I rushed home to share my topiary gossip

By Caroline Crampton,

Published on Jan 2, 2022   —   6 min read


I cannot remember ever watching for the advent of spring so avidly as I have this year. Every dry day, every flash of colour as a crocus pokes out from the sodden grass, every extra minute of daylight past 4pm has detonated a small, juicy bloom of serotonin in my dehydrated brain. On Monday, when I woke up to a perfectly blue sky traversed by small, fluffy white clouds I wanted to cry with joy.

I’m usually someone who revels in autumn and winter, in windy wet days when I can legitimately curl up by the fire with a book. But of course there is a difference between not wanting to go out in bad weather and not being allowed to really go anywhere – the removal of the choice is what chafes.

Having become so intensely local, the incremental changes of the seasons are that much more noticeable too. In the absence of any other events to discuss, my husband and I have taken to updating each other in detail on the antics of the fox family who live in the park and the never-ending repair work on a nearby municipal fountain. On the day that the village gardeners clipped the hedges, I rushed home from an otherwise extremely dull walk to share my topiary gossip.

Even though the pandemic restrictions aren’t going to change where I live for another month, at least, it feels like the warmer weather gives me back some of my old life. With no need to pile on layers and laboriously lace up outdoor shoes, I can more easily pop out for a quick stroll when I need some fresh air. There is no longer a narrow window of about six hours when it is light enough to make being outside feel beneficial. And of course, if the weather is better it means that time is actually passing, no matter what my brain might think.

I’m so annoyed to discover that the morning people of this world have been right all along. After weeks of sleeping badly and failing to do any meaningful work before midday, I finally summoned the willpower from somewhere to charge my phone at night in another room and try going to sleep before 2am. Having internally sneered at the concept of “sleep hygiene” for ages, I expected nothing to change.

Imagine my frustrated chagrin, then, when I slept deeply for eight hours at a time several nights in a row and started waking naturally at 7am. I even went running before 8am on two separate occasions! I don’t mind admitting that I was wrong about blue light being a real thing, but I am reluctant to acknowledge that my mother — who has never, as far as I’m aware, stayed in bed past 7.30am in her life — was right about the knock on effect of my lying-in habits.

I was supposed to publish a new episode of my podcast, Shedunnit, on Wednesday, but a few days ahead of my deadline to send the final script and recordings to my editor I had to face the realisation that there just weren’t enough waking hours left to get it done properly. I spent an afternoon agonising over what I could do about this before finally accepting that I needed to take a pause. My capacity for pulling allnighters while still working full days is limited at the moment, and since this was an episode with multiple interviewees who don’t all speak English as their first language, it required more time than I could give it if I was going to both do it well and stick to the original schedule.

Believe it or not, making this decision to skip an episode — I reran a classic from the archive instead like I’m This American Life or something — represents serious progress from me. I can’t count the number of times I’ve worked all night to keep putting out this show every other Wednesday, and accepting that this isn’t sustainable is a new kind of self awareness.

I’ve always been a big advocate of consistency for regularly-publishing podcasts. People sometimes ask me for advice on what the best day of the week is to put out new episodes, and my answer is always “the same day you did it last week/fortnight/month”. Even in the age of binge listening and full series drops, I still think there’s value in building up the trust with your audience that will hear from you when you said you’d be there. I’ve certainly found that there is a marked dip in listenership if I publish 24 hours later than usual without announcing the delay ahead of time.

But consistency isn’t everything. Faced with the choice between putting out a mediocre episode on time or a good one a fortnight later, in this instance I chose the latter. I hope listeners eventually think it was worth the wait.

I got several delightful messages from people who took my advice in last week’s newsletter and made the Claudia Roden cake that requires you to boil and then blend entire oranges. I enjoyed seeing pictures of your bakes enormously, so I think we’ll have a recipe corner for the second edition in a row.

This time, I want to suggest that you try making Sohla El-Waylly’s Pizza Party Strata. I’m afraid I don’t have a photograph of mine to share because we scoffed it too quickly (full disclosure, this wasn’t my first time making it this week; I like it so much that it’s already entered our weeknight rotation) but you can watch a video of her making it here.

“Strata” is a word that El-Waylly coined by combining “frittata” and “stuffing”, and that is pretty much what this dish is: a mash up of a frittata and that American-style stuffing that is made by pouring an egg mixture over bread croutons and baking it. You can really make it with any combination of flavours that you like, but this one is designed to mimic pizza.

I don’t think there’s anything revelatory about the flavours here — cheese, tomato, bread, egg, what’s not to like — nor is it an exciting technique like the blend-an-orange-to-make-cake situation. It’s really a dump and bake recipe. The thrill here is in the texture. Even though it is full of bread and cheese and egg, there is something oddly light and fluffy about this dish, especially if you follow her instructions and use properly stale or dehydrated bread to make it. It’s almost like a soufflé. Unlike real pizza, you can eat a lot of this and not need to lie down in a carb coma afterwards. Ideal.

There was a great edition of Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter The Imperfectionist this week about the so called “provisional life”. This section sums it up nicely:

Allow yourself to imagine what it might feel like to know you’d never fully get on top of your work, never become a really disciplined exerciser or healthy eater, never resolve the personal issue you feel defines your life’s troubles. What if I’ll always feel behind with my email? What if listening attentively to other people will always take the weird amount of effort it seems to take now? What if that annoying thing my partner does annoys me to the end of my days?

I still feel the pull of this thought pattern occasionally, the idea that there is an ideal state of me just out of reach that if I work hard enough I will attain. I’m not nearly so prone to this as I used to be, though, because I was mostly cured of expecting things to magically change for me by a series of coincidental political events that happened roughly bewteen 2013 and 2017. I was an editor at a British current affairs magazine during this time, and one year after another things beyond my control happened that just kept ratcheting up my workload and stress level.

First Scotland had a bitter independent campaign and referendum in 2013/4, then we had a UK general election, then there was the Brexit referendum, and then another general election. Every time, I felt sure that the degradation in my enjoyment of work was temporary, that things would revert to some kind of manageable “normal” once the short term stress abated. But it never did: each time, the heightened level of work became the new expectation even after the election results were in, and when the next incident came along, everything just stepped up again.

Eventually, I had to confront the fact that there was no rewind button and my job had changed into something else even while I was doing it. If it wasn’t suiting me anymore, then I had to do something about that myself, rather than forlornly and passively waiting for that idealised state of… 2011? 2012? to return. I’m not sure what point exactly I wanted to go back go, but I think Barack Obama was president and tweets were still mostly appearing in my timeline chronologically. Halcyon days.

There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: receive my daily podcast recommendations from The Listener, read me weekly in The Browser, listen to my fortnightly podcast Shedunnit, or follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

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