll be okay, everyone kept telling me. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Jimmy kept urging me to run at a slow, steady pace, instead of scampering ahead and trying to show off – and a friend advised, ‘Treat it like lots of 5ks all joined up together’. I read numerous accounts from ‘normal’ women who’d done it; they reported blackened toenails, and their nails actually falling off, plus copious crying/vomiting. Weirdly, nothing terrible has happened to me yet. I managed what was (to me at least) a mammoth run of 30k, through the streets and parks of Glasgow. As our own street came into view I experienced a wave of euphoria. Bloody hell, I’d just run 30 kilometres!
Something strange seemed to be happening. While I have never considered myself a ‘natural’ runner I seemed to be able to just plod on and on, albeit slowly – without any bits falling off, or anything terrible happening to my inner workings.
Last weekend I met a friend, Heather, who ran her first marathon (London) last year and convinced me I’d ‘smash it’, as she put it. She impressed on me that it wasn’t about ‘time’ but about finishing and enjoying the experience. It started to feel very real, and even… exciting. Weirdly, I’m not scared anymore. I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing it, but I do know that running balances out the fact that I spend hours at the laptop every day, writing books.
To run, all you really need is a pair of decent running shoes, a sports bra (unless you’re a bloke, obv) and the will to stagger through those first few runs when you feel like puking and detest every moment.
After that, it does get better. I still resent it sometimes – ‘Bugger, I really should go out for a run’ – when I’d far rather curl up at home and stuff my face with Kettle Chips. But running is part of my life now, and hopefully on that last Sunday in May I’ll stagger over the finishing line and stuff a banana in my mouth, and perhaps vow to never do it again, as running that far is an utterly mad thing to do.
I shall report back.
27 August, 2017 / General
My make-up bag is a precious thing…
Whenever I lose it – which is often – the accompanying panic is of a similar level to when I’ve misplaced my purse or flat keys – or am having one of those horrific dreams when I’m, say, naked in Sainsbury’s baked goods aisle.
Most women I know are the same. It’s taken us years to find our favourites, and to replace it all would be nightmare in terms of time, effort and cash. When I was younger, I hopped from brand to brand, whereas now – although I’m not averse to trying something new – I’m somewhat more faithful to my favourites. Here are the beauties currently seeing me through the day. The pic, incidentally, is my daughter’s kit. I’m on a mad book deadline at the mo and my favourites are scattered all over in various bags. Note to self: organise make-up!
Bare Minerals Complexion Rescue BB cream – recommended by Misha McCullagh, a BM consultant who gave me lots of helpful advice when I was writing The Woman Who Met Her Match (my main character, Lorrie, works on a beauty counter in a posh department store and I needed the inside info on what that’s like). I can’t bear a caked, claggy feeling on my skin, and haven’t worn actual foundation for years. This BB cream is sheer and light and gives just enough coverage to smooth out any wear and tear.
Bare Minerals Smoothing Face foundation brush. Brush application, as demonstrated to me by Misha, was a revelation. Before that, I’d just smeared on my base with my fingers. But brushing gives more even coverage and a really brilliant, professional result. I’m a total covert.
Benefit ‘That Gal’ Brightening Face Primer. Another counter recommendation (I really am a beauty salesperson’s dream. ‘Here I am! Have ALL of my money, people!’). If I’ve been working long hours and lack sleep and fresh air, my skin starts to look ashen. This magical stuff perks it up. Often, I put a blob on my hand, with a blob of the aforementioned BB cream too, blend them with a brush and then apply – so it’s a primer and BB in one. The effect is really light and brightening.
Clinique Stay-Matte Sheer Pressed Powder. Powder can be viewed as a bit ‘nana’ but I’ve worn this for decades (not the same one, obv) and always have that trusty green compact in my bag.
Chanel Hydrating Lip Color in Rouge Coco. I’m having a ‘red revival’ after two decades of more subtle lip shades. Weirdly, I assumed I’d passed the cut-off age for a true red, but a counter lady persuaded me otherwise. This formulation glides on, is neither too matte nor too glossy, and lasts for hours as long as it’s applied with a liner. It’s amazingly easy to wear and it cheers me hugely.
Diorshow Proliner – a twist-up liner which is far easier to apply, in my opinion, than the liquid type that comes with a brush. It’s like drawing with a pen and gives deep, rich colour that lasts for hours. While I feel slightly too old for the liquid flick, this little beauty works for me.
Other bits and bobs…
As for blusher, at the moment I’m using a swanky Chanel one – but only because I had a treaty gift voucher. I could just as happily use a bargainacious brand like Barry M or Boots No. 7. Ditto for pencil lip liners and eye liners – I don’t believe you need to spend a lot. And mascara-wise, I’m currently using Soap & Glory but I’m equally keen on Clinique and Benefit. I’m a bit of a brand-hopper, lash-wise.
And underneath it all? When it comes to skincare I’m currently wedded to Liz Earle’s Hot Cloth Cleanser (easily the best cleanser IMO), plus her Superskin Moisturiser and serum (called Concentrate for Night). The ladies at the John Lewis concession in Glasgow are super-helpful and I often come away with a few enticing freebies when I’ve made a purchase. Yes, it’s all a bit spendy, but these products last and last and are a joy to use every day.
Isn’t it brilliant to be a woman sometimes?
‘Your kids are out of control,’ the man barked. ‘It’s a disgrace!’
I’d taken my twin sons to an aquarium. A star attraction was the moving pavement, which took you along a tunnel through a giant tank of sharks. Actually, no – the real star attraction was the big red button that stopped the pavement moving. Of course my sons pressed it. What else would they do? They were seven years old. The button was irresistible.
An angry man marched towards us and threatened to report us to the staff. My cheeks burned and I sensed tears welling up behind my eyes. Naturally, angry man’s children were behaving beautifully, filling in the worksheets he’d probably printed out for them – they didn’t seem to have even noticed the big button.
It’s normal for kids to get up to hi-jinx in public places – and, fortunately, most people are understanding. However, we all encounter the odd individual – a member of the ‘your kids are out of control!’ brigade – who seem to believe that a child’s every move can be controlled by a parent, as if they were mini robots instead of unpredictable human beings.
How often have you heard a disapproving adult muttering, ‘Well, I blame the parents?’ Give us a break, people! We are trying our best, usually on a pitiful amount of sleep.
It’s amazing how intolerant strangers can be when they witness a child being mischievous. Recently, I was asked to take part in a radio talk show, on which the subject was a certain cafe in Essex, whose owner had decided to ban children – ‘so they can’t spoil the experience for everyone else.’
How terribly life-sapping, I thought, to be denied the chance to just sit and have a coffee that you hadn’t made yourself – and which, crucially, hadn’t been re-heated in the microwave five times. Some callers agreed that the no-kids ruling was rather ungenerous, and I remembered how grateful I’d be whenever I found a welcoming coffee shop, where I could sit with my young children and enjoy a hot drink and a slice of cake. Simple pleasures indeed!
However, according to the vast majority of listeners who phoned into that show, that cafe owner was quite right. ‘I don’t want to be surrounded by screaming kids!’ thundered one man. Perhaps he was the same man who barked at me for ‘letting’ my sons press the red button? As a home-based writer, I regularly take my laptop to cafes to get out of the house. In the twenty-one years I have been freelance, I have never once had my ‘experience’ ruined by rowdy children.
Oh, I know kids can be noisy and sometimes you just want a proper adult night out – but we were talking about a cafe, not a Michelin-starred restaurant. ‘The trouble is,’ the man wittered on, ‘kids are allowed to run amok these days. Mine never did that.’
Yes they did, Mister Perfect. You’ve just blotted it out.
I am on holiday and loving Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing. I know I’m late to this, and that this debut novel has attracted huge praise, and I can see why. I have it in paperback at home but happened to find a well-thumbed copy on the well-stocked bookshelf in the little house we’re staying at in Deia, Majorca.
What a book! I have shied away from reading it as the protagonist, Maud, is an elderly lady with some form of dementia – like my mum. Too upsetting, I thought, but it’s not at all, due to Healey’s wonderful writing.
Somehow, she manages to channel the confused and meandering thoughts of a person for whom the world is becoming an increasingly frustrating place. She injects humour and writes with such credibility about why someone with such a condition might try to piece together snippets of rational thought and logic, aided by pockets stuffed with hand-written notes.
I’m seeing much of myself in Helen, Maud’s daughter, who is clearly at the end of her tether a lot of the time, particularly when her mother insists that her much-loved friend Elizabeth is missing, that something terrible must have happened to her, and that she herself has been burgled. My mother imagined numerous burglaries and, like Maud in the novel, visited the police station time and time again. She was insistent that silverware and her broken spectacles had been stolen. I am loathe to liken a person with dementia to a small child but I found myself trying to be patient, just as I had when one of my three children had refused to eat something I’d cooked, or to settle down to sleep at bedtime. I’d coax and cajole and, occasionally, I’d lose it.
In Elizabeth is Missing, Maud repeatedly goes out wandering, despite being told not to – often to try to find her ‘missing’ friend – and smashes a cup in a restaurant in frustration. Mum’s insistence that people had broken in her house began to drive me to distraction. Our extremely kind GP came to her house and, together, we tried to talk to Mum about how her doors were locked at night and how on earth would anyone have broken in?
‘They’ve been again!’ she insisted. ‘D’you think I’m a liar?’
‘Mum, please believe me, no one has broken in. You didn’t actually have any silver and, look, here’s the handbag you said they took.’
‘They broke in. I saw their faces. Why won’t you believe me?’
I felt my emotions bubbling up and, to my shame, kicked her waste paper basket across her living room. Bits of paper flew everywhere. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. Mum was terrified and burst into tears, and I did too. Who hasn’t thought, ‘I’m a terrible parent’ after shouting at a child? There’s the, ‘I am a terrible daughter’ version too – someone who yells at an elderly lady who has a clearly frightening mental illness. I hurried home and dived on a bottle of sauvignon in the fridge.
I am loving reading Elizabeth is Missing because Helen’s frustrations come across clearly and are utterly understandable. I’d love to report that, in the four years since Mum’s diagnosis, I have been a model of calmness and understanding – but it wouldn’t be true.
Mum’s condition is now more advanced than Maud’s. She lives in a wonderful care home and I am no longer the daughter who visits daily with meals and reminders for her to stop buying litre bottles of Irn Bru or multiple purchases of toner from the Clinque counter in John Lewis. I no longer have to deal with the crashing waves of guilt that followed any losing of the plot on my part (e.g., the waste paper basket incident).
I am so glad I picked up Elizabeth is Missing as it reminds anyone with a loved one with dementia that we are not only daughters, sons or carers, but human beings too. Yes, sometimes we lose it and behave in ways that are perhaps not ideal. But we try, we do our best at that precise moment, and that’s all we can do.
12 July, 2016 / General
I was in London last week and had a few hours to spare on a sunny afternoon before catching my train back to Glasgow. So I thought I’d take a stroll along the Regent’s Canal in Islington, where I lived on a pea-green narrowboat called Parsley.
I hadn’t been back to this stretch of canal since my then-partner and I sold our boat, although I’ve had an inkling to visit for a long time. In our early twenties, we bought the boat on whim from an advert in a narrowboat magazine, and brought it down from Rickmansworth with no idea of how to handle the thing, or where we might ‘tie up’ (I don’t think we even used the term ‘moor’). By some happy accident, having negotiated the gloomy King’s Cross tunnel, the world opened up and we found ourselves on the pretty stretch of water which runs alongside Noel Road (where, incidentally Joe Orton was murdered with several hammer blows to the head by Kenneth Halliwell). However all was peaceful that day, and we found a space which seemed to be waiting for us, and so began two years of communal living.
I’d never have imagined that that kind of lifestyle, with everyone knowing each other’s business, would suit me – but I made friends who I’m still in touch with now, thirty years on. Mostly in our twenties, we quickly became a gang of a dozen or so boaters – known, disparagingly, as ‘water gypsies’ by the well-heeled Noel Roaders – who lived and socialised, partied, fell out, made up and ran to each other’s aid in emergencies. We became exceptionally close. It was almost like living in one enormous, bobbing house.
We must have reeked of woodsmoke and spent long summer’s afternoons lolling on other’s decks, drinking beer and chatting. For the price a shabby car, I had a home in a beautiful part of London with friends living mere feet away.
I’m not sure anyone could live that way now. In fact, it would be impossible in any part of London, let alone the leafy enclave of N1. As we were merely squatting the bank, we didn’t pay mooring fees, yet no one moved us on (we wanted to set up an official mooring as a sort of collective but our nemesis, the BWB – the British Waterways Board – weren’t having it). If anyone wanted to take their boat on a trip, the others would move theirs along the bank to absorb the space until their return.
Although there are fancy new flats past the lock, barely anything had changed as I strolled along my old stretch of towpath last week. There was still a motley collection of narrowboats (it’s now an official mooring) including one turned into a cafe, selling carrot cake. Yes, it’s posher, but the friendly atmosphere still prevailed. A young American woman, who’d been taking pictures of the boats, screamed as her Nikon camera fell into the murky water. She plunged in to try to rescue it, and moments later one of boaters ran to her rescue with an extra-strong magnet on a rope.
I walked in dappled sunshine, chatting to boaters, my head filled with all the adventures and larks we had, when buying a rusting old boat to live on from a small ad seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do.