The Scary Bitches Book and Baking Club

So, I was out for lunch with friends last weekend, just after running my first 10k and shortly after driving my car into the back of a van on the way. It was a busy day. The 10k sucked but I made it, no one was hurt in the accident and no real damage done to either vehicle. On to lunch, which was at the fabulous Seven Stars in Dinton and over the breaded camembert we fell to discussing whether or not I should start a book club in the village.

The back story is that, having lived here for a couple of years, I still don’t know anyone in the village. This is due to me not having kids or a dog or going to church, and the village not having a pub or a shop. I found out there’s a book club and asked to join, but they’re already over-subscribed and there’s a waiting list. The friendly book club member suggested I could start a second book club by advertising in the parish newsletter.

S said ‘You should totally do that and I’d join and you could bake as well!’

I’m considering the idea, but a book club isn’t just a matter of getting a few people together to discuss books. It has to be the right people, talking about the right books at the right level for the right amount of time. It is not pouring a mahoosive glass of Chardonnay and regaling everyone with what little Crispin got up at his private day nursery and then explaining that you didn’t make it to the end of the 250 page pot boiler but you’re definitely going to soon, so ‘No spoilers, m’kay?!’

Most of the right book club people I know selfishly stayed behind in America when I moved back to England, but apparently there’s this thing you can do called ‘meeting new people’. Sounds weird and suspicious to me and I’m not clear on the vetting process. Of course, you can’t just accept anyone to join a book club, but what level of interview is considered appropriate? Multipage questionnaire, or is it ok to send a SurveyMonkey link? Is it de rigeur or faux pas to request that submissions be accompanied by a photo of the bookshelves and a copy of the TBR list?

Vexing questions indeed. Meanwhile, at least we have a book club name, and some rules:

  1. Read the book, bitch.
  2. Have a fucking opinion.

I’m not sure this will go down well with the parish newsletter.

To road trip, or not to road trip?

On the face of it, a road trip is always a good idea, but the one I had in mind is that roughly 3,000 miles from LA to CT, mostly via Route 66 but turning off after Oklahoma to go through Tennessee, so I could go to Nashville. Then up through the Virginias and skirting the East Coast. I really don’t want to have to drive through a lot of Pennsylvania again.

Of course, driving Route 66 is a damn good idea. But, in around 10 days on my own? I was a little concerned that I’d get bored, fed up of driving and a bit crazier crazy. On the other hand, there’s the glory of the open road, different time zones, a few states I haven’t ticked off and no one (most likely including me) knowing exactly where I am.

I got a quote from a travel company for flights and car hire and the first night’s accommodation in Hollywood. After that, the plan was not to book anywhere to stay, but to allow myself the flexibility of making it up as I went along. That way, I could burn serious miles one day, and take it easy the next.

But – would it be an adventure, or just too damn much driving? What would I do in the evenings? I’m pretty comfortable walking into a bar or a restaurant on my own but maybe not for so many successive nights. And while the romantic vision in my head saw me motoring into the distance in some shiny, chrome wheeled classic convertible, the reality was going to be a two door Chevy Whothethehellcares with a hefty one way drop off fee at the other end.

I loved the road trips I did with my ex-husband, and I think I was trying to set up a journey that would recapture some of that feeling. But you can’t cross the same river twice, and I realized that this time round, the experience might be hollow at the centre. For a couple of weeks, I hovered around making the call to book the flights. Then I let it go.

In which part 1 of the vision is achieved

Hurrah for a week off tacked on to a Bank Holiday weekend! I’m enjoying this week immensely. I haven’t bothered wearing my watch since Monday, as I haven’t had anywhere to be, and that has led to that real holiday feeling of losing track of time. So far, it’s been a great balance of getting stuff done and lazing around reading or watching DVDs, with just the right amount of red wine thrown in as a treat.

I’m rubbish at down time with no plans at all, so on the list for this week were:

Go dog walking with my sister – which we did on Easter Monday, both of us surprised by the sun and inevitably, getting sunburnt. But it was a great walk, along the Thames from Tadpole Bridge to Radcot and back. I would love to get my own dog, but until such time as I restructure my life to allow me the time, I make do with occasionally walking Bailey.

Get rid of the cobwebs – the downside of the sunny weather and some time at home is that I see my house in daylight. When I looked up, it was all getting a bit Miss Haversham up in the beams, where the cobwebs were having a party. It was time for the telescopic duster and much precarious balancing on furniture and stretching at unlikely angles.

Paint bookcases – as outlined in The Vision, I have a couple of horrible laminate bookcases that I’d decided needed a revamp. I have now been introduced to the world of chalk paint, and it’s amazing stuff. It really did go over laminate with no preparation whatsoever, and now I’m looking round for what else I can paint. I’d originally planned on white paint, but when I went to the Annie Sloane store I was overwhelmed with colour choices, and ended up going with Paris Grey.

Bookcases before

Horrible laminate bookshelves

Behold the fruits of my labours! I took the opportunity to do a bit of tidying up of shelves as well, and inevitably moving the bookcases meant wiping down walls and skirting boards too, and also vacuuming up what appeared to be the local woodlice cemetery. Ick.

Bookcase during

During painting, I’ve gone all unintentionally shabby chic

Bookcase after 1

After, and in new location. Notice empty shelves. Not for long.

Bookcase after 2

I bloody hate that printer. Step 2 will be to curtain off that bottom shelf to hide it.

Clear out the shed – This is still to be done and is pending for tomorrow afternoon. I fear spiders; but, the shed is now so full of stuff thrown in hodge-podge that it’s not useful for storage any more and I can’t get to anything.

Get my bike fettled – I think this is going to fall off the list, bumped by some of the unplanned activities.

Such as…

Having a massage – I was in Oxford to get the paint, which took me to Cowley Road, which meant my route took me past Eau de Vie. So I popped in and ended up booking a massage for later that day. It was totally worth it.

Baking a simnel cake – I’d meant to do this for Easter, then forgotten, then thought I’d bake it in time to take to my sister’s on Easter Monday. Turns out, the supermarkets are shut on Easter Sunday. Astonishingly, Easter still trumps retail and who would have predicted that? So, making the cake is pencilled in for tomorrow morning.

Watching all of season 1 of Penny Dreadful – which was suddenly available to buy on DVD, so I did and now I’ve watched it. I’ll hand the DVD on to my sister and wait for season 2 to be available.

Checking over my spring/summer clothes – I wasn’t expecting the weather to be this warm, and suddenly realized that all my warm weather clothing was in storage. So now I’ve dragged it all out, and have piles for dry cleaning, giving away and recycling.

And as well as all that, I read:

  • Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade – yes, it was a bit of a minor Terry Pratchett binge but they were a threefer.
  • Anna of the Five Towns – Arnold Bennett
  • Island Summer – Tilly Culme-Seymour
  • My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
  • Astonish Me – Maggie Shipstead

And you know the best bit? I’ve still got three days left before real life kicks in again.

In search of tea

Can one get nostalgic for a past one hasn’t experienced? I expect there’s a German word for it.  I know the pre and post war periods weren’t really romantic, but I’ve read a couple of historical novels in succession. This has made me think how lovely it would be to live in a little flat in Bloomsbury, earning a living from doing a bit of typing, and then toasting crumpets over the fire for tea.

Or, one could run up to London for a treat, properly dressed in gloves and a hat, and pop to one’s marvelous little dressmaker for a fitting. I expect some charming chap would take one for lunch before going back to his office. So you’d have time for afternoon tea with a friend, before changing for cocktails, dinner and dancing at the latest club. Oh, you must have heard about it, darling, everyone’s going there.

I always think the Lyons Corner House sounded like a wonderful institution, the perfect place to collapse and unburden oneself of the string-tied parcels. Always somewhere to get tea and a bun for a few shillings, and I bet the waitress brought more hot water as a matter of course. I’m sure it wasn’t always very good tea and that the buns weren’t always very fresh, but at least it was table service and you could sit down.

That’s what London needs, I think. After a few hours pottering around on Saturday, I had my one small bag of purchases, a new book and tired feet. Obscurely feeling that if I drifted off the main highway, I might find a proper tea room, or at least a Pret with some empty seats, I carried on walking. The vision in my head was for just such a welcoming establishment as I imagine Lyons to have been. I wasn’t looking for the full on three tier cake stand and silver teapot experience, just somewhere that might do a decent cuppa.

No such luck, of course, and I ended up in one branch of an indistinguishable coffee chain, but which at least had a spare table and a friendly barista. I paid the best part of a fiver for one teabag in a pot, and a muffin that I watched being taken out of the plastic wrapping. Either it wasn’t baked on premises, or they take food hygiene very seriously indeed. The cafe was thriving, though: people meeting to chat, some taking a break from shopping, someone else reading and taking notes. I was left undisturbed for an hour while I read.

Was Lyons the mediocre, oh it’ll do option of its day?

Running, again

It was going so well until winter hit, and then it wasn’t the cold so much as the chain of foggy nights that stopped me. I liked running in the dark, but heading out of the village into a wall of fog, unseeing and unseen, was a little too spooky for even my common sense to counter. Plus, the risk of being hit by a car seemed amplified to an unnecessary level.

Then I was horribly ill over Christmas and then it had been weeks since I’d run and it seemed like it was going to be too much like hard work, and anyway, if I was out running, who would eat all the leftover Christmas cake?

And now here I am, round the corner and facing into spring. In a moment of madness I signed up for the Oxford Town & Gown, which is a 10k in May. I could easily write off the entrance fee, but what the hell, how hard can it be? So I downloaded the 10k runner app, eased myself in at the 3k mark 5 runs ago and should hit 5k on Thursday. I’m not exactly pushing it, so a slow 10k should be comfortable by  the time May rolls around. I’m deliberately not finding out what a good 10k time might be, so that I don’t expect to hit it and then disappoint myself.

I’m going to struggle to find a long enough route around here that doesn’t involve either brutal hills or speeding traffic, so a little further along and when the evenings are lighter, I plan to run in Oxford. In one of my previous running phases, I used to like running through the University Parks, out through Mesopotamia, down Marston Road and then London Road to St Clements, over Magdalen Bridge, back up the High Street, through town and back to Summertown along St Giles and Banbury Road. To boost that up to 10k, you could throw in a bit of riverside or canal side running, and that’ll be all my favorite places in Oxford covered.

Surprisingly, to me, I’m quite looking forward to it.

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

This is another book I was introduced to by Short Stories Aloud, and I bothered to get this one signed. Antonia Honeywell was charming and seemed genuinely excited to be at the event, meeting readers and introducing her first novel. And so she should be, because it’s very good and I look forward to the next one.

(Also, what kind of great name is Antonia Honeywell? It would be a waste of it not to be some kind of artist.)

The Ship is set in a future that doesn’t necessarily seem so terribly far away.  Economies, countries, law and order have collapsed, leaving Anna, Paul and their daughter Lalage (Lally) living mostly in their London flat where they are safe(ish) from the want and disorder of the streets. But the situation is getting worse: the homeless who’ve created a tent city in the park are bombed; citizens have to register and re-register their identity cards, the only fragile marker of legitimacy, to get food and stay alive. Lally remembers birthday meals that have shrunk from roast chicken to, finally, a shared tin of spaghetti hoops.

While the world continues to spiral, Paul has been preparing for his family’s survival by acquiring, resourcing and peopling the ship. It’s a huge liner, and he has hand-picked 500 people to live on it, along with all the food, clothes, amenities, games, activities they might want for a long future ahead. The new community has been living in a holding pen for years, because Anna refuses to leave while she continues to hope that in fact life in London will improve. Finally, a crisis is provoked and Paul sets in motion the departure of the ship, sailing off into a new way of living for all aboard.

He’s built a utopia for Lally, but as he is hailed as the Father for his special, saved few, Lally alone remains ungrateful. Despite the evident vast size of the ship, it’s claustrophobic (although as I’ve always thought a cruise ship would be hell on toast, that could just be me). Lally’s companions eagerly turn their backs on both their varied, haunted pasts and the horrors of the news, to focus on a now that they’ve been convinced is their destination. They have certainty: that they can do meaningful work in keeping the ship running, the children educated, the food cooked. Their needs are met, from football to pianos to embroidery silks.  Lally alone continues to question and to search for a direction, for both the ship and herself. The only flaw in Paul’s plan to protect and educate his daughter is Lally herself.  With a ship full of people willing to love her, she won’t let herself be loved.

It’s a deft and though provoking novel, asking big questions: is ease and certainty for a few worth the loss to the many? Should, or can, someone be happy in a constrained, finite present with no thought to the future? Paul is a convincing, charismatic figure but he may be peddling no more than bread and circuses, and it’s not enough for Lally. In the end, she makes a different choice, for life rather than what she thinks of as a living death.


Country music Monday

I like me some cheesy country music, but it’s a fair point that women’s roles in a lot of country songs have been reduced to being objects wearing tiny denim cut-offs as they sip a beer in the back of a truck. So when I stumbled across this, I figured it was about right. The guy on the right of the truck, though? Sure is purty.