When Nina Met Benedict Allen

Benedict Allen at WestBeach

Benedict Allen swoops into WestBeach; some might think, fashionably late, but my guess is Allen is trying to be anything but fashionable as he arrives, unfazed, casually dressed and ready to enlighten 30 or so diners with his tales of arduous journeys through some of the world’s most unfamiliar terrain. He is one of our country’s most intrepid explorers and along with being graced with his most awesome presence, diners are treated to a wine flight and a feast of five delectable courses; which bear a cheeky link to Allen’s past conquests.

Allen is articulate as he speaks and dances a graceful public speaker routine, using his whole body to engage his audience. As the diners begin to feel the effects of the wine flight, they find courage to thrust their hands into the air, like keen school children, needing to know every detail. Slowly they are coming to terms with his incredible bravery; although at first, feeling it implausible.

Why would a man willingly put himself through such torture, allowing himself so many times to reach deaths door?  Yet somehow with perseverance and endurance, a little bit of a luck, he escaped death many a time. The unlucky proverbial canine, who we now know surrendered his life in the name of exploration was mentioned within the first three minutes of Allen taking the stage; something for which Allen has become synonymous with needed to be addressed immediately as it seems the ghost of his somewhat unsavoury meal follows him wherever he goes- yet without it he would not have be here to tell the tale.

Allen takes his time telling his stories and pauses graciously to attend to those waving hands. He dines with the guests and speaks in-between courses and even sits happily with one guest and long time fan who has travelled from Scotland to hear him speak.

Allen sets the precedence with his unhurried arrival, so that the rest of the evening follows suit. Courses arrive nonchalantly and I find space at the bar; my aim to sink into the surroundings and listen in unnoticed is immediately foiled by the welcoming demeanour of the WestBeach staff.  Instead I find myself cradling a large glass of something red and warming whilst exclaiming ‘It tastes like velvet’. The barman congratulates me on my amateur observation of one of their Italian wines and then I find myself looking down at the first of the five courses: the ever so chic Barbequed Pulled Pork salad. I appreciate the humble appearance of sticky sweet shredded meat enveloped inside a crispy leaf before discovering its moreish textures of soft pork against crispy lettuce and cashew nuts. I turn down the glass of Rose Champagne I am offered which will no doubt accompany the textures and flavours of the pork and instead invest some more time with my new burgundy buddy, still reeling in smugness from my correct description of its silky palate.

The next course somehow by passes me, but as someone who seems to have inadvertently followed the rule of dining like a pauper in the evening, I am thankful for the break. I’m back in there though with course number three and now I have company at the bar: a fellow creative, who is also there to ‘work’ yet somehow seems to be enjoying the perks of the job as well. So we joyfully tuck into the beef stew and sweet potatoes and tick off a few arty topics whilst we are at it.

I leave just after the third course – overcome by tiredness. But before I go, I bag a photo with Benedict Allen just before he takes the stage for his third stint of the evening. He is happy to quickly become acquainted with me so we can stand hip to hip for our pose and I find him to be enchantingly delightful in that awkward English manner and I wish I could have stayed longer to see the evening through, as by the time I left, it seemed things were only just getting going…

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My top 5 tips for having a good day with a new baby 

Today I was up at 5am. Huxley hadn’t slept much and with Bodhi coming in sporadically throughout the night complaining of achy legs , I think in total I bagged myself 3.5 hours kip. I’m not going to deny it. I feel like crap.  There’s no hiding the fragmented expression of a woman willing to maim if someone or something makes a sound above 3 decibels. It’s clear to anyone who has nursed an infant through the night, I’m a woman on the edge. 

Right now nursing my 4 and a half month old baby, a good nights sleep seems another lifetime away. So I’m just sucking it up and cracking on with it. However sleep deprivation is flammin harsh. I managed it in the 90’s because after a good night out on the tiles I only had to think about the 3 weetabix I was going to scoff not the three kids I need to feed, bathe, dress, clear up after, source clean school clothes, make lunchboxes, sign forms… you see where I’m headed. 

 A decent nights sleep is a good antidote for most things so when you’re surviving on 4 or 5 hours of broken sleep it’s okay to admit you feel like had a frying pan has been slung around your head and that also you’re silently telling everyone to fuck off. 

When it gets to the stage where you feel as though you’re falling apart and a nap is not a feasible option, then try one of my top 5 tips. With 3 kids under 8, these are remedies, post all night baby rave that have made a mamouth day ahead feel a little more achievable for me. 

Get out 

Don’t stay in the house if baby isn’t settling. Walk or drive to your local cafe, shop, park whatever. It’s unlikely Nanny McPhee will be popping her warty head round your door anytime soon so step away from the vacum, dishes and don’t even attempt mount laundry. Phone a friend, meet for lunch, even if you pootle up to the road to the pharmacy for a tube of bonjela and some paw patrol plasters ( one of my past parenting goals achieved)  just leave the post apocalyptic scene and head for somewhere you can use actual words. Somewhere where you won’t be looked at with bewilderment and get covered in drool. Because the best bit about leaving the house, other than ignoring the sea of laundry and dirty dishes, is returning home again with a tiny sense of accomplishment (and potentially a newly stocked medicine cabinet) When getting your head on a pillow is a no go, a change is indeed as good as a rest. 

Play music 

Don’t just reserve your favourite tracks for going out, pull out some classic sing a long anthems and crank them up to a level the neighbours wont complain too much about. Babies love music; classical music and R&B are particular favourites but anything you can move and sing to. Jason Mraz, Bob Marley and Bruno Mars were played endlessly when my first child, Savannah was born. Singing and dancing with baby is also a great bonding excercise. Babies love to be sung to and it gets you moving around on your feet. I often pull out a full dance routine in the kitchen for my youngest whilst I’m cooking tea and he sits in his little chair looking on in pure bewilderment. 

Call in the squad 

If you can’t manage to lift yourself from the sofa then call around and bring a crew of parents with their offspring in tow. They can take you as you are: baby vomit marinated sweatshirt and all. Oh and they can jolly well bring cake. It’s easy to think no one cares when you’ve been looking at the same 4 walls and the same drooly ernest face of your baby, but just cos they ain’t there, don’t mean they don’t care. People aren’t psychic, you pull a great poker face but no one will know you’re struggling unless you holler. And there’s no shame in gathering your homies to take the edge of an otherwise long slog of a day. 

Bake 

Since The Great British Bake-off hit our screens way back in 2010, we’ve gone potty for pastry, crazy for cupcakes and bonkers for bread. 

Baking is therapeutic. The act of gathering a few humble ingredients and transforming them into something delectable is so simple yet incredibly satisfying. 

We don’t do it enough and instead we take short cuts and easy options which at the time may be convenient but it sure won’t feel anything like that sense of slendour when you’ve spatulaed a few fresh cookies onto a cooling rack 

Baking a tray of cookies or a simple loaf can take minutes to throw together – some of the best bakes I’ve done are 5 minutes in the making, 15 minutes in the baking. You’re 20 minutes away from a batch of fresh baked goodies. 

Right now I highly recommend Jamie Oliver’s new book 5 ingredients for whacking together an array of dishes for your Family with a fab baking /dessert section at the back. 

Baking and cooking has been proven to be good for your mental health. Author Marian Keyes claimed baking saved her life after she turned to a bit of sponge therapy after depression struck. Roll up your sleeves and make something from scratch today. 

Don’t sweat the housework

It might not sound particularly rock and roll but for me there’s nothing more satisfying than a crashing out at the end of a day in a semi together gaff. But the reality is – it ain’t happening until 2021 when the newest one starts pre school. So in the meantime I like to live by this rule. Whether the dishes from the drainer have been stacked away or I’ve simply mopped up the puddle of wee marinating the bathroom floor tiles ( one of the many joys of an independent 4 year old boy)- if there’s just one room I can walk into that vaguely resembles the home of a woman that has her shit together then I consider that a success. The thing to remember is it’s never ending. Liken it to cleaning up after party you were never invited to, living with 3 kids is an endless drudge of sticky banisters and removing random tiny items from one area of the house and placing them in another area. So wipe up the wee, that I recommend for a house to stay smelling fairly fresh, and just do what you can when you can. Everyone is in the same boat and you’re doing great. 

Why we had third child

“Is this your first baby” the nurse asked as I handed her my urine sample wrapped in a sodden tissue. I took a sip of water and allowed for a very pregnant pause.

“No” I cleared my throat “my third”

Holy Fuck! Only as I finally heard myself speak the words for the first time, did I believe them. I was having a third child. How did this happen I thought to myself.  (I was rolling up my sleeve for my blood sample, I’m still not comfortable at giving blood so I feigned intense interest in the poorly painted sea landscape image too far to my right; I had to strain my neck to focus on it)

Only then, 14 weeks pregnant and having just ended an intimate 8 week relationship with the toilet bowl had I begun to raise my head beyond the level of the bottle of domestos to think about the reality of a third child.


We were certain everyone thought we were nuts. There was of course the usual sing song of “congratulations” and even the occasional “was it planned” (subtext – “oh dear, did your recreational bedroom antics accidentally result in your husband impregnating you?”)

My mother was shocked. But she was shocked each time I told her I was pregnant. As the middle (and misunderstood) child I’m sure she thought I was destined to become an intrepid explorer covering areas of the rainforest previously undiscovered,  enduring bites from mammouth mosquitos and drinking my own urine. Although there has been moments of parenthood when it’s felt this desolate; when getting to the kitchen for a drink has felt like a penultimate scene in He-man as I drag my lifeless body through the house “Must…reach…sword…of…omen”


Motherhood was not something I was destined for in my mother’s eyes, I was the wild child, the one who went against the norm; I had never conformed to what society expected of me yet there I was, knocked up for the third time looking at the nurse surreptitiously wiping my wee off her hand.

“But Nina, you’ve just got Bodhi off to school” were my mums wise but wasted words when I broke the news of the third child to her (“We thought you were going to say you were moving abroad” was the response when we told the fam we were pregnant the first time. Our second pregnancy news was an extension of the word ‘what’ with far too many a’s and went on for 3 extra seconds too long)

It only feels like five minutes ago when we were living our lives for ourselves. Self-employed and living in the Richmond Upon Thames, work ended at 12pm for me and then I was free. Free to play badminton until my wrist burnt, free to swim endlessly with only the silent counting of my lengths to contend with, free to sit next to the river and contemplate my relatively uncomplicated life. And when those activities no longer captivated my carefree mind, it was home for a well earned siesta and tea in bed with the Weakest Link.


Children were always on the agenda. Like every couple we imagined our lives as parents to be much like an Aptimal  commercial. Terry towled cladded infant being gently lulled to sleep by a calm and fully dressesed parent. The reality was alarmingly comparative: wailing infant flailing arms in every direction, my engorged breasts spurting milk into her cross colicely face as I grapple, dressed only in pants and nursing bra for something that resembles clothing.

To quote the line from that once red faced wailing infant’s now favourite film, Matilda, “Babies? You’re better off raising tomatoes”. It’s true that babies are a minefield. You’re constantly guessing and the level of patience required to calm a screaming infant was completely off our radar. Far from our Aptimal commercial image and more a post apocalyptic scene from a Mad Max movie.

So having experienced hell on earth twice already why would we possibly want to bring another baby into the world?


Because no one has a perfect life, because there is no perfect time to attempt any life changing project, you just have to take a deep breath and go for it. I am wise enough to know that behind every perfect profile picture and album of images on social is a true reality of life. Like that swan that glides gracefully across the river, underneath his legs are paddling like hell. We’re all just trying to stay afloat in our own desperate crazy way.  It’s the same for every individual who doesn’t have an entourage of nannies, gardeners, housekeepers and chefs to keep their lives running smoothly. I mean who doesn’t enjoy that sinking feeling after rummaging through mount laundry for 15 minutes shushing a fractious infant in one arm to find something that vaguely resembles an outfit,  only to realise the only pair of trousers that fit you are wedged down the side of laundry basket and in fact, never made it to the wash. I sometimes muse that I wouldn’t want it any other way.  Why would I want a breakfast platter of fruit served and cleared away by a fresh faced nanny when I can only just get round to scraping the welded Weetabix off a high chair by 5pm. Then I slap myself around the face and buy thee more lines on the Lotto.

So how did we end up as parents of three? As a couple, the one thing that has bound us is our outlook on life: slightly out of focus and never quite arriving where we were heading. We’ve always been a slightly left of the middle, fly by the seat of our pants kinda couple. We’ve never been the types to plan things meticulously, make 5 year plans or talk about the ‘what ifs’.

Our Aptimal outlook on life predicted at least 3. In fact I have vague recollections of late night vodka fulled musings of four possibly 5 kids.  We romantically imagined our Larkin Family life in A Darling Buds of May scenario wiping icing sugar off the noses of our pink cheeked brood. The stark reality was arguing in stage whispers at 3am over whether the first born was being rocked back to sleep too furiously and who had stepped on the creaky floorboard to wake her in the first place.
But two was never really an option. It was too blah, too ‘not really us’. We both silently looked on at the two kids and thought ‘There’s not many of them?’

As the woman, I knew I wasn’t done. I had heard women say “no, that’s it, i’m done, no more kids for me” and I could hear the certainty in their voice. But I needed to feel the weight of a new born in my arms again, to experience that slow contented first breastfeed of the night when baby is still dreaming.


We craved the cuteness again. We longed to hear more mispronounced words, we wanted to hear them say they couldn’t get in the bath because they weren’t ‘maked’ yet. We yearned for more little sticky hands cupped around our chin, breathless husky requests for ‘spaceboots that fly’ whispered in our ear.

Because for all the messy inconvenient crazy chaos children bring, they completely take your heart hostage with their unconditional love. They are forgiving of your downfalls and inabilities to hold your shit together. They make you realise that you can always be a better version of yourself. Because they remind us how to have fun and live in the moment. “Play with me mummy” as I tear my agitated gaze away from the decomposing courgette at the bottom of the salad tray and lay myself out on the floor with my four year old.

But beneath all of that, it was always going to be three. I am one of three as is Chris. Three feels like family. I collected 5 perfectly white smooth stones from the beach and laid them on the window sill years ago and I knew we were not yet complete as a family.


I also knew when we three siblings rallied around my mum the weeks after the sudden death of my dad, each playing out our roles, that there was something special about 3 children. There was always one of us there to help her make an awkward phone call, walk with her to the shop or make sure she ate something that day. I wanted that for us as we got older. I wanted to know that if one of them was off trekking the Andes and fulfilling my neglected role of intrepid explorer, that I had another two to cook a Sunday roast for.

Now he’s here, the final baby and once I look past the 3 hours sleep per night I get and the mounting stack of unread books and neglected piles of admin, I can see that through all our years of winging it, for once we got it right. We had a blurry vision of something and we made it happen. But I also know I am now that woman who can say with conviction, that I’m done.  We are a family of 5, we have three kids and it feels right.

Raw chocolate and coconut balls 

Makes about 8 – 10 balls 

Ingredients 

8 mejool dates 

1/2 cup of mixed seeds 

40g grated chocolate (70% coco) or coco powder 

1/2 cup desiccated coconut plus extra for coating 

I tsp. Coconut oil

1 tsp. Honey ( optional)

Method

Remove the stones from the dates

Blitz seeds first in a electric mixer 

Add dates and pulse again 

Add all the rest of the ingredients and blend 

Take out small amounts and roll into balls then roll over a scattering of coconut 

Chill in fridge and eat 1 or 2 when you need an energy boost – usually around 3pm/4pm 

The Art of Travel

We can plan a journey for months and the anticipation of what our chosen destination will look, smell and feel like can overwhelm us. We take our time to pack the clothes we imagine ourselves wearing when we take long walks along the beach and the books we will get lost in as we lay by a deserted pool side with the sun setting slowly over the hills. However all this is merely theory for upon touch down the reality of being where we imagined ourselves to be is far from the ideal day dream.

For me thoughts of the menial tasks left behind swirl around in my head, such as my disorganised office and  the evolving mass of weeds in the back garden; although to be honest the worrying begins before and during take-off as we hurtle into the sky at 500 miles an hour in an eighty tonne steel can!

Many of us forget that although we are leaving behind the mundane domesticity to set off for that well earned break, our lives and bodies are inextricably linked together and it may not always be possible to free ourselves from concerns and worries; even when we are 15’000 miles away from them.

When I set off to escape to a beautiful Fijin island in the south pacific, I tried to live in the moment and allow myself the pleasure of just being. I mean, I couldnt have been any further away from my normal life, i was literally on the otherside of the world. I managed from time to time to take in the vision of the unbelievable turquoise waters lapping against a brilliant white shore, the eternal heat and feeling of a simple but worthwhile existence. I only wished I could have shaken off those unwanted feelings and arrived on holiday a carefree earth mother, fleeting around the island, beer in hand, laughing jovially; unperturbed by my disorganised life back home.

The relationship between the idea of travel and the reality can be seen firstly through bodies as they clearly require some time to adjust to the change in temperature or the feeling of a different bed.  But it is our minds that suppress the desire to let go as they are riddled with the monotonous tasks we have neglected or the awkward conversation we need to have with a colleague when we return.  We seem unable to separate ourselves from the intricate task of our daily existence.

We are humans with complex minds and lives, so to switch off from our busy lifestyles full of lists, tasks and the dynamics of our relationships with friends, family and colleagues, is a pretty huge expectation. It was only when I arrived home that it occurred to me; I had indeed taken my whole self to paradise.

I had expected a quick fix and now I realise that planning for a holiday can, for some of us involve a little more than packing shorts and sun cream. I am planning my next holiday as I write and this time I intend to leave my emotional baggage at home.

When the babymoon is over.

It hit me like a freakin’ freight train as I skulked out of the house on that damp and insipid Wednesday morning. Where the fuck am I going to go? I’m a mother, in my late, but still  thirties. I have a my bonny blue eyed baby boy, just three and half months old at the time of writing, a home, clothes on my back, a lanky, slightly scratchy female chocolate Labrador that will lollop all over your lap but protect me and my kids at the slightest hint of danger (dawdling man in late 60’s approaching wearing flat cap and fishing rod flung over his shoulder) and a mildly huffy, often too tired to talk husband and partner of 15 years. Yet I left the house that morning, and I walked. Not knowing where the hell I was going to go.

If like me your second child was ready to start big school and give you all the freedom a frustrated creative  could ask for, but instead you thought, no I’ll have another baby (bag one before i’m 40 syndrome I think we’ll refer to that one as), then you could be feeling my pain at this stage.

I walked out of the house and realised everything had changed. The visitors had stopped, the gifts all found homes and the baby shower clothes already grown out of and sitting neatly in charity pile. Mums had stopped approaching me with that crazed look of a woman in need of gazing at a newborn (it’s innate right?) and saying things like, ‘I love a newborn, but I couldn’t go through it again (Stick to ya guns girl), instead they amble past with a quick “He’s getting big now isn’t he” (yes and he’s fucking heavy when you’ve been carrying him for a mile up the hill cos he aint a buggy baby – care to offer a bicep?).

That’s it, babymoon is officially over. As I left the house that morning it may as well have been announced in a nasaley voice over a tannoy. “The babymoon is now closing.  Could the lady leaving number 60 please just crack on now parenting 3 kids. ”

Where have all the mothers gone ?

It’s not until you are rampantly navigating that three way travel system up a rickety uneven path (I’ve had smoother outings on a Welsh hiking holiday) and the drizzle starts hitting you in the face and the baby is wailing that sort of wail that made you look on unfavourably at the neglectful parent before you had your own kids, that you feel the loneliness seep through. Motherhood can be very lonely place, I’ve been there twice before, this is the third time. You would think I would have learnt by now.

Then it hit me. Communities and society are changing. We no longer live within spitting distance of our families. Our friends are all segregated, many have had to return to work or are running businesses as one persons income is no longer sufficient to keep one parent at home full time.  The mothers with young infants aimlessly ambling along trying to pacify junior with a ‘shhhh’ that creates more saliva than a disgruntled bloodhound are few and far between. They have wisely removed themselves from the streets (in the non prostitute sense) and gone online, where it’s safer, cosier and you don’t have to mount a three way travel system in treacherous conditions just to show your infant the trees  in an attempt to feel purposeful. 

Me “look at the trees” 

Infant “waaaaaa”

Yesterday I wrote a post on my other site http://www.thereddit.blog for my bookie fans about World Mental Health Day. I talked about the importance of emotional cues and how reading fuels empathy, unlike the digital world most of us hibernate in for vast parts of the day. Simply seeing a slight curve of a smile when someone speaks or a raised eyebrow is how we have evolved to relate to and understand our fellow humans.

The old saying “If you can’t beat them, join them’ couldn’t be truer for me right now. As much as I crave real tangible connection with others, I know I have to be where the action is and right now the party is online. So I launched an Instagram page and gave it a name. The Mum Chums. Yes the name bears a hint of a dog food brand but it was all my mangled baby brain could cobble together as I hiked those lonely lumpy streets alone. ( I will be updating the brand name as it evolves so suggestions are welcome) 

My aim 

I am a mum on a mission. Once upon a time I wanted to find some friends who were like me and read lots of books and wanted to talk about them. So I put a post out on Gumtree. This would seem like the days of a carrier pigeon or even communicating with smoke to those crazy millennials but guess what? It worked.  Book fans came forward and then 3 weeks later I was passing a tray of nibbles around to a handfuls of complete strangers whilst asking their opinion on the latest Lionel Shriver novel.

So I don’t see it as an unrealistic challenge to cobble together a group of mums, dads, carers, grandparents…whoever you are (child in tow is the key to this not so exclusive club) who like me,  sometimes feels there’s something missing. A real life conversation, a bosomy hug, someone to hold the baby whilst you try out that new hairstyle you saw on youtube (even though you know it’s two decades too late for that look on you), hearing the words, ‘I’ll get the coffees in’ or just being a pair of empathetic eyebrows, raising and lowering at the right times to woeful tales of calamities.

I’ve never been one for sitting in a chilly village hall in a circle with 10 complete strangers bouncing a bewildered infant up and down to the wheels on the bus.  My mind would always wander to those mums on the bus who would “natter natter natter” and wanting to be one of them with a strong soya latte in my baby free hand. 

So wherever you are, ill find you and I’ll hunt you all down and then I’ll drag you and your eyebrows out into the real world so we can navigate those precarious paths of parenting together. One unpredictable day at a time.

 

 

Coffee, where it comes from and why we love it so

For many of us, coffee is an important part of the day; from our early morning espresso fix before a business meeting, to an ear bending chat over a flat white with a good friend. Whatever your choice of style or flavour, or your reason for drinking it, coffee is the worlds most consumed drink -with over 400 billion cups drunk worldwide.

But where did our fascination for the rich fragranced velvet drink come from?

Coffee, as a drink has been around for some time. Some reports date it as far back as the 10th century. There are many fascinating stories which try to give us a definitive answer of how we came to drink coffee, but the general ideas are the same and so it goes something like this…

After eating the berries of the coffea plant, animal’s behaviours were observed as hyper or joyful. In one tale, goats were described as dancing after eating the berries of the coffea tree. Intrigued at the animals behaviours under the influence of the berries, humans decided to try them for themselves. Disgusted by their raw texture and flavour, the berries were thrown into a fire where they were roasted; thus the rich coffee aroma was born and that fresh roasted coffee scent has had us hooked ever since.

coffee shutterstock_660230209.jpgBut it’s not just the bold chocolaty bouquet that keeps us drinking the world’s most favoured hot beverage. Coffee has become more than just a habit for a pleasant caffeine lift. Instead, drinking coffee has become a religious affair. Getting together to drink coffee is about fostering communities, repairing sorrow and building bridges between despair and hope. How many times have you heard those sacred words ‘do you fancy a coffee?’ and your little cup of joy has overflowed at the prospect of an hour of putting the world to rights, pouring your heart out or formatting an indestructible life plan?

Drinking coffee on a social level does more than give us an artificial buzz. It nurtures our souls, it binds communities and stimulates conversations and these are the things that are important to us. These are the things that make us human. And that is why, apart from being woken up and having our senses stimulated, we enjoy consuming coffee on such a colossal scale.

Whilst getting together with friends, colleagues and families, you are encouraged to be aware of the coffee industry and help support the 3rd world countries that produce it. Most of the world’s coffee is produced between the tropics; the areas where water is most scarce.

UK coffee week (16-22 April 2018) is sponsored by the Allegra foundation which raises funds for areas such as Tanzania and assists them with producing access to water facilities, so that women and children don’t have to walk up to 15 kilometres a day to get their days’ supply of water. To date, Project Waterfall has raised over £230’000 which has benefited over 10’000 people in Tanzania.

You can donate to the charity here at Allegra foundation .

The London Coffee festival takes place 12-15 April 2018