A Christmassy Outing in London: John Williams at The Barbican and a night at the Malmaison

Since our beloved Pickle was born, my husband Ash (he of the fab design) and I have tried to build in a night away over the Christmas period as a little treat; as Christmas is near our mid-December wedding anniversary, it also functions as a late celebration. This year it also coincided with a particular concert I was glad to nab one of the last few pairs of tickets for – this year’s take on a regular celebration of the music of John Williams at the Barbican Centre. So we did a bit of quick searching and nabbed a LastMinute one night bed-and-breakfast deal for £159 at the Malmaison in Clerkenwell, a stone’s throw from the venue.

The concert was great – everything you want at Christmas, from the cheesy dad humour of star conductor Anthony Inglis* (at various points in the evening a Princess Leia wig, fedora and whip and a Superman t-shirt were all employed) to a joyous rundown of the phenomenally prolific film composer’s most famous works. Highlights for me were a stirring Indiana Jones theme to wake us up after the interval, and some great pieces from Harry Potter; I’d never been such a lover of the theme music but I’d also never realised how phenomenally complex the string section is. According to Inglis, rumour has it that the LSO took twelve sessions to really nail it when the original soundtrack was recorded (the London Concert Orchestra seemed to know what they were doing, at least to my uneducated eye / ear).

Amongst the menace of Jaws, drama of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and soaring sprinting of E.T., gentler moments were provided by Sayuri’s Theme from Memoirs of a Geisha and the tear-inducing inclusion of the theme from Schindler’s List. The concert as a whole went seriously heavy on Star Wars, but there were no complaints to be heard. At one point they did the Throne Room piece followed by the entire end credit movement; during the former Ash leaned over and did a very quiet Wookiee growl into my ear, setting off the most enormous, silent fit of the crying giggles. I can only hope that, since were in the centre of the front row, it wasn’t too off-putting to the performers.

And yes, Jurassic Park did make an appearance, though sadly not this version…

 

Speaking of the front row, it was quite brilliant for inspiring the imagination (even if it’s possibly not the best place to experience the full richness of the music as you’re a little too close to individual instruments). Luckily for me, as I love them, we were nearest the cellos, so I could spend quite a lot of time admiring their lovely, deep, chocolatey notes and presence. But mostly I just liked picking a different musician or two to observe during each piece and wonder about them. Was that  viola player, faintly reminiscent of David Warner, actually The Doctor? Why did that woman – a blonde Donna Tartt-alike, glacially beautiful in an androgynous black suit – never once smile? Was that cellist going to realise his bow was disintegrating? There was probably enough to write a short story on each of them, without knowing anything other than their appearance and chosen instrument.

Me, caught by husband looking appropriately 60s in the Barbican while waiting to go in to the concert hall.

The venue itself is also beautiful. The Barbican Centre has always been somewhere I’ve been dubious about on the outside but absolutely bloody love on the inside, even if I can’t navigate it to save my life. The concert hall and theatre are both elegant, imposing and very comfortable, with awesome acoustics. And it’s nice just to have a wander about the building before your event starts.

My sister gave me a gift membership for my birthday this year so that we could have a hope in hell of nabbing Cumberhamlet tickets (we did!). It comes up for renewal in March so I’m scouring the listings to see if I can make best use of it… I certainly used the members’ discount on the tickets, and in the lovely Food Hall beforehand for dinner. Although it’s not a budget option, the three hot meal and multiple sandwich and salad choices in the Food Hall are lovely; Ash had a spicy-sweet Thai Red Curry and I had a stupendously filling salmon fishcake, both with generous sides for a (reduced) price of £16.50. We took advantage of the free jugs of tap water provided to make a small saving too.

The tea and toast were pretty good, mind.

The tea and toast were pretty good, mind.

After the final bow, it was time to shuttle back to the Malmaison, which took, oh, five minutes. My overall impression of the place is that it’s trying very hard. The decor is dark and sumptuous, with some lovely 60s-inspired furniture in the main entrance. The padded lift ceiling was only mildly disturbing, but for me the entire decorative approach was summed up by having one of the bafflingly overrated Jack Vettriano’s prints (Game On – probably NSFW) in the dining room. Meh.

Anyway, for the deal we got a teeny but very comfortable room with a super soft and cosy cocoon of a bed and quite a sizeable bathroom with a large shower (Ash was a bit disappointed at no tub, but we hadn’t actually specified in our search that we wanted one). A continental buffet breakfast was included in our booking but usually costs £15 per head. This seemed ambitiously priced for what it was; lots of cereals (including brands like Dorset), multiple types of fruit and yogurt and two types of pastry, plus toast was brought fresh to the table to order. Generous and limitless, yes, but I’d have loved to see some more bread options etc. In fairness, there was more on the menu that you could ask to be brought from the kitchen in order to keep it fresh (eg cured meats and cheese – great not to see these out, curling sadly on platters!). Perhaps I’m nitpicking here as it’s hard to point to a specific fault, but it just seems to be that for £30 a couple you could get some really amazing food in the area elsewhere. We chucked in an extra fiver each to get a cooked option and had some tasty Eggs Benedict. Again, though, for £40 a couple… well, you get the picture.

Service was lovely and friendly, and when Ash managed to leave something at the hotel and called later that afternoon to track it down they were extremely helpful. All in all, given its proximity to the theatre, the comfy bed and the nice service, I would consider staying here again for Hambatch – but I’d also want to explore some other options as I wasn’t really blown away (a similar deal at the Threadneedles last year was somehow much more impressive!).

 

*More than a passing resemblance to Denis O’Hare, so we have referred to him as Russell Edgington ever since.

No disclaimer needed, as none of this was paid or provided for review – just me musing about a nice evening out.

Five things you should do over the Christmas break…

As with many bloggers, I find myself with many post ideas brewing in my head – but I occasionally lack the time to actually write them. It seems to me that many of the things I’ve been thinking about lately are things I’d like to do when I have more time. And while I’m still working throughout December, there is always more time around Christmas for doing Things and also Stuff. So here are five things I’d either like to do or recommend doing during the downtime – in whatever amounts you get it – before the new year.

No resolutions necessary – unless you want to.

1. Read Joanne M. Harris’s The Gospel of Loki 

…and while you’re at it, follow her on Twitter, for she is delightful.

I’d actually fallen a little out of love with some of Harris’s writing after somewhat bingeing on it after Chocolat. Around the time of Five Quarters of the Orange I’d felt like there wasn’t much more I wanted to read. It happens sometimes, and it doesn’t really necessarily have as much to do with the author as where you are right at that moment.

Anyway, a few months ago I started to see tube posters for this, and it looked very different. And I think no Tom Hiddleston Marvel fan could quite resist being plunged back into the Norse mythology that has spawned a thousand books, comics, films, plays, artworks and Allfather knows what all.

The Gospel of Loki delivers in spades. For a start it’s extremely funny – sometimes just in the turn of phrase, but often in the broadly grotesque characterisation that our fiendish narrator employs to breathe life into his antagonistic fellow Asgardians. And then it is by turns gut-wrenching, guiltily relatable and uncomfortably tense. Loki, forever a victim in his own head, is the perfect anti-hero, and incredibly cleverly drawn; he walks the extremely delicate line between sympathy and disgust, being largely a terrible individual that you somehow root for anyway. The delightful episodic storytelling took me right back to childhood and falling in love with the stories from The Odyssey, and there’s nothing like starting a new book with a cast of characters (except maybe a map. Books with maps = the greatest).

2. Wear something ridiculous

A lot of lucky people (like me) will be working from home for at least part of the festive season, but to be honest I’ve worn every single one of these ridiculous articles into the office in the last three months (yay creative industries!).  So let out your most ridiculous side because honestly? It really does make you feel weirdly happier.

bifrosted

loki thor

I imagine you might be picking up on a theme here, but don’t worry – that’s about it. At least for this post. Maybe.

3.  Give something… extra

If you’re sitting there thinking “well, it’s Christmas, duh!” I don’t blame you, but I’m not talking about the usual presents for friends and family. I’m talking about considering how you can spread a little cheer to a stranger (or even not a stranger, but someone you wouldn’t usually give something to – perhaps even the time of day). It could be a donation of money or time, a present to someone who isn’t expecting one or even a clear out for your local charity shop.

I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit after we had a bit of a mess up with a Disney Store order that didn’t arrive. In the interim I nipped into an actual bricks and mortar store to buy the key item just in case it couldn’t be resolved by Christmas Day. I kept the receipt thinking I’d return the excess item if all worked out.

Disney Store has now resolved the issue, and we have both items. But then I started thinking about doing something else with the spare one (it’s a dressing up costume). I could give it to another child as a Christmas present, and I might. But I could also get in touch with a local hospital and see if they could do with something new for the children’s ward. Or I could auction it on eBay and set the proceeds to go 100% to a charity (won’t make as much as the original sale price, but I can top up AND someone who perhaps can’t afford the full whack will still get the gift). Or I could return it and donate the money. I haven’t really worked out what I’ll do yet, and it might well not get to anyone by the big day, but I figure presents are welcome all year round. The point is, there are opportunities to be generous even in places you didn’t expect, so maybe consider even more options than you already do (if you haven’t already).

In related news: if you’re not a Kiva lender already, do consider making that a giving resolution.

4. Start (or review) a gratitude box

At the end of 2013 we put a big tub in the kitchen and labelled it ‘good things’. Then we started popping stuff in it like theatre tickets, travel mementoes, letters from friends, little notes on which happy moments were scribbled and anything else that generally spoke of a joyful moment that happened that year. My notes are as random and varied as “Armistead Maupin called me ‘wise’ on Twitter” through to “got a promotion at work”. It’s basically #100happydays, but in physical form, and it’s pretty awesome.

Thing is, I haven’t looked at it since then (and I’ve got a little lax about filling it). It’s time to review all the amazing experiences we’ve been privileged to have over the past year and think about what’s around the corner – that we know of. Sometimes I can be guilty of only placing significance on big things, and that just leads to a kind of vague and unhelpful dissatisfaction with everything. A little gratitude goes a long way.

5. Watch something you haven’t seen before. And something you definitely have.

Last year, I saw Elf for the first time. And it was… quite good? Better than okay? Not my favourite Christmas movie*? Whatever. I can’t really be arsed to watch it again, but I won’t turn it off if it’s on. The point is, it was nice not just spending the entire festive period watching classics and favourites, but potentially allowing for a new classic or favourite – even if Elf turned out not to be it. This year I haven’t yet decided what it will be, but I have some shameful gaps in my film viewing and, having bullied Ash just this past week into watching both Network and Edward Scissorhands since he hadn’t before, I think it’s important to bully myself a little too. Because even in the midst of the most cosy, nostalgic, comfortable familiarity, a touch of newness is healthy.

And yet of course Christmas is the season for binge-watching your absolute favourites – whether they’re festive classics or not. Obviously we’ll be having a family sit down in front of The Avengers / Avengers Assemble*  on Boxing Day and I will be as enthralled as ever in front of the underappreciated gem that is Ratatouille.  Because it wouldn’t be Christmas without an ambitious rat… right?

——

*Die Hard. YES IT IS A CHRISTMAS MOVIE. THE HO HO HO JOKE WOULDN’T WORK OTHERWISE, WOULD IT? WOULD IT?!I

*Pick your regional variant. Amusingly, the first time I saw this I blundered in about a quarter of the way through, completely confused, and I hadn’t yet seen Captain America: The First Avenger  or Thor and I was all “who the hell is this guy with the unfortunate hair? WHY IS HE WHINING ABOUT EVERYTHING? Loki my arse – he’s like Louis from Interview with the Vampire…”. So.. yeah. Give things a second chance. Watch them in their proper context. *cough*

Papercats – a story

Once there was a boy called Tom, and he lived in a world of paper.

Of course it wasn’t literally paper. He had a house, with broad stone walls, a scarred wooden table and a cold kitchen and warm bedroom – a sure sign of someone who spends too much time in their own head. Tom didn’t have a family and he didn’t have friends. Instead, Tom had paper.

Throughout the day and long into the night, Tom made things out of paper. He made animals and plants, buildings and landscapes. He crafted bridges and bred dinosaurs. He built people and sat them around tiny paper plates, cups and saucers. But at the end of every day, Tom would examine his work sadly and realise that something was missing. Perhaps a crease was messy or there was a smear on the crisp white card. And, sadly, Tom would crumple the paper figures up in his hand, stack his paper neatly at the edge of the table and shuffle slowly up the stairs to bed, where he would sleep badly.

Day after day, night after night, Tom worked steadily on his paper world. And day after day, night after night, he went up to bed disappointed. Until the night that Tom ran out of ideas.

He sat at the table, frustrated and dismayed. He had never before been stuck for inspiration, but this time it seemed like he’d already made everything there was to be made. His hands started to itch to fold paper, but his brain didn’t know what shape the paper should take.

IMG_0328Finally, he lifted a sheet, turned it over in his hands, and eventually started to work. He realised that among the many animals he had made – weasels, parakeets, dogs, frogs, zebras – he’d never made a cat. And that’s what he was going to try to make now.

When the cat was finished, Tom looked it carefully. This cat would never do. Its left ear was too small, and its tail a stubby mess. Immediately, Tom crushed the cat in his fingers and started again.

The second cat was better than the first, but still – it simply wasn’t right. There was a smear on the right haunch, and the head was at a funny angle. Usually Tom would simply move on to the next thing; in fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d even given anything a second chance. And now, as he feverishly grabbed another sheet of paper, he was trying for the third time.

Tom set to work. Piece after folding piece, crease after folding crease, the cat began to take shape. His hair began to fall into his eyes, the cold chill in the kitchen crept up around his shoulders and his fingers began to feel stiff and sore, but still he went on. At last, the final fold was in place, and he gently set the cat on the table and eased down his aching shoulders, staring at the paper pet.

This attempt was….

Perfect.

Tom sat back, confused. He could not find a single fault with the cat. It sat upright on its haunches, a neatly proportioned tail curled around to the side. Its head was tilted with a curious expression, its ears were pointed and perky, and the curve of its back was smooth and blemish free.

Tom slowly rose from his chair. He stacked the paper neatly on the table, never taking his eyes off the cat, and then turned his back and walked up the stairs to bed.

In the gloomy, cold kitchen, nothing moved. Until the cat suddenly yawned, stretched and wandered off into the darkness. It was hungry, and thirsty, and bored. It sniffed at the paper stack, and tasted the edge of a sheet. It jumped down off the table, and chased dust across the floor. It clambered up to the sink and tried to lick droplets from the tap, but this made its muzzle soggy so it edged to the lukewarm radiator and stayed there a while, trying to dry its nose.

Upstairs, Tom was having the worst night’s sleep he’d ever had. In fact, since every time he was about to drop off he jerked back awake, sure he could hear clattering and banging in the empty kitchen, he couldn’t even really call it a night’s sleep at all.

Finally, he gave up and made his way downstairs. Everything was exactly as he left it. Well, almost. In the middle of the table, where he’d left the cat, was… nothing.

Tom looked on the floor, in case the cat had somehow blown over. There was nothing there. He crawled under the table. Nothing there either. He lifted the stack of paper, even though it was flush to the table top. Nothing at all. But the edge of the topmost sheet was strangely frayed.

Finally, Tom sat down, placed the damaged sheet aside, and began to make another cat. And it was just as perfect as the first.

After staring at the new cat for a long while, Tom once again left it in the centre of the table and went up to bed. And this time, for the first time, Tom drifted off almost immediately into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

The cats met in the middle of the table, approaching each other cautiously and then circling around and around. Then they began to explore.

Eventually, they came back to the pile of paper. They looked at the stack, then looked at each other. Their noses quivered. Together, they turned to look out of the window, where the moon was still high in the sky. And then they turned back to the stack.

The sun was burning brightly by the time Tom woke in his bed. He felt rested, and that in itself was strange, since he never usually felt rested. He felt calm. He felt happy. He felt… hungry.

Tom got up, went to the bathroom, got dressed. He stood at the top of the stairs and stretched. Then he shuffled downstairs to the kitchen, where he stopped in the doorway, stunned.

Every inch of every surface was jammed full of paper cats. They crowded the floor. They cluttered the ceiling lights. They clustered on the chairs. The table. The worktops. The sink – apart from a space around the plughole, where the cats seemed to be edging away from the drips.

Once there was a boy called Tom, and he lived in a world of paper.

Of course it wasn’t literally paper. He had a house, with broad stone walls, a scarred wooden table and a warm kitchen. Tom had family, and Tom had friends. And every one of them was a perfect paper cat.

A little background: As a result of my #100forchildsi sketching, a few stories to accompany my scrawls began to grow in my head. One of them was just a single image, and I drew it once in pencil and once painted – that’s it above. I hoped to next try a plain ink version… it’s never been quite right. Anyway. It was never intended to be more than just a single image, but then Ramona invented a game where we each had to tell a story, and they were becoming increasingly outlandish. Eventually, this image popped into my head and as we were walking through town, crowds milling around us, she held my hand and listened carefully to the story of Tom and his paper friends. If my 100 days of artwork taught me anything, it’s that an unrefined bird released to the winds is worth two fully-polished articles in your head, so I thought better to commit it to screen, faults and all, than to keep replaying it in my head and watching the colours dim each time I failed to do anything more with it. And besides, Ramona might ask me to tell it again.

I am Squarehead – Simon Frank and Margit Mulder

I am Squarehead book coverIt’s always awkward writing about something created by people you know. For the full record, Simon Frank is someone I’ve known for a fairly long while as part of former third sector agency Beautiful World; furthermore, my graphic designer husband Ashley was employed by them and still works with Simon on occasion at Bats in Belfries.

None of that, however, is why I’m writing this blog post (and I certainly wasn’t asked to). While I admire I am Squarehead greatly, I wouldn’t have decided to put my thoughts out there if my daughter hadn’t recently fallen in love with it after being given a copy by our friend, and Simon’s business partner, the inimitable Rochelle Dancel.

The thing is, it’s actually really difficult to get Ramona to like anything. Sure, parents can influence, show approval or outright ban stuff. But that doesn’t always come to much; both Ash and I absolutely love Jon Klassen’s beautiful and wickedly brilliant I Want My Hat Back but Ramona has gone from being gut-wrenchingly terrified of it to merely being deeply suspicious of it. Also, I swear she can sense enthusiasm and just says no to wind us up sometimes. Some books she has never taken to, or been scared of – Mog in the Fog, Edwina the Emu – others she has loved instantly – all the other Meg and Mog books, Possum Magic, The Day the Crayons Quit . Still others she has suddenly flipped from hating to loving, dependent on God knows what – like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. So for her to so quickly, passionately love a book with a deliberately scary moment in it – albeit one that is quickly turned on its head – is something we always find worthy of note.

See, Ramona is definitely a kid who does some round thinking in a square world – just like Squarehead, who has to leave town and make some friends who also don’t fit the spaces they’re being forced into before coming back to change things for the better for everyone. She’s always been immensely good at dealing with the things that I know often throw kids for a loop – changing nurseries, starting school, moving into a big girl bed – but she can also find some apparently innocuous things very hard. Sometimes this has included introducing new books, where she is very wary of scary moments. School, where she burned through the reading scheme and is now allowed to choose books written for kids two or three years older than her and reads them mostly independently, has really helped with this as her confidence is constantly climbing and she changes books almost daily. Still, she’s one of nature’s overthinkers (can’t imagine where she gets it from).

The thing is that, as Squarehead points out, once you’ve had a thought, you can’t unthink it. But, as Squarehead discovers, you can sometimes be accosted by something you think is utterly terrifying, only for it to turn out to be something you love very much.

I don’t know whether I am Squarehead appeals to Ramona because she sees herself in it at some level, as I do. I don’t know whether she just likes the idea of a story written by someone Mummy and Daddy know (Simon has since signed it, and now she reads the dedication aloud to me). I don’t know if she’s just charmed by Margit Mulder’s deceptively simple illustrations – my personal favourite is the bathtub with square bubbles. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it just seemed so perfect to me that I wanted to record this moment; too soon she’ll abandon this and move on to the next thing. For now, awkwardness aside, this is a snapshot I wanted to keep.

Italian afternoon tea at The Pelham’s Bistro Fifteen

IMG_4030An afternoon tea review right after my last three million posts about giving up sugar? What can I say? I like to keep you on your toes. The fact is, I do consider myself to have given up regular sugar permanently, but I’m still open to special occasions. And such a one was a weekend break of fun with a good friend, which included cashing in a Time Out deal for a special Italian twist on afternoon tea at the Pelham.

My friend, K, had been here before for a post-Christmas detox tea, so it seems themed teas are a regular occurrence. The listed value for the afternoon tea in question was £60 for two, similar to the usual Champagne Afternoon Tea, but we paid about half that through the deals site. The setting is the very pretty, tastefully retro Bistro Fifteen, complete with striped wallpaper, mint green chairs, a library corner and dotty Laura Ashley teacups.

IMG_4028The deal included the near obligatory glass of prosecco, which we duly sipped at happily. The server was a bit out of sorts, I think, as she just asked ‘what would you like, English breakfast or Earl Grey?’ and it was only on asking if there were other options that it turned out there was a whole tea menu.

The teas are provided by Camellia’s Tea House – do visit the one in Kingly Court if you can – and included infuriating titles such as Skinny Bitch (ugh!) alongside much more appealing options such as White Peony and a classic white jasmine – no oolong though, more’s the pity.

IMG_4031I opted for the White Peony, and K had Beautiful Skin, a greener infusion of dandelion, chickweed and other vaguely mint-scented options. The server then brought the food and dashed off without telling us what was on it, but we quickly worked out most of it and then eavesdropped on our neighbours to work out the rest.

At base were two sizeable and filling prosciutto-stuffed ciabatta rolls, a strange but tasty fried, lemony raviolo of some sort each and four warm, flaky, raisin-studded scones topped with a drippy glaze of marmalade and a garnish of pistachio powder. Clotted cream and jam were provided too, tucked alongside what was described to the neighbouring table as a mango macaron (but tasted for all the world like orange – either way it was chewy and delicious), a tiny chocolate cup filled with custard and topped with a blueberry and a raspberry and a small, super sweet white and milk chocolate pot. Finally there was a spiced biscuit each and beautifully bitter chocolate biscotti.

Though most things looked small and delicate, the scones were extremely filling and the biscotti generously sized and rich, so by the end we were seriously stuffed. Topping up hot water for a second round of tea, we relaxed in the very pretty and relaxed surroundings, surprising November sunshine peering in through the basement windows from the South Kensington street outside. It was lovely to then stroll over to the V&A, my favourite place in London and somewhere K had never been.

K would still be glad to go back to the Pelham again after her second visit, and I was certainly impressed and would be interested to see what other twists on a classic theme they might offer. I’m not sure I’d be too keen to splash out the full amount for a regular afternoon tea, as it is rather a lot even without fizz (£24.50 per person), but the plain cream tea of scones and tea at £10.50 would be worth it for the setting.

Nothing to declare here as everything was paid for by us as stated – simply writing it up because it was fun and I enjoyed it. 

I Quit Sugar: Thoughts from the end of the 8-week programme

After the half-way point and the week seven screw-up, I’ve had a bit of a chance to examine how I feel about IQS in general and whether or not I think it’s a) worthwhile and b) something I’ll be able to keep up indefinitely – since it is supposed to be a sort of ‘reset’ leading to permanent liberation from sugar binge cycles.

I’ve found it, largely, to be extremely beneficial. There are some caveats and watch-outs that I’ll list below, but on the whole I’ve found that mostly good things have come out of it. Such as:

  • Increased energy (eventually – I did have a two week sluggish dip in the middle)
  • Improved skin
  • A lower susceptibility to bingeing / bloating
  • Fewer sweet cravings (I still turn into a carb addict come Lady Week though I can usually stave it off with cheese and oatcakes – soz for the TMI)
  • More veg cravings (I always liked them but now I actively crave greens if I don’t get them)
  • Rediscovering how sweet certain things – especially fruit – really are (does wonders for your appreciation of them!)

I’ve also lost around 12-14lbs, which has levelled off and stayed stable for a week or two, suggesting that this weight is more or less my natural setpoint. I was aiming for better health, but I’m not going to argue if nature wants me to fit my clothes better. I do still need to work on fitness, but I am walking more than I used to.

On the whole, approached as a programme that is about resetting attitudes rather than going on a mad health purge, it’s a really handy way of structuring a fresh approach to food, and getting into healthier habits. I’ve struggled for years to ‘listen to my body’ and I’m still not 100% there, but without the influence of shedloads of sugar – and I was eating a LOT – I find it a hell of a lot easier than I did. Since completing the 8 weeks I’ve added back 1-2 helpings of fruit per day, usually lower fructose choices like berries, but they’re my favourites anyway; I also nibble on fairly regular infusions of 80-100% dark chocolate and it’s all felt very manageable. I continue to track what I eat out of curiosity, and I can still see patterns of more and less disordered eating here and there (the female reproductive cycle has a lot to answer for), but on the whole I’ve levelled out at around 25-30 grams of sugar a day, and that seems to leave me in a happy place. I had a slice of my daughter’s birthday cake and all was well – and I didn’t want more than a little bit. That was the place I wanted to arrive at, and I’m happy with it.

Now for the caveats.

  • Sarah WIlson touches on it in the book, but fat really can be a problem. I think I’m pretty much convinced that there’s nothing bad about fat in general and I’ve made my peace with eating more of it without that automatic feeling of guilt but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing; a few almonds = a good snack, an entire pack of almonds = unnecessary. Now, I refuse to be pejorative about food or eating, and I won’t say that it’s a case of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’, but I do know that there’s such a thing as ‘enough for me’ vs ‘too much for me’. And it’s very easy to blur that line when you’re crowding out sugar with fat. So it’s something to watch out for.
  • As a manifesto, the book has flaws. Some of the science is a bit woolly, the (meaningless) word ‘detox’ pops up and there is the inevitable cherry picking of data to support a particular view (and make the book readable, to be fair). I would have liked to have seen a twice as long introductory sector looking into this in more detail. The fact is, I already wanted off (most) sugar, because I find when I increase the amount I eat, I eat more stuff I don’t really want to and feel emotionally and physically crappy. But I missed the detail and delving of something more comprehensive like HAES.
  • The other thing to watch out for is unrealistic expectations. Wilson is careful not to make any specific health claims, and simply talks about how the knock on effect of her new approach to eating has appeared to improve her thyroid condition, but be wary of assuming that going low sugar will fix everything. If your symptoms improve, then that’s excellent, and at the very least I can’t imagine that putting a bit less crap into the body could be actively harmful. But don’t fall into the magical thinking trap.
  • Although the posters scream “lose weight”, it’s actually (rightly, in my opinion), a very small part of what’s touched on in the book. Wilson basically says some people lose a bit of weight, some people lose quite a lot – ie YMMV. Feeling altogether better is the aim here, not setting any weight or body targets.

This is probably the last I’m going to post about this, apart from if I share a suitable recipe, cos genuinely I think it all gets to be a bit dull and repetitive if all you do is evangelise about some food fad or other. I know that some people asked for an update after the 8 week point, so here’s what I’ve found overall, and I’m really happy to answer any questions here or on Twitter. 

 

I Quit Sugar: What happens when you inevitably* screw up.

Before I began the IQS programme, I had afternoon tea booked with a friend for a couple of months down the line. It actually fell in week seven of the programme – around the time a certain amount of sugar, or at least sweetness, creeps back in, but before you’ve really completed the programme.

Now, I know you’re thinking “well, that’ll have been the screw up, then”. But actually it wasn’t. I found myself pleasantly and comfortably controlled on the day – except it wasn’t a case of control but just calmly allowing my body to decide what it was comfortable with. I ate scones, but with a little scrape of jam because more than that didn’t taste that good anymore. I ate half each of three little pastries but then I just felt like I was done. I had half my glass of prosecco because it was too hot to drink any more.

I’ve got to say, I felt pretty smug. It was like everything everyone says about moderation had totally clicked but, more than that, I had gone in with the attitude that I wasn’t going to be restrained or say “I shouldn’t”. I was going to go in and have exactly what I wanted. And by giving myself full permission to do that, I didn’t feel the need to overindulge.

Flushed by my success, I went back to normal eating the following day. And then work book club hit, and suddenly wine and orange juice and crisps and sweet popcorn and fizzy cola bottles and jelly beans were all within a foot of me. And for the first time in weeks they seemed appealing. And I went for it. Spectacularly.

Within the hour, the following symptoms appeared:

  • Itchy, hot skin
  • Jitters / shakes (not the visible kind)
  • Headache

Overnight, I experienced:

  • Poor sleep
  • Anxious thoughts (you know, the 3am type. At 3am.)

The morning I felt:

  • Bloated and rough with a skin flare up.

 

Now, there might of course be other reasons for some of these. While I had very little wine, alcohol does have an effect on sleep so that could be a contributing factor. We’ve had a bit of familial upheaval recently with schools and whatnot – not negative, but stressful. It might or might not be related to things that happen to women on a lunar basis. Hell, there could well be a psychosomatic element. But it seemed thoroughly too coincidental by half that all these symptoms appeared suddenly, en masse, on the night after I chose to gorge on something I’ve been avoiding for weeks.

I do wonder how it is I fell into the trap in the first place – trying to be sociable? Lady cravings? Overconfidence in my new found ability to say no? – but from discussing it with one of my friends it seems she did the same: ate sugar, felt bad, regretted it, got back on the wagon. Lather, rinse, repeat until the message sinks in. And certainly Sarah Wilson talks a lot about ‘lapsing’ (which, as she says, is not a lapse but just an experiment to see if you really want to continue eating sugar). After my experience, I’m not in a hurry to repeat my test, and I’ve been ‘crowding out’ with fats and veggies today to try and stave off the inevitable sugar hangover cravings.

I present this not really as evidence of anything expect my own experience, so do take from it what you will. It’s convinced me to get back on track, but then I’m the only person I have to convince…

*By which I mean when I inevitably screw up. Your mileage may vary, and your engine may be better tuned. But if you were all that brilliant, you wouldn’t be reading about quittin’ sugar, cos you’d have done it already so ha! Now we’re rubbish human together. Group hug!