Friday, 3 December 2010

How've you been?

I really think we should be hibernating. Winter is not meant for working, but working's what I've been doing.
So I've missed a few Tuesdays. Not in the real world of course. Nope, I've been working.

We found that our house wasn't earthed, and I wanted to pay the wonderful electrician for all the work he did to deprive our home of its ability to kill us at any given time. I had to go out and earn that. Also I'd splashed out on stuff I needed to complete projects, like perfumery materials and wool (different projects, obviously, or maybe not), and to replace things that fell to bits like washing machines and socks. The result was that I had to give up my life-changing - and hibernating - time to earn my keep.

To be fair, when I go out to work I get to think, have ideas, write, or train other people to write better. It could be worse.I usually relish the chance to do a bit of writing training, but when some of those people are in the room against their will because they are unhappy with their jobs, running a workshop can be like six hours of swimming through mud. At the end I feel like I need to be plugged into a recharger for a week and a half.

So it made me think, after working for a couple of weeks with people who don't enjoy their work, how outstandingly lucky I am to have got to a place in life where I can do things I love - mostly. I've been a council gardener, worked in media planning at an ad agency, sold space in a newspaper (but not enough of it), played in bands, taught yoga and been paid for writing about handmade soap. It's led to a working life I enjoy: thinking, advising people on their businesses (and I really love that), having ideas, writing and teaching.

Today, I got a new book. It's called Job Hunting 3.0 and it's by Richard Maun, who I met at a little do for authors. I don't want a job, not exactly, but I do want to keep working freelance with nice people and it's got many a handy hint that will help me do the preparation for my meetings with them. (I went to one last week, and I was so out of practise, and so tired after the mud-swimming, that I was useless!) So in a roundabout kind of way, I'm recommending that if you don't like your job,you buy this book, study it and go find a new one that you do like. If you know people who don't like their jobs, get it for them for Christmas. That way, when I go out to run a writing workshop, I'll be more likely to meet people who really want to be there.

 I hope you're happy in your working life this week, that you've left a bit of space for diong something unusual, and that if you don't love what you do, you'll consider taking a leap in a positive direction. And now, I'm going to wrap myself in thick woollies and get back to my hibertation.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Two's Company, Three's a Team

Here's a theory about the creative process. It involves three different abilities. One person might have two or all three of them, or you might need several people for just one of the essential triad, but it goes like this:
1. Someone to have the idea.
2. Someone to turn the idea into a practical blueprint.
3. Someone who can follow the instructions and make it real.
If you just have ideas nothing happens. That's one of the reasons that you can't patent an idea. You get lots of people complaining that they thought of something first and now someone else is making money out of it. Tough. If you don't get parts two and three organised, your grand idea stays imaginary and someone else takes the credit.
If you can translate ideas into a plan, then you're on your way.
Then you've got to find someone with the practical skills to turn it into something that others can experience.
Artists do all three. Think of singer-songwriters or painters. Part one can be a creative team, or an individual, part two can be your reliable backroom support team: architects, pattern drawers; sketch artists. Part three could be a symphony orchestra or a building contractor or a team of embroiderers.
I realise that it's not the world's most earth-shattering creative endeavour, but I've been working on socks. I knew what they wanted to look like, knitted four pairs before I got them perfect and have now written down the pattern so that everyone else can knit them too, if they've got the part three knitting skills.
How does it work with you? Are you best at one part of the process? Are you looking for someone who can do the other bits? It's something to think about when you're making your ideas real.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Q&A: Changing minds with language

People don't like to complain. No-one wants to be thought of as someone who makes a fuss. For a few years now I've been suggesting to people that we shouldn't think about complaining, but to remind ourselves that we are reporting a problem. Organisations who hear about a problem should thank the people who let them know about it, go off and fix it and be grateful for the advice.
If you smell gas in the street, you call the emergency number and report the leak. The gas men come and fix it; it saves money - all that costly gas floating off into space - and it means that nearly buildings are less likely to ignite. Everyone wins. Imagine we called it "complaining about a gas leak" instead of "reporting a gas leak". People would no longer think if it as a public duty, but something they didn't want to do in case they were classed as moaners.

You can do that with language.

Think for a moment about NGOs, non-governmental organisations. Things like the Big Lottery Fund, the Sports Council, The New Economics Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Trust, organisations that get useful things done.

Then think about Qangos, those cash-frittering, unaccountable think-tanks that were the bane of late 20th Century life, which we thought had disappeared. No-one knows what they are or what they do. So if David Cameron wants to get rid of them, what could possibly be wrong with that? But why haven't we heard anything about them for 20 years?

David Cameron worked in PR; the man is self-winding spin doctor. He's taking NGOs, putting the Q&A back on the front and making the institutions that currently organise a lot of his Big Society sound as if they are wasting public money. A Qango is a Quasi-Autonomous Non-Govermental Organisation. He's trying to make NGOs sound useless by renaming them, taking an old term of abuse and applying it to justify cutting them to save taxes.

But quite a few of the ones he wants to get rid of don't use public money; some of them are profitable. The British Film Institute is one. The Heritage Lottery Fund is funded by - no prizes for guessing - the National Lottery, not taxes. Nope. Chinless porridge-faced Dave is cutting (qa)NGOs because they aren't run by exclusively by his mates. Look closely at his proposals, then be outraged. Then do something. Look up the NGOs that affect your own life in a good way. Think what would happen if they disappeared. Write to your MP.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Cut the Capitals. Do Good Things.

On days when you think the world is all falling to bits and no-one is trying to fix it, go to see Ted. Pick a lecture and watch it. Each of their speakers is extraordinarily bright, positive, interesting and reassuring, in that you find out that someone is indeed working on fixing the problems we think everyone has forgotten about.

Last week I watched Nic Marks' talk about the Happy Planet Index, and as a result I joined his organisation, the New Economics Foundation, "economics as if people and the planet mattered". One of their suggestions is that in order to measure a country's success we ought not to look at growth or how rich everyone is, we ought to measure how happy the people are, measured against ecological sustainability. Using the HPI, Africa and the USA come out terribly. Latin America is miles ahead of the rest of the world. (Costa Rica wins.) Go visit and find out.

Coincidentally, I met a friend of mine last week at a do and found out that she works not far from me now, in the CSR department of a big multinational company.
"Let's get together one lunchtime," I said, and her brows furled.
"One evening?" I said.
"That would be better, because we don't really do lunchtimes," she said.

Now 'scuse me, but CSR stands for corporate social responsibility. I've long had a thing about CSR. I think that as soon as you reduce it to an abbreviation, and give it to a department to take care of, then it stops being a real responsibility for the company, and becomes the small place where you get to spend your tax deductible charity budget and make your organisation look as if it's behaving ethically. I was at a fundraising lunch given by Breast Cancer Care one day, expressed this view to the woman sitting next to me (from a huge UK retailer) and got a wry smile.
"Don't tell me! You work in the CSR department," I said.
"Yes, she said, "But I agree with you."

So what we end up with is a slight nod in the direction of doing some good things - because that's what corporate social responsibility is supposed to be about - while the rest of the organisation goes about the daily business of making masses of cash for the shareholders which, according to the New Economics Foundation's research, is pretty much guaranteed to make everyone concerned less happy sooner or later.

We know that volunteering makes people happy, and yet big organisations with their relatively large CSR budgets don't want happy staff; they want profitable staff. They're content to give money to charities so that someone else can do their social responsibility for them, but they still treat their own people like caged hamsters.

Let's dump the abbreviation, and even the silly name: corporate social responsibility. That only got invented so that it sat nicely on the agenda with financial reporting structures or management information systems or customer relationship marketing. Call it doing good things. Then do some. Start by giving your own staff enough time to take a walk, read a book and eat their lunch somewhere away from their own desks.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Hot Air, on the inside

I don't like putting the heating on. I like it when it warms the house up, of course, but I don't like to think that I'm spending money or using up the world's piffling gas resource, so I had an idea.
It's not a new idea, it's a recycled one. This is a good thing.
If you'd like to know the whole story, and get the instructions, then you go visit 4160Tuesdays' sister blog at
The long and the short of it (and the thick of it) is that if you take all the spare yarn you can get your hands on, and a huge pair of needles, you can create a piece of clothing that's 5 degrees warmer on the inside than the out. Use your body to generate your own little micro-heating plant, and turn the heating down. I finished this one earlier this week. It's time the British got back into the habit of saying. "It's a bit chilly, I'll put another layer on," instead of heading off to the thermostat, don't you think?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Here's another plinker for you

This woman completely misses the parking space and plinks herself down on the hatched area which Waitrose have put there so people with children can easily open the doors and get the little baskets out. (That's not me being rude about children, I mean those things that people carry babies about in.)

And, you'll never guess, she parked- badly -  in the parents and children area and SHE DIDN'T EVEN HAVE ANY CHILDREN WITH HER! Karma points to Waitrose for the disabled spaces and the parents spaces. Minus karma point for the owner of RE08 ONP.

Spread the word and maybe next week there won't be any plinkers to photograph. If they know we're watching, pointing fingers and laughing at them, perhaps they'll stop. That solved, we'll move on to the larger problems.

Don't do this

This Tuesday's comment on doing something different is very specific. Don't park like a complete arse. Here is the second in a series of "People who Park Like Complete Ejits, in Ealing Waitrose Carpark".

Now this one wasn't illegal or putting anyone's life at risk, just being a selfish plinker. It made life tricky for me and my little Clio (on the left). But if they park like this, do they also lob their fag ends in the street thinking that they'll magically disappear into nothingness, then wonder why the street looks a bit untidy?

Observing what's going on around you, taking responsibility for your actions, being kind and considerate to your fellow man (and Waitrose shoppers), these are things which make people happy. They make the doers happy as well as the done by; they add to the quality of our life in just a little way.
When I find myelf getting miffed at something so small, I remind myself that I'm not being shot at and I've got running water. Life's pretty good when you can afford to shop at Waitrose, unlike 99.9% of the world's population. Life's good for the owner of FL53 SYC too. So why not appreciate it, show that you are glad to be alive and share your good fortune by not being such an arse?

Selfishness is infectious. If other people do it, and get away with it, then it starts to look like it's acceptable. It's not. Be kind; that's infectious too. Start by parking in a straight line and maybe it'll spread to not shooting people on the other side of the planet. Or the other side of London.

Monday, 30 August 2010

The walk to work, sometimes.

My modernist tube station forecourt
Tomorrow's Tuesday, back to work after an extra long weekend for the English, at least. Not the Scots. (Don't know about the rest of you.) I'm fortunate that I have a variety of different streets I can walk down that all bring me home from the tube station without sending me a long way around. Many gardens to observe, flowers to make me smile, bodged porch conversions to make me frown.
But sometimes, I take a long way around just to see what's there. Why should we get home the fastest way possible? Why not stick in a few more steps just to see what happens?
When I'm in central London, particularly in the City, which still has a load of interesting little alleyways that it's easy to dash past, I sometimes stray along a route I've not explored before. Sometimes, when I know it's faster to get the tube, I get the bus instead, just so I can see what's out there.
Doing everything as quickly as we can doesn't necessarily lead to the most rewarding of lives. The pursuit of success, as defined by the usual Western guidelines: big stuff, muscular legs and more money, is turning out to be a bit of a let-down.
This Tuesday, even if it's raining, take a walk and notice something that's never caught your eye before. Wonder how it got there. Come back here and write about it.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Free Fruit (Year 2)

The darned blog has cut the edge off the recipe. I'll stick it on Twitpic.

So off we trotted, back down to the Grand Union Canal, the bit that runs through Hanwell. This year there were even fewer fruit pickers but more rabbits. So far we've processed about 10kg of blackberries. (They are called brambles in the north, but I realised that southerners had no clue what I was talking about when I called them that; we northerners are bilingual and also speak southern, owing to there being a lot of it on television.) We went back thre weeks later and added around 4kg of apples and another 12kg of damsons.

That picture, that's what you do with them. It's a recipe from my Auntie Dolly's 1930s cookery and household management book. When your relatives are poor, and all you inherit is one book, then you treasure it a bit more than if you get a whole houseful of stuff to sort out . Possibly. Anyway, it's really useful for doing retro things like preserving damsons.

Today, I picked 700g of quinces off the shrub in the front garden. They are just cooling downstairs after a good stewing. Next I'll shove them through a sieve to make a puree, and I might eat it like that with yoghurt, or possibly add a bit of sugar. They are scarily tart. I bet loads of you have a quince bush in the garden; they get bright orangey red flowers in spring, have evil thorns and make little yellow knobbly fruit about 5cm in diameter.

Back to the damsons. I did the damson cheese with them! It's currently sitting in little Pyrex pots in the kitchen. It's dead tasty with real cheese, and my claim is that it neutralises the cholesterol because of all the acids in it. I've been putting it on the Mini Baby Bels I bought to get myself a free spacehopper. (Act fast, they've got 15000 to give away, and all you need are the codes off two packs of 12 or four packs of six.)

By the way, the recipe recommends WAY too much sugar IMHO. I used as much as you can see in the picture and chose demarara because it gives the damsons a toasted caramelish taste. It still tastes pretty sweet; well, it does when you compare it with the fruit leathers that have none at all.

If you want the recipe for jam from page 473, just let me know.
Anyway, go get that fruit! It's all falling off trees and wasting.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Going on Your Holidays

One of the many great things about holidays is that you see places like this and think to yourself, "I could live there; that would be brilliant!" before you go home and decide that you're quite happy living where you already do. (It's in Granville old town, Normandy, built around 100 years ago.)

This year we set off in the little Renault Clio to Picardie and Normandy. We got the ferry, stayed at a fabulous little hotel right on the Somme estuary (Les Tourelles) opposite the bird sanctuary - those gulls can make a noise - then off down the autoroute to a farmhouse at the other end of Normandy to meet up with all 14 of the Randell family, complete with six children and teenagers. Here, we ate, drank, played an advanced form of tig called budge, swam, mopped the floor, had a quiz and went cycling down an old railway line on converted bogies. On the way back, we stayed in Honfleur and awarded ourselves a day out in Deauville and Trouville, places I've wanted to visit for as long as I've known they existed. Hercule Poirot has much to answer for.

I took masses of stuff to do: books to read, books to write, knitting kit, swimming stuff. I even packed four bottles of ink (Diamine in Lavender, Marine, Hope Pink and Vermillion, assuming that I would be writing so much that I'd need to fill up. I didn't.

I did finish a pair of socks though, and knitted matching scarves for the three girls' teddy bears. As seen here. (Patrick the Panda wasn't present for the modelling session.)

Anyway, I found that after twelve days of not having to worry about much except for remembering to drive on the right and wondering which ice cream to choose, the benefits of holiday time began to flow my way.
I've now got an ending for a book. I was struggling with it. I wanted something that wouldn't just wibble away into futility after spending all these months seeing if I could make the beginning and the middle interesting. Suffice to say that I'm quite content with it. Then I had an idea for the series, at least another six outline stories for the next few books. (Got to get a publisher for the first one yet, so let's not get too carried away. But that's not the point.)

Holidays are there to clear out all the rubbish from your head that builds up while you're working, to allow your adrenaline levels to fall. For the last several years, all my holidays have been spent worrying about all the work that was piling up for me when I got back. This time, now that I'm working at a reasonable, steady rate, I've had the most constructive break in ages. I did this by relaxing, apart from the occasional four hour drive in torrents of Norman rain, and giving myself time for all the thinking I'd already done to unravel itself into clarity. The lesson for me is that if I want to be a bit creative, I mustn't allow my work rate to get silly every again, so when I go away I'm looking forward to the life I'll come back to. That way, I can calm down and tick over nicely, then interesting ideas might happen all by themselves.

As for the ice creams, they included caramel with salter butter, violet, blackcurrant, dark chocolate sorbet, dark cherry sorbet, fromage frais and Deauvillaise: vanilla with chocolate chips and crystallised orange peel marinated in Grand Marnier. Oh yes.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Joy of Socks

I knit.

That's a sock, photographed on the seat of a French railway carriage attached to a small steam engire that goes around the Baie de la Somme, slowly, after half an hour of apparently aimless chuffing. This sock is now complete and I'm 15cm into knitting its friend. (Technical stuff for knitters: it's made with bamboo yarn that I got from in the US, a great place that sells ends of batches at low prices.)
I saw a great t-shirt advertised on Facebook this week that says "I knit so I don't kill anyone". Although I don't think I'm in danger of murdering my friends, family or colleagues, there are times when knitting definitely relieves the danger of going bonkers. Christmas, for example. Or while waiting for a small French steam engine to get itself going in the morning.

I often use my knitting time to think. If I've got to work out a way to finish a chapter, unravel a knotty problem or just calm down a bit, out come the needles. This week I've been teaching a little lad to knit. He has learning difficulties and I really didn't knink he would take to it. Usually he races around like a puppy on Mars Bars with his volume set on 11. Instead he's been sitting down next to me repeating our mantra:
"Through the stitch, round the back and through the needles, down down down and make the loop, you are the weakest link, goodbye!" (Knitters will understand.) If your hands are occupied with something constructive, it seems to quieten your mind. It works with me, and it seems to be working with him, although I can't leave him alone with it, or stitch slippage will occur and holes will appear.

If I costed in the time it takes to knit a pair of socks they would come out at around £1000 a pair, but that's one of the other reasons why we ought to do it. You appreciate your clothes when you've put that much effort into them. Just going to the shops and buying them, where's the satisfaction in that?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A chapter in a Word Cloud

Wordle: The first chapter of my novelI just found out about Wordle. So here, as a word cloud, is the first chapter of a book I've been writing. It's only on its first draft, and I think I'm going to have to take out rather a lot of those rathers, but the character does say "rather" rather a lot. Or maybe that's just me. Anyway, I thought it was rather attractive, so here it is.

Monday, 19 July 2010

My sort of summer festival

I've been thinking about how fortunate I am to live in London. (I'm practising counting my blessings because I've seen how miserable people become when they forget, and just spend their waking hours listing their complaints.)
Then again, when I think about how much stamp duty I had to pay just for moving from one end of Ealing to another, just to get my documents stamped by the land registery people, I darned well deserve to take advantage of all the excellent things that London casually chucks in my direction.

Last weekend we trotted off to Somerset House. Its huge courtyard is home to summer festivals, and we usually come here for a gig or two every year. It's extraordinary to think that someone once had the cash to build it as his town house. On Saturday the entertainment extended to us was Neil Hannon, The Divine Comedy, with his grand piano. He was wonderful, although I did prefer the last gig there with the whole band, where we was looking at us instead of the keyboard. This is a festival with no mud, where you can drink Pimm's and bump into three completely different pairs of friends, none of whom knew that the others were coming, then go home on the tube. Am I sounding a bit smug? Tough.
We share our home with tourists, terrorists and the Heathrow flight path. Once in a while it's nice to have something that feels like our own village fete. Besides, if you don't live here you can always buy the album.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

This one is just right

Jam, in Falmouth, is the perfect cafe. That's it on the left. The coffee is unbeatable, the ice creams are irresistible; the furnishings are reassuringly worn and scattily selected.
There's even a dog, an adolescent black labroador, who is quite stupidly friendly.
You can sit down, or stroll around listening to excellent music, flicking through the second hand CDs for sale, or browse the small but impressive selection of books.
Jam is one of the reasons I agree to take the 97 hour train journey from Paddington to Cornwall at least once a year, to teach on Univerity College Falmouth's professional writing course.
It's not really 97 hours, it just feels like it, especially when the air conditioning is set to Arctic and the buffet closes at Exeter so a small man with a calculator can count what's left. No, I have no idea why he can't just sell it instead. You'd have thought it would save some bother along the way, but never mind. Just remember to pack a picnic box.
It's a shame (for me) that Jam is 300 miles from my house, but maybe one day I'll have one like that within walking distance. In the meantime, I aim to recreate the Jam atmosphere in my front room. It's great for working, having ideas, jotting down lines of dialogue, reading books and generally reassuring yourself that life really is worth the bother.
Please do go there, and feel free to recommend your own favourites.

Monday, 31 May 2010

The Geordie Fish Van

Every week, a load of Geordie blokes fill a van full of fresh fish from Tynemouth quayside and drive down to Ealing first thing in the morning, sell it and drive all the way back again in a day. Finally, after years of them telling me, "I can't believe ye've not gorra freeza!" I got one, a free one from my friend Mark. So I bought a freezer pack of fish from the lads, enough to last three months at two meals a week.

We got to talking about growing veg as Alan stacked the shelves for me. I told him that I wanted the rest of the space for freezing raspberries from the garden to last me through winter. He could see the size of my garden (small) and he couldn't believe why I'd bother when I could get down the Asda and buy frozen ones.
"A lot of people in London grow their own vegetables, don't they!" said Alan the fish man incredulously. His question was, "Why make work when you don't have to?"

So I thought about it. It's the theory that time saving devices make your life better. Paving over your garden makes it easier to maintain. Driving to the shops is faster than walking. Using a food processor to mix your cupcakes makes it simpler. Buying cupcakes makes it even better. It's why Aunt Bessie's frozen mashed potato sells by the tonne from the freezer cabinets of British supermarkets. Why bother to grow your own potatoes, dig them up, wash them, boil them and mash them?

It's all very well for me, with no kids to feed, clothe, wash and supervise. There are probably millions of people who must bless Aunt Bessie, whoever she is or which ever corporation invented her brand identity, for charging several thousand percent on top of the price of a potato, in exchange for taking half an hour off the preparation time.

What's with the Londoners, some of the busiest people on the planet, the ones who've been measued walking 10% faster than anywhere else in the UK, trying to give themselves more work by cultivating vegetables in our own tiny plots? Well, it's a question of what we're saving the time and the labour for. So we can sit on the sofa and watch more television? So we can spend more time working? It's the myth that digging gardens, mowing lawns, peeling potatoes and making our own cupcakes is unfulfilling work. When really it's a lovely way to pass the time, and it keeps us a little bit fitter than we would otherwise be.

A raspeberry from my garden will always taste better than a frozen one from Asda, a plot of moss filled, clumpy grass will always look better than a paved back yard, and mashing your own home grown potatoes is better exercise than lifting weights at an overpriced, sweaty gym. Efficiency is not the way to a happy life.

This week, resist the ready meal. If you haven't grown your own, buy potatoes that still have mud on them (they are loads cheaper too), give them a scrub, boil them and mash them. (I like some salt, pepper, skimmed milk and benecol spread squashed into mine.) See how much better they taste. They go brilliantly with haddock driven all the way down from Tynemouth.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Finally: it's time to mention yoga

I've resisted this long, but it's time to share. For the last 14 years I've been practising yoga and I qualified to teach BKS Iyengar's method in 2003. It's not all soft and fluffy; passing the assessments was probably the hardest work I've done. Four years of practise before you're allowed on the training course, and at least two years to get through. The Iyengar approach is rigorous, and uses equipment to help all students do the extensions correctly, but all yoga is yoga. If you are going to do downward facing dog, it's the same in every class you do; it's just that some methods hold the postures for less time and aren't so fussy about whether or not you try your hardest to get it absolutely right. Some go straight from posture to another in a more flowing style. In Iyengar's method, teachers are expected to help students to correct mistakes. Once they're good, then they can flow.

Around the globe some yoga teachers do something a little bit different and name it after themselves, trademark it and see if they can earn a stack of cash. That's not particularly yogic, not according to Patanjali who wrote down the rules over 2000 years ago. (BKS Iyengar says he does Patanjali's hatha yoga, it's just that it's simpler to call it Iyengar so students know what to expect.)

What's yoga anyway? Bouncing about in lycra showing how bendy you are? The definition I like best is that yoga is the quietening of the mind to achieve stillness. Showing your muscles and standing on your head in public isn't yoga, it's just showing off. But if you do go to a class with a decent teacher, concentrate hard on doing your best and what each part of your body is up to (ignoring the others in the room) you'll come out feeling brilliant, with a calm head and a spring in your step.

That's why I'm recommending that you give it a try. It'll help you to think clearly, put things in perspective and keep your body parts functioning smoothly. Since I've practised yoga I've been able to concentrate better while I'm working and I've got rid of the lower back pain I always had from sitting at a desk. (Except the time Nick dreamed he was playing football and kneed me in the lumbar spine.) I've a long way to go before I quieten my mind enough to achieve stillness, but it happens more often than it used to, which was never.

Go here to find yourself a local class: If you're in Ealing, get in touch.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Tye Die For

Is it a brain scan? Is it an aura? No, it's my first go at tie dying a t-shirt since I was about seven years old (when I didn't tie the knots tight enough so the result was all a bit disappointing).
Yes, in answer to Alastair Creamer*'s queston on Wednesday evening, I am single handedly trying to bring back tie-dying as a fashion statement. My pink and lilac hoodie is a wonder to behold, in my eyes anyway.

So far, in my quest to do something different on a Tuesday, this one's been up there with the most satisfying, along with picking 14lb of plums and making fruit leathers (see earlier).
All it takes is two packets of Dylon washing machine dye (but choose your colours carefully my friends), 500g of salt dying session (29p for 750g at Tesco Metro is the cheapest I've found yet), a t-shirt, some string and a washing machine.

For t-shirts, I'm using Anvil 100% organic cotton from PAG. I bought the huge reel of hemp string from Newbury Street in Boston in 2002. I knew it could come in handy one day.


Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The wrong name

I picked up a brilliant little book this week, but I nearly walked right past it. It was only when I spotted in very small red letters "Mandy Wheeler", fellow 26 member and someone I knew years back when we made a radio programme for LBC, that I got a little bit interested.
And here's the problem. It's called "Tell an Outrageous Lie". I don't like to do that, so I couldn't see any need for a book that encouraged me.
Open it up, clarity follows.

This is a book full of ideas, to inspire you in your writing and thinking. It's to help you to explore situations you might not have thought of for yourself. In September I'm going to be running two creative writing workshops, just little ones, in a beautiful place called the Garden Studio. It's in Ealing, the Queen of the Suburbs. I'll be taking my copy of Tell an Outrageous Lie with me, and I'll recommend it to everyone who turns up.

You really have to see it to appreciate it, because it's a visual little beauty. Each phrase is matched with an illustration or a photograph to set its mood. But here's an example. If you're stuck for inspiration, half way through a story or a poem or a script or just a letter to your gran, open the book at a random page and you might find, "an abandoned handbag" or "when the dust settles".

It's so simple it seems obvious, like so many ace ideas. It's the kind of thing we think could all have written - but we didn't, did we, dammit? Have it handy for when your natural creative tank runs dry. It's like inspirational Opal Fruits. And you don't have to tell a lie if you don't want to.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Normal Service Resumes

Two things happened this week. We got the planes back over Ealing and the yoga email scam did another round. (Just so you know, I do teach yoga, qualified in 2003 in the Iyengar method, so that's how they find me). I'm posting this one from a man who claims to be called Paul Martin and claims to be Australian. See if you can spot where he goes wrong...
Scammers are doing their best to target people they think are going to be trusting and honest (but neglecting to recall that yoga teachers are working towards point 4) in his list...) Read on and please feel free to be slightly outraged at the audacity of these people.


I hope this email meets you in good health and spirits. I'm coming with My wife to the UK for a 2 weeks and 4 days holiday with 4 of my Bulgarian Friends.I m actually from Australia. As part of our Vacation Arrangement, we would need classes in yoga retreat. We are looking for a Yoga teacher/instructor who will assist us with some few excises steps as well as give us a fun choreography which both i and My friends will enjoy. Please let me have the types of Yoga you teach.

Date of Arrival: 26th OF June 2010
Date for Lessons:28th of June 2010 to 13th of July 2010.

We would need 2 to 3 hours of lessons ( 4 days a week) for 2 weeks.
Time of lessons:The morning class will be at 8am (tbc) and the evening class at
5.30pm (tbc).

I will send to you my credit card details for a deposit for you to hold the date for us. I hope you have a credit card facility? So confirm this and provide me with your

Your Full Name:..........
Contact address:.................
Phone/mobile number(s) :.............. .
Cost/deposit required...................

Please kindly confirm the reservation for the above dates so that we can process with the total cost of 2 weeks.

This goal is achieved by maintaining our natural condition of:
1) A body of optimum health and strength
2) Senses under total control
3) A mind well disciplined, clear and calm
4) An intellect as sharp as a razor
5) A will as strong and pliable as steel
6) A heart full of unconditional love & compassion
7) An ego as pure as crystal
8) A life filled with Supreme Peace and Joy.

Best Regards


Sunday, 11 April 2010

Beautiful Things

In 2007 I signed up for Cash in the Attic, even though I lived in a ground floor flat. It was on BBC1 again today, and will be repeated for ever and ever, I expect. I hadn't really thought it through at the time; it just seemed like a good idea to ring them up. Alastair commented that he thought I had more stuff than any other home he'd visited. (And that was after I'd done several days of tidying up.)

When friends come to visit our place, they often go completely quiet; it's because there's so much to look at. We have too many things, most of which - I hereby confess - are mine.

On 15th and 16th May we're having our own flea market. I can't be bothered to get up at 4 to be at a car boot fair at 5 ready for the gates opening at 6 and the shoppers turning up at 7. Hell, complete total hell. And it might rain.
These two particular bottles won't be for sale. They will stay on the bookshelf, just being gorgeous. The ink came from Scotland, via eBay. I love it for the art deco hand drawn design. The copper sulphate powder came from Avignon. I love it for the DANGEREUX label on the bottom.

So even though I am aiming to berid myself of 50% of my possessions this year, the ink and the copper sulphate will be staying. If you feel the need to surround yourself with stuff, at the very least make it stuff that you love. Keep it because it appeals to you, not because everyone else has one. To be surrounded by beautiful things - whether it's a view of the hills, or your back garden, paintings, ornaments, plants or pure nothingness - is a luxury that makes life worth the bother. Remembering to stop and look at them is entirely up to us. Seeing the beauty in unusual things (not everyone admires my bottle of copper sulphate) is one of the extra added bonuses that life throws in for nowt, but that we're sometimes too busy to collect.

If you're looking for something new to do this week, something free and new, switch on your beauty detectors. Photograph your spottings and share them. If you want to come to my flea market, get in touch. Or join in here:!/event.php?eid=105933532763277

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Ethical Business: How to do it right

I'm renting out my mother's house to two very lovely people. I've got my gas and electricity safety certificates, and was chasing about trying to get an Energy Performance Certificate done. Lots of people who qualified to do the surveys gave it up when houses stopped selling; it had been a huge new market, then suddenly it wasn't. Everyone I called had given up. West Boldon is the kind of place where everyone knows what everyone else is up to, so out of the interconnected Boldon blue, a friend of a friend recommended a man. Yesterday I rang him up and arranged for him to go in and sort it out.
This morning I got an email from him, and here it is.

Hello Sarah,

After our telephone conversation yesterday evening I thought that it sparked a memory and so I checked my records. In August 2008 I supplied an EPC to Colin Lilley for a Home Information Pack for 7 Rectory Green. In theory that EPC is still valid as EPC’s currently are valid for 10 years. Obviously any changes that may have been made to the property and its heating / insulation since then would make it inaccurate. I’ve attached a copy of the 2008 EPC for your information.

Please let me know if you would still like me to go ahead with supplying a new EPC.



Is it just me, or does that restore your faith in the world? Michael Moffatt could have gone ahead and charged me for a second certificate, but he didn't.
If you do happen to need an EPC, and you're somewhere in the Geordie part of England, look up Michael Moffatt, and if you can't find him, get in touch with me and I'll pass him on. He's made my day.

This week I also read defra's new guidelines for writing green claims in advertising and marketing copy. They've had to tell organisations not to write things like "Does not contain lead" when neither their own products nor their competitors' products do now or ever did contain lead. They've had to explain that is it not right to claim a 50% increase in organically produced ingredients, when the contents have only gone up from 4% to 6%. Mathematically, yes, it's correct. But that doesn't make it right, not when it misleads people into thinking it's a lot when it's not.

It was a pleasure to write for Lush, knowing that they didn't have anything to hide and that no-one would ask me to greenwash any of the statements we made. Generally, Lush is years ahead of guidelines and laws when it comes to their ethics.

It's a shame that the marketing departments of huge organisations think it's acceptable to pull the wool over their customers' eyes with their environmental claims, to see if they can dupe us into believing and buying without checking. Wouldn't it be good if they would change their business practices rather than trying to find ways of disguising them. Wouldn't it be lovely if they adopted Michael Moffatt's standards of business ethics; telling the truth and doing what's best for his customers, even if it means losing some trade.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Duty, deadines, determination and discipline

Deadlines. We deal with them all the time. They approach steadily, never by themselves, and we have to hit them before they crash and get us into trouble. I like to imagine them as like the little green aliens in Space Invaders games. The longer you leave them they faster they approach and the more they proliferate. When you've got someone chasing you, or a meeting report with a date and your initial written beside it, you know what you're dealing with. They want it by Friday, you aim to get it there on Thursday night (or if it's me, more likely Saturday morning because unless I'm given strict guidelines, 4a.m. still counts as Friday night).

What about the projects that don't have set deadlines, the ones you can put off for almost ever? How do you make sure that they ever get finished? At the risk of beginning to sound like a Victorian moralist, last time I wrote about duty and now I'm thinking about discipline.

Now I'm cutting myself loose from my biggest client to do my duty, I'm going to have to set my own goals, impose my own some deadlines then make sure that I want to hit them. We can use time management techniques to sort out which ones to do first, or to delegate or ditch entirely. We can get ourselves into good habits. We all have some of those: I wouldn't dream of going out without brushing my teeth or locking the door; I always recycle everything the council take; I even bring my plastic back from my holidays.

But to make things happen, you really have to want to make them happen. Without the determination, it all fades away. Finishing off books, for example, everything that you have on your "wouldn't it be nice..." list. How do we set and stick to our own deadlines when no-one is chasing us, or won't pay us if it doesn't get finished? Now that all my big projects are going to be like that for a year at least, can I be relied on to chase myself up? What's my incentive to keep shooting down the aliens?

It's not so much about the small stuff with me; I procrastinate on a grand scale. I take on to much big stuff, then stretch myself beyond any reasonable limit, filling my screen up with thumping aliens and buzzing about like a bluebottle trying to knock them all out before they invade. (And if you don't know what it's like to play Space Invaders, go here Or even if you do.) In the early 1980s, I did get quite good at Space Invaders, up to 14 screens. You do it by keeping a cool head and a sense of perspective and by wasting loads of time getting good at it. Probably a bad example of discipline.

It's a question of deciding what's important. Then getting on with it. I've got my list (see earlier topics) and I'll make myself a future mood board. (Of which more soon.) From May to July I've got to spend time clearing out old projects that I really will never finish, so that they don't weigh me down with guilt.

Talking of which, if you're anywhere near W13, put 15th May in your diary. I'm having a car boot sale, except in my own front room and just for nice people. I'll be making coffee.

Discipline. Yes. Let's impose a little and bring myself back to the point. From May 2010 to April 2011, the year I've given myself to get things done, I need to get things done. There's definitely going to be some room for slacking about faffing and fiddling, because it's in the faffing and fiddling times that you have your best ideas, as long as you've been taking the time to observe, contemplate, consider and plan. And talking of plans, I've got one, but I'll keep it flexible, because all the best plans should adapt to fit the circumstances.

As stated in many other places on paper and in the ether, I plan to have a building where I can run writing workshops and yoga classes and where people can come for a good creative think, and a decent coffee. So let's see how we get along, shall we?

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Duty: time for rehabilitation

Duty is underrated. It was pretty popular in the 19th Century, then it went out of favour while we were busy achieving our potential, pursuing our goals and getting in touch with our inner selfishness. As I find myself in a position where I have a bit of duty to do, I've decided that I might as well apreciate the opportunity rather than resent it. That's all very well but one problem with doing your duty is that it can turn out tobe a bit of a drain on your resources. Last year was bonkers. I spent half my life on the train to Sunderland, visiting my mother in hospital (after a series of falls) and rehabilitation homes (where she passed all her tests to show she could look after herself at home - but couldn't), then working with my sister to get her a place in a marvellous care home in York, organising the house move and working out what to do with the contents of an eight-roomed family house. The other half was spent on trains to Poole, down to Lush, the people to whom I've dedicated most of my work life since 1996. With no time in between to do anything but sleep, our house looks like it's been burgled by a gang of monkeys who failed to find the bananas despite looking everywhere.

So here I am, doing my best to be a hard-working creative sort, writing for a living and filling my spare time with suitably mind-expanding projects, then I discover that I've got an old person's life to take care of. No choice really. There's a pile of paperwork to do, the family home to tidy up and rent out, and a never ending list of apparently insignificant items to buy from mail order companies and have delivered to York, because if I don't, I get reminded at least once a week and several other people call me to explain that my mother has told them I've forgotten to buy her important items from mail order. (To be fair, I share this chore with my sister, who also gets the day to day duties.)

So now I've now got two lives to administer (when I'm already somewhat behind with the running of my own), I also discover that I can't fit in a job that regularly takes over evenings and weekends.

Children, start saving up now. When I was 23 I embarked upon a savings scheme; this means that in a couple of weeks time I can reclaim a small pile of cash that will buy me a year off (as long as I only spend money on food and bills). Yes, I ought to save it for when I'm 80 and I retire, but I might not last until then, and besides, I need it now. If you're 23, the moment where you'll have to step in and look after your parents might seem like a long way off, but believe me, your life is over in a flash. So start saving. You'll be able to take a year off work too. I've no idea how I'll get on without a job; I've been working hard to impress people since the age of four.

Tracking back a bit, one of the most difficult parts will be the bit that involves not buying anything. I haven't done that since I was four either.

So anyway, back to duty and where it fits into 4160Tuesdays.

While I've been saving up, I've also been collecting stuff, way too much of it. I've got stuff to paint pictures, to make clothes, to listen to, to watch, to make jewellery, to write with, to write books in, to write letters on, to read, to practise yoga with, to wear, to scent myself with, to decorate myself, to burn, to plant and just to look at and admire. I've got about twice as much of all of this stuff as I've got space for. So as well as getting rid of it - by eBay, freecycle, charity shops and generally using it up and wearing it out - I'll be pulling my socks up and doing things I've been meaning to do for ages. (And lots more yoga or I'll go bananas.)

My plan is to report here regularly.. Until 30th April I'm still working for Lush. (The boss has kindly said that once I feel that my duty is done I can call him and go back there, which makes the leap less frightening. Say what you like about safely nets; I think that they make you more adventurous.) After that, when I've handed over editorship of my precious Lush Times to the admirable Harry Blamire, it's six months tying up loose ands and six months unravelling a few beginnings.

For the 52 Tuesdays from May '10 to April '11 I'll see if I can create a new system, set up a way to earn a living at the same time as doing my duty as a daughter. There are lots of us in this boat; how do we earn a living while we run around after our parents? A generation ago, when one half of most partnerships didn't work, it wasn't such a problem. Your mum looked after your gran (or both grans). Now we both have to earn a living, what's supposed to happen? I'm starting to find out.

Just as working mothers hire nannies to look after the kids, working children hire carers to deal with their parents. These are new problems, and employers haven't got the rules in place to deal with them yet. You can't take a morning off to take your mother to the hospital. My sister and I are both self-employed with working partners. How else would we be able to do this?

Duty. It's got to be done. But the mortgage has to be paid. Not everyone can take time off to sort these things out and I thank my dear departed dad for bossing me into saving at an early age. He knew a thing or two about duty. If he hadn't saved up from the age of 23, my mother wouldn't have been able to live in the beautiful place she does now. I'll be letting you know how it works out.

(By the way, if you're looking for a place to live when you're old, get your name down on the list for Lamel Beeches, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust home in York. Joanne and the team are the world's best. Bar none.)

Saturday, 20 February 2010

How My Dad Invented Snowboarding in 1941

Back up north, I've been exploring the house my family has lived in since 1971. It's a generously sized1960s box, not particularly beautiful, not historically significant and, as it's a good 25 minute walk from the Metro station, not on any estate agent's list of desirable residences. But it's full of my past, boxes of 35mm slides, mountains of theatre programmes, exam certificates, sheet music, vinyl, paintings, a record of our trips out, summer holidays and school years. But my favourite thing is a book my dad wrote about his early years, when he in the country during the war. He was a very safe, cautious, over-protective man when I knew him. When I read his recollections, I was surprised he survived past 16, considering the stuff he got up to. It's fascinating to see him in a different light; it's hard to imagine how the adventurous 13 year old Alan grew up to be a building society manager. Anyway, in the spirit of exploring our recent history, and with the Winter Olympics playing in the background, I give you Teesdale winter sports 1941.

After one night back, George and I and an older boy from our school took a borrowed sledge, there being a lot of snow in 1941, to the hill near the log cabin. At the foot of the hill was a line of small trees and bushes about fifty yards below us. George would have first ‘go’. We tried to get him to lie head first so that he could steer with his feet but he would sit upright, feet first. What happened next was over in a flash. The sledge was so sleek and well made, its steel runners so smooth, there was a ‘swoosh’ and we saw this dark blur below us shoot out from the bottom of the hill straight into a tree. A loud cry went up to find George in agony with his leg, the sledge smashed in at the front. I never got a ride on that sledge.

We pulled George back to the farm. The local doctor had the leg rubbed with liniment, George’s mother took him home a few days later and his leg was found to be fractured. He was off the rest of that term and although he returned for the summer term he never came back to the farm and I spent the rest of the time there on my own, including the two winter terms.

After the episode with the sledge I did no more sledging but I obtained a piece of wood from the side of an old barrel about six or seven feet high. I used this as a kind of snowboard. On the gentler slopes I would stand on it with my right leg and push myself along with the left. After a while I was able to balance on it with both feet and to travel long distances. The bottom of the wood got smoother and smoother until it ran away by merely putting it on ground with the slightest gradient. I developed a game in which the snowboard and I gathered speed and then went over a prepared mound where we rose into the air until it fell away, and I presumably fell into the snow.

And the rest is history. This week's recommendation is this. Write your recollections now, because in 70 years' time, your kids won't believe what you were allowed to get up to, before Health & Safety stepped in and stopped it.

Friday, 8 January 2010

New Year New Wallchart

A couple of years ago I read a bunch of books about happiness, happinomics and the whole new science of being happy. It turns out that when happiness was written down as an aspiration for all Americans, it didn't mean owning as much stuff as you could jam into your large house, being richer than your neighbours and gloating over the less fortunate. It meant the general wellbeing of your fellow man (or person as it would be now, but probably wasn't then), because if those around you were content then you would be too.

In these books, there were several recipes for happiness in the modern world including meditation and yoga, learning that acquisition doesn't take away the desire to acquire, that you won't be content until you can learn to desire less stuff, and that almost everyone thinks that they need to earn about one third more than they do now in order to be content. (Consider...) One book reckoned that the best way to become happy was Prozac and its friends. That was a bit of a shocker. On the other hand, it does seem as if we have natural levels of happiness: if you're miserable and win the lottery, you're still miserable; if you're happy and lose the use of your legs, you're just as happy - once you adjust to it. But if you work on it, like anything else, you can get better at it.

One book, can't even remember which (sorry), recommended three things:

1. Friends: It turns out that having 18 is just about right (can include family members). There is no need to be a smarty pants like Patrick, husband of a good friend of mine, who started to argue about how you define a friend. He's a barrister so he loves a good picky argument. We know who our friends are. The ones who will help us and who we'll help if they need it. No doubt we'll have a sliding scale from best friends to good friends, old, new, close, distant, but still we ought to keep about 18 on the go. More than that and it becomes a burden to maintain.

2. Something to believe in. It doesn't have to be religion, but people who do believe in a greater good are generally happier. It can be karma, god(s), humanity, light against dark, anything that encourages us to be kind rather than cruel, something that gives us meaning, even if we know we're just a grain of sand that lasts for less than a second in the universe's grand scheme. (Especially if we know that.) Saying that you believe in your god, then behaving like a selfish prat doesn't work. You have to go out and spread a little light to get the benefits.

3. Have a list and tick things off when you finish them.

So this is where the new wallchart comes in. I've got a pack of magic whiteboard ( a set of Shachihata Artline 525T Whiteboard Marker pens from Toyko and I'm on a stairway to happiness.
Oh yes. I've stuck two slices of it on the wall next to my desk. It sticks with static and comes off whenever you like. One is marked up with the days of the week and times of day, a week to view diary. The other is a list of the strategic stuff; the tasks that might take a while but will get me close to where I want to be. When something pops into my head I put it on the wall (unless I'm not at my desk, in whihc case I can put it into my laptop and write it up later). It's not enough to use the laptop. It has to be on the wall. I have to see it and rub things off by hand.

Does it all work? I'll let you know. So far, I'm feeling pretty chipper about it all.