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Life: Squirrels, Baking and Flying

Life: Squirrels, Baking and Flying

Have you ever been squirrel fishing? Have you ever used squirrels in your baking? Have you ever boarded a flight with a squirrel? These unusual questions have presented themselves to me over the past few weeks.  Squirrels are trending, they are not seasonal, they nibble their way around our parks and gardens all year round. Why all this sudden squirrelness in my world? It all started with the unexpected invitation from a friend to go squirrel fishing. 

    It may or may not surprise you to know, that this is the first time I’ve been asked if I’d like to try squirrel fishing. Many strange thoughts circulated through my mind at the time, however, the most pressing thought was the dilemma of what to wear? I then questioned the ethics of this potential endeavour. I was ensured implicitly that no squirrels would be harmed. Although the activity contained the word fishing, the only liquid involved would be a flask of hot chocolate. Still slightly perturbed as to the nature of this endeavour, my friend assured me that the full details would unfold in due course. I was not to worry about the minutiae. 

    As yet, due to busy diaries and pre-booked autumnal activities of a more common nature – making pumpkin soup and going for country walks – squirrel fishing, the safe and harmless activity for adults has yet to materialise. If it does, and I am not traumatised or arrested, I will duly report back. 

    This odd invitation was swiftly followed by a comforting and grounding episode of The Great British Bake Off. This year’s contestants did much to maketh my cup of heartfelt joy runeth over. In these testing times I want to crawl into the Bake Off Tent and never leave. No harm can come to you when you have a daily diet of biscuit chandeliers, choux pastry space turtles and homemade Wagon Wheels. When the aptly named Kim Joy decorated her vegan tarts with iced images of squirrels, she elevated the lowly, nut bingeing creature out of the woodland and into the homes of six million Bake Off viewers. Sadly her fantastical creativity and re-design of the Lost City of Atlantis in genoise sponge were not enough to win her the coveted title.

    Not long after the sugar-coated squirrels, I heard the news story of a woman in the US thrown off an internal flight from Orlando to Cleveland for attempting to board with her  ‘emotional support’ squirrel. It was news to me that airlines in the US allow passengers to travel with a comforting pet in the cabin. After a little bit of research, I discovered that this is a fairly common thing among our friends across the water. Travellers usually choose to be accompanied by a cat or dog to calm their nerves. Animals with tusks are banned, as are reptiles and rodents, and this sadly includes squirrels. 

    As yet, UK airlines under EU regulations have not adopted this friendly policy. Instead, nervous flyers within Europe stick to gin and valium to calm their nerves. Perhaps this could be introduced to the UK post Brexit? If indeed our passports are still valid and we are allowed over European airspace.

    Personally, I prefer to fly with friends and loved ones for comfort. On a recent flight, I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by a dozen comfort animals, twelve of my oldest school friends. None of whom were classed as rodents or refused boarding. As a collective, we headed to the beautiful island of Majorca to celebrate a significant birthday for half the group. Upon arrival, we gracefully climbed aboard our friend’s boat and set sail from Puerto Pollensa to the idyllic bay of Formentor. 

As the sun shone down on us, we frolicked in the clear blue waters, lit the BBQ and cranked up the Spotify playlist. We raised a glass to those from our school days who sadly hadn’t made it to a half century, and as we indulged ourselves in a weekend of comforting old friendships, we thanked our lucky stars that we had. 

“You can’t be friends with a squirrel! A squirrel is just a rat with a cuter outfit” 

Sarah Jessica Parker


Life: Summer Loving, Teenage Culture and Growing Up

Life: Summer Loving, Teenage Culture and Growing Up

Grease is 40 and that makes me feel a little bit old. I was a cute eight year old in 1978 when the film was first released. It was given an A rating by the film censors which meant that no matter how desperate I was to see it, tragically I was half the legal age required to go to the cinema. The billboard posters taunted me, they were everywhere advertising the huge box office success.  It was impossible to escape the images of Olivia Newton-John with her blonde curls and John Travolta with his gravity-defying quiff. The big kids that had seen the film started to recite lines from it verbatim and verbal Americanism’s started to seep into my little world. A film was now a movie, handsome boys were Studs, and girls were Chicks. It would take me years to understand the true meaning of a “hickey from Kenickie” and that the verb to barf was the American for being sick.

    Jump forward to the beginning of the 80’s. I am now in my early teens and joy of joys, Grease gets released onto VHS.  Myself and the rest of Generation X finally got the chance to experience the antics of the pupils of Rydell High in the comfort of our own homes.  We already knew the words to all the songs, our older siblings had been playing the soundtrack on vinyl for years. But to finally get to watch the whole film? I can draw only from my personal experience, it was emotional.  A significant point in social history, when American teenage culture having teased us for so many years, finally came and slapped us around the face.

    I knew it was a movie, I knew it wasn’t real life, it was America in the 1950’s, but I still couldn’t help comparing their teenage way of life to my own. I was at a Catholic comprehensive, dressed most of the time in the compulsory grey and burgundy school uniform. It looked so unbelievably drab compared to the American girls squeezed into their skin-tight pencil skirts and satin bomber jackets. Nobody drove themselves to school, and if they did it most certainly wasn’t in an open top car that got used for drag racing at the weekends. 

    At the end of the school year, we had what could loosely be described as a disco in the school gym. Still in our dreary uniforms, the Head of History would get out a cassette player and attempt to entertain us with his self-indulgent music collection. The dinner ladies begrudgingly catered for our dismal departure by putting out bowls of crisps and at around 5pm we were booted out to enjoy our summer. 

    At Rydell High, however, it was a very different story. The end of the school year was celebrated with an all singing, all dancing Prom. A lavish event, black tie for the boys, big dresses for the girls and a live band. Today, the teenagers of Great Britain have fully embraced the prom culture. No more lacklustre disco’s and bowls of stale Wotsits for our Little Darling’s. They now wear cocktail dresses and employ hair and makeup artists. They arrive at the prom in the back of limousines swigging cheap Prosecco. For every glass of fizz they drink – and no doubt barf up later – they should raise one to the kids of Rydell High.  For they have Grease to thank for the death of the school disco and the rise of the Prom.    

    Aside from shining a light on the intimate details of American high school life, Grease is fundamentally, the love story of Sandy and Danny. Two teenagers who despite their differences, fall in love. Wholesome Australian Sandy meets who she believes to be wholesome American Danny during their summer vacation [deliberate Americanism]. Upon starting a new year at Rydell High, Sandy is as shocked to see Danny in his leathers sporting a greasy quiff, as he is to see her in her white bobby socks and pale lemon twin set. 

    Jump forward once again to 2018 and the story of Sandy and Danny is significant to me once again. I too have just had some summer loving. Like Sandy, I met a boy who was very different from me. We both happened to be in a busy pub one Saturday afternoon, and when a book that I had recently read, This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell, fell out of his bag, it sparked a conversation. For a bookworm such as myself, I couldn’t have imagined a more romantic way to meet a boy.

    We went on to enjoy the summer together. Serendipitously it was the hottest one for years, and we spent it mainly on the beach, he showed off, splashing around. It was idyllic, the perfect staycation. We shared a love of books, food and music, and managed to indulge ourselves in all three whilst basking in the sun and each others company.

    But it turned colder, and that’s where it ends. The romantic fuzz of meeting over a book started to fade and the differences between us began to show up. At the end of Grease wholesome young Sandy transforms into a sassy, (some would say slutty) chick, to keep her man. Teenage Jo would also have willingly ditched her cardi’s, pretty dresses and sensible pumps for leather trousers, a perm and a packet of fags to get her man. However, adult Jo knows that this is not the answer. Being true to myself was the only answer. My days of hard partying are well and truly over, but for my Summer Lover they are not, and so the cracks began to show. 

    We decided we’d still be friends, so I packed up my books, my yoga mat and my earplugs. In response, he cranked up his decks, invited his friends over and partied till the early hours. Summer dreams ripped at the seams, but brimming with fond memories. I shall forever remember 2018 as the summer that made me realise just how much I have grown up.

“Sandy: He was sort of special

Rizzo: There ain’t no such thing.”


Life: Heatwaves, Ladybirds and Tizer

Life: Heatwaves, Ladybirds and Tizer

Phew! What a scorcher! We have just had the driest start to a summer since modern records began in 1961. Could this unusually inclement weather be due to global warming? As I wallow selfishly in yet another glorious day of sunshine I am guilty of ignoring the bigger picture, the impending destruction of the planet.

    I am more than happy to put up and shut up with arctic snowstorms in April if they are followed by endless months of tropical heat.  The ‘Beast from the East,’ central heating and bowls of stew, are but a distant memory. For a sun-worshipping, avid vitamin D absorber like myself, days of sunshine such as these have been but a dream. Our summers have routinely turned out to be pretty lacklustre, pretty damp and pretty disappointing. But now I find myself horizontal on the beach day after day after day, eating double raspberry Magnum after double raspberry Magnum.  I am, at last, living the summer of my dreams. 

     In between slurping ice-cream and cooling down in the sea, I have also managed to devote some quality time to another of my favourite pastimes reading. One recent beach read was the most enjoyable Instructions For a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. Set in London, it’s the story of a loveable Irish family during the record-breaking heatwave of 1976.

    1976 was the summer The Sun first published the classic tabloid headline above, as the temperature in the UK reached 28+ over twenty-two consecutive days. There was no rain from the beginning of June until biblical thunderstorms hit at the end of August. Subsequently, the minister for droughts immediately became the minister for floods. 

   I was six during that epic summer and apart from a memorable bout of miserable measles on my birthday, I also remember the plague of ladybirds that besieged the country. Hungry and thirsty their only option for survival was to drink the sweat of the very sweaty human population. I was not particularly svelte as a child and I recall squeezing into a beloved swimming costume by the now extinct clothing brand ‘Ladybird.’ The costume was emblazoned with their logo, you guessed it, ladybirds. Needless to say, I was pretty much camouflaged during this macabre couple of days. And due to my clever branding, I quite possibly escaped having my perspiration syphoned off by a ravenous aphid.

    I don’t recall sunscreen with SPF or UVA filters existing in 1976. We were unaware of the ozone layer back then, and the damage the sun could do to our skin. I do remember regularly burning the skin on my back, and on more than one occasion, it blistered. Standard sunburn procedure was a hot bath to take out the sting, before being liberally coated in pink calamine lotion from head to toe. The layers of lotion dried to form an attractive crust that encased my body, and fortunately, still allowed it to breathe. The following morning the lotion was rinsed off and after all that effort, the sunburn would still be there. But off I went, outside again, this time with a t-shirt on over my cossie. That was sun protection in 1976.

     During that long hot summer, with my both parents working I pretty much had to fend for, and amuse myself, under the not so watchful eye of my elder sister. Space Hoppers and Raleigh Choppers where the predecessors to mobile phones and tablets. Armed with a survival kit of marmite sandwiches, crisps, Tizer and a vivid imagination, I played on the street, unsupervised. Dodging moving cars was a way of life. This reckless, feral lifestyle might today be seen as neglect, but back then it was just what kids did. That was childcare in 1976.

    Shockingly my parents didn’t have a clue about recycling and had never heard of prosecco. The only gin available was Gordon’s, and Schweppes produced the only tonic. Findus crispy pancakes were considered a food group and if you could stomach prawn cocktail flavoured crisps, you had a sophisticated palate. 

    Whilst Elton John and Kiki Dee were topping the charts with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” the powers that be were giving out invaluable advice 1976 style.  “Bath with a friend” got printed on t-shirts to encourage people to conserve the water supply.  A well-respected doctor at one London hospital famously recommended the sweltering masses drink a pint of beer and eat a packet of crisps to replenish the liquid and salts lost through sweating. 

    Writing this has made me yearn slightly for the relaxed attitude of the 70’s. Studies by economists have shown that financially, the UK wasn’t at it’s best in 1976. However, they looked at the broader picture and the factors that contribute to the quality of life and concluded that 1976 was Britan’s happiest year, especially if you were a child. If they took into account bouncing around all summer on a space hopper, with little parental control, burping warm Tizer, then I’m not surprised, it really was a joyous year.



Life: Stamina, Parties and Hangovers

Life: Stamina, Parties and Hangovers

My friends and I are all approaching or have reached the big 50, and I totally agree with the old adage that like good wine, we improve with age. This improvement can be interpreted in numerous ways. Many of my quinquagenarian friends are challenging themselves physically, extremely physically. Having taken part in the Brighton Marathon two or three times, it no longer presents itself as a challenge. Eager to push themselves further, ultra marathons and Iron Man (and woman) triathlons are the new (horrifying) events that they are voluntarily signing up for.

        For some however, the improvement has taken on a slightly different guise. They have shown remarkable development in their ability to stay up late and party.  It is not their alcohol consumption I admire, it’s their ability at our age to push on through the hangover’s and function as normal human beings the next day/s.

    Having been remarkably good at staying up late in our formative years, there was a slump in this particular activity once the majority started producing children. I never belonged to this camp, so my training and dedication to this discipline never really went into decline. I was committed to my practice of late nights, Marlborough Lights and vodka. Physically exhausted and mentally depleted, I had no choice but to announce my retirement in my early 40’s.

    I’ve become an early bird with age, productive and energetic upon waking. I like to be in bed by 10pm and asleep by 11pm. Occasionally I can have my arm twisted and happily stay out late drinking Margarita’s and dancing badly. Lost in music, I forget about the impending and inevitable consequences that come with having too much alcohol fuelled fun – see below. 

    As a rule, if I don’t get eight hours sleep I’m a miserable old bag that not even a double shot of caffeine can cheer up, and nobody deserves to be subjected to that.

    I do however have friends who supposedly also need eight hours sleep and rarely get it. Enviably they come alive at 10pm just as I’m putting on the kettle to make a cup of sleepy tea and preparing to hunker down with a book.

    Very recently, on an unremarkable Wednesday in April, one of my best friends turned fifty. An unfortunate day of the week for such a momentous birthday to fall on, so one would think. The best you could do would be to mark it with a quiet supper with your family and a handful of close friends? You’d have the big blow out celebration the weekend before or after? Who would consider throwing a fiftieth party on a Wednesday, a school night?  In his newly acquired, age-associated wisdom, my friend decided to host a low key celebration in a local pub on a Wednesday night, the invite read drinks and food 7pm-11pm. 

    I did the 7pm-10pm shift, yes readers, I lifted my bedtime curfew by an hour because he really is a very special friend. As I gathered up my belongings and stuffed one last halloumi fry in my mouth, I suffered no FOMO as I exited the building. I believed the party would be naturally winding down, being a Wednesday.

    The next day I dropped the Birthday Boy and his wife a text to thank them for a lovely evening. It was then that I discovered that they had accepted a lock-in at the pub until 2.30am and then escorted a large proportion of the revellers back to theirs to carry on, on a Wednesday! When their eight year old got up for school, she was delighted, yet puzzled, to see various family members and close friends passed out on the sofa’s and floor of her lounge.

    I am in no way chastising the dirty stop-outs, I am just in total awe of their stamina and their resilience to their hangovers. They didn’t spend the following day/s feeling utterly dreadful, forced to take to their beds with a litre of diet coke and a cold pizza. Enviably they functioned as perfectly normal human beings.

    I am writing this on a Monday morning with a hangover that is deciding whether or not it has had enough of my company, or whether it is going to stick around for another 24 hours. On Saturday I helped another dear friend celebrate her 50th. What started out as a genteel lunch, slowly unravelled into total carnage. Too much rosé, pink champagne and a playlist that had us all up and dancing made sure that Sunday was a total write off. I was nil by mouth, totally light sensitive and had to stay very close to my toilet, the penalty for having too much fun, again.

    Surprisingly, I do remember with fondness all the celebrations I have shared over the years.  In my mind we partied hard, but to date, the 50th’s are wiping the floor with the 21st’s, 30th’s and 40th’s. What kind of improvements are we going to make over the next ten years? I think I need to start organising a dedicated training regime to prepare me for the Sixtieths. Pass the rosé……

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” 

George Bernard Shaw

This article also appeared in the Brighton & Hove Independent 


Life: Snow And The Joy Of Reading

Life: Snow And The Joy Of Reading

I have and always will be a total ‘bah humbug’ when it comes to snow. I don’t want to be anywhere near it, never mind play it in.  As a nation, we were updated continually on the advancement and impending implosion of the Beast from the East. Forewarned is forearmed, and so I sensibly prepared myself for the unavoidable Baltic conditions. It wasn’t a complicated military operation by any means, but it did require a certain amount of planning. I had my boiler serviced, panic bought an emergency supply of milk chocolate hobnobs and dragged my body and my duvet to my sofa along with a pile of books. Operation “snowed in” was successfully completed without a hitch.  The Beast arrived. The world stopped. Others appeared to be more than happy sledging and throwing snowballs. I lay down and read. Bliss.

Every time I pick up a new book, I know that I am going on an adventure. One that I may or may not enjoy.  I could be taken to a different country, a different place in time or a fantasy world. I may find myself inside the head of a murderer, a drug lord or a dying man. I can laugh, I can cry or on occasion, I can be haunted by what I have read.  The journey of turning each page and being led safely into the unknown as the story and the characters unfold, is for me, the joy of reading.

Even though the snow caused travel chaos, I still managed to travel quite a lot without setting foot inside an airport or indeed a time machine. First stop Northern Iceland in 1829 and the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir,  a servant woman in her thirties accused of a brutal murder. There being no prisons in Iceland at that time, the condemned woman is sent to work for a local family on a remote farm, to await her fate. Hannah Kent’s, Burial Rites is as bleak as it is beautiful, and chillingly based on a true story.

From Iceland, I found myself in Russia where I had the good fortune to meet (and fall in love with) a man of true honour, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov.  Amor Towles’,  A Gentleman in Moscow is, without doubt, one of the best books I have ever read. It is 1922 and the Count has been deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik court. Instead of an all expenses paid trip to Siberia, he is put under house arrest in the grand Metropole hotel on Red Square, conveniently located opposite the Kremlin.  I eeked out the last one hundred pages of this six hundred page book, wishing there could be six hundred more. The strapline for the novel is “he can’t leave, you won’t want to,” That pretty much sums up this delightful read.

From Moscow, I let Rohinton Mistry’s, A Fine Balance, take me to India in 1975 and story of two tailors, a widow and a student.  These four characters get thrown together during the political unrest and human rights violations of Indira Gandhi’s, Emergency. An incredible, but traumatic story, I couldn’t help but become attached to the four protagonists, and emotionally invested in their fate. By the end I was sobbing, really, really sobbing and totally humbled.  Yet again reminded of the priceless value of family and friendship, and just how incredibly lucky I am.

By the time I had gathered enough literary air miles, to fly around the world and back, the snow had melted (for the second time). I clocked a few subtle clues that spring could be on its way. The temperature hitting a scorching five degrees was one, and Easter eggs dominating every supermarket, another. If like me, this endless winter is really starting to get you down and you feel a desperate need to escape, pick up a book, grab a packet of hobnobs, and curl up on your sofa. Reading really can take you anywhere.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you will go.” —Dr. Seus