what if we recharged ourselves as often as we did our phones? 

violet-bakery-brownie

What if we recharged ourselves as often as we did our phones? 

I like to keep busy. I’m not great at sitting still. Given a choice I’d rather be doing something than nothing. Give me a week off and I’ll fill it with day trips and walks and visits to pubs and galleries. And I love it. I love stimulation. But that’s not always what you need, is it? 

An unexpected flare up of an old wound saw me track down my old osteopath at her new digs at Kuu London for an hour of muscle manipulation and massage yesterday. I cried on the table, and it was much needed. Maybe keeping busy had distracted me. Maybe it has always distracted me.

And while I keep myself occupied and always find things to do...I’m not always very kind to myself. I tell myself I don’t need a massage, or quiet time. I meditate every morning...and it’s only recently I’ve stopped doing the guided ones and started sitting there in silence with only my breath for company. It’s uncomfortable. Lying there, having sore parts prodded and touched, was uncomfortable. No wonder I cried. I’ve forgotten how to do uncomfortable. 

Shoulder loosened and no longer in pain, I took my time going home. It was a sunny day and east London is full of beauty, characters and things to see. I found a new journal at Erbert (and got great tips on how to unclog my old fountain pen! Cheers Paul!) and treated myself to a brownie and iced tea at the Violet bakery.

I picked a table by the kitchen window so I could breathe in the heavenly smell of baking. I had nowhere else to be and for a change I felt calm, unhurried, unpressured. As a result, I lingered.

I took an obligatory photo or two then put the phone away. I wrote. I savoured every sweet, nutty, salty bite of my halva tahini brownie. I looked around. There were more dogs than cars in this quiet street, trotting alongside their owners. It was sunny, and with the warm cake-infused air I might have almost believed it was still summer.

As I ate the last crumb of brownie and walked to the train, I felt lighter. Battery not quite full, but recharged nonetheless. 

We so often wait for a wake up call before we’ll prioritise looking after ourselves, before we listen to our aching bodies and souls. Saturday was a good reminder to me to not put off self care until the pain is unbearable. But also, I don’t have to be in pain to be worthy of kindness and small treats. Those are the things that make life sweeter.

So this week, I’m going to try and treat myself more like my phone - and hopefully get my battery sufficiently recharged.

my favourite persephone books

persephone-books-and-pansy-jug

I've had a bit of a love affair with Persephone Books since I arrived in London. Their charming shop in Bloomsbury's Lamb Conduit Street is one of my favourite places to go when I feel like a treat. 

Persephone reprints "neglected fiction and non-fiction" by 20th century writers, mainly women, and the shop itself is an absolute haven for writers and book lovers. Not only are the books beautiful but there's always fresh handpicked flowers dotted about, vintage posters, bookmarks and other enchanting paraphernalia to get your imagination going. I never fail to feel inspired after visiting.

persephone-books-london-1
persephone-books-london-2

And, needless to say, I also never fail to leave the shop without a few books!

One of my favourite podcasts, Tea and Tattle, devoted an entire episode to discussing their favourite Persephone reads last year so I'd highly recommend you check out that episode if you're new to Persephone books and are wondering where to start, because it's quite an impressive catalogue. Many of Miranda and Sophie's recommendations are my favourites too, but they also mention some that I hadn’t thought to check out before - and as they both have great taste in books I’ll certainly be doing so.

The books themselves are also beautiful - as you can see in my main photograph, they are the most elegant shade of grey and look really lovely arranged together. Each book has its own individual endpaper and bookmark, usually a pattern related to the content of the book or the time of publication. Everything has been thought about with Persephone books, and it really shows. 

So I thought I'd share the Persephone books I've most enjoyed since I discovered them - and since my love affair was revived after listening to the Tea and Tattle episode! - but this is a mere drop in the ocean as I am nowhere near through the range. I have many more Persephones than the ones I’ve mentioned below, but I’ve enjoyed every book from them that I’ve read and we’ll be here all day if I list them all! So these are the ones that I think are great ones to start with, in my opinion. If you want some absorbing, well-written books to curl up with on a rainy day with a warm mug of something delicious, you can't go wrong with any of these.

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (Persephone no. 28)

This was the first book of Marghanita Laski's I've read and it's made me want to read everything she's ever written. I read it in one weekend and it was absolutely breathtaking. It was desperately sad at times, even depressing, as it follows a father's journey to try and find his missing five-year-old- son after the Second World War, but all in all, it is a stunning novel about loss and hope. I'd even go so far as to say it's a masterpiece. I would also highly recommend To Bed With Grand Music and Tory Heaven: or Thunder on the Right, also by Laski and published by Persephone, and they’re both brilliant. The latter feels particularly pertinent in a post-EU referendum Britain!

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (Persephone no. 3)

This is probably my most favourite Persephone book (so far). Described as "a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage", I was quite unprepared for how compelling and absorbing this tale would be. It's a novel all about relationships, how they form and also how they fall apart. Sometimes all it can take is 'someone at a distance' for that to happen. The novel follows what happens to this family when the husband/father is unfaithful, and the emotional devastation that has on everyone - there’s no great twist, per se, but the book’s genius and charm lies in how it explores the emotional lives of the characters, and how compassionately Whipple manages to do this. And I think Louise (the other woman) is by far the most repugnant character I’ve ever come across in literature, and that is saying something! I absolutely loved this book and have all of Dorothy Whipple’s other books on my Persephone wish list!

Mariana by Monica Dickens (Persephone no. 2)

This book is a real delight - Persephone refer to it as a “hot water bottle novel” and that’s exactly what it is. A book you can curl up with on the sofa and escape into. Mostly set in England between the world wars, it’s the coming-of-age story of Mary, whom we follow from childhood right through to the early years of the second world war where she is desperately waiting to hear whether her husband has survived the bombing of his ship. We see Mary’s idyllic childhood summers at her grandparents’ country home, her school days and life at home in a London flat with her widowed bohemian dressmaker mother and actor uncle, her hilarious adventures at drama school and eventually travels to Paris, and all the misguided decisions, in love and all else, she makes along the way. It is a very funny and heartwarming book all at once, for Mary realises, looking back at her younger years, that perhaps they weren’t as perfect as they seemed, and that the grownups did a good job of hiding harsher aspects of reality from her. For most of the book, Mary is less concerned about making her own way in the world and more about filling in time before she meets Mr Right (who will of course be able to provide her with everything, hence not really needing skills or a career of her own as such). And yet by the time the book is nearly over, Mary has realised something else - that her husband is potentially now dead and she will have to carry on, independently. That she will only ever really have herself, and that she doesn’t need anyone else to complete her. Quite a revolutionary thought for 1940! '‘When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person. Nothing that ever happens in life can take away the fact that I am me. So I have to go on being me.”

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson (Persephone no. 21)

I read somewhere that this book is the closest thing to a Fred Astaire film in print, and I think that’s very accurate. Every time you think it can’t get any crazier, it does. It’s a rollicking romp of a book that is so much fun to read. On an ordinary day, the nearly destitute governess Miss Pettigrew, who has never really known a day of fun in her whole life, is sent by an employment agency to interview for a post….to the wrong address. She somehow gets drawn in to the highly dramatic, hilarious and scandalous antics of her would-be employer, Miss La Fosse, and finds herself doing, saying and experiencing things she never thought she would. There’s cocaine, nightclubs, a woman with a few men on the go…racy stuff! The dialogue is so witty and well-written, I read a lot of it out loud to myself (at home!) and plan to ask my grandmother if she’d like me to read it aloud to her when I’m next at home, because I think she’ll love it. Another ‘hot water bottle’ novel, for sure. It’s just fantastic, and proof that just one day is all you need for your life to completely change!

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E Stevenson (Persephone no. 81)

I loved this one too! A bit like Miss Pettigrew, without the financial security of marriage, Miss Buncle finds herself needing to supplement her already meagre income. She does what many people think will bring certain fame and fortune - write and publish a book! She writes a novel based on her village and all the people who live in it, thinking that changing names and writing it under a pseudonym will be sufficient to hide their true identities. To her huge surprise, her book (or John Smith’s book!) is a huge bestseller and her publisher wants a sequel, but lo and behold, all the villagers have read it, recognise themselves and their village immediately (which says it all, as some of it isn’t flattering!), are outraged and determined to find out who ‘John Smith’ is and make ‘him’ pay. No one suspects the dowdy and quiet Miss Buncle for a second, which is where all the hilarity ensues - but also makes an interesting observation that people often do have hidden lives and assumptions we make about others can so very often be wrong. It’s absorbing, intelligent and very charming.

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll (Persephone no.30)

If you love cookbooks and social history, you will love this. I was quite surprised to learn that ingredients like camembert and parmesan were available in England in 1921 - I guess one needed to know where to go! I don’t know what it is about food writing, but the best of it recalls a time and place just perfectly. And this book does this beautifully, every essay and recipe evokes a bygone era of gracious living where, if you could afford to (most of the recipes assume the reader has a cook and hired help of some kind!), every meal could be quite indulgent. And Jekyll’s turn of phrase is quite exquisite - instructions for baking biscuits, for example, "they should be of a deep cream colour, merging along their edges into the delicate brown of faded magnolias" had me in raptures. 

**

So I hope these suggestions might inspire you to give Persephone Books a try, if you haven’t already. I must say when it comes to fiction these days, I am finding myself drawn more and more to the past, to women writers of the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century. It might be a reflection of where my head is at in terms of writing my own novel (set in 1948) or perhaps because I find them comforting and a much-needed escape. Reading about the world I currently inhabit (modern day London) isn’t all that relaxing! There’s another blog post in that, for sure….

 The Persephone Bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.

The Persephone Bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.

But back to the topic at hand, I have to say I have never been disappointed with a Persephone book. Hand on heart, I have enjoyed every single one I have read. I’m sure if you’re tempted to check out the catalogue, there’ll be something there for you!

On my next visit, I plan to add The Fortnight in September, The Home-Maker and High Wages to my collection. What about you?

Are you a fan of Persephone Books too? What are your favourites?

 

a guide to london's abandoned railway parkland walk

london-parkland-walk-sign

Tom and I were having a dinner party with our new neighbours (now dear friends) last year and Matt, the husband of the couple, had recently completed the London marathon. I asked him where in the local area he had trained for it. He replied that he often went along a route between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park, which was an abandoned railway track. This caught my imagination (and Tom's) immediately! 

But, you know, best-laid plans and all that....but suffice it to say, last weekend when we had an extra day (thank you Bank Holiday) we decided to go for a long walk and finally check out the abandoned railway track. It's one of north London's best-kept secrets and I'd highly recommend doing it if you live in the area.

Londonist has a pretty good guide to the walk, which we used, but I will add my own observations and recommendations below.

First of all, get yourself to Alexandra Palace station and then make the uphill climb through the park to Ally Pally itself. The views really are lovely from up here.

view-from-ally-pally

Then head west down hill, through more of the park, where the trail starts. It's not very well sign posted, so you do need to know where you're going! There are some nice landmarks in this part of the park, including one of the oldest trees in the area - included in an Ordinance Survey in the 1860s. If you keep walking past that, going pretty much straight, until you spot the Little Dinosaurs play centre, then walk a little more past that, veering towards the right, and you're nearly there. Look for a graffitied wall and a long green tunnel, as seen below! Now the adventure begins!

tom-parkland-walk

It's pretty easy to follow this part of the walk, it goes through Muswell Hill and there are a few information boards along the way, showing you what was meant to be the railway:

 We walked from Alexandra Palace along the - line to Highgate, and then from Highgate along the - line to Finsbury Park.

We walked from Alexandra Palace along the - line to Highgate, and then from Highgate along the - line to Finsbury Park.

Once you hit Highgate, it gets a little confusing - because the most direct route is to go via the road to Highgate, but we wanted to keep going through the woods. Again, not brilliantly signposted but we walked some of the way through Highgate Woods, sticking to the Eastern path. Follow this for a while, then look for a gap in the fence near the keeper's lodge to take you out on to the street, then cross the road into Queen's Wood to continue the walk. 

queens-wood

I really enjoyed Queen's Wood, it is a lovely ancient parkland and you could probably spend all day exploring here (it's 52 acres!). There's a diverse range of plants, trees and wildlife. I was quite taken with the frog pool (but spotted no frogs!).  

bittersweet-nightshade

To continue on the Parkland (south) walk, follow the Capital Ring signs, which take you off to the right. You'll come out at a road called Queenswood Road - now, you can cross the road and keep going through the park but we weren't sure, so we came off here. If you do this too, go right up the hill and follow this road along, going past some very nice houses (!),  until it eventually becomes Wood Lane and you come out on the A1, Archway Road. Go left down Archway Road, turn left at the Boogaloo Pub down Holmesdale Road and you'll see parkland on the left and where the walk starts again.

It's worth taking a very quick diversion to your left, just a couple of hundred metres, where you'll see disused train tunnels that have been turned into London's only bat sanctuary! 

 The bat cave!

The bat cave!

parkland-walk-sign

Then you head off down the track, which is much more defined than you've experienced so far! And it's pretty much a straight line all the way to Finsbury Park from here. 

I found it such a peaceful walk, even though there were other people around - mostly runners and fellow walkers, the occasional cyclist. It does appear to be a well kept local secret. The parkland has grown almost wild over the abandoned planned railway structures, making it quite beautiful….like living, abstract art, in a way. Take your camera, as there's something to catch your eye at nearly every turn on this walk. These were our favourites:

 Remains of abandoned train platforms!

Remains of abandoned train platforms!

 Arty arches!

Arty arches!

 Goblin! Keep an eye out for this guy. It was amazing how many people walked right by him, or only noticed because we were taking pictures.

Goblin! Keep an eye out for this guy. It was amazing how many people walked right by him, or only noticed because we were taking pictures.

 Plant art!

Plant art!

We finally got to Finsbury Park and the heavens opened, so we ended up back on a bus to Hornsey - which was on our way home - where we went for a little stroll and found ourselves in the Great Northern Railway Tavern for a much-deserved cold beer! 

summer-fruit-hornsey
beer
phil-with-beer

For more on the Parkland Walk, you can visit the Friends of Parkland Walk website. Also check out Londonist for all the other walks in London they've done and recommend! 

inner mary berry bakewell slice

bakewell-slice-tea

With the baking hot weather (no pun intended) we've had in the UK this summer, I have barely turned my oven on. Meals have been mostly salads, breads, cheeses, dips, anything that involved minimal cooking. Vegetables picked from my garden which required blanching in boiling water at the most. 

But then came the most welcome cool change, and I found myself basically turning into Mary Berry last Sunday, baking a cake and a slice to use up the last of the butter, sugar and jam that had found their way into my kitchen after a wonderful visit from my parents. 

In fact, it was my mum who suggested a Bakewell slice to use up all the jam. I'm very partial to a Bakewell, so immediately thought this was a brilliant idea. But, as I say, had to wait for the all-pervading heat to dissipate slightly before I could even entertain the idea of turning the oven on.

I love almonds but I'm not overly fond of a strong, synthetic almond taste that you often find with marzipan and the like. So I used up a bag of ground almonds very happily but forwent the almond essence that was in the original recipe. By all means include it instead of vanilla if you're an almond lover! 

After Tom and I had enjoyed this fresh out of the oven, I knew the solution to avoiding temptation all week was to take the rest of the slice into my office on Monday to share with my colleagues. I don't often take my baking in, as I use a lot less sugar than most people are used to, as that's what I prefer. But to my surprise, the slice was hoovered up and I got so many compliments. So if you're looking to win some brownie points in your office, seriously, make this slice and take it in. I have already been asked to make it again! 

 

Bakewell slice

Adapted from this recipe

1 sheet ready-rolled shortcrust pastry
Roughly 1 cup (a little less is fine) jam of your choice (I used a mixture of raspberry and strawberry)
200g organic unsalted butter
175g caster sugar
4 eggs
150g ground almonds
100g self-raising flour
Dash of vanilla extract
Flaked almonds for the topping

Preheat the oven to 180 C (fan). Unroll your pastry sheet, roll it out a little with a rolling pin and then place it, including the baking paper it comes with, into a baking tray of roughly 30 x 20 cm size. Spread the jam over the pastry.

Beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until well combined. Add the almonds, flour and vanilla and stir well. Spread this cake mixture evenly over the jam and pastry.

You can either scatter the top with flaked almonds now and just keep an eye on it and cover with foil once the almonds get brown, or you can add the almonds when the slice has about 10 minutes baking time left. If you choose the latter, they won't be embedded into the cake as much as the mixture won't be wet any more. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. For me, I can't stand a burned nut so I'd rather go with the second option and err on the side of caution! 

Place the tin in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes until golden brown and the cake has risen nicely. If you choose the second option with the flaked almonds, remove after 20 minutes and scatter the flaked almonds over the surface, then return to the oven for the rest of the cooking time.

Allow the slice to cool in the tin. You can ice it, as the original Delicious recipe suggests, but I was happy (and found it sweet enough) with just plain flaked almonds on top. 

bakewell-slice

Cut into slices, take it into your office and watch your popularity soar! It's absolutely perfect with a hot cup of tea or coffee. 


 

 

 

at first i was afraid, i was petrified

 The great Gloria Gaynor ( image source )

The great Gloria Gaynor (image source)

It was November 2015, and The Latte Years had just gone to print. Contrary to what I had expected, that moment and the days and weeks that followed it, leading up to publication, were not full of excitement - though, naturally, I was excited too - but they were also full of dread, dread that seeped into my bones.

My anxiety went into overdrive and it was exhausting. I had permanent nausea for a month, so much so I bought a pregnancy test to make sure it wasn't for some other reason! I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I felt so frightened and exposed. The book had gone to print. I couldn't change my mind now. I had kept my shield up for so many years and finally, it had been put down. The moment I'd been waiting for, to have my say, at last, was here and I felt too frightened and too weak to see it through. 

In the midst of this, Tom took me to see Jason Donovan in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the musical in Wimbledon.

They sing Gloria Gaynor's disco classic ‘I Will Survive’ quite a few times during the show.

About five months after my first husband and I broke up, I went to a seventies disco party where there was a karaoke machine. This felt like the perfect song choice for me at the time, and I meant every word of it as I sang it. Because Glenn really did think I was the one who had missed out - that I would indeed crumble without him. And I knew that was not the case at all. 

Sitting in that theatre in Wimbledon nearly ten years later, Tom's hand in mine, feeling homesick, terrified and proud all at once, hearing "I Will Survive" again reminded me of who I was in 2006, a 25-year-old who was discovering her own strength but still so afraid of the man who had hurt her, who felt she had to stay silent and not tell him the truth or stand up for herself because she was so deeply afraid he would destroy her and never set her free if she did.

I wrote The Latte Years for that 25-year-old girl. And for every woman who has had to wait until she felt safe before she could tell the truth.