31 December 2014

Other stuff : The highs and lows of Christmas

So it's 9.30pm on New Year's Eve 2014. There are plenty of things I should be doing rather than writing this- sipping champagne; eating a many-course posh dinner in a lovely restaurant; sitting in a crowded pub with friends; playing daft board games in a cosy cottage somewhere up north. But no. This year we're at home, I have already had my one and only glass of the sparkly stuff (and bloody lovely it was too), we've eaten our pizza, and we've had a little reminisce of the year with photos on Apple TV.

It must be bedtime, right?

Wrong. Instead, I am determined to get one more post in this year. December has not been my, ahem, most prolific blogging month, and without boring the pants off you it's largely been down to illness. But I can't write about Christmas once that clock's ticked on past midnight, so without further ado (and apologies if it sounds a bit off-the-cuff: it is)...

Five Rubbish Things About This Christmas
(bear with me, we'll finish with the good bits. I'm a glass half-full kind of gal. Mostly.)

1 : Cub deciding to wake up between 4.50 and 5.30am EVERY DAY of the holiday. Yep, her spidey-sense started tingling the moment daddy's term finished, and now apparently there are not enough hours in a (normal person's) day to play with him. So it's very disappointing when it's mummy's turn to get up. Cue tantrum. Yawn.

2 : The Snowman. Don't get me wrong; I love The Snowman. It makes me very nostalgic. But we introduced Cub to it a few weeks ago, and that was our biggest mistake. Though I love it for keeping madam's attention for more than a Peppa Pig (the name I have given for the unit of time formerly known as Five Minutes), watching it 20+ times in the last 2 weeks has made me love it just a little bit less.

3 : Conjunctivitis. And the Return of the Cough. A couple of lovely little extra gifts to Cub. Does Father Christmas accept returns?

4 : No alcohol. Well, okay, I may have allowed myself a cheeky glass or two here or there, but there have frankly been moments where I'd have been glad of a good few extra-strength margaritas. In retrospect ordering a mini-cask of real ale for the festive period for our visitors to demolish may have been bordering on self-torture.

5 : The bit where Christmas finished and everyone went home. And instead of going to a wedding up north of good friends we see very rarely- and on to Scotland for some more family time- we stayed at home with the aforementioned gunky eyes, hacking cough, and, just to add insult to injury, a couple of emerging pesky molars.

And Five Great Things About This Christmas...

1 : Friends and family. It's been a tough few weeks with all the lurgies, pregnancy exhaustion, toddler tantrums and early mornings, but it's all made better by our fabulous families and friends. You know it's going to be okay when Granddad gets up at 6am to keep you company with the far-too-wide-awake toddler- and makes you a cup of tea to boot. Frankly this list could stop right here and I'd be content.

2 : Presents. I know I'm not meant to say that, but giving things that draw a smile, and receiving things that I might enjoy in those precious few moments I have to myself was fun. Amongst other things I got a few CDs (oh yes, 2014, I am catching up- albeit just as you're leaving the building), some books I've wanted for ages, a cosy dressing gown and slippers, lots of nibbly things, and some lovely luxurious beauty bits and pieces that might help me feel less like an oversized tiger-striped bouncy ball on legs. And yes, I did get the box of Guylian chocolate seashells, and yes, I did polish them off within a couple of days.

3 : Doctor Who. I've always had a soft spot for Doctor Who- call it childhood nostalgia- but I've found it much less engaging in the last year or so. Probably says more about me and my ability to engage properly with a TV programme (never mind a film) than the writing/ actors. But the Christmas episodes are invariably a bit rubbish, what with trying a bit too hard to be cuddly and heartwarming; kind of like an anti-Eastenders. But this year's had a decent plot, a bit of tension, and was actually quite scary. Good Christmas-Day-Eve entertainment that took me right up to my extravagant 9.30 bedtime (we were watching it on catch-up).

4 : Ikea. Thanks for the toy kitchen (especially with a sale price). And the easel. Toy kitchen + easel = Happy Cub (and that is not an achievement to be sneezed at at the moment).

5 : Marks and Spencer's Bonfire Toffee Apple Parkin. I may have mentioned how unfestive I am when it comes to Christmassy desserts, and so, what with hosting Christmas lunch this year, I took charge of the dessert decision and decided not to exclude myself. And this is what we had. Mmm. Mmmmmmmm. Parkin. Toffee sauce. Apples for the vitamins. A drizzle of cream. Gorgeous, and somehow festive. (Oh, and since I've mentioned Christmas food- brussels sprouts chopped up and sautéed with bacon are much, much yummier than the old standard.)

So that's me for 2014. I'll try and be better- or at least, more frequent- with posts next year but that could hit a small hiccup come February 10th. For now, I am going to admit defeat and, at 10.30pm, head to bed (Husband has already given in) which will make this the first New Year I have not actually seen in. Ah well. There's been plenty of great ones and there'll be plenty more to come.

Happy New Year!

03 December 2014

Music stuff : Favourite albums (an abridged list)

five favourite albums

I don't know if I mentioned it, but I haven't been feeling very well recently.

I did? Oh.

To be fair we are, as a family of three, now on our fifth course of antibiotics in the space of three weeks, but we are now on the mend*. And as I discovered today that the Malteser Malteaster bunny has been reborn as the Merryteaser reindeer, I think I may just pull through. I know you'll be relieved.
*hopefully. And when I say hopefully, I mean we'd bloody well better be.

So the last few weeks has really just been about keeping our heads above water than actually achieving very much. You know, getting the important things done, like having a shower. Taking the bins out. Doing an occasional load of laundry. Eating. Feeding Cub (not that she's that bothered right now). Any lucid, vaguely energetic moments I've had have been swallowed up by design work (A Good Thing) and Christmas present buying (An Even Better Thing) but not much of anything else- not even listening to music (aside from the obligatory Christmas tunes whilst putting the tree up on Sunday, obviously).

Pre-Cub I would spend ages trawling the internet for new music- mostly via Hype Machine, but also This Is My Jam, BBC Music, Metacritic and sometimes iTunes and Amazon. Now I manage that about once a month, at best. I feel like I've lost my mojo for getting excited over something new I hear; or maybe I just don't have the time or energy to search properly, listen, appreciate, and listen again. I do miss that feeling of stumbling upon a great song by a previously unheard-of band, then realising that their other stuff is pretty good too, and then listening to them obsessively over and over, then irritating everyone I know by constantly telling them how great the band is. It's possible my nearest and dearest are not missing this as much as me.

Instead of new tunes, then, I'm going with golden oldies. Albums that I love and go back to again and again. Now this is a real challenge with a list of only five, so I'll just pick the ones that spring to mind right now, which- let's face it- are likely to be the ones that make me feel better when I'm feeling really pants.

1 : The National - Boxer

Possibly my favourite band in the world. I think I first heard Fake Empire on a free CD from Q Magazine in 2007; then in my annual end-of-year trawl of the albums everyone else had already realised were good, Boxer popped up time and time again. Low-key and lovely, don't get the wrong impression if I tell you it used to help me sleep on long flights. I'm not sure that really does it justice.
Favourite song: Fake Empire. Oh, the piano intro.

2 : Paul Simon - Graceland

Other than remembering the video for You Can Call Me Al (aged 10), I remained completely unaware of the rest of this album for a shamefully long time. Not till 1999, in fact, whilst on a road trip with friends through western US, when it formed the major part of our soundtrack. It was on that trip that I first met my husband, so it won't take a genius to work out why- other than it's a great album- I'm so fond of it. Even though I'm still a little bit disappointed that Chevy Chase is not, in fact, Paul Simon.
Favourite song: Hmmm. Perhaps Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes

3 : Crowded House - Together Alone

I don't care if everyone thinks they're MOR. I like them. I've liked them since first hearing Woodface (you know, the one with Weather With You on it) on the school drama trip to Greece in 1992. But Together Alone is my favourite, probably because I am a little bit in love with New Zealand. It made me imagine New Zealand before I'd even been there, and now I've been there it just reminds me of it. I may also be one of the few people to have made an extra effort to visit the Crowded House museum (aka a room in the local library) in the Finn brothers' home town of Te Awamutu. Husband was not over the moon about that detour, but then he's never forgiven me for insisting on visiting the Cumberland Pencil Museum, either.
Favourite song: Catherine Wheels. Or In My Command. Or Kare Kare, because it makes me think of NZ beaches. Oh, I don't know.

4 : Bluetones - Expecting To Fly

I was in a pub over the weekend and noticed during one of my frequent trips to the loo (did I also forget to mention I'm pregnant?) a poster advertising their New Year's Eve party, at which Mark Morriss was appearing. Once I remembered that Mark Morriss was he of Bluetones fame and not Mark 'Return of the Mack' Morrisson, I got, in quick succession, quite excited (Mark Morriss! The Bluetones!), then very disappointed (I don't live near here anymore! I have a child! I NEVER GO OUT ANYMORE!). This album was a bit of a first-year-of-university soundtrack, so my nostalgic memories of it are possibly just a little alcohol-tinged...
Favourite song: Putting Out Fires. It's a bit epic. And good to sing loudly whilst drunk. I think. I don't really remember.

5 : Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight

I think I first heard The Twist on the soundtrack of the US series Chuck, and very quickly became obsessed. This was whilst we were living in Beijing, so most of my memories of discovering how fantastic it is are from perilous journeys in taxis (which had three stages: one: initial conversation in broken Chinese resulting in tentative agreement of destination. Two: the journey, during which I'd smugly sit back and relax with my headphones on, taking in Beijing scenery, proud of my ability to successfully communicate said destination. Three: the alarming moment of realisation that we were nowhere near said destination. At all. Cue ripping headphones off and trying to explain destination again to increasingly grumpy driver before giving up and just getting out in the middle of who-knew-where).
Favourite song: I Feel Better

I realise I've told you nothing useful about the albums themselves, but you'll just have to go and listen, if you don't already know them. I hope you enjoy them.

And yes, I know I've missed out a billion classics, and yes, I know I'll want to go back and change this post about twenty times in the next few hours. A Merryteaser or two should distract me...

20 November 2014

Other stuff : When I've got a cold

Slippers: check. Telly: check. Silly Christmas loungewear:
check. Tassled blanket for extra self-pity: check.

Bah humbug.

Obviously having got all overly-enthusiastic about Christmas I now have to write about one of the utterly rubbish things about this time of year: colds.

The common (and by common I mean the not-unusual-but-nonetheless-exquisitely-miserable) cold.

Littlest and Biggest are on the mend from their lurgies, thanks to large doses of antibiotics, which is excellent. The Middle-size one (that's me, although I may upgrade myself to House-size over the coming weeks), however, now has a stinking cold. I HATE having a cold. On the plus side, it's about the illest I ever really get; on the minus side, it's pants. Mornings, evenings and nights are so full of gunk and throbbing sinuses that there are only a few hours in the middle of the day to get anything done.

What I have realised is that every single time I get a bad cold, I say/moan about exactly the same things, which must be delightful for those around me. So I'm putting them in a list, and then maybe this time next year (because mid-late November appears to be the moment our entire household plunges head-first into germs) I'll just refer back to this post and won't need to say any of it.

1 : "If we could only work out how to harness the power of snot, we'd have no energy worries ever again. I alone could power a small country."
I'm pretty sure this is my standard Facebook status update when I'm ill and it's the only Twitter update I've bothered with this week. I know it's a ridiculous, but- what if it worked, hey? What if it could actually work?!

2 : "If we can <insert latest scientific/technological breakthrough here>, why can't we cure the COMMON COLD?"*
Current example: "If we can land a probe on a comet 510 million kilometres from earth which is moving at speeds of 135,000 kmph, why can't we cure the COMMON COLD?".
*This in any case is a moot point because inevitably a cure for the common cold, had it been discovered, wouldn't be deemed safe for pregnant women to take anyway. Much like every other cold remedy. I say it again: Bah humbug.

3 : "I will never take my nose for granted again."
Noses. Wow. They are AMAZING. The ability to suck great loads of air through those nostrils- whilst similtaneously filtering out all the nasties you don't want in your body (aside from cold germs, clearly)- is just fantastic. You're probably reading this bit thinking, 'my nose? Yeah, whatever, it's just there doing what it's doing. Move on,' but trust me, when your nose is unable to do what it does- not just that brilliant breathing thing but the glorious sense of smell it also provides- you will appreciate it a whole lot more. So just take a brief moment, right now, to love your nose. Go on.
Of course, as soon as it's all working again I will just carry on disliking it's general size and shape and totally take it for granted.

4 : "I will never take my sense of taste for granted again."
This is one of the few, utterly depressing occasions where even comfort eating isn't going to help because YOU CAN'T TASTE ANYTHING. Including chocolate.
Bring it on Armageddon; I'm done for.
In theory this should mean that I can sit down with a giant plate of healthy steamed veg or a salad or a food that has enormous nutritional value but zero flavour and not mind, but of course I don't. I live in hope of something breaking through the taste barrier, and so far have only succeeded with jalapeno peppers (thus: pizza) and a really hot curry. Good pregnancy diet.

5 : "You have no idea how bad I'm feeling because you're not PREGNANT!"
Obviously having just been quite ill Husband is trying to be sympathetic and supportive by saying "I know how you feel", but no. No, you don't. Aside from the fact that my cold is clearly worse than yours (don't argue- I'm pregnant) I am also- did I forget to mention it?- pregnant and therefore most of the remedies that make a cold just about bearable are not available to me. I have paracetamol, and hot water with honey and lemon. Woo flipping hoo.
(Clearly this one is only applicable during certain times of my life and probably- nervous laugh- won't be usable this time next year. But it's worth mentioning if only so you feel some sympathy for my poor long-suffering husband.)

An utterly pointless list. Anyone got a nice little list of top natural remedies for easing a cold suitable for pregnant women? Anyone? Anyone?!

11 November 2014

Other stuff : Christmas (and an apology)

Firstly: sorry.

This was not intended to be a post about Christmas. I know how upset people get when you start talking about it six weeks (only six weeks!!!) before the event. I was going to write a bit about my week and how I have struggled for inspiration to write a post (again); I was going to write about bursting into tears because Husband brought me tea in bed in the wrong mug; I was going to write about the lurgy that has been plaguing our house for ALL OF LIVING MEMORY (about three weeks).

On second thoughts, I think I might be doing us all a favour by writing about Christmas.

I am more excited about Christmas this year than usual, and I'm usually quite excited. It's got something to do with celebrating it in a lovely new house which already has something quite Christmassy about it (it's old), and to living in a village (well, alright, it's part of Londonish, but you know, it likes to think of itself as a village, as does every other slightly gentrified part of London) that would look really pretty under a blanket of snow (because that happens around every December 25th, right? And when it does, I don't ever complain about how hard it is to get around. Oh no.)

But it'll also be Cub's second Christmas, and the first where I think she'll actually understand enough to get swept up in the excitement and the decorations and the music- oh, the Christmas music- and yes, okay, the presents. I am also predicting that it'll be the one day of the year when she has a lie-in but I'll be awake and up by 6; that she'll manage to pull half the decorations off the tree and attempt to eat them; that she'll open at least one present that isn't hers and snaffle a few grown-up chocolates without anyone noticing. I just hope the tree manages to stay standing and that she stays off the mulled wine. And that she only steals a few chocolates. Without vomiting.

So here are some- perhaps slightly alternative- things I am excited about this Christmas...

1 : A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector
Yes, I admit it, I love Christmas music. Keep your John Lewis ads, the tunes are where I'm at. I love Last Christmas and Do They Know It's Christmas. I am a sucker for proper Christmas carols. But this album is my Christmas earworm of choice. I like to think it's cool because it's Motown but actually I know that anything I think is cool becomes, by definition, not cool at all. (As a bonus extra, may I also recommend Sufjan Stevens's Christmas In The Room as a particularly lovely Christmas tune.)

2 : The Box of Delights
Husband thinks this is part hilarious and part awful- look, it was made in about 1984 so yes, the 'special effects' are, erm, special. But I remember watching this when I was seven and it still makes me all excited about Christmas. Just the theme tune is enough to send a shiver of anticipation down my spine. Two years ago I wrapped all my Christmas presents whilst watching this on repeat. And then I discovered from Twitter that Simon Pegg did the SAME THING. So it's cool. Okay?

3 : Bunting (and garlands and lights)
I seem to have concluded that our lovely house- with a wooden-floored hallway and proper staircase and wooden beams and all- calls for an overhaul of our years-old Christmas decorations from Ikea and Woolies. This is obviously just an excuse for some retail therapy, but I'm going with it.

So this year the Christmas tree will be colour-coordinated (get me) in silver and blue and bronze, and we're even going to have stockings on the fireplace, and bunting. Yes, bunting. I've never even thought of bunting before, never mind actually had any. And garlands. With little twinkly lights. And a wreath for the front door. If I could get away with putting them all up right now, I would. (The bunting in the picture is by Ginger Ray, who sell lots of lovely vintage-style Christmas and party decorations).

4 : Guylian Chocolate Seashells
Most people's Christmas sweet treat of choice might be a moist fruity marzipan-and-icing laden Christmas cake; or a boozy Christmas pudding; or perhaps just some buttery, flaky mince pies. Yuck. I hate dried fruit, particularly raisins, but I reserve most of my ire for fruit peel. So I'm not very festive when it comes to Christmas desserts.

In previous years we might make my mum's chocolate mousse (and as it turns out, also Delia's- recipe here), but what has ended up an unintentional tradition is my box of Guylian chocolate seashells. I don't eat them at any other time of year- and that's probably because at Christmas I tend to polish off a box in a day, maybe two, and then never want to see them again. Even now- early November- I'm not sure I can stomach the idea of them, but give me a month and I'm sure I'll be ready for the challenge.

5 : Advent Calendars
The thing is- and brace yourself for this- it's not the chocolate ones I love. When I was little I had one which had little plastic charms in it- they were probably terrible quality and I've no idea what you were supposed to do with them- but I loved it. And similarly I love advent calendars that- horror!- just have pictures. So this year Cub has an Oxfam pop-up picture advent calendar (which I can't find to link to online) and I am really looking forward to opening the windows with her each day. This is of course on the assumption that she won't insist on open all twenty-five on December 1st. Which she probably will. Loudly.

And for us? Well. I am wavering. Probably we won't have one- or maybe we'll have an advent candle, which Husband quite likes- but I have ummed and ahhed over the exquisite-looking Hotel Chocolat Advent Calendar for Two here. But you don't like chocolate advent calendars! I hear you say.

Oh, be quiet.

02 November 2014

Mum stuff : Advice for a daughter

by Star Athena on Flickr

A lot of lateness this week. I'm late with my post (just a day or two- I blame half term) and I'm even later catching on to this article by Caitlin Moran (by a whole year. What? I've been, erm, busy). On top of that I have not exactly been overwhelmed with exhilarating ideas for posts (you will be getting Five Favourite Pasta Dishes, Five Slow-Cooked Wonders, and Five Journeys I Once Did But Can't Remember Much About Other Than The Photos soon, though, don't worry), and the words are not flowing easily.

So anyway, I thought that copying this lovely letter- written in 2013 by Caitlin Moran to her daughter- might be an easy solution to my lack of inspiration, but I may change my mind on that in a moment when I realise that adding my own five pieces of advice I would similarly give to my daughter might, just might, turn out to be a little bit harder than I thought...

My daughter is about to turn 13 and I’ve been smoking a lot recently, and so – in the wee small hours, when my lungs feel like there’s a small mouse inside them, scratching to get out – I’ve thought about writing her one of those “Now I’m Dead, Here’s My Letter Of Advice For You To Consult As You Continue Your Now Motherless Life” letters. Here’s the first draft. Might tweak it a bit later. When I’ve had another fag.

“Dear Lizzie. Hello, it’s Mummy. I’m dead. Sorry about that. I hope the funeral was good – did Daddy play Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen when my coffin went into the cremator? I hope everyone sang along and did air guitar, as I stipulated. And wore the stick-on Freddie Mercury moustaches, as I ordered in the ‘My Funeral Plan’ document that’s been pinned on the fridge since 2008, when I had that extremely self-pitying cold.

Look – here are a couple of things I’ve learnt on the way that you might find useful in the coming years. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start… The main thing is just to try to be nice … Just resolve to shine, constantly and steadily, like a warm lamp in the corner, and people will want to move towards you in order to feel happy, and to read things more clearly. You will be bright and constant in a world of dark and flux, and this will save you the anxiety of other, ultimately less satisfying things like ‘being cool’, ‘being more successful than everyone else’ and ‘being very thin’.

Second, always remember that, nine times out of ten, you probably aren’t having a full-on nervous breakdown – you just need a cup of tea and a biscuit. You’d be amazed how easily and repeatedly you can confuse the two. Get a big biscuit tin.

Three – always pick up worms off the pavement and put them on the grass. They’re having a bad day, and they’re good for… the earth or something (ask Daddy more about this; am a bit sketchy).

Four: choose your friends because you feel most like yourself around them, because the jokes are easy and you feel like you’re in your best outfit when you’re with them, even though you’re just in a T-shirt. Never love someone whom you think you need to mend – or who makes you feel like you should be mended. There are boys out there who look for shining girls; they will stand next to you and say quiet things in your ear that only you can hear and that will slowly drain the joy out of your heart. The books about vampires are true, baby. Drive a stake through their hearts and run away.

This segues into the next tip: life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES. However awful, you can get through any experience if you imagine yourself, in the future, telling your friends about it as they scream, with increasing disbelief, ‘NO! NO!’ Even when Jesus was on the cross, I bet He was thinking, ‘When I rise in three days, the disciples aren’t going to believe this when I tell them about it.’

Babyiest, see as many sunrises and sunsets as you can. Run across roads to smell fat roses. Always believe you can change the world– even if it’s only a tiny bit, because every tiny bit needed someone who changed it. Think of yourself as a silver rocket – use loud music as your fuel; books like maps and co-ordinates for how to get there. Host extravagantly, love constantly, dance in comfortable shoes, talk to Daddy and Nancy about me every day and never, ever start smoking. It’s like buying a fun baby dragon that will grow and eventually burn down your f***ing house. 

Love, Mummy.”

And my five:

1 : Don't eat chocolate. Okay, it's better than smoking, but don't even start on that slippery slope, if you're anything like me, and you probably are. Chocolate is brilliant and wonderful and would solve all the world's ills if only it had the chance, but it also- after the initial lovely, silky, comforting hug- will ultimately lead to your downfall. If you are able to enjoy it in sensible small doses, then go ahead. If not, avoid it. Having said all this, if your voyage of rebellious discovery is- because this is a realistic scenario- between chocolate and say, crack, please, please, please take the chocolate. All of it. Here, have it now. That's how much I love you.

2 : I can't help but echo Caitlin's first point. Be nice. Be happy. Be yourself. Treat others like you would want to be treated, stay away from anyone who doesn't treat you well and spend lots of time with those who do. I've no idea what you're going to be like when you're older but if how you are now is any indication, you'll be fairly clever and you'll enjoy laughing and dancing and hugs and you'll have a very cheeky smile. Just don't change, not too much. (Except for blowing raspberries whilst eating yoghurt. Please stop doing that. Please.)

3 : You're a girl. I'm not sure you've entirely sussed that there's a difference between girls and boys yet (though I am nervous when I ask what you've done at nursery and you reply, "boys"), or why it's important, and actually, really, it's not. There's nothing you can't do. You don't have to play with dolls and diaries and make up and dress up as a fairy or a nurse and love pink, BUT equally you can do all those things if you want to. Make up your own mind- and that's easier said than done. Just don't listen to anyone who tells you what you can and can't be. (I reserve the right to retract this last statement in certain circumstances. Drastic ones, and none I'm going to specify here. There you go, some good old parental hypocrisy, but let's save that for an argument when you're 15.)

4 : Spiders are your friends! Really! They're lovely, cute, entirely inoffensive little balls of fluff with funny spindly (*shudder*) legs that scamper about like little... oh, forget it. I'm scared of them. For no good reason, other than I just don't like the way they look. I hope you won't be. (But if you're not- well done!- please don't ever think it would be funny to pick one up and dangle it in front of mummy's face. This goes back to that whole 'be nice' thing. Okay?)

5 : Take opportunities. Have adventures. Even if it seems frightening, and even when your little scared inner voice tells you you can't, or you shouldn't: be brave. Be confident. Be sensible*, but be brave. Even if it's a disaster, you'll get something from it, and- in another appropriation of Caitlin's tips- it'll one day make a very funny story, probably. 

* But really, be sensible. Drinking some unidentifiable South American 70% alcohol to excess then going for a walk alone along a narrow promontory at high tide out to a small rock in the North Sea is not brave or adventurous, it's just plain stupid. And if you do do that, I can only hope you too have a good friend who follows you and makes sure you're all right.

Caitlin's article was first published in The Times, here (£).

24 October 2014

Book stuff : Lists of Note by Shaun Usher

It's a short post this week, partly because it's the school holidays, and partly because I am trying to keep my eyes open without the aid of matchsticks. Whilst I totally accept that in becoming a parent sleep and I are not going to be as well-acquainted as we once were, I still struggle with it. A nice, unbroken night's sleep and I feel like I can take on the world- or at least greet a tantrum with a calm manner and a beatific smile. But the last week has consisted of nights interrupted by coughing, the child on the inside doing somersaults, and the child on the outside waking between 4.15 and 5.30 (though this morning, hurrah, 6.15!) either screaming (uh oh, I think the nightmares have begun) or just very ready to get up now, thanks.

Anyway, enough of the inevitable/boring I NEED SLEEP tangent. I discovered the existence of this book this week- Lists of Note by Shaun Usher, which I've yet to get my hands on (Christmas present, anyone?) but have read a sneaky sample on the Kindle. Definitely not a book for reading on my iPhone, I'd say, judging by how beautiful this looks. It includes the shopping list of two 9th-century Tibetan monks, Johnny Cash's list of things to do today, one French novelist's attempt to record every single thing he ate and drank for the duration of 1974 (somewhat different to my diet. Suddenly my arteries feel less clogged) and many more.

So it seems only right to borrow the list that opens the book: Usher's reasons for our reliance on lists. He puts it much more eloquently than I could hope to do.

1 : Life is chaotic- often unbearably so. The ability to divide some of that chaos into lists, to make the onslaught manageable, can bring much-needed relief.

2 : Human beings are fearful of the unknown and as such have a real need to label and group things, to assign them to comfortable lists.

3 : Lists can make us more productive and can eradicate procrastination. Nothing on earth, resignation aside, cuts through the thick fog of a daunting workload as effectively as a to-do list.

4 : Everyone is a critic. Ranking things- best to worst, biggest to smallest, fastest to slowest- can be strangely addictive, no doubt because it make us feel knowledgeable.

5 : Time is precious. Distilling hugh swathes of monotonous information into easily digestible lists ensures that we have more time to enjoy ourselves and make lists.

I'd add one, personally. Without my armoury of lists, and with a brain softened by pregnancy and-yep, you guessed it- a lack of sleep, I'd barely remember to eat*. I'm not joking. I actually have an item on a list that says 'drink water'. Hmm.

* Okay, that's a lie. I never forget to eat chocolate.

Buy the book at a local bookshop (go on), or splash out on the first, limited edition at Unbound. Or there's always Amazon...

18 October 2014

Food stuff : Eaty Treats

I've got a cold.

I've got a cold, I haven't slept properly for ages (okay maybe just a few days), and I've got a weird lump on my gum that has something to do with being pregnant but I'm not entirely sure what.

I am feeling a bit sorry for myself.

Cub has somehow sensed this and so to warm the cockles of my heart and make it all better has repeatedly declared today to be a 'NO mummy day!', refused any cuddles and had a small tantrum because I dared to try and manoeuvre her, the pushchair, her nursery bag and the shopping in the front door before I let her press the doorbell. How very dare I.

On the plus side, she was at nursery for most of today allowing me a cheeky nap and, even better, it's the start of a two-week half term so LOADS of daddy time (and maybe even a bit of mummy-off time...) And there's an M&S chicken gratin in the oven. Mmm.

So today it's five edible treats that make me feel better and slightly less sorry for myself (until I overindulge on them- see number one- and feel very sick).

1 : Galaxy chocolate
Mmmm. Mmmm. Nom nom. Oh, that's the whole 200g bar gone. *oops*

2 : Bacon sandwich
I have fresh white bloomer bread. I have bacon. Tomorrow is Bacon Sandwich Day. I only hope that the anticipation of it does not keep me awake tonight, nor that I wake up on a pillow soaked in saliva.

3 : Chinese dumplings 
Ach, I miss Old Thingy(have temporarily forgotten his name)'s teeny tiny dumpling shop in Beijing where we regularly impressed/disgusted ourselves by getting through about 50 dumplings between two. The restaurant down the road is no match, but an acceptable substitution. Lovely crispy fried veggie and pork jaozi dumplings dipped in vinegar. Had them last night. Tick.

4 : Carrot, Apple, Lime and Ginger juice from the deli down the high street
Wellllll, I had to include something vaguely healthy and aside from genuinely liking it I also feel smugly better having had a (much needed) vitamin injection. Didn't stave off the lurgy, mind.

5 : M&S peanut butter with pecans and maple
I've no idea if this is going to make me feel better but it sounds amazing and I have recently remembered that I actually like peanut butter (I usually have to smuggle it into the house as Husband is so disgusted by it). Maybe with a little layer of chocolate spread on the bread too. Maybe without the bread. Maybe just in spoonfuls straight from the tub. Alternating with chocolate spread. Excuse me a moment...

10 October 2014

Book stuff : We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Books! Everyone told me that I'd never read again having had a baby, and I guess for a short amount of time that was true- with all the broken nights I'm not sure my eyes ever stayed open long enough to read a single page. But I've always loved reading, and my habit has been to read last thing at night, I guess because I've always found it the best way to wind down from the stresses of the day. And reading gave me a bit of an escape from what can be a tiring and- let's be honest- sometimes boring routine of the early days of feeding, nappy changing... um... talking about feeding and nappy changing... thinking about feeding and etc etc. I manage to stay awake a bit longer these days to read (only achievable by being in bed by 9.30pm) and last week decided to try something outside of my usual cycle of crime/ thriller/ post-apocalyptic teen fiction/ vaguely sci-fi, and went all Man-Bookery for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

First things first: it was an enjoyable, easy read, and not at all the literary, meandering, high-brow book I sometimes live in fear of when it comes to book prizes (but to be fair, very few of the Man Booker nominations I've ever read actually have been like that- my misguided expectations, I suppose). Yes, there are deeper themes to ponder on- how reliable our memories are, how reliable a narrator is (or isn't) and some others that to mention would give too much away- but it's also a funny, sad, interesting and engaging story of a childhood, of growing up, and of families and friends, that leaps backwards and forwards in time. Everyone talks about the great twist but I'm not sure I'd call it that- it's more of a key plot point that the narrator chooses not to mention for a while, which is key in itself- but it takes the story in an unexpected and interesting direction. A gentle, engaging and satisfying read. (I'm no eloquent reviewer- as you might have noticed- so for a better one please have a look at my friend Lonesome Reader's review here.)

I may have made a mistake picking up (aka downloading and clicking on) Rick Yancey's The Fifth Wave straight afterwards, though. Whilst I once really enjoyed this kind of post-apocalyptic fiction I'm not sure I cope with it as well these days. It's fiction, obviously, but I like to get properly caught up in a story and this brings out all kinds of parental fears and nightmares that are still a bit new to me. I'm not very far into it and am already a) wondering how I could ever have been so selfish as to have children in this world, and b) thinking that since I've gone and done it now the only solution is to dive under a duvet with them and never ever go out anywhere ever. So I might put this one on hold for a while until I'm better equipped to cope with it which, given that the raging pregnancy hormones are unlikely to make me feel any less emotional/balanced as due date beckons, might be a very long time in the future.

So the list- perhaps just the last five books I read...

1 : We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

2 : Pretty Honest by Sali Hughes (I bought an ACTUAL, not electronic book! I may even do it again, because it's lovely with it's cover and pages and smell and typography and all that jazz. OK, I haven't really read it, I've flicked through it, but it is more of a reference book with practical beauty advice and has told me things I'm sure I should know already. Not my usual kind of thing but I aspire to one day do more than just slap on some tinted moisturiser and a pair of jeans and go out into the world. One day. Look out.)

3 : Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (took me two attempts- a meandering, bleak story but nonetheless evocative and beautifully written, and I never thought I'd know so much about 19th century rural Iceland or find it so interesting.)

4 : I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (very mixed feelings about this- a great fast-paced terrorist-threatens-the-world thriller, but bleak (see my point about post-apocalyptic fiction above) and frankly just irritating in places with a character who has a very high opinion of himself for reasons I failed to notice. Not sure why I persisted.)

5 : The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman (I love Rickman's Merrily Watkins series- mostly crime, a bit supernatural, an unconventional and vulnerable 'heroine' and some great history of the Welsh border area- but this Elizabethan-era mystery left me unconvinced. Well-written, but somehow unsatisfying.)

What have you read recently? Any recommendations?

06 October 2014

Photo stuff : Five photo apps for iPhone

One of my addictions- aside from eating chocolate and playing pointless word games on my phone instead of doing something more constructive- is taking pictures. Admittedly this addiction has, uh, evolved a little over the last couple of years. Where once my computer was filled with beautiful photos of exotic worldwide locations, it's now overflowing with average-to-good photos marking every minute day of my daughter's life. Where I'd once spend hours trying (and largely failing) to learn to use my lovely Nikon SLR properly, I now spend three seconds whipping my trusty iPhone from my pocket to capture the millisecond when Cub is smiling adoringly in my general direction.

The iPhone takes great pictures in good light but equally I've taken some fairly rubbish pictures- blurred, out of focus and grainy in low light- so I do plenty of adjustments afterwards, when I've got a moment. These are a few of the apps that I have used consistently- which doesn't mean there aren't better ones out there, just that these are ones for which I've suspended my miserliness for long enough to fork out a bit of money, and which have worked for me.

1 : Snapseed
I love Snapseed. I have it for both iPhone and iPad, and think it's one of the best for ease of use and range of options. I have in the past massively overused both the Drama and Tiltshift functions, but occasionally am restrained enough just to do a few subtle tweaks for contrast, saturation and brightness.
Free (Free?! Really? I'm sure I paid for this. Worth it, though.)

2 : Over
Over is an app for adding text and artwork to photos. I don't find it very intuitive to use, in honesty- editing a lot of text is awkward and fiddly, especially on the phone (the one below was done on an iPad Mini)- but the results are nice and the range of free fonts good, and of course you can purchase more. I'm pretty sure you can import fonts from your own computer too, but it's possible I've just made that up. My biggest gripe with this app was that it didn't save in a very high resolution, so printing at any size bigger than about 6x4 would look pixelated. I don't know whether this has been resolved yet. Obaby is another app from the same team aimed at parents and parents-to-be, so has plenty of pregnancy and baby-related artwork to add.
£1.49 - but there is a sister app called Quick, which is free, and is a pared-down version for adding text only. Marginally more intuitive to use too.

3 : Frametastic
OK, I have no particular love for this app but it serves a function, which is to provide simple photo collages. I don't use them much, and I don't much like that I have to pay more to get the exact configuration I want (stingy to the end- when did this expectation of getting apps- the result of someone else's hard work- for free start?!), but it does the job.

4 : Mextures
Just discovered this one and I love the range of filters, the ability to layer and save a combination of actions as formulas, which you can also import from other users. And for absolute control you can even change the blending modes on each layer. It also lets you make standard adjustments like contrast and exposure, but the filters are the best bit. I've only really tried it on landscapes so far (yes, occasionally I manage some pictures without Cub in), but with some nice results. The example below is me being lazy and just using another user's formula.

5 : Instagram
Oh, OK, I'd best include as I've used it a fair amount recently... I love Instagram filters and frames, but given that it's not really a photo editing app so much as a photo sharing app, I'm not an enormous fan. I don't always want to upload my photo for the world to see once edited, so admittedly I do cheat and make changes, then cancel so that it only saves to my photo library.

There are a ton of other apps I've tried and used for limited periods, but these are the ones that have stayed on my limited-memory phone. So which essential ones am I missing?

29 September 2014

Music stuff : September

It's Monday morning, the Cub's at nursery, I am sitting in a coffee shop slowly waking up, and the headphones are on. Pre-Cub I managed to dedicate a fair amount of time searching out new tunes to listen to, but it doesn't happen much these days and feels like a real luxury. It's even more of a shame as the Cub herself loves listening to music (and that even includes my singing- ha) and dancing, which actually just means turning in circles until she falls over. So now I've managed one mum post, I'm going with a music post. These are five albums/ tunes I've been listening to/ trying to listen to this month...

1 - War on Drugs, Lost in The Dream (album). Yep, I know, really behind with this. Listen to Red Eyes on Soundcloud

2 - Lia Ices, Higher Listen to Higher on Soundcloud

3 - Perfume Genius, Queen Watch the video for Queen on YouTube

4 - Robert Plant, Rainbow Listen to Rainbow on Soundcloud

5 - Alt-J, Every Other Freckle. And there's a new album I can aspire to listen to by mid 2015. Listen to Every Other Freckle on Soundcloud

(Thanks, Lauren Laverne, for pretty much all of these.)

Mum stuff : Halfway

So the baby monkey is halfway brewed. Crikey. Now that the horrendous morning sickness has gone I am sometimes mildly surprised when I remember I'm pregnant, despite having seen clear (and amazing) evidence at my scan last week. There's not much of a bump to speak of; I like to think there was plenty of existing bump for the baby to use up before expanding outwards, lovingly crafted through a couple of months of the Crisp and Millionaire's Shortbread Diet. So we'll keep it brief and go straight for a nice positive list today...

Five exciting things about having another baby:

1 - I can talk to a small child of mine without it being punctuated with a stream of loud 'NO!'s and a hand held up in my face in the manner of an overly aggressive traffic policeman stopping cars

2 - I can change a nappy without having to chase a small child around the sofa three times and then be screamed at for the injustice and indignity of said nappy change at a decibel which could break windows

3 - I might manage it this time without constant, debilitating fear of cocking it all up (this time I am pretty confident I will cock it up but it will probably all be OK anyway)

4 - I might get cuddles that don't result in injury (I've never been in a physical fight but the closest has been being- accidentally, I should say-  headbutted in the nose twice in the last fortnight)

5 - I can sit on the sofa for hours at a time whilst feeding (the baby, and yes, OK, me) with no guilt whatsoever.

And I've just realised that I've included nappy changing in a list of exciting things about having another baby. Clearly gonna laugh at that one in months to come.

22 September 2014

Other stuff : The First Post

Well, hello.

So here it is, the first post and, with any luck, not the last. This has been a long time coming, largely because I am a champion faffer but also because I wanted to get it right. I've pretty much abandoned the latter in favour of actually getting on and doing something, so forgive me for any tweaks along the way.

The purpose of this blog is, like any other blog, to give me a chance to write down some of things that occur to me on a daily basis and which my usual companion has no real interest in hearing. It might be because she's 18 months old, but to be fair simple conversations about changing nappies or getting dressed don't hold her attention much either at the moment. So here I am. Lucky you. (I promise not to post much about changing nappies or getting dressed, don't worry.)

I'm hoping to write about a lot of things but inevitably being a mum will feature prominently because that's my full time job, and it's about to become fuller- as it were- since I'm 20 weeks pregnant. It's also one I both love and struggle with. But once upon a time I had lots of other interests too- books, travel, photography, food, music and graphic design- and I'm hoping this blog will give me a chance to catch up on what I've been missing and let me share things that interest and excite me. Hopefully someone out there will find it interesting too.

The concept, such as it is- list five things- is also designed to give me a bit of focus and structure to my posts. It's also because I love lists. So without further ado here are five random things you may or may not want to know about me...

1 - I can speak a little Chinese. Mandarin, that is. Ni hao!
2 - I once bought Michael Douglas a drink whilst wearing an oversize felt jester's hat
3 - The last film I saw in a cinema was Sunshine On Leith. Nearly a year ago. Sigh
4 - I really like coffee-flavoured chocolate (controversial, that one)
5 - I am, right now, listening to the new Alt-J album and I am reading a book called- hang on whilst I remember- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (can't comment on either yet, too early)

(Turns out that was a particularly difficult list. I do hope they get easier after this...)