Counting down

I was fossicking about on Facebook this morning when Licensed-To-Grill (Mum’s partner) mentioned that I had been unusually silent. He didn’t mean generally – I always have plenty to say and share – but he was pointing to one thing in particular. So this post is designed to address that gap, to fill the space that has been created, ironically enough, as a result of my busy-ness.

There are 38 sleeps to go until my birthday.

My sister, Lil Chicky, and I love a countdown. I mean what’s not to love about a Christmas countdown, (especially when you are smugly/annoyingly organised like me)? And every second Christmas I’m usually heading back Down Under so there’s the additional excitement of seeing loved ones again and enjoying a stretch of warm weather smack bang in the middle of a London winter.

Yep, that’s a pretty great thing to count down to.

But what about the birthday countdown?

Mum, Lil Chicky and I moved to Melbourne when I was ten which put us a plane trip away from a lot of our family. It also meant that the usual day-to-day experiences of girls growing into teenagers were not available to them. As a result, a couple of times a year, Mum would find herself fielding a host of ‘what would she like?’ requests as our birthdays approached. Being a family that doesn’t do ‘here’s some money, buy what you like’, we would be asked for a ‘birthday list’.

As I got older – and I mean into my 20s, 30s and *ahem* 40s – I started to have a bit of fun with this by dropping it into regular conversation. Things like ‘Oooh I’m excited, only 38 sleeps to go!’ or ‘Did you know there are only 37 shopping days until my birthday?’. It gets a laugh but it also does something else.

Remember how excited you used to get about your birthday when you were a kid? (And if you can’t remember that far back, just check out any kids aged up to the age of ten with an impending birthday in your vicinity.) Well, this silliness creates a huge dose of childish excitement…in me. I absolutely love it. I don’t know about you but I reckon we could all use a bit more childish joy in life.

On the practical side, I still supply a birthday list each year that gets built in the weeks leading up to my big day. (I like Amazon Wishlist as I can build it as I think of things – instead of in one go – and I can restrict the list access so it’s not public.)  I treat it as a way of showcasing things I’m currently interested in so loved ones can either purchase directly from it (instead of shipping stuff from Australia) or be inspired by it. Books feature a lot, jewellery gets a regular look in and every so often there’ll be something a bit more random like a fancy lampshade I’ve fallen in love with, a funky kindle case or a pretty summer dressing gown.

But every year I am reminded of the power I have to generate my own joyful moments. And to remember that the day I came into the world was a gift and will always be worth celebrating.

There are 38 sleeps to go peeps.

And I AM excited.I'm excited

 

Favourite things: Book chat

This time last year, I spent a couple of hours reading – and sheltering – inside a large marquee at the Royal Geographic Society for the inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival. In spite of the damp and dreary weather, I had a lovely time – so much so that as soon as I saw the promotion for this year’s event, I snapped up some earlybird tickets.

In stark contrast, yesterday’s sun cast its benevolent warmth over the RGS marquee as it fizzed with London’s literati enjoying Festival number two. The rooms and theatres played host to author panels, discussions on themes like race, travel writing and witchcraft, and freebies. The Map Room had an Aperol Spritz waiting for each attendee and in the marquee, Headline Publishing were offering a choice of one of six paperbacks for those who’d booked multiple sessions – like me.

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My free book – The House of Birds – thanks to Headline Publishing

After checking out the lay of the land and collecting my book, I headed to the theatre for the first of the four sessions I’d booked for the afternoon. Here’s how it all went down.

1. Why do we love to talk about books?

The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced this week and this panel was the last of the Prize’s official events. It comprised Kate Mosse – author, Prize co-founder and honorary director – Naomi Alderman – winner of this year’s Prize with The Power (it’s a great read) – and Ayobami Adebayo – whose first novel, Stay With Me, was on this year’s short-list. The trio took to the stage to chat about their own reading and writing and to explore the question: Why do we love to talk about books?

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L to R: Naomi Alderman, Ayobami Adebayo and Kate Mosse

Over the next 45 minutes, these three authors talked about their writing, the rollercoaster of confidence that comes with it and whether/what they actually read when they are writing something. (For each it depended on the draft number but the general consensus was don’t read the same genre as you are writing.)  There was also a really interesting discussion on criticism and I liked the way that Naomi answered this: There’s enormous value in paid-for constructive criticism, ignore the ‘abuse’ at the other end of the spectrum and remember that reader reviews e.g. Goodreads, Amazon etc. are ‘not really for us [the authors]’ but rather for other readers. Ayobami also loved that she’d discovered the mute conversation option on Twitter.

And what about the question at hand – why do we love talking about books? Well, Naomi likened it to finding this amazing new cafe and then telling everyone they should go. She also shared an observation about the personal affront you feel when someone doesn’t really love a book that you did. The chat about this swayed from jokes about ‘we can’t be friends any more’ (Ayobami) and the overwhelming urge to defend and re-sell [them] on your choice of reading material to feeling utterly shocked and deflated (Naomi). Haven’t we all been there!

2. Telling true stories: Explaining narrative journalism

This was a fascinating peek into the world of long-form journalism with Clare Longrigg, deputy editor of The Guardian’s Long Read, and Sophie Elmhirst, a journalist who’s written pieces for The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar and The Guardian (just to name a few.)

They chatted first about the difference between a long read and a longer celebrity profile – Sophie particularly talked about the greater amount of time invested in a long read piece to explore whatever the subject matter is (and she’s written on everything from water to Robin Wright). When a person is the subject of her article, she tries to see them at home or do something with them, and also talks to others in that world to get a range of angles to draw from. She mentioned that it’s often the innocuous thing that someone says that breathes life into the piece. For example, did you know that when Richard Dawkins‘ can’t sleep, he goes through the alphabet and assigns mammals to each letter? Well thanks to Sophie, you do now.

3. Essex Girls, Serpents and Writing a Best Seller

Sarah Perry‘s second novel, The Essex Serpent, was on the Prize shortlist in 2016 but at the time, I thought it sounded too primly Victorian to be my cup of tea. How wrong I was on both counts – it was far from prim and I absolutely loved it. So to hear Perry chat with Lucy Mangan – I have been a fan of Mangan’s column in Stylist magazine for a while – was something I was really looking forward to.

I was completely charmed by Sarah. She talked about her unorthodox upbringing, the way she has always like her eccentricity, her curious mind that ‘needed nourishment’ and her drive to explore themes in her writing to make it a worthwhile pursuit.

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Lucy Mangan (L) listens as Sarah Perry (R) reads from The Essex Serpent

Sarah spoke about exploring different sorts of love in her writing – except romantic love. She professed to being bored by exploring this as a writer and as a reader in light of her own smooth path to love and marriage – “I just found a nice man and married him.” She also talked about how her first novel, After Me Comes The Flood was published: After 19 rejection letters, her agent left the firm…and became her publisher.

Sarah’s passion, curiosity and unusual viewpoint made for a delightful 45 minutes – she’s interested in so much and for me, it’s what made her so interesting to listen to.

4. Emerald Street Presents Robin Dalton

I had never heard of Robin Dalton before the festival but she’s 96, grew up in Australia before moving to London in 1946 and has been a literary agent, TV personality, film producer and spy for the Thai government so I figured that it had to be interesting. She was promoting her memoir, One Leg Over, and read a few pages to get things started…

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Kat Poole (L) listens as Robin Dalton (R) reads from One Leg Over

She spoke of her gallivanting during the war years and her lack of ‘ambition’, preferring to live in the moment and see what happened from that rather than making any plans. And she’s had some moments – her society divorce kicked war from the front pages and her reading included anecdotes of time spent with the likes of John F Kennedy and Noel Coward.

Robin also told us that the eyebrow-raising title of the book was not intended to be salacious but rather, it captures a moment – the moment when she’s getting out of the bath, has managed to get one leg over the side and thinks to herself “that’s one leg over”.

So that was the formal part of the day. In between I found a lovely wodge of time to read – in the marquee over lunch and then later in a quiet sunny spot on the steps with a deliciously large slice of coffee and walnut cake – and indulge in a chat or two with some of my fellow bookworms.

Books, cake and glorious sunshine – what a great way to spend a Saturday!

The meaning of stuff

Lately I’ve been thinking about stuff.

Just over thirteen years ago I packed my stuff into a half container and had it shipped across the world. A year later, when I finally moved into a tiny flat in South West London, I can still remember how thrilled I was to have my stuff all around me again. I remember filling the drawers of my beautiful wooden sideboard with games, crockery and assorted bits and pieces and ripping into the box marked CDs to plug into some much-missed Aussie favourites. It felt like Christmas and a birthday all rolled into one.

Spending so much time at home at the moment has made me realise how much stuff I have. Most of this original shipment is still with me and my years here – and a move to a bigger flat five and a half years ago – has seen me accumulate more.

What has struck me is how it runs my life. Last week, I spent almost three hours re-staining my 5-year-old outdoor setting. It was not a fun experience and as a mucky pup, I managed to get the wood stain in all sorts of places it wasn’t meant to be. But it’s a big job that’s been ticked off the list and I’m really pleased with how it looks. Until I have to do it again…

Outdoor setting freshly stained

Almost 3 hours of work and it looks great. But I know I’ll have to do it again…and again.

I saw Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, interviewed earlier in the year. It was clear that he’d been considering this as well.

“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” 

His point was this. Before we caught on to the idea of cultivating more wheat than we needed, we hunted and gathered only as much food as we could eat, following and staying where the food source took us. Wheat had us stop and settle, invest time and energy and resources – including the building of fences and the shovelling of sh*t – to preserve and protect it. His question is ‘do we really think we are running the show?’

My question is now, ‘has my outdoor setting domesticated me?’

Stuff is everywhere. And here in London you cannot travel far without coming across a testament to it – a museum. And it’s been in visiting some of the smaller ones recently that has got me thinking about what stuff means and why preserve it.

In the last couple of months, I’ve visited the home of wealthy industrialist, Frank Green in York, the Hampstead home of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna and the home of architect and collector Sir John Soane in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields. For me, these personal collections of antiquities, curiosities and everyday items created a much greater sense of the person’s story and time. I was especially fascinated to learn that:

  • Sir John Soane was such an avid collector that he bought the sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharoah Seti I (1303 – 1290 BC) when the British Museum ran out of money after it had secured the controversial Elgin Marbles.
  • Sigmund Freud was so attached to his stuff that he refashioned the study he had in Vienna in his new home in London, including THAT couch.
Freud Museum montage

Freud lived at Bergasse, 19 in Vienna for 47 years. Before he fled to London in 1938, he had his rooms in Vienna photographed with a view to recreating them in his new home.

Without stuff, how would we get a sense of what has happened before or what life was like? And yet the physical stuff is not the whole picture.

I attended a breakfast seminar in April which addressed the question of stuff. There was a lot of talk about decluttering, connoisseurship and the trend towards spending on experiences rather than things. Research shows that the Millennial generation in particular (born between the early 80’s and the late 90’s) are tending to share and access stuff versus owning it. Perhaps this is a conscious choice about being unencumbered and financial enough to travel, attend events, concerts and festivals, eat out and, as one media pundit noted, ‘drink their £4 coffees’.

The digital discussions around music (iTunes), streaming services (Netflix/Amazon Prime) and e-books were also interesting and in the face of their continued growth, the non-digital experiences associated with all three industries are being revisited. Vinyl has become the choice of the cool connoisseur. Cinemas are providing VIP services and collaborating with live event providers eg. theatre, opera, ballet and even the annual TED Conference, to expand their audience and revenue opportunities. And books? Well, e-book share is highest in the US, having grown to 25% since 2009, yet only 7% of people state that they will read only e-books in the future. (Source: PWC – The future of e-books 2016). That seems to me to be a gap for stuff to fill…

Here at Gidday HQ, the past few months have been chequered with bi-weekly trips to the charity shop as I’ve been weeding stuff out of cupboards, drawers and wardrobes. In the words of Steve Howard, CEO of global stuff purveyor IKEA…

If we look on a global basis, in the west I’d say we’ve probably hit peak stuff.” 

…and my cupboards probably agree. But with IKEA’s sales up 4.8%, their expansion into new markets going strong and the opening of their IKEA Museum in 2016, I’d say ‘I don’t think so’.

Consider this. How often have you been trapped shopped in the IKEA Market Hall and found yourself putting a funky new toilet roll holder (that you had to have) onto the checkout conveyor next to the matching-colander-and-spatula-set (that will be very handy) and yet-another-bag of 100 tea light candles (because we might’ve run out)? And who doesn’t love a Billy bookshelf – the home for books (and most likely other stuff) that ‘loves to grow’?

No. We like stuff. We like the stories stuff tells us about ourselves – how much or little of it we have, what it all means about us. And we like to check out other people’s stuff – in museums, on social media, on the bus – and decide what we think it means about them.

So to my mind, our relationship with stuff is still going strong and digitisation is just encouraging us to get more and more of it. Case in point: My Kindle currently holds 70+ books, about what I would normally read in a year. (I also have a bookshelf full of ‘proper’ books.)

But in our world of curated content and social media profiles, the tangible and/or visible stuff only tells part of our story. I wonder what the people who will populate the centuries ahead will imagine about us based on this – the visible/tangible stuff we leave behind? I’m not talking about the impact on the environment – that’s a question that could fill several blog posts – but about the minutiae of our daily lives.

And actually, come to think of it, what will the people, the ones who will be buying my pre-loved items from the local op-shop, think about me!?

A scrumptious success

In my last post, I waxed lyrical about my day slicing and dicing at the Waitrose Cookery School.

I am delighted to report that just ten days later, I have successfully reproduced one of the recipes at home.

I’m SO pleased…and proud!

Here’s my path to today’s red onion chutney.

I started by slicing up two large red onions and heating them in a medium-sized saucepan – with a little groundnut oil and sea salt – until the onions started to ‘fall’ (that’s cookery school jargon for soften slightly).

Red Onion Chutney 1 (crop)

I added 62.5g of caster sugar and a quarter teaspoon of yellow mustard seeds…

Red Onion Chutney 2 (crop)

…and stirred through until dissolved (see pic below).

Red Onion Chutney 3

I then added 70mls of red wine vinegar and left it all to simmer – no stirring! – for about 15 minutes.

I ended up with about 100g of this…

Red Onion Chutney 4 - finished

 

Yippee! Woohoo! You little ripper! 

 

Yes, I’m a bit excited. I’ve already had some and can report that apart from looking gorgeous, it tastes absolutely delicious.

I am one happy little Vegemite right now.

Feel free to snaffle the recipe – in about an hour, you could be enjoying this scrumptious treat for yourself…

You are welcome.

Sliced and diced

This week I did a knife skills course. No, I am not running away to join the circus. I’m talking about knife skills of the kitchen variety.

I’m a bit of a foodie, have loads of vegetables in my diet and tend to spend a lot of my meal preparation time chopping stuff. I never had lessons in how to do this – I just got stuck in with what needed to be done over the years and it all seemed to work okay. Especially as all ten fingers remain attached and intact.

But when watching cooking television, I’m always hugely impressed and intimidated by the speed and confidence with which chefs slice, dice and generally handle their knives. Every so often they offer a smattering of how-to-chop instruction when a celebrity guest gets involved but do you think I can remember it for application later on?

So I have never filleted a fish or jointed a chicken and terms like Chiffonade and Brunoise are a complete mystery to me. Or used to be.

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The intersection of humanity

There is so much to do and see in London. I love living here and am so grateful for the many reasons I find to be delighted on a daily basis. Most of these moments happen when I go slightly off-piste – when I take a variation of my regular route or sit on the other side of the bus or just look left instead of to my regular right. Sometimes something unexpected crosses my usual path and recently I came across some old photos that reminded me of just how delightful it is when this happens.

Back in 2015, I’d been going to the V&A Museum every couple of months (for exhibitions, talks and a rather fabulous book group). The building sprawls grandly on one corner of the intersection of Exhibition and Cromwell Roads opposite the gingham brickwork of the Natural History Museum and the wedding cake pillars of the Science Museum. During the day, taxis zoom past with gusto and excited school groups are herded about in seething clumps. On weekends and school holidays, a human tide of families – with their flotilla of pushchairs and strollers – ebb and flow through the four crosswalks.

It’s an intersection I’d come to know well – a place devoid of monument yet thrumming with humanity, anticipation and movement. So imagine my surprise when I turned up one November evening to find this…

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The coffee moment

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the Freud Museum in Hampstead.

I was in my element. I got to potter around half a dozen rooms packed to the gills with mementos, curios, antiquities and furnishings that belonged to the great Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. It took me right back to my psychology studies at university and as I listened to the audio guide and wandered through each room, I marvelled at how one man and his ‘couch’ (below) could remain so relevant for so long – his methods are still at the heart of many of the ways and means we use to handle the world we live in today.

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Two hours later, and with a head full of Freud (make of that what you will), I headed back down to the main road to have lunch, enjoying a tasty meal then settling in to read for a bit while I drank my coffee.

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York: People and a pastry

My last day in York dawned bright and blue-skied, a welcome sight after my wet Wednesday, so I was up, checked out and ready for a cruise on the Ouse (pronounced ‘ooz’ peeps – just to explain my rhyming turn of phrase) only to find that all trips for that day had been cancelled…due to flooding.

Hmmmm…

So I wandered around the Yorkshire Museum Gardens for half an hour – to make the most of the sunshine (in case it disappeared)…

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…before deciding to head into the Museum itself.

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York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

Let’s begin by establishing that my second full day in York was a wet one. The skies grizzled ominously and gushed forth in turn so it was just as well there were plenty of indoor activities to keep me amused.

After a bracing walk along the river, I spent the morning at the York Castle Museum. Located just by Clifford’s Tower, it’s comprised of two buildings – the old Female Prison to the left and the old Debtors Prison to the right – with a gift shop (there’s always a gift shop) and cafe in between. The museum weaves an eclectic route through York society and culture during the 1800s-1900s and all it takes is a tenner to get amongst it.

I began with the Female Prison Building – containing exhibitions covering the changing nature of homes and living – and a nod to one of York’s great pillars of commerce, chocolate.

York Castle Museum - chocolate montage

The Rowntree’s company in York invented the Kit Kat and the Terry’s Chocolate…Apple?

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York: The tower, tour and tearooms

As a history buff and fan of the city break, a visit to York has been on my to-do list for quite some time (okay, since I moved here thirteen years ago). So in March, I finally got my act together, booked a bed and a spot of breakfast for a few days and hopped on a train for the two hour journey north.

I had three days to spend and a list of things I wanted to do. The weather managed to mix it up too – bursts of sunshine book-ended drizzle, rain and even a flurry of snow. But it was blue skies that beckoned as I got off the train, bouncing off bobbing yellow daffodils and brushing the distant Minster tower with soft light. So I checked into my hotel (Marmadukes Town House Hotel), dumped my stuff and headed out to explore.

York Arrival montage

I spent the last few hours of daylight wandering through the walled city’s cobbled streets and when the light finally faded, I found a cosy spot at the Lamb and Lion Inn (right under the old City Gate, Bootham Bar) to prepare my plan of attack over a quiet pint of something local.

It was a full three days – a wonderful mix of history, curiosities, architecture and breathtaking views – and I have so much to share with you. So I’ve split my York warblings into three Armchair Tours to cover the things I loved about each day.

Here’s Part One…enjoy!

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