Tag Archives: London

In praise of London’s libraries


The beautiful Brixton central library

How many of you are members of your local library?

I know some of you will be of course. I know some of you were very vocal about the recent cuts to library budgets. I know some of you go there for your kids, to borrow books and go to play groups. But the vast, vast majority of my friends, I am pretty certain, haven’t passed the door of a library since they were at school.

And I was exactly the same until YESTERDAY, when I joined Richmond libraries. And I am both amazed and impressed at how brilliant they are, and ashamed that I didn’t join sooner.

I have rose-tinted memories of libraries as a child – going along every week with my mum to take out books on penguins and snails; and then on my own slightly older to explore, crimson-cheeked, books by Judy Bloom, marveling at the high-tech way you could scroll through old newspapers on their machines.

But then libraries were about boring dusty books at Uni, revising and avoidance, and I never really went again.

Until now. Now I have a son, I want him to read a lot like I did, to explore books – their smells and the imagination within them, to discover authors and adventures. And I also want to start reading more myself – and having a house that is weighed down with books already, I don’t particularly need to own any more.

So I went along yesterday, egged on in all honesty by the fact that both my son and I are bored of all his books and I wanted to get him some more, and discovered that libraries now have so much more than they used to. They have free internet access. They let you borrow audio books, both kids and adults. They let you borrow MUSIC and boxsets (“The Wire? Yeah we let you keep that for 3 weeks”). They have every type of book imaginable and allow you to explore new authors and old friends alike. And they are all new-fangled with online renewals and inventories and a nifty computer thingie which you simply swipe your books to your account (yes I realise this is linked to the cuts – more on that below).

And the best thing? I am ashamed that I just didn’t know this – I simply assumed in this world where there is no such a thing as a free lunch that you would have to pay something, a few quid perhaps for each set of books you wanted (yes, I know, The Chef already laughed at me ) – that all of this is FREE. That is, up to 20 books for 3 weeks for just the price of paying your taxes. And in a London where you can barely walk out your front door without shelling a tenner here and there, that is a great thing.

The other great thing about the library? It is a community – your community. It was filled with dads looking at crime novels, grandfathers trying out this new-fangled interweb thingie, kids playing and reading about frogs, mums reading to toddlers, your neighbours all. They have baby singing classes and reading groups, fairs and talks.

It reminded me of my childhood, where life was about simplicity, and community, and where money didn’t matter so much, or certainly it wasn’t so apparent to me as it is now.

So I’m going to support the library in any way I can. Although my first challenge is to see if I can read my first bloody book in 3 weeks! Shantaram took me a YEAR…

Finally, I couldn’t talk about London’s libraries without talking about the cuts. I had read about them, of course, without really understanding how they affected me. So last night I looked at this website  which told me what’s actually happening all over the country. From a quick look, it looks like smaller areas have had their libraries closed, other libraries have had to take up the slack and open longer hours, thousands of qualified staff have been laid off, and mobile centres seem to have disappeared almost entirely. Which makes me worried about those communities, those immobile people, who are denied the thing that I have just discovered.

Where I used to live in Lambeth, Upper Norwood library is now funded outside the council, at least 6 mobile centres seem to have been lost, large branches have had their hours increased, smaller branches their hours cut, Waterloo and Streatham libraries may have to move and Streatham’s qualified staff all dismissed, other libraries at risk are Durning, Waterloo, South Lambeth, Minet and Carnegie (5 out of 11), West Norwood’s library is still closed, librarians jobs have been cut, £1.5 million has been cut from a budget of £6 million.

In Richmond where I now live, Ham, Hampton Wick and Kew libraries are all under threat with other libraries having to open longer hours, self-service is in all libraries, and £351k has been cut from the budget.

Do what you can to support London’s libraries – having discovered them I would be sad to see this bastion of community disappear. Check the website above for campaign groups such as Save Lambeth Libraries, or check out this page on what you can do to support libraries across the country.

To Parents Of Even Smaller Children

So, I’ve had a couple of miserable days recently. And then it all gets better again and I forget how bad it was. Only I write a blog so I wanted to write about the miserable stuff too, before I forget. To share, you see. To make you feel better perhaps. Hell, to make me feel better.

First, there was the day I was cooking a fish pie, with my son bouncing in his jumperoo, nursery rhymes playing; feeling warm and cosy and thinking what domestic bliss! I am a domestic goddess earth mother type person! My baby boy had even fallen asleep on the jumperoo he was so relaxed and I popped him easily in his cot for a snooze.

Only, an hour later, I woke him up by mistake trying to get some of his dirty laundry to wash, and he screamed the house down. Nothing I could do could get him back to sleep so by the time I’d bundled him into the pram, the fish pie was burnt, the Le Creuset pie dish was smashed in my rush to tidy the kitchen, and I had to leave my cosy warm house to walk out into the rain to calm a sleeping baby back to sleep before I even had the chance to grab any lunch. Suddenly I was tired, and hungry, and cold, pounding the streets endlessly until he fell asleep. And of course then the chaos had a knock-on effect on the rest of the day, making us miss a baby class and cancel a coffee with a friend.

A few days later and unplanned Armageddon hit again. Having had an amazing week with Mr Schmoo (for that is what he is now called), where he was happy and sweet and fell asleep easily for long naps, suddenly my baby boy was changed. He was whingy and whining and kicking and arching his back, and refusing to go down for naps even though I could tell he was exhausted. But why, I cried to the heavens?! It could have been many things – teething, constipation from eating solid food, a “Wonder Week” leap of development that had sent him bananas.

All I knew was my perfect routine was now shattered. But on this morning, I also woke up shattered. I had a cold, a sniffy, achey, knackered cold which meant all I wanted to do was curl up on the sofa, put the fire on, and watch Ray Donovan on repeat. Add to this it was cold and pouring outside and I envisaged a lazy day of playing and snoozing.

Sadly Schmoo had other ideas. He was up at 5am and didn’t fancy going back to sleep again. Then he ate a bit too much acidic fruit for breakfast and spent the entire day straining in a constipated fug that might almost have been funny if it hadn’t looked so painful. Add to this crazy teething that made him bite anything in sight (including my face). Any attempts to make him nap when he looked exhausted ended up with him SCREAMING blue bloody murder, arching his back and kicking around, so all I could do was rock him and walk and eventually reach for the Calpol. He didn’t nap AT ALL. And so, I ended up, of course, pounding the streets again with the wee man in the pram. With pouring rain soaking me, a passing car chucking a puddle onto me for good measure. Not one walk but THREE walks. All lasting exactly the length of time that he slept, round in circles sometimes, perhaps stopping for a coffee and maybe a sit down…..NO he’s woken up, up you get and keep walking…

Hungry, cold, tired, ill. But luckily The Chef did bedtime and got him to bed, only the wee man was so tired he didn’t drink enough milk, so we was up at 3am, and again at 4am….


Several of my mummy friends on Facebook posted this article by Steve Wiens in the Huffington PostTo Parents Of Small Children – which talks about how exhausting and relentless caring for little ones can be, and how, although wonderful at times, kids can make you frustrated and so bone-tired, you almost can’t imagine making it til bedtime.

When I first read it, I’d had a lovely day with Schmoo and couldn’t really empathise. But now I think about it all the time.

When I’m walking in the rain pushing a crying baby I also think – how on earth will I make it to bedtime?

I think of the relentlessness of it all, the fact that I never really stop being responsible, never really get more than a few snatched hours as a break.

And that even if I could have longer I don’t actually want to or feel I should, and I need to go through the arduous process of finding a good childminder and then paying them money I should be saving.

I think of the “breaks” that I do have that are filled with pureeing, and sterilizing, and washing, and cleaning, and doing admin, and replying to emails. And never seem to be filled with nice things like doing my nails or having a bath or reading a book.

I think of my friend who didn’t even have time to change her Tampax when her baby was screaming, until she finally ended up screaming herself.

I think of my friend who is now up every two hours at night, after months of sleeping through.

I think of my friend who’s son pulls out great tufts of her hair every day.

(It’s not the same friend, by the way, that would be really shit).


But then the next day, today, Schmoo is back on great form. And one big, gummy smile, and I’m delirious again. And I’m tickling his tummy listening to him laugh, and in awe of him rolling not once but twice. I’m bouncing him on my knee singing Grand Old Duke Of York, and giving him huge cuddles and kisses. I’m pushing him in his pram, this time singing, and I’m laughing and smiling at him, thinking how wonderful and amazing he is and how much I love him.

And it’s OK now, it’s really OK.


So what have I learned from the shit days?

  • The Wonder Weeks app is a fairly good indicator of whether you will be living with a saint or a monster
  • A night out with friends can restore your sanity – and all it costs is the price of a bottle or wine, and a hangover
  • A few hours’ break courtesy of a partner or friend can make a huge difference. Go shopping! Have a bath! Sit in your pants and look at Facebook!
  • Babies have rubbish memories so they won’t remember the crying and the screaming, once they feel better they won’t recall any of the bad stuff
  • But WE do remember and it does affect us – it’s OK to walk away sometimes and let someone else take over
  • They only last a few days, weeks at most…

….Everyone goes through it and it will pass.

It does pass, really.

On happiness & motherhood


And then there were three….

You will have to excuse my lack of blogging of late. But on 27 March 2013, I gave birth to my son and my life changed out of all recognition. And recently, 7 weeks on, I’ve realised some things about happiness that make the HPL rules more important than ever to stick to and I wanted to share them here.

It is only now, as my body releases the hormones I’ve had circulating in my system over the last 10 or so months, which kept my baby inside me and allowed him to grow, that I am able to reflect on how I’ve changed.

Firstly, I realise I had a tough pregnancy. I have a new-found affinity for Kim Kardashian in that I too grew to the size of a small bus while carrying my baby boy, to the extent that many people (including medical practitioners) told me I must be having a huge baby. I feel for her because while you can put vanity on the back burner as much as you can, hating photos of yourself, catching yourself sideways in a mirror and gasping at your sheer bulk, isn’t the best thing for your self-confidence or esteem.

And then there’s how the hormones affect you. For me, my body was allergic to the hormones, and while my body gave everything it could to make my son the beautiful and chilled out boy he is, it took something from me – my skin became red and sore and swollen and itchy, I didn’t look like me, I would look in the mirror and cry in pain and in sadness at the loss of something. Only now, when he is 7 weeks, and my skin has begun to look normal again (thanks, in part, to Waitrose Baby Bottom Cream, who knew?), I feel that I have regained “me” again, only a fatter me with droopier boobs.

Then there’s the moods, the loss of confidence at work because of baby brain and guilt about maternity leave and your career path, the overwhelming love and fear for your baby and your family, and the separation from old friends whose lives are now on a different track.

Then there’s the birth. Well mine was pretty bloody awful. It was brutal and traumatic and you can read about it on my baby blog here if you want to. It gave something to me, of course – it gave me a power and a confidence, especially as I did it without an epidural and mostly on gallons of gas and air, but it also made me cynical and angry at mother nature and at life, and its something I realise I need to recover from mentally and emotionally, as does The Chef who saw things I can’t even imagine.

And finally motherhood. The highs, those incredible highs – of picking up a sleepy warm baby in the morning, of the first smile, the picking his clothes and laughing when he does something funny, the watching him asleep, the cuddles and the love – that overwhelming love again – and the worry about anything that might happen to him. I feel such pride in my family, in him, this chilled out wee fella that The Chef and I made, who seems better than us, who seems so perfect, who I can’t wait to watch grow, who develops every single day.

But, at 7 weeks, as the hormones that made him slip away, I feel something new. A sense of change, of wondering who I am now, what I do from here.

I’m not working, my life is my baby and cups of coffee, endless coffees, with other mums. We talk about our babies and about our boobs and our stitches. I am fascinated with recording every feed, every poo, every minute of sleep.

I found myself telling a (male) friend of mine, in great detail, about how my son hadn’t pooed for 2 days and how it was great that he had finally done a poo that morning, explaining in detail how he went red and I felt bad for him but was also happy as he’d been constipated… and halfway through I thought – what on EARTH am I doing! I’m talking about my son’s shits in great detail! To a bloke! I’ve become one of those mothers….And I post photos of him on Facebook all the time. And when The Chef brings up something in the news I feel ashamed – I didn’t watch the news today, in fact my world is here, so small now, between the bedroom and the nursery and the kitchen. And between the coffees, I am here – in the nursery mostly – with him, loving him and cuddling him, but alone, lonely at times. Working us both up to the next coffee, the next GP visit, the walk to the park, that is the day’s activity.

My god I’m not complaining. I love being a mum – I’m good at it I think. I love him and I love our life together and I love my family. But I realise my identity, my happiness, my confidence, has taken a knock with all this, left me moody and on the verge of rage or tears fairly easily, left me not quite knowing who I am now, how I’ve changed, whether I will ever be the old “me” again. And so now, I realise how important it is that I work on my happiness, and in doing so, work out where I go from here.

And so to the rules again:

1. Be Active – important given I can only live in elasticated waistbands for so long. I’m doing a mother & baby yoga class to ease my creaky bones, and I’ve dug out my gym kit with thoughts of swimming and running.

2. Connect – vitally important for me right now. I miss my friends after 7 weeks of wanting to be holed up with my baby boy. I want to organise a girls’ night out and drink wine – wine! – and a night eating good food with The Chef. I want to drink a martini. I want to go to the cinema. I want to see old friends, and friends without kids, and phone people when I feel isolated with a baby stuck to my breast.

3. Give – my current bugbear, after awe-inspiring treatment by NHS midwives at Kingston hospital, is the proposed plans for the NHS – the fact that it is effectively being privatised from under our noses to an American-style insurance-based system with healthcare for the richest, from private companies, while the poorest will suffer. I need to see what I can do to get involved. As a mum I’m also filled with an empathy I don’t think I had before – so I want to make sure I give clothes and toiletries to charities that help women and children.

4. Nurture – easy. I do it every day until around 7pm when I put him down to sleep. But there are other projects too to get excited about – transforming my garden, planting new colourful flowers, transforming the house in which I spend so much time in nowadays. Projects, and economical maternity-leave budgeting ones at that, will keep me busy over the next few months.

5. Learn – I’m going to learn to cook. As The Chef knows, I can barely boil an egg, but I’d love to get better of it, to become a bit more domesticated, to feed my lovely family. I’m starting this week with doing a few simple meals. God help us all.

6. Be Curious – Since the hormonal fug of pregnancy has started to lift, the baby is able to sleep in his pram, and I’m mastering public transport, I want to go exploring London again. So many places I want to go – Eel Pie island (open house 22/23 June), the Polka Theatre, the Electric Cinema, some of the new restaurants whose openings I’ve totally missed.

Happiness, like confidence, is a transient thing, and one you need to keep working at. Getting married, having a baby, can be the happiest time of your life, but the changes they bring and emotions they evoke can be overwhelming at times. I’m glad I have the HPL rules to ground me, and I love a project to work on. I’ll let you know how I get on.

A London girl’s guide to getting hitched

So, The Chef and I got hitched just over a month ago – hurrah – and, while I slowly sink back to earth, catch up on sleep, and enjoy being able to EAT and DRINK again, I thought I’d write down some stuff I learned along the way *:

1. The dress – there’s nothing like wedding dress shopping to drop a giant big turd on your “special day”. They tell you you need 6 months to order your dress, then say they haven’t got any free appointments for 2 months, and sometimes even say you have to pay £20 for the privilege. Some make you take off your shoes at the door, wear gloves and rush you to be in and out in an hour. Importantly, there is far too little champers handed out (big up to Mirror Mirror and Teokath for bucking this trend). Fact is, unless you get it made, buy it second hand or go vintage, you’ll pay an average of £2,000 for your dress and the alteration process is a nightmare that goes on for hours. The upside is that if you pick the right one, you’ll feel incredible on the day, and its a great lesson in what suits you so I found my wardrobe also improved. These are the dress shops that I think are worth going to:

  • Teokath in Wimbledon – where I got my lovely Lusan Mandongus dress. They have a great selection of dresses, are friendly, have a lovely dress fitter who will patentiently address all your concerns (pull it in! more! shit I can’t breathe!), and you can also buy jewellery there.
  • Jenny Packham in Pimlico – hard to get an appointment, but gorgeous beaded 1920s Great Gatsby style dresses. Best suited to tall skinny people though.
  • Mirror Mirror and Morgan Davies in Islington for great selection of dresses, although at Morgan Davies you have to pay £20 for appointments.
  • Alice Temperley in Notting Hill – amazingly different, electic dresses, perfect for the actresses and extroverts amongst you. Lovely room to try on stuff and great to try something different.
  • Suzanne Neville in Knightsbridge – lovely dresses and lovely staff although I was slightly put off by their posters of Danielle Lineker that adorn the walls.
  • While I’m at it, Bridal Rogue Gallery on Chiltern Street has an amazing selection of shoes and jewellery, and borrow the veil from a friend (sooo expensive).

2. Self-preservation, head fuckwittage and general wellbeing -while getting married was the happiest day of my life, and I am absolutely loving being a newlywed, I put my hands up and say not only it is bloody stressful, for me the pre-wedding preparations was a time when I needed to work at staying happy. I remember when I was single I got annoyed at my engaged friends moaning, thinking you should be happy – I’m having to go to Tiger Tiger this Saturday and you’re sticking me on the single table! And I too found that when I moaned about the pressure, I had people saying I should be happy and why was I sweating the small stuff, which I found pretty unhelpful.

But I now know (and sorry to my married freinds who I was unsympathetic to before!) that weddings bring to the fore issues of self-esteem, highlight family problems, make you miss people who can’t be there, shine the spotlight on friendships, showing who you can count on and who are always too busy.

And, more than that, the fact that you have now got what you’ve always wanted, have all this attention on you, is a little overwhelming and sometimes, there is a tiny little voice that says

why me? how could I be this lucky? I don’t deserve this happiness!

…and you have to organise lots, and think about things you don’t normally give a crap about like flowers and hairstyles and ribbons and napkins and garters.

And you suddenly feel bad about all your married friends who you were a bitch to when you were single and unhappy, acting with indifference to husbands and children, getting horrifically drunk at weddings and snogging the best man. It made me feel guilty that they were all so lovely to me and didn’t hold my previous bad behaviour and impatience against me (apart from one – who pointed out when I emailed accomodation details 4 months before that I RIPPED brides apart for doing this at previous weddings).

And you don’t sleep brilliantly and you are dieting, and you might get cold sores or excema, and start being a fucking bitch to your husband-to-be, and then you worry he might not marry you after all and then…. Argh!

After a recommendation from a friend,  who commented very kindly on how ragged I was looking, I became a walking pharmacy of things-that-help. This stuff calmed me down and zenned me out, so much so that I was surprisingly cool and calm on the big day:

  • A sleepy time dream pillow spray of lavender
  • Valerian herbal anti-anxiety tablets (I had one called Quiet Life that was amazing)
  • Herbal sleeping pills (I used Nytol)
  • Buy bottles of Bach Rescue remedy for work, in your handbag, in your car, at home. Use frequently, especially when he says “but there isn’t anything to do!“.
  • Vitamin B complex helps with stress and energy and cold sores.
  • I’m not ashamed to say that due to my erratic behaviour and feeling a bit overwhelmed I had a “maintenance” session with my amazing counsellor (email me for deets) – she made me realise what was upsetting me and why I was finding things difficult because I just didn’t t hink I deserved all this wonderful stuff happening to me. She made me realise I did deserve it – I’ve worked so hard on my faults, on my happiness, on this blog, on relationships and life and family. I’ve worked bloody hard and I do deserve it. I deserve The Chef – he’s my reward somehow. And I am lucky, I won’t forget that.

3. Grooming. I found it stressful thinking I had to be the thinnest I’d ever been, the most beautiful. And what if you wake up with spots? Or excema? Or a cold sore? My friend pointed out that a bride’s beauty comes from within, from the fact that she is so happy she’s glowing, and on the day itself I was in this smiley bubble all day, but we all need a little help so here’s where I went:

  • Linda Meredith in Knightsbridge does amazing facials and oxygen facials where they push oxygen into your skin. Made me glow for about a week. Not cheap (£100 for a facial and £100 for the oxygen thing) but I got a voucher from Keynoir at half the price.
  • Lorraine at Expressions gave me a set of amazingly natural-looking eyelash extensions (to avoid the Sam from TOWIE look, just ask for a lash on every 2nd or 3rd lash and volume rather than length) which looked amazing on the big day and meant I didn’t have to wear any make-up for the week before and for almost 3 weeks afterwards so perfect for honeymoon. She works from her rather hard-to-find flat in Hammersmith but its well worth going.
  • Michael Becman who works at Space NK in Edinburgh did my hair and make-up – we kept it very light and natural, and as I was getting married outside in a garden, we put flowers and pearls in my hair. Mikee’s not only a great make-up artist, he is hilarious and kept us all laughing on the big day.

4. The cake. Oh my look at that beauty above. We utterly lucked out with the cake. I found cake shopping quite disappointing, the fact that a simple, boring-looking, traditional three-tiered cake costs minimum £300 and often didn’t taste or look that great. And then through twitter we met Lisa Brunton-Stocks (@harbourhussy), who is mad about cakes, and actually, pretty mad full stop. She drove all the way from Aberdeen to Edinburgh to let us taste her cakes which were incredible, and for the first time I got excited about what a wedding cake could be. She was amazingly inspired and creative and spent ages getting it perfect – sending me pictures of edible pearls and meringue to match my dress, matching the decoration to the lace on my dress and my bouquet. It was a jaw dropping cake and amazingly delicious. And on the way to honeymoon, I read this blog her friend wrote about the work that went into it: http://willtravelforcake.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/an-epic-wedding-cake/. If you can’t find your own Lisa, then I reckon M&S has some brilliant, unique cakes at good prices (check out this upside down white choc version).

5. The photographer. We used Paul Raeburn who took these amazing photos. We hated posed photos and interminable group shots that last for hours and he was perfect. Really artistic photos in a journalist style capturing amazing moments – The Chef kissing my forehead during the service, my sister crying and waving as she said goodbye before I walked down the aisle, my bridesmaid pouring her drink into my glass as I was “thirsty”. We wanted to spend the day enjoying ourselves and being with our friends so he was the perfect photographer.

6. The wedding. As neither of us is particularly religious, and we wanted to marry somewhere unusual and unique, and not particularly traditional, we had a Humanist ceremony undergiant redwood trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. Being in Scotland, it rained a bit, but I loved the freedom of us all huddled together under these trees and we loved the Humanist ceremony where our celebrant talked about how we met, what we loved about each other, and about how much we loved our friends and family. We sang Happy Together by the Turtles, had a piper playing me down the aisle, and my friends read a poem they’d written. It was moving, emotional, funny and we loved it. We then ate haggis, neeps and tatties, ended with deep fried Mars Bar with an Irn-Bru chaser and ceilidhed the night away. Humanist ceremonies aren’t legal in England sadly but we’re hoping this will change as its a fantastic alternative to a registry office ceremony.

9. The extras that no-one really cares about but you bend over backwards to do anyway:

  • The Chef was right – favours are indeed largely ignored so don’t spend much money (we got married at Easter so we gave everyone little bags filled with Easter eggs).
  • One thing we did that everyone loved though was table names of our favourite restaurants and we told the story of the time we went there.
  • We didn’t have an order of service as the ceremony was so special we wanted people to be engaged and surprised all the way through, and stop people flicking through to see what was next and when they could get a drink. We did get amazing creative invitations through Nirvana CPH – we did the invite in the guise of a menu and they looked amazing.

* for another point of view, you might also want to read my thoughts on being single in London.

Classical concerts @ St John’s church, Smith Square, Westminster, SW1P 3HA

So why on earth am I telling you about an old church? Well, that was sort of what I was thinking when The Chef booked date night there. But it was another wonderful discovery that I’m very pleased to have made. So thank you Chef. Interesting choice of concert though (I cannot say more for fear of reprisals*). Its a gorgeous baroque church near the Houses of Parliament which holds lots of interesting and reasonably priced classical concerts. And importantly it has a crypt bar which serves carrot cake and wine for intervals. 

As an adult, I’ve only dabbled in classical music. I have a few classical albums on the iPod which I listen to when feeling grown up or particularly hungover and in need of soothing. I’m still fairly ignorant – I know the tunes, y’know, the stuff we all know – Best Classical Music From Adverts Vol 1, the opening music fr0m Trading Places, Holst’s Planets with the rugby world cup World in Union bit in it, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons which is recognisble, beautiful to listen to and nicely fits into a 1 hour concert, Mozart’s Requiem from my love of the film Amadeus. I liked Elgar and I’d like to listen to him more, and Mozart’s 4th, but I’ve only ever heard them played by my folks or at funerals. That’s about my repertoire but I’d like to get into it more. I’ve been to the Proms and I liked it (bit staid in parts though, I’m a child of 90s house music – I still feel like whistling / whooping when a melody I recognise comes on). I’ve seen opera – Tosca, Carmen and Don Giovanni – all in Prague and super cheap (we got a box for Don Giovanni, in the first theatre it was ever performed in, for £20 each).

In Prague, classical concerts are held in stunning venues which litter the place, last 1 hour or so (perfect for a wandering mind like mine – also a consequence of clubbing in the 90s), cost about £10-15, and the quality of the music is amazing. Its a lovely night out, especially combined with some vino. But I’d stopped going once I got back to London, not knowing good venues and not wanting to spend a fortune on a ticket.

And if I’m honest, part of me does think its all a bit grown up and I’m still rebelling somewhat against the idea that I might be getting old and dull. When did I stop going out in Shoreditch til the wee hours on a school night? When did I get so tired all the time? Why can I not think of anything worse than going clubbing in Soho?  

But I have to face it – I’m not as young and fresh-faced as I once was, and I will soon think of nothing better on a Saturday night than a nice cup of hot chocolate, Pride and Prejudice the boxset, and a nice early night. But until then, I’m a tweenie – between nights out and being curious and sometimes irresponsible, and longing for comfort and long conversations.  So I’m still doing shots and backpacking, but I’m also preferring old man’s pubs to trendy bars and its the Highlands rather than Ibiza. So as well as planning to see some gigs in London, and a festival this Summer, I’m going to check out St John’s for their upcoming classical concerts and go along with friends, dress up a bit, feel cultured. It really is lovely inside and has some fantastic evening and lunchtime concerts – piano recitals, singers, orchestras and string quartets. The Rosenblatt recitals (described by Londonist as “pared down opera in a church”) sound especially great. They are also hosting a festival of Baroque music in May. Its a very different night out and a nice thing to take visiting parents I reckon too.

Anyway, in case you are hovering between the two and don’t realise it, here are some signs that you too have finally hit the old and boring side of the 20s / 30s divide:

  1. You find yourself wishing you could be in your local pub rather than that club in Soho because you can, y’know, sit down and talk
  2. You regularly buy wine that costs more than £8 a bottle (compared to the vinegar you used to drink)
  3. You’ve cancelled the festival mailings from Secret Garden and Glastonbury and are instead looking at The Big Chill, Green Man and Latitude
  4. You arrange to meet friends for yoga or brunch at the weekends, rather than assuming you’ll still be in bed recovering until lunchtime
  5. In the last month, you’ve been to 3 dinner parties, 2 children’s birthday parties, 1 christening and 0 house parties
  6. Not all your friends still own the same IKEA CD rack / sofa throw / bin
  7. Most of the gigs you’ve been to lately consist of comeback gigs or live sessions of original albums from the 90s. Or Kings Of Leon.
  8. You’ve bought any of the following: an expensive electric toothbrush, Converse all stars in a “wacky” colour, a decent suitcase, nice “house clothes” for lounging, cut chrystal wine or whisky glasses, coasters
  9. You did the Radio 1/ XFM / Radio 6 to Radio 4 morning switch a while back and find yourself commenting on how shit modern chart music is
  10. You don’t care that you’re not fashionable, the amount of clothes you buy has decreased dramatically, and you now shop for “comfort” (and often in Kathmandu / Blacks)
  11. You aim to cook a herb-encrusted rack of lamb rather than spag bol when you invite friends round for dinner, you get stressed trying to impress people (which you promised yourself you would never do) and you don’t still have an ashtray in the middle of the dining table
  12. You are finally getting round to selling your decks / amp / waist-high speakers
  13. You have a financial adviser AND an accountant
  14. Friday nights are now recovering from the working week, rather than the start of your weekend partying

* Seeing as he has admitted it publicly, The Chef took me to a SCHOOL CONCERT (neither of us have any offspring) which, although it did contain Vivaldi’s Gloria, it also contained lots of 7 year olds in their primary school choir singing “those magnificent men in their flying machines, they go up-diddly-up up, they go down-diddly-down” etc…

Sunshine and happiness*

Last week was all about rosé, beer gardens, pavement cafes, and getting a little rouge on your forearms and foreheads. Us Londoners love the sun and we get all sociable – we suddenly want to meet friends for after-work drinks, lunch hours are extended and decidedly boozy, work left early. We chat and laugh, the volume on the streets is noticeably higher. Flesh is exposed, tan lines developed. We suffer and heal from flip-flop-toe. We buy Pimms, clean BBQs, scour London for appropriate beer gardens.

We know the science bit – sunshine increases endorphins and Vitamin D. But it actually changes the way we act, the way we are. For me I love the sun because:

  • I love the feeling of warmth on my skin and how my skin smells of sun and suncream and goes pink
  • Dresses and flip flops and wicker bags and sunnies and shorts
  • I like sitting outside, watching people, chatting. I suppose this can be summarised as relaxing in the fresh air and taking my time
  • I look better with a tan and feel healthier 
  • Its sociable – all your friends gather round while you take over a corner of a nice beer garden, its all about meeting in groups, friends appearing and disappearing and reappearing as you lie out all day on a blanket in the park
  • I like ice cold rosé, Pimms and cider  
  • Barbecues and picnics and al fresco dining and pavement cafes and eating on roof terraces, burgers and chicken wings and halloumi kebabs, greek salads and humous
  • Swimming and walking and tennis

This is Costa Del Brixton Lido in summer

What happened last Friday is the perfect example. The sun shone so much all morning my heart soared and I racked my brain for friends who worked near to lunch with. I found Mr Maxi and skipped to Charlotte Street, finding the last seat outside (hurrah) and ordering an ice cold glass of chablis (or deux) with lunch. It was lovely chatting outside in the warmth, everyone on the sunny side of the street seemed happy. Maxi was happy as you can see from the photo at the top. We wanted to take a photo of those on the shady side of the street to show how unhappy they were in comparison but were unable to find anyone looking suitably depressed. 

A pint of rose and some suncream please

Then on Sunday, I drank rosé and ate lunch by the pool at the Lido Cafe in Brixton (see above) and it felt like I was on holiday. Sod the diet, sod being sensible, lets just sit, let the sun shine on our faces and chat and get tipsy.

So summer is fab, we all know that. But how to get that summer feeling when the weather’s crap? Well, I suppose we need to bring a bit of holiday to your everyday life, no matter what the weather is like – take more breaks, get out for lunch, leave work early occasionally; wear bright colours, dig out your Thai fisherman’s pants and Beer Lao t-shirt; get a group of friends together for after work drinks and stop rushing around so much.

The happy (sunny) side of Charlotte Street

And if all else fails, keep your fingers crossed for more sun this summer (and if anyone is brave enough, Brixton lido is open for free swimming this weekend). Here’s some brilliant London beer gardens that I will hopefully be visiting a lot in the next few months:

  • The Lido Cafe, the Prince Regent, the Florence and the Duke of Edinburgh in Brixton / Herne Hill
  • The Landor, The Sun and The Falcon in Clapham
  • The Drapers Arms and The Albion in Islington, the Junction Tavern in Tuffnell Park and the Spaniard’s Inn in Hampstead
  • The Ship in Wandsworth, The Dove in Hammersmith and The White Horse in Parson’s Green
  • Vibe Bar on Brick Lane, the Boundary Rooftop in Spitalfields and The Scolt Head in Dalston

Any more?

*or….everybody loves the sunshi-i-ine

The Book Club, 100 Leonard Street, Shoreditch, EC2A 4RH

I shuddered slightly on my way into The Book Club in Shoreditch (just across the road from the Great Eastern Dining Room), because it used to be home to Home – one of the wankiest restaurants I’ve ever been to in London. I may have judged it a little harshly as it was my first meal in London after moving from Brussels where restos served great food on the cheap. I couldn’t believe how much we paid for crap service and mediocre food, but then again I was spoiled…

Anyway, its now The Book Club, run by the same guys who do the Queen of Hoxton, and with a much nicer, friendlier atmosphere and a lovely bright and airy venue. The kind of place you can order a bottle of wine and Monopoly and chill out.

The real gem of this place was the ping pong room. Yes, not just a table, a room. We went there on Tuesday night for Pippalippa’s birthday when they hold a ping pong league there. You can just rock up and play, but by the personalised bats and serious faces, the league isn’t really for tipsy amateurs like ourselves.

Once the league games were over (about 9pm ish), filled with wine and sharing plates of fajitas and nachos, we managed to get on the tables. Pipalippa and I have something else in common – a previous history of taking ping pong very seriously.  Aged 10-ish, I was enrolled on a week-long ping pong course in the Summer holidays (I have to thank my mother for imaginative yet random school holiday ideas), which meant I’m actually pretty shit-hot at smashes, backhand lunges and similar. Although I now realise that my 10-year-old sober self can probably play a lot better than my 30-something self after a few glasses of vino, oops.  The photo below is typical of our games – which were mostly spent rescuing the ball from the floor/roof/people’s pints etc. I had lots of fun and would certainly return for a few more games – and you can hire the ping pong table if you’re in a group.

Oh and btw while writing this post, I mixed up “book club” with “hat club” and landed at the website of the Old Hat Club supper club in Angel which looks fab and which I’m going to try to go to in October.  And I also passed the Cineroleum petrol-station-come-cinema on my way through Clerkenwell to Shoreditch and it looks fantastic – hoping to see a random film there sometime in September.

Nurture – Gardening London Style

As you may know, one of the HPL Rules is to plant something and nurture it – which has been proved by happiness experts to increase happiness.  Inspired by Penny Golightly’s windowsill gardening, I decided to do some gardening this weekend. I’m in my early thirties thank you very much, but I really enjoy gardening – it takes your mind off absolutely everything else and is very rewarding – whatever you put in you get back out.  I know very little so what I do is based entirely on trial and error and tips from my mother.

At this time of year, gardening is more manual labour and maintenance – cutting out dead bits of plants and preparing the ground for the wonder and growth of Spring.  Here’s how I got on:

1. House plants (status – pretty much dead)

I wouldn’t call these an unmitigated success, but I have managed to keep these two plants living (a peace lily and bamboo).  Ideally I want the peace lily to flower, but it hasn’t done so for 2 years now.  Anyway, I put in some plant food and water, talked nicely to them, and cut off any brown leaves.  Grow my pretties!

Rather less successful:

Yes these are almost dead.  The first was a gorgeous pinkie green fern which didn’t survive winter, and the second was a peace lily.  Both I cut all the dead bits stuff off and added some Miracle Gro (“miracle” being what is needed) and have hoped for the best.  By the end of the week if not growing, I’ll have to say goodbye.

2. The garden (status – spring has almost sprung, heavy cutting back needed)

Good news is that the daffodils and crocuses that I planted rather haphazardly 2 years ago are popping up yet again (plant bulbs in September and wait for spring, no other maintenance needed really) .  Can’t wait til they all come out.

Also good news is that you pretty much cannot kill rosemary.  It is the only herb apart from chives that I planted that survived winter (bye bye mint, basil and lemon thyme – sorry my flat isn’t big enough to take you indoors over winter).

I then did some maintenance on my hydrangea which is incredibly hardy and re-grows beautiful blue/pinkie flowers once I cut the dead ends off.  See before and after:



I then totally cut back my clematis which I failed to maintain much last year but which grows green and healthy over my side wall, and produces these these pretty little white flowers in summer. 

Before (yes I also removed the light stick, leftover from the last party we had)



After – cut right back

I found this very therapeutic to do, and I’m proud of the results.  I’m hoping it will grow back strong and healthy and I’ll then intertwine it more in the lattice.

Photos to come throughout the year on how it develops!

Give a little – busy Londoners guide

As you know, The Happiness Project London believes that as well as making the most out of your time doing fun stuff; to be truly happy, you should fit in some time to help others.  This is especially important given that more and more of us are unhappy nowadays as highlighted by this recent Sunday Times article

But let’s be realistic – we work long hours; book our evenings and weekends up weeks in advance to see friends and partners; and with our remaining free time we try to squeeze in yoga classes, gym sessions, shopping, calling mum. 

However, New Year is about making changes to your life and these can be as small as you like to fit in with your busy lifestyles.  The Evening Standard recently published an artice called “Let’s eat, drink, shop – and give to others“, where it encouraged people to think of others over Christmas and quoted the Archbishop of Westminster’s recent sermon where he said that “real happiness comes from family, friends and community, not status and things.”  

I’m in no position to be preachy (and, having recently hit the sales pretty hard, I know that there is some happiness that comes from “things”), but The Happiness Project London is trying to help the wider community as part of my Rules, and I have therefore come up with some simple, easy ways to help:

1. Unwanted Christmas presents


An embroidered tissue box holder?  Thanks!

You can of course give away on Freecyle or Gumtree, or sell on ebay (for charity if you like), but I’ve found these to can take time and effort, and you often have no idea who you are giving stuff to.

  • So, take random gifts to your local charity shop – they’ll be very pleased to get them. 
  • Toiletries (especially dentist stuff, shower gels, shampoos and razors) would be really helpful to homeless shelters (see St Mungos or the Waterloo Christian Mission) or other charities where people pop in to get shelter (for example The Refugee Council). 
  • Many charities including homeless hostels and shelters for victims of domestic violence and refugees, including The Refugee Council, would love clothes, shoes, toys, colouring pens, etc too – just call first to check that they have room as some have more than they need already. 
2. Donate old furniture
Emmaus and other organisations including Mencap, Trinity Homeless, Salvation Army, Homestore Tower Hamlets and Furniture Aid South Thames will come and pick up your old furniture and electricals for free and donate to charities or people who need it. 

An Evening Standard article on this received a lot of negative comments that this was harder than it sounded, but the alternatives aren’t great.  You can sell on ebay, but I’ve had problems lately with moaning buyers.  The council always takes a while to pick your stuff up, and you might get in trouble for leaving it out in the street.  You also might not want to go through the hassle of giving stuff away on gumtree or freecycle (Londonders can be strangely picky when enquiring about free items).

3. It’s not fundraising, its handraising – www.ihave.org.uk
I LOVE the premise of this new Edinburgh-based website.  ihave.org.uk asked charities what they need and the answers are refreshingly specific and simple – a spare amp, children’s books, volunteer drivers, advertising space, digital cameras, pet food, white boards, blood.
You can give as little as you like, as often as you like, which means it can be fitted into your busy lifestyle.  I can’t be the only one that has hordes of stuff gathering dust that I’d be happy to donate – old cameras, frizbees, plant pots, photo frames, paint….  It is currently Scotland-centric but they are hoping to expand – hopefully it will get to London soon.

Randall & Aubin, 16 Brewer Street, W1F 0SQ

Urbanspoon has opened my eyes to the wonderful world of London food blogging, and puts together a helpful list of restaurants that everyone’s talking about.   I was hoping to try the great-sounding Polpo with my law school friends on Wednesday night, but decided against it because I was worried that, being so popular, we’d be rushed to eat and leave, and I’d read a couple of disparaging reviews.  Also, trendy places in London worry me – getting a table is often too hard and there’s a tendency for style over substance.  So, Polpo can wait for next time.

Instead, I opted for the wonderful Randall & Aubin.  El Grumpo and I walked past it on the way to Yalla Yalla and were intruiged by the disco balls, pumping house and the smiley happy people inside. 

You can’t book a table, which I thought would be a pain – but is perhaps key to its relaxed, party vibe.  The waiting staff are seriously friendly and make sure anyone waiting gets bottles of wine and champers, to the point that no-one seems to care and the crowds of relaxed, smiling people make for a great atmosphere (apparently they asked for and received special dispensation from the council to serve bottles of wine to those queueing outside).  

From start to finish they appear to be saying, “don’t rush, take your time” which carried on throughout the meal – being lawyers, you never know when everyone is going to arrive so you need a flexible table policy – one of our friends turned up about 2 hours late and they were fine with her ordering her main after we’d all finished, and no-one was asked to hurry their meals even when the outside queue grew long (unlike, say, the Buddha Bar).  Service is there when you need but leaves you alone, which, added to the emphasis on seafood,  is perhaps why it is also very romantic.   

Randall & Aubin is a party place covered in glitter balls and decorations, with an old school twist in its marble tables and chrome finishes, perhaps stemming from its birth as a butcher shop in 1911.  With all these people milling around, everyone squashed together at the marble tables, and champagne flowing like water (it is a self-proclaimed champagne and oyster bar) – it felt like we were at the best party in town.  Although slightly sad to say, with my 3 girlfriends, it felt very Sex & The City.   

I LOVED the music – described as too loud and even “inappropriate” by other reviewers – we were able to talk easily (albeit quite loudly) while a fantastic soundtrack of handbag house and 70s disco pumped out.  I fell in love again with Donna Summer’s amazing “State of Independence“.

All this taken into account, I didn’t expect the food and wine to be quite as wonderful as it was.  We drank a gorgeous bottle of Malbec (£25) and then a Viognier with the fish (£23) – both delicious.  The food was also amazingly good (which explained anew why people were so happy to queue). 

I don’t know of another mid-price seafood specialist in London, and I was excited by the reasonably-priced and extensive seafood menu – it had been ages since I’d eaten like this.  The starters of fresh Devon crab salad and calamari were simple, fresh and tasty; the crab salad especially yummy.  For mains, Nicola had the scallops and Jo the halibut, which both said were delicious.  Rach and I had the half grilled lobster with salad and chips, which was  spectacular.  At £16.50 it is pretty much the only time in London I’ve felt I could afford to eat lobster, and it was simply cooked, tasty and meaty.   Next time I’d like to try the Scottish langoustine, the whole dressed crab and the assiete de fruits de mer, with a nice bottle of vino blanco, especially in summer – mouth is watering already!  The roti chicken is recommended in other reviews. 

All in all, we paid £170 between 4 (£40 each) for 2 bottles of wine plus 2 more glasses, a main each and 2 starters to share – for great wine and incredible seafood, it’s not a normal Soho dinner but a bit of a gastronomic disco experience – highly recommended!
Randall & Aubin on Urbanspoon