Monday, 15 December 2014

There's a fire on Christmas Eve! Evacuate. Memories of a Childhood Christmas.


Although I grew up in London, my childhood Christmases were usually spent at our house in Berkshire. The house was on a farm, which we rented from a local landowner and in the winter there were cows mooching around in shit in a depressing pen. In the summer, we would play under the weeping willow tree in the garden and always, without fail, whatever the season, we would act out Cinderella and make the adults watch it over and over again. My friend Pandora would be Cinderella and I would be the handsome Prince. I didn't mind the role, in fact I was a tomboy and enjoyed it. My only downfall was once being asked to be the 'stick' in a dramatisation of Pooh-sticks.

My grandmother (who usually joined us at Christmas) was like a fairy godmother from a children’s story; we all loved her because she was able to do magic. We would choose somewhere to find a little trinket, then she would shut her eyes and say some weird and wonderful words and miraculously we would run off to our chosen site and the prize would be there  (I still don’t know how she did it)

On Christmas Eve, we would leave milk for the reindeers and a glass of whisky and some biscuits for Father Christmas in front of the fire. The next day we woke extremely early of course, to delve into our stockings. There are lots of Christmas Day photographs of me looking shattered, with huge grey bags under my eyes.  In one set of photos, aged about seven, I look particularly haggard, like a tiny junkie. That year, the  grownups had forgotten to put the fireguard in front of the fire as they staggered to bed on Christmas Eve, and the embers must gone awry, because in the middle of the night, my slightly ditzy aunt woke up my grandmother and said she smelt smoke. 

We were woken up by the adults and evacuated outside and told to look up to the sky to see if we could see Father Christmas arriving. It was thrilling and exciting to be outside in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. The fire turned out to be manageable, no fire engines arrived and we all went back to bed.

The next day, Christmas carried on as usual, the only reminder of what had happened the night before was the singed fire surround. We pulled crackers, opened presents,  told terrible jokes, dug out silver trinkets from the Christmas pudding, put on silly hats, watched television, played with our new presents and then felt depressed when it all came to an end.

When I think about Christmas,  I still think about escaping somehow, getting out of the city, and away from real life. Certainly in London, there is far too much traffic over the festive period. London feels blocked and overwhelmed, exactly like I feel. Thank God for online shopping. Christmas is like a fiction anyway, an overblown day of abundance: too much food, too many presents, too many good choices on TV, too many hours being in the company of certain members of our families  whom we never see the rest of the year, There is a sudden visit to Church, a flurry of carols and hopefully some reflection. I'd like to think Christmas was about giving, sharing, forgiving, reflecting and reunions as well as presents, parties and champagne.

I like the idea of being away in a cottage with a roaring fire and a windswept beach.  There would be endless games of scrabble, a few good carols, a short walk into the garden to collect some logs, a long walk along a beach to good pub. Yes bring me a country Christmas every time or failing that a Caribbean or a mountain Christmas will do.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

My Guide to West London


I was recently asked to give some recommendations for where to eat and be merry in West London for an American Website. Below is my very personal and slightly abridged guide, maybe a bit biased to the area around where I live in Sheperds Bush, but not completely so. There are links added, but not to absolutely everything, as my arm got tired. Hope it inspires those of you coming to London for some Christmas Cheer! 





Where is  West London?

West London loosely stretches from Kensington to Ealing; its vibrant mix of inhabitants includes the very rich and the disadvantaged poor. It boasts green conservation areas juxtaposed with urban spaces; boutique shopping and Westfield, the largest Mall in Europe. European bankers and Russians set up home in Holland Park and Notting Hill alongside Jamaicans and Afro Caribbean’s  - long-term residents, who orchestrate the annual Notting Hill Carnival in August. 

What would you do in West London if you wanted to be elegant and have fun?

I would have lunch at the River Café, the elegant Italian restaurant on the River Thames. I would then go shopping at the independent clothes shops, The Cross near Holland Park and The Jacksons in Notting Hill, followed by a massage and a facial at The Park Club in Acton. I would relax afterwards in their 27 acres of grounds with a cup of tea. In the evening I would book a sofa at the Electric Cinema  and snuggle with my husband and get food delivered to me from the Electric Diner next door.



Five Places to Visit in West London

1. Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew also known as Kew Gardens is one of the most famous gardens in the world, with a vast range of rare and beautiful plants, a bamboo garden, Victorian glass houses, 14,000 trees and much more. I love to walk there and just take it all in.


2.Portobello Market in Notting hill  The big antique day is Saturday but Friday is also good if you want to avoid the crowds. Don’t forget to include the Golborne Road too, which also boasts food stalls, junk and antiques for sale, as well as Portuguese cafes selling custard cakes and coffee.

3. A Walk in Kensington Gardens, visiting the Serpentine Art Gallery (free entry) and then The Orangery for tea. The Serpentine always has interesting modern art exhibitions and the Orangery is just a beautiful place to sit.

4. Leighton House Museum is the former home of the Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton, and it contains a collection of paintings and sculpture by Leighton and his contemporaries. One of the best rooms in the house is the amazing Arab Hall with its golden dome, interesting mosaics and walls lined with Islamic tiles. It would be worth visiting  Holland Park afterwards.

5. A jaunt down the river from Hammersmith Bridge to Chiswick House is one of my favourite walks in London. It’s easy to imagine what the city must have been like 200 years ago and the route passes beautiful houses, a few pubs and St Nicholas Church where the artist, Hogarth was buried. While looking at the river landscape, it’s easy to forget that you are minutes away from a huge loud metropolis. 



Best new Restaurant in West London

Bush Hall Dining Room voted favourite restaurant in Sheperds Bush by Time Out readers. The cocktails are great here.


Favourite Restaurants in West London

¬Persian food at Sufi in Shepherds Bush. This is a  unpretentious and cheap, local restaurant. The grilled chicken or lamb and rice are delicious. Also the home-made flat bread.

English Tapas at The Shed in Kensington – little plates of dishes like pork scratchings with apple jam and hake rillettes with dill and marmalade. Although it’s not the most comfortable seating, it’s a really interesting and delicious dining experience.

The Anglesea Arms near Hammersmith is a cosy local pub with a roaring fire. Order a pint of prawns at the bar  or sit down in the restaurant to order seasonal food. 


Good Shopping?


Turnham Green High Street and Chiswick High Street, where there is a good mix of good quality independent food shops, health stores, furniture shops and cafes, including The Old Cinema, a treasure trove of furniture and interesting antiques.

Askew Road, in Shepherds Bush is great for inexpensive local shopping. There is a wonderful butcher, The Ginger Pig that sells Deli goods, organic vegetables, homemade jams and chutneys and extremely good quality meat and Max Inc. an interesting mid-century furniture shop with fair prices.  

Westfield, near the Shepherds Bush roundabout is the largest shopping mall in Europe, and it’s worth a visit, just to experience the sheer size and variety of shops.  There is a pop-up skating ring here in the winter and lots of free and fun happenings. There are also a huge variety of restaurants and cafes.

The clothes, jewellery, furniture, flower stall and shoe shops around Ledbury Road in Notting hill are worth visiting. I Love Gorgeous is an independent children’s shop for girls, selling beautiful dresses with an edge – a perfect gift for a godchild, a niece or a daughter. Anya Hindmarch for bags and Ottolenghi the deli are amongst the array of other independent shops.

What to do in the Evening?

The Bush Theatre  showcases new writers and it’s a small intimate theatre which make this an exciting and affordable evening.
The Bush Hall for original live indie music in a Victorian, music hall setting. 
The Riverside Studios for movies, theatre, eating and drinking
Chiswick House Gardens and Café 



Wednesday, 5 November 2014

DOMESTIC GODDESS? I DON'T THINK SO

There have been moments when I’ve scanned social media, to discover that one of my Martha-Stewart- type-acquaintances has smugly photographed her perfect muffins, fairy cakes, or apple pie.  I have noted the smiling child by her side and sunk into a gloomy despondency.  My ten-year-old girl loves baking cakes, but baking is not one of my talents. Maybe it would be if I spent more time on it. Instead of revising muffin recipes, I write at my desk, looking out at my London street, and every twenty minutes or so, become distracted, and do useless things like cut the cat’s hair where it has clogged up into tight balls around it’s bum. Or log onto facebook and cry over the photographs of beaten dogs, or captured dolphins.

We do try baking. We follow the exact ingredients for a recipe, weighing out the butter and flour, but  there NEVER seems to be enough mixture to make 12 perfect cupcakes. The last time we tried there was just enough for nine and our sugar icing was thin and sweet; we must learn how to do the butter version. Is that even what it’s called? Or I should just double the ingredients that the recipe calls for. Something has to change.

I was one of three mothers who recently sold cakes at the Year 6 school cake sale. Our blue-iced cakes seemed at best small, compared to the one’s the French mother had made that rose like small mountains with generous dollops of buttercream. One man scoffed at our blue offerings: “50 pence for those
“The money is for the school,” I replied tersely.

Craft is another thing. I remember when the children were small and all they wanted to do was make huge glittery messes with dollops of glue. I would hover over them as the table became amassed with sticky patches and glitter and would try to mask my rising sense of irritation and boredom. I am not like my sister who can make origami birds out of bits of paper or my friend Emily, who can pick up a stick and paint a tiny Union Jack on it, instantaneously creating a work of art.

But I am good at listening, laughing, hugging, massaging and cheering them on. So that’s something I suppose, although my friend Emily can do all that as well as baking and crafting. Don’t get me started on gardening: I am not like my friend Shirel, who says, gardening gives her a sense of spiritual purpose. I am the type who buys a ready-made window box and hopes for the best.


Monday, 15 September 2014

The Average Family

I was doing research for a book I am writing and came across the poll (below) commissioned by an energy company in 2011. 2000 families took part. It's shocking how I can relate, and how strangely precise the timings are: such as rising at 6.57am. Our alarm goes off at 6.50am, (my husband's idea) but I probably get up at 7.20ish. It infuriates me that the alarm goes off at 650 but he then goes back to sleep and lets it ring out three more times at five minute intervals) We have one car rather than 1.5, live in an attached 3 storey house, holiday about two or three times a year, with at least one holiday abroad. We've just started eating together about  3x a week, (which is average) but probably on average, an hour later. The weekly food shop is more than twice the poll average, but it is three years later. The night out as a couple seems very low, although having said that, we do go out more than that but are usually with other people. That makes me think. We very rarely have a date night.  1.6 arguments a week? With who? Kids or amongst adults, or the whole family?  We probably have three or even four, arguments, but that includes arguing with children - call it five a week. Best Family entertainment - TV that's quite depressing. I would say my favourite family activity, is eating out, or having friends over with their kids or messing about on beaches or being on holiday. I probably have a night out with friends about once a week too, so consider myself lucky. I exercise the same as the average on the poll, about two and half times a week. Interesting that 80% class themselves as happy. That's uplifting.

Would love to know how other families live too...and would welcome comments.

The poll below shows how an average family live, (this poll was taken in 2011)

AVERAGE UK FAMILY - UNOFFICIAL CENSUS

Get up: 6.57am
Car: Silver Ford Focus
Number of cars: 1.5
House: Semi-detached on a main street
Holiday: 2 x 10 days in the UK
Evening meals together: 3 per week at 5.50pm
Weekly shop: £76.02
Weekly alcohol bill: £12
Entertainment i.e. DVD's: £15
Best entertainment: Watching TV
Favourite TV show: Dr Who
Time spent watching TV: 9 hours per day
Nights out with friends: 2 per month
Nights out as a couple: 'Every few months'
Big family outing: Once a month
Get home from work: 5.15pm
Go to bed: 10.39pm
Arguments: 1.6 per week
Savings: £3,280
Mortgage: 53% have a mortgage and have paid off 32 per cent
Cash in wallet/purse: £10.31
Neighbours: Two that we speak to
Exercise: Two and half times a week
Home improvements: £559 in the last year
Wider family: Once a week gathering
Quality time together: Two hours per week
Breakfast : Eats breakfast twice a week as a family
Laundry: 5.3 loads per week
Chores: 4 hours and 24 minutes every week - mum does the majority
Happiness: 80 per cent class themselves as 'happy'
Wellbeing: 70 per cent claim they are 'normal'

Monday, 1 September 2014

Rainbow Braid

video


My daughter (like almost every other girl in the western world) has succumbed to the loom bracelet craze, so we were delighted to be sent The Rainbow Refill Pack a superior version of the ones on the current market. The Rainbow Loom, a plastic device for turning small rubber bands into jewellery, has sold more than three million units worldwide and the majority of the best-selling toys on Amazon UK are either looms or loom-related.  Rainbow Loom was invented in 2011 by Cheong Choon Ng, a Malaysian-born former seatbelt technology developer from Michigan, who noticed his daughters weaving elastic bands over their fingers to make bracelets. Ng tried it but his own fingers were too big, so he built himself a "loom" - a technology known to the clothing trade since at least the 15th Century - using pins and a wooden slab. 

Ng developed a plastic version and set up a business manufacturing them, investing $10,000. He got a toyshop to stock his product and, after it sold out within a few hours, other stores took an interest. It spread from there and looms and bands can now be seen in schools and homes around the UK and US. I wonder if he patented the idea? We saw them for sale this summer in the rural Adeche in France at every market we went to. 1 Euro for each packet and they were everywhere. My ten year old daughter has made  at least fifty bracelets since the craze begun and has made several for me.  The difference with these bands (invented by a mother) is they are smoother, tougher and don't smell toxic. I found that all the previous bracelets she made for me broke within 24 hours. The rainbow refill pack above comes with 5400 bands in 18 different colours including neon, glitter, solid and glow in the dark variations. Compatible with all loom kits and you can buy it on Amazon.





Monday, 28 July 2014

A Trip to Yemen

Long before I was married and became a mother, I was invited to join four writers and two photographers who were travelling to Yemen. I barely knew where Yemen was, but it sounded exotic and enticing, and I soon discovered that it lies between the Red and Arabian Seas. It was November, 1996, and as the date of departure grew closer, I learnt more, and became excited about seeing the mud tower houses in the desert, the stone dwellings in the mountains, and the conical clay huts in the Tihama.

We were lucky to travel to the Yemen when we did. The latest news from The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all travel to Yemen and strongly urges British nationals to leave. They warn that there is a high threat from terrorism throughout Yemen and specific methods of attack are evolving and increasing in sophistication. Not only did we not experience any hostility or threat, but we were treated very well.

I packed long skirts and scarfs to cover my head and flew to San’a, the capital of the Yemen. The old walled city has been occupied for over 2,500 years and is a world heritage Unesco site. The first morning, I strolled outside to find medieval tower houses rising like sculpted cakes and the decorative window surrounds dripping like white icing. The men – (many of whom strode around hand in hand) wore red and white check turbans, sarongs and swashbuckling jambiyas (ceremonial daggers worn at the waist). The city was bleakly devoid of women and the couple that we eventually came across, were veiled head to foot in black. In the souk we passed a mad man, shackled at the wrists and ankles, shuffling through the juice bars and fruit and vegetable displays with a haunted, wild, expression.

One of the group, a photographer, (who was later to become my husband) beckoned me down some stairs toward the frenzied sound of drumming, into a dark cellar lit by bare, swinging light bulbs. Men squatted on the floor, cheeks bulging with qat, dealing the narcotic leaf, to men who lined up to buy it.

Later that evening, we met Tim Mackintosh Smith, the writer and Arabist, who has lived in the Yemen for more than thirty years, in the summit of a mediaeval tower. He was wearing a long flowing gown, chewing qat and sporting a huge beard. He offered us black tea with cardamom, and we chatted over the haunting backdrop of the Call to Prayer, from one of minarets nearby. He was working on what would become Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, which won the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book Award in 1998.

The following day we set off in a Toyota Landcruiser driven by a man called Hussain. He had weary brown eyes and owned an English/Arabic phrase book, with quaint phrases and illustrations and answered ‘no problem no problem’ to our every request. We were all charmed by him immediately. We were heading for the Hadhramaut, which extends from the coast to the Arabian Sea to the southern deserts. When we reached Ma’rib, 120 miles East of Sana’a, Hussain led us to a restaurant, where tribal men had laid down their AK47 rifles to eat grilled chicken, garlic beans and flat bread. There were no women in the café, although a female beggar sat on the doorstep collecting leftovers. Later that day we visited old Ma’rib, an almost deserted mud town set high on a hill. I wrote in my diary: “dark eerie windows in the baked towers look like the eyes of Antony Gormley sculptures. An unveiled peasant woman dressed in red scavenges among the decaying houses for firewood and a three legged donkey lies exhausted in the road.”

On the third day we embarked on a journey to cross  “the empty quarter”  a desert, covering 250,000 square miles of southern Arabia. Wilfred Thesiger, the legendary explorer of Arabia, described it as 'a bitter, desiccated land that knows nothing of gentleness or ease ... a cruel land that can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match'. We bumped across the dunes, driven by an angry young Bedouin in a white turban and another man who sat cradling his machine gun on his lap. After a long, hot dusty drive we eventually reached the ancient town of Shabwa, built from granite volcanic rock, where the derelict houses are sculpted against a backdrop of black mountains. Later that day, we passed Shibam, a sixteenth century walled town, which guidebooks call ‘the Manhattan of the Desert.” From a distance the medieval mud skyscrapers are truly staggering to behold, magnificent and beautiful. Located at an important caravan halt on the spice and incense route across the Southern Arabian plateau, the city of dwellings up to seven storeys high are developed on a fortified, rectangular grid plan of streets and squares. We left Shibam as long shadows played on the ribbed sand of the dunes.

By day 4 we had reached Tarim, a dusty, desert town where men were playing lazy games of dominoes and chess. There were no ceremonial daggers around their waists and the pace of life seemed gentle. Goats, chicken and donkeys wandered through the souk and unlike Sana’a, not many of the men were chewing qat; it is not grown in the region.

On the long drive to Mukhalla a troop of baboons were squatting on the lunar landscape. We stopped at an ancient mountain village where men were making bricks, and one of our group, Annabel, bought some honey that the Yemenis claimed was an aphrodisiac. The port town of Mukhalla was filthy and pungent and the men wore Westernized jackets. It was nothing like Freya Stark’s description of 1935, “Tall houses every shade of white and grey… a naked crowd with brilliant loincloths and turbans.” We spent a day at the beach, mesmerized by a large school of dolphins.

Back in Sana’a, we were invited to Hussain’s house for lunch, one of the highlights of the trip. We removed our shoes at the front door, and then sat on the carpeted floor lined with hard cushions and bolsters. We were served fenugreek stew and doughy bits of bread dipped in a herby soup with chives, and brought in by a dutiful smiling son. Hussain’s daughters, wife and mother remained firmly out of sight, but we caught glimpses of them when we said goodbye, before Hussan’s wife hastily covered her face.

It was a long, winding drive to Ta’izz, high up in the mountains – a cosmopolitan town with lots of cafes and shops, where many of the women were unveiled. We visited the Ashrafiya Mosque, a white building at the top of the old town built with minimalist-style arches and tall narrow walkways that kept it cool.

Towards the end of our trip we reached Al-Khawkha, once an important coffee exporting port and the biggest fishing village on the southern coast of the Red Sea. In better times it is touted as a tourist resort. We saw beautiful, unveiled women wearing long, patterned dresses, walking freely through sandy palm groves. Walking by the coast, we passed colourful fishing boats and saw flamingoes, sea eagles and sandpipers.

The next day we visited Zabid, one of the oldest towns in the Yemen, and on the Unesco World Heritage List after Shibam and San’a. It was the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th century and a center of the Arab and Muslim world due in large part to its University of Zabid.  In 2000, Zabid was listed on the list of world heritage sites in danger, due to a state of poor upkeep and conservation. Sadly when we visited it was in a state of disrepair.

The last couple of days in the Yemen, we drove back to San’a along the dried up Wadi Sari. We saw weaverbird nests, girls carrying firewood on their heads, and boys selling bananas. The mountain houses were made of coloured patterned stones and the temperature dropped as we reached Thilla, situated above a sloping basin of terraced fields where we ate our last lunch. At the end of a magical journey it was as though we had visited several different countries within one, mediaeval cities, desert towns, coastal resorts, and mountainous regions. It was a deeply romantic and memorable journey, and one that I will never forget.

This  is dedicated to the talented writer and editor, Annabel Freyburg, one of my companions on this trip, who sadly died on the 8th December, 2013.


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Monday, 30 June 2014

Congratulations to the PARK CLUB


Huge congratulations to my local health club: The Park Club in Acton. They have won the Tatler Award for Best Family Club! Here is what Tatler had to say:

If Shepherd's Bush is the new Notting Hill (which it is), the Park Club is the new Hurlingham. It's extremely family- friendly, with loads of land (27 acres!) - members drive from all over London for a great slice of the outdoors. And kids rule - there are holiday and tennis clubs and all manner of tantrum-avoiding activities. If you can see past all the pyjama-clad smalls (exercised, showered, fed, doing their prep in the café before being shipped home to bed), you will spot a lot of very glamorous people.
Monthly membership, from £213 (joining fee, £150). At East Acton Lane, W3 (theparkclub.co.uk; 020 8743 4321).


The Park Club is much less stuffy and conventional than Hurlingham, and the HUGE difference is that there is NOT a fifteen year waiting list, in fact, there is NO waiting list - new members are courted and very much welcome. I would totally agree though, that the Park Club is superb for families, and it's true that young children practically live here after school: doing their prep, eating their kid-friendly suppers, showering, and being whisked home to bed. It is where huge numbers of local school children (both posh-state and private) meet after school to just hang out and play - think private park with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, ping pong, football, cricket, tennis, plus endless tennis and swimming lessons, a playground, sandpit, bouncy trampoling thing, and lots of space to run. My ten year old daughter plays tennis there or just plays football with the boys, or hangs out in the computer room, she likes to swim too and will always find someone to do something with.

I go for pilates, yoga and swimming and sometimes even I work, eat and shower there too.

We love it. Bring it on!