Tuesday, 29 December 2009

January blues (and it's still only December)

Well, I suppose I've been waiting for this: the first lousy day, the first time I've had doubts about the new life I've chosen.
Not sure exactly what started it, except that I do hate this time of year, the limbo between Christmas and New Year's Eve. The excitement is over, the tree's drooping, everyone feels fat and hungover: the old year is finished, the new not yet begun.
A 24 hour vomiting bug hasn't really helped the mood, and ironically I think having had a brilliant Christmas this time (all sledging down snowy hills and rampaging children and good food and conversation)makes the comedown worse.
Normally I'd be in the office through this period, and to be honest it's the best place for me to be. The high point of today, however was trudging through the rain to the supermarket with a howling, thrashing toddler in tow (seems I'm not alone in the January blues).
Suddenly the fact that I'm living in a half-unpacked rented house, in a town where I know nobody, in a life turned upside down is getting to me. The only surprise is it took two months.
I do, admittedly, deserve a good slap for moaning. I had two calls today about interesting work (a radio programme, and a literary festival gig): the boy and I had a nice, soothing afternoon making cakes. I have nothing really to complain about.
But today's definitely been a reminder of the bleeding obvious: that there will inevitably be days when I miss my old life (or at least, am fed up with the new one).
So what to do about it? So far I'm planning to write this week off like a bad debt: spend it blitzing all the boring trivia (the annoying niggles I never get round to tackling, from the printer that doesn't work to the buttons I haven't sewn back on my favourite coat), and at least hit January with a clear deck. Which may just leave me clear to concentrate on the small matter of what I do with the rest of my life...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

What does Mrs Christmas do?

I have no idea where this Mrs Christmas thing came from - when I was a child, Father Christmas was definitely a confirmed bachelor, all alone but for the elves.
But somebody has told my son there is a Mrs Christmas, and now he wants to know (roughly every ten minutes) what she does. So far, I don't have a satisfactory answer.
Given the stage of Christmas preparations I've now reached (Def Con 2 and counting) am sorely tempted to hiss through gritted teeth: "Everything! She does everything! Right up until ten to midnight on Christmas Eve, when Father Christmas casually wanders past and says 'so have we done the stockings for the entire world this year, then, or what?'"
But that's not in keeping with the spirit of the season. Nor will I promote the idea that she cooks and cleans for Father C, mucks out the reindeer, skivvies for the elves, etc. I'm worried enough about what kind of role model I've become by giving up full time work.
So in the end I said Mrs Christmas goes out to work so that Father Christmas can afford all the presents. This did not go down well: admittedly it's not very magical. I feel I have let Mrs Christmas down with the job description.
The boy is still asking, so if anyone has any better answers, please shout. Meanwhile since she has appeared on the scene, I'm wondering whether along with the mince pie and sherry for her husband (plus carrot for the reindeer, obviously) we should be leaving something out for poor exhausted Mrs Christmas on the 24th?
I'm only guessing. But if a large gin and tonic and a family size tin of Quality Street, say, were left by our fireplace then I bet it would be gone by morning. Magic, eh?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

so much for a frugal christmas

Time to confess: this Christmas isn't working out as (thriftily) planned.
Like many families, our festive spending had got a bit over the top: I threw money at it (panic-induced present shopping, getting stuff delivered) because I ran out of time.
So I assumed we could probably cut back quite painlessly this year. You can't move now for people touting a frugal, homemade, recessionary Christmas (led by Kirstie Allsopp and her icing polar bears) How hard could it be?
Well, after a fortnight roadtesting various tips, it turns out homemade can sometimes be a surprisingly false economy. It's a lovely way to spend a rainy afternoon with small children, but it can end up costing more money than buying the lot from a shop.
(Relatives who'd rather not know what they're getting for Christmas: look away...)
I thought about homemade christmas cards, but worked out I'd spend more on glitter and card than the usual big box from Oxfam - and the Oxfam ones include a donation to people rather needier than me. No contest.
Homemade presents, then? Ms Allsopp's chutney was out (I made loads in summer, but suspect none of my relatives will be terribly excited to get it for christmas).
So I made Lindsey Bareham's recipe for bottled preserved lemons instead. It's a joy to make - you warm the lemons in the oven to make them juicy, so the whole house smells of citrus, and it made me feel terribly virtuous - but using unwaxed fruit (I don't like using waxed ones if you're eating the peel) meant about £5 on lemons alone. If I hadn't already had seasalt and a glass jar, the whole thing could have cost nearly a tenner. Big jars of preserved lemons are about £4 in shops. Hmm.
It all reminds of the Great Potato Fiasco, when I grew potatoes on our London patio. After buying seed potatoes, special growbags, compost and the rest I could have shipped in Jersey Royals by private jet for less than my supposedly thrifty homegrown veg.
But in some cases the maths did add up. In no particular order:
1. Homemade decorations. Lots got broken last year by exuberant dog/toddler, but instead of buying more I did pine cones (scavenged from woods, stuffed in airing cupboard until they open up, rolled hamfistedly in glue and glitter by child) and dried orange slices (slice two oranges thinly, spread on baking sheet in oven on lowest heat until hard and crispy, arrange artistically on tree so light shines through them). Free child entertainment and orange-scented kitchen thrown in.
2. Cooking from scratch. We usually do this anyway but Christmas cake, pudding, chocolate truffles, bread sauce, brandy butter, etc are all satisfyingly cheaper homemade than bought.
3. Writing out cards in time to send them second class. Next year, will save on stamps by starting earlier and distributing by hand when I see people. In, like, July.
4. Using more imagination, and taking more time, buying presents. Remembering small children are so overwhelmed by big piles of stuff that they don't actually play with it.
5. Homemade wreath. Wreath ring about 60p from garden centre and the rest was free: moss to use as a base dug out of manky back lawn; fir and ivy from garden; berries, rosehips, holly, crab apples etc collected while walking dog. Wired together with garden twine: final cost about £19.40 less than last year's florist effort.

Not bothering with a wreath would, of course, obviously have saved another 60p. And I reckon I could've skipped the cards without offending anyone.
And that's the big lesson: it's too easy to get suckered into thinking you need lots of Christmas stuff that is utterly unnecessary. All those magazine articles hyping gourmet turkeys and iphones for the under-fives have an insidious effect, yet these are not the things that make the day memorable.
We're not quite down to a turkey sandwich, plus a hoop and a stick, in this house. But it has set me thinking. If you pared Christmas back to the absolute essentials, what would those be?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

what i miss about the office

The works Christmas party at Hinsliff Inc is going to be a quiet one this year. Just me and, um, me. (Due to recessionary costcutting, the dog's not invited). The drawback of freelance life as opposed to having a Proper Job is being forced to provide your own festive warm white wine.
But it's made me think about what I miss about office life. So, in no particular order:
1. The IT department. Oh god, I miss the IT department. Now when my computer breaks, I have to tell myself to switch it off and switch it on again. And then deal with (shudder) the O2 call centre. Never again will I infer that inhouse IT geeks are, well, geeks. They're GODS.
2. Sausage sandwiches from the canteen on press day. Just not the same at home.
3. PAYE. Money just drops into your bank account, by magic, every month! Someone else does your tax and NI! You never get told misleading and inaccurate information by the HMRC so-called 'helpline'! I get misty-eyed thinking about it.
4. Gossip. Not watercooler stuff about last night's telly, which I can get online. Proper juicy gossip about colleagues and rivals doing hopefully embarrassing things.

And before I get nostalgic, things I don't miss:
1. Meetings. I reckon I spent about three hours a week in internal office meetings. That's 150-ish hours a year: six days of my life i'll never get back. And at about two biscuits per meeting, god knows how many calories.
2. Commuting by tube, nose jammed in sweaty stranger's armpit on Circle line.
3. Office politics. The flipside of office gossip: endlessly watching your back, analysing what your competitors are up to. Makes real politics look easy.
4. The Ten to Six feeling. This is the panic that overtakes working mothers on realising that they have to leave the office in ten minutes' time to pick the kids up: and that they have a lot more than ten minutes' work to do.
See also Ten to Midnight feeling, the bleary-eyed realisation that it's nearly midnight, you are still in the office and you still have more than ten minutes work to do.

But what really tips the balance in favour of freelance life is that I just got an invite to my old employer's Christmas party (old colleagues taking pity on me). Phew. Now instead of just getting drunk as usual, I plan to spend the evening being exceptionally nice to IT people....

Sunday, 6 December 2009

What matters most

Torrential rain again, in our delightfully floodprone street. We've only lived here a few weeks but the neighbours, old hands at this, have told us that one more downpour and they expect a flood. So it's time to move the valuable stuff upstairs.
Which begs the question: what is valuable to this family, precious and/or irreplaceable, as opposed to merely expensive? All the obvious things - TV, stereo, all that - are covered by insurance. Which leaves us with the things no insurance company could replace.
So far in the queue to go upstairs we have: all the photographs (from Olden Times, pre-computer storage); the box of still unpacked and unhung pictures pictures; lots of books. Could in theory be replaced on insurance, but we'd never remember the exact mix we've acquired over three decades of reading, and even if we did they'd never have that lovely wellworn feel old paperbacks get, never fall open at the favourite page.
A file of dull paperwork: birth certificates, tax records, bank statements, bla. My journalist's contact book, obviously: phone numbers that took me 15 years to wheedle out of people.
Then it gets more eclectic.
About 20 assorted jars of jam and chutney (results of a bumper crop from the plum tree in the garden of our last house). Yes, I know jam is available at the corner shop. But this is different: it represents a stab at domesticity among the chaos this summer, and reminds me of the old house which I loved.
The Christmas decorations under the stairs. We can always buy more tinsel. But not another fairy like the one we've had for years (admittedly non-traditional: it's a bearded Action Man in a white frock, bought in Soho: long story). Not the lights my husband and I bought the first Christmas we spent together, which probably don't even work now, but anyway.
The blanket chest inherited from my greataunt, even though the dog chewed the corners as a puppy so it looks a bit scruffy. A fistful of children's paintings. Nil for artistic merit, but that's not the point.
As for what we're leaving downstairs, personally am willing to sacrifice my husband's Xbox to the flood, plus a copy of Babar and the Christmas House (the boy has insisted on reading this three times a day for a month now: am heartily sick of the elephant dictator).
Debate rages re the dog: leave him downstairs as usual at night, so he can bark at the first sign of water and rescue entire household, Lassie-style? Or not, given that he is both stupid and very fond of water, and more likely to paddle around happily while the laptop floats past him into the street?
But anyway. Nothing else on the 'rescue' list is worth more than a fiver, but it turns out these are the things we would least like to lose.
So what would you save in a flood/fire/act of God?

Friday, 4 December 2009

the point of blogging

I must be a glutton for punishment. After a rather bracing exchange of views here on marriage, I've just written for the Guardian's Comment is Free on Sally Bercow (wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons and wouldbe Labour MP who gave a rather eyewatering interview about her own past and her current views of David Cameron). The brief was what happens to relationships when two people of opposite political convictions fall in love.
So I was already thinking about how to have a civilised argument when I saw halfthestory's comment on the marriage post, saying that "I prefer to argue with people whose opinions I value even if I don't agree with them."
I thought that rather briliantly summed up what I hope this blog will be about: sometimes fierce but always civilised exchanges of views between people of general goodwill, who are open to learning from each other. No doubt we'll disagree from time to time, but it needn't always lead to divorce. Have a nice weekend (yes including you, man who thinks I look like Hitler's mistress...)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Why Delia is always right

We made mince pies yesterday. A bit early for Christmas: but I am greedy, and the boy likes the rolling out/cutting bits, and it was raining. The plan was to freeze them and take them to my parents' for the big family Christmas, but we seem to have accidentally eaten most of them.
The family rule is that whichever of my mother/my sister/me gets away with not hosting Christmas contributes something towards it: I used to do a ruinously expensive sprint round Borough Market. But three years ago I was pregnant, sugar-crazed, and nesting, so I made some mince pies.
I wouldn't normally attempt the voodoo that is pastry, but for once it worked: must've been either the hormones, or this Delia Smith recipe. On a high, I hosted the whole bloody Christmas the next year (I was on maternity leave: seemed like a good idea), and made everything by hand according to St Delia.
By last Christmas, I was so busy I didn't have time to breathe: I should just have bought sodding mince pies. But I didn't want to. Not in a I-Don't-Know-How-She-Does-It way (Allison Pearson's book opens with a working mother bashing shop-bought mince pies around to make them look homemade, so other parents don't judge her): my family are very laidback and couldn't have cared less.
It was just a stubborn refusal to accept that I didn't live a life that allowed for leisurely pastrymaking. I'm not very creative, but I like occasionally making things, and that's not a side I could indulge at work: it was important to me still to do stuff like this at home.
So I ended up making them at about 3am one night, using hastily defrosted shop pastry because I was too bloody tired to make my own, and they were genuinely vile. The dog backed away sneezing. My nephew made surprisingly realistic barfing noises. I ended up making a load more mince pies, properly, in my mum's kitchen.
This year, it's back to Delia. I did it just after finishing a column on David Cameron for tomorrow's New Statesman so it was a perfect antidote. By the end I felt I'd had a taste of my old political life, but also a bit of what was always missing from it.
One problem: there's a reason Delia is not assisted on TV by a floury small boy demanding to "squish it all up". Featherlight, they ain't.
So this is not just a tribute to Her Royal Delianess (whose new Christmas series starts tonight on the BBC). It's really about lowering my family's expectations this year. Shopbought ones would probably have been nicer.....

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

in which i rant about marriage

I like being married, really. Which maybe has something to do with my parents still being happily together after 40something years; something to do with me being boringly conventional; maybe even something to do with my husband. What I don't think it's about is money.
David Cameron has given a mildly panicky interview in today's Daily Mail insisting he still backs tax breaks for married couples, including those who don't have children.
Let's assume for now that he can fund a multi-billion pound perk out of thin air, in a recession, in ways so far mysteriously unclear.
Let's also assume that marriage specifically - not rock-solid, permanent relationships where both parents are around; not heroically hardworking single parents; but something unique to a ring and a frock and a biiig argument about the guestlist - is nirvana for childrearing. Let's assume everyone should get, and stay, married.
How do we make them do it? Not by looking at why couples get divorced, and why that so often follows the arrival of children (and onset of the frantic juggling years).
Not by unpicking cultural expectations of marriage, in a generation many of whose own parents divorced acrimoniously.
Not by removing welfare disincentives (single mothers risk losing benefits if a partner moves in). Not even by examining factors like high UK property prices, which - combined with a faintly mad belief (or was that just me?) that you must buy a house together before you get hitched - tends to delay marriage.
Nope. We're going to do it like a cheap supermarket deal. Buy a wife, get money off! Once you've paid the (average £10k) cost of a wedding, obviously.
We keep being told that childcare tax credit for higher rate taxpayers is an unaffordable luxury in a recession: it's likely to be withdrawn for those on over £50,000. Tax breaks for moral virtue, however, are just dandy: no word on them being restricted to low earners.
So there we have it: decent childcare is less important to children's welfare if their parents work than the fact you cut a cake and grimaced through the speeches together.
And if you're childless newlyweds, you're more deserving of taxpayers' cash than if you're a struggling cohabiting couple working three lowpaid jobs between you to support your kids. If that doesn't send a clear message about family life, what does, eh?
One thing to consider: according to reports last month, lesbians make the best parents of all. Don't hold your breath for gay-only tax breaks.