Lazy Pirate Cake

The Great British Bake Off is back tonight and I am EXCITED. Who will win? Will it be one of the contestants? Will it be because they are good at baking cakes? Probably!!! I jest, but in seriousness, I love GBBO and all it stands for. In tribute, I am baking along, creating a confection following the theme of each week and sharing it with you on this blog.

First up it’s CAKE WEEK. God… CAKE, right? When I was little, pretty much the best thing that could happen to me was being allowed to bake a cake. There is something so satisfying about the borderline wizardry of sticking a pan full of wet mush into an over and bringing out a Victoria sponge and I have always loved the sugary alchemy of it.

This week, I give you a booze-spiked banana bread, based heavily on the lovely Smitten Kitchen’s Jacked Up Banana Bread. It makes a lovely, rich, light, boozy loaf which will keep a fair few days, can be toasted if it’s gone a bit stale and feels more reasonable, somehow, than just making a massive Victoria Sponge when there’s only two of you and it’s a Tuesday and both of you were trying to cut down on saturated fat, really.

This is a very grown up cake, partly because it’s got booze in it and partly because it relies on you having a fair quantity of overripe bananas in the house, which is something that starts happening when you hit about 23. You buy bananas. Healthy and delicious! Do you eat the bananas? Maybe one, on the way home from the shop. The rest will sit on the counter, making you feel guilty for two weeks until they go mouldy and you’re allowed to throw them away.

I named it Lazy Pirate Cake because of the banana/rum associations and also because it is the chilliest cake ever. It’s pretty much just you and a wooden spoon aimlessly chucking things in a bowl, which is the most soothing type of baking. You do not have to sod about cleaning an electric whisk, which would put a crimp right in your baking zen.

  
3-4 very very ripe bananas

75g butter

150g soft brown sugar

1 egg

1tsp vanilla essence

1-2 shots rum

1 hearty tsp cinnamon

A dash of salt

A little bit of nutmeg and/or allspice if you have it

190g self raising flour

  1. First, Preheat your oven to 180C (or lower if your oven is especially hot, like mine. You know what, maybe even go for 160c whatever. I once made this cake in a gas oven which went out 20 minutes in and I didn’t notice for an HOUR. But I just turned it back on and it was honestly fine.)
  2. Mash up your banana with a fork. Zap the butter in the microwave while you are doing this until it is melted.
  3. Stir the butter in.
  4. Then the sugar.
  5. Then the egg.
  6. Then the flavourings. Adjust these as you like – the original recipe uses bourbon, which is nice. You could slosh in some Malibu for extra tropical vibes. Omit this if you don’t keep spirits in the house. Your banana bread will be more rubbery but some people like that. This is because booze interrupts the gluten chains, making the crumb shorter and more crumbly. Isn’t that interesting! Yes it is. Anyway…
  7. Dump in the flour and stir that in too. Don’t be too vigorous with this final stir – you shouldn’t have any lumps of flour left, but it is possible to over mix it.
  8. Pour into a 1lb loaf tin, which you have liberally sprayed with oil. Bang in the oven for about an hour (start checking from 45 mins). When a knife comes out clean, it’s done!

This is most especially nice the next day, toasted and spread with butter for the best breakfast ever. But I urge to make it after work, to eat tonight wiht your Bake Off viewing. On your marks. Get set…

My Query Letter

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Dear Ms agent I have been following on social media for so long I know the names of all your pets,

I am writing seeking representation for my first novel, First Novel. First Novel is a work which both transcends the notion of genre, and confirms to it absolutely. In it we follow the story of Lucy, an aspiring writer in her late 20s who is in no way based on me. Lucy wants to find love and solve a compelling mystery. Will she be able todo so, while caring for the ailing sister she was separated from so many years ago? Maybe, if she can find a way to kill all those pesky dragons!

I am confident that First Novel could be a huge commercial and literary success. My mum said, “This book is absolutely fantastic. It will be the next big bestseller for sure!” And my husband agreed. Also, I put up a status saying I’d finished the manuscript, my uni friend who works in publishing liked it. 

I am a very good writer. I learnt to write when I was 6, and haven’t stopped ever since! Except for those three years after I finished my degree when I was too down to do anything with my spare time except apply for better employment while sobbing. I am currently working in arts administration, and feel that my life will be forever empty until I realise my lifelong dream of being a novelist. First Novel is my first novel. 

I am applying to you specifically because your agency represents that writer I like, and you share a lot of feminist memes on Twitter. 

Please represent me. Without your approval my life is worthless😦

Yours sincerely,
Lucy Ayrton

Ps Say hello to Snuffle and Mr Mittens for me. 

Don’t Drown Your Sorrows


When I was 23, I had over 20 interviews with the Oxford University Press. Every time, for Assistant Marketing Manager. Every time, a different department. Every time, I got down to the last two candidates. And it never, ever got that job.

When I was last single, I tried online dating. The first guy I met was absolutely great. He was clever, and cute, and made me laugh and laugh. He was Canadian. He asked me to make out with him (!) at a train station. And I never saw him again. He never answered a single one of my texts.

I stopped applying because I got offered a job at a charity, that I loved, and paid enough to live on for a four day week, so I started properly writing again.

I met my husband the week after that date.

Today, I got my first rejection of this round of query letters. It’s just business, of course. No reflection on the work, not really. There are so many manuscripts out there. One rejection’s nothing. Chin up! Keep trying!!

Obviously, it’s impossible not to be downhearted.

And it’s a trite thing to say, I know. And when you’re in it, it’s hard to believe. But sometimes when opportunities don’t work out, that’s a good thing. It leaves room for better ones to take their place.

So this is not a commiseration drink. It’s a glass to a celebration that hasn’t quite happened yet.

Knit Kit Review – Vivienne Cardigan by Wool And The Gang

I’ve recently finished the Vivienne Cardigan from Wool and the Gang. It was my first kit from them, and my first ever cardigan. I think it turned out really well!

The kit contains 9 balls of Shiny Happy Cotton, a pattern, a sewing needle and a crochet hook. You can get them to send you needles if you need them as well. At £85, this is proper luxury kit, but I’d still recommend it as decent value. The yarn is absolutely gorgeous – so so soft and lovely to work with, and I really enjoyed making it up. Also, my glamorous friend Bristi says that you should always spend as much as you can afford on nice wool, because you’re actually paying for materials for your hobby, and how much more would you spend if your hobby was sky diving or whatever? The fact you get a garment at the nod is just a brilliant bonus. 

It took me about four months of not especially focussed knitting to finish it. The pattern is mainly garter stitch (aka the easy one!) with ribbing on the base and cuffs. Its a very simple shape – basically four scarves sewn together – and is absolutely perfect for mindless, watching-telly type knitting. It was a really relaxing and satisfying project. 

Making up was a little bit more challenging – I’ve only ever knitted jumpers in the round before – but the kit comes with nicely illustrated instructions on all the stitches and skills, and there are online videos as well. I was particularly pleased with this cool crocheted back seam thingy. 

I have only two issues with this kit. The first is that for a kit of this level, the instructions on seaming the arms aren’t clear enough. I had to attach the sleeves twice because “put them in the middle” is just too vague. This was a new skill for me so I didn’t twig that it really does have to be calculated, otherwise they’ll be a hole in the armpit. I still don’t know quit how I’d do this… Let me know in the comments if you have any ideas!

The second is that, as demonstrated below, this cardigan is quite a weird shape. Some would say the arms do not need to be this long. I’m all down for slouchy-oversize, but this really is more sleeve here than is sensible. If I knitted it again, I’d take at least 30 rows off these and put them on the body instead. 

The stand-out best thing about this kit was the quality of the yarn. Shiny Happy Cotton is a really beautiful yarn – so so soft and knits to a beautiful drape. I’ve worked with two colours of it so far and both of them are so vivid and rich. I also love that, sleeve gripes aside, this is a lovely cardigan that I’ve enjoyed wearing and would have bought if I’d found it in a shop. My other knitting projects I’ve struggled to find occasions to wear when they were finished, but this cardigan is firmly in my everyday jeans-and-top-and-warm-thing rotation. 


Overall this was a lovely, happy project. The actual knitting was very easy, so it’s not for you if you’re looking for a challenge, but for a relaxing, fun project to plough through House of Cards with, I can’t recommend it enough. 

On The Other Hand

This morning I woke up at 5:30 to the news that we have voted to leave the EU, and that as a result, the pound had dropped to its lowest point since 1985. Worse, a lot of my friends, born in other countries, no longer feel welcome in the UK. Our Prime Minister (much as I disliked him) has announced his plans to resign. I believe that the front runner is actually and actively dangerous to international peace, and to anyone in this country who needs help – anyone who’s sick, or young, or old, or out of work, or, or, or…

I flipped between social media and the news, getting more and more panicky and sad. Then I stopped myself and opened my photos. A dear, long-time friend had sent me a picture of herself, less than 24 hours ago. Her newborn son, lying on her chest. Her, smiling down, calm and proud.

I take a breath.

I trick the rabbit. She knows that when I go over to her cage in the morning, it’s to feed her, so she runs inside. I don’t feed her straight away. I pick her up and hug her close, smell her soft, warm, mammal-and-hay smell. Her fur is so white it almost doesn’t look real.

On the way to work there are students, overtaking the bus on their bikes.  They’re dressed in the robes they wear to exams – I used to roll my eyes at those robes (so outmoded! OMG ridiculous), but now they male me smile. They’re all wearing red carnations in their buttonholes, which means it’s their last exam. Later, when I point them out to my Mum, they’ll be covered in flour and glitter and maybe baked beans. Look, I’ll say. They do it every year! Their friends wait for them after the exam, and attack. But they also bring a bottle of fizz.

I lug my guitar through town. I haven’t played it onstage for four years. I’m nervous about tonight, but I’ve been practicing. The tips of my right hand fingers have hardened up again. Dad once told me that when he was playing professionally, he could snuff out a cigarette, just by pinching it, and it didn’t even hurt.

Outside the sixth form college, the one that offers International Baccalaureate, that has a lot of students not born in Britain, two teachers meet. One of them shrugs, heavily. The other punches himself in the head. One of the kids laughs at him. The teachers smile and head into the building.

As horrible as today is, this will be someone’s best ever day. Someone’s worst ever day. The news feels huge, because it is. But don’t forget to look away. To look up, and out. And I know how stupid it is to blog this, but let’s all spend some time off the internet today. Let’s go to a real life pub tonight and at least be able to hug in person.

But not Wetherspoon’s because fuck those guys.

Maybe somewhere with a beer garden. Because remember, no matter how bleak things seem – it’s still summer.

Times of Trouble – Poetry Can Help

I have this one poem that took me three whole years to write. I started it as a note on my phone, when I was waiting, drunk and maudlin, for the last train to take me back to Didcot. For the next few years, every time I felt especially low, I’d open up the file and peck at it – deleting a line here, writing a few more words there. Growing it, slowly, this little poem about being lonely and feeling a bit lost. And one day, I showed it to a friend. He read it through. “Yep, great,” he said. “You should finish that off today.”

And just like that, I did. My years of last-trains-home-alone were coming to an end – I drink less now, and also my friends have bigger flats. I didn’t need to keep writing it anymore.

When you’re performing (or publishing) poetry, I think it goes without saying that your responsibility is to your audience. I feel I get this message all the time – it’s not therapy, it’s art, and you’re there to entertain, to engage, to inform – not to emote, like a huge stupid poetry cliché.

The thing is though – poetry doesn’t have to be good. There is no moral imperative to write good poetry. If you’re performing it to people or sending it off somewhere, sure – make it the best it can be. But there is also a lot to be had from writing poetry that you never share with anyone at all. Poetry that is only for you – no one else. Poetry to help you through things.

Below is an exercise. Try it, but on the assumption that no one is EVER going to read it. Just have a go. I find that, at times when my head’s so full of stuff, all wriggling and splurging about, uncontrollable, the process of putting it down on paper and marshaling it into twelve neat lines can help make life seem a lot more manageable.

Splurge

First up, pick a subject. Something that’s been bothering you – say, for example, food. Now, set the alarm on your phone for 15 minutes. For this 15 minutes you are ONLY allowed to write or stare into space, but absolutely nothing else. Open a word document and go. Write down absolutely everything you have to say about this subject, everything you feel about it. Remember that NO ONE is reading. Be as honest as you possibly can. Write fast and don’t try to make it good in any way – just fill the page with words.

Organise

Next, consider what you have written. Do you have a number of main points, or perhaps a progressive argument? These would both make great poetry forms. Perhaps you have one major point, and many examples of it. That one point would make a good refrain, perhaps. Have a think and try to order this soup of words into a form that makes sense. Move the words around to fit this new shape. This will look ridiculously messy but it doesn’t matter at all.

Edit

Now ruthlessly hack out anything you don’t like. Scythe through and take out anything that doesn’t fit with your argument. Anything that fits, but the expression is off, keep – we’ll rework in the next step. You’ll want to be deleting pretty much most of your work at this stage – between 70-90%.

Rework

Now you have the bones of the poem, it’s time to put the artistry back in. If you want rhyme, put it in. Write new lines to expand on your points. Rework lines if you can think of a better way of saying them. Chuck in any poetic device you think fits (my faves are internal rhyme, and saying things three times in slightly different ways). Make it something pretty.

Repeat this last step a few times. Read it again tomorrow. Next week. How does it hold up?

Or, never look at it again. Maybe you don’t have to have those thoughts again – perhaps you’ve chipped them away, just a little bit, but for good.

I still perform that poem I was talking about. It’s actually one of my favourites – and I think people like how vulnerable it makes me. There’s no point in writing without sharing yourself, after all. Sometimes it’s therapy and art.

If you liked your final poem, please put it in the comments. I’d absolutely love to read them!

For more advice about self-care and dealing with problems see here and here.

For tickets to my new show, High On The Storm Torn Coast, and exploration of disaster, book here.

Self Care – Being Your Own Seven Year Old

A few years ago I was reading some article on dieting, as I am wont to do, when I came across the words –

“An adult woman seeking to lose 1-2 pounds per week requires 1,400 calories per day, the same amount as a seven year old child…”

I will not recount to you the rest of the article, as it was tedious and ricecake based. Those words though, stuck with me. Because I have struggled, for years and years, with how to feed myself, how to manage myself, how to make workaday decisions about my welfare. But all these little things – should I have a chocolate bar? Should I watch another episode of Game Of Thrones or go to bed? Should I go out with my friends tonight? – I know EXACTLY what I would say if it wasn’t me I was talking to, but a seven year old.

I have developed a loose list of rules which I use to govern my behaviour, based on the idea of looking after myself the same way I would if I was my own child, if you see what I mean. It’s obviously not always appropriate, and I fail a lot, but I still want to share them with you. This is what caring for myself well means to me – not too indulgent, not too draconian. Reasonable, and kind.

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This is me when I was actually seven, with Oscar. It’s not on the rules, but if you can, get yourself a pet. They really help.

The Food Rules

You can always, always have fruits and vegetables. As much as you like. No exceptions.

You should really have breakfast every day, even if it is just a banana on the bus.

Can you have a biscuit? Yes, go on then. Three? Hmmm. Maybe, if you’re on a hike or something. A whole packet? NO mate, nice try.

You get three meals per day. Ideally they consist of some carb, some protein and some fruit/veg.

Sometimes, you can get pizza or McDonalds if you want to. But you know in your heart how often is reasonable to do this. Once a week, approx. NOT once a day. But sure, sometimes you can have chips.

See also, sweets. Of course you can have them sometimes. But only sometimes. My dad used to buy me penny mix on the way home from school every Friday. That feels about right.

There will be some days, like Christmas, or your birthday, or on holiday, when the normal rules go out of the window and you are allowed chocolate for breakfast. Enjoy these times! Revel in them. But they are high days and holidays. Not Tuesdays.

Never shame yourself about food. You are not “greedy” or “a pig” and if you ate too much and now you feel uncomfortable, that was a mistake which you will try to learn from, not a damning and permanent indication of your character.

Much more important than what you don’t eat is what you do. Wholesome food. Enough of it. The energy and vitamins you need to be healthy, and happy.

The Other Rules

It is a good idea to have a notional, age-appropriate bedtime. Mine is about 11:30. You are only really allowed to stay up past this on special occasions and weekends.

You have to “do your homework”, whatever this means for you. It might mean spending time writing, or another creative pursuit, or perhaps learning French, or doing the housework, or working on your startup or teaching yourself to code… Whatever. But if you have a thing that makes you feel a sense of accomplishment or joy but is not easy to motivate yourself to do, you should do it.

Playing with your friends is a good thing to do and while you can’t do it all day every day, you should definitely assume that most Friday nights you will go to the pub with your mates, or whatever your equivalent is.

As long as you can afford them, you are ALWAYS allowed books.

When you have been to school and done your homework, you are definitely allowed to play computer games and watch tv and you should not feel at all guilty about doing this. But not for, like, 8 hours straight, you’ll feel weird and cranky after and you’ll get square eyes.

If your think your one of your friends (colleagues, boss, partner) is being mean to you, you should not automatically assume that it is because you are a dick, and that they are right. You should probably gently encourage yourself to see if you can view the situation from their side though, and try to find a solution. Operate on the assumption that you can be kind, both to yourself and to them, and that if you need to end some kind of relationship, it is not because either they or you are a horrendous dickhead neccessarily, but these things do sometimes happen.

Some leisure activities are extremely wholesome and good for you and will always make you feel great, so they should be practiced as a first option wherever possible. You will know what yours are. Mine are – reading, anything involving light physical activity, anything that takes place outdoors, anything that involves seeing friends but not getting absolutely pissed, being in any body of water and low-pressure cookery – this has pretty much not changed since I was 7. So my perfect bank holiday Monday would be – reading in the bath for an hour followed by a BBQ.

If you feel tearful and sad for no clear reason, the appropriate response is NOT to snap at yourself to pull yourself together. Nor is it to offer yourself an entire chocolate cake. It is to give yourself a cuddle and ask what’s wrong, and then listen to the answer.

Pepper your life with treats to look forward to. These can be food based but should not always be. Go to see films you want to, have a day at a theme park, book tickets to a musical.

The Ultimate Rule

Don’t be mean to yourself. Look after yourself, don’t call yourself names, don’t punish yourself for small mistakes and accidents. Be reasonable.

I’d love to know what you think of all this. I’m sure not everyone struggles with moderation as much as I do! But if you do, I hope this helped xx