I’ve been consciously keeping my wits about me this week from reading in Red that I simply need to figure out the three words that define my look in order to be eternally stylish (I went with ‘High heeled bohemian’ in case you’re interested) to feeling saddened that Ed beat David to the Labour leadership (not that I really care, I hasten to add but Tory girl really does dislike her unions and of the options David was the preferable boy in red) to getting my thinking cap on when reading about a call to return a looted tabot to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Tabots are, to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, holy relics which must only be viewed by priests. As an atheist I believe tabots are nothing more than historical and interesting objects that ought to be put on public display in a museum but I do respect culture (if not religion) and think something so relatively insignificant to non-Ethiopian Orthodox Christians should probably just be given back. Oh and I’ve been loving this advert (hover the cursor over the image to see the text).

But it would be artificial to pretend there hasn’t been one overwhelmingly huge topic that I just want to talk about. I have been excited and stressed in equal measure by the realisation of a dream. Yours truly is an editor! Not that I edit much yet, but I have taken the first fledgling steps towards promoting and enhancing great content.

Made in the Forest is essentially a blog, a bringing together of the words of the Forest of Dean by creating a single location for the best of the bloggers, the otherwise unpublished columnists and reviewers, the poets, the story tellers and everyone else with ideas and a grasp of grammar all illustrated with photos and drawings of the beautiful and evolving forest. Am I passionate about the project? Just a little bit!

I started out a little cynically, thinking that a forum for Forest of Dean news could be useful for promoting the Dean Heritage Centre but once I started reading the blogs I realised just how valuable a resource a hub could be. There were writers who were sharing beautiful images and inspiring stories with sometimes as little as 3 followers! I got excited about showcasing this talent and being responsible for sharing it.

The reality has been far more of a challenge than I anticipated. I write this on the eve of the launch and while the post that will begin the blog is something that genuinely excites me, it all came together only this afternoon. That’s the world of the editor I’ve realised; far from relaxing over a cappuccino with a red marker pen looking to tweak passive sentences, one is gulping Nescafe and frantically scheduling. I’ve got a lovely piece for the second post but it really needed a photo and you can’t just expect the light and the setting to be right even if your writer is willing to go out and find an image (lucky for me he did and the result was perfect for the piece).

I thought a blog where you outsourced the writing would be easy. After all, I’ve been churning out 1,000 words a week pretty consistently all year and there are dozens like me who’d surely love to have their writing promoted so it would just be a case of uploading their content right? Well I’ve met with nothing but positivity from my boss, from Patrick Molyneux (Cabinet Minister for Tourism) and from the people I’ve asked to contribute but steering people towards word counts and so forth is surprisingly difficult (and I have great people eager to write for me!).

I’m excited about 9am tomorrow and am eager to get things up and running. Once we’re live it’s a case of maintaining things whereas right now I’m following the coverage in the press and worrying about the details. Of course, like any project it’s in its infancy right now and will no doubt change beyond belief in its first weeks. I’m sure teething panics such as the email address will soon be nothing but memories but tonight they seem like the end of the world and for now, my attention is otherwise diverted.

I hope to see you at www.madeintheforest.com soon. Wish me luck!

Throughout my years of dating and relationships, I have noticed that men largely fall into one of two camps; there are those that have put me on a pedestal and those who haven’t. In naivety I used to be attracted to those that put me on a pedestal. I wanted to be desired and adored and I mistakenly interpreted those that put me on a pedestal as being most likely to meet that need. From experience, I have learned that those men are the least able to provide the love I desire. Men that put you on a pedestal are attributing values of their ideal woman onto you and when you fail to meet the standard (as you inevitably will) they feel betrayed. The boyfriend, unsurprisingly, does not put me on a pedestal. He knows I’m flawed. When my quick temper flares, I’m unsympathetic to the plight of someone I consider stupid or I’m disinterested in certain social norms, he shrugs it off as part of the quintessential me whose positive attributes outweigh the negative. He certainly doesn’t take my shortcomings personally, the way the pedestal men did.

I learned this lesson and thought I was done with pedestal mythology but this week I’ve become aware of another pedestal I’ve been placed upon and no matter how many jokes I’ve cracked about being an evil stepmother, a series of myths have been applied to me and my failure to even see the pedestal, let alone sit prettily upon it has become apparent.

It wasn’t that I entered my relationship unthinkingly but I made some assumptions. I thought that the only additional concerns to dating a man with kids were regarding the kids and their mother. As long as I got on well with the children and raised them according to the values dictated by my partner and their mother, I thought everything would be fine. And it actually seemed quite straightforward. The boyfriend and his ex-wife’s views on their kids are largely my own ideas when it comes to kids. The ex-wife is concerned with things like manners and education which mean the two small boys I share my home with on alternate weekends are generally polite, interested and interesting children. I’ve met her a couple of times and she shares many characteristics with her sons; she is polite and seems very nice.

Of course this doesn’t mean I’m always positive about the idea of her. Every plan, every idea for the future that the boyfriend and I have necessarily considers her and how she’d feel: If we buy a property to renovate and are living on site what would she think of the boys being in a caravan when they stayed with us? If we want to take them on a foreign holiday, what will she think? If we had a baby how would she feel? I don’t consider myself answerable to her but she is hugely important to the boys and therefore to us. It is a curtailment of freedom I didn’t consider when starting out on this path.

Where the mythology lies is that when it comes to being a step-parent, people are one of two types; the kind of people that can do it and the kind that can’t. Those that can are emotionally intelligent, mature and generous. Those that can’t are too selfish; understandably so as to become a step-parent is to take on a huge challenge. Such people have expressed admiration for me and wonder how I do it.

Of course the reality of being a step-parent is that you don’t look at the bigger picture all that often. In my day to day life I rarely think about it. Doing the laundry includes pairing some very tiny pairs of socks and endlessly picking stickers out of the washing machine (the boys are obsessed and the things get everywhere), running a bath requires fishing a collection of toys out first and I get up far earlier than I used to but you stop noticing these things very quickly. The thing about children is that they need routine and the impact of this is that the pace of your life quickly changes to fit that. So it’s not emotional intelligence, maturity or generosity that sees me getting on with things, it’s that meal times, bath times, story times, school and swimming lessons all have their dictated slots and I’m far too busy washing swimming kit, cleaning the bath and making the Yorkshire pudding that the two year old is fond of to think about the meaning behind what I’m doing.

I think I do a good job. The boys are fond of me and baked and sang for my Birthday (the two year old blew out my candle before I had chance to and after relighting it for me to blow out, it was relit again for the five year old). On Friday night I sat and played a board game and I always leave what I’m doing when one of them wants to show me something. When the two year old hurt his finger at the weekend I had him giggling madly at my making his stuffed hedgehog kiss it better. All this creates an impression that I’m serenely perched upon my pedestal.

Am I not then? Well after a long day at work, that board game is played with a gin and tonic in my hand. The fondness the five year old has for me is partly due to my being funny as I threaten to kick him across the room, through the French window, down the garden and into the stream... yes it’s said with a wink and I wouldn’t actually do it but that’s not to say the joke doesn’t originate in fantasy. And all that consideration for the ex-wife, well we have a nickname for her that makes me feel better about everything I sacrifice in order for everyone to be as happy as is possible.

This week, my fall from the stepmother pedestal became apparent to a couple of people and I received a little flak (nothing major, merely expressions of disapproval) for some of these coping mechanisms. As a result, the pedestal that I had been placed upon suddenly became immediate and obvious to me.

Still, realising the pedestal mythology does not necessitate my participation. Sorry but I’m just not interested. I do not and will not subscribe to there being a standard for my behaviour. I feed these kids, I wash their clothes, I clean up after them but more importantly I listen to them, I play with them and I think about ways to make their lives happy and healthy. How I do that is nobody’s business really and so I’m opting out. If I don’t meet your standards, if I seem selfish or flippant, then I’m afraid that is your problem and not mine.

One positive has come from all this however. I feel far greater empathy for the boyfriend’s ex-wife. If this is the degree of expectation placed upon stepmother’s, I dread to think what mother’s have to deal with!




Foam. Foam is about bubbles. When I think about the word foam I generally tend towards bath foam (although I call it bubble bath as a liquid and simply bubbles when describing the foam) or to foam at the mouth (which given my relative lack of interest in rabies*, I rarely do). I never think of foam as food.

Until last night. Yesterday I turned 28 and part of my Birthday present from the boyfriend was dinner at Le Champignon Sauvage which I think translates into The Stripy Mushroom. The Stripy Mushroom (sorry, it’s stuck now) has two Michelin stars and I had never eaten at a Michelin starred restaurant. I was very excited but I actually found it a bit bewildering.

I’m a foodie. I love ingredients, I love the processes of cooking and I love to try new things. I create new dishes at home regularly and often buy things simply because I’ve never cooked them before. This autumn I’ll add wine making (elderberry) to my chutney and Christmas cooking (mincemeat, Christmas cake, Christmas puddings) and next year the boyfriend and I are going on a bee keeping course. When we buy a place I plan to adopt some former battery chickens. As the feather in my cap, in 2008 I made the semi-finals of Masterchef.

I think of myself as being relatively cultured and having a reasonable palette but it seems that I’m not quite (Michelin) star material.

It was difficult not to compare the meal to the one we had recently at The Daffodil. I loved The Daffodil and rate the meal I had there as one of the best in my life. Of course, the wow factor of The Daffodil is difficult to beat but The Stripy Mushroom seemed a bit blah upon arrival. It took me a few moments to work out what was wrong. There was no music!

Normally I’m unaware of background music (I talk a lot) but at The Stripy Mushroom the silence seems loud. I found myself whispering which was awkward for the boyfriend who is a little bit deaf and still struggles with my accent on occasion. This made me feel really awkward. The tables were laid out American movie style so rather than sitting opposite my beloved, I was sat to his side. This was fun at The Daffodil as you face the kitchen but at The Stripy Mushroom we faced the room. I almost wished I was part of the table of four who got to sit opposite each other.**

Anyway, enough of the socially awkward pikey Northerner act. We were there to eat. We picked three dishes each but there were six courses which was quite exciting. We began with some appetisers. A mini muffin was pretty forgettable, a cube of something chorizey made me gag but a parmesan wafer with goats cheese and marjoram cream was lovely. Of course cheese dipped in cheese has all the makings of win but what I liked most was how my mind started whirring about ways I should use marjoram more and how a replication of the cream on an oat cracker with slivers of beef could be divine.

My starter was based on rabbit although I couldn’t have told you that from taste alone. There was lots of raw raddishy things that didn’t taste of much (other than raddishes – which I don’t like). The boyfriend had a dish of carpaccio and corned beef. This was much better with wonderfully developing mustard and pickle flavours. The bread was nondescript although I liked that the butter came on a pebble, even if it did waver precariously, threatening the sparkling linen (you sense the stress of the place).

We then received a shot glass of white asparagus vichyssoise with coconut foam. Ah, the foam. It tasted of coconut. I appreciate that that is the point but it looked so much like the foam on a cappuccino that I was still confused. I can’t say I liked it but it was very interesting. The vichyssoise tasted of leek and potato and since I’ve never had white asparagus before, I don’t know whether it is an amalgamation vegetable or not. The combination was interesting, not unpleasant but not exactly food if you understand me.

I ordered a main course of Gloucester Old Spot. The belly pork was perfect. The pigs cheek an absolute revelation. Pigs cheek now rivals venison fillet for my affection. It was all the soft texture of good pork with the flavour of red meat. Exquisite! Eagerly I delved into the pigs head anticipating more good things...

... is it rude to swill your mouth with your red wine? Well, I hardly had time to reflect on social niceties. The only thing I’ve had a worse reaction to was the first time I tasted blue cheese and that was only because I was in a supermarket with nothing to drink to wash the taste away. Eugh! I’m really not convinced that pig head is edible. There were other things on the plate; some little beads that looked like the semolina beads I used to have in bubble drinks in Malaysia but I only listened to part of the waitresses explanation to the next table as to what they were. They didn’t taste of much so I couldn’t see the point. Therein lays the limits of my sophistication I suppose, for me it has to be about nice plates of food.

The boyfriend had lamb (perfect) served with its sweetbreads. Sweetbreads are ok. I’d never choose to eat them but they are palatable enough and if I was buying a whole lamb for the freezer I’d probably elect to keep them and have a go at cooking them myself.

The pre-dessert was fabulous. The layered cream, jelly and foam concoction of elderflower and raspberry was wildly different but also delicious. I scraped my glass out.

Actual dessert for me was a bergamot mousse that tasted of the flavourless jellied puddings you get throughout the far east, a liquorice cream that didn’t taste particularly liquoricey and the most amazing orange jelly. Oh and there was lettuce sprinkled over it all. The boyfriend suggested it may have been bergamot (Google disproves this) it looked like pea cress. The orange jelly had me waxing philosophically – it was the form of orange. The boyfriend’s rather ordinary lemon meringue came with a similar lemon jelly (although coming after the wow of my orange simply seemed a different flavour) and a basil icecream. As a dessert I didn’t like the icecream but it made me want to make it myself nonetheless.

By this point I was tired and elected to go home rather than try the coffee (what would they put in it).

I’m glad I went, I ate some amazing stuff but it was a bit like a trip to TK Maxx. Even though I have a beautiful suede coat that I bought for £60 down from £570 among my bargains, often I just want something to wear and I don’t want to wade through a bewildering mess to find it.

* I’ve read the first chapter of Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Rabies in Britain 1830-2000 and am keen to read the rest. But that’s just one wish list book on rabies; most subjects warrant multiple books. 

** I wasn’t because the sleazy guy (my fault for wearing a low cut dress) was bad enough from across the room. Sitting opposite him would’ve been horrible. Plus, they were American.

I’ve had a lot of feedback regarding this blog recently. I usually get a comment or two when I link it to Facebook and there are usually a couple of tweets but in the last week I had three very thought provoking experiences. 

The first came by way of the boyfriend who casually commented that my column seemed to reflect the energies I was throwing into my various projects. Stripped of tact, his analysis arguably is that I’ve lost my way with regard to focus. While there has always been an autobiographical element to my writing, I’ve slipped somewhat from using it as a means of illustrating a point I wish to make and begun to rely on my life as a topic. It’s sloppy and not what I intended when I swore I’d write 1,000 words a week. 

The second came by way of a mention in a blog. Not only did it make me appreciate that people are reading my work but that good copy is quotable copy. Modesty aside, my description that ‘all this was gravy’ made me quotable and linkable. It hit home the importance of both finding my voice and writing in that style consistently. 

The final piece of feedback came from the editor at the Gloucester Likal. I hadn’t given much thought to the relationship regarding the column but it came up during a conversation with him at work (yes, we’re rather incestuous in Gloucestershire. The other day I got off the phone from taking a group booking, phoned to order some stock only to find myself talking to the same person again. I have both a personal-professional relationship and a work-professional relationship with Ian. For good measure I’ll buy him a drink at the next tweet drinks). I realised that if there is to be overlap between readership and work relationships and various other things, then it’s important to think about what I want my column to say and not let it slip to the back of my mind only to be hashed out at the last minute without any research into the concepts behind the topic.

And so in what I hope is a return to form I am writing this at the weekend and have been reading. And reading proper books at that! In a recent conversation I revealed to someone that my academic subject was political science. ‘Ah’, my conversation partner responded, ‘I should have known given your Machiavellian stance the other day.’ I laughed but took his words as a compliment (as I believe they were intended). Yet when I relayed the incident to the boyfriend (if ever I omit to say long-suffering as a prefix to boyfriend it is simply as I assume that it is a given that you all add that sentiment!) his reaction suggested that for many, being described as Machiavellian is not something to be desired.

I was always interested in Marx’s assertion that he was not a Marxist and I think that if we took the common understanding of what Machiavellian behaviour entailed and were able to tell this to Machiavelli he’d argue that he did not condone Machiavellian behaviour in a prince (or manager or other kind of leader). The boyfriend is a perfect example of how concepts gain reputation as he has his ideas and yet has never made his way through what is a very short and readable book (The Prince is just 85 pages long*). 

A wonderful illustration of Machiavelli’s recommendation of the ideal prince has been made by Terry Pratchett in his Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, Havelock Vetinari. However, it all too often seems to me that the genius of Pratchett’s sophisticated satire passes by many of his consumers. Pratchett is hugely readable (which is apparently something of a literary crime) meaning that you don’t need to know your philosophy to enjoy Small Gods nor love Phantom of the Opera to laugh your way through Maskerade. It adds to the pleasure I firmly believe, but it isn’t necessary (personally I think Pratchett’s eqalitarian writing style is to be applauded but then the last time I checked, nobody cared too much about my opinion when it comes to literature** and my absolute hatred of the almost fetishised Cloud Atlas means that is unlikely to change.)

So what is it to be Machiavellian, if not the simplistic understanding that it is to be cunning and devious? Well, it partly is to be cunning and devious (hence the confusion) but it is within a significant context. To lazily quote from my final year essay on whether the dictates of raison d’état and morality in international affairs were incompatible:

      Machiavelli, writing during the Renaissance, made a move away from religion. Meinecke, said that he, ‘spoke out very forcibly on the subject of the indispensability of religion... at any rate, he was strongly in favour of a religion which would make men courageous and proud.’ Machiavelli, he says, ‘once named ‘religion, laws, military affairs’ together in one breath, as the three fundamental pillars of the State.’ But that ‘religion and morality fell from the status of intrinsic values, and became nothing more than a means towards the goal of a State animated by virtú. For Machiavelli, Divine Law serves only as a form of populace control with natural and human law disregarded.
      Machiavelli’s understanding of law can be condensed into a theory of power; a theory that states that man by nature cannot be trusted, man by nature seeks power and personal profit and, therefore, man’s desire for power renders war inevitable. Power is limited and rarely given, so in many cases it will be seized as ‘men either seek to ‘subjugate’ a state or attacks for fear of being subjugated by it.’ It is also clear, that Machiavelli envisages no mutual profit with others. Every prince (and therefore, State) stands alone. Meinecke describes Machiavelli’s insight to raison d’état as thus:
Against the obscure and not particularly attractive background of his own naive and unscrupulous egoism, there came into being the new and masterly reflections on the relation between republic and monarchy, and about a new national mission of monarchy; it was in a context of all this that the whole essence of raison d’état, compounded of mingled ingredients both pure and unpure, both lofty and hateful, achieved a ruthless expression.
Machiavelli had started a new trend.

So Machiavelli shook up the religious establishment by separating out statecraft from religious values. What was good for the state needn’t be the same this as that which is good (according to the Bible). If anything will tar your reputation, it’s a flexible attitude to the great sky pixie of the Florantine 1500s!

What about the negative view of the nature of man? Well I’d argue that Machiavelli is simply being realistic (his work is littered with historical references supporting his ideas after all). My essay stated that when considering ‘How cities or principalities which lived under their own laws should be administered after being conquered’ Machiavelli concludes that the more sensible solution is to destroy the people or live in the conquered city or principality. Machiavelli makes no moral judgement, instead choosing the most true (but not morally repulsive) solution.

My general frustration with ideology is that it focuses on what ought to be rather than what is. Humanity is incredibly fond of saying what ought to happen or what our leaders ought to be like and too often takes the path of avoiding confronting what is often harsh reality. I’ve lost track of the number of conversations I’ve had with people that vote Labour rather than Tory for reasons that generally boil down to the fact that Labour are nice and Tory’s are heartless. Such is the criticism for Machiavelli. For having the audacity to recognise our feelings about power and the affect that power has on us, Machiavelli casts himself into the heartless camp. It becomes irrelevant that his advice is rational and sound, the focus of the sensitive is that his writing doesn’t opiate them in the way that the work of cosy woolly thinkers does.

It was with only a hint of humour that I feigned innocence and said ‘are you suggesting that The Prince isn’t a management guide?’ to the boyfriend this week. Re-reading it has struck me once again what a useful little book it is. I’ve found numerous pieces of sensible, practical advice and so below are a few of my favourite quotes in the hope that you will read (or re-read) The Prince. For anyone interested in the essay, I’ll publish it here shortly.

1. Being on the spot, one can detect trouble at the start and deal with it immediately; if one is absent, it is discerned only when it has grown serious, and then it is too late.

2. One must never allow disorder to continue so as to escape a war. Anyhow one does not escape: the war is merely postponed to one’s disadvantage.

3. It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution.

4. The first way to lose your state is to neglect the art of war.

5. He [the prince] should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how. You must realise this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate. As I said above, he should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary.

6. A prince must... never lack advice. But he must take it when he wants to, not when others want him to; indeed, he must discourage everyone from tendering advice about anything unless it is asked for.

* The Discourses is a fantastic tract but in the name of realism of expectation I’ll limit my recommendation of Machiavelli’s work in this instance to The Prince.

** Although a few quotes of mine made it into a recent article of The Forester regarding Dennis Potter’s play, Blue Remembered Hills.
When I started my current job, I swore I was going to bring far less work home with me. I realised that it was rarely productive to cut into my personal time and space and that proper time away from work was necessary to be at my best at work. To date I’ve stuck to this fairly well but work has a way of creeping into your home life. There’s the really irritating fact that I wake up worrying about things like never before; what I get from not reading the small print of my pay rise as I moved into management. Upon consultation this evening I see it reads that I’m < insert believable percentage – for most of you this will be a figure ending in a seven > more likely to develop an ulcer. Whether this is in my mouth or my stomach presumably links to whether I take the therapy or drink, drugs, rock and roll package.

Actually while I’m on small print, never use Zurich for your insurance! They represent the BMW driver who had a flexible attitude to speed, distance and use of brakes and are arguing over the value of my car that was written off. The value is fairly small and the cost of my rental car is fairly high. Essentially they wish to pay Accident Exchange for the foreseeable future rather than pay the true value of my car as opposed to the lowest possible valuation. My guess is that they have already paid out more than the entire value of the car in car hire costs. The daft thing is that I’m not being unrealistic, can prove the value of my car and am confident I’ll get the money ultimately. Have you seen their advert with the little blue bubbles saying ‘we help here’? Well they don’t refer to their customers; they actually refer to the cost of bureaucracy and highlight the many places where they waste people’s time and money. Just so you know.

Anyway, I’m finding that my job is encroaching on my life. The boyfriend helped with a few suggestions and I now have more of a coming home routine. Getting changed and brushing my hair helps some. On Tuesday I did two hours of intensive gardening (tree chopping) which exhausted me enough to sleep properly. But most nights I wake at least once and I’m not sure why. I’m noted for being a stress head but I’ve never lost sleep before.

Perhaps the strangest change has been the struggle to turn off manager mode. The boyfriend has been irritating me recently. When I get tired I get grumpy. Actually, he does as well although it’s not really worthy of note as he’s a generally pretty grumpy person... but what is different is that he slows down. I rarely slow down. I got up off the sofa the other night in order to clean the kitchen tiles. My rest and relaxation is blogging. So when my whirlwind of exhausted energy meets his sloth on valium mentality, I get quite annoyed. I know I’m lucky that he’ll empty the bin when I ask, lay the table when I ask, put the bucket he keeps stepping over because it’s in his way into the garage when I ask but it’d be nice if he just did these things because I don’t remember signing up to being responsible for running the house when we moved in together. That’ll be the small print again.

The subtext of our lives isn’t all bad of course. Just as the boyfriend comes with cups of tea brought to me in bed (most days), an apparent willingness to use price comparison sites for our electricity etc and doing the supermarket order online (I went to Sainsburys the other night and it was just bewildering, why do people still go to those places?), my job brings me challenges and opportunities. That isn’t putting a gloss on the situation either, last night I actually requested a high five from the boyfriend on the basis of how much I love my job. It’s just about striking a balance.

I’m not sure where that balance lies however. I’ll ponder on it as I do some work that I (physically) brought home with me tonight...