Summer Time…

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health and wellbeing / what's getting my attention

…and the living is easy..

(for most kids, unless you’ve got the 11+ coming up.)…

You remember that feeling, right? The long 6 week holiday stretching ahead of you like an endless field of long grass.  Ok, so that was my personal picture in my head, probably because I grew up on a housing estate in Welwyn, which had a great field at the top of it, where we spent pretty much most of that 6 weeks. Climbing trees. Making dens.  Grossing each other out with tales of puberty, hideous sibling behaviour, and urban myths.  The times we weren’t there, we were jumping and wading across the Mimram river on the other side of the village, losing sandals and sandwiches to the current – all a bit health and safety by today’s standards. And skating at break neck speed down the steep hill that we lived in the crook of. Not a helmet in sight. Wheelies on bikes, ‘look no hands’ …I’ll never forget my little sister careering down that hill in hot pursuit on her trike, when she landed head first in next door’s rose bed. That took some explaining to mum, as we fished her out.

So, back to my original point. The six weeks ahead felt delicious. Decadent. Like they would never end, surely? We literally did bugger-all school work. I’d pick up a favourite book yes, and even a paint brush on a rainy day, but school work – never.

Fast forward a (ahem) number of years and I look through the lens of my own kids’ summer. If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll know I’m  in strong favour of letting kids be kids. My other half and I have toyed with a gap year as a family, but we’ve had to park that idea due to financial constraints and the reality of work to return to.  But I truly yearn for proper, enriching, memory building (and arguably adult-building) childhoods for my children.

Fast forward to summer 2017, and here we are at a cross roads for our boy. We live in a part of the UK where the grammar system still exists. Apparently tutor-proof, what’s known at the Kent Test is essentially the 11+ but isn’t part of the private education system of entrance exams. This is all we’ve got. This is our mainstream education. Your kid, at the age of 10 is deemed best suited to Grammar or High School. Only, the test doesn’t align with the national curriculum, so much of the content hasn’t yet been actually taught yet, until about the second term of the next academic year. KAT clubs, tutors, past papers, Bond Online Tests – they’re the plethora of tools to choose from and available to us parents (*who can afford it) hoping to give our kids the best chance if we think that a grammar would suit them.  Social leveller the grammar system ‘aint. The schools are categorically not allowed to teach to it. So those without the means, need to rely on being super-bright and perhaps actually a bit gifted, in reality.

But here we are, in it. This is where we live, and like it or lump it, we feel we need to give our boy the best possible chance. He knows which school he wants to go to. Has his heart set on it.  And so here is our eldest’s summer – will it stretch out in an endless dream like way? Or is the reality that he’ll have to keep his brain in gear with practice papers and bursts of Bonds Online?

It sucks. If his strengths lay in art or other creative subjects, I think we’d be persuading him to ditch it and focus on other schools. But the reality is that a grammar will probably stretch him in the right way, and potentially suit him well. But to get there, he’s got the big hurdle. It’s the ever present elephant in our house right now.

So to those in favour of the expansion of grammars, be careful what you wish for. Seeing a bunch of ten year olds come to terms with whether they passed or failed the dreaded test every autumn is so sad to witness in the playground, and whilst we the adults know it’s not life defining and this too shall pass, to them in the here and now, it feels like the end of the world. At 10.

I appreciate that this post falls very heavily into the category of first world problems.  But I do wish our kids could have the same childhoods that we were lucky enough to have. And if I make my kids one promise, it’s that after this one (and next for the girl child) – their summers will absolutely be their own. For climbing trees and scraping knees…and then for all the other rites of passage as they grow and spread their wings.

Right now? We’re off to the beach. He’s at least starting his summer with some carefree time of his own.  Those practice papers can wait.

….Pass the factor 50, someone.

 

 

 

 

What I’ve been reading…

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Things I love / what we're reading / what's getting my attention

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

I’m about to make a bold statement, and possibly prematurely given we’re only in June still, but I’d currently put this book at the top of my personal leader board for 2017.

Eleanor is a carefully and exquisitely crafted character. She’s one of those people who we all recognise from our workplaces, commute, or regular shopping trips. You know – shy, introvert, “keeps themselves to themselves”, clutches a shopper to her chest pretty much most of the time.  She has short and perfunctury interaction only with her colleagues. Is resentful at the never ending workplace collections for engagements, birthdays and weddings, and seems to view everyone she works with as trivial and facile. There’s definitely an Eleanor in every workplace.

For the first part, you don’t know what the underlying  reasons are for her oddness. She has an ordered, routine filled life. She works all week and then goes home on a Friday for a tesco pizza and two bottles of vodka, seeing no-one again until Monday. Her life is literally completely empty. You don’t really know if it’s the isolation from society which is causing her inability to behave or respond appropriately to social interaction, or something else.

Make no mistake though, Eleanor is hilarious. I laughed out loud at some of her observations and commentary. But from the off, the overwhelming feeling is of loneliness. Deep, deep loneliness and isolation.

And then, through a chain of circumstances, a new friend enters her life, and put simply, changes it. A misguided and odd crush on a pop singer follows, and you are left hoping with all hope that she doesn’t do something truly socially awful and get really hurt. I won’t give anything else away, but what I will say is even the observation of the object of her affections is also brilliantly witty, and too, too funny.

Gradually, more of Eleanor’s back story is picked away at, and revealed. I can honestly say I found myself laughing one minute and sitting with silent tears rolling down my face the next, as the cruelty she’d endured before is carefully unfolded and laid out for the reader to ponder.

A heart warming reminder that there are still good, kind people in the world, and  a beautifully observed and witty tale, I couldn’t put it down. I had to know how things worked out for her. And now I miss her. I really do.

This quick post doesn’t do the book justice, but in my haste to persuade everyone to read it, I didn’t want to spend too long pondering. But if you’re in the market for something completely different, which will make you laugh and cry in equal measure, then this could be the book for you. I think Eleanor will stay with me for a long time.

 

 

What I’ve been reading…

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what we're reading / what's getting my attention

Luckiest girl alive – Jessica Knoll

You know when a book grabs you by the throat and inexplicably won’t let go, til you’re quite done with it? Luckiest Girl Alive went in full throttle and held my attention so well that I didn’t really surface fully til I’d reached the last page. No TV, not much social media activity, I just wanted to see where our protagonist ended up and what had led to this point in the first place.

She’s not even that likeable. She’s smart, for sure. And yet… Her sharpness of voice and sass barely disguises that right from the off, she’s a pretty vulnerable girl, who’s back story quickly starts to explain some of her neurosis and attitude in the here and now, living her superficially successful new life in New York. She’s trying too hard.

So, flipping back to when she was a kid, and she arrived at a new school, full of the type of paranoia and insecurity that only a teenage girl holds on to. Maybe I didn’t like her that much because I remember being 14 and I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have liked me much back then either. Spiky, short tempered with her mother, on the surface she’s hard work (if my own mum is reading this, don’t say a word). I swapped schools at that age too, and distinctly remember the feelings of loneliness and desperately wanting to be liked and to make new friends. May be that’s why I was prepared to give Ani a bit of a chance.

I also made some fundamentally poor decisions around that time, but remained unscathed, close shaves rather than anything life changingly awful. But not for this 14 year old. She makes some life defining, very very bad decisions, the consequences of which escalate at terrifying speed.

Shamed by her new group of friends following a hideous and “reading through your fingers because you can barely look” series of events, you think that’s the main back story. It would, after all be more than enough. But then comes something even bigger. Which I really didn’t see coming.

So I found myself thinking I was reading one story of abuse and vulnerability when suddenly, about two thirds through, it  becomes something entirely different, shifting gear.

A sad, cautionary tale for any teenager. Faces rape, homophobia, alcohol, eating disorders and drug use head on, as well as the insidious nature of peer cruelty and just how life changing that can be. But I wouldn’t restrict the audience for this book to just the teenagers. Yes the voice is naïve and irritatingly self centred often, but I definitely wanted a good ending for Ani.

Literary genius? No. I found the ending particularly clunky. But an intense page-turner for the sun lounger or commute? Hell yeah.

 

 

What I’ve been reading…

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Things I love / what we're reading / what's getting my attention

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

I read this straight after finally getting myself round to reading The Graduate, which I’d found hard work. The stifling self-aware writing style of Charles Webb had suffocated me a bit. I read The Graduate in one swift day, and it was perhaps interesting and to a 1960s world, clever…but it left me empty. Benjamin frankly needed a slap and to get himself a job. And don’t even start me on Elaine. Thank god for Girl Power.

Anyhoo,  following on from that, I decided a bit of reading material with a contemporary voice and storyline was in order, and Liane Moriarty gave it to me in spades.

The Australian voice of Cecelia Fitzpatrick opens the story, and she’s immediately grating. Or so I thought. Plastically perfect, the kind of Head of the PTFA – cupcake providing – embroidered name label – kind of mother that normally incites not altogether pleasant thoughts in this tired, over worked one. So I was ready to be dismissive, thinking this was about to be as engaging and enjoyable as a bikini wax. How wrong I was.

The story is told through the lives of 3 women, Cecilia, Tess and Rachel. Their own stories and secrets intertwine and eventually collide.

The first quarter is wrapped up in the intrigue; what’s the secret? I don’t want to give anything away so I’m deliberately steering clear of the plot here; but needless to say as the secret is revealed, so is so much more. Dealing with profound grief, self doubt, secrets and lies, it immediately sucked me right in and in part, broke my heart for them all.

And actually, it’s not about the husband’s secret. It’s about all the secrets held on to by these three women, and of those in their lives.

It was only when I finished this, close of the heels of watching the brilliant TV adaptation of “Big Little Lies” that I realised it was by the same author. And with hindsight…of course it was…it has the same voice, the same clever crafting of characters that you might think you’re going to really dislike – who eventually are all heroines to the people they love, in their own ways.

I loved this book. Another great page-turner, it won’t be winning Liane Moriarty any prizes for serious literature, but oh I do hope Reese Witherspoon gets her mitts on this one too…

Witty, cleverly observed and sharp, this is definitely one for the sun lounger. And I may have just found myself another favourite author.

* Footnote: despite how absorbing it is, it’s also very, very easy reading ie you can plonk it down every few minutes to deal with bickering/whinging/demanding/hungry/bored small people if necessary. Always a bonus, especially if your summer plans involve a family holiday.

What I’ve been reading…

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Uncategorized / what we're reading

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers – Max Porter

This is a short but utterly immersive take on grief and all that goes with it. It’s odd, weird, and astonishingly clever in equal measure. Part prose, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The part where Dad meets his hero, Ted Hughes was so beautifully observed and I felt like I was standing right next to him, but that was a very small glimmer of happiness in these darkest times which the family face. Crow is an extraordinary characterisation; I never quite knew where he was going to go. I held onto huge sobs when reading on the train, and cried my eyes out when at home. I’d highly recommend reading this in one go, with a glass of red and a nice blanket cocoon to be honest.

So, so clever and so beautifully crafted. Oh to have such talent.

I don’t think I’ll forget any of them for a while.

Princess Leia…

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Things I love / what's getting my attention

…And Me**.

So I already wrote a while ago a little bit about Rey, from the Force Awakens, and how great it was to have a strong female lead. But of course Princess Leia came first, and was promoted to Bloody Awesome General* in the last film (*official title). I was so looking forward to seeing her lead on in the next one.

I was 8 when Star Wars first hit the big screen. It was exciting times. Whilst wrestling with a bit of tricky maths and having demonstrated to my year 2 class my prowess with French, I was as excited as the next 8 year old about both Star Wars and the Silver Jubilee. The former gave me a bond with David Barclay, as we got whipped up in the frenzy before the rest of the class caught up (ever the trend setter, me) and the latter was left in ruins by a nasty bout of German Measles. I’ve never quite got over the disappointment of missing the sack race and ice cream at school that day, nor of being absent when I won a prize for my collage of the Queen herself, resplendent with an actual string of plastic pearls glued on her wan felt neck, which I’d tried to bring life to with my mum’s blusher. Speaking of Mum – she did get me my first ever Lucozade, then sold as a tonic for the weak and infirm, rather than its current incarnation as a way to fatten up teenagers (sorry, to give them isotonic energy) Regardless, trust me, in the 70s was a real treat as there were no fizzy drinks allowed, unless it was a party.

I digress. So, Princess Leia. Surely the stuff of 8 year old dreams? Her outfits? Her hair? Her amazing sense of humour? Get behind me, Disney princesses in your chintzy dresses, Leia was where the action was. (*although I was less certain in the Return of the Jedi about her revealing two piece. I was a prudish child) And I was massively pissed off that she didn’t have The Force.

And then the woman behind the character. Carrie Fisher was searingly honest, incredibly bright and a force to be reckoned with (sorry). Her appearance on various shows in the past couple of years shows that she hadn’t lost one bit of her joie de vivre nor her wit. An amazing raconteur, with some of her quick responses making the most broad minded blush (* note, I am no longer a prude) and her advice to Daisy Ridley (who plays Rey) on the Graham Norton show last Autumn was equally priceless (watch it here if you haven’t already). Her semi-autobiographical “Postcards from the Edge” was just brilliant, I read it when I was first at college and lent it to so many of our halls of residence it was in tatters by the end- if you haven’t read it then I’d say do.

What has she taught me? That funny, strong women always come out top in the end. That being truthful, brave and authentic will always be far classier than any of the opposite. That I hope I will always channel my inner Carrie at the times I’m suffering from imposter syndrome. That brunettes have more fun and some great outfits.

And that when I’m feeling less than charitable, I shall always bring this quote attributed to her,  to the forefront of my mind.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die”

Oh Carrie, you really were bloody ace.

**No that’s not me, that’s C-3PO.

New year…

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health and wellbeing

New Me? 

Surely the most asked question of January. We’ve flipped the page over into 2017 whether that’s mentally or physically. Magazines and blogs are full of diet, lifestyle, exercise and health tips to give us all the push we need, as we stumble out of our carbs stupor. And it’s not just about diet and exercise. The new year resolutions to get a new job, start something we’ve been meaning to, stop procrastinating and just do it. The lists are endless.

Last year I promised myself a realistic goal or two. And given my propensity to procrastinate, obviously I failed to even tick those off the list. So this year I’m being even less hard on myself (!). Whilst I’m determined to lose the weight I’ve been promising myself to, I’m going to do it quietly with no big fanfare. No unproven detoxes. No quick fixes. No drumroll.

Just before Christmas, I joined Slimming World. I’d been putting it off, I’d not been 100% on board with the method, as I know healthy fats help metabolise fat, and sugar is the real villain of the piece, so I’d been unsure whether to join. But having seen the results of a close friend, I took the plunge. An odd time to start. So many people at work and at home questioned me starting 4 weeks before the big event, but I just knew that I couldn’t go in to the festive season and get even bigger. I promised to only allow myself Christmas day to be a real pig, and obviously that turned into a week. BUT, I’m back on it today and at least I know I’m not as big as  I would have been had I not started the plan yet. The plan makes a lot of sense, and doesn’t exclude any food groups, you just have to account for the stuff that if not kept in check, will pile on the pounds. I’m especially looking at you, alcohol.

I’ve also promised myself to surround myself only with radiators and limit the drains. Even writing this blog became a friendship double-edged sword when I began in April.  I’ve had so much support from some brilliant friends and family. But I’ve also had total radio silence from people I thought were on my side. Friends. No words of encouragement, just “You? Why are YOU writing a blog?” and then (when I know they’ve read it) choosing to not pass comment. Which is like a silent disapproval.  I’m not saying I should be showered with praise, I get that it won’t be for everyone, but if any friend of mine put themselves out there, then I’d encourage and cheerlead, regardless of whether the content itself was up my street.  And It’s the same with Instagram – it seems to be the most passive aggressive place on earth, “likes” withheld, like they’re the most precious thing to give away. And always the same people.  I genuinely don’t understand why they don’t just unfollow.

I’m also going to get myself more organised. I’ve always been pretty on it when it comes to the military operation that’s needed to keep our family wheels turning. Iphone calendars synched, on the whole not many balls are dropped. But I do miss pen and paper, and with multiple clients, things can easily slip, which becomes a huge source of stress, so I’m treating myself to a bullet journal.

2016 was my year of “live for the now” – following the untimely death of my close school friend’s husband, robbed by cancer at a ridiculously early age, as well as several other near misses. I’m continuing that theme into this year, with a promise to myself to keep things in perspective and not sweat the small stuff. House a tip? Meh.  Stuff lost? So what – so long as the people in my life are all ok.

Which brings me neatly to my final promise. To be more present to those that I love and care for. Iphone down, charging out of sight when I’m at home. Keep social and email for when I’m on my lengthy commute. Being omni-present on email for my clients got me absolutely nowhere last year, other than they expected it and took it for granted. I’ve become pretty good at leaving my phone in my bag when visiting family or having dinner with friends, so now I need to practice what I preach at home.

So, 2017. Over to you. Do your worst but I’m ready for you, with a wee personal manifesto, to try and keep myself on track. It mostly goes something like this;

Lose and then maintain a half decent weight for a middle aged, stressed, self employed mum

Take note from the radiators and shrug off the drains

Be more present: less phone, more true listening and truly engaging

Don’t sweat the small stuff

In the meantime, I hope that those of you who are following along, will continue on my journey with me.

X

 

The leftovers…

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health and wellbeing / Things I love

Broccoli and Stilton Soup

As we say hello to 2017 full of hope and optimism, I’m pretty sure, judging by the gym attendance this morning (full of resolutions and promises) that we’re all now on a health kick both physically and financially as we lick our Irish Cream and pig in blanketed induced wounds.

I’m also fairly certain that most of us still have at least half a round of Stilton winking at us from the fridge. Keen to get some more healthful veg into the kids, and use pennies instead of pounds to feed us all this week, I’ve combined the two ambitions, tinkered with an old recipe, and here it is.

Serve with crusty warm bread, or not, if bread is now the devil to you. Perfect to come home to after a long walk to earn the guilty cheese.

Ingredients;  knob of butter (or spray of fry light if you’re watching every calorie) 1 onion, 1 stalk of celery (unless the mention of celery makes your entire household cry in which case you can leave it out, it won’t make a huge difference), 2 leeks, 1 small potato, 2 broccoli heads, 1.2 litres of stock (I use Marigold Swiss Bouillon as I have a vegetarian in the family but you can use chicken too, it works), 2 bay leaves, peppercorns, 80 g stilton, 2-3 tablespoons half fat creme fraiche. Go easy on the salt as stilton is such a salty cheese. 

Method;

Melt the butter and sweat the chopped onion, leeks, and potato on a low heat for about 15 minutes. (I leave this skin on the potato, nobody needs a faff when making soup and all the vitamin C is just beneath the skin in any case so it’s win/win)

Add the stock, peppercorns and bay leaves, then pop the broccoli florets (and the stalks) into the pan and bring it all to a nice simmer. Leave for about 20 minutes gently bubbling away.

Remove from the heat and take out the bay leaves (ahem, I may have forgotten that part in the past and ended up with some stalks) then whizz it all up in a food processor or with a hand blitzer in the pan.

Stir through the stilton and creme fraiche; check for seasoning now – and this is when you could add some more salt to taste, and heaps of ground black pepper.  Serve, with a blob of creme fraiche and if you’re feeling fancy, some chives cut on top too. That’s one of their five a day sorted, anyway. 

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..to romjul we go…

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health and wellbeing / Travel Stuff / what's getting my attention

As we limp past Christmas, with all its mince pies and general gluttony, towards the final show-down with 2016, we are now heading in to Romjul – the Norwegian word for this bit between Christmas and the new year. This year it’s all been about it’s Danish cousin, Hygge, but Romjul is where it’s really at.

Restorative and mindful, it’s all about hunkering down with loved ones, alongside bracing walks and a healthy mindset. I first read about romjul in a Lauren Laverne piece a few years ago, and said to my husband then – “that’s it, that’s it! We’re romjuling!” And since then, each year we’ve made sure we’ve taken its spirit and just stopped what we’re doing and embraced it. This bit to me, is far better than Christmas day itself, with its weight of expectation and turkey timings. This is the part when we can chill out a bit, eat left overs, walk it all off and start again, moving to the next round of cheese and visits from friends and family.

Even the sight of the tin of Quality Street is now turning my head towards salad. With their showy display of look-at-me tempting wrappers, they now have all the draw of a faded drag queen in a shabby old bar, whereas only 3 days ago, they were totally where the party was at.

Last year, we headed out to Dungeness, for the ultimate bracing walk (feature image) where the kids struggled to walk upright into the gale force winds. We cleared our heads and planned our 2016 trips away. It really felt like the start of something new, as we turned our attention away from the past and towards turning the page into a new year. We even toyed with renting a house out in wild Dungeness for this romjul, to invite friends and family to join us, but a lack of funds knocked that idea on the head this time, but it’s still there lurking for another year.

And now, here we are 12 months later and the world has had a well documented shocker of a year. So I’m not going to go over all that again, there’s been enough said. Instead, I’m going to embrace this bit of down time, limiting my screen time to spend as much of it present with the kids in the truest sense of the word, whilst getting some all important thank you notes to all our lovely elderly neighbours, who have showered the kids with selection boxes and kindness.

Because that’s what it’s all about. No?

 

 

Last (minute) Christmas…part 4

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The Final instalment – Stocking Fillers & Secret Santas

So here’s my last post on some great stocking fillers I’ve found this year.  There are tonnes around, so I’ve tried to steer clear of the novelty stuff that looks good but has no actual use.

Kids Stockings

L-r : cats cradle kit and instructions, House of Marbles £2; Oh K face mask, £4 John Lewis; Batman egg and soldiers set, Lakeland £6; Cheesy Star Wars joke book; £3.99 Amazon;  Toadstool nightlight, dot com gift shop online, £3.50; Hotel Chocolat Rudolf chocolate drops, £2; Emoji bus pass holder, £6 Paperchase; Monster hand tattoos, £4 Tate Modern (www.shop.tate.org.uk); Star Wars kids washbag and shower gel, £8 (reduced M&S) and strictly speaking not a stocking filler at £15, this Pusheen washbag and toiletries kit would put a smile on any tweenies face, and is in the 3 for 2 cosmetics offer at M&S, which is why I’m including it here. 

Secret Santas

You don’t have to stray down the total cheese route with these fab bits all under a tenner.

l – r : Wool hat, £3.99 H&M;Sprouts chocolate roulette, Lakeland.co.uk £4.99; Burts Bees bauble, £7 M&S (and as above it’s in the 3 for 2 offer on cosmetics at the moment); Korean cosmetics are having a moment and this Oh K face mask will tick boxes £4, John Lewis; Neom travel size bath and shower in a range of different de-stressing natural oils, £8; Cowshed cracker with handcream and lip balm, would be welcomed by any commuter, £10; Lulu Guiness edition vaseline lip balm, £2 Boots.com; Little Miss Wine O’clock will give a chuckle, £3.99 most book stores; Powder Love shower gel from Treacle Moon is a lovely fresh powdery scent at a bargain of £2 Tescos; Top Shop nail varnish in a huge range of colours £5 each; Star key ring from & Other Stories, £12; Rudolf chocolate drop, £2 from Hotel Chocolat; Salted caramel vodka, also Hotel Chocolat £4; these pleasing laptop usb fairylights would make students and office workers happy, £5.99 Amazon; Whittard salted caramel hot chocolate, £6.50. 

 

Finally, a special mention to the Famous Five parodies, which include Five Go Gluten Free and Five on Brexit Island. Totally daft, and most definitely of 2016, but very clever and a good go-to for a last minute gift.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed my canter through last minute Christmas gift ideas. All of these stockists are still promising delivery in time for the big day, but I’d get a wriggle on.

Wishing everyone a stress-free week. X