Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Let's get Ready to Chrumble!

I admit, it is a rather unseasonable post but then my personal motto is a crumble is for life, not just for Christmas.
Crumbles are, in my opinion, the ultimate puddings.  Hot, fruity, sweet, comforting and homely…
As a child I became rather obsessed with the making of crumbles and as such this was a Sunday staple pudding in our house and my main contribution to the Sunday dinner. 
I started, like most, with the classic and traditional apple crumble.  My recipe, from the previously mentioned, good old Good Housekeeping book (hence the measurements), is as basic as it is perfect:
8oz Plain flour

4 oz butter

4 oz brown sugar. 

3 Bramley apples

Caster sugar to taste.
That recipe will be seared on my brain until the day I die!   The other great thing about it is that it is so easily reduced or increased depending on how many guests you are feeding (the above recipe serves four).  Even as a very non-mathematically-minded child, I could easily calculate and adjust the recipe accordingly.
Rubbing the crumble ingredients together to resemble breadcrumbs was – and still is – one of my favourite tasks.  The trick is speed of movement and lightness of touch – you need to rub the butter, flour and sugar as quickly as possible between the tips of the finger and thumb and avoid over-handling otherwise it can go soggy.  Cold hands are a definite advantage.  The texture of fine breadcrumbs is as comforting as letting sand run through your fingers but I also liked to leave the occasional large buttery-sugary “rock” in the mix. 
Opinion is divided on the issue of stewing the apples before baking.  Personally I do like to cook them just for a few minutes until the start to soften (but not puree).  Good Housekeeping also favours this approach and recommends adding some caster sugar to the apples when heating depending on how sweet or tart you like your pud. 
As a self-professed crumble expert, I remember one Home Economics lesson at school when it was announced that we would be making apple crumble.  My excitement was short lived when I discovered how regimented the process would be.  Not to mention the fact that it had barely crossed my mind that not all my classmates were whipping up dessert and helping with the Sunday roast every weekend.  I remember watching with increasing horror as they failed to follow instructions, dumping all the ingredients (apples, flour, sugar, butter) together then complaining that their “breadcrumbs” were too wet and had lumps of apple in them.  All this was treated with a smile by the teacher but when I opened a window to stick out my hands (in the absence of a freezer I thought I was quite innovated) to make them as cold as possible (all the better for rubbing the crumble mixture together) and when I asked for some extra sugar to sprinkle over the apples, I was the one to get into trouble.  Sigh.
But it wasn’t all about apples.  Rhubarb crumble was another firm favourite in our house and it wasn’t long before I started putting the two together.
The apple and rhubarb combo sparked a new phase of experimentation in my crumble adventures and I would spend all week thinking about what I could top with crumble that week.  I was lucky to have parents who allowed and encouraged me to experiment in the kitchen and we would try “crumbling” a variety of fresh and tinned fruits.  Many of the combinations, so obvious now, still seemed exciting to me as a child:

  • Apple and blackberry
  • Apple and blueberry
  • Apple and sultana
  • Apple and rhubarb
  • Rhubarb and blueberry
  • Peach
  • Peach and apricot
  • Plum
  • Apple and plum

Then came the experimentations with the crumble topping itself as I started to understand that additions could be made here to complement the fruit flavours, so oats were added to apple –based crumbles and nuts to the stone fruit dishes.  A layer of caramel between apples and the crumble topping was also well received.
I became obsessed with the idea of adding desiccated coconut to my crumble toppings and wanted to make a summery, tropical filling to complement that.  The first attempt of banana didn’t work.  Banana, mango and pineapple however was a triumph!
As I grew older, I wanted my crumbles to “grow-up” with me so I started adding alcohol to the fruit during the brief stewing process.  Port works well with apples and plums, amaretto is divine with plum, peach and apricot (especially with lots of flaked almonds in the crumble mixture) and Malibu gives an obvious extra kick to the tropical crumble.
As the combination of plum and almonds is so good, my most recent variation – with thanks to Earthmaiden from the Wildfood Forum – is replacing a third of the flour in the crumble mix with ground almonds.  Beautiful!
So what to serve with the perfect crumble?  It may surprise you to know that despite my love of crumble, I consider custard to be the work of the devil.  Although a thin, “proper”, vanilla custard (crème anglais, if you will), is a world away from the thick yellow stuff normally served in these circumstances and is perfect with a nutty plum crumble.  My accompaniment of choice would have to be ice cream – a good quality creamy ice cream in a perfect round scoop, placed on the hot crumble crust just before serving to allow slow melting into the fruit.  I adore the hot/cold sensation of hot pud with ice cream.
I would love to hear any further suggestions for jazzing up the humble crumble.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Ten things to do during the Edinburgh Festival

Continuing the theme… 

Whilst our fair city is overrun with tourists, I thought I’d post some of the great ways to spend time and recharge in between festival shows this month.

1.  Mirazozo
Not quite a Fringe show but located in George Square/Assembly, the Mirazozo is a huge inflatable structure based on Islamic architecture which allows natural sunlight to filter though creating amazing stained glass window effects and optical illusions through lighting effects.  Ambient music adds to the tranquil, other-worldly atmosphere and there are lots of corners where you can sit or lie for as long as you want until you feel at peace with the world.  The light patterns are beautiful and it is hard to believe these are not created by electricity.  (Admission £5)

2.  Arthur’s Seat
It is hard to miss this big hill in the centre of Edinburgh but it is worth the climb to get fresh air and amazing panoramic views of the city. 

3.  The Museum of Scotland
Located on Chamber’s Street, the Museum has just re-opened its doors after major refurbishment and is bigger, better and more beautiful than ever.  Fascinating exhibitions and displays will keep visitors of any age amused and enthralled.  (Free entrance)

4.  Hedonics Massage
Anyone who has spent time hanging out in the main venues of the Udderbelly and Pleasance Courtyard will have seen a small team of masseurs wandering around offering 10 minute head, neck and shoulder massages.  Trust me this is the best ten minutes you will ever spend and the idea is that you donate what you think the massage is worth.  Truly one of the best massages I have ever had. 

5.  The Royal Mile
The High Street section of the Mile is essentially a market place where performers and publicists advertise their shows.  It is extremely crowded, lively and energetic with excerpts from plays, musicals, magic and comedy been played out all around you whilst people thrust handfuls of flyers at you from every direction.  There are street performers commanding large crowds as they juggle and perform jokes and acrobatics and a small market place with local craft producers selling their wares.  Truly the heart of the festival.

6.  The Tattoo
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has been the jewel in the crown of the Edinburgh Festival for over 50 years and still commands enormous crowds from around the globe every night.  Say what you will about military pomp and ceremony but there are few spectacles like this around and everyone stops what they are doing around the city to watch the fireworks light up the sky at the close of performance each night.

Like a larger version of the market place on the Royal Mile, around 40-50 local artists, jewellers and other craftsmen set up camp outside the St George’s church for three weeks offering unique gifts and ethical fair-trade products.

8.  The Water of Leith
Get out of the city and stretch your legs along Edinburgh’s best kept secret.  A beautiful, peaceful and at times slightly rugged walkway from Leith to Balerno.  It’s a long distance so few would do it in one go but certain sections are worth a wander for the time-pressed.  Especially the beautiful stretch from Murrayfield to Stockbridge which takes in the rear entrance to the Modern Art Gallery, National AIDS memorial site, Dean Bridge, St Bernard’s Well, 2 x Anthony Gormley Sculptures and other impressive sites.  If you are lucky you may see herons, water voles and other wildlife. 

9. Stockbridge
Despite its proximity to the city centre, Stockbridge retains a local, villagey feel.  Quite bohemian in atmosphere there are treasure troves of shops to explore, lots of lovely cafes and some of the best pubs in Edinburgh.

10.   Pleasance Courtyard
Before the other venues opened up eating and drinking spaces, the Pleasance was always the main hub of Fringe activity and despite the contenders it retains superiority.  Yes, it will probably rain and you’ll get wet and yes, the drinks are overpriced and served in plastic glasses but there is so much to see and do whether or not you actually have tickets for a show, a great atmosphere around and lots of opportunity for people watching, not to mention celeb-spotting!    

Ten Eating Options during the Edinburgh Fringe 2011

Anyone who has ever “done” the Fringe will know that for the three weeks of the festival, food becomes a source of fuel rather than a gourmet experience.  Often this is little time to sit down over a preper meal between shows so substinence in grabbed on the hoof thanks to the plentiful and varied stalls that set up around the Big Four venues and vegetables sadly become relegated to the September-July months.  There was a time where deciding what to eat would be a case of which burger topping to have each night but now there is more choice so here I present my ten of the best fast-food options for Edinburgh 2011.

1.  Mussel Men
Set up in the George Square/Assembly area for the second year running, this is a fantiastic venture offering fresh local seafood.  Moules Frites with a bottle of beer will set you back a non unreasonable £8.50 and you get some great banter with the equally delicious stall holders also!  They also sell fresh and tasty oysters for those who want in need of an aperitif or a little pick-me-up taste of the sea.

2.  La Favorita Pizza
In the Cow Pasture/Underbelly @ bristo Square, there is a small outpost of the large, successful Leith Walk restaurant.  The pizzas are beyond compare and freshly made to order at around £10 for a whole one or £3.50 a slice.  On an elusive sunny day, this is perfect al fresco eating.

3.  La Creperie
This has become a mainstay of the Gilded Balloon area in recent years and offers both savoury and sweet crepes and waffles with an astonishing amount of empty nutella jars piling up each day.  Good for a light lunch or sugar hit when energy levels are low.

Okay, this is a permanent restarurant rather than a temporary stall but situated in the middle of both Festival and Student Land it does a great trade all year round.  Meals are simple, speedy and nutricious.  Choose from a variety of noodle types, meat option, up to three veggies and a sauce (chilli, ginger and garlic can be added at no extra cost) and your combination will be stirfried and served to you in a traditional box with chopsticks.  There are seats to sit in or you can take away and it is a good opportuinity to get in some elusive veggies!

6.  Pleasance Barbeque
The pleasance got in on the fast-food options some years ago and it is hard to resist the smell of grilled meat wafting through the courtyard.  Good quality burgers in different sizes with or without cheese.  This year S discovered “The Ripsnorkler” which included a haggis topping within the bun.

7.  Well Hung and Tender
I couldn’t leave out this Edinburgh institution.  Good quality beef burgers produced locally and ethically with a variety of toppings available.  S swears by the monster “deluxe burger” with bacon, cheese, onions and lots more.

8.  The Mosque Kitchen
Another Edinburgh institution and a permanent fixture, the Mosque Kitchen is and does exactly as it sounds.  Delicious Middle Eastern-style curries are served at a long counter with plentiful veggie options available along with some halal meat options.  Seating is communal and you just have to cross your fingers that one will be available once you have obtained your food.  Prices are astonishing cheap starting at just £4 for veggie curry with rice or you can mix and match meat with veggie or two diffeent kinds of vegetable curries.  Naan bread is available at an extra cost and the food is very good indeed (especially the spinach curry which is another way of packing in the veggies during the long festival month).

9.  Organic Juice Bar
Okay, this stall in George Square/Assemby area offers more drinks than food but a few tasty wraps and homemade organic cakes are available.  The vast menu of smoothies and juices are the star though and a welcome relif amongst all the neighbouring fried food stalls.  Supplements can also be added such as wheatgerm or guarana to give your tired and abused body more of a lift and keep you going and scurvy-free until the end of August.

10.  The Baked Potato Shop
It’s a little walk away on
Cockburn Street
but handy for those taking in the street theatre on the Royal Mile and constantly recommended by festival goers and performers alike.   Unsually this spud seller is totally vegetarian so those who can’t see past tuna mayo or coronation chicken may be better off at the equally good Tempting Tattie on
Jeffery Street
.  For those who want to try something a little different however, there is a vast array of veggie and vegan fillings served in moster sized jacket potatoes (also available as filled pitas or salad pots).  The avocado salad is the real winner in my opinion but if you are looking for something warner the veggie haggis is one of the best I have ever tasted!  Only downside is lack of seating which means you may find yourself tucking into your spud in a bus shelter or leaning on a bin.  Such is the festival!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Ten Comedy Shows to see at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe

Well that time is upon us once more.  The three weeks of the year when the grandmother that is our city gets out of her rocking chair and dances!

S and I love the Fringe.  Well we love all the festivals, the Jazz Festival, Film Festival, Book Festival but for many people, Edinburgh means comedy and having seen around 25 comedy shows so far this year, I though I would give a rundown of my top ten faves:

1.  Idiots of Ants – Model Citizens.    We LOVE these guys and have seen them now on 5 consecutive years plus a few gigs at other times of the year.  The Idiots of Ants are a four-piece sketch group whose writing is as clever as it is silly with great use of technology.  The four lads are obviously great friends and love what they do and their enthusiasm is infectious.  Each show allows the audience to feel like the fifth member of the group and this year is no exeption with everyone involved in the smiley happy finale!  If you haven’t heard of them, why not check them out on youtube! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrFdOz1Mj8Q
Pleasance Courtyard

2.  Chris Ramsey – Offermation.  Chris Ramsey is scarily young and scarily talented.  We saw his debut Edinburgh show last year and it was clear he would soon be onto bigger things and as expected he has already started appearing on various panel shows.  Honest, charming and optimistic humour from a guy you kind of wish was one of your best mates.
Pleasance Courtyard

3.  The Noise Next Door – Their Finest Hour.   A first-see for us this year and a bit of a gamble, having heard nothing about this five piece impro-group.  We were not disappointed, as they masterfully took audience suggestions and drawings(!) to create sketches and songs.  The musical interludes were definitely the highlight of the show and it is great to see something different from improv and a move away from the usual Whose Line is it Anyway? style games.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XLwebG0r6Y
Pleasance Courtyard

4.      The Axis of Awesome.  This Australian musical comedy act is becoming more and more well known as “Four Chords” gets shared on facebook status profiles but they are not just a one-trick pony and can turn their hands to many different styles of music from boyband to garage!  Awesome!
Gilded Balloon

5.      Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation.  Okay, a seasoned professional like Mr Gorman was always going to give an entertaining Edinburgh show but the sheer brilliance of his Powerpoint Presentation and the way he deftly segues between topics deserves high praise indeed.  Nice bloke too!

6.      Paul Sinha – Looking at the Stars.  Another Fringe regular and a regular in our ticket basket for the past few years, Sinha does not command the large audiences that the likes of Dave Gorman enjoy but provides an hour of intelligent and thought provoking comedy.  Very underrated and deserves a wider audience!
The Stand

7.      Alex Horne – Seven Years in the Bathroom.  Having seen most of Horne’s previous Edinburgh shows, this one did disappoint slightly in that the format seemed to restrict his brilliant wit and didn’t quite allow his very likeable persona to come though as much as usual.  Still a highly entertaining way to spend an hour though!
Pleasance Dome

8.      Phil Jupitus Quartet – Made Up.  Perhaps I was unfair on the old Whose Line is it Anyway? style improve.  After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and judging by the crowds packed into the Gilded Balloon at 3.30 in the afternoon, we all want to see the masters at work!  Phil Jupitus is joined by three familiar faces from the old WLIIA days and Comedy Store Players line up and they show us exactly how it is done with style and infectious sense of joy!
Gilded Ballon

9.      Tom Price – Say When.   If, like me, you were staring at Tom Price’s poster for a while before realising he is Torchwood’s PC Andy, you may be tempted to write him off as an actor pretending to be a comedian.  Do not make this mistake.  Price proved to be great company in a dark Pleasance basement, telling tales of embarrassment in both childhood and as a jobbing actor.  Hilariously frank!
Pleasance Courtyard

10.  I love the 1990s.  It’s a free show!  And it’s only half an hour!  That said, the writing and performance is so good that you’ll want to pay and wish the show was longer.  Brilliant nostalgia for anyone who was a kid, teenager or otherwise lived through the 1990s.  Makes me long for a Britpop revival.  Now where is that Menswear CD?
The Three Sisters


Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Thoughts on Yoghurt (and Pina Coladas)

Yoghurt.  A substance with which I have a somewhat tricky relationship.  For years I thought I hated it.  Not surprising after a primary school incident in which I was held down by the class bully whilst she poured, or rather dollopped, thick, toffee-flavoured yoghurt over my head.  I swear I can still feel it sliding down my neck and smell the artificial sweetness mingling with and masking the sour milk stench…  For years I avoided the cultured goo – and then I discovered Greek yoghurt.  More precisely, I discovered Greek Yoghurt and Honey – the true food of the gods if ever there was one.  Thus began my love affair with thick creamy natural yoghurts what S calls my “weird yoghurt thing.” That is to say, I will eat different flavoured yoghurts but only if they are white in colour.  This means I will eat any Greek or natural yoghurt and am happy to top this with fresh fruit or a compote.  Muller Corners are fine (fruit varieties only, no “unnatural” flavours in my yoggies) but I will invariably eat only half the sauce and enjoy the plain yoghurt either au natural or with the merest hint of compote – the sight of S mixing the sauce into the virginal creamy white yoghurt quite turns my stomach!

My old aversion to yoghurt did not, at least, ever extend to using the substance in cooking.  I have long been a fan of tzatziki and raitas and the very first meal I ever cooked was a Lamb Tikka Massala (age 11) and I remember being quite sceptical by the instruction to add a few tablespoons of plain yoghurt.  When I did, I was transfixed and amazed by the way it changed to texture and spicing of the dish and from then on I was hooked!  Nowadays, a large pot of natural yoghurt is a staple feature of my fridge and I love to cook Indian and Middle-Eastern dishes where it is a strong feature.  Two of my current favourite recipes, both by Anjum Amand, feature yoghurt strongly and I would recommend these the anyone looking to expand their “curry” repertoire – these are:

Honey Roasted Spicy Leg of Lamb (one of the best things about this dish is the leftovers – stuffed into a pitta the next day.  Yum!)

When S and I first set up home together I began knocking up a very simple dessert on a regular basis which consisted of tinned peaches soaked in amaretto then layered in a tall glass with dollops of natural yoghurt and topped with a generous covering of crushed amaretti biscuits.  Simple, elegant and effective!  After a while I made the big leap of faith to substitute my beloved plain yoghurt with a vanilla variety – something that I had previously eyed with suspicion…  To be surprise and delight, it worked even better in this dish (although I still can’t bring myself to eat it on its own).

Recently I have seen a plethora of adverts for coconut yoghurts from various brands.  Given that coconut is one of my one true addictions in life, I was quite intrigued but also wary, still bearing my sweet yoghurt battle scars.  Knowing that S’s biggest weakness – and worse kept secrets – in life is a Pina Colada (to be honest, he just likes girly cocktails, the creamier the better and especially when they are adorned with umbrellas, fruit and sparklers – more of an event that a drink!) I decided to bite the yoghurty bullet and adapt my old faithful dessert to create a pina colada-esque sweet treat.  I soaked pineapple chunks in white rum for a few hours, then, as before, layered these with the coconut yoghurt.  This time, to complete the cocktail effect, I used margarita glasses and was quite pleased with the finished product!

Feeling it needed both crunch and sharpness to cut through the creaminess, I also crumbled a gingernut biscuit over the top (not pictured) and this worked well.  Okay, it’s not haute cuisine but as simple weekend treats go, I think this is pretty special and S absolutely LOVED it!  Obviously both this and the peach/amaretto concoction could easily be adapted for children by leaving out the alcohol.

And the coconut yoghurt?  I adored it and will definitely buy again.  But then, what else could have been expected, it is white, after all!

Friday, 10 June 2011

Children at Weddings - a very modern debate

Be it Royal or Big Fat Gypsy, wedding fever appears to have struck the country more than usual this summer and with it has some a great deal of commentary and articles about wedding etiquette.  One popular and controversial topic of discussion is whether or not children are welcome at weddings.

Once upon a time, a boy and girl would meet, fall in love and the girl’s parents would stump up the cash for a church service, nice frock and then a jolly good knees up at a local hotel or pub function room for all the family and friends of the parents.  Then came the wedding revolution.  The happy couple wanted the happiest day of their life to be just that and businesses sprang to their aid – memorable, fairytale, personal and bespoke became the buzzwords and we were given choices aplenty of how best to represent our individual personalities through ivory lace, reportage photography, the release of doves and tiers of cupcakes amongst other things.  Despite this, many fathers’ of the bride still pay up with pride whilst other couples take on some or all of the cost themselves to ensure they experience the day of a lifetime.  Yet, whist few people now bat an eyelid at the decision to have Maori drummers in the church or a bright orange wedding dress, stating that the wedding is to be an adults-only affair will cause the all hell to break loose – it’s just not wedding-like!  A quick google search however will throw up evidence that this is becoming a dilemma faced by more and more couples with impassioned pleas made on both sides. 

S and I always wanted a low-key wedding.  We had definite ideas about the style of the day and as it was to be the most important day of our lives, we wanted to ensure that it was done properly with no regrets.  For this reason we paid every last penny ourselves.  Our engagement lasted five years whilst we saved up and in that time we saw friends meet their partners, get engaged and hold lavish weddings with the help of their parents.  Each time we went to another wedding, we picked up hints and tips about our own big day but were always left with the feeling that “it was a lovely day….apart from all the screaming children”.  The thing is, I love the romance of weddings.  I still think that standing up in front of friends and family and declaring your undying love to another person and committing to spend the rest of your live with that person is the biggest and most important moment of many people’s lives.  I have been incensed by kids screaming and crying through the service so that nobody can hear the bride and groom say these words or understand the readings and vows over which they have probably agonised for months to find the exact words…  Then there are the parents – friends and family of the happy couple who miss the important event because they are distracted by said child.  Nope, we didn’t want that during our wedding.  S too, was very nervous about his speech and did not want any disruptive shrieking (whether in pleasure or pain) to put him off.  Then there were the obligatory photos of the little treasures with the bride, provoking comments about what it will be like in the future, not to mention the time taken to take each photo whilst the children are either persuaded to smile/look at the camera or coaxed out of the photo in which they are not supposed to be.  The thing is, children are used to the world revolving around them and for one day, we wanted it to revolve around us and were not prepared to fight for attention with a yowling, chocolate smeared baby.

May be it is because both S and I were frequently left at home by our own parents who went to such events as weddings without us in order to enjoy themselves, that we didn’t anticipate how badly this would go down.  We both thought of weddings as being adult affairs whereas apparently, they are “all about children”.  Maybe so, if the bride and groom have made no secret of wanting to get started on their own family but in our case, we had no intention of this and therefore did not want to spend what we hoped would be the happiest day of our lives, grimacing at the little darlings playing on the dancefloor whilst we are trying to cut the cake.  I’m sure you have all seen the Peter Kay sequence about little boys at weddings…  Funny yes, but when we first saw it we both turned to each other and said, “If we are paying for a decent band to provide the music, there’s no way that that will be getting in the way of the dancing!  We also spoke to the Registrar (we are atheists and didn’t want a church wedding) to ensure that there would be none of the typical speeches about the marriage being blessed with children during her service and she was only too happy to comply, taking the time to get to know us so that she could pepper the service with personal anecdotes and lots of laughter. 

And then there was the cost.  Our plans for a small wedding quickly disappeared when we counted up the people we desperately wanted to be there and found we were already at over 100.  I have a very large family and I love most of them to bits.  I am fortunate to have great relationships with many of my cousins around the same age and couldn’t imagine them not being at the wedding.  So hard decisions had to be made: we had saved for five years and could afford a maximum of 100 guests in our chosen venue (which was a low-key local hotel – not a castle or boutique location).  Using the criteria that guests had to know both of us and not just one or the other we cut work colleagues, my book group, peripheral friends on both sides… and children!  Even on the shorter list, our 100 guests had over 50 children between them and our finances could not cope.  Apart from anything else, we would have had to look for a bigger venue, which would have charged more per head etc…  then there were the extras which we were told we had to have if we didn’t want to children to get bored – clowns, magicians, hire of a wii and dvds in a separate room…  Again it came back to the fact that if anyone, no matter what their age, needed a distraction away from the actual wedding and would not be interested in the festivities of the day then they should not be there.

Telling friends was the hardest as throughout our engagement a lot of them had spoken about outfits etc for their kids or assumed they would have a role in the wedding party.  We spoke personally to those to whom we were closest and put a note in with invitations to others over which we agonised for weeks to find a way on conveying that it was nothing personal but that due to lack of space and resources, we were limiting guests to those aged 18+.  Most people knew we were doing things on a budget and understood and my large family (which accounted for about 90% of the potential kids) was a saving grace when it came to friends - by doing the maths re the additional numbers and explaining that it was nothing against their kids but family members would get upset if friends’ children were present therefore we had to draw a line, most people were okay with it.  One friend was delighted as it would allow her an opportunity to kick back, let her hair down and enjoy a wedding without the stress of looking after the kids, another was disappointed but understanding… and then there was W.  W is a good friend and I have apologised to her on numerous occasions, both publicly and privately.  The truth is, it didn’t occur to me to talk to her about this as I didn’t think of her as being a mother.  Her “son” was actually the son of her boyfriend (now husband) and she had barely mentioned him in the past therefore I was not aware just how close a relationship they had.  Turns out it was very close and other mutual friends knew that.  The little boy had been at one other wedding only but in fairness – there were about 400 people at that one and I think the bride in question wanted everyone she had ever met to see her wed.  Apparently he had at least been invited to other weddings but just hadn’t been available and W and her boyfriend took his lack of invite to this one very hard indeed.  I hold my hands up.  I didn’t handle the situation well and just couldn’t understand the sense of entitlement that so many people get when it comes to weddings.  Surely being invited to witness such a special moment is a privilege, not a right and it should be down to the bride and groom (with varying amounts of input from people who may be helping with the costs) to decide with whom they wish to spend the day.  In any case, I doubted her stepson had a burning desire to spend the day at the wedding of people he didn’t know. 

Around this time, my grandmother died.  My wonderful, amazing, inspirational grandmother whom I couldn’t ever imagine not having in my life.  The wedding was arranged and would go ahead.  She would have been devastated at the thought of it being postponed on her behalf but it left my with an unbridled anger at those who were disputing our guest list.  After all, if I had the choice between grandma and any one of the other guests, I would have gladly binned every one of them – parents included – if it meant I would get the chance to bring her back to share in this day.  To have to come up with polite ways of explaining and defending my decision not to invite people I didn’t want there when in reality there was only one person in the world I wanted to be present was utterly exhausting and at times left me questioning why get married at all?

W and her partner did attend the wedding and actually seemed to enjoy themselves.  W even mentioned during the evening that she couldn’t believe how personal we had made the day and conceded that her stepson would have been bored and may have started playing up.  Not that we had an x-rated wedding, just that there were no party games or novelty songs etc.  S made a truly beautiful and emotional speech paying tribute to my grandmother and I wore her jewellery on the day.  But that is not to say that it was a sad day.  On the contrary, never have I been so filled with joy and love.  We may not have been in the picture perfect location and my dress was simple with no frills and trains but it was everything I wanted the day to be.  The areas we had splashed out on were those important to us – food and music.  Our meal was beautiful and the band had everyone on the floor throughout the night.  There was so much laughter and warmth throughout the day that even now, 3 years on, I get overwhelmed just thinking about it.   Several people (both childed and childfree) mentioned afterwards how refreshing it was to not have to deal with crying and tantrums throughout the day and on the whole (the loss of my grandmother not withstanding) I can honestly say I would not change a thing about my perfect day!

Unfortunately W is still brooding on the matter.  At subsequent friends’ wedding she has made a point of pointing out all the children enjoying themselves and how her stepson was so happy to be invited to these occasions.  When, in the company of friends, talk has turned to weddings – either planned or past – she has snubbed and snorted away any contribution to the conversation hat I might make.  I know she thinks we did not do things “properly” – whatever that may be but like it or not, we are a couple whose lives do not revolve around children and our wedding reflected this as well as other aspects of our personality. 

Yes, there is another side to this.  It can be argued that weddings are the ultimate family event and children are part of that family.  Many kids, little girls especially, are captivated by brides and the romance and ceremony of the occasion and can get greatly excited by the prospect but here are the facts:  Weddings are long, full day events; they involve a great amount of sitting around, waiting for something to happen; there are a lot of speeches which mean that little kids have to stay quiet and listen, even if they don’t understand what is being said; attention is on other people, adults for that matter; party dresses may look pretty but after a while they become itchy and uncomfortable.

Kids will get bored or irritated and they deal with these emotions by being disruptive, crying, arguing and throwing tantrums.  Their parents will get stressed dealing with it and will probably have to leave the wedding early.  Many people – men and women – understand and see the humour in these situations as being part of a wedding – even moments to be relished and memories to be treasured - but if you don’t; if you are planning a fairytale wedding and the thought of your second cousin’s red faced toddler charging up and down the aisle or screaming through the service, the exchange of rings, the speeches, the cake cutting or the first dance, is making you come out in a cold sweat then by all means make your wedding a child free zone.  It is your day and no-one else’s.  But, if you do go down this route, be prepared for criticism and be ready to explain the reasons why.  Do so in person where possible and ensure you speak to everyone who may be affected.  Do not make assumptions.  Understand that some people will not agree and this is their right, just as it is your right to make the decision in the first place.  Above all, don’t lose sight of why you are getting married in the first place.  The day is a celebration of two people and their love for each other.  Nothing more.  Nothing less. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Childfree or Anti-kids? Can friendships survive?

It seems maintaining a personal blog requires a lot more time and discipline that I had thought.  Who knew? 

So what has been happening since my last foray into cyberworld?  Babies, that’s what.  Lots and lots of them.  I don’t know if it down to the long cold winter where we were all snowed into our houses but all of a sudden everyone I know seems to be popping out new lives and this has, in turn, had a knock-on effect to those who are affected by tiny fingers and toes as now there is a new wave of pregnancies being announced from those who escaped the winder months without a baby bump.  The result of all this being that by the start of 2012 my family and friends circles will have changed beyond recognition.

All this appears to have had a rather surprising effect on S and me.  We haven’t suddenly decided to join the baby brigade and still feel that this is not what we personally want out of life but I, in particular, seem to have developed a new tolerance for children and respect for those who do go down this more accepted of life’s paths.

I will admit that in times gone by, the announcement by a close friend that she is to have a baby has provoked a sadness and almost resentment in me.  Not having been particularly close to my parents, I love my friends dearly and know that the change in lifestyle brought about by a baby will change and even damage our relationship as friends and I mourn for that friendship.  I mourn also for the person that the friend once was and whom I do not believe she will be again.  Gone are the spontaneous giggly nights over bottles of wine, the concerts, weekends away, intelligent conversations and long sessions of retail therapy…  replaced instead by snatched moments when the children are otherwise occupied, dinners at Frankie & Benny’s, interruptions and tantrums, last minute cancellations and said friend always distracted and preoccupied by the children, whether they are with us or not.  Then there is the eternal wedge that comes between us; in friendships that have survived my preference of black over pink, art-house over rom-coms, museums over sunbathing, charity shops over designer labels… children (or the freedom from) become the one irretrievable difference.   Assumptions are made on both sides, I believe she is throwing her life away and she thinks I am irresponsible and hate her children.  Neither is automatically true although have the potential to be so. 

Yes, children get on my nerves.  I just don’t think I am hardwired with maternal feelings and urges.  I enjoy peace and quiet and will go out of my way to avoid sitting near families in restaurants and public transport, lest the tantrums and shrieks disturb my tranquil little bubble.   This to me is common sense and I cannot understand it when friends will automatically grab the table next to that family with the hope of striking up conversation, maybe even getting to hold the baby.  And yet, not all maternal women do this.  I have heard many mothers say that they dislike all children apart from their own and maybe I am guilty of this also.  Take my two nieces for example – ages 12 and 4 and from different parents – they are the two most gorgeous, well-behaved and smart kids I have ever met.  I genuinely do enjoy spending time with them and not just because I have the secure knowledge that I can hand them back.  Our 16 year nephew is also a credit to the family and although in many ways a typical teenager, one with whom I can have an adult conversation.  Biased perhaps?  Perhaps not, our other nephew – aged 8 – is a holy terror of a child and I do dread having to spend time with the monster.  My next niece or nephew (my money’s on the latter) will be making an appearance any day now and time will tell how he/she turns out but my hopes are high for brother and sister-in-law to be good parents.  For those friends that have kids already, some are genuinely fun to be around and others are true brats.  I guess I am just indifferent to kids until they develop a personality about which I can form an opinion. 

Perhaps due to the influx of baby bumps recently, I have been thinking a lot about being child-free.  Not in a going-back-onto-the-fence way, I am resolutely sure that S and I will not have a family but I started to believe the hype and opinions which say that holding this point of view make me a monster, unfeminine, less of a woman… and these thoughts have been upsetting me.  I yearn for a society where there is no pressure to have children, where some women do and some don’t and yet we all live in harmony with no raised eyebrows regarding unconventional choices.  In a bid to somehow validate my choices and feelings, I have been seeking out other CF blogs and forums, to ensure that although unconventional, I am not abnormal.  There I have found both vindication and further sources of confusion and anger.  It would appear that I am not childfree enough for certain forums and I have been somewhat shocked by the level of resentment and abuse directed towards parents and children alike.  A lot of the terminology was new to me and I felt very uncomfortable using or appearing to condone through my silence, terms such as “breeder” and “moo”.  In some quarters I found an uncomfortable level of hatred towards those who choose to raise children, calls for “disgusting” pregnant women to be kept in confinement, IVF to be banned and a flippancy and easiness of prescribing abortions and sterilisation.  I am pro-choice and childfree yet the disregard for others’ feelings on such emotive matters is quite disturbing to me, particularly when the very same people calling for such measures also claim to receive no respect and equality for their lifestyle choices.  Now, before any parents reading this, jump up in triumph that all their opinions about the evil childfree have been proven true and before the CF flame me as a traitor, I have to make it clear that I am talking about a small group of people whose views are not indicative of the CF community as a whole and as their own personal views, they are perfectly justified and allowed to hold and express these feelings.  There are CF forums where discussion is civil and intelligent and such retreats have been a godsend when I have needed to vent about the pressures put on me by family and friends or to mourn the aforementioned friendships.  Conversely, I have done a bit of lurking on parenting forums and blogs, just to check if the grass really is greener.  I am not a troll and do not do this to point, laugh and feel smugly satisfied when some poor woman posts about the stress and disappointments brought on by parenthood but simply to get a better understanding of why this is the default lifestyle choice.  There I have found attacks against the CF to be just as vicious and frequent as those I have mentioned from “our” side and the sense of entitlement that is a big complaint of the CF about parents certainly thrives in some factions.  It seems harmonious living is out of the question whilst we women continue to feel threatened by each others’ choices.

So, back to real life.  Suddenly I am surrounded by babies and pregnant tummies and all of a sudden I see how happy my friends are.  True, there is stress and dare I say even a twinge of regret sometimes passing on their faces as the struggle to keep their charges under control but equally there is joy and peace as they immerse themselves in parenthood.  Many CF articles will point to the stressful, tear-your-hair-out, sleep-deprived moments and find it hard to reconcile these with the “it’s all worth it” mantra but you know what – for some people it is and that’s no bad thing.  Live and let live.  My job, for example, can be stressful; it can make me want to run away and cry and never set foot in the office again; at times I wish I had never entered the profession – but despite all of this, the overriding feeling is that I love it and yes, the crap is all worth it.    Some of my friends have never seemed happier now that they have a few rugrats running around and I am pleased for them that they have been brought happiness and peace.  Moreover, I am more sure than ever that this is not what I want out of life.  Their descriptions of domestic bliss seem at odds with my own ideologies and I am sure my life goals seem just as alien to them but I don’t want to see our friendships destroyed or forgotten because of this.  We simply need to move to a new level and this need not be a bad thing.  Last week I spent an enjoyable evening with five of my closest girlfriends from childhood.  Only two of us have no children and the other one is actively trying to remedy that.  I was nervous beforehand, fearing bingos aplenty but it turned out lovely.  Yes, they spoke about their kids – of course they did, they are the dominant element in their lives but equally I spoke about my work, my recent holiday, our bathroom renovations…  And I found myself actually interested in their domestic tales in the way that one would be interested in the job of a police officer (doubtlessly rewarding, lots of entertaining tales but not something I personally want to do with my life).  The evening ended early, much to S’s amusement but hey, they have kids and you know what? They made the effort to come out and spend time with old friends, as did I.  At other times in recent weeks I have been doing the rounds, visiting the new babies and mothers and simply cannot understand why a true friend would avoid or refuse to visit a chum at this important time in their life and I cannot accept that the introduction of a new child means that a friendship must end. 

Yes, these friends do occasionally still ask when S and I will be starting a family but for the most part they seem to get it and don’t make a big deal of it.  More bingos come now from family, colleagues and more casual acquaintances and I am learning to deal with this – after all, I accept that we are the minority.  Seeing our friends’ growing families emphasises why we don’t want to do this – lack of money, freedom, quality time as a couple as well as the biggie – kids just aren’t our thing!  I can see however why many people do choose this way of life and salute and respect them for doing so.  Those who blunder ahead like sheep because it is the thing to do, do still annoy me and it tends to be their kids who are the ones running around, making noise and being abusive in public places.  Maybe I am just lucky in my circle of friends but it is more clear than ever that the choice of whether or not to have children is exactly that and whichever way you jump, should not automatically assume that you love or hate all kids nor that you are any less or more of a human being because of your childed or childfree status.