Wednesday 30 December 2015


Inviting Guests Over:

When I’m feeling robust, having friends over for dinner seems like such a good plan, but sometimes even the idea of giving a dinner can make me feel weak.  Who to ask? What to eat? I love finding a dish I can prepare before (hate the stress of actually cooking while guests are milling around watching.) My husband is braver; he doesn’t mind sizzling some Red Snapper as the guests are sipping their cocktails. Often, to avoid the cooking anxiety, we find a recipe that works and use it for the next twelve months. We must have presented the same dish to our favourite friends at least two or three times, but hopefully they haven’t noticed or cared.

Once the decision has been made to actually have a dinner, it is time to invite the guests. It is virtually impossible to secure an unattached available man for a single girlfriend. We have one single man friend who has been rolled out several times a year for the last few years, but no match yet. The last time I invited five girlfriends together for dinner at my house, it took at least twenty emails over four days to find a mutually good date and once found and typed into diaries,  it had to be cancelled and renegotiated, as one of the girls discovered she wouldn't even be in London on the original date.

Stress Points/Preparing

Shopping for the dinner in my experience takes more than one excursion (inevitably something will have been forgotten: the vital herb, the sparkling water or the mustard) Or we have to go and buy something for the person who rings up a few hours before to say they can’t eat meat/wheat/gluten/pulses. One woman (a friend of my husband’s) emailed to say she had become a vegan and couldn't even eat honey. We had to remake the salad dressing.

Next we have to push all the surplus mess into the coat cupboard and dump the rest on our bed and plump up the sofa cushions. There is always somebody who arrives exactly on time, just as we are shouting at the children or the cat has thrown up a hair-ball.

Once the guests have accepted, things can still go wrong: The couple you really wanted suddenly have to dropout. Then it’s too late to ask anyone else. Or worse, the girlfriend you really wanted to see is now ill, but she’s going to send her husband anyway.

The Men Who Only Talk About Themselves:

There are times that I’ve been invited to dinner and found myself sitting next to a man who’s more than happy to answer questions about his life, his job, and his career, but doesn’t reciprocate by finding out anything about me. This is boring, ill mannered, arrogant and socially inept. Women don’t do this or at least not in my experience. The last time this happened was at a buffet style dinner. The man in question talked about the time he was studying in France. I heard about his difficulties at work and his son’s new school. We went on chatting about his life. And on. I waited for him to enquire about mine, but that never happened. I made my excuses and slipped away.

The Rude Host

Once we went to dinner with a girlfriend and her banker husband.  As the mint tea was being served, he yawned, looked at his watch and announced to the assembled guests that he was going to bed as he had to get up early. It was ten fifteen. He then turned to his wife and demanded that she should come too. It seemed awkward and odd to stay in the shiny kitchen without our hosts and after ten minutes we all left.

The Cooking Bore

I dread the cooking bore. There are a couple of men we know who fancy themselves as a bit of a Heston or Jamie. One perfectly nice divorced man used to ask us over for 8pm.  By nine we would wonder what was happening about the food, and at nine thirty, after enquiring politely about what we were going to eat, he would start cooking. We would stand around with glasses of wine, watching him beat and marinate the steak. We would be salivating, starving and drunk by the time the food was served at ten thirty, and ready for bed.  We tried turning up half an hour later the next time, but that just meant dinner was served at eleven.

Getting Out of The House

The thing about going out to dinner mid-week is that I am usually tired before we’ve left the house. My normal ideal is to eat with the children at six o clock, have a bath at six thirty, and pajamas on by seven. So when we are invited out to dinner and it’s time to get ready, I momentarily feel exhausted. How am I going to cope with eating so late? Drinking?  Toying with chocolate pudding that I know will keep me up? And who will I be sitting next to? That man who only talks about himself? What am I going to wear? How much makeup do I have to slap on to camouflage the grey bags under my eyes? Mostly my fears are unfounded. Once I’m there it’s all fantastic and fun and we leave feeling warm and glowing and happy. It's only the morning after that the one glass of wine and the chocolate pudding and the fact that I've been unable to sleep till two, that the slump hits.

The Couple Who Leave Early

In fact hosting a dinner party is more of a risk. Things could be going really well until the couple who have a “teenage babysitter leaving at eleven,” stand up and announce that
they have to go. When the kids were young, I was guilty of saying this exact same thing. Knowing you’d be up at six meant you really had to go to bed by midnight, or life the next day would not be worth living. But the problem is that when someone leaves prematurely, the party potentially breaks up. Then you are faced with a deluge of dirty dishes and the inevitable hangover. But when you’ve cooked something delicious, the wine is just right, the friends get on, everybody has laughed,  it’s late but not too late, the pile of plates just remind you of what a good time you all had.

Friday 19 June 2015

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Escape the City - The Park Club

My local health Club, The Park Club in Acton has been open for 15 years. None of us who go there regularly with our children can imagine life without it.  If that sounds spoilt and reminiscent of FIRST WORLD problem in a first world country please stay with me. What  I am trying to say is that life would not be so colourful and manageable without it.  It's an oasis in the City, a break from the sirens, crowds, and pollution. I had been thinking about joining when the club first opened, but the crunch came when I took my toddler daugther (she's now 11) swimming in my local West London Park. She didn't have  a swimsuit to paddle in the shallow concrete pool so she stripped off to her pants and tee-shirt. Half an hour later, a park policeman arrived, ordered her to put her clothes on, and arrested a shady man who was hiding behind a tree.

From then on we went swimming at the Park Club, mostly in the outdoor pool. It's a saviour for those of us who have miniature outdoor spaces.   We could potentially squeeze in a 10' trampoline, (which my daughter desperately wants) into our 'garden' but that's all it could fit.  My son once insisted on installing a football goal in our diminutive patio, and the kids were literally standing in one flower bed to kick the ball two metres into the net which rested precarioulsy against the fence on the other side. The goal lasted a few weeks before it collapsed. Both sets of neighbours were justly relieved that footballs were no longer being lobbed over our trellis into their superior, patios, bedecked not with goals or trampolines, but ferns, and potted plants.

My children have spent hours at the Club playing football, tennis, cricket, making dens and eating supper with friends.  I have spent many mornings working in the bar with my co-writer, or sunning myself on the terrace. I practice Pilates andYoga there, and have just been told by a physiotherapist to use a crosstrainer  to help my weak knee. The gym and I have never really got on that well, but I am glad to have some kind of incentive to get there.

The Club already already seems huge with a massive outdoor swimming pool and 27 acres of land (the only problem being that children literally disappear in the grounds and its not always possible to leave when you want to)  But there are plans to make it even bigger. It has submitted a Planning Application to increase the size by %35 and install new studios, a hydrotherapy pool, steam baths, upgraded restaurants, a new top floor with natural light and a 50 metre pool. Bring it on.

Saturday 23 May 2015

Get The Guests

The last time we had a friend to stay in London, was about 14 years ago, when we lived in a small terraced house in Sheperds Bush with one bouncing boy baby and a thin stray cat. Our son is now a teenager, and the day after his recent 14th birthday, he un-friended me from Facebook, glued himself to his mobile and began to grunt.   Marie (who came to stay with us all those years ago) lives in Paris and is an exact replica of Julia Roberts.  She ostensibly was staying for a night, then revealed she was depressed and installed herself in our small spare room for a week. She spent a great deal of time in bed, so didn’t need much entertaining.

We didn’t move far. We now live in a 3-storey-house, across the road from where we used to live. We have two children. We have a large office space that we share,  a dining room, and a small garden, but no definitely no spare bedroom. A girlfriend was going to stay recently, after a late night, changed her mind when she realised she would have to sleep in my daughter’s single bed, while my daughter squashed between me and my husband in our room upstairs. Just as well. We would have had to search far and wide for a clean towel and sheet.  
Before we were married, we rented a house in the Brecon Beacons for a year and for several weekends in a row we had people to stay.  It seemed like such a fun idea! The sun was out; the view was stunning. We had a lovely spare bedroom and lots of walks on our doorstep. We even bought a visitors book.  We would entertain them well, in lieu of the fact that they had driven over the Severn Bridge to get to us. We cooked lavish dinners and full English breakfasts with a choice of tea. We arranged walks to the pub, friends over for drinks. We changed sheets and washed towels. Picked flowers for their rooms. It began to feel like a B and B. It was utterly exhausting.

I am all for the idea of catching up “properly” with friends which is what all my country friends say about having friends to stay, but I am just as happy to have a spontaneous coffee or a walk in the park in the City. Another thing country folk say is ‘it’s only an hour from London, you must come for lunch.’  I’ve learnt to add a third to the journey time at least!

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