Struggling into spring

I never quite understood what TS Eliot had against April, or lilacs (mine flowers in May, not April, anyway – the photo below shows its buds still squeezed tightly up in the last week of April), but this spring has certainly proved that April can indeed be the cruellest month.

As the Easter holidays approached, we’d had a few glorious sunny days, when it felt like the year had turned the corner – the clocks had gone forward, the evenings were light, and finally things had begun to grow.

Then, the Easter weekend forecast began to grow worse, and it rained solidly virtually all day on Good Friday. Easter Saturday and Sunday stayed dry, more or less, but there was an iron grey cloud overhead all day; the sun simply vanished. It felt more like February than April.

Spring seemed to give up on us: I can count on one hand how many daffodils grew in the garden this year – it was as if the leaves came up, but the flowers thought ‘nah, can’t be bothered’.

Easter Monday we spent in Greenwich, where the Observatory was a good indoor distraction for a child ‘doing space’ at school next term – but what a dismal sight compared to the normal view across Greenwich Park! I felt sorry for the tourists seeing one of my favourite places at its absolute worst.

Having lost most of February half term to a vomiting bug, I had been banking on the Easter fortnight to be a chance for fresh air, sightseeing and fun, but fitting around work commitments, play dates and the ever worsening weather forecast meant we had little chance for proper outdoorsy exploring anywhere new or exciting.

There was one glorious, perfect sunny day in the first week of the holiday, but various plans already made that day meant we had no time to go further than Streatham Common (when it looks this lovely, though, who’s complaining?)

The next day, which started out grey but got better, we went to Crystal Palace Park, another old favourite, which as luck would have it had a funfair – I felt I was giving the children one unadulterated fun day which didn’t also involve me running errands, making a delivery or doing some other dull adult task en route.

And coming across lesser celandine spreading itself across waste ground in dappled sunlight (just outside the park) will always make my day – so that was, overall, a good day. That was the last sunshine we saw for quite some time, though.

Of course, we’ve had cold, wet and windy weather in April before – looking back at past blogs at this time of year I can see I’m always complaining about the rain and the lack of spring warmth – but there was something about the cold grey spell managing to last exactly the length of the Easter holiday which was relentless in its ability to grind me down.

We did find indoor stuff to do, naturally – the Horniman, Tate Modern, Flip Out, swimming, visits from friends and a thrilling trip to meet Doorkins, the famous Cat of Southwark Cathedral – but the endless grey skies were a monotonous backdrop to all the photos I took.

The day at Tate Modern was eerie and oppressive, with the City gradually disappearing into fog over the course of the afternoon – memorable, certainly, and perhaps a glimpse of London Dickens might recognise – but dismal when compared to past sunny day outings across the Wobbly Bridge and watching the street entertainers.

Into the second week, I felt the weather was beginning to troll me – the forecast when school went back was suddenly lovely, heading up to 24 degrees or more.

This felt like torment – all the fun times we could have been having, but the children will be back at school and preschool and I will be locked into the usual routine racing up and down the hill between them. Not fair!

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The small ones had a fun time, and the mini heatwave, when it came, was still lovely. (We seem now to have settled back into more typical April showers followed by sunshine with a side serving of brisk winds, but the weather is set to worsen again this weekend – THANKS FOR THAT, APRIL).

Still, after the short intense burst of warmth and sun, the garden has finally caught up with itself, and May bank holiday weekend weather is looking promising – but then I’m spending it in the Lakes, famous for its prolonged dry spells and sunshine….oh well!

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The Golden Age

I was sitting drinking a cup of tea at playgroup the other day when it suddenly struck me – I was coming to the end of the era of playgroups.

The toddler gets her 15 free hours at preschool after the end of the Easter holidays, so she’ll add in an extra day to the 3 she already does (we’re keeping one day free for swimming lessons), and the last remaining playgroup we go to will be a thing of the past.

It’s no big change for her, really – preschool is in the same building as playgroup, going through the same door, using the same toilets and playing in the same garden. She’s been there since September and only cried at drop-off once. Going there one extra day won’t make a big difference to her.

But for me, it has felt like the end of an era – when the big girl left preschool, I was able to think ‘there’s still one more to go, still a few years with a baby and toddler ahead of me’ – and now that time has gone. I won’t ever sit in that hall, making small talk to mums I know slightly, or get dragged up to the craft room to ‘help’ paint another picture or make a collage.

So much of my life spent in those halls, drinking tea, watching babies grow from tiny things to toddlers charging around. That time has gone, completely: it won’t ever come back again.

And it’s also made me question what I have done with all that time – so many mums have moved on, those who had to go back to work or wanted to go back, those who’ve moved away from the area, have not been in the same halls and community centres, week in, week out, like I have – and I wonder what else I could have been doing with myself?

Six years of being a non-working parent, and I haven’t written a novel (probably best all round, that one), or made my children their clothes by hand, or managed to teach the big girl to read before she started school, or taken 6 months, (or even just a month), to do some exciting life-changing travel experience with them.

Instead, their lives have been made up of the very ordinary, everyday things – the park, playgroup, the local museum, gym class, swimming, library, soft play, the park again. And yet I look back on that time, especially when I had a preschooler and a baby, before we were tied to the school routine, before Brexit, as the golden age.

Ok, so there was no sleep being had, that bit wasn’t good, but it now feels like a more innocent, carefree time, and at the time it was happening, it felt like exactly what I ought to be doing. I wanted to be with my children while they were still young, I had not wanted to go back to my old life commuting in and out of central London, and there were golden moments when it felt like it would go on forever.

I was still working alongside all this, which kept me feeling like I was keeping some other part of my brain active and interested, but it was voluntary work – work I loved, work I wanted to be doing – but the guilt of not contributing financially to the household still bothered me, and even the thought I was no longer a proper taxpayer in my own right.

I used to pay my way, do my bit for the NHS and schools and keeping this sorry country afloat; now I was an unwaged mother by choice, a ‘lifestyle choice’ according to George Osborne (huh!). Sure, we’ve saved a lot on childcare by me not working, but increasingly, this past year, the voice inside my head has been telling me I do actually feel like I want something more. I finally wanted to work because I wanted to, not because I had to – and that took a long time in coming.

And, in one of those moments which did feel like the universe presenting me with an opportunity I couldn’t say no to, work appeared. Suddenly, I am doing freelance work for a couple of local organisations, and I realise what it is all my working mum friends have been juggling all these years.

The diaries that have to be scheduled, the rushing off to meetings after preschool drop-off, the time working in cafes noted by the hour, and then making a conscious effort to switch all that off when I am actually with the kids.

And no longer being the ‘parent at home’ means struggling to keep on top of household things – when can I be home for the boiler to be serviced, or get a quote for new windows, or plan a birthday party, or find time to get things done around the house? How do parents manage to do all that when both of them work? The plan is, eventually, I can justify getting a cleaner, now we have the extra income. But even sorting that out has slipped to the bottom of the to-do list.

The good bit, though, is that I still have a girl at preschool for a whole year and a bit, so we still get our lunches and afternoons together, and a whole day on Thursdays when we swim – she is still my baby (sort of) for a while – and I have a chance to build up a career (and my confidence) in the meantime, so I won’t be completely floundering when she does start school.

And – the bit where I have to try not to blub – even though the Golden Age has finished, I had that time, we had it all together, I got to be with my girls whilst they were small – and it was good. I have that golden time locked up in its golden box, and I get to keep it.

The Last of the Melting Snow

We finally had the thaw today, and seems appropriate to use the title of a song by one of my favourite bands, The Leisure Society. We went out for a few hours today, snow still thick on pavements and lawns, and came home to find it mostly gone. Rain just as it got dark took the last of it away.

This (above) was how it looked a day ago!

Seems bizarre that just two weekends before we’d been enjoying almost spring-like weather – we’d been to Emmett’s Garden where we’d seen amazing bluebells a few years ago.

It turned out late Feb was not nearly such a special time there, barely any snowdrops, and daffodils only just appearing, but it is a lovely setting at any time of year, and has what must be one of my favourite views, anywhere.

This photo doesn’t really do it justice, but take it from me, you can see a long way into the distance, across the Weald and towards what must be some part of the South Downs, blue in the distance.

However, the blast of cold we’ve had in early March was hardly unforeseen – it had been the talk of Facebook for several weeks beforehand (I have a weather guru friend), and pretty much exactly what was predicted, came to pass.

It feels very different from the last real snow we had – 2013, memorable to me because we had just moved house and the big grown-up girl was only 9 months old.

I was terrified of going down the steep hill to our nearest high street with a buggy, and went everywhere by bus instead, because I could walk to the nearest bus stop without having to negotiate any major slopes.

I particularly remember the Monday morning trudge to the Pilates class I’d signed up to – I could get most of the way by bus, but had to edge my way down another hill to get to the church hall where the class was, and back up the hill to the library where we’d retreat from the cold for a bit, before heading home. All through the winter of 2013, well into March, it seemed to snow every Monday – that may be a slight exaggeration, but when I picture that church hall in my mind, it’s always with snow falling outside.

These days, the thought of a day where getting to a Pilates class is the only challenge, seems like a far-off dream – though, after a gap of a few years, I am doing Pilates again, much to the relief of my back and arms, which were quite tired of carrying toddler.

Despite the snow, the school run went on, meetings had to happen, and appointments kept, all with a constant stream of nose-wiping and night-time coughing and whimpering about cold feet.

Having a five-year-old who LOVES snow is thrilling, and seeing her make snow angels for the first time a joy, but when you add in a three-year-old who only wants to experience snow from under a blanket and behind glass, it gets tricky.

I had forgotten that we even had a footmuff for the buggy – it hasn’t been used for years and I had no idea where it was – so had to improvise with blankets and even a hot-water bottle to try and forestall wailing the entire length, there and back, of the school run.

Finally, school gave in on Thursday lunchtime, asked us to pick the children up early, and cancelled school on Friday. A bonus day at home was just what was needed – most of half term had been lost in a fog of sickness, and to have a free day to do fun stuff was like a bonus prize at the end of a lot of cold dull January and February days.

The down side was not being able to go out and sledge and enjoy the outdoors – the small snow refusenik would not have tolerated that – but we did the library and had haircuts and made cakes and played dominoes and had a disco party with Alexa.

Of course it didn’t go perfectly; right at the end of the day a toy got broken in a catastrophe of glitter which is never going to be satisfactorily cleaned up, but the cakes were pretty damn good.

And, before I get my soggy muddy green garden back, I will remember that, just for a minute, it looked like this….

We Aren’t Quite There Yet

It is nearly the end of January, but we aren’t quite there yet. I don’t like to let a month slip by without writing a blog, but if there ever was a month to let slip by, January would be it.

January on social media has been taken over by people giving things up – Dryanuary, Veganuary, and over on Instagram (I’ve joined Instagram, for my sins), it’s all clean living and Slimming World.

Dryanuary would seem a bit wasted on me, who can go a fortnight without drinking and barely notice it, and whilst I have been tempted to dabble in veganism (hey, you can still eat chips, and I like dark chocolate, and tofu, right?) – and I do love my shiny new HFW River Cottage veg cookbook –

…..the thought of tea with some kind of milk substitute in it just can’t be borne.

So I have limped on to nearly-the-end of January without giving anything up, or taking anything up, and it has felt like a month of endless rain. Morning school runs in the rain, and slogs down the hill to preschool in rain, and dashing back up the hill to be home before it rains (this week bought some respite; we got the rain, but we also got a rainbow). I have only ventured into the back garden to fill up bird feeders, and found the lawn to be completely sodden.

It’s the time of year I like least, because the garden feels most remote from me. I look out of the window and notice things: I must cut that back when I’ve got a minute. I never pulled up the dead Michaelmas daisies. I wonder which ferns have survived the winter. And I don’t go and look. I put it off for another month. I think, February, I’ll deal with it in February.

And then February will roll round and there is a baby girl about to turn 3 – no longer a baby! – and half term and lots of weekends taken ferrying children to birthday parties, so another month will slip by and I still probably won’t get any jobs done in the garden.

I have done what I term ‘the basics’ in the front garden – sweep up the leaves, deadhead roses, cut back the fuchsia and a few other things that have got too big for their boots – but that to me is the very least, a lick and a promise to keep the front of the house looking vaguely respectable (and I’m sure I’ve typed very similar words in previous Januaries).

There is so much more to be done out there, an entire dead hydrangea to be dug out, for starters. That’s going to be an afternoon’s work in itself – and at least two other plants which don’t deserve to be there at all, and an enormous overgrown holly which is pretty much a hedge now.

Then we have to make decisions about the really big jobs of the year – new windows, and perhaps redecorating the sad neglected bedrooms (ours and the spare), or dealing with the drive and crumbling front wall. Make the house look more respectable from the outside, or the inside? The bit everyone sees, or the bit no-one but us sees? Paging Dr Freud…

In the meantime, the snowdrops are nearly up, the catkins are on the hazel tree, and for a pound you can buy a vase of sunshine in the shape of daffodils. So, spring is coming, but we aren’t quite there yet.

The Wreath Lectures, 2017

Another year has rolled round and I’ve been sneaking up to front doors and admiring wreaths yet again. Last year was all about the mistletoe and silvery wreaths, this year what I’ve been noticing were cones. Big cones, little cones, it’s all about the cones.

First of all, cones with cinnamon sticks, a huge red ribbon and what looks like the contents of the fruit bowl.

Big cones, small cones and fake shiny fruit including cherries. I saw this wreath on quite a few doors locally and was slightly bemused by the apparent introduction of cherries to the festive fruit canon.

Cones with silvery leaves. Lovely.

And more cones with more silvery leaves and big silver baubles. This was perhaps the point at which I decided cones were the ‘thing’ this year.

What looks like a home-made wreath, I always like a low-hanging wreath (or perhaps I should call it a sub-letterbox? Or a below the fold?) I particularly liked this one because of the slightly wonky Easter-eggish shape.

This one appears to be coneless, but I liked the asymmetric gold leaves against the yellow door. (Poor photo, as it was a big house with steps up to the front door so I couldn’t get any closer, but I didn’t want to leave this one out).

Another yellow door and a really spectacular display – wreath PLUS ivy PLUS holly PLUS a big offcut of the Christmas tree. If you have a big grand yellow door, why the hell wouldn’t you? I would.

And in contrast, a plain green wreath not even hung up, just dropped straight on the doorknob, against an austere black door. Classy.

Another plain black door, this time with a twiggy wreath with a hint of sparkle underneath. Endorsed.

Finally, a poinsettia wreath not on a door but simply propped casually on a windowsill. Audacious, but it works beautifully.

Those are my best finds of the year, with no repeats – and finishes off a very happy Christmas. Hello to 2018 (in 20 minutes) and a big far off wave to Spring. I have a big pile of gardening jobs with my name on and I am looking forward to getting started!

Christmas Trees, and letting go…

This year feels like the first time I have properly relinquished control of the Christmas tree.

I was well aware it was bound to happen, and that as children grow older, letting them take charge of Christmas decorating is all part of the fun (for them). For me, I knew I would have to rein in my Monica Geller-style tendencies, and not fret too much if a favourite decoration of mine was not hung in an optimum place, or the two snowmen ornaments were hung side by side, rather than placed well away from each other, to create a properly balanced tree.

There are limits to what one tree-obsessed mum can take, of course – you have to apply some control over distribution of decorations, otherwise they will all end up on the lower half of the tree, and limit the number of times a particular item is fiddled with and taken off and put back on, or risk setting off a flood of needle-drop.

Apart from that, (and a little bit of rearranging after they’d gone to bed), the tree is entirely mostly their own work, and I am pretty pleased with the communal effort. It helps that the tree is a nice shaped one, and for once, not on a wonk.

I’ve also given them free rein with decorations in other areas – the Mr has helped them with paper chains (I don’t get involved, all that rustling paper drives me mad) and we’ve made some ‘stained glass’ tissue-paper window decorations which were great fun to do – and look nice against the glass no matter how scruffily they’ve been made. (See below – I rather like the freestyle approach to what colour a reindeer ought to be).

I even encouraged the use of cotton wool balls to try and make a snow picture; I can’t say the results were outstanding, but it kept the big girl happily occupied for a while.

One thing I noticed after the tree was finished was the lack of baubles, and I realised we now have so many ‘good’ decorations we don’t need to fall back on the non-breakable red or gold baubles which were formerly used to fill in gaps, and are so basic they live in a plastic bag in the garage, because there is no room for them in the Christmas decoration boxes. (Poor basic baubles, now I feel like they are Mary and Joseph in the stable and I should invite them in out of pity, but there is simply no space on the tree!)

The lack of space doesn’t mean there are no new decorations on the tree, though – I had resisted buying anything new, but still seem to have acquired things – the children each chose a decoration from a craft stall and the big girl embellished hers with a few extra sparklies (could I ever have imagined the day I’d allow bright acid yellow on to my tree? Reader, it happened).

Then the toddler came home from preschool with a salt dough tree decorated by her – she insisted on holding it all the way home, so more glitter ended up on her and the buggy than the decoration – but still it is pretty well glittered.

There is also a rather jaunty snowman made by the big girl at school, and another salt dough star which came from somewhere or other.

Finally, I succumbed to temptation (in a church, of all places!) and bought two olive wood fair trade guilt-free decorations made in Bethlehem. (Bought at the St Martins in the Fields gift shop).

I have not had much time for making decorations this year, as I’ve been making a mobile as a present for the toddler instead (pictures will follow). At my current pace, perhaps it should be set aside for her birthday in Feb to give me time to make a few more decorations, if I can squeeze them on the tree.

For yet another year, I’ve also contemplated my very tiny and drab wreath and wondered if I could or should do something better, but time has run away with me and I’ve put that on the mental to-do list for next year. No shortage of good wreaths out there to nick ideas from, though: I have a very long list already to whittle down for my annual wreath round-up!

The Lost World of North London

I don’t go north very often – north of the river, that is. My personal fiefdom these days doesn’t stretch far beyond the British Museum – but a couple of recent happenings have reminded me of my North London days, and I thought it was worth trying to capture those moments before they slip away altogether.

View from Parliament Hill Fields

My first proper job was in Camden. It was an odd place to work, as opposed to hang out, or shop, or drink. There was a whole other non-tourist Camden under the surface: the pub where we used to drink was a stones throw from the Worlds End, but it was down an alleyway a few steps away, and if you hadn’t been intending to go there, you’d have no reason to find it. This meant we mostly had the pub entirely to ourselves, and as the office had a lack of meeting rooms, we met in the pub.

I remember particularly the Friday after my first proper week at work (I’d been an intern for six weeks before that). We had, naturally, gone to the pub. I happened to glance out of the window, surrounded by my new colleagues, newly solvent and newly thrilled with myself, and saw an old-ish man walking past. He gave me a weary, dismissive glance – and it was, who else, Alan Bennett.

I wanted to run out after him and explain. I’m not really one of them, Mr Bennett. I went to Leeds. I know how the trams used to run past the Packhorse. I’ve been to Kirkstall Abbey. My mum and dad went to Beyond the Fringe. Don’t lump me in with them!

Anyway, this all came to mind when I read that Bennett’s former home on Gloucester Crescent is for sale. I never saw him again in Camden, and I never realised till years later that many other literary types lived on the same street (not that I would have recognised Michael Frayn or Claire Tomalin if I’d seen them).

I did wander the back streets when I got a chance, though – particularly in the second year when we moved to a bigger office in Primrose Hill, and some of those grand streets along by the canal became short cuts through to the new office.

Canal, east from Camden Lock

The book which taught me all about Camden’s literary hinterland, and brought back all its messy glory was of course Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. By genuine coincidence, the week I read about Alan Bennett’s house being on sale, I also went to see Stibbe reading from her new book, An Almost Perfect Christmas, and this brought on the sentimental urge to revisit my Camden days.

To be strictly honest, being a media executive in Camden in the Noughties is probably not very much like being a nanny there in the Eighties, but there were some things which rang true.

It felt a lot like the Camden I knew – Parkway with its shabby non-tourist shops including a pet shop that actually still sold pets, and always had a sad parrot in the window, and my first proper hairdresser where Darron cut my hair, Delancey Street with its posh bistro where I had to endure a terrifying lunch with my new boss and drank far too much, and the cafes on the High Street, (pre-Costa, pre-Starbucks and nicer than any of them) – Ruby in the Dust and Bean and Cup, you are still the benchmarks of my favourite cafes, all these years later.

Then there was yoga, which featured in Love, Nina, and for me, too. It was the year 2000, I was 23, and I was all about the yoga. I had been going to a class in South London, but the commute home wasn’t getting me there on time, so I looked for a class near to work. ‘Near’ turned out to be in a community hall on the stunning Maiden Lane Estate, which was a brisk walk from the office, and practically half way to Kings Cross – so I used to walk back along York Way to get to the tube, marvelling at how desolate and magnificent it all was.

I can barely remember if the yoga class itself was any good, it was the splendour of Maiden Lane’s terraces and alleyways, and those long walks through the wasteland of pre-gentrified Kings Cross that stay with me.

St Pancras, mid-regeneration (2008)

When we moved to the new office in Primrose Hill, I discovered we were close to the chi chi Triyoga, beloved of various Spice Girls – so I switched allegiance from poor old Maiden Lane and for a few months was able to claim I shared a yoga teacher with Sporty Spice, Simon Low. That was the peak of my Camden cool, as it came to a halt in autumn 2001 when I was made redundant, with a good chunk of my colleagues following at the same time or a month or so later.

There was a rather bleak period of unemployment – it was a cold winter, not a pleasant time to be in a flat with no central heating, or out pounding the pavements looking for temp work, but just like something out of a chick-lit novel, I got a week’s work just before Christmas, which meant I could afford to buy Christmas presents.

After an unsatisfactory 9 months commuting to Chiswick, (not recommended) and it was (too good to be true, another chick-lit plot point, but genuinely true) almost exactly 12 months to the day I was made redundant, that I started a new job back in the borough of Camden.

This time, though, it was Fitzrovia, and though the work was less fun and I missed the golden days of schlepping round Camden and afternoons lounging on Primrose Hill when we should have been working (no wonder we were all made redundant, really), it felt like the start of proper grown-up life.

And it opened up a whole new bit of London, which became far more special even than Camden had been, and led eventually to the year I spent in my tiny but very much loved Bloomsbury flat.

My fireplace in Bloomsbury

Finally, when browsing through my old photos from days wandering round north London, I found a favourite which captures the essence of Camden for me – the plaque commemorating the house where Rimbaud and Verlaine stayed (it’s probably nearer to Kings Cross than it is to Camden, but the same neck of the woods).

When I took this photo, the terrace was in a state so shabby, it seemed very appropriate, given their reputation for being dishevelled and generally disreputable, but it looked like it was heading towards being done up. And I am still amused that someone put a plaque up to commemorate that they stayed there for just 3 months – so fleeting, so pointless, but somebody out there bothered to record it.