Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Blatant advertisement

Ok so this is an unashamed plug for my Mom's new venture. She's a brilliant knitter and makes such adorable things, and I thought it was about time she started blowing her own trumpet and show off her work.

So she's now set up her own blog to show off her work, and maybe even take a few orders. My next idea for her is to set up a stall at craft fairs, but she's worried her work isn't good enough. Utter codswallop! Like any good artist, she's very self critical. Check out the rest of her work here - and if you think it's good please tell her!


Sunday, 2 October 2011

Check out the chocolate!

Seeing as this blog mentions cake in its title, I thought it was high time I included a bit of my baking on here.

I made these chocolatey cupcakes for my Mom for her birthday. They were a bit of an experiment, I basically just threw some cocoa powder into my usual cake mix. And lucky for me they came out quite tasty. So much so in fact, most of the cake mixture ended up in my mouth and around my face.

YUM! And do you know what made them all the more delicious? The fact that I had friday afternoon off to make them, because my freelance job finished early! I just love the flexibility of working for me and having extra pockets of time to stuff my face with chocolate cake. Hooray!

Meanwhile, Toby was too hot to sit in the kitchen so he took off to do his doormat impression:

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Driving myself mad

This week, in between wheelie bin management, scouting for work and scouring property websites for a home, I am re-learning to drive.

I say re-learning because I passed my test about 13 years ago, when I originally lived in Manchester. But then, I landed a job in London pretty soon after and quickly discovered that a car in London is a stupid idea. No driveways unless you are a multi-millionaire, no space on the roads to park, congestion charges, permits...it's just a hassle. Plus, there's a tube station every 10 metres so you don't really need to drive.

But of course, in the north and in real life, things are very different. There's a tram system, but it only goes to about three places. My mate lives a 15 minute drive away, but if I tried to get there by public transport it would take about 3 days.

So. I have to get back in the driving seat. Problem is I'm not a natural driver. Usually, my own personal trick to get over being nervous of anything is to think "sod it, what's the worst that can happen??" and that always helps me to stop being a big dithering jessie and get on with things. But this is different.

What's the worst thing that can happen if I cock up driving a car? Well, quite a lot actually. I could end up mangled in a pile of metal and wheels in a ditch. Or worse I could end up leaving someone else a mangled pile of metal and wheels in a ditch. Which I know is quite pessimistic, and a little bit sinister, but I blame my over active imagination. Every time I get behind the wheel I just see an episode of Casualty playing out in front of me. (Maybe I should channel this dark side, write a gory book, get it out of my system?)

And with the nerves, it means driving doesn't seem to come naturally to me. It took three attempts to pass my test. The first failure was me going over speed hump to fast - the bloke taking the test hit his head on the roof of the car and all his change rolled out of his pockets. That's never gonna gain a pass is it?

Then as I say, when I eventually did pass, I didn't get on and do any driving. So here I am. I had a few refreshers in London, which helped, but I need to stop being a big girls blouse and properly get on with it now. My hubby's taken me out a few times, but I'm not sure that's conducive to a happy relationship. One of us may end up seriously injuring the other - and that's after we've got out of the car.

Luckily a family friend is a driving instructor and she took me out yesterday. I warned her I was nervous. And at the end of the lesson she told me I was "bright red and hot looking" at the start, but as I calmed down and relaxed, my colour went "a bit more normal."

She must have thought I was insane. Perhaps I should take some valium pre-drive? Or snort some cammomile. Now then, let me crack on with my gory road accident novel....

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Living like pensioners

Toby loves to sit on the flowery seat in the conservatory and keep a watchful eye on the garden.

We are currently living in a bungalow rented from family friend for absolute peanuts, which is helping us save money as we look for a home to buy.

And it’s a cracking space - it has two bedrooms, huge fitted wardrobes, a good size lounge, a conservatory and a garden. Compared to our tiny flat it feels like Downton Abbey. I actually keep losing my husband. And all the extra space is really giving us a taste of what's to come when we eventually do buy. I’m actually enjoying hovering for the first time, mainly because I can get the hoover out without a million thing stoppling on me. In our old flat, the hoover was wedged in a vey small storage cupboard with roughly a thousand other things ranging from mops to suitcases to christmas decorations. It was our garage and loft space in one making it a giant game of jenga every time we opened the door.

The only slight drawback about the place, apart from the fact that it smells of biscuits and corned beef, is the decor. It was previously owned by an elderly lady, so it's all a bit pensioner chic. Think anaglypa walls, flowery curtains and bathroom suite that is two tones of turquoise. I kid you not. It's one step away from having a bath with a door for ease of getting in and out. Also, this lady smoked like a chimney so everything's a bit yellow and I'm off my head on the smell of plug-in air fresheners. I have used a phenomenal amount of Febreeze since we moved in. But, as I say, it's temporary and it's saving us a small fortune. So I'll live with the flowery curtains and weird smells just fine.

Have you ever seen a bathroom like this? Part of me finds it so awful it's actually very cool. If it was ours, I'd be tempted to work with it, go full on retro. Maybe.

You might also recall I whinged about wanting a wheelie bin in one of my earlier posts. Well, dear reader, be careful what you wish for. Because I now have FOUR of the bloody things. Turns out Manchester council love to recycle. One for paper, one for bottles and tins, one for food waste and one for Toby poo. (that’s not the official use of course, it’s actually a bin for stuff that isn’t allowed in other bins, but is mainly used for Toby's turds. Don't tell the binmen.) And there are so many bins to manage, you need a chart to work out which bin to put out on bin day. Cos they don’t all go out on a Monday. Oh no, that would be too easy. I have a small chart affixed to my fridge to help me keep track.

So my new nightly activity is filing and organising rubbish and my new ‘husband-nag’ is telling him off when he puts a crisp packet in the bottles and tins bin. Oh how things have changed.

They could at least make them a nice rainbow of colours. You know, throw in a bit of purple or red or something.

Ey oop chuck, I'm back in t'north

Fresh air! Greenery! Big walks! No cockneys!

Apologies for my absence on this here blog, but these last few weeks have been a whirlwind, my feet haven't touched the ground. Foolishly I thought I'd be a lady of leisure for a long time, enjoying pottering around with a duster and hoover, with the most strenuous task consisting of pegging out my washing in the commercial breaks of Midsomer Murders.

But in some incredibly jammy twist of luck, I have landed quite a chunk of freelance work up here already. Which is great, but currently means most of my evenings are spent sitting up a corner dribbling and rocking back and forth with the stress of moving home, moving city and trying to set myself up as a freelance writer in a very, very short space of time. Three quarters of my wardrobe is still in boxes because I haven't had time to unpack, so my outfit rotation is currently very limited.

But apart from the dribbling and lack of clothes, it’s already feeling brilliant being back up north. People talk. And smile. In fact most of them walk at a leisurely pace rather than hurtling along at 100mph cos they are panicking about catching a tube or getting to a meeting with someone called Giles or Tarquin.

The other great thing about Manchester, aside from cheaper beer, is everything’s concentrated into a much smaller space. Which means you can get stuff done. I no longer need to allocate three hours and use four different modes of public transport just to pop out for some milk.

But the best bit my miles, is being near family, friends and the countryside. I still can't quite believe we've actually done it.

Hubby shares his ham butty with Toby during a walk in the Peak District. Next we went to the pub and got change out of a tenner for two pints. It was a miracle.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Things I will miss about London

This is where hubby and I met on our very first proper date. It's my favourite spot in London.

So this is my last week in London before heading north. I can't quite believe it. A 13 year long chapter closes. And though I am ready to leave, and live a normal life with gardens and hosepipes and garages, I will undoubtedly miss London in many ways. So much so I made a list:

1. Spotting celebs.
It doesn't matter whether they are only mildly famous or complete star spangled A List. I will never, ever tire of getting unnecessarily excited at seeing someone 'off the telly'. I love it. I can't help staring at them and sometimes try and get bodily contact with them. Which admittedly, can freak them out. I'm not sure James Nesbitt was overly pleased when I grabbed his arm under the guise of needing help across a busy road. I just wanted to touch him.

Anyway, my move north doesn't mean it's not all over for the celeb spots. After all it's not uncommon to see cast members of Corrie roaming the streets of Manchester. I saw Steve Macdonald in a bar once. So that's something to look forward to.

2. The history
I'm a bit of a geek and I love the history of London. I hoovered every word of Peter Ackroyd's Autobiography of London, it just made the city feel almost magical. London's seen so much and I love the way you can stand in the very footsteps of people of people like Henry VIII or Queen Victoria, and see the things that they would have seen. I adore the Tower of London for all those reasons.

And that's why I was beyond livid when in that glorious alleyway which was once home to the Clink prison, and still is home to the 13th century ruins of Winchester Palace, where London's most powerful bishops used to congregate, there now also stands a sodding Pret a Manger and Gourmet Burger. That's not right is it?? What would those bishops think if they were alive today? I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be ordering a latte or prawn and avocado sarnie. But that's the sad thing about London, all these chains and new buildings are somehow swamping the atmosphere and tradition. And where will it end? I fear when I return to London next there will be a Starbucks next to the gate of Buckingham Palace, and a Costa Coffee in Traitor's Gate in the Tower of London. It's not on.

Anyway, I'm ranting. Back to my list.

3. The people I have met
During my time here, I have worked in many ad agencies all over london, and met loads of brilliant people along the way. I may not see many of them regularly, but I know they are all there. More often than not I can usually call on most of them for a beer too. And that's a nice feeling isn't it?

4. My own personal history
I have had such good fun in London. Worked all over it and socialised and partied in most corners of it. There are loads of places that bring back fab memories. Raucous nights out. Raucous work parties. Amazing restaurants (Le Trois Garcon, Ramsays), gorgeous hotels (a night in Claridges for a birthday treats), theatre nights, pub crawls in Soho, leafy walks in Richmond, bike rides along Wapping High Street...the list goes on. And of course, it's where hubby and I courted. (I love that word, so underused). So I have lots of special memories.

I am sure there is more I can add to this list. But that'll do for now. Because I might get all emotional and start bawling. And I have a whole week of goodbyes to get through so I can't crack up yet.

Winchester Palace. Dear developers, please don't build a Neros here. Thanks.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

My canine commuter buddy

Toby boards a train without a ticket and bounds onto a seat. I'm forced to have a word with him before we are banned from South West trains.

Three months into our marriage and my husband has left me.

He's gone north to start his new job, while I work out my notice down here in London before heading up to join him. I'm lodging with my very kind friends Ross and Claire, who happen to own a huge house amidst the beautiful Surrey countryside. I refer to my bedroom as being in the west wing, such is the vastness of the place. The manor is also very conveniently located next to an award-winning vineyard. Joy! Who knew you could make wine just outside the M25? It’s all I can do not to hope over the fence and run amok in the shop.

Last week, Toby was also lodging in the Surrey mansion with me, but because my landlords were working from home, and have no gate on their garden, I didn't want to lumber them with the pressure of looking after a very nosy dog. One sniff of a squirrel/cat/postman/flying insect and he'll turn all Littlest Hobo and wander off. Not very practical when you are mid-conference call.

So, thanks to my very understanding boss and colleagues, I took Toby to work with me all week. (Luckily he’s very chilled out and tends to just snooze under my desk all day when in the office. Thank god he has the bladder of an ox and never piddles indoors.)

The journey from the countryside to Waterloo takes an hour, so it’s a lot to ask of a little dog. But he coped marvellously. In fact, because he’s so nosy I think he absolutely loved it. All those new smells were doggy heaven and he would jump on my shoulder to watch the countryside whizzing past the window. (But only when no-one was sitting next to me – not everyone appreciates dog dribble on their shoulder.)

But during our week of commuting from the sticks, I noticed something magical happen. When Toby’s on a train, people smile.

If you live in London, or have ever visited, you'll know what a big deal that is. As I’ve ranted before, travelling through the capital is tough, no matter what mode of transport you choose. The unwritten rule is to keep your head down, make no eye contact and look out for number one. (i.e forget all basic manners and try shoulder barges, pushing and shoving to ensure you get from A to B.)

But with Toby it became a very different commute. Gone were the scowling, grumpy, pasty-grey faces. Instead I noticed people were smiling at Toby. And then at me. Their faces were literally lighting up. There would be giggles from business men, as he sprawled across their feet for a nap. Ladies with Blackberries would leap out of their skin when he pressed his cold nose on their bare calves – but they didn’t mind. They just wrinkled their noses and gazed adoringly at him.

Which I thought was very interesting, because I have witnessed very heated arguments between commuters when they are forced to have even the slightest bodily contact with each other. I've seen several epic rows stem from the accidentally brushing of a bag/laptop case/shopping against a leg. It seems commuters are appalled, shocked and disgusted by even the most minor contact from a complete stranger, but the furry muzzle of a small teddy-faced terrier on their leg is absolutely fine.

How Toby deals with a hot, crowded train. Stretch out but hide your head under a seat. If only I could get away with that

What really made me laugh was when I was forced to hop on a tube one day, and I had to carry Toby in my arms down an escalator. I noticed everyone on the opposite escalator going up smiling at us, and then a lady shouted across “Hello cute dog!”

People talking to each other on the tube? And they aren’t drunk?? Toby and I had broken the first rule of underground commuting. ‘Thou must not speak to fellow passengers unless asking them to move further down the carriage.’

This crazy conversation trend continued on the overground trains too. People would tell me he was cute and very well behaved. Or they would run over to me on a platform and delightedly inform me that their sister/mother/aunty had a dog just like him. Called Pickle. Or I’d get regular queries about his breed, his name and his age.

Of course it does help that Toby is the cutest dog on the planet – not that I am biased of course. But he is.

I tell you something though. That week of travel with Toby was the most pleasant travel experience of my entire 13 years in London. It makes such a difference when you are surrounded by smiling faces and happy people. Suddenly the dank, smelly, often sweltering journey became a lot more bearable when accompanied by funny little conversations and grins from complete strangers.

Toby certainly helped to break the ice when I found myself packed sardine-like into a delayed and tropically heated train full of pissed off commuters. When he stretches out and spreads his legs like a frog, you can’t help but laugh. And we all know laughing and smiling is contagious.

But alas, my furry travel companion couldn’t stay. As I’m already imposing on my lovely friends, I couldn’t expect them to share their palatial home with a dog too. They said they didn’t mind, but I’m sure for a non-dog owner the novelty may wear thin. Especially when he’s dribbling saliva on their carpet after holding his favourite ball in his mouth for too long.

So at the weekend I took him to my Mom’s house in Shropshire for his summer holiday, while I finish my final two weeks of London life. By all accounts he’s being spoilt rotten with liver dinners and long walks in lush green fields. Which is much more fun than travelling on trains and sitting under my desk at work.

But I miss him terribly. My commute’s not half as much fun. Everyone’s gone back to being pasty and miserable and grumpy.

I think all trains in London should employ a small, well-behaved but very cute dog to improve the mood of commuters. I’m sure productivity and happiness levels down here would soar.

Toby's spatchcock chicken impression never fails to raise a smile. Maybe it's because we all know it's his way of cooling his nether regions.