01 July, 2016 / General

‘Remember your toothbrush!’

Busy figuring out the future

One of my sons returns tomorrow after six weeks of travelling around Thailand and Cambodia. His trip has also been quite a lesson for me. The day he left – first time on long-haul flight without me or his dad – I was in a bit of a state, even though he’s 19 and perfectly capable of looking after himself. It was the lack of planning, frankly, that was doing my nut in. No accommodation booked and he seemed to have only the vaguest plan of where to go, what to do. And what if he ran out of socks, or toothpaste? 

It’s how young people travel, of course. It’s the approach my friend Jane and I took when we cycled all over northern France in 1983. We ran out of money (of course), had to resort to busking and spent a freezing night in Chantilly railway station’s waiting room where a creepy man pressed his face up against the window in the night. As an adult, with your plans and lists and itineraries, it’s easy to forget that travelling is an entirely different proposition when you just shove your passport, your money and a spare pare of pants into your bag and go. You arrive and decide, ‘This looks great!’ Or you look around and think, it looks a bit crap actually, and simply go somewhere else. You don’t even realise how liberating it is as you’ve never done things any other way. 

Having children requires a different approach, unless you’re the type to strap a baby to your chest and go hiking into the foothills of the Himalayas with nothing but a bar of Mint Cake – in which case I am in awe. I was never that type when my kids were young. We’d set off in the car to our favourite holiday house in southern Brittany, the car stuffed with games and toys and guidebooks. I’d turned into an obsessive planner – more to combat anxiety than anything else – but even then, things still went awry. In the midst of selecting CDs to take with us, I’d somehow forgotten to book the ferry. One of our children tore a radiator off the wall in the holiday house, simply by sitting it, and snarled up the workings of the pool by dropping a tumbler into some mysterious drain, whilst trying to trap ants.

No amount of planning could have averted that. We have pranged numerous hire cars and infuriated a Corsican cleaner so much – by leaving croissant crumbs in the grill pan and having a barbecue in the garden – that she pursued us to the airport in her own car. 

I’d like to think our children regard their childhood holidays as smooth-running, impeccably organised affairs but, in fact, there were an awful lot of breakages, minor injuries, vital things being lost and trying to conceal dents in hire cars by propping an enormous suitcase in front of them. On one trip, we drove for over an hour with the boot wide open, my laptop slithering closer to the edge, as we remarked on how well the air conditioning was working that day. In the Roussion region of France, when our sons were babies, our carefully-selected (and filthy) apartment was owned by a drunken Englishman who called me a ‘slapper’.

In contrast, my son’s travels have, as far as I am aware, been entirely stress free. While I don’t think I could ever set off blithely in the way a young person does, I recognise that un-scheduled journeying can throw up experiences the fearless teenager will never forget. I look forward to hearing about my boy’s adventures and hope to God he’s remembered to clean his teeth. 

22 April, 2016 / General

Dusting down the trainers…

trainersI’ve just started running again. I did my first 10k about eight years ago, but since then it’s been an on-off affair. Each time I think, I really should start running again, I’m filled with dread about the pain and torment I’m about to put myself through.

And of course, it’s never like that. Every time, I forget that going back to running isn’t like starting from the very beginning, when you stagger along, gasping and purple, worrying that you’ll fall over or puke. Starting again is painful – for ten minutes max. That’s all it takes to overcome the initial ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ bit and be back on your way.

In fact, going back to running has loads to recommend it. For one thing, you’re always way better than you think you’ll be. Also, you remember, pretty quickly, why you put yourself through it. It’s liberating and exhilarating – it’s probably the closest a human being gets to feeling like a dog. All those knotty problems start to unravel. A bad mood miraculously fades away. The only thing that makes PMT bearable is pulling on my manky old trainers and getting the hell out of the house. 

I read recently that writer Caitlin Moran swapped running for swimming when her joints started to feel creaky. Mine did too, so I now run on an abandoned railway track that’s conveniently grassy and soft. I try not to run on consecutive days and am building up slowly – 40 minutes is about my limit at the moment. But then, I’ve only been at it a couple of weeks. My friend Tania and I fell into a habit of meeting at 7.30 am in the Easter holidays and running with our dogs. I prefer running with a friend, and chatting all the way – listening to music doesn’t do it for me. I’ve never liked earphones plugged into my lugs and I’m always worried about some approaching hazard (escaped bull, angry golfer) that I’ll be unaware of with music blaring.

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10 January, 2015 / General

Frugal beauty

IMG_1591Long, long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a beauty editor on a teen magazine, I used to write stuff like this: ‘Winter is a cruel season. Icy weather makes our skin dry and flaky and….’
And give tips for the best acne moisturizer to use. Well, yes, you get the picture. But it happens to be true. We’re all prone to chapped lips and cracked hands, after all. It also happens to be the time of year when the ravaged bank account means we’re hardly in the market for a luxury moisturiser at £45 a pop. But that doesn’t matter because, having spent every winter since my early thirties literally slathering myself in every cream/oil imaginable, I’ve realised that the very cheapest products do a remarkably decent job.

Personally I despise that lizardy feeling, when skin goes all reptilian from around October onwards. And I’ll fight it to the death no matter how broke I am.

First up, I love a good body scrub in the shower. In The Thrift Book (Penguin), author India Knight recommends making a paste with olive oil and sugar (presumably granulated – I can’t imagine icing sugar having much effect) and rubbing yourself all over with that. I’ve tried this and it absolutely works. It also leaves the shower perilously slippy, so do sluice it out or at least warn the person getting in after you – unless they’ve recently annoyed you and you want to get them back.

Back in my teen magazine days I’d often recommend rubbing vigorously at your elbows with the inside of a scooped-out avocado skin. What was I on about? 16 year-old girls’ elbows aren’t scaly. They are peachy soft. Anyway, I should confess that I have never tried this in my life. Nor did I whip up face packs from mashed banana, fresh cream or oatmeal. I didn’t even see an avocado – apart from in pictures – until about 1986. But I’m a great believer in using an exfoliating product with some kind of skin-softening properties built in – especially on craggy areas like elbows, knees and feet. I always feel better after a good sanding down. The Espa range is fantastic, but possibly not for the broke days of January. Instead, my winter scrubs of choice come from Soap & Glory’s extensive range: Sugar Crush and Pulp Friction are favourites. The range is often on offer at 3 for 2 in Boots.

Incidentally, while some friends find S&G’s packaging too tacky and teenage for their liking, everything I’ve tried works brilliantly and I find their whole quirky thing immensely cheering on dark days. I like the fruity and burnt-sugary scents of their products, and I’d rather have a heap of their jaunty pink pots than one eye-wateringly expensive item from Space NK. Maybe I’m just the cheap and cheerful type.

Equally pleasurable is the slathering on of some kind of lotion, post your scrubbing endeavours. Heck, it’s winter, we’re indoors a lot – so we might as well feel silky soft. I’m currently alternating between Dr Hauschka Bodyoilie Citroen Lemongrass (not super-cheap: was a Christmas present) and the super-rich Righteous Butter (another Soap & Glory treat).

As for skincare, I’ve worked my way through enough ranges to come to the conclusion that it’s not about price, it’s about finding something that’s pleasant to use, leaves skin pleasingly soft and doesn’t cause a reaction. When my children were younger, and I could get away with presenting charity shop toys as new, I’d occasionally treat myself to something from Clarins or Clinique. Now, with school skiing trips and university looming, I’ve downscaled to Olay and Revlon moisturisers which do the job every bit as well.

As for hand cream: hugely important if you’re out in all weathers, maybe walking the dog. Again I’ve tried dozens. King of them all is the mighty Hemp Hand Protector (Body Shop) which thrilled my kids a few years back due to its drug reference. Note: while hand cream is pretty essential, I don’t go with the thinking that you need specialist creams for your neck, feet or whatever other areas might be resembling crepe paper. A decent rich body lotion isn’t fussy about the parts it treats.

So basically, while I’m not too pernickety these days – or especially brand loyal – I feel it’s important to treat ourselves during these wintry months when we don’t have a tan to help us along. I mean, no one might even see your feet for another 12 weeks, but it’s still a little depressing if they’re gnarly. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I head with my battered old credit card into Boots.

PS. Talking of dinosaurs, I just asked one of my sons why children love them so much. ‘They’re basically big lizards,’ he replied. ‘What’s not to like?’

06 January, 2015 / General

A note to my 32 year-old self

IMG_1918I was raking through some old photos for a magazine feature and came across this pic of me, very pregnant with Sam and Dex, in front of our last London home in Cyprus Street, Bethnal Green. I was so excited to be having twins. It’ll be a doddle, I thought: two babies, one pregnancy. Bargain! I also thought I’d be back in my beloved office within a matter of days, having hired a nice nanny to take care of the practical aspects. Me, I’d enjoy the fun stuff – tickling, cuddling, baking cookies and reading beautiful picture books. 

Here’s what I wish I’d known then.

All the stuff you used to enjoy – films, books, drawing, playing an instrument – go out of the window for a while.

I mean a long while – years, in fact. When they finally start creeping back into your life, you worry that you’ve forgotten what to do with them. For ages, I couldn’t concentrate on any film more challenging than The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink or St Elmo’s Fire. It was like being a teenager again – but with stretch marks and a fridge crammed with formula milk. But gradually things returned to normal – ie, occasionally I’d watch a film that didn’t star Molly Ringwald, sometimes even with subtitles

You will wear those dungarees to death.

I scoffed when my husband Jimmy insisted on buying them for me in an army and navy store in Paris. But they are the very best thing for a pregnant lady and became virtually welded to my rapidly expanding body. 

You think you’ll work right up until the day before they are born, but you won’t.

My consultant wouldn’t let me. So from six months onwards I lay around the house, spooning Ambrosia Creamed Rice straight to my mouth from the tin. I wish I’d known then to enjoy feeling faintly bored, as that was the last chance I had to be idle until eight years later, when our third child started school. Oh, and I never returned to my old job. I haven’t had a regular salary since 1997 and hear that the workplace has changed a lot since then – for instance, you’re not allowed booze in the office! How on earth do people get through the working day? 

Child-free friends will tell you about their glamorous nights out, or that they’ve just been to a spa and had their breasts exfoliated. 

You are allow to feel bitter – and even cry – over this. It does not make you a bad person. 

Your nanny plans will be swiftly forgotten.

You’ll become a control freak who’d rather do it – even the messy, mundane stuff – yourself. 

People will assume your twins were IVF (when they’re not) and will challenge you on this delicate matter in the park.

‘They must be!’ one woman insisted, before adding, ‘but I suppose you did have quite a high chance of having them… as an older mother.’ People will say the most irksome things, and after a while they just wash over you (or make you laugh hysterically as you scamper home). You’ll become remarkably tolerant because all that matters is getting your children out in the fresh air, then safely ferried home again whilst avoiding dog poo. 

Going to the hairdressers becomes such a hassle that you’ll start having someone come round your house.

She will chop at your hair in your bedroom while your babies crawl around, trying to eat it off the floor. It’s not relaxing, and no one brings you a nice coffee or a glossy magazine – but at least your fringe is out of your eyes. 

People will tell you what you’re doing wrong all the time.

Ignore them. They know nothing. At least you know a bit. 

The toddler groups you thought would be hell are filled with like-minded women you’ll rely on for your sanity.

Sure, the coffee is bad, as are the pink wafer biscuits – but you now anticipate these get-togethers more eagerly than Christmas. 

You will glance wistfully at pretty lingerie in department stores, before moving swiftly on.

You’ll be in massive sensible knickers for quite a long time – possibly forever – and you will love them.

That massive bump will go away, but not in a week.

It doesn’t matter. No one cared about celeb mothers shedding the baby weight within minutes, because the whole celebrity obsession hadn’t really taken off back then. There was no sidebar of shame – there was the Internet, but no one knew what it was – and no one expected a raddled new mother to look radiant. You were allowed to be knackered with your hair sticking up. And you were allowed to wear your beloved dungarees well past childbirth, because they made look earthy as if you knew what motherhood was all about.

And you soon become very adept at pretending you know what it’s all about. 

17 December, 2014 / General

The joy of Getting Ready

DSC_0112Last night my daughter Erin (centre) and her six friends descended on our house to get ready for the school Christmas dance. Remember the joy of getting ready? It was often the best part of the night. In fact sometimes I’d feel a slight twinge of disappointment when the time rolled around that we had to actually leave the house and go somewhere. Getting ready always happened with a friend, preferably at their place, as it was always more fun to be somewhere else. And it took so long! An hour at least, but more likely two or three – ie, approaching half of a normal working day. My life these days is generally about trying to achieve as much as possible in the shortest time. I can hardly remember how it felt to have virtually limitless time to spend on something so indulgent.

Of course, it wasn’t really about applying make-up and tonging our hair. It was about being together, gossiping and sharing confidences and amidst clouds of loose powder and Elnett hairspray. There’s something particularly intimate about the process of transformation; few people see us ‘half done’, after all. I always love those old black and white photos of Hollywood stars captured in deep concentration in their dressing rooms.

Our dressing rooms were our teenage bedrooms, plastered with Paul Weller posters and heady with Lulu perfume. My friend Karen’s duvet cover was made from the same fabric as her curtains, which struck me as particularly chic. No boys were around as we caked on Rimmel foundation, although we’d discuss them in forensic detail, of course. When my children were younger I often found we’d have our most relaxed and revealing conversations when I was driving them somewhere. There’s something about being engaged in another activity – crawling through traffic, applying mascara – that’s conducive to easy and honest discussions.

Do I miss getting ready? Not especially, as it belongs to a time and a place that’s long gone. It would seem as crazy as filling empty Soda Stream bottles with illicit booze to slug on the way to a party, and I hardly ever pull that stunt these days. It belongs to an era of getting dressed in something low-key, then throwing a carrier bag containing the ‘real’ outfit out of my bedroom window (to be retrieved and changed into in a phone box en route to the disco).

Getting ready these days takes about 15 minutes, even for a really posh do. I can hardly believe I’d once have spent ten times as long dolling myself up for a ropey old disco in a community hall. But they didn’t seem ropey back then. I vividly remember the clothes we wore, the songs we danced to, and the elaborate plots we came up with in order to start conversations with boys. I remember Karen and I hitching a lift – I’d keel over from a heart attack if my daughter did that – to a disco in a neighbouring town.

So many things could go wrong with a night out. The boy you liked could get off with someone else, causing you to seek solace in too much Pernod and black. There were frequently fights in the loos and distraught friends to take care of. Worse still, that willing parent might have ignored instructions to wait around the corner, and parked right outside the venue for all to see. Putting your face on at a friend’s house never involved such horrors. The getting ready part could never disappoint.

These days I’m the chauffeur and am used to tuning out as I transport a bunch of excitable teenagers home. I know better than to quiz them about how their evening was – because all they’re going to say is, ‘Fine.’ But maybe it was merely fine, and getting ready was still the best part of the night.

Essential ingredients for getting ready:

  • Best friend(s)
  • Music
  • Parents/siblings well out of the way, out of earshot
  • Cotton wool pads to mop off make-up mistakes
  • Clear nail polish to glue snags in tights
  • Cheap perfume
  • Concealer
  • Lipgloss
  • A zillion accessories
  • Hair tongs (I thought these had died out at around the time of fax machines but it would appear not!)
  • Toe separators
  • All the time in the world