All the Fun of the Fayre… plus Cherry Brandy!

Friday… This will definitely be the briefest blog I’ve ever written for which I apologise, but this week has been crazy busy and there simply hasn’t been the time to write anything in-depth. I’ve spent all day on a stall at the Bury St Edmunds Fayre, and as you can imagine, I’m now so tired I’m struggling to type. Tomorrow I shall be on the stall again from 10am to 5pm so will be even more tired. Add to that the fact I have to turn out at 9.30pm tonight to go and collect Miss F from work and you’ll begin to see why blog writing has had to take a bit of a backseat this week.

As you know, this week it’s the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre, and I and four other local authors had a stall together on which to sell our books and associated merchandise. The third biggest Christmas market in the country, the town is always packed to capacity with locals and tourists alike and we were hoping that maybe a few of them would like to buy a wonderful personally signed paperback.

Preparing for the Fayre has taken every spare moment – plus quite a few that weren’t spare – and I even had beautiful bespoke scented candles made to complement my books in the hope of tempting a few more sales. Originally, we were going to have a stall in the lobby of the local Guildhall, so we’d be nice and prominent when people walked in. However, there were some issues with the placement of our stall and so we ended up in the Guildhall café.

Now first thought is that this would be a good thing, a captive audience of people desperate for tea, cake and a chance to sit down, but because the café is tucked away at the back of the building across a courtyard, it meant that only the truly dedicated seeker of cake found us, and then they were more interested in the cake than books by local authors.

The weather didn’t help, a persistently wet and cold day, it may have put people off coming to the Fayre altogether and as the morning ticked by with barely any browsers let alone sales, we all began to despair. We had a brief flurry of people at lunchtime and a few elusive sales ensued, but not the amount we’d all hoped for. Still, these things are a learning curve and it was wonderful being with the others. A great group of very talented authors, it is such a relief to be able to talk books to someone with no fear of boring them and having them on the stall as well made the hours fly by. It’s really no fun doing these sorts of thing alone, as I know from numerous car boot sales in the past.

The temptation of the gorgeous looking home baked goods on offer in the café eventually proved too much for my rumbling stomach, and I treated myself to a hot chocolate and a sausage roll the size of my head. It was very good and much appreciated.

The afternoon wore on and we spoke to a few more people. I sold another couple of copies of The Forest and one of Eclairs for Tea. Most people were buying for themselves, although I did gift wrap a copy of The Forest that a young lady had bought as a Christmas present for her brother.

But I won’t lie to you. Friday wasn’t great. The people who came into the café were, in general, elderly, wet and grumpy. They just wanted a cup of tea, a sit down and a piece of cake. They weren’t particularly interested in writers, local or otherwise, or even books in general.

By the end of the day we were all tired and a little dispirited, and then the administrator informed us that our stall would have to be moved again. To an even less salubrious location. Under the stairs in the back corridor leading to the café courtyard. We went to investigate. It was freezing cold there by the back door. It was cramped and inconvenient. If anybody did risk catching pneumonia by stopping to talk to us, they’d be trampled on by all the other people pushing to get by. Finally, it was right by the toilets. Not nice.

Negotiations commenced. A compromise was reached, and our stall was moved, but only to a different side of the café. As soon as the last straggler had gone at 5pm, we set to and relocated ourselves a few feet over and tried to put our stall back to rights,

Making my way home at almost 6.30pm, I was so exhausted it was like I’d forgotten how to walk, and I reeled about like a drunk at kicking out time. Turning into my street, I was alarmed to see my front window lit up like Blackpool illuminations. I knew Miss F would be at work and wouldn’t have gone out and left the lounge light on, so I hurried down the road. It was a weird light, sort of harsh and blue. Letting myself in, I discovered Harry the Tortoise had had a bit of an accident.

I’d better explain, we’re babysitting a friend’s tortoise just while she moves. Harry had seemed amiable enough, sitting in his cardboard box and munching on lettuce, and I’d been reassured that as tortoises were not known for their athleticism, he’d be fine and dandy in there until she came to pick him up that evening. But he’d obviously got a bit bored and decided to explore, because when I went in, he’d manage to half knock the box onto its side. This had knocked over his heat lamp, so the bulb was practically on his head. His water bowl had gone over, so everything was wet, and poor Harry himself was scrabbling pathetically at the sides of the box, stuck in the corner, unable to move and getting more of a tan than he’d bargained for.

I sorted him out, fed my screaming cat, then realised I’d forgotten that I’d stripped the beds off in a mad flurry of energy in the morning so they both still had to be made. I wasn’t hungry although I knew I should be. I hadn’t really eaten anything other than that sausage roll, but as we were packing up, a plate of freebie cheese and veggie pastries came around for free, so I ended up cramming one down my throat as we were re-arranging the stall and sadly it wasn’t sitting too well, if you know what I mean.

So now I’m trying to stay awake because at 9.30pm I have to put my shoes and coat back on and drive the thirty minutes to pick Miss F up from her part-time job waitressing at a pub in one of the villages. I don’t feel particularly safe to drive, but I expect the freezing cold night will wake me up.

Saturday… I didn’t sleep particularly well – stress insomnia is a thing – so was back up by 6am trying to sort out everything that needed to be done before I went back to the Fayre for 9am. I’d had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a better way to make our stall more reader browser friendly so needed to quickly make new signs, but, the best laid plans of mice and Julia are all filed away somewhere, so of course, that was the time the printer decided to have a meltdown. Much panicking and calling upon the IT Department (aka Miss F) ensued and a stressful twenty minutes later – during which time a grumpy teenager gave me a lecture on not repeatedly pressing buttons when something doesn’t work – it finally spat out my two signs and I hurriedly snatched them up and ran to the Guildhall.

We rearranged our stall so that people could have a chance to browse the books without being intimated by a “panel” of five authors all staring at them, desperation oozing from every pore, and braced ourselves for whatever the day would bring. And to our delight it brought people. Well, more people than the day before, and a more assorted age range. We had some lovely chats with avid readers, sold a few books and generally felt much happier with life.

I gift wrapped a few of the books purchased, so had a chance to show off my prowess with decorated cellophane, curling ribbon and fake holly, and I resisted the temptation to have another sausage roll. The one I’d had the day before and the ill-fated pasty having more than filled my pastry quota for the week. People came in waves, mid-morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon being the busiest, and everyone seemed very happy to have found such a calm little oasis to escape to from the madness of the Fayre.

In the afternoon we were informed that if we wanted to we could move to our original spot by the front door, so we went to investigate it thoroughly, but after much intense debate decided the advantages of being by the front door were outweighed by the disadvantages of being crushed for space, in the way of access into the rest of the building and also the thought of having to move the stall again was just too daunting, so, we decided to stay where we were.

At the end of the day I’d almost sold out completely of The Forest, and I’d sold about half my stock of Becoming Lili. Eclairs for Tea and Chaining Daisy hadn’t sold so well, but it’s almost impossible to predict what will and won’t sell. I’m at work on Sunday so am leaving what books I have left on the stall as the other authors have kindly offered to try and sell them for me.

The candles didn’t fare as well, and I sold hardly any. Maybe people were just unable to make that connection between books and candles, which is a shame, because they are lovely and smell divine. They were made for me by the lovely Maria at Casa Angelica and the four different scents match the four books. Lili – floral, fresh and youthful. Daisy – still floral but a deeper, more sophisticated scent. The Forest – earthy with a touch of spice and smoke. Eclairs for Tea – Christmas red with cloves and cinnamon. If you have any candle needs then why not check out her website.

When the Guildhall closed, we tidied up and made sure everything was ready for the morning, then I and another of the authors, Rachel Churcher, decided to go for an early dinner and a much needed glass of wine – but just the one for me, because I had to turn out again at 9.30 to pick up Miss F from work, of course. It’s now coming up to midnight and I’m beyond tiredness so I’m going to stop now and will hopefully have a chance to write a bit more in the morning before heading off to work.

Sunday morning… awake at 5:30am and painfully aware of all I have to get done before leaving for work at 9:30am, I’m up and clutching a mug of strong tea as I try to finish this blog. I’ve suddenly remembered that I have 4lbs of cherries sitting in the fridge waiting to be turned into Christmas Cherry Brandy, and if I don’t want to have to throw them away – and I don’t – then I need to make that now! So, I thought I’d share with you my easy peasy lemon squeezy recipe for perfect Cherry Brandy to impress your friends and family with this Christmas.

Blake’s Easy Cherry Brandy

To make, you will need – 2 bottles of brandy (not the most expensive, but not the cheapest either). White sugar. 4lbs of cherries (I’m using Morello cherries from the tree in my garden but you can use any sort). Two extra wine bottles with screw top lids. A funnel. A large jug.

Pour the brandy into the jug, then divide the cherries evenly between the four bottles.

Using the funnel, slowly pour sugar into each of the four bottles. This isn’t an exact science, but you do need quite a lot, so up to roughly where you can see in the picture. It’s useful to have a skewer on hand to poke the sugar through the funnel when it gets stuck.

Carefully divide the brandy between the four bottles using the funnel. Screw on the lids really tightly, turn upside down and shake until the sugar that has settled on the bottom has shifted. It will look horrible at this point, but don’t worry.

Finally, stand the bottles in a warm place. An airing cupboard is perfect, failing that, by a radiator or on a sunny window sill. Shake them vigorously two or three times a day and a bit closer to Christmas I’ll tell you the next step. There, see, easy peasy.

And now it’s 8.30am and you’ll all be wondering where this week’s blog is. This is officially the closest I’ve ever pushed it to the wire and I apologise, but I think you’ll all understand why.

And now I must go, I’ve suddenly remembered I need to quickly iron Miss F’s work shirt – yes, I know, she should iron it herself but she’s absolutely exhausted after two very long shifts and will be working another nine hours today, so I’ll do it for her this once. And yes, I know, I work far longer hours, most of it unpaid and unappreciated, but hey ho, that’s the lot of a single mum.

Take care of yourselves and I hope you have a good week. I look forward to chatting next Sunday, and you never know, next week might not be so busy. What? Why are you laughing?

Julia Blake

The Goose is Getting Fat… Christmas Past & Present (or possibly no presents)

This week I’m going to be using the C word a lot. I apologise for using the C word and know that halfway through November it is still way too early to be using the C word, but, events have occurred that have left me with no choice but to think about and say the C word a lot. Christmas. Sorry, I know most of you don’t want to hear it yet, but there’s no escaping from it. Christmas is coming whether we like it or not.

I always think that nothing illustrates the law of diminishing returns better than Christmas. Think about it. When you’re a kid you do absolutely nothing to contribute towards Christmas – except throw a strop on Christmas Day because you got Barbie Princess, and not the Barbie Diamond Princess you actually wanted but your poor, harassed mother didn’t realise was completely different from plain, boring Barbie Princess. Or by helpfully puking your guts up with excitement on Christmas morning. Or by refusing to go to sleep until gone midnight on Christmas Eve, thus meaning your exhausted parents are falling asleep on the sofa they’re so tired, but can’t go to bed until after you’re well and truly down – well, they have to sneak into your room and quietly fill the stocking at the foot of your bed.

Tip to all new parents, start the tradition on the first Christmas of hanging up their stockings either downstairs or on the handle of their bedroom door – so much easier for sneaky Santa shenanigans. If they really insist on having the stocking in their bedroom, then buy two identical stockings. Hang one up in their room, the other one is hidden in your room already filled to the brim with their presents. Then the moment their little peepers are firmly closed, it’s a simple case of creeping in and doing a switch. You’re welcome. This has been a Public Service Announcement by Julia Blake.

Anyway, as I was saying, when you’re a kid you do NOTHING to help with Christmas, yet you get EVERYTHING. Christmas plays, parties, carol services, lunches and trips to Santa in his grotto to give him a list of your demands. Your excitement levels ratchet higher with every door you open on your chocolate stuffed advent calendar. You enjoy decorating the tree, without giving a thought to the poor parent who’s had to tramp around a muddy field picking the “perfect” tree, wrestle it into a car too small to take it, manhandle it into the house and into a suitable pot and then play the ever popular game of “will the lights work this year”? Even if your parents opted for a plastic tree, they’ve still had to climb into the loft to find it, risking life and limb crawling over a year’s worth of stuff that’s been shoved in front of the boxes of Christmas decorations.

As you get older, maybe you start to contribute a little more – you have to write the cards for your school friends, maybe mum makes you write cards to family members, perhaps you even have to help choose and wrap presents. As teenagers, yes, you do a little more, actually buying presents for your family and maybe helping a bit on Christmas day with food preparation and serving. But as kids grow, so the things on their wish list grow smaller and more expensive – iPhones, PlayStation games and money – being the most asked for teenage things.

Once you get beyond the teenage years then it’s all downhill, and as soon as you get a place of your own, Christmas begins to gobble down your money like an ever-hungry festive fledging. Suddenly, all the things that mum and dad bought and you always took for granted, you’ve got to buy for yourself – and you’re starting from scratch having to not only buy a tree, but all the ornaments, lights and other Christmassy bits and bobs to make your new nest a Noel ready retreat. Every Christmas since Miss F was born, I have bought her one beautiful tree ornament, so she now has fifteen plus a few others she’s acquired over the years. That means by the time she eventually leaves home, at least she’ll have enough to make a good show on her very first Christmas tree.

For a brief while, before kids come along, Christmas is still fun. But the moment you become a parent then that’s it, you’ve reached the bottom of the pile in that you do EVERYTHING to make Christmas happen and in return get NOTHING! Most women are sole co-ordinator and cook over the Christmas period. We’re the ones who make the present list, think of what to get for everyone, buy it, wrap it and usually arrange distribution of it. We’re the ones who plan menus and write endless shopping lists.

Going around the supermarket doing the big Christmas shop one year, I looked around at all the other women doing the same, frantically grasping their precious lists, muttering under their breath, eyes glazed with stress and exhaustion. A near fight broke out in aisle seven over the last packet of sage and onion premade stuffing balls. Husband’s – completely failing to understand the severity of not being able to find the right jar of caramelised red onion chutney to go on a cheese board everyone will be too full to eat – trailed miserably after their wives, and wondered just how much trouble they’d get into if they slipped away and went to the pub. And over it all, the strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” floated down from the store’s radio onto the heads of women who every year swear Christmas won’t be the stressful, exhausting, disappointing hot mess it always turns into, yet know with a sinking sense of inevitability, that it will be.

I think we’re all in love with an ideal image of Christmas that simply doesn’t exist. An image created and fed by films, TV shows and magazines, by the longing inside us all to have the perfect Christmas that sadly, most of us never have. The reality being a group of exhausted, stressed out, disappointed people being forced to sit in an overheated room together, exchanging gifts they don’t want, and having to fake gratitude at getting yet another scented candle and bath bomb set that smells like primary school toilets, and for him, deep joy, socks and a mini car maintenance kit.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Especially, why do us women do it to ourselves? I have a sneaking suspicion that if it were left to men, Christmas would comprise of a pie and a pint down the pub, then falling asleep in the armchair in front of the TV. It’s us women who make it such hard work. Before Miss F came along, I used to almost collapse from exhaustion and stress trying to make it the perfect Christmas. Hundreds of pounds spent on presents that all had to be wrapped just so, handmade Christmas crackers and individually wrapped beautiful and thoughtful little table presents for everyone to open before Christmas lunch. Handmade place settings. And enough food and drink purchased to keep a small, third world village going for a month.

Every year it was the same. Every year I’d vow not to do so much, to not spend so much, to not stress so much, but every year I’d get swept up in the Christmas tide and every year I’d run myself ragged. Every Christmas Eve, I’d finally sink into an armchair with a sigh of exhausted relief, glass of something festively alcoholic in hand, with everything done, every card written and delivered, every present perfectly wrapped, all the vegetables prepped for the next day and the house a shimmering, shining homage to Christmas, and then I’d feel it – the ominous, scratchy tickle in the back of my throat which by Christmas morning was a fully-fledged throat infection – every single year, I’d be ill for Christmas Day purely because of the amount of needless stress I’d put myself under.

Then my marriage fell apart and suddenly everything changed. I had neither the money, time, energy or inclination to make everything absolutely perfect. I had a small child, and obviously her needs came first, but children don’t care if the tag on their present is handmade and they don’t care if the paper is responsibly sourced, fully recyclable and handcrafted – all they care about is that there are presents, a big heap of plastic crap under the tree for them to rip apart in a feeding frenzy of excitement.

Gradually, over the years, I’ve looked for ways to make life just that little bit easier for myself – cut down on the amount of food bought. It’s a family of four you’re feeding, not the whole of the Welsh Rugby team – you don’t need a 20lb turkey, make do with a turkey crown, bought all ready to go in the oven pre-stuffed and wrapped in bacon and in its own handy baking tin. The busy woman’s friend, it’s considerably cheaper than buying a whole turkey, fits in the oven, cooks quicker, doesn’t tend to dry out so much and doesn’t leave you with a carcase to try and cope with on Christmas evening. Cut down on the veg. One Christmas dinner spent at my brother’s house, my then sister-in-law had prepared fifteen different vegetables! Fifteen! A truly ridiculous and unnecessary amount of extra work, fuss and worry. Buy the Christmas pudding ready-made. Trust me, no one will ever know the difference.

Don’t be a martyr. Delegate jobs. If you’re hosting Christmas dinner this year, then get all the family in the kitchen Christmas Eve on veggie prepping duty, open a bottle of wine, put on cheesy Christmas music, arrange funny guessing games to play whilst peeling the mountain of potatoes, Brussels sprouts and parsnips. If you can, lay the table days in advance. Don’t worry about a starter, trust me, the amount of food there is, no one is going to be getting a takeaway on the way home. Or if you simply must have a starter, have plates of beautiful bite size canapes to serve with Prosecco before dinner instead.

Above all, do everything you can to make life a little easier for yourself. After all, this is your Christmas as well. No one is going to be happy if you’re too ill to enjoy yourself because you insisted on being a martyr and doing it all yourself. Ask for help. Demand help if needs be. This is everyone’s Christmas, so EVERYONE should chip in. Many hands make light work is at no time as true as it is at Christmas.

This year, Miss F and I have taken the ultimate step, in that we are having a practically present free one. It has taken me almost a whole year to pay off what I spent on Christmas Day last year. Think about that. Eleven months to pay off one single day. Looked at in the cold light of day, it’s ridiculous and a bit obscene. So, we discussed it, and jointly decided no presents. After all, as Miss F rightly stated, that’s not what Christmas should be about. It should be about family and friends, being together, enjoying good food and spending a stress-free time away from work and life. For me, it’s even more important that Christmas is a relaxing time because working in retail means I only get three days off over Christmas. The 23rd, 24th and 25th.

For the past two years I’ve had to look at my watch all Christmas Day, thinking how I have to be at work by 9am the following morning – and trust me, that puts a real crimp on things. So, this year, we’re doing things a little differently. The 23rd will be our Christmas Eve, the 24th will be our Christmas Day and the 25th will be our Boxing Day. At first a bit sceptical how this would work, my family are now fully on board as things have slotted nicely into place. My brother will be spending proper Christmas Day with his girlfriend and her family but can spend the 24th with us. The village my parents live in have a beautiful “carols by candlelight” concert at the church every Christmas Eve at 6pm. Usually, we’re all too busy getting ready for Christmas Day to even think of attending, but this year we will have eaten Christmas dinner and be quite up for a stroll to the church for a bit of drunken carolling. Then on Christmas Day proper, I can relax and enjoy a completely stress-free day before plunging back into work and the madness of after Christmas sales. Oh, the joys of working in retail.

So that’s our Christmas sorted, and do you know, I have noticed immediately a difference between this year and last year. Not having to worry about what I’m buying for everyone and how I’m going to afford it has lifted an enormous weight off my shoulders.

It was the grand switching on of the Christmas lights in Bury St Edmunds this week – and I hope you’re liking all the photos, sorry they’re a bit blurry but I have a rubbish camera – I wasn’t able to go this year as I had to go to a college thing with Miss F, but it’s always well attended whatever the weather. And then of course, next week is the actual Christmas Fayre. The third biggest in the country, it is a massive event with practically the whole town closed off and busloads of tourists coming in from all four points of the compass. I remember last year, chatting to a couple of girls I was queuing for something with, they told me they’d travelled all the way up from Devon just to come to the Fayre for the day!

As I told you last week, myself and four other local authors are having a stall on which we will be selling our personally signed books. I am excited about it and also worried, I have invested quite a lot of money into this event – not only the cost of buying a good supply of my books to sell, I’ve also had lovely little scented candles made to match my books, I’m buying lots of gift wrap supplies to offer a free gift wrapping service and I’ve had to invest in a card reader as most people don’t carry cash with them, and the ability to take card payments should hopefully mean more people will buy my books. It’s just as well I’m not buying any Christmas presents this year! Fingers crossed my gamble pays off.

If there’s anyone local reading this (or perhaps you’re bussing in from the West Country), then why not pop in and say hello. We will be in The Guildhall down Guildhall Street from 10am to 5pm Friday and Saturday, then the others will be there 10am to 4pm on Sunday – sadly I have to work, so I won’t be there on the Sunday. It would be lovely to see you. I may even be wearing a Christmas jumper and if you’re looking for some unique and personalised gifts for Christmas then there will be a wonderful collection of books on offer, all personally signed by local authors, along with bookmarks and candles. Very importantly, there is also a café and toilet facilities in the Guildhall.

What do you think about Christmas? Are you an Elf or a Grinch? Do you love all things Christmassy or do you bah humbug at the whole shenanigans? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. As usual, you can comment here or contact me on Facebook or Instagram.

Finally, many of you have contacted me asking about Queenie Ant. Thank you, it’s so sweet of you all to be concerned. I am happy to report that we think she’s still alive as earlier in the week Miss F is convinced she saw one of her legs uncurl then curl back up again so we’re hopeful that come the Spring she will wake up and we’ll have lots of little ant babies running about all over the place. Imagine that.

Anyway, once again it has been great chatting with you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Take care.

Julia Blake