SWB bins the gin (almost)

IMG_1481Fancy a challenge anyone? How about no alcohol, for an entire year. Could you do it? I have major issues just contemplating Lent, which, incidentally, I’ve never managed. Alcohol has insidiously woven its way so deeply into our collective social consciousness that it’s difficult to contemplate its absence from our lives.


But fair play to my friend Amberlea who has boldly undertaken the challenge. She is currently on day 84 of 365 days, sans alcohol, and is documenting the progress on her blog, SilverandAmber. She admits it’s the commitment to the writing that is motivating her to keep off the quare stuff, but in cutting out the booze she’s acknowledging what many of us are loathe to admit, that we have an increasing reliance on drink.


So I too did something uncharacteristic last night. I went to the same party as Amberlea, and I drove. I cheated a bit by having a small glass of wine on arrival, to clink glasses with my friend who was celebrating her birthday, then I drank tonic water. In some ways it was easy. There were many good friends in the room, none of whom would have goaded me to drink. Not drinking booze didn’t mean I enjoyed our conversations less and probably meant that I was better company. I’m always chatty, but wine makes me more garrulous, one might say annoying. I’ve never had much of a filter anyway so a couple of stiff gins obliterates it completely. People up and down the country have been hearing stories of my intestinal tract since 1996.


In her new book, Quit Alcohol (for a month) Helen Foster recommends drinking tonic water on its own with lots of ice and a good squeeze of lime as it mimics the real thing. She makes a valid point. I knew this from working in a bar as a student and being told that bartenders sometimes gave customers who were rightly on their way a glass of tonic with a touch of gin (or vodka) rubbed around the edge and a squeeze of lemon. They didn’t notice the difference. I thought this was a rather good idea; saving them from themselves.


So much of drink is the ritual. Swirling the ice in the glass first to chill it, the hiss as you pop the cap off the Fevertree tonic, the glug of the Shortcross and the squeeze of lime at the end. Well I got all of that, minus the gin. Amberlea was drinking a very palatable non-alcoholic wine with green tea out of a dinky twenties style cocktail glass. In a tailored white sequenced top she was the Daisy Buchanan of the party, except she’s lovely, while most Gatsby fans will agree that Daisy is an asshole.


Last week I got roaring drunk. I attended a spectacular evening at Boden coffee shop on the Ormeau when the owner handed the reins over to glorious duo Jo and Erin of ‘The Edible Flower’. Together they put on a supper club of five tempting courses fusing Mexican and Vietnamese cuisine. It couldn’t have been more up my street, I was practically fizzing with glee. Jo concocted an aperitif and handed us this golden thing of beauty on arrival. It was autumn in a glass, with citrus and honey and a good kick of rum at the finish. She brews her own beer from foraged nettles and the like, so with each course came a soupçon of hoppy, malty loveliness. It was a BYO event so I came armed with a bottle of Macedonian Red. From what I can recall it was mighty good.


But Sunday morning. Oh Holy God. That bit when you raise your head from the pillow and think “What did I NOT drink last night?” before collapsing again. Beery fumes and garlic from the sopa d’ajo competed for supremacy in my nostrils. And oh joy! I was off to the park with the kids for Junior parkrun. Thankfully LSB was on board for moral support and had made the coffee suitably strong.


Instead of reflecting upon the evening as the delight it was, I felt sick and silly. My gorgeous friends said no, I hadn’t been overly verbose and yes, they would indeed go out with me again and to stop being so fretful. But I’d been managing my drink intake well since the holidays and I had a sense of toppling off the wagon, face first.


But this morning, it was with intense relief when I blinked upon my eyes and wasn’t set upon by dark thoughts and throbbing temples. I had a hurrah-for-a lack-of-gin moment, then I set about my day. I’m dining out with LSB tonight and I’m in the Northern Lights as I tap away here, but I’m starting with the Fevertree. That way I can sip a glass of wine with dinner and when I’m taking the kids to a party at Funtastic in the morning, I won’t want to bury myself in a quiet corner of the ball pit and wish for death.

SWB on bill dodgers and frenemies



LSB and I were parked in front of the TV the other night  watching the film Trainwreck with Amy Schumer.  It’s bold and outrageous, just don’t watch it with your mammy beside you as she’ll turn all shades of puce. The scenes which tickled me in particular were those starring LeBron James. Of course I didn’t know who it was. “Should I know who that really tall fella is?” I asked LSB. “You should, but you won’t, of course,” he replied, going on to explain that he’s possibly the most famous basketball player in the world and plays a kind of caricature of himself in this movie.

Apparently he’s unerringly generous in real-life but he’s portrayed in the film as being exceptionally tight, whipping out the calculator app on his phone to divide up who-ate-what for lunch, and driving across town to pick up a pair of cheap sunglasses he’s left behind. He’s a multi millionaire NBA star and in one scene he’s frantically patting his pockets to find he’s forgotten his wallet so his best friend has to cough up for the bill.

Well this made me think of all the excruciating times I’d been out with friends or colleagues and the waiter brought the bill and a terrible hush had descended and all bonhomie was long gone in case some one was diddled out of a pound. I have to admit, if some of these individuals had done a Lebron James and got their calculator out, I’d  have been so relieved they were actually going to pay AT ALL that I might have broken into applause. If there’s one thing I can’t bear, it’s a bill dodger.

A friend of mine went on a charity bike race which involved travelling with a group of people they didn’t  know. Arriving in Vienna late one evening, they found themselves in the only restaurant that could squeeze them in, but was considerably more expensive than they had anticipated. However, since they were tired and half-starved, in they went and were busy ordering the moules frites or pasta special to keep the cost down. All of them, that is, except for Mervyn, who’s getting wired into the filet steak and chips and orders a fine bottle of red. And you’ve guessed it, when the bill comes, there’s not a mention that his meal cost double everyone else’s. He had the audacity to do the same the following evening, but by the third night the party broke up. People went off in twos and threes and so sickened were they by his stinginess, that the whole trip felt a bit flat by the end, and the fizz went clean out of the celebration.

A lack of generosity never makes anyone feel good, but the person with whom we are often the least magnanimous is ourselves. I could self-flagellate for Ireland. I’ll torture myself over a misplaced apostrophe or a spelling mistake in something I’ve fired out into the ‘cloud’ to torment me for all eternity. I won’t give myself any credit for the fact that I’m finally writing after many years of wanting to, but not having the balls to start. Instead, I’ll berate myself whole-heartedly for what I got wrong. It’s not just me either; it’s a human thing, or more specifically, a woman thing. We seem hot-wired to sabotage our own happiness, or contentment.

Now please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t expect the best from ourselves and go all Californian and clap ourselves on the back saying “Good work buddy!” for writing some shite or buying someone a coffee. But a little self–love can go a long way.

Years ago I had a friend for whom stinginess was a life choice. She would never miss an opportunity to avoid paying for a round or weaselling a drink or a meal out of the rest of us. If one foolishly acquiesced and paid her way  she’d accept the drink smugly with an expression which said clearly “Sucker! Got them again!” And this lack of generosity wasn’t limited to money either. We were friends for a long time, and I don’t think she ever, knowingly, paid me a compliment. What she did have, however, was a forensic memory for any past indiscretions, or moments when you weren’t your best self. I’d be sitting, a forkful of curry raised to my lips and all smiles she’d say: “Do you remember the time when you….” and zoom in on some shame inducing moment from our student days, and parade it for public consumption. I’d feel a hot rush start at in my cheeks and flame down my neck until I was aglow with mortification. Thus discombobulated I’d probably be duped into paying twice what I owed in an effort to scarper, and dampen my embarrassment with a bottle of wine.

We’re not friends anymore. Life is busy and emotionally taxing enough without hanging out with people who make me feel small. I ignore friend requests on Facebook from  people if I have no desire to meet up in person.  Maintaining a friendship requires effort, but if you care for the person you shouldn’t have to think of ways to manage the situation, figuring out ways of protecting your time, your emotions or your wallet. A good requirement in a friend, especially one whom you’ve known from school or university, is a big heart and a short memory. It would have saved me much aggravation if I’d worked that out sooner.


SWB and the joys of casual conversation


Here’s how last Saturday went. I was wearing what I believed to be quite a fetching outfit, a wine coloured pinafore with an embroidered flower, all the way from Barcelona, of course. I’d paired it with my ubiquitous red Camper boots with a pink heel, because I pair these with just about everything, other than my sporty ensembles.


The children were at their Spanish class so I had 50 minutes to whittle away as I chose, so I perched at the bar in Kaffe O and got merrily stuck into the boiled eggs and rye bread. I was reading the Weekend magazine from the Guardian, and was engrossed in the story of Pakistan’s answer to Kim Kardashian; a reality TV star, for whom transgressing gender boundaries didn’t end well. I was thus engaged and sipping my one shot latte when an acquaintance from park run stepped up with a thrilled expression and began tapping my tummy and congratulating me. She made some pre-emptive cooing noises, as though the baby was already here, ensconced in a car seat beside me. Except there was no baby, and there was no foetus, because I am not pregnant. I have not been pregnant for five years. I have however, had two children by caesarean section and recurring bouts of IBS. I’m also not in a mood to be trifled with.


“No,” I say wearily, shaking my head and swallowing a large mouthful of coffee. “It have really bad IBS. That’s all.” “But,” says Inspector Clouseau, “you haven’t been running. I’ve seen you at park run, and you haven’t been running. “Well I did today!” I correct her. “And we take turns looking after the kids, so we can’t get to run every Saturday.” On she lingers, and tired of justifying my plump tum and exercise habits I curtly say goodbye and turn back to my eggs, which are rapidly cooling, as boiled eggs are wont to do.


So the poor woman, I’m sure she felt I was rude and dismissive but maybe she’ll think twice before going round pawing anyone else’s stomach, unless there’s a pool of amniotic fluid at their feet and she’s ringing an ambulance with the other hand. Then it’s ok, I’ll let her off with it.


I text LSB to give off. “Sake” he texts back, swiftly followed by another one, “You’re not are you?” I let him sweat a bit before I respond, but last time I checked you have to have sex to get pregnant and there hasn’t been much of that carry on, what with my vexatious gut.


I fended off enquiries on holiday too. There was a lovely waitress, who’d served me poolside glasses of wine and carajillos (that delicious fusion of expresso and Bailey’s) for five days on the trot. “You have two lovely little girls,” she smiled. “Hrrrmph” I say, as they haven’t been at their most endearing that morning (nor the 3 consecutive mornings for that matter). “And I see you have another on the way! I am just noticing!” “No,” I sigh. And she’s a sweet girl and I don’t want to be rude or have to start detailing my intestinal woes so I just get back to my book and question my decision to wear a bikini.


I was showing one of my Catalan purchases to my mum and foolishly asked if she thought it was nice. “Well you do know it makes you look pregnant,” she said. Well I fucking do now, thank you very much.


And finally, (and then I’ll stop, I promise) I wander into Al Gelato with children in tow and another lady I know is enjoying a coffee. “So when’s this one due?!” she asks gaily, eyeing my midriff. I churn out the same old craic, “No I’m not,” blah blah blah…. But then she says, “But you just look so tired!” I mean, honest to God! Do you remember the month of July when your children are very small? Who doesn’t look flipping exhausted? Why don’t you just assess my dire pore situation while you’re at it, and here, don’t leave out my hands, which with their protruding veins are soon going to require gloves AKA Sarah Jessica Parker in the last series of ‘Sex and the City’. I’m a car wreck, and incidentally it was great to catch up. I shall trot on, with my ego inflated no end.


Phew, I’m glad I got that off my chest.


I discuss the matter with my friend who’s a midwife over dinner on Friday night. She’s quite animated on the subject. “Unless someone’s told you they’re expecting, it’s never safe to assume. I tend not to, unless I see a head between labia.” “Quite,” I agree.


So I’m in a bit of a quandary. The IBS has flared up royally, despite my Colpermin peppermint tablets and a reduction in the wheat and the dairy and the caffeine. (I mean FFS, is it worth getting out of bed in the morning?) Wearing jeans is off the table because they’re frankly cruel on my tummy and as I said, I developed a powerful fondness for ice cream over the summer and I was also a serious cake botherer. I am thus carrying an extra couple of kilos. So I’ve been wearing little tunics over tights and leggings, and sometimes a dress. And I suppose, because I’m not a big person in general, the excess around the middle does protrude and people make assumptions. But they’d be wise to keep these to themselves. I’m thinking of my friends who would like to be pregnant, but aren’t. I’m thinking of the friends who’ve had miscarriages. Or frankly, of anyone who’s in any way sensitive and could live without being insulted. Imagine if they pop out for a bit of peace in a coffee shop and some half-wit comes along and ruins their day.


I have the misfortune to have an obstreperous bowel. It’s merely irksome, and thank God it’s nothing more sinister. Fortunately I’ve also developed a thick hide over the years. The aforementioned may be less able to cope with throw-away remarks, so these are best kept to oneself. Unless you’ve seen the two lines on a stick, people, keep it zipped. And when I was pregnant, I had an aching back and I felt putrid for nine months, so if it did happen again, believe me, everyone would know about it. The sourness was legendary.







SWB tries to take a load off….


I’m a great one for having fanciful notions. For years I imagined attending a yoga retreat, and it played out something like this. I’d be decked out in Lorna Jane to suit the occasion. I’d be early, so would take a stroll beforehand, perhaps a light lunch, taking time to channel the zen within, so I’d be receptive to the yogic vibes as soon as I set foot in the place. My triceps would be toned and my belly taut, since I’d have been flat-to-the-mat in training so I’d be pliable and bendy for the weekend activity. I’d rock up in a convertible, with some dinky hand luggage and present my coiffed, svelte self at the appointed hour.


At no point in this reverie was I a sweaty, flipped-out mess, in a clapped out Corsa.


Here’s how it actually rolled. You’ve perhaps read the previous post, in which I was assailed with images of Armageddon and my nerves were shot and LSB bundled me off to a retreat in the hope that I’d chill the fuck out (his words). It didn’t start well. After the circuitous trip I was nearly foiled at the last hurdle, since when I finally reached the lodge, it remained unattainable, as there was a gate and a big windy country lane leading down to the premises. The gate was electric and had a buzzer. A buzzer which needed a code, which I of course, didn’t have. I’d no notion so was standing looking utterly gormless, when two lovely ladies drew up and came to my assistance. One noted my defeated expression and said “You’re not having a good day, are you love?” Too bloody right.


Not being half-wits, they supplied the code and in we drove and the retreat organiser Stuart greeted us at he door. He was a sprightly sort of a fellow. “Welcome welcome!” said he, relieving me of my bag, and hot-footing it up the stairs two at a time. Already he was the embodiment of this healthy living lark. His partner Martina, sat serenely in the kitchen, nursing her baby boy and emanating calm. “Juice, tea, bowl of borscht?” offered Stuart before showing me to the room I’d be sharing for the weekend with two others. It was a dorm, but not in the conventional Malory Towers sense. Oh no. It boasted two sets of over-sized bunk beds with delicate wispy curtains and enough space for a bedside lamp and one’s various accoutrements. I started to make mental notes so LSB could erect something similar for the girls.


I felt myself begin be decompress. I was only through the door, so this was strange indeed. I’m an uptight sort of a creature. It was a Friday afternoon; I was in a strange place, with people I didn’t know, and no mention of a G&T. “This is very curious,” I thought.


“We’ll have our first class in 15 minutes” called Martina, so in I went to meet the rest of the yogis in the living room where a fire crackled. We took in the panoramic views of the lush verdant landscape. “There’s two more joining you later, so you’re an intimate wee group,” Stuart informed us. There was a nurse from Dublin, a sales rep from Cultra and two ladies from Antrim who were a scream. ‘I’ve never done yoga in my puff” said Mary. “I’m only here because of her,” she nudged her friend. “And I’ve brought my Barry’s tea, I’m not having any of that other nonsense”. My sort of woman. There wasn’t a pretention among them. And no Lorna James or Lu Lu Lemon either, so I fitted in just fine in my H&M and Decatholon combo.


Martina led us outside through to the studio which was a converted stable, complete with wood burner and yet more views over the mountains. The smoke from the burner and the pine resin reminded me of a lodge near Budapest we’d visited on honeymoon, and when Martina, who hails from the Czech Republic began her instruction I felt entirely transported elsewhere.


Normally I practise Vinyasa Flow yoga, which when you’ve built up the rhythm feels like a fusion of yoga and dance. But Martina is a trained Iyengar teacher, which would be my least preferred if I’m honest; I say this because there is a lot of time spent arranging props; tying belts, arranging yourself on cushions and folding blankets and shoving them under your buttocks to perfect the pose. Frost says in his poem ‘For once, then something’ that he’s ‘always wrong to the light’ and that’s me in an Iyengar class, still buggering about with a belt when everyone else has held their pigeon pose for three minutes. But I persevere and it’s a judgement free zone. It’s also hard to contemplate the possibility of nuclear fall out when you’re suspended by a rope in an attempt to perfect your downward dog. It’s a good diversion. “Make your collar bones smile”, intones Martina, and after all the heart openers I’m breathing more expansively than I have in years. I expect to feel tight after three tough sessions but when I wake on Sunday I feel as though all the knots and tension have been scooped out from between my shoulder blades. Miraculously there is room there. After every relaxation I fall into a dreamy stupor of semi-consciousness, and leave the studio in a somnambulant state.


Maybe the lack of caffeine also contributes to my drowsiness. We wake each morning to the sounds of Stuart tinkling with a juicer to whizz up green smoothies; he fires in spinach and kale, pepped up with pineapple or apple juice to sweeten it up. And ginger. Ginger’s the Kate Moss of spices these days. “Is it a Nutri-Bullet you have there?” asks Maura from Dublin. “No, it’s an American yoke, you just chuck it all in and give it a good old rev” explains Stuart. There is much talk about juicing and fasting and food fads over the weekend. Tara, another Dubliner, recalls grim memories from the solicitor’s office where she works, where employees had a penchant for juice diets. This wasn’t conducive to a mellow working environment. Starving, they were. And ratty with it. “The secret is adding avocado or banana, maybe some yogurt,” explains Kerrie, who has done fortnight long juice retreats in Turkey and returned all aglow. I’m stunned, frankly. What kind of eejit would think they could work all day with nothing only juiced up orange and celery to sustain them? And these are people in the legal profession, who are meant to have brains. No wonder the country’s in a state of chassis. Tara’s boyfriend was the only fellow in the group, and he was an enormously relaxed sort of a bloke, so it wasn’t a bother to him at all. He was very new to yoga too, which suggests this is a weekend for anyone.


We enjoy a ‘meditative walk’ each morning through dew drenched fields where we are encouraged to clear our minds and focus on our senses. It’s eight am, so it’s a relief not to be making conversation, and we listen instead to the babbling brooks and the cawing jackdaws and pluck blackberries off the hedges as a pre-breakfast snack.


At mealtimes the table creaks under the homemade fare. It may be meat free, but no one’s going home hungry, and flavour is KING. Coconut and yogurt feature heavily and everything, from the carrot and cashew soup to the pistachio and almond cake and mango mousse feels like an indulgence. When Stuart pops a bowl of Sri Lankan curry before me, the zinginess of the lime and coriander filtering through the steam have me transported back to the East. I could be sitting round the table in Cambodia before I’ve even had a mouthful. And yes, as I said, no booze. Oh, how thrilled am I to find that conversation and laughter still flow, without waking up the next morning with that dreaded feeling, “What the fuck did I disclose last night to a group of strangers?” Even after our walk along the Táin Way into Carlingford on the Saturday, no one slips off for a cheeky pint. Our self-control is mighty. It’s a relief actually, when we spot the hen and stag parties, not to be joining them for a night on the tear.


There’s just one problem. When I’m away from home, and out of my routine, I may think I’m relaxed, but my gut knows otherwise. And despite fruit salad, peppermint tea, milk keffir and cashew nut burgers (or perhaps because of these, they were a bit on the dense side) I get completely, and utterly constipated. I’ve written before about the cranky nature of my bowels and how really, they need to be treated with extreme caution. Maybe the lack of caffeine was the problem. But by Sunday my guts had properly taken umbrage at the dietary changes inflicted upon them. My lower abdomen looked as though someone had taken a balloon pump to it. There was no way on God’s sweet earth that I was adopting any class of a yoga pose in front of anyone. So I made my apologies and took my leave after the morning stroll. The hosts were gracious and eager for me to stay. “Ahh don’t go,” says Stuart. “Take a book and sit by the fire and have your lunch with the gang.” But to quiet the turmoil within, I politely declined and hoofed it back up the road, to the comfort of my own bathroom.


But despite the aggravated guts, I felt a great deal more settled in myself and I’ll gladly return if they’ll have me. (it’s been a fortnight since the event, and I’m glad to report that innards have returned to normal, or as normal as mine ever are).




SWB embarks on a road trip


“Right, come here til you see this.” LSB has been Googling away to himself, and for once he’s not looking at expensive running watches. We’re drowning in Garmins here. “There’s a yoga retreat in Carlingford this weekend, and I think you should go.” Usually, when there’s any mention of Carlingford, I’m thinking of Ghan House and gourmet meals and wine aplenty. I’m not contemplating abstinence and downward dogs. But a bit of time away and enlightenment sounds good, maybe even essential.  I’ve been a bit glum since coming back from the holiday, consumed with apocalyptic dread. Now listen, I know. Let’s get someone from Barbuda on the line and they’ll have something to say about me feeling morose. “You’re feeling low you say? YOU’RE FEELING LOW? We’ve no fecking island left! Not a pot to piss in! So tell me again what your first world problem is?”


That’s the thing though about a dose of the blues; you feel shite for feeling shite, hence it’s a vicious circle. I’ve woken up every morning feeling like someone has put a brick on my chest. It’s been hard to shift. I’ve cut the booze consumption and been running and yoga-ing and attending some arty events. This has gone some way in taking me out of the mire that is my state of mind right now. I have many wonderful friends who thole my neuroses and tolerate my company. My brother has just returned from a long sojourn in Taiwan and the children are happy and excited to see him. The world just seems such a sad and dangerous place that I can’t help but be edgy and neurotic. I know how senseless it is to waste time worrying about things beyond my control, but my mood is bleak and I’m much sourer than usual. No wonder LSB Is looking rid of me…


I booked a place on the course and off I set. It was a lovely trip, listening to Radio Four on quiet roads until I reached Newry where there was a 4 mile tail back. I ended up taking to the back roads. The narrow lanes were clogged with lorries far too big for them. They were a metaphor for my head. My poor overworked neurons knew how those country roads felt. There was reversing and stalling and improbable maneuvering.


When I finally reached Newry every road in and out was so snarled and congested I started wondering if I’d missed something. Had Hurricane Irma re-directed here and was everyone legging it? And if so WHY HAD NO ONE TOLD ME? I breathed deeply. Nearly there now…


In another act of gross stupidity I neglected to print the exact address so I ended up harassing the owner of the petrol station in Omeath. He was lovely. He drew me a map and when he noticed my inability to tell left from right he said, “Look at your watch, that’ll help you. No, the other hand. That’s your LEFT hand.” He and three men discussed the location “It’s huge, you can’t fucking miss it….oh, sorry love,” (they must have thought I looked posh, or easily offended). They gathered outside to watch me leave and ensure I took the correct road. I feared they might ring some Belfast institutions to see if they were missing any inmates. I reached the top of the mountain and I still could n’t see where I was supposed to be, so I stopped and looked imploringly at a sheep farmer going about his business. His herd eyed me quizzically. “I’m a bit stressed,” I explained, unnecessarily, since I looked a frazzled mess. “And lost too.” “It’s grand” he said. “You’re on the right road, you just need to back up a bit and stop when you see the electric gate.” The penny dropped, I knew exactly where to go, I’d just zoomed past it the first time round. The farmer was still shaking his head and saying “The stress, the stress, it’ll kill us all, I’m telling you” when I drove off. I managed to calm myself down and found Eagle’s Rock Retreat within 3 minutes. Boy, was I ready for some yoga.


If you’re thinking of getting lost, I recommend Omeath; they’re a great bunch of lads.

(More on the retreat itself to follow).

SWB on Culture Night


“I’m reading on Culture Night” I tell LSB in a fit of excitement. “Super, good for you!” he replies. He’s a good sort really, despite his aversion to cleaning. You’d think he’d be fed up listening to me, since he has to hear me wittering on every day, since that’s what you sign up for when you say “I do”. He also came down to the 10×9 event at the Black Box on Wednesday night to hear me telling my tale about Réunion Island. My brother and my mum came too, and some friends tried to join us but were turned away at the door, such was the turn out. They’ll be using the Waterfront at this rate. The Wise Old Elf didn’t make it. “Just as well” I said. I don’t think he’d appreciate the bit about the marijuana. Or the stealing. Wouldn’t go down well.”  “No, it was the bit about the wee goat,” says my mum. “He’d be demented, he loves goats. I don’t think he could stick listening to a story about you eating one.” He’s a sensitive soul, my dad. Partial to a bit of chicken or a plate of mince mind; he’s not exactly Linda McCartney. Still, we all have our foibles.


“So where is it you’re reading?” asks LSB. “Oh it’s very handy,” says I. “The Hallows on the Ormeau Road.” He starts to go a funny colour. I think he’s misheard. “You know, the gallery, with Dylan, the fella that made a fuss of the girls, then got marrIed in a castle in the summer, in a kilt?” (my children were obsessed with castles after having a chat with Dylan one day, and the small one is determined that she’s marrying her friend Sam in Ballygally. She says we can come if we want, which is big of her, since we know who’ll be paying for it).  “Of course I know Dylan, I’m worried because it’s an ART gallery and you’re not safe to be let loose anywhere that sells any class of a picture,” sighs LSB, looking forlorn. He’s still getting over the extension we built and art galleries aren’t good for his nerves, as I tend to run amok. Ginger Bistro is another disaster area as I tend to drink too much and get excitable, leaving the premises with a belly full of crispy squid and a lovely picture under my arm. Sometimes LSB clambers into the taxi after me looking utterly bemused as to what’s just happened.

He looks stern. “We go in, you read, and you look STRAIGHT ahead. I don’t care if there are paintings by Stephen Shaw or Seán Nichol,” he says, craning his neck to see the invitation. “You just focus on the task at hand and off we go.”

So that’s me told then. Spoil-sport. If you’re in the area, and fancy popping by, it should be very pleasant. (And if you see me eying up any art, try and distract himself).



SWB’s Top Five Books for Small Children



Hold it right there, I know where you’re going. You’ve just got another birthday invitation to a small child’s party and you’re making the obligatory journey to Smyth’s. Why not take a trip to your local independent book store instead and see if they’re stocking any of these titles? (Can you hear the mantra? No more plastic shite, no more plastic shite….)


Tidy by Emily Cravett 

This great tale about a badger with OCD carries a sound ecological message. When Pete can’t get the forest looking ship-shape because of pesky leaves and muddy footprints, he sets about wrecking the place, with predictable catastrophic results. Thankfully his woodland friends help him return things to as they were before, once he realizes his folly. 

When developers come digging up the greenbelt in your local area, don’t be surprised if your little tree huggers are the first on site with their placards, fighting the good fight. 


This is Jane, Jim by Kaye Umansky and Margaret Chamberlain 

When a new baby arrives home and starts snaffling all the attention, Jim is nonplussed. He wanted a hamster, but has been landed with a sister instead and he’s feeling the neglect acutely. I’ve read this story about twice a week for the past three years and I still, STILL choke up on the last page. It’s gorgeously written in iambic tetrameter and the simple verses just dance off the pages. Buy this for any friends who have just fired out another baby. I guarantee their wardrobes are already full of M&S clothes for infants; this book is what they REALLY need. 


The Bear with Sticky Paws by Clara Vulliamy 

Do I just like this book because the wee girl looks like a mixture of my two children and has the temper to boot? No, it’s just a delight full stop. From the mischievous bear who comes to visit; the savvy mum who just pours her tea and clears away off to get her head showered, and the cosy ending when the child is gently taught a thing or two. The author’s mother is the veteran writer Sally Hughes of Alfie and Dogger fame and Vulliamy shares her talent for capturing tiny details to snare your child’s imagination. She just gets children (and has a fair notion about their mum and dads too), she even has the pet cat down to a tee. Her writing is playful and glorious, as are her pictures. 


Jip and Janneke by Fiep Westendorp 

This book is delicious: little snapshots to take you through the seasons in Holland, picking up on a few cultural titbits along the way. The two children’s characters are shown as little black silhouettes against a backdrop of exquisite colour. It’s another one I’m never done reading, and each time I open its lovely pages I’m like GET ME TO HOLLAND. Those continentals are so civilized, with their Van Gogh and their tulips and their sipping coffee by a canal and pedaling by serenely on their bicycles. I open this book and the imagery transports me right back to a holiday in Amsterdam, many years ago. It makes me want to pack a bag and take the family to the city zoo and visit a few windmills.  That’s half term sorted then….


Chus Day by Neil Gaiman, illustrations by Adam Rex  

Poor Chu, the panda, is troubled by the severity of his sneezes. He finds them  difficult to harness, much to the chagrin of his world weary parents. Such is his affliction that he’s a liability to take anywhere: threatening to create havoc in the library, the diner and finally at the circus where it all goes spectacularly belly up. The illustrations are simply out of this world. My favorite is the kangaroo who waitresses in the diner. She’s one gorgeous Antipodean. LSB prefers the giraffe at the lending desk at the library. It’s hard to choose, to be honest.  


Have a great weekend everybody, and if you do end up at a party I hope there’s at least good coffee on the go.




SWB discovers Books Paper Scissors


This is the sort of shop that gives LSB apoplexy. It’s the kind of store into which I wander and am overcome with a keen feeling: I am meant to be here. I am home. The walls are pastel hued, the ceilings are high and the bay windows look out onto the Ulster Museum. Books are sorted into neat little piles, thoughtfully chosen. The contenders for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction jostle beside Penguin Classics. Children’s books sport handwritten reviews from local youngsters. Teachers from Methody trot over with small classes and set up reading groups in the space out the back. (Apparently one forward thinking gentleman brought over a few kids who were on detention and they had a delightful time.)

While I’m there a couple of regulars come in for a yarn. There’s a blackboard behind the cash desk with details of a monthly book group held at the venue. I’m getting the feel of a literary hub.


I limit myself to buying one book and struggle enormously with the decision before settling on Judy Blume’s latest offering for adult readers: In the Unlikely Event. I adored this author as a teenager and then was reacquainted with her adult work when I picked up a copy of Summer Sisters in a book swap in a hotel in Bangkok. It made a ten hour bus journey down to Krabi in the south much more bearable. I bought this one to read on holiday but it was an odd choice for a nervous flyer. Neither its title, nor the fact that the cover shows a woman looking into the distance with an anxious expression suggested it’s subject matter: I didn’t quite join the dots. Needless to say, when we boarded our Jet 2 flight home from Girona and the cabin was like a sauna due to a ‘problem regulating one of its engines’ I was all for barrelling off the plane and staying in Spain.


Anyone with a fetish for fine stationary will be titillated beyond their wildest imaginings. (I exaggerate. For that they need to take themselves off to Japan where one stationary store has seven floors, one of which is entirely devoted to pens.) Everything is carefully chosen; I buy a card with a fluffy ostrich nuzzling its chick for my friend who’s just had a baby girl. Normally I am VERY stingy about cards; a) because I used to painstakingly make my own and now I can’t be arsed so I resent paying for them, and b) unless they are either extremely beautiful, thus worthy of a frame, or else highly amusing, I reckon they’re a waste of time.  They bring out my OCD.  Although I do love one popping through the letter-box, especially if it contains a little note. Anyway, I pick the card up and the owners Paul and Linda tell me its origins. “Oh yes, that’s an English lady makes those. She’s taken a career break and thought she’d give creative pursuits a bash. So we took a few off her.” See? You’re not going to get that background detail in Clintons are you?


So next time you are looking for a thoughtful gift, or find yet another child’s party invitation in the bottom of their school bag, get thee to an independent book store such as this. The recipient won’t be disappointed (and if they are, reevaluate the relationship).


SWB hits the dance floor


Test-driving some of my dance moves in the garden in my new Catalan rig-out

“Card declined, sorry,” says the cashier at M&S. “No it can’t be! I’m just after registering my new one” I bleat. But no, the new one is nowhere to be seen, and I‘m standing gormlessly holding the old card, now invalid. I’ve just realized I’m overdrawn on my current account AND the only other card in my wallet is one I never use because I don’t recall the pin. It’s a perfect storm, like being a student again, or being back at work but paying for two children’s childcare so still being without a bean. “Let me ring my husband,” I tell the man, who looks nonplussed by now. “Will I just set it behind the counter?” he sighs, “Probably best.” I mutter.

LSB lands down, all suited and booted for the wedding we’re supposed to be at, like NOW, except I’m pissing about, making us late.  I’m ‘White Knighting’ he tells a different cashier, who seems quite taken with him. (LSB, saving the day again). I, on the other hand am feeling sad and deflated, and looking anything but smart. I’ve got the post-holiday blues and to be frank I’m wondering if I have it in me to get dolled up for a night of frivolity. The Barcelona attacks left me shaken and with all this  Trump v Kim Jung II (or whatever the fuck’s he called) business I’m all a-quiver. Every time North Korea is mentioned on the news I jump a foot in the air and LSB is stealthily hiding newspapers and leaping up to switch off the radios lest I go off the deep end again. If we ever renew our vows I’d make one of his be “I promise that on my watch, you’ll never hear a news report that makes you want to euthanise myself before the big guns do it for you”.

We leave M&S and meet Moya from the school run in the mall. “I’m off to a Big Gay Wedding tonight, but I’m not really feeling it,” I inform her. (Poor woman, she only said hello, probably wasn’t wanting an update on my psychological state.) “Her eyes widen. “A big gay wedding you say? Well you had better start feeling it! What you need is either a big glass of fizz or else something short and strong. What’s it to be?” “Oh I can’t be having the fizz,” say I, all earnest. “Did you not see that article about what it does to your teeth? “Daily Mail fear-mongering!” she retorts. “But no, it was Zoe Williams, in The Guardian,” I correct her. (The Guardian would never make you feel bad for having a few scoops would they?) “Oh Williams SchWilliams, go and enjoy your party!!” God, I love Moya. She always looks fantastic and radiates positivity. I should hate her, but I can’t, she’s just too fabulous.

Home we go, and I get a grip of myself and find my lovely new frock I bought in a  Catalan boutique and put it on. (Any wonder I’m over-drawn?) I try out some make-up tips from my Benefit tin of delights, and when I undo my plaits from earlier there’s a delightful kink in the hair. (It stops half way down, but you know, feck it.) And down to The Empire we zoom to be greeted by our two favourite newly weds, and we set about creating havoc on the dance floor. The wedding band, The Moonshines seemed heaven sent to cheer me up. They nearly did Prince better than Prince, no mean feat I’m sure you’ll agree. It was quite simply, outrageously good fun and my mood lifted considerably, due, I think, to the transcendental power of dance. It would be unfair not to mention the incredible food from Posh Nosh, and the warmth and conviviality of the wedding party too. The last wedding to which we were invited didn’t end quite so well for me, as I came home via the Ulster Hospital, having dislocated my toe after falling on it, hard, while Irish Dancing with vigour to ‘Whiskey in the Jar’. (Almost worth the pain though, since it was tremendous fun too). So all digits intact we made it home, and with only the slightest of hangovers the next morning because sure I didn’t have time to drink, so busy was I tearing up the floor.

The morale is: get dancing people! It shook me out of my funk no end. (it has also made me consider hiring this band for my fortieth, which gives me almost two years to save up. Might have to drag my sorry ass back to work at this rate)



New school blues


“Go home mummy. Just go!” “Why am I not allowed to come?” “Because both of you here is just embarrassing.”. And so it begins, aged four, and the small child is already mortified by my very presence. LSB and I have united forces to walk the small child down the road together, as it’s her first day of school. Couldn’t come soon enough I can tell you. She slept poorly, with a tickly cough, so we were all up in the night tending to her, then from 7.15 onwards we’ve been listening to her complaints. “I’m getting dressed now!” “Oh please don’t,” I implore.     “You don’t go in until 10 O’clock.” “Don’t care! And I DON’T WANT BREAKFAST!” She refuses to let any liquid pass her lips as she is “BORED WITH DRINKING.” (so am I to be honest after that holiday but if this continues I’ll be back on the grog by tonight.) “I don’t like this school bag, it’s ho-ble (horrible) why did you choose it for me?” “My lunch box is too small. You always get me ho-ble things.” Exasperated sigh from the mother. “Will I just go back to the mummy shop. “NO.” “Why not? I’m clearly getting it all kinds of wrong here.” “Dad needs you.” “Really?” Well at least someone does.

The grumbling continues despite the pair of us pointing at cats and dogs and blackbirds, usual items of interest to her.  “Where did we get her from?” I ask LSB. “Must I answer that?” he replies. Fair enough. My P1 photograph shows a small child with a similar mutinous expression.

I feel sorely tempted to say fine then, clear away off, but I don’t. And as we approach the school gates, a wee hand slips in to mine. I look to see if she’s taken LSB’s too, for if that were the case she’d be instigating that we give her a swing, but she hasn’t. Lovely Mrs T is waiting at the door, and two of her friends are playing together at a table as she goes in. “I am so, so glad to see the back of that one,” I tell her teacher, who having had the older one last year, is well used to my ill-humour, “but I have it on good authority that she’ll be better for you.” “Course she will,” smiles Mrs T with a confidence I don’t entirely share. As we turn to go both wee friends wave enthusiastically, and when we take a final peek through the window, one even pushes her nose against the glass. Ours approaches too and we wait expectantly for a smile. Then she grits her teeth into a sort of snarl. shaking her head like a bulldog with a chew toy. “And we’ve to be back here at 11.45,” I sigh to LSB. “Let’s go and get ploughed into some caffeine.”

Boxer (Canis lupus familiaris) chewing sandal

PS. Small child came out of school pleased as punch, only raging because she’s not in again until Monday, since she enjoyed it so much. I too, am irked that she’s not in until Monday. Anyone want her tomorrow? 😉