Easy Banana Cake

Ok, I should probably confess that this amazing recipe came about by accident. My son came home from school with a week’s worth of fruit in the front pocket of his backpack. The apples were salvageable for another day, but the bananas and pears were definitely turning a bit brown.

“Yuck,” said my toddler, after demanding ‘nana for about ten minutes before I remembered where they were likely to be (my son had put them next to the fruit bowl, obviously, not in it where I’d have spotted them in a few seconds). My husband has a pathological hatred of wasting food, so I decided to use up the fruit in a cake.

While my son got his school shoes on, I skimmed the internet for banana cake recipes. There were “ultimate” banana cakes, and “best ever” banana cakes. The method for both of these seemed to involve putting the cooked cake (in the pyrex dish you would obviously naturally bake a cake in) into the freezer for a rapid image1chill. Who has space like that in their freezer? Ours is crammed with chips, ice lollies, ice cream, frozen herbs, frozen peas, fish fingers and assorted meats and fish that we buy and suddenly realise we can’t plan a meal around before the use by date.

I decided “really good” banana cake would do, and eventually settled for “easy” banana cake with cream cheese frosting from an Australian website. I love Australian food websites, they are often no-nonsense and have the temperature in celsius and the measures in both metric and cups. Also, I’d got a pot of quark in the fridge that outlasted the blackberries it was supposed to join on top of a flan case, so the icing sounded a great idea for really using things up.  After delivering my son to school, I popped into the shop for eggs, the only real missing item…

Once I started, I realised I’d misread, and I only has two squashy bananas not four, and not enough icing sugar so I had to make chocolate cream cheese icing (it works, think about the Dairy Milk and Philadelphia cream cheese you can buy!).
The end result is so delicious for an improvised recipe, it deserves to be recorded for posterity, so here goes:

Stick the oven on at 180c and butter a 20cm/8 inch silicone cake tin, which needs to stand on a baking tray.

2 eggs
125g (half a block) butter
315g (1.5 cups) golden sugar
2 mashed bananas
2 mashed pears
1 tspn vanilla essence
buttermilk made with juice of 1 lemon and 100ml milk

Mix these all together. I used a turn-the-handle hand whisk but you can probably use a food processor.

Then fold in:
1 tsp baking powder
220g (1.5 cups) self-raising flour

Pour carefully into silicone tin. Bake for 1 hour. Check it’s cooked by sticking in a skewer or narrow blade knife. Leave it for ten minutes, then turn it out onto a rack.

In a bowl, mix:
half a cup cocoa
2 cups icing sugar
1 pot quark (I guess other cream cheese would work too)

This blends nicely to a nice bitter chocolate creamy icing and a quantity that will spread right over the top of the cake and down the sides in one thick layer. You could probably split the cake horizontally and put some in the middle if you want, but it doesn’t need it.


Putting it out there: book group

Last night was an amazing experience. Hair raising, heart pounding at times, but invaluable to me…

One of my friends had set up a book group ago. When I joined last year, we met a couple of times, but with new babies, back to work and general life all getting in the way, School for Scandal needed a reboot… So my friend – who is herself a published author – asked if the group could read my unpublished novel, Jake’s Ghost.

I feel like I should say it was a difficult decision, that I hesitated. Could I subject my baby to criticism, see it ripped apart? Whether it was ego on my part (I think it’s well written), stupidity, or simply that I recognise that criticism is part of putting a work that you have created out there, I agreed.

So last night, over a Chinese takeaway, I met with ten women (most of whom I didn’t know) who had read some or all of a book I had written.

Oh my goodness.

They liked it, they enjoyed it, they called it “a real page turner”. They found it uplifting, empathised with my characters, fell for the bad boy. They though the sex scenes were spot on, and that was a relief.

The book covers many themes including identity, trust, domestic violence and abuse. The group identified the key ones as misconception, sexuality, bad boys and pick up artists, self esteem, religion, forgiveness, mortality and life. 

There was much debate over whether Jake redeems himself or whether his actions are too little too late. There was disagreement over whether Saffron should get together with someone, and whether it should be Tom or Miles. Some felt elements should be drawn out longer – how Jake dies, whether Saffron slept with Jake. Should Jake narrate his own moment of revelation? I have to admit I took notes.

No one thought it was too long (amazing at 130,000 words) and everyone said it was easy to read.

The best reviews of the night?

“It’s like Jilly Cooper without horses.”

“It’s like Cecelia Ahern, but better!”

I’ll take those.

It was an amazing privilege to have my story read and treated as a proper book by a group of its target audience, and to find they really did want to read it and loved it was a fantastic gift. Thank you Tara, and School for Scandal Deluxe. Now to find an agent and get published…

Putting it out there with steak?

I’m an author. I’m allowed to say that now, as this week my first story to be published is being launched on Thursday 24 September!



“Steak While We Wait” is a short story that won the Kindred Agency’s competition for marketing and media types on the subject of difficult conversations. The book it features in, along with the other eighteen fabulous stories, is called “We Need To Talk”, and is available through Amazon and via Foyles book shops. Please do buy it, not just because it will be a great read, but because the money from sales goes to an amazing charity called The Eve Appeal that researches women’s cancers. 


A Question of Character

My son and I are creating characters for his story. So that we have nice, rounded characters that feel real, these are the questions we have asked ourselves:

1) what is your character called?

2) how old are they?

3) are they male/ female/ neither, are they human, and if not, what are they?

4) do they run away from danger, or run towards it?

5) if somebody is hurt, does the character stay to help, go and get help, or run away?

6) would they rather look after a small child, or fix a machine?

7) which characteristic is dominant (there are two words to describe similar but slightly different attributes): 

– bravery/glory hunting,  

– wisdom/seeking knowledge, 

– ambition/ seeking power or 

– kindness/loyalty?

8) would the character prefer to solve a problem alone, or with their friends?

9) does the character trust people immediately, or are they suspicious of others?

Thinking about these elements gives great opportunity to set up conflict, which is essential for any story. For example Maisie is an eleven year old, she doesn’t like dangerous situations, and would prefer to run and get help than fix a broken ankle by herself. She is clever enough to know what she is good at,  she’d rather help a person than rebuild a machine, and would always rather be with her friends, sharing knowledge to solve a problem. 

Therefore, Maisie’s conflict situation would separate her from her friends, make her rely on only herself to help someone and possibly mean she has to make something rather than use her knowledge to solve the problem. Voila, instant plot developed through character!

Turning to my own novel, which is complete but could alway use another edit, my main character is a twenty year old called Saffron. She has a comfortable, safe life (boarding school education, rich parents, nice friends, enjoying studying) and she doesn’t challenge herself much. When this is undermined (she finds out who her real father is), her sense of self is shaken too. She discovers that she runs towards danger – she has to know who he was and what he did even though knowing will upset her and others. Her quest is for knowledge, and she seeks it alone, closing herself off from friends. However, to do so she has to rely on others to tell her, and they are not always willing to share, in order to gain an advantage, or to protect her or themselves. She also needs help to get a crucial piece of evidence that will help her help someone she immediately cares for. Learning to trust and feel a positive connection with others again will help her develop on her journey.

A few years ago, I wrote a character who I felt I knew well, and I decided to put him through a Myers-Briggs test to see if I knew how he would react in different situations. I did, and he felt like a real person. I guess the above is a simplified version of that.

Jake’s Ghost

Jake’s Ghost. It’s finally done. 130,000 words, perfect for holiday reading… Here’s the synopsis…

Jake Goodman is dead.

The women most affected by his life are dealing with the fallout, not least finding out about each other.

Zoë, left behind by Jacob as a teenage mother. She has a fantastic new life with the famous Pat Meadows. But will Zoë’s relationships survive the revelations?

Rachel, Jack’s ex wife, is mother of his two young children. Heartbroken over the divorce two years ago, Rachel has been barely surviving, raising her children with the help of her oldest friend. Living with Jack the stand-up comedian was no laughing matter. Can Jack’s death give her closure and help her choose to move on?

Jessica thought she was the love of Jake’s life. He was the perfect trophy partner for her, the antidote to her stressful, high-flying career. Will knowing more about Jake help her or destroy her?

And then there is Bex. What she knows about Jay will change everything.

Who was Jake Goodman? He seems to have lived many lives, reinventing himself as he moved on.

Saffron was Jake’s biggest fan. Now she is his daughter and nothing about him seems to make sense. She sets out to piece the story together, following the tale from tropical islands to Parisian garrets, from deep in the English countryside to live on stage.

She hopes that, in finding out who her father was and what happened to him, she will find herself too. Then perhaps she can lay the ghost.

Morpurgo, Music and the Mozart Question

IMG_1935How do you explain the holocaust to children? If you are going to try, the good news is you can do it as engagingly and sensitively as Michael Morpurgo does in his current stage show “The Mozart Question”.

In a rare treat, the former children’s laureate was in Ashford, Kent today at Revelation St Mary‘s (the town centre church which is a stunning arts venue in its spare time). Accompanied by Alison Reid, violin soloist Daniel Pioro and the Storyteller Ensemble string quartet, Morpurgo tells his short story with drama and humanity.

The Mozart Question is NOT in the Da Vinci Code mould, using a famous historical name to build an improbable and inexpertly written thriller.
Instead it is the fictional story of Paulo Levi, a fifty year old virtuoso violinist who is interviewed at short notice by a cub reporter who has heard him perform and knows only that she must not ask the Mozart question.
Using well known classical violin music (which was slightly different from the selection featured on the 2012 CD of the show) to tell the tale, with Pioro stepping into the roles of both Paulo and his father.
The music left my 7 year old totally unable to sit still (sorry if you were there and thought he was fidgeting, he finds it easier to listen to music while moving I found out today!) His absolute favourite’s were Monti’s Czardas and Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – super fast violins-  and something he referred to as a Barber’s Shop Quartet. I explained that this last one is actually completely different music, but it’s a good term to use without totally giving away a nice surprise scene.

There were some lovely moments of humour, real poignancy and Morpurgo’s love of both language and music shines despite the potentially difficult material about the role of orchestras in Nazi extermination camps. I managed not to cry. But this was a performance primarily for children, so I asked my son to name his favourite bits:
– “I liked the story. It was really sad and happy at the same time”;
– “the fast music was really good. I played air violin when it came on”;
– “Mummy bought me the book, so I could read along a bit. The pictures in the book helped me listen a bit more”;
– “I was a bit scared about going to meet the author, but he was really nice and shook my hand”;
– “I wasn’t completely sure what The Mozart Question actually was, but I think there were three really… why did that music calm people down when they were going to die? Does that bad thing happening with the music make the music bad to listen to? And was his daddy silly to not want to hear it?” (These three questions emerged over the hour after we saw the show).
Once home, it was also the perfect opportunity to explain about Naziism and what happened to Jewish people, gay people, disabled people and more who didn’t fit in with that world view. He was a bit worried about using the shower tonight, a bit sad, and didn’t think anyone should decide that four million people should be killed. Then he decided to play Star Wars figures. It’ll be interesting to listen in and see if those games change as a result.

As always when taking a child to a performance, you have to be relaxed about how they are. At the beginning, my seven year old said loudly “Which one is he?” I replied that the author was the one in the red shirt. “Oh. He’s really old, isn’t he?” says my son.
He asked repeatedly why one violinist wasn’t playing at first (this became clear five minutes later), and later, during a quiet moment e asked why one spotlight wasn’t on.
But for a 75 minute performance without interval, I was really impressed that he basically listened, even if he squirmed.

At seven, my son reads confidently but has so far only read Morpurgo’s “Kaspar, Prince of Cats”. He was inspired with today’s performance though, so I expect we’ll have the full library soon.
Having bought the book that was performed, we hoped to get it autographed but it turns out Morpurgo is a fellow sufferer of RSI. Instead, he handed out signed book plates and came around chatting to everyone and shaking hands. What a nice man!
I mentioned how much my wriggling child had loved the music and Morpurgo asked if he learned an instrument.
“Not yet.”
“I think you will very soon,” says the author.
When we got home, my son announced he wants to learn the violin at school next year.
And he wants to play the Monti.
That alone was worth the entrance price.

Seaside Poetry

A proud Mummy post today. My big kid was set homework this week which should have been right up his street. The “beachcomber” topic that they have been following at school is interesting to him, but he is suffering from end-of-term-itis and really didn’t fancy doing extra poetry on the theme of creatures in rock pools at home.

Once I’d explained that he had to do it and no, I wasn’t going to do it for him, he sat down with me and decided to 1) do the poem on just one rock pool creature and 2) research that creature to get the information to go into the poem.
He also had to make sure there was an adverb, an adjective and a simile…

This is the result – an acrostic poem. Getting there was a bit blood-out-of-stone but worth the effort in the end…

The Beadlet Anemone

Aggressive animal, stings like a bee;

Nobbly blue beads on a blob of orange jelly;

Exciting red tentacles wave slowly to and fro;

Mouth on its bottom; slippy-slidey foot to go.

One hundred babies will come out of it one day;

Nestled in its rock pool, eating its prey.

Enemy anemone, keep away!


Three screens: Sherlock silliness

Following a prompt on the Writer’s Circle Facebook page, here’s a short scene featuring my favourite consulting detective…

You find the last room when suddenly three monitors turn on at once. What do you see?

I removed the hood and looked around shakily. Three screens.
The first screen showed my face, in black and white. I moved my hand and felt and unfamiliar momentary confusion as the image moved its hand on the other side, an image not a reflection.
I found I was staring at my hair. Is that what I looked like to other people? Used to mirrors, it felt as if my parting has changed sides. Unlike the Biami tribe of Papua New Guinea, I resolved my psychological anguish in microseconds, the specular image morphed seamlessly with the referent self. A process accomplishable by the average two year old of course, but only the most unfortunate toddler would have experienced chloroform and behooded abduction.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement in the second monitor. It was me, monochrome again, this time in profile and from a distance. I found I was drawing in my stomach. Did I really resemble a runner bean when viewed side on?
A flash of colour drew my eyes to the third monitor. The image was of my back (again, the hair!) but unlike the other two, this image was moving, the unseen camera encroaching, unstoppable.
Almost at the last moment, i realised that the momentary flashes of colour were a warning. A red dot, sliding back and forth across my back before stopping, the target acquired.
I spun on my heel, facing my would be assailant.
“For the last time, I don’t want to go on Big Brother. I’m a consulting detective, not a performing seal.”
Mycroft put down the gun, removed the night vision goggles and frowned.

Creating our own worlds

It’s been ages since I did a writing course. I wasn’t sure anything could top the last one I did – I persuaded my employer to take one Wednesday afternoon a month off to attend a course at the ICA. I really did not think it would happen, but working an extra week of overtime a month was the norm there for all us bright young things, and developing writing skills was considered staff development, so it worked out well as a way for me to be out of the office and still doing something useful as well as enjoyable.

The course was led by creative writing teacher Greg Mosse, husband of author Kate Mosse, and used as a point of reference a book she was writing at that time. It turned out to be Labyrinth, book one of her now famous Languedoc series. It was fascinating to see how the ideas around research, character development and world building that we explored played out in her novel – and how different that book was from the book I thought she was writing.

Ten years on, I have lived abroad, married and had children, but I still haven’t had a novel published. I have one complete one, which I’m starting to talk about with agents and publishers. I have one that’s nearly there, but I couldn’t decide if my lead character deserved a happy ending and it rather paralysed me. I have one written in partnership with a friend that has a climax at the Beijing Olympics, so its time has passed – or it needs a substantial rewrite. There’s a time travel novel aimed at the Percy Jackson/ Harry Potter market. There’s also a promising series, again for younger readers, on which my son is my main consultant…

So to encourage me, and get back on the developing and editing track, I’m doing the FutureLearn online introduction to creative writing course.  I’m relieved and pleased to find that I have kept up the basics – my writer’s notebook is still beside my bed, my phone full of thoughts and observations, my Facebook status a mess of little notes I know I will one day pull out and use again. I can still respond to a writing prompt, pull meaning from a paragraph of someone else’s text, play the word games prescribed as homework.
I may not “need” a creative writing course after completing such a superior one before, but FutureLearn is free, easy to access online and each module is reminding me how to think about what I am trying to convey.

Of course, the best way to write a book is to write it. Style, technique, creating worlds… these things matter, but – as Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said, “writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat”. Or Kingsley Amis: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.” Or Mark Twain. Or Mary Heaton Vorse. If you haven’t written it down, you haven’t written a book. It’s that simple.
So I probably better get on…

Pink for a Princess?

Welcome to the world, Princes Charlotte of Cambridge. You are only a few days old, but in your honour, the Royal Mail are producing pink stamps and Westminster is being lit up pink.

You may not even have worn anything pink yet.

You probably don’t even know if you like pink yet.

But don’t worry, you will.

You see, there’s a sweeping assumption in our capitalist economy that women like pink.

You only have to walk into the toy aisles of any supermarket or store to find that girls like pink. They must do – so many of their toys are pink. Their toys? Yes, we know those are for girls because they are pink. It’s an unwritten gender identifier.

Women must continue this love of pink into adulthood– there are pink versions of mobile phones and computers, and the dominant colour of mother’s day cards and gifts this year was again pink.

Pink is soft. Pink is feminine. Girls are sugar and spice and all things nice, so pink is for them.

The colour name comes from the flower (as it does in other languages, albeit a different flower, usually rose). Girls like flowers, so pink is for them.

Always has been this way.

What do you mean it hasn’t?

Some people get very upset when they hear that pink for girls, blue for boys, is not innate and is in fact only a convention that is around one hundred years old. They write angry comments on the Internet about trying to turn boys into girls and things just ARE, so GET OVER IT.

But it is nonetheless true that the pink-blue divide didn’t really happen until the first decades of the twentieth century. The reasons appear to have been a combination of technology, and fashion.

Until this point, babies of whatever gender tended to wear white clothes (yes, boys in white dresses and long hair, something probably regarded as horribly feminising today!) which could more easily be boiled clean and which couldn’t fade unlike the dyes in brighter clothes.
Boys were more likely than girls to wear pink, because men wore red uniforms and the convention was that boys were simply small men. Blue was associated with the Virgin Mary and so a more feminine colour.

This changed when sailor suits became fashionable – it was the height of fashion to dress small boys in these blue and white outfits and, with the advent of faster chemical dyes and mass production of children’s clothes, it was easier to dress children in colours more generally.

The transition of pink to a colour for girls took place gradually over the 1920s-1940s. Somewhat more horribly, its softer, feminine connotations were one of the reasons it was chosen as the colour of the Nazis’ symbol denoting homosexuality during the Third Reich.

But it’s SCIENTIFIC FACT, the online comments tell me. Little girls like looking at pink more. Well no, it appears that the test which “proved” this actually found that both adult men and adult women prefer blue tones, and that at the margins women preferred the red-purple spectrum and men the green-yellow, but children and the colour pink itself were not actually tested (thanks Wikipedia!)

More worrying is what pink has come to symbolise.
It is used as shorthand for what is expected of little girls, and by extension of women.
The focus of “girls’ toys” is so often physical appearance, shoes, clothes, nurturing and motherhood, art, romance, and domestic chores, as if those are the only things in adult women’s lives. Make the toys doing that pink, covered in hearts and sparkly, and you send the message that the subject and the colour things are interrelated.

It certainly works- my toddler identifies pink things as “mine” – if it is pink it is definitely hers and not her brother’s, so she chooses pink for exclusivity and to support her sense of self in opposition to her brother (who actually doesn’t mind pink!)

The focus of “boys’ toys” is so often war, action, saving (in the superhero sense), science, technology, mess and trouble, and blue, black, dark green, and sludge colours. Include no female figures, or write “no girls allowed” on the front, and girls soon learn that these are not toys aimed at them.
Pink is only a problem when it becomes a barrier to children discovering their own interests, either because they learn to reject what is not “appropriate” according to their peers, or because an adult simply never thinks to give them a toy because it is for the “wrong gender”.

In the same toy range, boys get play tool kits, girls a play make up purse.
Boys get a whole train set of boy characters (girls get one or two added-in pink engines) while girls get a whole dolls house of women and baby characters with cupcakes to eat, and boys get maybe a “Daddy” or a boy with a football, if they are lucky.

Boys get war games, superheroes and science kits, girls get pink play versions of domestic appliances, princesses and they can have a science kit as long as they use it to make perfume or cosmetics.

I’m not saying one set of toys is superior to the other, just that there are some assumptions being hidden behind the colour pink and it is being used to stereotype our kids.

We should be aware of it.

If we have become accustomed to it to the point that we RAGE VIGOROUSLY against anyone suggesting that it is not the natural order of things, then we have a problem.

At this point, we often meet the just-ignore-it brigade.
“If your daughter wants a toy aimed at boys, she can.” But how much better if it was just a toy, that didn’t make her feel a bit excluded?
If a boy wants to play with a pink toy, he can, of course, and we’d support him in so doing. I just wish no peer or social judgement would be made of him, that he won’t have assumptions made about him, his masculinity or his sexuality?

What we tell our children in our words and actions and assumptions is not consequence free. But it is our job to try and help them to be themselves just as hard as they can be.

What I’m trying to say is that, if a real Princess wants to wear a plastic tiara, sparkly plastic high heels and a pink nylon dress to pretend to be a “princess”, she can.
Equally, if she wants to wear trousers, get muddy, fire weapons and make weird coloured science experiments she can do that too.
But she can also pick and choose, no child is a stereotype and finding what she loves to do and be is the secret of happiness.

There’s more than one way to be a girl.

There’s more than one way to be a princess.

Let’s hope Princess Charlotte has the freedom to work out what she enjoys, even while the world’s media try to watch her every move and commentate on it.