20 March, 2014 / General

I am a disgusting beauty hoarder

beauty1I’ll admit it: I’m a beauty hoarder. Anything given to me, or tried and not liked, is stashed in the glass-fronted cabinet in our bathroom.  And there it remains – dozens of tubs of bacteria multiplying in gunk. I feel sick just looking at it all. 

There are lipsticks from when I worked as a beauty editor on a magazine – in the 80s. They pre-date mobile phones and the Internet. There are mascaras from Thatcher’s era. I don’t use them, obviously, but can’t bear to throw them away – because I hate waste. Time, then, for the Big Beauty Purge. 

I am also addicted to things in mini sizes, the assumption being, ‘This’ll be handy for travelling.’ Fine if it’s quality stuff, but we are hardly talking Cowshed here. Why am I hanging onto 13 tiny bottles of unbranded shampoo and a Novotel soap? Why do I thieve hotel toiletries at all, as if fearing some global shampoo shortage? Plus, there are hotel shower caps, shoe shine cloths and mini sewing kits. If something’s there, I have to grab it. There’s also a body lotion fixation going on. Like most women in their forties I don’t relish the prospect of withering to a crisp. But still…. four tubs of body butter, all but one smelling decidedly off?  

I find a metallic (actually glittery) lotion purchased at around the time Madonna was married to Sean Penn. There are bath salts purloined from a Cornish holiday house when my daughter was a toddler (she is nearly 14). I remember them being bright yellow. They are now beige. Then there’s make-up: eye liners worn down to stumps and lip palettes that smell of old ladies’ drawers – and not in a good way.

It’s great, though – the sorting I mean. It feels purposeful and cathartic. I’m ruthless in my binning of the stale and the hideous, and discover forgotten treasures along the way. I’ve found perfectly good Boots No 7 and Neal’s Yard cleansers, a bevy of quality serums and enough decent moisturisers (Lancôme and Guerlain – how could I have misplaced these?) to keep me going all year. So, instead of blundering around in beauty halls, buying stuff I don’t need, I’ll now know exactly what I have at home.

Post-purge, life already feels more streamlined. I can sit on the loo without having to avert my eyes from the chaos behind the glass doors, and I can actually find the goodies I love, rather than raking through manky old tosh. I now have the beauty cupboard of a proper grown-up, and I could kiss it. 


10 March, 2014 / General

The birth of a book


My new novel, Take Mum Out, is out this Thursday, and it feels a bit like the run-up to giving birth. Okay, when a book is born, no one rushes up to tell you off because it’s not wearing a hat. And you don’t feel compelled to make a little room absolutely perfect, in readiness for its arrival.

But still, like the very end of pregnancy, it’s almost impossible to keep your mind on anything else when publication day’s around the corner. I am fidgety and eating masses. For instance, yesterday: the biggest salad known to man (I say salad, but it was basically a mountain of roast butternut squash and feta) for lunch, followed by a blow-out curry at our local Indian. I am, literally, eating for two.

It’s due to nervousness, I think. I know I’ll soon be checking Amazon sales ratings like a woman possessed, which goes like this:

7.20 a.m  Mustn’t keep checking Amazon. It’s not helping me in any way.

7.22  All right, just a little look.

8.20  Another quick look. Things might have changed dramatically. Oh… they haven’t.

9.10  It feels a bit dysfunctional, checking this often…

9.30  I MUST STOP!!

10.17  Just one more little look and then I’ll stop…

…and so it goes on, achieving nothing except worry and strife, like trying not to call a clearly disinterested man back in 1987, but being unable to stop my pathetic fingers grappling for the phone.

Anyway, it’s not all bad, because really, when your book is let out into the world, there’s not an awful lot you can do about it. When my first novel was published ten years ago, I expected the kind of fuss and attention you’re party to when you produce a real baby. But of course, it was just a normal day. My kids (then aged three and seven) expressed disappointment that there weren’t any pictures in it, and my dad said he didn’t like the cover.

So far, so good. I popped into Glasgow to prowl around Waterstone’s, as if trying to muster the courage to steal something. In fact, I was really building myself up to ask someone who worked there if it would be okay to sign copies of my book. ‘A signed book is a sold book,’ a publishing person had told me once, assuring me that it was perfectly fine to march up to a bookseller, brandishing a pen, and say, ‘Hello – I’ve come to sign your stock.’ ‘Authors do it all the time!’ he declared.

I hovered about by the self-help titles, sweating profusely and sensing my face going red. What if the staff member thought I wasn’t the author, but some random weirdo who scribbled on books for fun? I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I left the shop, feeling like an utter fool and wondering if anyone had observed my creepy behaviour on CCTV.

In fact these days most of my books are sold in supermarkets, rather than bookshops, which is the way of things now – and you can’t stomp into a massive branch of Tesco and start writing on things. So I don’t even try. Instead, I’m attempting to be sensible this week, and keep myself busy by pushing on with the book-in-progress.

And it’s helping. It feels good and purposeful. In fact it’s made me realise that, when your book is born, the best course of action is to throw yourself into making the next one. Which isn’t always the case with a baby.

28 February, 2014 / General

How to stay married when the kids leave home


‘At this stage in our lives,’ my friend Sarah said cheerfully, ‘loads of couples split up.’ She went on to explain that, having gone through those intense early parenting years, we have now a reached a point at which our kids don’t really need us any more (apart from to ferry them around and hand them money). ‘So,’ she concluded, ‘people often decide there’s no reason to stay married.’

To me, this seems terribly wasteful. You’ve weathered those baby and toddler years, existing without sleep or proper nutrition. You’ve bickered over whose turn it is to stand in the park for three hours, in the pouring rain, and spent romantic evenings sand-blasting dried Weetabix off high chairs. Surely you’re now due some fun together? Deciding to split up now would be ludicrous. If we were going to do it, it would have made a whole more sense when we were ashen with sleep deprivation, and never went out. Why divorce now, when we have the opportunity this summer to take our first child-free holiday in 17 years?

Sarah reckons we’re in a ‘danger zone’ now because the glue that held us together – ie, our offspring – will soon disappear. Off to college they’ll go, leaving J and I miserably sipping sherry and occasionally rousing ourselves for a game of whist. Well, that’s not going to happen. I may be jinxing things by even writing about this, but I have a plan, and it feels very exciting. Here it is.

Staying together when the kids leave: my strategy

– Talk to each other. Admittedly, this can be scary. What if the only thing we can think of to say is, ‘Did you put the bin out?’ or, ‘What’s this thing in the fridge?’ We may have to practice getting the conversation flowing again. Drink might help.

– Try to be rational. Looking back, when our twin boys were babies I wasn’t quite myself. J only had to make an innocent remark for me to fly off the handle or run upstairs screaming. ‘This is a nice ham salad,’ he once had the audacity to remark – my cue to throw a small velour sleepsuit in his face and start sobbing (my reasoning being that a ham salad couldn’t really be ‘nice’, and that his comment was really a thinly-veiled criticism of my domestic abilities).

Thankfully, we are now living in more rational times, and should therefore get along better. Plus, most argument triggers are child-related: who’s being too  strict/soft, why don’t they help more in the house and whose fault is it that they don’t, etc. Remove teenagers from the equation and what is there left to fall out about?

– Get out of the house. Although we haven’t needed a babysitter for years, we still tend to forget that we can go out, pretty much whenever we want. We need to remember that teenagers are capably of cooking, putting a wash on, walking the dog and taking themselves off to bed. No one needs to be tucked in. J and I no longer need to be perpetually on call. We are free!!

And that, I think, is the crux of it. We were only together for two years before I got pregnant, and it feels like there’s a whole lot of catching up to do. Cinema, restaurants, fancy bars and even weekends away… there’s so much we can do, the choice is boggling.

My only real worry is that, by the time we’ve decided, everywhere will be shut.

11 February, 2014 / General

Valentine’s day… do you bother? Or not?


When I was a teenager, Valentine’s day was a massive deal. Everyone – the girls at least – obsessed over cards: who to send them to and what cryptic/witty message to write inside. I spent weeks planning on how to get Smeggy’s (for that was his nickname) card to him without him knowing it was from me, and settled on the genius idea of throwing it in through the boys’ gym changing room window. Ha! That’d fox him. ‘It was Gibby-et,’ one of his mates informed him. ‘I saw her running away.’ (Gibby-et was my nickname; ‘Smeggy and Gibby-et’. Kind of evocative of Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, don’t you think?).

Anyway, Valentine’s day was always a crashing disappointment. This feeling was heightened by the popular girls flaunting their massive padded satin cards, usually depicting teddies, with sick-making messages like, ‘I wuv you’ on the front. And Smeggy hadn’t even looked at me. No, I wasn’t bitter – much.

Now we’re all grown up and no one cares about Valentine’s day any more.

As it falls the week after my husband Jimmy’s and our twin sons’ birthdays, I’m all out of inspiration and cash. Still, we somehow manage to do something, and it feels important that a modicum of effort is made. No need for an outlandish bouquet, or dinner in a restaurant stuffed with couples and a special Valentine menu, which usually isn’t very nice. Just something small, personal and thought-about, to mark the day.

It’s not to ‘feel loved’ because, if you are loved, chances are you have a pretty good idea anyway. And if you’re not, then a card hastily snatched in Asda isn’t going to make you feel any better. No, I think it’s because to not exchange something, however tiny, feels utterly bleak. It’s a bit like using moisturiser: no big deal in itself, but on the day you don’t bother, you feel all dry and crepey and wrong.

One year, Jimmy and I did opt out of the whole February 14 shenanigans…

Our kids were small, we were knackered and broke and for some reason, one of us said, ‘Let’s not bother with it this year.’ And the other one said, ‘Yeah. I’ve never cared for it anyway. It’ll be a relief to stop.’ After all, who needs a designated day on which to express their love? We were doing that all the time – in reminding each other to drag the wheelie bin out and getting angry about dropped towels and pants. Yeah, there was plenty of romance in our lives.

The day came – cardless, joyless. Something was definitely missing. Jimmy and I are generally ‘presenty’ types – we tend to buy each other a whole heap of things for Christmas and birthdays. I don’t hold with the thing of, ‘We don’t buy presents for each other because there’s nothing we need.’

Since when were gifts about need? In our house, we urgently need a decent non-stick frying pan, but I don’t want to be presented with one with a bow around its handle. We also need a loo that flushes efficiently, instead of gushing water until someone remembers to give the flusher a special jiggle. We need something to be done with our roof because, however much we pretend it’s not there, the damp stain on our bedroom ceiling is refusing to go away. But none of these items – pan, toilet, roof – fall into acceptable gift category.

So what do we want?

Well, Valentine’s day is a bit cheesy, so there’s probably no point in fighting it. A home-made cake with a heart wonkily piped on it, or funny drawing with a joke only a partner will get – these kind of gifts can give your day a lift. They make you smile. They’re probably the trigger for giving your partner a kiss, which can all too often fall by the wayside when your lives are all about family and work. I once asked a friend if she still kissed her husband. ‘Ugh, no!’ she exclaimed. ‘That would be weird.

That year we opted out of Valentine’s day, Jimmy asked me, as we climbed into bed, ‘So, did you feel okay about us not giving each other cards?’

‘Yeah, fine,’ I barked. All we all know what that means.

02 February, 2014 / General

How I became a dog person


Dragging us out of the house again


Our Jack, ruler of the house

Everyone wanted a dog and I kept saying no.

I was the family killjoy, not because I was worried about everything being chewed and weed on and strewn with hair (our house was pretty wrecked-looking anyway) but due to… the colossal responsibility. We’d come through the full-on child-rearing years, so why would I want to take on the care and feeding of another living thing? One that demanded walks, in all weathers? One that would reward our efforts by mating with cushions and occasionally puking on rugs? I saw myself mopping up emissions and tramping through gales, capillaries bursting all over my face, clutching little plastic bags of warm poo.

To be honest, it didn’t appeal massively….

And then one night Jimmy and I sat up late, drinking wine, and I thought… would it really be so bad? We took the kids on a ‘mystery trip’ – to West Calder, our nearest Dog’s Trust. The adorable pooches on the website turned out to be ferocious things, snapping and snarling and leaping at the bars of their kennels. Clearly, the loveable hound we’d pictured didn’t live here. We tried the Glasgow branch next – and this, in contrast, was an orphanage for the adorable. There were loads we’d have happily taken home. We chose Jack, a nervy and skinny collie cross who’d been picked up roaming the badlands of Motherwell.  

If I’m honest, his first few months with us weren’t quite what I’d imagined…

We loved him to bits, but Christ, he was a barker – terrified of tractors (we get a lot of those around here), motorbikes and, crucially, other dogs. I called Dog’s Trust, who were brilliant at giving advice – we’d already had the ‘adoption’ talk, with a man called George who’d drawn ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ on a whiteboard. Blimey! I’d thought it was all about walking and throwing them the odd biscuit.

It’s all about security, George explained. Encourage a dog to feel safe and secure and the rest will follow.

And it did. Three years on, Jack’s not only a brilliant dog; he’s also shown us that, really, any houseful of teenagers will benefit from a hound pottering about the place. I wish I’d done it years ago. Here’s why…

A dog makes us more pleasant to be around

With three kids and full-time job, I’m used to being busy. When I’m not, I get twitchy and start on at people for leaving towels on the floor and cartons of milk sitting about until they go sour and lumpy. With a dog, you don’t have time to be a miserable harpy. There’s always tons to do. And, even if there isn’t, you can sit and tease out his matted dreadlocky bits, an oddly soothing activity.

They don’t mock us

One of my teenagers’ favourite activities is to laugh at my inability to function with dignity in the modern world. They pee themselves laughing whenever I use the word ‘think’, when referencing technology – ie, ‘For some reason, my spellcheck suddenly thinks I’m in the Czech Republic.’ It’s fine, I mean I can take a ribbing – but occasionally it does irk a bit. I mean, no one wants to be the laughing stock all the time.

Luckily, a dog never mocks you. It doesn’t sneer at your haircut or groan in protest when you use the word ‘groovy’ or ‘cool.’ It doesn’t find you embarrassing or refuse to be seen in public with you. All it wants is to lie on the best chair and lick your face.

When we come home, they rush to greet us

They don’t glance up from the sofa and say, ‘Did you remember to get Nutella?’ Or, ‘When will tea be ready?’ before you’ve even taken off your coat. As the brilliant Nora Ephron put it, ‘When your children are teenagers it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.’ She’s right. A dog is guaranteed to bound to the door, tail revolving with delight. It’s nice to feel needed again, even if, really, they just want food.  

We’re allowed to roll on the carpet like idiots

Little kids love playing rough-and-tumble, but as they grow older they tend to flinch when you enter the room, let alone try make physical contact. When you do hug them – if they grudgingly allow it – it’s like putting your arms around a fridge. With a dog, the sillier and more tactile you are, the more they’ll love it, so you can now direct all that pent-up affection towards your pet. You can also put on a silly voice, and even refer to yourself ‘Mummy’ – ie, mother of dog. Teenagers find this unsettling which, to be honest, makes me want to do it all the more.

They force us out of the house

A dog does have to go out, at least twice a day and accompanied by a human. And that’s fine. I’ve met a whole load of dog people through walking Jack, as well as shifting half a stone, mostly off my butt. I also walk with friends every morning before sitting at the laptop for a mammoth writing session. It acts as a sort of ‘commute’ – ie, that segment of the day in between chivvying everyone off to school, and getting down to business. It clears the head and fills the lungs with fresh air – it’s exercise and socialising, all in one. I still mutter to myself while working, but since having Jack, slightly less so.

A dog makes you feel good about yourself

Whenever I feel bad for nagging my teenagers about messy rooms, or always needing money, I remind myself that I got them a dog which means I am Not A Bad Person. Also, Jack might still be sitting in that big glass-fronted kennel, looking forlorn, if we hadn’t brought him home and attended to his Hierarchy of Needs.

They offer us all the best bits of having a baby

Eg, being cute and sweet and enjoying sitting on your lap. You also get to miss out all the tedious baby-related stuff, like attending toddler groups where no one talks to you apart from to tick you off for setting up the soft play area incorrectly. You don’t have to worry about being judged on your pet’s appearance, and dog owners – unlike parents of the very young – tend not to boast, ‘He’s already reading proper novels and seems to have a real aptitude for the bassoon.’ So really, it’s all good.

Also, and here’s a major plus – Jack hasn’t even tried to mate with us, not even once. He seems to prefer lying in a corner and chewing on an old blanket which is preferable, really, at our stage of life.