Cook books: a reading and eating list

I am not a natural cook. While my husband can throw back-of-the-fridge ingredients together and create something delicious and knows instinctively what flavours go well together, I need the guidance of recipes. Which is perhaps why I love cook books so much.

I love the inspiration cook books bring, showing me dishes I’d never have thought of myself. I love flicking through their pages and feeling my mouth start to water at all the possibilities, and I love the calming reassurance of being told what to do, step by step. When life feels overwhelming and things seem out of my control it’s nice to spend an hour or so following someone else’s directions in the knowledge that if I add the right ingredients and cook for the right amount of time, things will turn out OK.

Like many people, during lockdown I’ve turned to cooking as a way to unwind and find comfort. I didn’t quite tackle sourdough (I can barely keep plants alive so don’t fancy my chances with a starter) but in the spring I baked hot cross buns and banana bread and on low days whipped up cupcakes and scones to be slathered in cream and jam. Now with the days getting shorter I’m finding myself wanting to spend more time in our little sunshine-yellow kitchen making stews, roasts and hot chocolate from scratch (this is my go-to recipe).

I start each week with something of a ritual: taking down a pile of cook books from the shelf and picking recipes for the week. I then head to the supermarket to stock up on what we’ll need. I used to find supermarket shopping pretty anxiety-enducing – the endless aisles, the endless choices and too many people in an enclosed space. But with the help of cook books my food shop has become so much easier. And when I’ve chosen a recipe I’m excited to try cooking becomes something to look forward to, not just another chore. Here are the cook books I find myself reaching for again and again…

My favourite cook books

The Roasting Tin, by Rukmini Iyer

If you flicked through my copy of The Roasting Tin you’d come across endless pages splattered with sauce or smudged with mucky thumbprints, which is testament to how much I use and love this book. All the recipes require just one tin and are real bung-in-the-oven dishes that still somehow taste totally delicious. I often use these recipes when hosting friends (pre-lockdown of course!) because they’re so tasty but so easy that you don’t have to spend your time in the kitchen while your guests are chatting. I also have two of Rukmini’s other books, The Green Roasting Tin (veggie and vegan recipes) and The Quick Roasting Tin and they are equally as loved (and splattered). I’d describe these books as books for people who enjoy eating more than they enjoy cooking (that’s me!).

Favourite recipe: crispy baked gnocchi with tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and pine nuts (the easiest but cosiest, tastiest dish)

Honey and Co, Food from the Middle East, by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich

My friends and I have become super fans of Sarit and Itamar. Our favourite place to meet is their restaurant Honey and Co, where the Middle Eastern food served is so delicious we all bought copies of their cook book after our first visit. We used to have an informal cook book club where we’d cook food together from the same cook book at each other’s houses. The idea was to use a different book each time but we ended up going back to this book about three or four times we loved it so much. We also all went to a signing of theirs together so we could meet them and get our books signed and it was difficult to reign in our groupie-like excitement. The recipes are a little higher up the ‘faff’ scale, but always worth it for the wonderful flavours.

Favourite recipe: peaches and goats’ cheese salad with roasted almonds

Bazaar, Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes, by Sabrina Gayhour

Another favourite from our cook book club is Sabrina Gayhour. We’ve made things from several of her books but this is my favourite. The veggie recipes are so tasty and include a mix of smaller dishes designed for feast-style eating as well as heartier mains.

Favourite recipe: lemon, black pepper, pecorino and cabbage rice

Fireside feasts and snow day treats

I discovered this book when house sitting for a friend last month. Yes, I am that house guest who can’t help but go through your bookshelves… It was pouring with rain while I was there and this book jumped out at me like a big cosy hug. I’ve since searched out my own secondhand copy and I can tell it’s going to be a book I return to regularly in autumn and winter.

Favourite recipe: spicy pork stew with sweet potatoes and beans

The Happy Kitchen, Good Mood Food, by Rachel Kelly

I love the concept of this book. Rachel worked with a nutritionist to develop recipes designed to aid good mental health. They’re based on research surrounding the link between what we eat and our mood and the recipes are split into chapters based on a different aspect of mental health such as good sleep and beating the blues.

Favourite recipe: kale and butternut squash salad

Midnight Chicken, by Ella Rusbridger

This is a beautiful cook book, a book to read just as much as a book to cook from. The recipes are designed to bring comfort and joy and are written with such gentleness. I particularly enjoy the odd instruction to pour yourself a glass of wine at crucial stages of the preparation, just because.

Favourite recipe: midnight chicken (this has become my go-to roast chicken recipe)

Bosh!, Simple Recipes Amazing Food All Plants, by Henry Firth and Ian Theasby

I recently asked for cook book recommendations on social media and this was the book that came up the most – so I bought it! The all plant-based recipes are hearty, tasty and easy to make.

Favourite recipe: satay sweet potato Bosh! bowl

Leon, Happy One-Pot Cooking, by Rebecca Seal and John Vincent

Like The Roasting Tin, this book is full of tasty but simple recipes that are low on the washing up. I particularly love their ‘cosy and warm’ section – perfect for this time of year.

Favourite recipe: sausage, brussels and tagliatelle

Cook book reading list

These books are on my list to buy and try. Lots came to me via recommendations on social media so thank you if you shared one of these!

  • Simply, by Sabrina Gayhour
  • One Pan Pescatarian, by Rachel Phipps
  • River Cottage Veg, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
  • East, by Meera Sodha
  • Dishoom cookbook, by Shamil Thakrar
  • Mowgli Street Food, by Nisha Katona
  • Mediterranean Every Day, by Sheela Prakash
  • Deliciously Ella, Quick and Easy
  • The Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen
  • The Little Library Cookbook, by Kate Young
  • Hemsley and Hemsley, The Art of Eating Well, by Jasmine Hemsley and Melissa Hemsley
  • Together, The Hubb Community Cookbook

Do you use cookbooks? What’s the book you reach for most frequently? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

P.S I’m going to do another post soon on my favourite baking books – there are too many to fit in here!

Honeymoon reading – October 2020

A photo of Libby holding a stack of books: Daddy Goes A-Hunting, The Island of Sea Women, The Songs of Us, Before the Coffee Gets Cold and The Girl with the Louding Voice

I’m writing this from my little writing room in London, but in my heart I’m back in the cabin in the woods where I spent the past week. I was on my honeymoon with my new husband; we hired a little hideaway in the heart of Dorset with its own private lake and surrounding woodland. It was the perfect trip: a week of walks, wild swims and curling up next to the woodburner reading. One of my favourite things about going on holiday has always been having the time and excuse to read as much as I like. It’s such a treat to read for hours on end, not worrying about the time passing. Here’s my honeymoon reading list…

Libby sits on a deck by a lake reading Before the Coffee Gets Cold, wearing a jumper and scarf.

Before the Coffee Gets cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi is one of those books that I’ve so nearly bought many times, my attention always drawn to it in bookshops, my hand pausing on the cover before for whatever reason moving on to something else. On a recent trip to one of my favourite indie bookshops I saw it again, the cover winking at me, and decided to go for it this time. I’m so glad I did. It’s such a cosy and dreamlike story, set in a café in Tokyo with a twist: if a customer sits in one of the seats in the café, it is possible to travel in time. The time travel is constrained by certain rules though, one of them being that the traveller can only stay in the past (or future) for as long as it takes for their coffee to get cold. For a book about time travel, it is a surprisingly gentle and quiet sort book, but that’s what I loved so much about it. It’s moving too, making you think about the moments in life you wish you could go back and relive or change in some way. Reading it on my honeymoon had a particular resonance, reminding me to cherish every moment, moments that one day in the future I might choose to go back and experience again if I happened to find myself in a time-traveller’s café…

I raced through this book in a day, so headed back to the same shop the next day to buy the sequel, Tales from the Café, which was published this year. It’s just as enjoyable as the first, picking up on the stories of some of the characters you grow to love in the original book as well as introducing new stories.

Libby lies on a bed in the sun reading The Girl with the Louding Voice.

I get a lot of my book recommendations from a WhatsApp group I’m part of where myself and a group of female book-lovers share what we’re reading. The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré is one that’s been incredibly popular in our group this year. Set in Nigeria, it tells the story of Adunni and her long fight to get an education after being removed from school and sold into marriage as a young teenager. She’s a narrator whose unique voice really stays with you. It’s a book about the power of finding your voice, something which particularly as writer and a woman, struck a real chord with me.

A kitchen table featuring a bowl of porridge, a cup of tea, a pair of binoculars and a book, titled The Island of Sea Women.

Like The Girl with the Louding Voice, my next read, The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See was one that really moved me and will stay with me for a long time. It tells the story of two friends who grow up as part of a collective of all-female divers on the island of Jeju off South Korea. The book follows their friendship and how it is tested by the harrowing events that take place on the island over the years. I particularly loved this book for how well it depicts the weight and significance of female friendships – something I think I’ll always want to cover in my own writing because it’s something I so believe in. This particular paragraph in the book had me underlining like mad and saying ‘yes!’ out loud:

‘No one picks a friend for us; we come together by choice. We are not tied together through ceremony or the responsibility to create a son; we tie ourselves together through moments. The spark when we first meet. Laughter and tears shared. Secrets packed away to be treasured, hoarded, and protected. The wonder that someone can be so different from you and yet still understand your heart in a way no one else ever will.’

The book does a brilliant job of capturing what is so special about friendship as well as exploring the pain of a friendship tested to breaking point. There are some really dark parts in this story, but it is brightened too by moments of love and the warmth of a community of women.  

Libby sat on a sofa under a blanket and wearing an orange jumper, reading The Songs of Us.

Next up on my reading pile was The Songs of Us by Emma Cooper. I was lucky enough to meet Emma at an event we did together last year and have been meaning to buy her books ever since after hearing her read aloud and talk about her work. She is also truly lovely, so it was no surprise that her debut was too. It’s a quirky, poignant book about love and family which I found myself racing through. I’ll be adding her next books, The First Time I Saw You and If I Could Say Goodbye to my to-read pile too.

I’m now half-way through Daddy’s Gone A Hunting, a Persephone book by Penelope Mortimer about a 1950s housewife struggling with the loneliness of her life and a troubled marriage. If you’ve read The Lido you’ll know that loneliness is a subject close to my heart, so I’m enjoying reading this interpretation of the theme.

Somehow without meaning to I ended up reading a lot of quite sad books on my honeymoon, so I think I might seek out some cheerier reads next. I like balancing my reading as much as possible moving between different locations, time periods and up and down varied emotional landscapes. I love that no matter what mood you’re in, there’s a book out there to suit you. Right now, with an autumn chill knocking at my window, I’m craving some comforting books to snuggle up with. Are there any you’d recommend? Add your suggestions in the comments below!

  • Photos with thanks to my husband, Bruno.
  • Where we stayed: we found this wonderful place via Canopy and Stars. It was the perfect place for a cosy honeymoon.

What I’m reading – September 2020

A table featuring a jug of sunflowers and a stack of books: The Amateur Marriage, The Dud Avocado, Miss Benson's Beetle, The Compassion Project, The Heart's Invisible Furies and The Offing

This month I have visited New York, Ireland, Antigua, Paris, New Caledonia and Robin Hood Bay, all without leaving my sofa. Because that’s the brilliant thing about reading, isn’t it? It can take you anywhere.

Although this year our lives may have shrunk in many ways and in reality, I have travelled no further than Dorset (to visit family), I have been reading more than ever. It comes in ebbs and flows and at the start of the Covid-19 crisis I must admit I struggled to read. The news and my feelings of anxiety were so all-consuming that it was hard to focus on a book. Every time I settled down to read the words scrambled as though each page was made of Scrabble letters and someone was shaking them about. But there have been other spells where I have read voraciously, grateful for the comfort and escape of books. I’m thankful to be in one of those spells right now.

Two books on a coffee table with coffee cup and sunflowers in the background. The books are The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne and The Offing by Benjamin Myers.

It’s hard to pick favourites from the books I’ve read recently because there have been so many that have moved or affected me in different ways. I think I have to start with The Offing by Benjamin Myers – a dreamily gentle tale of a sixteen-year-old boy living in the North of England post Second World War, who turns his back on the coal mines to set off on a walking adventure the summer he finishes school. It reminded me a bit of Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning for the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside. Young Robert’s journey is side-tracked when he meets Dulcie, an eccentric older woman living in a tumbling down cottage facing the sea. She feeds him with lobster, nettle tea and stories, and an unlikely friendship begins. If books were medicine this would be Calpol – comforting, soothing and sweet.

If The Offing was something of a gentle stroll, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne was more of a mountain hike, epic and full of highs and lows. Oh, I loved this book. It tells the story of Cyril, a gay man growing up in 1950s Ireland and charts his story from birth, when he was put up for adoption and taken in by rather unusual adoptive parents, to his teen years and on through his entire life. Including spells in Ireland, Amsterdam and New York, this book covers not just a great span of place and time, but a broad emotional spectrum too. At parts heart-wrenchingly tragic, at others laugh-out-loud funny, this is a book I will remember for a long time.

Two books on a green sofa. The books are Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo and The Mothers by Brit Bennett.

Last year I loved Bernadine Evaristo’s Man-Booker winning Girl, Woman, Other and have been wanting to read more of her books ever since, so picked up Mr Loverman in a local bookshop. Barrington Jedidiah Walker is such a memorable protagonist: a seventy-four-year old Antiguan man living in North London, a dapper dresser and a witty narrator. He lives with his wife Carmel in Stoke Newington (incidentally this is where I live too so it was nice to read mentions of so many places that are familiar to me) but has been having a secret affair with his childhood friend Morris since both men were teenagers. I raced through this – I particularly enjoyed the complexities of the characters and how your sympathies are tugged in different directions throughout the book.

One of the places I get my book recommendations is a WhatsApp group I’m part of; most of the women I’ve never actually met in person but when my friend invited me to join I was delighted. We all share books we’ve been loving and it’s a brilliant resource, plus nice to feel part of a community of book-lovers even if we don’t all know each other. One of the books that’s come up many times this year in that group is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s on my list but I decided I wanted to start with Brit’s first book, The Mothers. It had me hooked from the first page – the writing is just so beautiful. The narration style is unusual but totally gripping. It tells the story of a group of teenagers, an unplanned pregnancy and the fallout from the choices that are made as result. It deals with friendship, loss and the power secrets can hold over us, even years later. I can’t wait to read The Vanishing Half next.

My most recent read was The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, a glittering, gripping book set in 1930s New York and with a fantastic female protagonist who reminded me a bit of the main character in The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy which I also enjoyed (set in 1950s Paris). Both women have what I’d describe as ‘moxie’ and both books were great escapist reads.

Next on my list is Summerwater by Sarah Moss – I’m only at the start but have already fallen in love with the lyrical descriptions of a rainy Scottish summer and the varied characters brought together by the chalet park where they’re all staying. The writing is rich and wonderful like a hot chocolate made with proper chocolate – to be sipped and savoured.

Other books I’ve enjoyed recently

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce – I love all of Rachel Joyce’s books and her latest was no exception. A great adventure story with two loveable female leads.

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler – Dare I admit this was my first Anne Tyler? I loved it. And the great thing about coming to an author late is having a whole back catalogue of books to go back and discover – what a treat.

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls – This book about first love really brought back memories of being a teenager. I was particularly moved by the descriptions of depression and a young person dealing with a troubled homelife – there were some real catch-you-off-guard weepy moments in this one.

Next up

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré – I have heard wonderful things.

How I choose what to read

Often when I get into slumps with reading it’s because I can’t decide what to read next. One of life’s greatest joys, in my view, is that you will never run out of books to read, but it can make it overwhelming at times too. Now, I have a word doc on my computer where I save book recommendations so that I can print it out whenever I visit a bookshop. I love being pulled organically towards books that aren’t on the list too, but it helps guide me when I’m feeling stuck. Here’s where the books on that list come from:

  • Personal recommendations: like so many people, most of the books I read come from recommendations from friends and family. I love being part of the WhatsApp group I mentioned already, and I have a couple of friends who share similar taste in books to me and whose recommendations I always act on. I also try to reciprocate this by sharing books I love with friends – often posting my copy to them when I’m finished if I can bare to part with it.
  • Social media recommendations: I follow a lot of bookish Twitter and instagram accounts and love seeing what everyone’s reading. I love how passionate the book community is on social media and am so thankful to the work that bloggers do, both as a writer but perhaps more importantly as a reader too!
  • Independent bookshops: Indie bookshops are brilliant for book recommendations – it’s part of the service that makes them so special. At the start of lockdown back in March my local bookshop were brilliant at recommending a stack of books that saw me through those difficult weeks. Next time you pop into your local bookshop, why not ask a member of staff for some advice?

What are you reading this month? And how do you choose the books you read? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Why I’m proud to be a Pirate

Getting children reading and writing is an issue close to my heart. In this blog I write about why I’m proud to volunteer for the Literacy Pirates, and what the charity is all about.

‘And then the aliens arrived…’

‘Wow! And what happened next?’

‘WELL…’

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m listening to a ten-year-old school student tell me his ideas for a short-story. We’re sat in a room that looks like a pirate ship, parrots resting on shelves, waves and treasure chests painted on the walls and excitable children scattered at cosy desks throughout the room. Everywhere you look, there are books. This is the home of the Literacy Pirates, a charity I’ve volunteered with for the past two years. They’re a small organisation that provides extra reading and writing support to children via an after-school learning programme. Volunteering with them has been one of the highlights of the past couple of years for me.

I started volunteering there when my first novel, The Lido, was published. I feel so lucky that I’ve loved reading and writing since I was very young, but I know that not everyone feels the same way. Some children just need a little bit of encouragement to really get into books and stories. But I strongly believe that with the right books and the right support, reading and writing have the power to bring a lifetime of joy and opportunities.

Listening to the children read is one of my favourite parts of volunteering. I love choosing the books together and getting lost in a great story. We chat about what we’re reading and I often leave wanting to search out a particular book at my own local library. It’s always great when the young person decides to borrow the book themselves; seeing them slip the book into their rucksack makes me think about all the hours I spent tucked up in bed reading as a child, and the books from that time that I still think back to with fondness.

It’s also always heartening when you see a child’s confidence growing throughout the afternoon.

‘I NEVER read out loud at school,’ I remember a particularly quiet boy telling me one session.

‘And yet you just read beautifully to me for half an hour!’ I replied, ‘You should be so proud of yourself.’

‘I am,’ he said, a huge grin on his face.

I turn up to volunteer at the sessions with the hope of helping out, by giving a child some one on one time, helping them look up a new word in the dictionary or just by joining them in a very silly but very fun game of ‘splat’. But every time I visit I learn so much too. The students constantly inspire me with their creativity and ability to come up with ideas, something that can sometimes feel daunting when I sit in my home office trying to write. I think every child has a story – usually loads of stories actually – to tell, and it’s such a joy to help them bring those to life. All of the projects lead towards some sort of finished product, be it a published book, a film screened at the local cinema, or an app that the students and their parents can download onto their phones. Being there to celebrate the end of a project is always a wonderfully noisy, happy occasion. To see the students so proud of the (amazing) work they’ve produced is a fantastic feeling.

At the end of the sessions the staff often tell us volunteers a bit more about the impact of the learning programme. Like the fact that children who come along to the sessions improve their reading age over 50% faster than age-related expectations. Or that 100% of parents say they’ve seen a positive impact on their child’s literacy because of the programme. Being part of something like that, even if in a small way, feels pretty amazing. Because the Literacy Pirates after-school sessions are so much fun – they’re moments in the week where aliens really can turn up at any moment, where games and laughter are encouraged – but they also make a real difference too.

That’s what keeps me coming back, and why I feel proud to be a Pirate.

Want to support the Literacy Pirates?

  • The Literacy Pirates are currently raising funds for their World Book Day Campaign and are looking for organisations to get involved and run fundraising events (think book-themed quizes,  pirate-themed office Bake Off). You can find more info and support on their website.
  • If you can’t put on an event but still want to support the work of the Literacy Pirates, you can donate to the campaign.
  • The Literacy Pirates are always looking for volunteers to help run their sessions in North London. If you live nearby and think you can help out, check out their information about volunteering. I can vouch that being a volunteer is great fun!

 

My colourful life (or why I dress like a rainbow)

It’s a dull, grey, rainy day, but as I open my wardrobe I’m met by a rainbow. Red and yellow, pink and green, teal and cobalt. Instantly I feel a little brighter. When I’m feeling low, unconfident, or just a bit ‘meh’, putting on something colourful always makes me feel jollier.

If asked to describe my personal style I’d probably go for ‘children’s TV presenter’. It might not be to everyone’s taste and sometimes I’m met by raised-eyebrows and strange looks when I step out of the house in a particularly vibrant outfit. But I dress the way I do because it gives me energy, it makes me smile and because I’ve come to think of it as part of who I am. When I wear all the colours I feel like the ‘me-ist’ version of me.

 

I’ve always loved colour but I’ve not always embraced that love through what I wear. In the past I’ve felt the need to ‘tone it down’. I remember there were certain outfits that I loved when I was younger but would never wear in front of ex-boyfriends because I thought they were too much. That I was too much. Now, I wish I’d been truer to myself. Clothes can be a statement but they can also be things to hide behind. I suppose as I’ve got older I’ve just decided that I don’t want to hide anymore – I want to shine.

Particularly as a woman, I often feel encouraged to shrink myself to fit the ‘ideal’ image of how a woman should be, or to simply take up less space in the world. For me, wearing bright colours is a way of living my life in the boldest, bravest, most joyful way. When I put on a bright dress or a flash of red lipstick I feel as though I am stretching, expanding, saying ‘I am here’ to the world.

‘You certainly can’t get lost in a crowd,’ a friend said recently as we met at a crowded station. She spotted me and my bright yellow coat immediately. That’s an advantage of dressing in colours but it can also feel intimidating at times. When I’m self-conscious or anxious it can feel tempting to hide in something grey. But on those days, I force myself to pull on something bright instead. Because it’s on those days that I need colour the most. I don’t always feel like a rainbow kind of person (in fact, very often I don’t at all) but over time I’ve found it’s hard to frown when you’re wearing bright pink, or yellow, or red. The clothes I choose to wear are for the person I want to be, not always the person I feel I am. But I think that putting on the uniform can be a big part of becoming the person who does that job.

I sometimes get overwhelmed about how much darkness there is in the world – when I spend too long reading the news or see people being unkind to one another around me. Dressing like a sunbeam is one of the ways I try to bring a bit more light, even if only in a small way. If someone catches a glimpse of my green coat or yellow beret and the colours make them smile, it’s just a small thing but it’s still something.

Every day when I stand in front of my wardrobe I feel as though I have a choice. What kind of person do I want to be today? How do I want to walk through life? And I choose sunshine.

My favourite colour combos:

Mustard yellow + teal green

Fuchsia pink + mint green

Sunshine yellow + tomato red

Apple green + autumn orange

Rainbow (as many colours as possible)

How to add more colour to your wardrobe:

I often hear people say that they’d like to wear more colour but don’t know where to start, or that wearing black and grey is something of a comfort blanket. Maybe you don’t fancy a head-to-toe rainbow look, but there are plenty of ways to bring small flashes of colour into your wardrobe.

  • Start with accessories. I own about 10 coloured berets and they are such an easy way to add a pop of colour to an outfit. Gloves, bags and scarves can also inject more colour without feeling ‘too much’ (although personally I don’t believe in ‘too much’.)
  • Invest in a brightly coloured coat. Winter is when I most need the dose of energy and positivity that I get from wearing colour. I also like the thought of my colourful outfit brightening other people’s days too – I often get cheerful comments when I wear my bright coats out and about.
  • I used to always reach for black tights on default, but now I try to swap them for white, cream or a contrasting colour. It makes me so happy to look down and see that my legs are a bright, happy colour!
  • If I’m feeling low, a flash of bright red, coral or pink lipstick is guaranteed to cheer me up and make me feel more confident. Often, I don’t bother with any other make up, but if I’m wearing lipstick I feel like I’ve made more of an effort and feel instantly sunnier.

My favourite colourful brands:

  • Lucy and Yak: I own four pairs of Lucy and Yak dungarees. They are so comfy, so colourful and I love that they are an ethical and sustainable brand.
  • Mabel Sheppard: These fab colourful gloves are just so beautiful and happy!
  • Miss Pom Pom: I’d been lusting after a Miss Pom Pom colourful scarf for ages and recently bought one – I love its geometric design and how bright and warm it is.
  • Sugarhill Brighton: A great shop for bright colours and fun prints.
  • Joanie clothing: I love their vintage-inspired dresses.
  • Thunder Egg: Great for dungarees and prints.
  • Vintage and charity shops: I have a favourite local vintage shop where I buy a lot of things. And my favourite green coat was a charity shop find!

Winter swimming – what’s all the fuss about?

This is my first year of trying to keep swimming all throughout winter in cold water, without a wetsuit. ‘WHY?’ is a question I’m regularly asked when I talk about my dips in chilly lidos and ponds. Here are my top seven reasons for taking the plunge.

1. The chance to be in nature.

 

I live in London, and as a city-dweller I crave moments where I can feel like I’m connected to nature, where I can see the seasons changing around me. It was at the Hampstead Ladies Pond in North London, where I swim regularly, that I saw my first ever kingfisher. I was swimming my usual lap when a friend pointed out a flash of turquoise and orange at the far end of the pond. We trod water for a while and watched as the kingfisher darted about by the bank. It felt truly magical, and a moment I would never have experienced if I’d stayed at home that day.

At the Ladies Pond you regularly see herons and cormorants swooping low or fishing as you swim quietly in the water. You get to see them up close, truly noticing the patterns of their feathers. And if you swim in winter at a lido you can watch birds and planes flying overhead and notice the shifting patterns of the clouds. I find it incredibly peaceful and humbling, a reminder of my place within the wider scheme of things.

2. The post-swim rush.

As I pull myself up the ladder at the end of a swim my skin glows bright pink and I feel so full of life that I could tilt my head back to the sky and roar. There really is nothing like the rush you get after a swim in cold water. It’s a euphoric high that can become quite addictive. When I swim in a pond or lido in the morning it energises me for the whole day.

3. The community.

When you swim through the winter you get chatting to other swimmers in the changing rooms or on the banks of the pond or river. Immediately you have a shared connection, something to talk about and to bring you together. There is such a wonderful sense of comradery. I have also made great friends through outdoor swimming. I am now part of a WhatsApp group called ‘Pond Ladies’, friends with whom I try to swim twice a week. On a grey day when I don’t feel much like climbing into cold water, they spur me on. I go to the pond to see them just as much as I go to swim. Afterwards, we sit on benches watching the other swimmers, drinking hot tea and sharing biscuits. They are some of the happiest moments in my week.

4. To discover the beauty in winter.

Winter has always been my least-favourite season. I usually sink into something of a slump from October to March struggling with the lack of sunlight and the long, cold nights. I look ahead to spring with a sense of desperation, wishing each winter’s day to go by so the sunnier seasons can get closer. But this year, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the season because of my cold-water swims. In the water I take the time to watch the trees and sky and find that actually, winter can look pretty wonderful.

5. Because it makes me feel good about my body.

After a swim in the Ladies Pond I have a (cold) shower, totally naked, standing in front of a floor to ceiling window looking out on the water. In those moments I feel totally unselfconscious, thinking only about what my body has just achieved and how it felt to be in the water. For a moment I feel free of any worries about the way I look and realise actually, it really doesn’t matter.

6. It’s a way to get out of my head.

When you’re in really cold water all you can think about are the sensations in your body, which can be a huge relief it you’re feeling low, anxious or generally stuck in your thoughts. I find cold water swimming incredibly freeing for exactly this reason – it’s a time when I don’t worry, when all I think about is what I’m doing. You leave everything on dry land when you slip into the water.

7. It makes me feel brave.

I’ve never considered myself a particularly brave person. But the fact that I swim in cold water in the middle of winter makes me feel fearless. If I can do this, I can do anything.

Want to try cold water swimming?

  • Take your time. If you’ve never swum in cold water before it’s not a good idea to suddenly give it a go in mid-January. Instead, start swimming outdoors in the summer and keep going through the autumn, sticking at it for as long as you feel comfortable. Over time you should acclimatise, particularly if you go regularly (at least twice a week).
  • Get some gear. When I swim I wear a swimming costume, a thin neoprene rash vest with short sleeves, neoprene gloves and socks and a woolly hat. The gloves, socks and hat make all the difference in my opinion. I love feeling the water against my skin but there is no shame in wearing a wetsuit, especially to begin with. Up until this year I always wore a wetsuit, but gradually started getting used to not wearing one, by doing a short swim in the suit then taking it off and going back in for a very quick dip.
  • Bring lots of layers for after. And when I say lots I mean LOTS. When I pack my bag to go for a winter swim I bring as many layers as feels ridiculous. And then I pack another one. When I’m dry and warm I can’t imagine needing quite that many jumpers, but when I’m shivering after my swim I am so grateful I brought them!
  • A hot drink afterwards really helps to warm you up from the inside – I always bring a flask of tea with me when I winter swim.
  • Don’t jump in – as it can be quite a shock to the system. When I swim outdoors I ease myself in slowly, splashing water over my shoulders as I go to get myself used to the temperature. When you’re in, don’t forget to breathe. Take long, slow, calm breaths as you adjust to the temperature.
  • Check out more tips from the Outdoor Swimming Society here: https://outdoorswimmer.com/blogs/6-tips-for-cold-water-swimming

My writing journey (and how I got published)

I’m often asked about how I became an author. I thought I’d write this post in the help that it might be of interest to other aspiring writers!

I’ve wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember. When I first worked out that someone had written the books I so enjoyed reading as a child and that this could be a job, I knew it’s what I wanted to do. Since then it’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do with my life.

I spent my childhood reading voraciously (JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, Roald Dahl) and writing poems and short stories. I entered endless competitions, subscribed to Young Writer magazine and queued up to get my books signed whenever an author visited my school or a local town. Some of my happiest childhood memories are from the residential writing courses I occasionally went on – where I and a bunch of other bookish children would spend a weekend or part of the school holiday at a house in the Somerset countryside, being set writing assignments and gaining tips from writing tutors. Funnily, I’ve never been on a residential writing course as an adult, but these courses I did as a child were wonderful for encouraging my love of writing.

One of my early poems!

On the advice of many writers I admired, I kept a diary too, something I’ve done on and off throughout most of my life. As I write this in my home office, if I glance to my left I can see a pink box that is filled with dozens of diaries, the pages filled with words that no doubt would make me cringe to read now, but which I still count as an important part of my writing journey. Writing a diary regularly helped to cultivate a habit of writing; now I feel just strange if I’m not writing in some form or another every day.

Although my dream of being an author never changed, as I got a bit older I started to understand that it might not be as straight forward as I’d imagined. I read the statistics about how few books that are written get published, and how few published authors actually make a living from their writing. I became discouraged. I decided to study journalism at university and chose to specialise in fashion journalism. I thought it would bring together my passion for writing and my general creativity and love of clothes and fashion history, and yet be more of a steady job and ‘proper’ career path. (Although, knowing now how few fashion journalists manage to make it their career I wonder what I was really thinking, and whether perhaps I am just a dreamer through and through.)

I think of my university years as a dry spell in my writing life as I did very little creative writing during this time. But when I look back I realise I was still writing all the time, just in different ways – I kept a blog and of course wrote assignments for my course. There were many parts of the degree that were interesting and great fun, but by the time I graduated I realised that fashion journalism ultimately wasn’t for me. My first job was in the student section of a national newspaper, a job I got after doing some writing for the editor while I was still studying, and then completing a grammar and editing test and week-long trial once I’d graduated.

Like my experience in fashion journalism, there were many things about working at a newspaper that I loved. It was a dynamic, buzzy environment and I loved interviewing people and researching and writing articles. But I also found it incredibly stressful, and over time found that after writing all day at work my desire to write creatively when I got home had totally disappeared. After a year I realised something had to change – I was stressed and unhappy and felt that I was never going become an author if I stayed there. I switched to a career in marketing, something that wasn’t my passion but which gave me more headspace to get back to what I loved to do in my spare time: writing. It was while working in one of these marketing roles that I first had the idea for The Lido and began to write, squeezing in time before work, in my lunchbreak and in evenings and at weekends.

It took me about six months of planning and thinking and then another year of writing to finish my first draft of what would become The Lido. Once I’d finished it I sent it to my mum and sister for initial feedback and then started the long and gruelling process of submitting to agents. Despite wanting to be an author, I actually knew very little about the publishing industry itself and didn’t know anyone who worked in it. My mum bought me a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook; I read all the advice and started contacting agents from the list printed in the back.

Then came what felt like the longest wait of my life. Over the course of twelve months I submitted the manuscript to probably around twenty or so agents. I kept a spreadsheet of who I’d submitted to and whether I’d received any feedback. Some people replied with nice comments, saying they liked my writing but didn’t feel strongly enough to represent me. Some sent me standard rejections. Others never replied. Although I tried my best to stay positive, it was hard. You can’t help but feel as though you are being personally judged when you’ve shared something that you’ve worked so hard on, that you care about so much and that contains so much of yourself within its pages. And the endless waiting can send you slightly mad. I remember refreshing my emails about every thirty seconds (not an exaggeration), in the hope I might have received a response from an agent.

By the end of that year I was feeling pretty despondent. But I wasn’t about to give up on writing all together. Although I did want desperately to be a published author, the most important thing always was (and still is) the actual writing. I knew I was a writer, even if the publishing world hadn’t opened its doors to me. I am a writer because I write. Because it’s the thing I love most in the world, the way I communicate and express myself, and because of something I can’t totally understand but has been there inside me ever since I was a child and would shut myself away in my room, scribbling stories and poems onto whatever paper I could find.

I decided that perhaps this book simply wasn’t meant to be. I would shelve it and start a new story, and perhaps have better luck with that. My plan was to write something new and then submit it to the agents who’d said positive things about The Lido, but who ultimately hadn’t chosen to represent me. And then I saw via The Bookseller that a new agency was being set up and that they were actively looking for new clients. I read the article and discovered that one of the agents represented one of my favourite authors, an author who’d been a huge inspiration to my own work. It felt like it was a sign to send out one final submission – to give it one last shot.

And it’s at this point that everything changed for me. After a year of waiting, things suddenly moved very quickly. Within a week or so of sending my submission I was signed up with my agent and working on editing my first draft with him. Not long after that he shared my book with editors. And one Friday night while I was at my boyfriend’s parents’ house, I got the call from my agent with details of the deal I was being offered by my now publisher. As he told me what was happening I sat on the stairs and cried. The next Monday I handed in my notice at my office job.

I now feel so lucky to be able to call myself a full-time author. My second novel has just been published and I am currently editing my third. I know it’s a cliché to say it’s been a dream come true, but it really has.

My writing journey has taught me the importance of perseverance. It’s also made me realise just how subjective publishing is – in the same way that I love books that my friends aren’t keen on and vice versa, the same applies to agents and editors. At the time, I felt so disappointed when I was rejected by agents who said nice things but just didn’t feel strongly enough to make the leap and sign me up. But in the end, I am so pleased I waited because it meant I found the right person, an agent who truly loved my work and who then sold it with real passion.

I hope my journey might encourage others that despite the statistics you might read, it is possible. When I started submitting to agents my manuscript landed on the ‘slush pile’ and I was rejected by lots of people. But ultimately my story made it through and found its place. If you are an aspiring author, I hope that the same is possible for you too.

My top tips:

  • Do your research about the agents you choose to submit your work to. Is your story really suited to them or would another agent be better? Really read their requirements too as some agents want different things from a submission – three chapters vs the first 50 pages for example.
  • Perhaps you’re someone who can talk about your own work with ease, but personally I found writing a synopsis really hard. I found it impossible to distance myself enough from my work to describe it in a page. In the end, I got my mum and sister to help out. They’d both read it and were that bit more removed from it to be able to describe the themes. If you have someone you trust, don’t be afraid to ask for help. As long as the actual writing is all yours, I personally think there’s no shame in using an outside perspective to help sell yourself in a synopsis – something that doesn’t always come naturally!
  • Don’t lose sight of why you are doing this. If you are a writer you are a writer. You don’t need anyone’s permission in order to write. Yes, being published is a wonderful dream (and it was mine too!) but I think you still have to write ultimately for yourself, because you want to, not with the goal of publication as your sole motivator. I feel so lucky to call writing my job now, but even if I’d never been paid a single penny for it I would still be doing it (shh don’t tell my publisher!).
  • Stick at it! Trying to write a book and then trying to get in published can be a long process and it can feel quite demoralising at times. There were so many times I considered giving up on my novel because I felt it just wasn’t working, or nearly gave up on my dream of getting it published because of rejections. But I’m so glad I didn’t.

Useful resources:

  • The Writers’ and Artist’ Yearbook is a wonderful resource for any aspiring author, with details of agents and publishers as well as useful articles about how to submit. They also have a great list of other useful resources here: https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/108/a-writers-toolkit/essential-information/websites-for-writers
  • The Riff-Raff is a great community for new writers. They host talks by debut authors who talk about their writing journey (I gave a talk with them when The Lido first came out!) and also have a mentoring scheme and manuscript-feedback service.

Birthday swimming in the Lake District

There is nothing I enjoy more than wild swimming with my sister. That’s why I chose swimming together as the way to spend my 26th birthday last month. I headed up to the Lake District where she is currently living, carrying a swimming costume and towel stuffed in my bag and an eagerness to get into the water.

She lives in Keswick just a few minutes’ walk from Derwentwater. I envy this closeness to water – when I visit I love spotting signs that point ‘To the Lake’ and knowing that we are never far away from an opportunity to swim. It calms me, knowing the lake is there should we feel we need to plunge into cold water.

We spent the two days walking, canoeing and, of course, swimming. Together with my friend Kim who had joined us for the weekend, we canoed the length of Derwentwater, stopping every now and then to let our paddles rest on the surface and simply admire the beauty around us. The birds landing on the lake, the boathouses tucked among trees and the green weeds beneath the surface of the perfectly clear water.

Once we reached the end of the lake we dragged the canoe up onto a pebbly beach that we had entirely to ourselves and ate our sandwiches, feeling very Swallows and Amazons. And then it was time to swim. I increasingly believe you haven’t really lived unless you have tried wild swimming. For me there is nothing that matches the joy it brings, that feeling of being completely alive and free.

On our way back we stopped at an island in the lake and swam again, unable to resist the call of the water.

The next day we swapped the lake for a river, walking through fields alongside its bank until Keswick felt far behind us and we stopped at a secluded spot. We picnicked on the pebbles and then ran into the river, floating and swimming and drifting with the current. Sometimes wild swimming is about swimming, but often it is just about being in the water. The feeling of the cold on your skin and the sun on your face.

It felt the perfect way to spend my birthday. This past year has been a whirlwind for me: getting the publishing deal for The Lido, quitting my job and getting stuck in to my second book. It has been wonderful, but also at times overwhelming. Getting into the water with my sister is a way to pause and reflect on everything that has happened but also to take a moment to just be. I already can’t wait to get back into the water together.

Happiness Hack #1: Buy flowers for yourself for no reason

A love of flowers is in my blood. The first flat I lived in as a baby was above the flower shop that my mum owned in Clapham. She no longer runs a shop but works part-time in one and even wrote a series of illustrated books about flowers. Whenever I go into a florist’s I take a deep breath of the smell of blooms and wherever I am, my mum is suddenly with me.

But I never used to think to treat myself to flowers. It seemed too extravagant, reserved for gifts for other people rather than something to indulge in myself. Over recent years that has changed though and my life is so much brighter because of it. I now regularly buy myself flowers for no reason at all. Whether simple supermarket tulips or narcissi, or more unusual blooms bought from my local florist or Columbia Road Flower market, a bunch on my dining room table or in my office is guaranteed to cheer me up.

A reason I’d avoided buying flowers in the past was the temporary nature of them. What’s the point in spending money on something that is only going to die in a week’s time? But now that’s one of the things I love about them. Flowers remind me to live in the moment. Yes, the stems will droop and the petals will curl at the edges then fall, but aren’t they beautiful right now? The same attitude can be applied to so many other moments in life: it makes me a lot happier to try and treasure joyful moments than to mourn the fact they are only moments. And after all, what is life if not a collection of moments?

My favourite flowers

‘Miss Piggy’ roses

  • Rununculous (also called ‘turban buttercups’)
  • Sunflowers
  • Daisies
  • Peonies

What are your favourite flowers?

Running the Wales / England border

We ran 11.5km and only passed one other person. It was at the end of the run: a dog walker throwing a ball in a field for an energetic spaniel. For the rest of the time it was just the two of us: Alex and me.

We were staying for a few days on the Wales / England border, in the village of Longtown. We both needed a break, and found it in the cosy cottage with its log fire. But it was getting outside that really revived us.

One morning we both woke around 8am and slowly got ready and into our running things and headed out into the morning.

The garden looked beautiful – red berries covered in a dusting of white, the grass like stalagmites and a wren hopping into the bushes. It was frosty and sunny again, but the halo of mist had descended again onto the hilltops. We set out through a field behind the cottage. Alex spread her arms out wide and ran like you run when you’re a child – fast and free.

“Yes! I’m so happy!”

We wound our way up to the village and then headed out across the fields that would eventually take us to the top of the huge ridgeway that marks the old border between England and Wales. It soared above us, wearing a mottled coat of rust brown, sand, and green. The white blobs of sheep were scattered all the way along the hilltop.

The running was hard: the ground beneath our feet was frosty but not always completely hard and frozen, making it slippy and springy like running on wet sand. With every step I took my feet slipped slightly. It felt like I was running backwards at times, and as it got gradually steeper, in places I found it more efficient to walk. We could see the path we were heading for, winding its way up the hillside and we ran slowly towards it.

On our way we passed a cluster of abandoned shepherd’s huts. One was tumbled down completely but two still had their roofs and splintered wooden doors. I imagined shepherds huddling up here, looking down the valley at the village and the fields beyond. The grass here was wild and grew in tough mounds, and a bare tree stood in the clearing between the huts. Behind them was a path that followed a small stream up the hill, steep banks of trees on either side. It was dark and damp here but the sun rested at the top of the channel, showing us where we needed to go. We trudged and slushed our way through the thick carpet of brown leaves and the stream that trickled beneath. When we reached the top we came to the start of our ascent up to the top of the ridge.

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A flock of sheep gathered around a hay feeder stopped to look at us as we passed them and joined the path. I wondered how often they saw people here. But then they turned back to their hay, and we turned to face the hill. I want to call it a mountain, because that’s what it seemed like as we stood at its foot. It looked like a mountain, and climbing it felt like one (even if I have only ever climbed one mountain).

At times it made me nervous when I stopped focusing on putting each foot in front of the other and took a moment to look out across the valley. The view was beautiful, but the drop down the hillside was stomach-churningly steep, and getting worse the higher we climbed.

I tried to ignore the drop down the hill face and focused on the climb instead. And it was beautiful. Even the path was beautiful – bright green and mossy with sections of natural slate walls and nooks every now and then. Puddles were frozen over, bubbles of air trapped beneath and creating beautiful abstract patterns.

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And then suddenly, miraculously, we were at the top.

We climbed the last section of pathway and emerged on the top to see… Nothing. The ridgeway was covered in cloud, completely obscuring what I imagine would have been stunning views on either side – views out of the countryside miles in each direction. At first I was disappointed, but then I looked closer. Actually, the ‘nothing’ was beautiful too. The clouds rolled across the ridgeway in gusts and waves, obscuring patches of long grass and frozen pools, then revealing them again. The gentle moving of the cloud was hypnotic and magical. It made us feel completely alone in the world, like we were up in the sky and everyone else was far away on the ground. And we were alone.

It was bitingly cold at the top, so we started running again, following the old ridgeway path. This was wonderful running – not as hard as pavements but hard and smooth enough to spring from and run with ease. After covering only about 2km in an hour (because of the steep and tough-going terrain) we sped along and had suddenly covered another 4km without even thinking. Running here felt wonderful, like my body was doing exactly what it was meant to do. It was so cold that it was the only way to warm up, so felt completely natural. It felt better to run than to stop and face the icy wind.

Again, Alex spread her arms and ran like a child, making gleeful noises.

“Weeeeeeee!”

Her happiness was infectious, and besides, I was feeling incredibly happy too.

Eventually it was time to come down from the hilltop (or the mountain, as I will always think of it as. It really did feel like we were at the top of a mountain). As we got lower it got warmer and I recovered feeling in my nose and fingertips. We sped down, so much so that at one point I slipped and fell – covering my whole bottom half and one of my arms in mud. I just laughed – it was bound to happen eventually. My running shoes have no grip (I need to invest in some trail running shoes) and in places the path was just a trench of mud.

I was muddy but happy as we made our way back to the cottage I so quickly thought of as home. My legs were exhausted by now but I knew we didn’t have far to go.

“You’re doing so well,” said Alex, “We’re so nearly there.”

And we were. Suddenly we were there, jogging down the lane to the little cottage where I knew the heating and the fire would be on, and a hot shower would be only seconds away. We gave each other a high five – and I think we deserved it.