Wednesday, 5 November 2014


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)


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


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.


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 (; 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!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Jude's brilliant Movie for Morrisons

No it's not my family firm and supermarket shopping is not something I usually do unless it's online, from Ocado or Waitrose;  but when BritMums offered me the chance to take £80 worth of vouchers to Morrisons, I took the money and ran to my nearest branch in Acton. As we left, my husband Luke, who was not fit for purpose because he was wearing baggy Bank Holiday shorts - shouted out that Morrisons was one of his favourite shops because he had a good time there once, when he decided the staff were great. My two children accompanied  me for the novel shopping expeditiion and my son, Jude, age 12 (aspiring actor and film-maker) made a funny film about our outing, and you can see it below. We had an hysterical morning, shopping, filming and darting around the aisles piling more and more stuff into our trolley. We liked the display of fruit and vegetables, and found that some products, peppers for example @4 for 79pence, were really reasonable, and 50pence for a bunch of radishes was seductive. The Morrisons own brand multi grain bread is delicious and a bargain at £1.59. 8 Diet cokes were £2.64 for 8, which is amazing for a Diet Coke addict like me, and the own brand oatcakes - 81pence a packet, are cheaper than anywhere I shop, as is fresh ginger. 10 lamb chops for £5 is excellent.  We had 54 items for £97.49 but that included Lavazzi coffee for my husband which cost £6.48 and a bottle of Prosecco for £5.99.


A big thank you though to Morrisons and Britmums. Our Bank Holiday lunch was superb: Roasted peppers cooked in the oven with tiny tomatoes, peas, feta and lentil salad, lamb chops marinated in garlic and herbs and plain rice.  I calculate that the cost per head was approximately, £2.50. 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

My Phobia

There is no problem driving around the city in my Audi Estate car, ferrying children, taking myself to the gym, or doing the school run. My consumption of alcohol is nominal, so I am also the allocated driver after any social occasion in the evening, as my husband likes to drink when we are out. I have no fear of traffic and can barge, push and cut in, along with the most seasoned city drivers – I have been driving for 25 years. I am able to navigate the biggest, scariest, roundabouts with no problem at all, park in a hurry, and wheedle through traffic. Occasionally, at night, on the Westway (a dual carriage way that bends from Marylebone to the A40) I can be a little frozen with nerves driving at 40 or 50 mph on what I think of as a conveyor belt and not having the best eyesight in dark conditions, but generally, driving in the city poses no problems for me.

My fear around driving kicks in on a motorway. I am apparently a sufferer of DAD (Driving Anxiety Disorder) and have a phobia of driving in these conditions. There is no Latin word for this kind of phobia but the nearest is hodophobia (fear of travelling).  A hypnotist I went to see said that fear of driving on the motorway and fear of flying are the two most common reasons, people come to see him, so there is some comfort that I am not alone. The sheer speed of the cars hurtling along the motorway terrifies and exhausts me. The combination of fear and concentration needed for me to drive in these conditions, means that if I do drive on the motorway, I can only keep going for about an hour. I feel trapped and fear the fear of anxiety, or having a panic attack and hate the fact that there is no escape.

I haven’t driven on my own on the motorway for many years.  I forced myself to drive in France last year, as we had driven from London and it would have been absurd to allow my husband drive all that way, but I certainly didn’t enjoy the experience and was very tense throughout. I can’t remember now, what it was like to drive in a carefree way, without worrying about crashing and dying. I don’t remember the problem when I was a single woman, but as soon as I was in a long-term relationship and out of the habit of driving on the motorway, the terror suffocated me.  The first time it occurred our young children were in the back of the car and suddenly, the thought that we could crash seemed very real, and imminent. I got palpitations, sweaty hands and was short of breath – the symptoms of a panic attack. I slowed down from about 70mph to 30mph and eventually came to a stop on the layby. My husband had to take over at the wheel. I was conscious that my actions were frightening for the children, but there was nothing I could do about it. I’m not sure what would have happened if I had been on my own.

The speed and pace of the cars on the motorway always feels so relentless and my fear is that either my car will spin out of control and we will crash and die, or that I will tire of driving and won’t be able to stop, which makes me panic. When my husband is driving, I often wonder what would happen if he suddenly had a heart attack, or  if the wheel burst, or another driver spun out of control. The apprehension and terror about driving is partly borne out by evidence: It seems to me that every time we drive somewhere on the motorway, we witness an accident. A hypnotist, who was trying to cure me of my phobia, told me that I was looking for accidents, but I don’t think so. He also told me that driving was relatively safe, and asked me why I’d like to get off the motorway, once I’d started to drive, surely he said, you would want to get off when it was time to get off. However after about half an hour I want to stop. That is why driving in the city works for me, there are frequent reasons to stop or slow, down and catch your breath. I don’t like the sensation of being trapped not only in the car, but on the road, hurtling along in a piece of metal. I feel vulnerable, the sensation of going fast for so long doesn’t seem natural, although it once did. My hypnotist told me to breath in and breathe out calmly saying, I am in Control, and sometimes that works a bit, but the fact that it has been proved both in the UK and the US that travelling on the highway or motorway is safer than travelling on ordinary roads does not inspire me.

I had a car accident when I was sixteen, and no doubt this is the source of my fear. We were not driving on a motorway, but on a small road in Nassau in the Bahamas.  We had left a club, and I had climbed into a car with a teenage boy. He drove through a stop sign and a taxi crashed into the side of the car, where I was sitting in the back. The impact of the crash, broke my femur and I was in hospital for three months, while the bone failed to heal. It was a very long time before I could walk again. The more reasonable part of me knows the boy was obviously an inexperienced driver and had been drinking, but I am also hyper-aware that there may be other drivers out there who are inexperienced or have been drinking, although in the UK, it is prohibitively expensive for a young person to get insured to drive, but maybe that just means that a rich drunk, teenager would maybe crash into me rather than a poor drunk one.

I am envious of my friends who have so much more independence than me, it is not a good feeling to rely on other people to get me from A to B. I also had a three hour course by a company that helps nervous drivers. I was able to drive with the instructor on a stretch of motorway, but still it has not helped me overcome my fear, I still can't bear the idea of going on my own or for driving long distances. I know I need to practice driving on the motorway more often to help overcome my fear. I know this, and yet I don’t. I often wonder what would happen in an emergency, if I really needed to drive down the motorway on my own. I suspect that I would be able to do it, albeit slowly! Or would I?