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How to get ahead in journalism

I spent almost all of my adult working life feeling like a fraud. I wanted to be a journalist because of a television series in the 80s called Press Gang, to which I was completely addicted. I wanted badly to be the Julia Sawalha character: brilliant, tough, uncompromising. I was a terribly unfriendly child, very angry, resistant to organised fun, terrified of humiliation – in this cold and unbending fictional telly character I saw how some of my unfortunate personality traits could be handy.

But it became very obvious very early in the postgraduate thingummy I did in journalism after leaving university, that I was never going to be a good journalist.

Please, by the way, do not laugh at me for having done a “course”; people do these things nowadays because it’s so hard to get a job in newspapers. In fact, unless you are incredibly brilliant or insanely hard-working (with a private income), getting a job in journalism these days comes down to luck. When pompous parents tell me that their blobby children are “thinking about” going into journalism I laugh nastily and say “as if it’s that easy”.

Anyway, the course director declared to us on the first day that journalism is “not about writing. It is about information. It is about being nosy. It is about being a gossip. It is about always wanting to be the person who knows things first.”

My heart sank. I am none of those things. I am terrific at keeping secrets and I’m always the last to know everything, I don’t pry, I feel sorry for people and do not want to put them through the media mill even if they’ve done rotten things. I think pretty much everyone is entitled to a private life.

I struggled on, experiencing full-body cringes whenever I had to make awkward phone calls, hating every second of interviews, fighting with sub-editors over ultra-mean headlines to interviews with people I had thought were perfectly nice. I edited quotes so that interviewees wouldn’t get into trouble.

Years ago, before the media was in such a terrible state, I probably would have been able to swing some sort of “mummy” column when I chucked in my job and smugly retreat home with purpose. But those gigs are few and far between these days. My husband has a friend who in the early 90s earned £80,000 from writing two weekly columns. £80,000!!! Those were the days.

I resigned myself to never making any money again, and took to the internet and here we are. The internet being, as it happens, the reason that newspapers and magazines are in the toilet. But you certainly can’t beat the internet, so I joined it.

So much so that I threw open the doors of my home the other day to some of the editorial staff of a website called What’s In My Handbag.

They wanted to photograph the contents of my handbag, focusing particularly on my make-up, which they would then use to do something or other. I don’t really understand how it works. But I’ve always wanted someone to come round to my house and talk to me about make-up, so I screamed “YES!” when they emailed to ask if I wanted to do it.

Browsing their website the night before, I saw with rising panic that other handbag interviewees had prepared exciting banquets for the website’s photo shoot staff, or at least plied them with exotic breakfast liquers.

It was a full week since my last Ocado order. I had no eggs, no milk, very little butter not at freezing temperature. It was 10.30pm and I had just returned from a night out, the remains beside me of a hastily-scoffed kebab from E-Mono, London’s finest kebab house (I am not joking).

I suppressed a luscious burp. My mind started to race. These bitches would be expecting treats!! My mind first turned, as it always does, to in what ways I could throw money at the sitution. Could I beg my husband 10 minutes’ grace in the morning while I ran up the road to Sainsbury’s, bought 25 assorted pastries and then try to pass them off as being from an artisan bakery?!

No, think – think!!! I don’t know how it came to me, but it did. Divine inspiration, or something, I don’t know.

The answer was: flapjacks.

No flour, eggs or milk required. Some might say they are a thing that requires no actual cooking. But in that moment, they presented themselves not as a delirious cop-out, but as a lifesaver.

What I did happen to have, which made all the difference, was a box of extremely expensive posh museli from a company called Dorset Cereals, which are filled with all sorts of exciting nuts, grains, raisins and sultanas. I had only to bind the whole lot together with an appropriately enormous amount of melted butter and golden syrup.

I am not going to give you exact quantities for this, because flapjacks are, thank god, a thing you can basically do by guessing.

I got a square, loose-bottomed tin and filled it with museli to a depth I considered respectable for a flapjack (about 2in). Then I melted about 3/4 of a block of butter in a saucepan, added to that 3 generous tablespoon dollops of golden syrup and a big pinch of salt, poured in the museli and mixed it round.

Then at this point I, fatally, panicked and poured over a tin of condensed milk. I mean, the flapjacks were really delicious but the condensed milk made them fall apart in an annoying way and in actual fact, they were a bit too sweet. So leave the condensed milk out, if I were you. I also chopped up some chocolate and sprinkled it on the top, which probably wasn’t neccessary.

After turning out the buttery rubble, (sorry that’s all a bit Nigella isn’t it), into the square tin, I patted it down with a spatula and shoved it in the oven for 20 minutes.

They worked incredibly well, even allowing for the condensed milk over-kill and the girls pretended to like them well enough, while marvelling at how quickly and efficiently I had filed the product descriptions for my chosen make-up.

What can I say? I should have been a journalist.

 

Another chocolate cake

My husband has been away filming in Canada for the last week and I have surprised myself by not having a nervous breakdown and not having to go and live at my mum’s house.

I really am surprised about this, I am usually absolutely terrible at being by myself, which is strange for someone who is mostly so antisocial and so unfriendly. I always think I will be much better, much more at peace if I were alone. But then that time comes around and I find myself adrift, mad, starey-eyed, jumping at small noises, unable to feed myself or get anything done. Give me one hour alone and I will give you the world. Give me all day and I will fall to drink and despair.

Anyway I have started thinking in the last few days that in fact being a single parent might be alright. People go on and on about how hard it is – but why? You can do whatever the fuck you like with your kids, you don’t have to think about anyone except you and your children. You can go about looking an absolute fright. There is hardly any laundry, you can watch whatever you like on tv – or sit about painting your nails all night. People absolutely kill themselves to help you out and ring you up going “How ARE you?” and then you can have a 45 min conversation with them because no-one has had to pause a telly programme while you yak away.

Not that I haven’t missed my husband. The house is dead without his machine-gun laughter, internal tussles, professional feuds, industrial gossip and home improvement schemes; it is too quiet without him clattering down the stairs in that particular way, (“DDDRRR DDDDR DDRR… DUD-DUD-DUD-DUD-DUD-DDDDDDUNT”), and too massive without him appearing suddenly round corners and through doors, shoulders first – an unstoppable wall of ancient sweater and curly hair and chatter.

No, it’s not that. It’s just that I just thought that on top of missing my husband’s presence, the very fact of being alone would be terrible, but it hasn’t been.

But, obviously, I’m being stupid. Being single is exhausting, let alone being a single parent. And I forget all the boring shit that my husband shields me from: tax returns, insurance, bills, car administration, other men, paid employment. If I had to do THAT all by myself, what with my weak veins and fear of paperwork and I would die writing and screaming in 48 hours.

This is without even mentioning that Kitty has been in both good health and in an uncommonly co-operative mood for the last week. She even stopped insisting – the day Giles left for Canada – that she be carried the four flights upstairs to bed. I won’t go as far as to say that it was “as if she knew” that I just couldn’t do it, because Kitty’s empathy is still pretty nascent, but I’m certainly grateful for it.

There is no reason for me to make this chocolate cake, I’m simply curious about it – it was the cake that I was going to make for Kitty’s birthday but then changed my mind. And I have time on my hands today as it is bloody snowing again, so we are confined indoors.

James Martin, whose recipe this is, is for me the culinary equivalent of Kim Kardashian or Emeli Sande: I don’t really understand who they are or why I keep hearing about them, but I have accepted their place on the planet with resigned weariness.

This cake is actually very similar the birthday cake I made, but it was much easier. The critical difference is that this gives you a flat, tray-bakey cake, rather than the echt high birthday cake shape you’re really after.

A Chocolate Cake by James Martin

For the cake
200g plain chocolate. Mr Martin recommended I use one with low cocoa solids, but I didn’t have any, so I just used Waitrose plain cooking chocolate, which was 75% solids. On reflection, although the cake is good as it is, it would have been better to have used the plain Waitrose Belgian chocolate that Mr Martin specified. So do that.
200g butter
200g light brown sugar
200g self-raising flour
100 ml sour cream
100ml hot water
2 eggs, beaten
5 tbsp cocoa powder

 For the icing
100g plain chocolate
170g can condensed milk – I could only find a 390g tin, so measured 170g out on some scales.
100 g butter

Preheat your oven to 160C normal oven and 140C fan oven
Grease and line a 22cm square cake tin

1 Melt the chocolate, butter and sugar in a pan with the hot water. Put it on the smallest burner at the lowest heat and just wait for it to melt. It might take 20 mins. Be patient.

2 Sift together the flour and cocoa powder into a bowl

3 Once the chocolate mixture has melted, set it aside for a few minutes to let it briefly cool and then whisk in the soured cream and then the eggs.

4 Now add the flour mixture to the chocolate in large spoonfuls, mixing to combine after each one. When it has all been incorporated, pour the mixture into your tin and bake for 55 mins.

5 For the ganache icing, put all the ingredients into a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of water. The bottom of the bowl must not touch the water. Now put the pan on your lowest burner set at the lowest heat.

Recipes always instruct you that the water must be “barely simmering”. I say it need not simmer AT ALL. It just needs to be hot. Just think about how easily chocolate and butter melts in your hand, let alone in hot water. This sort of thing splits in the blink of an eye, so it’s worth just letting it melt really slowly while you read some bit of the Sunday papers that you missed first time round.

6 Leave the ganache to cool for 20 mins and then spread over the top of the cake. I found that there was about 50% too much ganache in the end, so you could reduce the quantities if you wanted. Bear in mind that ganache doesn’t look very nice even when cooked correctly – it goes sort of gluey and looks a bit split at the best of times, so don’t worry if yours doesn’t look luscious

7 Decorate at will. I love the look of these millions of tiny sugar balls all over the top – like a cake you’d get in a very old-fashioned bakery.

Now eat the whole thing all by yourself. After all, there’s no-one to see.
 

Egg and potato pie

We have got a mouse.

I say that like this is a new thing. We’ve actually had a mouse for ages. And when I say mouse, I dearly hope I do mean mouse, singular, not mice, plural. It’s hard to tell, mice look similar. And if there are two mice living in this house, it’s highly likely they are related and therefore even more indistinguishable.

The reason I mention it only now is that up until a fortnight ago, only other people had ever seen this mouse and I, of course, dismissed the sightings as fanciful imaginings of hysterical people.

“Okay,” I would say, “if there’s a mouse, where’s the mouse poo?” But then one evening when my husband was watching football, I was sitting right here at the kitchen table, writing, and out from under the oven came a small, sleek mouse with a twitchy nose, beady eyes and very large ears.

It was indescribably cute.

Then it saw me and disappeared like lightning, leaving, in terror, a trail of poo behind it.

I didn’t say anything to my husband, because my husband thinks we should get Rentokil in and I do not want this. I do not want to set glue traps or lay down some sort of ghastly poison that causes the mice to die slowly from internal bleeding. Neither do I want to get a cat. I like cats, but there are too many cats already on our street already and they kill all the birds. I have never been ok with death. I don’t like it and I don’t want it around me. I certainly don’t want to be party to it.

I have purchased, online from somehere that calls itself “Tooled-Up” a humane mousetrap but when I catch and release this mouse on to Hampstead Heath I fully expect another one to replace it.

Anyway, aren’t mice inevitable? These old London houses with their mouse-sized gaps everywhere and rubbish aplenty – surely every building, except hermetically-sealed new builds, has got a mouse somewhere. Rather than issue a mouse holocaust, we should all just try to get along.

(Incidentally, my sister in law told me that she heard on the radio that there is an influx of mice at the moment because it has been so rainy – the mice flee the flooding sewers and take shelter under, for example, ovens in North London. She has the same attitude to mice as me: live and let live.)

Anyway I know why we have got a mouse. It’s because of Kitty. Or rather, it’s because of me. It’s because I allow her to roam freely round the ground floor carrying a variety of brittle foodstuffs, which rain little mouse-snack-sized crumbs hither and thither, which, later on, the mouse posts into its gob with both hands. I have seen it with my own eyes, while sitting on the sofa watching Breaking Bad and eating Green&Blacks.

The only thing to do is vacuum the entire ground floor every night before bed. I do not wish to starve the mouse, you understand – merely think that it might have better luck elsewhere until the sewers dry out and it can return to its natural habitat.

Speaking of natural habitats, mine is carbohydrate-based. I have been dieting like mad recently because I am still so traumatised by being fat while pregnant (yes, after 17 months. That’s how fat I was). But recently, I have fallen off the starvation waggon and have been scoffing like my little mouse friend. It’s partly because I am trying to have another baby and think maybe if I’ve got a bit more meat on my bones it might help.

Incidentally, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking – why are you trying to have another baby when all you do is complain on and on about how awful having children is? And my answer is this: Kitty needs a little buddy. If she didn’t need a little buddy I wouldn’t do it. No way. The thought of doing it all again makes me feel quite ill but at least I only have to do it once more. Then I can wash my hands of the whole sorry business and concentrate on dieting until I’m so thin a stiff breeze would blow me over.

But until then, here is a terrific recipe for egg and potato pie that my husband makes when we’re feeling skinny and virtuous enough to risk letting such things pass our lips.

Giles’s egg and potato pie
for 4

3 large floury potatoes
4 eggs
butter – about 100g
salt and pepper

1 Peel and boil the potatoes whole for 15 minutes but stop boiling if they look like they’re falling apart, as floury potatoes are so wont to do. Boil the eggs for 7 minutes, cool and peel.

2 Slice the potatoes and the eggs. This is a reasonably fiddly job – especially with the eggs. If you have a purpose-made egg slicer, this is the time to extract it from the back of that drawer, wipe the grease off and deploy it.

3 Butter the bottom of a baking dish, then cover with a layer of potatoes. Dot with butter and season. Then add a layer of sliced egg. Repeat this until you have used up all your egg and potato.

DO NOT fret if this all looks a bit of a mess, it is an imprecise dish and will taste terrific no matter how it looks.

4 Put in the oven for 45 mins at 180