8 October 2017
If you speak to anyone who knew me in my uni days, you’ll know that a saintly attitude to all things alcoholic has never been part of my style. I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to get cheerfully smashed whenever it presented itself, and was even paid with a six-pack of beer (Black Label, no less – talk about a class act) when I did stand-up comedy at the Student Union. Whether or not this improved my act remains a mystery…and is one of the many reasons I thank God almost daily for the invention of camera phones only after this time. At one of the big party universities in South Africa (the amount of beer drunk by our tiny student population of 7,000 was always a point of pride), going ‘large’ was standard, and I look back on that time with huge fondness, and a wincing liver.
At this point, I would also like to insert a warning to my children for when they are older, and as nuggets of parental wisdom go, I’d say it’s pretty significant – never ever (ever) drink the yucca at a Rowing Club toga party. Being woken up at 5am by the Sunday Times truck is always a bit annoying after a big night. When you open your eyes and can actually see every bolt on the truck’s tyres because you’re sleeping on the central reservation of the main road outside your university (having been carried there on the sofa you’d fallen asleep on – bloody rowers and their ludicrous upper body strength), it’s time to make a resolution to steer clear of all lemon-based vodka punches for good.
However, in all this time of happy debauchery, I can pinpoint less than a handful of times where I tucked into a drink because I felt I ‘needed’ it, and with kidneys that were wont to throw an infection at me on a regular basis, going out stone-cold sober was never really a hindrance in terms of enjoying myself. Talking at the top of my voice or making a tit of myself is not something I’ve ever had to rely on alcohol to help me do, so its presence on a night out was generally more as part of the fun rather than the point of the exercise. If I couldn’t drink because I was antibiotics, that really wasn’t a good enough reason to stay at home.
My endometriosis kicked in just a month after I finished university, and with it came the need to consider ‘lifestyle choices’ – the dullest of all the choices, let’s be fucking serious. Along with a special diet to try and manage my symptoms, I was forbidden from indulging in my favourite beers, red wine, and G&Ts. This was a proper case of ‘hashtag sad face’ as I enjoyed these things enormously, but I was willing to do anything necessary. The fact that this gave me a kind of reverse version of the ‘Heathrow Injection’, where I lost about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) in six months, was certainly a case for ‘hashtag smug face’, which made up somewhat for the lack of yummy Merlot in my existence. But, dark times were ahead… My first glass of red wine after a six-month break absolutely sank me. I was embarrassingly drunk after about four sips, hungover after another four, and fast asleep about 15 minutes later. I was suddenly the world’s cheapest, and dullest, date.
Gradually I worked out that wine and champagne were the major no-nos, but that clear spirits like gin were fine. However, I would be able to nurse that G&T for well over two hours, and my absolute limit for many years was two – unless I really wanted to feel like a warmed-up corpse for two or three days. Gradually this amount has been reduced even further to, well, almost nothing. For the past year, I’ve had to concede defeat and stop ordering my beloved amaretto sours (has there EVER been a more perfect cocktail??), as any alcohol at all means I can literally feel my liver and kidneys growing too big for my body. It’s like my organs are doing an impression of a helium balloon, and it bloody hurts. So, I am now the lucky llama who is pretty much faced with the choice of Coke or sparkling water when ‘out out’ (although, can we just have a moment’s shout-out to the GENIUS makers of Seedlip non-alcoholic spirit – it’s sensational with tonic, but not available everywhere just yet).
Much as I would still like to be able to enjoy my favourite alcoholic beverages, the fact that I can’t drink isn’t something that bothers me or makes me any less likely to go somewhere I know people will be drinking (when even my sons’ favourite soft play centre stocks wine for the grown-ups, this would be nigh impossible anyway – I’d like to add that I can well imagine that the addition of wine to an adult’s experience of soft play could only be a vast sodding improvement). What has become rather boring, however, is the reaction of other people when I decline a glass of prosecco and ask for something soft instead. After running through the various reasons why I bizarrely wouldn’t want a drink (pregnant? alcoholic? puritan?) the person who offered me the drink will more often than not ask with an exasperated air, ‘then why not?’ I have tried saying ‘it just doesn’t agree with me’, but this tends to elicit a reaction that suggests I’ve just announced that I’d quite fancy shagging Donald Trump. However, the more detailed description of my whole alcohol/swelling internal organs link is way more detail than anyone needs at a cocktail party.
By then, my ‘freak’ neon light is fully flashing above my head, and it’s guaranteed that I’ll need to have this ‘why I don’t drink’ conversation at least seven or eight more times that evening. One memorable dinner party consisted of me being thoroughly questioned on this topic for the entire starter and most of the main. While I have absolutely no problem verbally wanking on about myself for hours on end, I can’t possibly imagine that this is a topic that would fascinate anyone? Surely we should all still be arguing over Brexit? Or judging other peoples’ parenting? Or complaining about the cost of installing nuclear bunkers in our gardens? I can’t be alone in thinking that whether or not I have a glass of wine is literally the least interesting topic of conversation in the entire history of, well, wine?
I have developed my own theory about this fascination with non-drinkers (or, at least, the ones without a ‘valid’ reason for abstaining), and it comes down to the simple matter of judgement. Not my own, I must clarify. I have absolutely no opinion on someone else’s drinking habits - whether you crack open a bottle of Pinot at 5pm on the nose because your children have screamed non-stop since school pick-up, or if some days you fancy a pre-lunch aperitif, I can’t see why I would possibly care. In fact, I often wish I could join you. Likewise, if you get tanked on a night out and I need to hold back your hair as you have a chat with the porcelain telephone, I would only really start feeling somewhat judgy about your behaviour if you literally puked on my shoes. It’s your body, it’s your decision, and as long as it doesn’t endanger you or anyone else, I can’t summon up the energy to feel one way or another about it. In fact, there is never a shortage of something to drink when you come to my house, even though neither Mac nor I drink any of it ourselves. If you come for dinner, you will not be expected to neck litres of nettle tea – there’ll be a variety of delicious options, and even the prospect of taking home any remaining open bottles as we won’t want to waste them – surely that’s no bad thing? Adult party favours for the win!
This ‘judgement’ I speak of is entirely projected by other people onto me, which I think you’ll agree is rather strange. Surely it has no impact on your life? I will still get louder and sillier as a night out progresses, and will happily be the last to leave the dancefloor. As an added bonus, I’ll be able to drive you home afterwards, while having no objection to the fact that you’ll probably feel the need to tell me how much you’ve always loved me at least 17 times. When you wake up the next day and want sympathy for the fact that you’re hanging like a pair of dog’s bollocks and still have to try and effectively parent your children all day, I will be full of sympathy - not pointing and laughing as I jog past in my athleisure wear.
I have no moral objection to other people’s drinking, but I do object to being labelled as a party pooper for not indulging alongside everyone else. I also don’t particularly fancy a round of applause when I do decide I really fancy a beer once in a blue moon. Drinking is not a moral issue (unless it compromises your treatment of others, or indeed yourself), and I’m dubious of campaigns that try to make people ‘Sober Heroes’ for charity. If you want a drink, have a drink. If you don’t, then don’t. But if you feel like you’re somehow powerless to make that decision in the face of peer pressure, whatever age you are, then that’s a conversation you need to have with yourself. And, hopefully, the people around you won’t make a big deal of it if you make the decision not to.
P.S. This photo of my 20-year-old self doing stand-up was taken by one of my best friends (and now godfather to my youngest son), Trevor Crighton. He’s @trevorcrighton on Instagram.
24 September 2017
While my grooming regime would certainly fall into the ‘consistent but low maintenance’ category, my one great hair cost-saving has been the entirely unintentional genetic lottery win of blonde hair with natural balayage (obviously I had to Google that term after a new hairdresser got all excited about it, which goes to show just how wildly up-to-date I am with beauty trends). However, it is prone to falling into a mop that is both limp and kinky - not a good combination in any context…wink wink nudge nudge, know what I mean?
Sorry, had to be done. Won’t happen again. Probably.
My three hero products are the ones that take me from post-shower frizz to a whole lot sleeker, with varying degrees of ‘done’, depending on whether I’m doing the school run or going ‘out out’. My lack of expertise when it comes to hair styling is part of the reason these three are heroes – they make good hair days achievable even for a dunce like me!
Liz Earle Botanical Shine Nourishing Hair Oil
I am definitely a Liz Earle devotee, and have been using her Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser for many years. While the shampoos and conditioners are lovely, my favourite Liz Earle hair product is the hair oil. I apply it to the length/ends of towel-dried hair and comb it through, and it leaves my hair glossy and about 100% more manageable. As I have quite greasy roots, I try to avoid too-rich conditioners, but this oil adds the perfect amount of finishing condition without weighing it down at all.
At £18.50 for 50ml, it lasts for ages, as you only need one or two pumps at a time, and it smells delicious. If you’re planning to use any heat on your hair, it both protects it and reduces the drying time (this is one of its advertised properties, but it’s part of my experience of using it too). As I have fine hair that grows like a weed, but am so lazy about getting it cut, this helps keep even bra strap-length hair nourished and split-end free.
It’s also nice to know that Liz Earle products are responsibly-sourced and cruelty-free. While a lot of cosmetics companies are only slowly getting the message when it comes to animal testing and environmentally-friendly practises, this company has made that part of their entire philosophy from the very start.
Babyliss Big Hair
Anyone who’s ever watched me play tennis will know that hand-eye coordination ain’t my strong point. Which is why, even after a masterclass in blow-drying from one of the Richard Ward salon’s* creative directors (who himself has the sexiest, bouncy head of hair I’ve ever seen), I still managed to give myself a black eye from trying to wield a brush and hairdryer at the same time.
So, I resigned myself to a lifetime of just flicking my hair upside down and blow-drying it as best I could. Not exactly optimal, but definitely with less risk of concussion.
Enter, the Babyliss Big Hair, a Christmas present from the other half two years’ ago (he’s good at taking a hint). This little beauty is a game-changer for cack-handed types everywhere, as it integrates brush and blow-drying heat into one, with added rotation – ooh. While I’ve never managed to quite replicate the catwalk-ready style as shown on the website, it allows me to create a sleek and volumised ‘do with minimal investment of time or effort. Lazy groomers of the world, rejoice!
If you’ve towel-dried your hair, applied some of the hair oil above, and then given your hair a quick blitz with your normal hairdryer until it’s just slightly damp, this gizmo will do the rest. It takes a few attempts to work out your perfect technique, but once you’ve mastered it, it’s a doddle.
This newer model is £45, and there’s also the original version with a slightly smaller 42mm barrel (as opposed to 50mm), which is useful if you have slightly shorter hair or a fringe, available for £40. It’s a good-quality bit of kit for a great price, with the ability to transform even the clumsiest of us into supermodels (well, sort of).
Mason Pearson Hairbrushes
Although this is the hair grooming item I use the most, I have saved it for last mainly because, once you hear the price, you may well stop reading, assuming that I have well and truly taken leave of my senses. However, stick with me here, as I bought my Mason Pearson ‘Popular’ hairbrush 15 years’ ago, and only the slight fading of the gold writing on the handle shows any evidence of its age. A large nylon and bristle brush, it gets through my fine (and sometimes slightly knotty) hair with ease, leaving it silky smooth. Even though I rinse it every two days to remove any dry shampoo residue, the rubber cushion hasn’t perished or cracked at all, and the bristles are still pristine. Most Mason Pearson brushes come with a special cleaning brush, which you use with a bit of mild shampoo every few weeks to leave them good as new.
Now for the price. Deep breath, my particular model now costs a rather breathtaking £90 (it was quite a lot less when I bought it, but that was almost a decade and a half ago), which seems pretty outrageous for something that doesn’t do anything except brush your hair – for that price, you’d at least expect it to also make you a flat white or take the bins out. However, the best recommendation I can give is to say that if, beauty gods forbid, mine was lost, I would not hesitate to replace it. It is the most beautiful quality imaginable, with a luxurious weight and feel when you use it. Also, based on its current state, it’s going to be at least another 15 years before I need to replace it – as cost-per-wear and sustainability goes, that’s bloody good going.
I have linked the Mason Pearson website below, which includes a list of stockists, but they range from £26 for a really small nylon brush to around £140 for the largest pure bristle options. Do visit the website first to work out which option is best for your hair – they have a great search tool. It’s definitely a beauty investment, but a worthwhile one in my view (and I’m the queen of budgets and eBay, so I don’t say that lightly!)
* Yes, that is the salon that did the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding hair. Yes, I did book an appointment with her hairdresser the Monday after the wedding. Yes, some of us aren’t content with a commemorative tea towel. Yes, it was one of the best haircuts of my life. Yes, I did carry on going there for two years afterwards. Yes, I did eventually come to my senses and realise that £135 for a haircut was an unjustifiable expense (well, at least until I win the EuroMillions).
10 September 2017
When the clock struck midnight on 31st December 2016, I know I was far from alone in saying goodbye to a pretty abominable year, in terms of not only world politics, but also personal loss and sadness. 2017 was going to be different, and my feeling of optimism was through the roof. The year got off to a great start, and it felt fantastic to finally get my blog up and running. I was feeling fit and healthy, my kids were well and happy (and still are, which is something I don’t ever ever take for granted), and I was ready to work hard and appreciate every minute.
As with all best-laid plans, there was always the potential for things to go awry, but just how awry surprised even my cynical little soul. The last six months have been like a succession of trapdoors opening under my feet at the most unexpected moments, and often in a rapid succession that has taken my breath away. Ill health, my own and that of people close to me, and nasty surprises of every flavour have started to feel like the norm. In fact, when our car was written off outside our home by a skidding driver (she was fine; the car was not) and the next day our shower sprung a leak all over our home office below, these felt like minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of things.
While you may be wondering if this is merely a long-winded version of those entirely infuriating Vaguebook status updates that are set out purely as an ‘Are you okay, hon?’ fishing expedition, the specifics of what has actually happened are not the point of this blog post – some things I may write about at a later stage in the hope that they might help others, but the rest you wouldn’t bloody believe anyway. Instead, the point is perfectly summed up by my seven-year-old when he petulantly retorts to my refusal to buy him an ice-cream with his favourite Swedish word – ‘orättvis’. Unfair. A little word that applies to so much in human existence, both good and bad. Because, hold onto your hats, life is not fair.
When children whine that something is not fair, they’re not wrong, but it’s something that most of us battle to get to grips with our whole lives. Of course, there are things that happen that fall under the heading of ‘so spectacularly unfair and unnecessary that justice must be sought’. We have had more than enough tragedies of this variety in very recent times to all acknowledge this, but it is the unfairness of the things that happen to seemingly sabotage our individual lives that we continuously battle with. Especially when these personal injustices have not happened as a result of anything we have actually done (or neglected to do), it can be hard to grasp why the universe has chosen to pick on us in this way when we were just going about our business, trying (even if sometimes failing) to be decent human beings. We’ve been seemingly thwarted, whether by illness, the actions of others, or the failure of an anticipated reward to materialise. The fact that a lot of good things may have happened to us in our lives without any particular adherence to the concept of ‘fairness’ is very easily forgotten, and we feel like stamping our feet much like a toddler in the sweetie aisle at the supermarket.
This is the moment when the importance of a well-timed pity party should not be overlooked. There is nothing wrong with feeling mightily pissed-off, and taking an hour or two (or even a day, if it’s a particularly disastrous situation) to feel properly bloody sorry for yourself. Fattening foods, wine, trash TV, and trolling of Donald Trump supporters are all perfectly acceptable additions to your pity party. Weeping, shouting, and sleeping are also good ingredients. If anything, I find that that a jolly good cry and a large cup of tea seem to focus my mind and allow me to take the next step towards accepting the situation as it is, and formulating a plan of action. And that’s the key in all good parties, especially pity ones - knowing when they should end. Wallowing for a limited time period is essential, but wallowing indefinitely is a guaranteed way to prolong your unhappiness, and render you incapable of any form of acceptance and constructive action.
There are a few important things to remember if you’re struggling with next steps after your pity party. The first can be summed up simply as ‘it is what it is’. Whether it’s something you’re going to be able to fix or not, accepting the reality of the situation is the only way to start. This may be a relatively quick process, or it may take months, but it’s a process you need to get underway as soon as possible. Pretending that it’s not happening, or lying to yourself about the scale of the problem (whether you feel inclined to blow it out of proportion, or indeed understate it) is not going to do you any favours. As a wise man once told my mother, and she then wisely passed on to me, ‘You need to make reality your friend’.
Secondly, acknowledge that it sucks, but that unfairness is an inevitable part of life. There will be many times in your life where ‘unfairness’, or the lack of exact equality in the natural order of things, will have benefitted you to a greater or lesser extent. You may not have asked for them, but circumstances have been in your favour. The fact that the pendulum then swings the other way should come as no surprise. Sometimes it swings so far and so consistently into the shit side of things that you struggle to understand when it might be kind enough to go in the other sodding direction, but investing too much negative energy into feeling wronged is only going to make you feel worse.
This is where the third, perhaps more positive, step comes in. Practise gratitude. When you are stuck in a mindset where everything seems to be against you, it is a powerful mental exercise to consider the things that you can actually be grateful for. They may be big things, like good health and a comfortable home, or they may only be the smallest things, like a hot cup of coffee or an afternoon nap, but the more things you can think of to stack in your gratitude pile, the more you might be able to diminish the unfair shit pile in your head. While I am still dealing with the various factors that have threatened to overwhelm me over the last six months, I am still so conscious of how enormously fortunate I am in big and small ways every single day. Sometimes it feels like no more than sprinkling glitter on a cowpat, but at least it’s something!
The fourth step is realise that often in life we have limited control over what happens to us, but we always have control over our response. Sometimes there will be someone to blame, and sometimes it is simply out of anyone’s hands, but the bottom line is that nothing we can do will ever immunise us against bad things happening. The entire concept of ‘justice’ is a far larger one than I can ever hope to tackle effectively, but a sense of injustice can absolutely cripple us mentally and emotionally, and that becomes an injustice in itself. Consciously deciding to reframe and respond to a situation in a positive, proactive way can do astonishing things to drag us out of a victim headpace. This may take days, weeks or years, but every step in this process is a step in the direction of a strength and resilience that will almost certainly surprise you.
It’s hard to exactly define and measure fairness, as so much of it is subjective. But all human beings, from a very young age, develop a very keen sense of what they feel it is, and when it’s been tipped against them. The ability to take charge of the narrative in your own mind will empower you to deal with just about anything life throws at you. No-one expects you to bounce back immediately, but you’ll only be able to do so if you’re not a victim in your own mind.
After all, life’s not fair, but that’s not the point.