Really good creamy ravioli with a rich tomato sauce: plant based recipe

The pasta is flying off the shelves at the moment, so here is a quick and easy ravioli you can make at home with flour, water and oil! It tastes out of this world.

First, for the filling, soak a cup of cashew nuts in boiling water and leave to one side for ten minutes or so.

Then, onto the ravioli. Take a cup of plain flour and, if you have it, half a cup of pastry flour. If not, one and a half cups of multipurpose flour is fine. Add a pinch of salt, 3 tbsp oil, and add a little water until it becomes a pliable dough. It shouldn’t be sticky. Knead it for ten minutes – if you don’t, the pasta will be rubbery at the end. Put it in the fridge for at least fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, drain the cashews and blend them up with some garlic, herbs (thyme, parsley and rosemary are ideal!), some salt and pepper, the juice of one lemon and some of the lemon‘s zest and, if you have it, a tbsp. of nutritional yeast (it is optional, but it’s a great addition to your kitchen if you have it – it has a delicious nutty, cheesy flavour you can’t get from anything else).

Now make your pasta sauce. Sauté some chopped onions, garlic, some red pepper a mushroom and add a few herbs – the same ones as before are good. Add 3 tbsps of tomato puree or some passata – a tin of chopped tomatoes will do – and a little bit of water. Thicken it all up with a tbsp. of cornflour to make a sauce. I find a glug of red wine or something else like some blackcurrant liqueur elevates this sauce to the next level. Let it sit and those flavours will develop!

Roll out your dough until it’s long and thin. Put spooned dollops of the cashew mix (I usually get about eighteen – less is fine) at equally-spaced intervals on one half the dough. You want half of the dough to be covered with these dollops, because then we fold the other half over. Seal the edges with water. Then cut out the ravioli with a ravioli stamp or a small pastry cutter or even an egg cup.

Then we are ready to cook them! Bring some salted water to the boil and drop the ravioli into the water a few at a time, depending on the size of the pan. After anything from two to four minutes of boiling, the ravioli should float to the top. Make sure you don’t under cook them – it’s better to give them 30 seconds too much rather than 30 seconds too little! Take them out, drain them and combine them with your herby tomato sauce.

Serve in a bowl and sprinkle your delicious ravioli with a plant-based cheese, a vegan Parmesan or maybe some fine nutritional yeast. The ravioli are great served with salad – I particularly like adding sliced pears and walnuts to a green salad with this dish.

The filled ravioli work really well with the sauce. However, you can use the pasta recipe to make spaghetti or other pasta shapes. Dry them for a while or cook straight away.

I find four ravioli each is enough but I’ve seen people eat twice that amount… Enjoy!

Chocolate Celebration Cake – (Plant based)

In these times when people might want to cheer themselves up with an indulgent cake but there are no eggs available, this plant-based, chocolatey Victoria sponge is a great substitute and easy to make. It’s a recipe I use all the time and, although you can jazz it up by adding your favourite extra ingredients, it works well without the chocolate as a vanilla sponge. It also makes a really good birthday cake.

First of all, you need two mixing bowls. In a large one put 500 grams of plain flour, a teaspoonful of baking powder, a teaspoonful of bicarb, 350  grams of sugar, a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of good drinking chocolate or cocoa. In the other bowl, put 300 millilitres of oil (I use a mix of olive and sunflower), a big teaspoon of vanilla paste, two tablespoons of cider vinegar, 400 millilitres of plant milk (I use oat) and whisk it all together.

Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix together. Add a little more milk if the mixture is too stiff: it should look like any other unctuous cake batter. Divide the mixture between two sandwich cake tins. Bake the cakes in a 180* oven for thirty minutes or maybe a little longer, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Leave to cool.

Level the cake off so it sits up straight on a plate. (I’d use the spare sponge bits to make plant-based tiramisu… soaked in Kahlua.)  Sandwich the cake with buttercream and red jam – cherry, raspberry, whatever you like. The buttercream is made from three tablespoons of plant butter, mixing icing sugar in bit by bit until it is the right consistency to be thick and spreadable. Add vanilla paste to it if you like and a pinch of salt.

Cover the top of the cake as you please – a dredging of icing sugar, raspberries. My favourite covering is to make a ganache by melting a big bar and a half of good plant-based chocolate, letting it cool a bit and mixing into it three good tablespoons of coconut cream from a tin, ideally left in the fridge overnight so that the coconut cream is super thick. You can use the rest for a Thai green curry, a satay or a chickpea and butternut squash madras. If it’s bitter chocolate, you may want to add a dash of maple syrup.

Once the topping has set, after about half an hour, you’re ready to dive in and devour it! It’s a huge cake, it will feed a dozen people. It should last in a cake tin for a week or, if you prefer, it will do for one or two cake-starved bookworms for a couple of days, or perhaps just one extra-indulgent evening!

A book and a bite: plant-based recipes to lock down to…

I have big plans for lock down. The imposed isolation is for our own good and I’m going to try to turn the challenge into an opportunity.

I will do my usual amount of walking and going to the gym, which is just a bike and a running machine and a mat upstairs, and I have a pile of ten books I intend to read, a variety of novels from Margaret Atwood to Bernadine Evaristo, from Candice Carty-Williams to Madeleine Miller and Ross Greenwood.

My larder isn’t hugely stocked although I do have a few tins of beans and the wherewithal to make sauces and I have a few indulgent items like rose harissa and preserved lemons. It’s always useful to be able to make things taste nicer and a vegan pantry can often be quite different to a non-vegan one as we tend to have tofu and things that make bland food taste nicer. But, perhaps at the moment, there will be some plant-based-pantry goods available on line. I have enough veg in the fridge to last a few days and my neighbour has kindly given me some sprout tops, so my plan is to read, rest, eat and exercise, not always in that order.

(Oh and I’m going to write another novel too. I’ve written the synopsis, the first chapter, and a fairly organised plan. I reckon I can have fun with that one and finish before the really hot weather arrives…)

But nourishment is the important factor here – we can’t work and work out without something to sustain us and there’s a level of uncertainty about how we’re going to feed the family so here are some of my own ideas on how to throw some good food together. All my food is plant-based– I’ve been vegan for almost thirty years now and B12 tablets are a must if you’re going to follow plant-based eating but in the spirit of a lot of things not being available to buy online at the moment, here are some ideas which might help. I hope so. Enjoy!

Hummus. The best hummus is made from jars of fat chickpeas but any chickpeas, mixed with garlic, tahini, lemon juice and a bit of olive oil in a blender is food from the gods. I eat it as a dip with carrot chunks or pepper chunks or bits of cauliflower, if there’s any available, but more about that later. Bread sticks are brilliant with hummus – just whisk dried yeast, warm water and sugar together to rise for ten minutes, then add a bit of oil and some flour together and knead as dough. I add rosemary, fennel seeds or some lemon zest, let it rise for an hour, prove for another hour shaped into long twists and then bake for 15 minutes, flipped over after ten. It’s great with soup too.

Soup. Several onions, softly cooked for twenty minutes, makes great onion soup. Any onions, red, white, shallots, a mix of them all. Garlic or thyme or other herbs  help it taste nicer, as does a stock cube or a spoonful of miso. Blend with water and eat hot with bread sticks. The same applies to onions and sweet potatoes, onions and half a butternut squash, or parsnips and a pinch of chilli, or sweet peppers and a sweet potato. If all else fails, frozen peas, (mint!), onions, garlic and a bit of chilli makes an incredible soup. If you have a bit of stock, some miso or bouillon to add to it, even a spoonful of Marmite, the flavour improves.

Bake any stale bread with a bit of oil and garlic for a short while in the oven and throw the croutons on top. Add a pinch of paprika, cumin, cayenne or coriander to make all the difference.

Chocolate Mousse. Save the water from your tin of chickpeas. Whisk it for a while until it’s white and peaky like meringue. Melt your favourite chocolate – I have a salted caramel one that’s lovely – and stir it into the aquafaba (chick pea water). (If it’s really dark bitter chocolate you might need to add a bit of maple syrup.) Put it in bowls in the fridge to set. Often I crumble a cinnamon biscuit on top or underneath with a shot of liqueur, which is really decadent. Whatever you like…

Tagine. Any veg, cooked slowly in an oven or a crock-pot, especially with a teaspoon of harissa and a half a preserved lemon, chopped, is brilliant. I mean, any veg is good in a stew – sprout tops, broccoli bottoms (the bit that’s not the floret), old Brussels, the end of a cabbage, any beans, peas, potatoes that have seen better days, all are delicious. It’s good with rice, pasta, minty couscous. If you have no harissa then anything you can find – herbs, spices, sauces, miso, even half a pint of beer thickened at the end of cooking with a little cornflour will make it very hearty and delicious and nutritious. All that B12! Oh and if you’re really hungry, a bit of plant-based suet, flour, some herbs mixed with orange juice and skin makes great dumplings to add to the pot for the last thirty minutes.

Cauliflower, if you can still get it, broken into florets rubbed with chilli and a bit of oil and baked in the oven for 20 minutes is delicious. Even better, make a flour/water paste, dip the baked cauli chunks into it and then roll them in breadcrumbs, put them back in the oven and bake them again for fifteen minutes. Cover them with a sauce made from tomatoes and chillies and maybe some yogurt.

Jackfruit is often quite cheap as a tin will feed four and I don’t think the tins are selling out fast. Drain then shred the jack fruit and bake it in the oven, covered in a bit of Sriracha sauce or tomatoes and chilli for twenty minutes. I add anything I can find to it that will help it – onions, peppers, a bit of plant-based Worcester sauce or soy or liquid smoke. When it comes out of the oven, serve it in warmed tortillas. Add anything you like – a dollop of nut cream or cheese, some beans.

Cannellini beans. Drain them and add to fried onions and a mushroom, some pepper and a glug of ketchup and serve on toast. Better than commercial baked beans which may now be hard to find.

Cream cheese! Soak a handful of cashew nuts in boiling water for an hour and then drain them and blend them to a pulp with some garlic and a bit of plant milk or yogurt to get the texture you want. Macadamias work just as well if you have some in the back of a cupboard. Added cumin or any fresh herbs makes this really lovely on its own.

Add some of this cheese to a huge pile of sautéed onions and a small silken tofu if you have it; add a bit of plant milk to loosen it to a thick pouring texture. Use this to fill a pastry case made from some plain flour and non-dairy butter, bake in a medium oven for fifty minutes and you have a tasty quiche.

Salad. I love to get inventive with salad. If there are any green leaves, a bit of leftover rice, a tomato, a bit of cucumber, a piece of warmed bread cubed and sautéed with garlic, then it’s nice to mix it up with half an apple or a sliced pear, walnuts, raisins, coleslaw made from red cabbage, carrot and onions with raisins and mayo, and maybe some oven-roasted tofu.

Easy peasy ketchup is a mixture (to taste – mine is quite vinegar-heavy) of tomato puree, good vinegar (not malt – I like apple cider vinegar…) and sugar or maple syrup. Add a pinch of salt – (I love Himalayan salt) – or some garlic and it’s really special. I use it as pizza topping on a base made from flour, water and dried yeast. Add anything left over in the fridge: mushrooms, tomatoes, Plant-based cheese is ok on top and some herbs – parsley, oregano, thyme – will improve it.

Bread. Basically, it’s a teaspoon of dried yeast, a teaspoon of sugar and warm water, left for ten minutes, added to strong flour. I like to mix white flour up with rye flour, whole wheat, then add any (not all) of the following; linseed, herbs, sunflower seeds, toasted, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, herbs, rosemary and lemon zest, pureed beetroot (Mmmm!), sautéed onions, plant-based cheese, a drop of oil, garlic. Knead like for for twenty minutes – great workout. Leave to rise for 50 minutes somewhere warm, knock it back with your hands on a floured surface, shape into a loaf, rolls, batons, bread sticks, whatever you like. Leave for fifty minutes and bake in a 180* oven for as long as it needs. It’s done when it’s hollow when you knock the bottom of the bread. Brush the top with oil, oil and salt, oil and garlic, seeds, whatever you like before cooking.

And, to finish the day with a book and a tasty bite, take anything sweet you can find in the cupboard – biscuits, nuts, marshmallows, seeds, raisins and suchlike and add a melted bar of good chocolate, mix it up, put in a small tin, refrigerate for two hours and slice it up, and you have an almost guilt-free version of rocky road. It’s even better if you dry roast the nuts in a frying pan. Healthy-ish, sweet and the treat you deserve for all the work you’ve done keeping body, mind and soul together during this difficult time. Sending best wishes. X

Stating the obvious about anxiety and the virus

There have been some incredible changes this week that affect everyone in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Two weeks ago we were making jokes about ‘car owners’ virus’ and now we’re grumbling about the lack of pasta in supermarkets and being seriously concerned about what the future holds. Most of us aren’t as worried about our own health and what will happen if we get the virus so much as the wider social implications and the health of the vulnerable. I have friends who have been self-isolating for a while now as they have underlying health issues. It’s especially tough for them. In two weeks, life has changed considerably and few of us have any experience of how to deal with the ongoing situation. Things we’ve always taken for granted have shifted and, at times, it feels like we’re in a dystopian novel.

People are reporting overwhelming anxieties about all sorts of things. I know people who are anxious about going outside into their communities and are already asking friends to do their shopping. People are anxious about how they will feed their families over the next few weeks and this leads to panic buying and greed. Some people are just plain scared. Anxiety occurs when we don’t know what will happen and we can’t predict or prepare for change.

The rate at which things are shifting now is very fast: almost daily, theatres and cinemas and cafés are closing. Sports games have been suspended. A lockdown situation may be likely in the near future and schools will probably close or partially close, which is a great strain on all concerned. Kids are worried about their education, their exams. Working parents are worried about who will look after their kids. Many people express anxiety about when and how it will end. Clearly, the most important concern is others’ physical and mental health and wellbeing. We need to make everyone else around us our first priority. We’ll make sure we’re all fine.

I can’t imagine how it would be to be seventy-plus years old and isolated in my own home for twelve weeks. There are only so many books you can read, so much television you can watch, so much cross stitching and jam making and garden digging you can do. I know people can go out for a walk but we all crave human contact: being with others, chatting, empathising. It’s what keeps the world going round and loneliness can be crippling. A friend of mine said she’d ‘go mad’ if she had to spend twelve weeks alone. There are schemes for others to write to lonely people, to Skype them or phone them. It’s a great idea: let’s make friends.

We’ll be all right for toilet roll. The daily tabloids can stop sending out scaremongering news: forget the printed words that whip up fear and hysteria and change the use of the paper: it’s perfect for lavatory tissue. It’s so important to stop spreading fear and start to reassure others that we are equal and in this together and that we’ll all keep each other as safe as we can.

We can all share food; we can Skype or phone our friends. Most of us will be all right. It’s those at risk, the vulnerable and the lonely who need our practical help. What about the number of beds we’ll need in NHS hospitals: where will extra ones be found? What about the health of all those who continue to work in hospitals, who are risking their wellbeing by currently supporting the wellbeing of the entire country? And what about the economic repercussions for all the people laid off from work, the unpaid flight crews and football ground stewards, those who work in shops, cafés, theatres and the many places that will be closed? The retail, hospitality  and leisure industries who have inadequate insurance. How will everyone pay their rent, afford their bills, find food? How will the owners manage? We have to support each other.

People such as Roman Abramovic have been impressive, allocating space from the football club for the use of health workers in the Chelsea area and paying for it. That’s a perfect example of using what resources we have to support others. The best thing that can come out of this difficult time is that people make thoughtful gestures such as this.

I hope the government will put workable policies in place now to support those in greatest need first. I’ve heard a lot of talk about infection and unnecessary contact and how ‘we’re leading the way,’ and that we should ‘expect loved ones to die,’ but not enough calm and focused practical advice and support for those individuals who don’t know how they will feed their kids. I hope this will be put in place soon: extra anxiety isn’t what we need now. I will listen to the daily updates with interest and hope that those people now worse off will be the first in the queue for government help. Political difference and political parties are not important now: call it socialism, call it caring capitalism, call it common sense. We have to help each other.

A few weeks ago, we were all talking about kindness and how we should be more positive. We have to make this a priority. I know a young mum who was scolded in the supermarket by an assistant because she asked for a second bag of nappies for her baby; I know a dad of two who has lost his job yesterday and an elderly gentleman who was shouted at because he coughed in a queue. It’s about supporting each other now, thinking of each other’s wellbeing, both in terms of avoiding the virus and in terms of practical, emotional and economic support.

Each of us has our part to play more than ever. We may not be able to see as much of our dearly loved family and friends as we want to, but we have to make sure we support everyone we can, and when it’s all over we’ll have a massive party and hug each other. There will be lots of things we can volunteer to do over the next few weeks and supporting others’ anxiety is high on the list. Let’s hope something good can come from this difficult time and we can take this opportunity to become a really caring nation. It’s time to put the ‘you’ in community and the ‘I’ in friendship!

Don’t blame the goalkeeper

I was watching my team play in the Champions’ League this week and, I suppose, I was feeling a little bit confident. We had a one-goal deficit, conceded away from home and, on our own territory, I was sure we’d win. The captain was back from injury and we had a full team of strong players, including the second-choice keeper because the number one was suffering from thigh strain. But I was confident that we’d do it. We’re a better team.

We scored the first goal, they got one back and the game went into extra time, two fifteen minute halves. We were playing better than they were – they’re a defensive team anyway and the commentator repeatedly reminded listeners that they don’t play well or score away from home. That was the hex.

We scored a cracking goal in the first part of extra time and I’m sure all the fans thought that was it. But the opposition got one back, then another and, in the final moments, yet another and we rolled over and that was that. We lost 4-2. Unbelievable, given the calibre of our players: there were thirty five shots on goal. But we didn’t score and we leaked too many goals at the other end.

Then, after the game, the pundits picked over the bones and the goalkeeper came out as being reprehensible. In a way, maybe he could have saved the goals: he was entirely responsible for one or two howlers.

But I believe the culture of blame that sits fault squarely on the shoulders of the keeper or blames the last man standing or the weakest player isn’t fair. A team is exactly that, a team. And once the team has lost, it has to move forward. Part of that process may be to improve on mistakes, analyse how to improve based on prior errors, but that’s not the same as blaming one person and repeatedly rubbing it in.

Paul Robinson, a goalkeeper who played for Tottenham and England, said that an error he once made in an international game cost him sleep and made him under confident for weeks. Fans reminded frequently of his mistake as he played on the pitch and it did nothing for his performance. It stayed in his mind and made him doubt himself, which impacted on his game.

So, in defence of Adrian, our second keeper who let in a couple of goals the other night and who has been a good deputy all season, I’m suggesting that we don’t blame the keeper or anyone else for that matter. Here are my top ten reasons.

  1. He’s only human. He made a mistake. We’re all human. We will make mistakes.
  2. We need to move forward, not pick open wounds. We need to heal.
  3. A team is a team; family groups stick together and support each other. There are ten other players in a team, plus those on the bench – how well did they play their part and help the goalkeeper? Win or lose, a fan supports a team. We are there for the glory and for the grief.
  4. Negativity is harmful. To focus all the time on what is wrong won’t make it right. We need to focus on the positive and how we can improve.
  5. We can’t win all the time. Nor should we want to: it would be dull.
  6. Making mistakes is, in fact, a positive. That’s how we improve. Let’s support our team to get better. After all, people make errors for all sorts of reasons. We don’t know what’s happening in somoene’s life.A judgement based on little or no background information is harsh.
  7. ‘Thanks’ is a good word. Thanks for the goals you saved; thanks for the times you did really well. And the times that are less than perfect, we expect them to happen.We plan for them and accept them. And, by the way, one reason we watch sport is for the thrills and spills, the ups and downs. We are there for the ride.
  8. Oh, and we’re winning the Premiership, by the way.
  9. And we could well win the Champions’ League next year. The competitions happen again and again and we’ll be there to enjoy it.
  10. This one may be unpopular but – it’s only a game. I had a friend once who used to smash his fist against sharp objects when our team lost. Please don’t do that. I know we invest in the tension and the excitement but, once the final whistle blows, it’s gone and we think about the next game.

***

Of course, this blog post isn’t just about football. How can it be? There are too many times when the ‘goalkeeper’ is blamed, faults are picked over, repeated, blown out of all proportion. Sometimes, if you let a goal in and let your team down, you’ll feel bad. It’s up to others around you to support you then, to help you improve, to remind you of your good points and to help you move on. There are ‘goalkeepers’ in every family, every office, every factory, every industry, every school, every street, at every level. We are all goalkeepers. At the end of the game, we need to be a strong team and help each other. There will be more games, more opportunities and, if we show solidarity, there will be more wins. We’re in it together for the glory and the grief, the wins and the losses. Enough said.

The one about the tortured wife, the chicken and the empathy muscle

Recently, a soap opera storyline focusing on domestic abuse had me cringing with horror. The husband threw his dinner in the bin because the wife did not put any meat in the dish. The reason for this was because he controls how much she spends on food and she didn’t have enough money; he holds her bank card and allows her limited time to be out of the house to shop for groceries. In a fit of pique he sent her upstairs to the bedroom while he made a better dinner. Much later, he called her down to share a roast chicken meal with all the trimmings and the wife, placatory and submissive, tucked in and complimented him on the cooking. Watching her enjoy her meal, he told her she was eating Charlotte Brontë, her beloved pet chicken, because the old bird no longer produced eggs. She spat out her food and burst into tears.

I felt very sorry for the poor wife. As a vegan, I felt very sorry for the chicken although I would imagine plenty of non-vegans felt the same way: we all love out pets and it’s not easy to eat a creature with a name, albeit that of an expired author. An episode later, we see the husband in a panic because he thinks his wife has left him; he is weak and damaged and he can only relate to the ones he loves with deceit, control and spite. Of course, I felt sorry for them all but the wife’s situation is paramount in this instance. A soap opera, well-written and well-performed, can inspire empathy in the audience. To me, the episode with the slaughtered chicken was a modern-day Titus Andronicus.

I’ve just edited my next novel and one proof othat a story will stand up is that, having  picked through it a dozen and more times, I still feel empathy for the characters. I’m writing a new novel: having reached 75,000 words, I stayed awake at night wondering how the characters must feel in their current situations, feeling sorry for their plight. That’s silly: I’ve already plotted the ending: I know how it works out. But empathy is an unavoidable emotion and it’s good to practise these feelings by becoming involved in literature and drama.

We need to apply empathy to real life situations too. It’s very easy to feel compassion for made-up characters that we don’t really know and then become negative and critical about those we do. And real people we’ve never met are often obvious targets for Schadenfreude and envy: famous faces are sometimes objectified and condemned without empathy in the press and the public are invited to copy their example. Phrases such as ‘body-shaming’ and ‘trolling’ are relatively new terms and are linked to negative actions, words and thoughts.

The plight of the abused wife on the soap opera is not fantasy; the reason such dramas can move an audience to feel compassion is that they reflect the real world from a safer place. They are, as Bertolt Brecht might have said, Lehrstücke, learning plays devised to inform the audience about an opinion and to initiate understanding through acting. In short, if we feel for the plight of the wife, we can apply the same empathy elsewhere, to other people and their situations. For example, if we’re in a café and the waiter is bad -tempered or if we’re on a bus and the driver is grumpy, they might have all sorts of personal problems they have hidden below the surface. Maybe it’s better to smile and wish them a nice day than to report them or leave a bad review.

I watched my team play football the other evening on television: no-one played brilliantly but one player in particular wasn’t on his game. A later player rating in a newspaper would give him 3/10. The commentator said how bad he was; how he was completely reprehensible when an opposition player scored. I cheered pundit Jermaine Jenas when he spoke up in defence of the player, explaining that he’d recently returned from injury and it would take a few games before he returned to normal fitness. How refreshing to be empathic rather than critical.

It’s not always easy to reach out to the bad-tempered, the diffident or the distant people we meet. But it seems important to think beyond what we’re presented with. Because we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, perhaps it’s important not to judge or to criticise. And there are a whole lot of people out there who are lonely, anxious, stressed. There are people bulk-buying hand wash to save them from viruses; people losing their rights to live and work in this country; people who have health worries, money worries, relationship worries, even imaginary worries. Often people don’t show their anxiety; they make jokes, they shrug their troubles off and then go home and weep alone. We’ve all been in that position at some time, so we all know how it feels.

Reaching out and showing acts of kindness and empathy are not always easy. Often we all have so much to absorb us in our own lives that it’s easy to forget. But the recent soap opera episode reminded me that some people’s experiences, though their lives may seem normal on the outside, are anything but ordinary in reality. I was glad I watched the episode of the soap opera, even though I was horrified by the husband’s cruel behaviour and the death of the chicken: the programme gave me an opportunity to flex my empathy muscle. It’s important to keep it well-toned.

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On being kind to others

Blame isn’t something I want to spend much time thinking about: it’s like anger: it is a negative emotion and, although it has its place, it can also do harm to everybody concerned and mostly it doesn’t resolve problems. Blame is often a knee-jerk reaction to a situation that we find difficult to deal with:  it’s easier to transfer responsibility in someone else’s direction whether they are at fault or not.

As a teenager, I found it easier to blame my parents for things that I thought weren’t perfect in my life. Retrospectively that was very wide of the mark. I was responsible for what I said and thought and did; no-one else was in charge of that aspect of my life. Of course, parents aren’t perfect – why should they be? They are human and fallible – that’s what makes them special. For a short while, I believed my parents dumped all sorts of negative attitudes on me – a low self-image, being an outsider, not being good enough. But that wasn’t true: I was responsible for what was in my own mind. Besides, my parents had parents too and I know they all had a much harder time of it than I did.

The cycle of blame incorporates a mistaken belief that we shouldn’t ever get things wrong. It’s perhaps better to deal with difficulties as they happen calmly and fairly, and not put all the responsibility for life’s occasional negatives onto someone else. I could offer a much longer list of my parents’ brilliant traits than the things I mistakenly blamed them for – love, loyalty, generosity, the desire to enable, to defend; humour, fairness: I could go on. I’d give anything now they are no longer here to tell them what great parents they were. So, thanks to them, I can try to deal with my own problems now by not blaming others. The one single thing we can control in life is our own thoughts and I choose to let negative thoughts go as quickly as possible and try to move forwards.

Of course, it becomes much more difficult not to blame others as the level of negativity increases. We live in a world where bullying happens frequently; it is often even accepted and applauded. It happens in the workplace; it happens in relationships and marriages, between friends and it’s rife on social media. Bullies are not always easy to identify. A boss might disguise bullying as strength, leadership, loyalty to the business or a need to control important outcomes. Internet bullies often don’t reveal their names and  form groups to apply pressure. Sometimes bullying hits the victim between the eyes like a sucker punch; sometimes it’s more like a slow-acting poison – you realise it is happening much later, and the pain eats away for a long time.

I’m sad to say that I bullied a little girl when I was eight years old. She was nine and called Rina. She wanted to be my friend and I hit her and pushed her away because it made me feel less of an outsider if she was even more despised than I thought I was. I did it twice then I realised what a terrible thing I was doing and why I did it. On the estate where I lived, defending yourself was the norm but that was no excuse for cruelty. I’ve been making up for Rina ever since by trying my best to be kind, although that’s no use to her now. I often wonder how she is.

As writers, I suppose we are ‘bullied’ by the odd cutting review. Amidst a throng of kind comments authors receive about our books, a nasty-worded criticism is not important enough to outweigh all the positive support. When I was first published, I prepared myself for a bad review by reading talented and successful writers’ negative comments. Someone thought Gail Honeyman’s number one best seller was so badly written that it wouldn’t pass GCSE English. Someone else remarked that James Joyce’s The Dubliners was complete rubbish. I think that puts the odd negative remark given to more humble writers in perspective perfectly, although I agree with my mother’s wise words when she said ‘If you can’t find something good to say, don’t say anything.’

I read lots of books and some I don’t like: they’re just not for me. I’d never dream of criticising the author: someone else may love the book and what right do I have to want to influence another reader negatively? It’s just easier to put the book down and read a different one. But I do write lots of great reviews. It seems that people who bully or who need to hurt others have real confidence issues of their own and perhaps being nasty offers them a temporary release from their own pain. It’s no excuse but it shows, perhaps, how important it is that kindness reaches everyone.

Shappi Khorsandi, a great wit and comedienne, wrote on Twitter this week about her feelings when she was first trolled. She said her father consoled her by saying that the trolls were probably people who kept their dogs locked up in a shed all day and she should ignore their comments as being worthless, or words to that effect. He’s right, but Shappi’s tweet led me to wonder what sort of people want to bully others, anonymously or not. They are clearly people who are unhappy. Like my actions towards Rina as a child, they hurt others in order to feel better about themselves.

Then sometimes, as a result of overwhelming negativity, tragedy strikes, most recently in the shape of the suicide of Caroline Flack, wounded by so much disapproval from others. Blame has been aimed at social media and unkind critics. But it’s too late now to take back the things that were thoughtlessly said and written. Things have to change: we need to blame and criticise less and be kinder to others. We can control what’s in our minds and it’s important to think good thoughts about other people and not revel in unkindness. The ‘Be Kind’ movement is very timely. It’s important to shift this negative culture of blame and shame, hate and highlighting faults. It’s time to focus on healing, health, happiness and compassion.

I’m a great believer in keeping ourselves healthy and safe in mind, body and spirit. Negativity and meanness create a bad cycle. George Orwell said that people at fifty had the face they deserve and I interpret that as meaning that people who have scowled for fifty years don’t look happy in middle-age. I worked with a woman who took every opportunity to bad-mouth all the people she came into contact with to someone else. I thought it was sad but it may have been no co-incidence when all her teeth rotted. So much bitterness can’t be good for us.

Once during my working day I offered a happy ‘Good morning’ to a colleague and she turned on me, snarling ‘Why are you always so bloody cheerful?’ I told her that I hoped her day would improve. Sometimes kindness doesn’t work, but I felt for my colleague that day as she hurried forward to her office head down, gnashing her teeth. I hoped that someone else would be there to give her support. She was a nice person. Some people’s problems can’t be helped by just a single moment of sweetness.

It’s not easy to keep ourselves positive all the time, but we can help each other. The world brims with opportunities for Schadenfreude, for rejoicing in someone’s plight, for heckling those in the spotlight, for finding fault, envying and baiting others. Blaming and bullying exists on many levels and we must actively try to stop it. Reaching out, smiling, offering a hand of support or a positive affirmation brings its own benefit. We can help people to see themselves in a good light or to walk away from toxicity.

Solidarity with others is an act of kindness. Sunshine warms; ice chills. Let’s all do ourselves and everyone else a favour and be nice. After all, it would seem that the bullies, as much as everyone else, need a gentle reminder that they are all human beings and the world is a better place when we all try to be humane.

The Hu and cry for hu-manity through Mongolian music

I recently went to see The Hu perform in Brighton and I can’t praise them enough. It is a wonderful experience to go and see a live band play and come away not only having enjoyed the music but also having being filled with respect for the performers.

The Hu are a Mongolian rock band who have been playing together since 2016. There are eight musicians in all, and they play a wide range of instruments. The Morin khuur – there are two of them played in the band – is held like a guitar, played with a bow and is fashioned with an ornate handle such as a spearhead or a horse’s head. The tsuur is a kind of flute. There are drums and bass as well. Several members of the band sing in a deep resonant style called Mongolian throat singing, which is an integral part in the ancient pastoral animism that is still practised today.

The band calls their style of music hunnu rock, hu being a Mongolian root word for human. As well as being musically brilliant, they were exceptional live performers. Their rapport with the audience was one of boundless generosity. There was none of the egocentricity in the encore concept of most rock bands, where the band walk offstage and wait for ten minutes while the audience clap and cheer until the band come back, feigning modesty, and play two of their best known songs. The Hu just played and played, as if it was what they enjoyed doing most in the world. And ninety minutes later, they were still playing and as soon as they’d finished, the ‘encore’ thing happened so they came straight back and did another half an hour.

Their music is very powerful and rhythmic, ranging from rocking tunes like Yuve Yuve Yu to songs that are meditative and hypnotic. The audience loved them, although a woman next to me said that she thought it was a pity that she didn’t know what they were singing about. But it’s not difficult to find out. Their YouTube videos contain translations of the songs line by line as they are performed, and it is wonderful to understand the respect for their ancestors through their lyrics and musical heritage. For me, there was no language problem: the band invited us to join in with choruses and we could all emulate phonetically what they were singing. It was a privilege to embrace their culture.

The singer, Jaya, repeatedly thanked the audience in four English words. Another musician, Gala, had no English and the audience as far as I know had none of his language, but we applauded and cheered and he communicated his appreciation by thumping his heart with his fist. It was a perfect example of multicultural communication.

The Hu are currently on tour and I rank them among the best live bands I’ve seen, the criteria being that you leave the gig feeling like you’ve been to a party and danced and been included in a celebration and enjoyed every second. Gogol Bordello, Steel Pulse, Manu Chao, The Dropkick Murphys, The Hu, Motorhead (RIP Lemmy!), Greta Van Fleet – all these bands create the same atmosphere of rejoicing in music and a coming together of humanity. It’s what we need now as much as at any other time, the sense that music is shared together: it’s party time, an experience which connects us all and that we are basically humans, all the same, a one-world community who wish the best for others and for themselves.

The Hu are magnificent. They are on my list of bands I’d travel to watch again and again. They are seriously very good. Do go and watch them if you get the chance. Their music is hypnotic, celebratory and a damn good rocking night out.

 

 

The Winter Blues and Self-Care

Many years ago, I qualified as a Reiki healer and although I practise a lot it tends to be mostly on family and friends. Oh, and on animals, who are often the best recipients. On many occasions a dog or a cat will sidle over for a spot of Reiki and only the two of us know what’s happening.  I’ve had some interesting experiences practising Reiki, but that’s for another blog. This one is about how I seldom practise healing on myself.

My kids often describe me as a ‘milk-shake’; they tell me that I invite everyone to stick their straws into my full glass and watch as they empty the contents. I think many of us are that way: we are used to being in caring professions, givers of love and nourishment and warmth and free dispensers of our time. Often in doing so, we forget about giving time to ourselves.

I am a real offender in terms of self-care, to the extent that I don’t put heating on in the house because I’m on my own; I don’t cook a proper meal because there’s no-one to share it with. I need to do better.

I often wonder, if I were my own parent or my own best friend, what advice would I give myself about self-care? I’d certainly tell myself that I could do a lot better. I’d never neglect anyone I know as much as I neglect myself. And, of course, the long-term consequences of self-neglect are low self-worth and self- esteem. That’s not a road I want to go down, so it’s time to change.

I’ve just had the virus that many people have had to put up with over the winter. It stuck with me throughout January. I dragged myself to a kinesiologist who said I’d had influenza and gave me some ionic silver to take. Step one in self-care. But I need to adopt a regular behaviour pattern, giving myself more consideration than I currently do.

So here are several things I’m including in my package of self-care to beat the winter blues. They are only little things, but it’s a way of telling myself that I have value. I’m not one to splurge on myself but these little things will count.

Firstly, I’m going to light fires in the hearth more often, even if I’m by myself. The cats will benefit too, so I needn’t feel guilty. I’m going to invest in ‘personal warmth’: a heated throw for when I’m at the computer. Who cares that I’ll be wrapped from head to toe with just a nose and two blue hands poking through? And then there is the nightly hot water bottle or, even better, a heated pad foot thing in the bed. Who wants to snuggle between cold sheets with icy feet?

I’m good at nutrition but bad at self-love, so the bowl of plain miso, vegetable, and lentil stew I have for lunch will be nicely flavoured with paprika and accompanied with a hunk of wholemeal bread from now on. It will be workers’ food rather than workhouse food. Someone whose opinions I respect reminded me that ‘Lucullus dines with Lucullus;’ the Roman emperor enjoyed food even when eating alone. I will consider the 80:20 rule more often: 20% of the time, a bit of indulgence is fine, so that’s a glass of red wine for me tonight.

Treats are a very low priority on my list. I have a voice in my head from my past that regularly tells me ‘You don’t need this…’ and ‘You can do without that…’ While there is sense in not overindulging, I need to look for positive treats and that includes taking myself out more. I’d happily treat a friend to a cup of chai latte in town or a nice cooked breakfast in a café, so I can do that for myself. I know dragging myself away from the desk will be difficult, but I’m capable of cajoling myself into the car and out for a coffee break. Indulgent, yes, but I don’t have to freeze my toes off at the computer all day. I’ll work much better and much happier after a creamy cinnamon chai.

And the final treat has health benefits. Going out more into the countryside is a must from now on. I can enjoy walking in the woods whatever the weather, splashing in the mud, crossing boggy fields, hiking up hills and coming home warm and dirty, then leaping in a steaming shower. Nature is out there to be enjoyed. There is a colourful pheasant with a long tail who calls into my garden daily looking for food, much to the delight of my cats. I have called him Phileas and I will go out and feed him each day. And there are places I can go to at night to spot deer and badgers, then come home for a brandy by the fire. Talking delight in small things is part of self-care.

It’s easy at this time of year to become stuck in old habits, not giving ourselves enough care and love. I’m amazed by one of my neighbours who I’ve seen out regularly, running up hills with her Labrador: I know she’ll go home and have a slice of cake and a glass of red wine afterwards. That’s self-care, an inspiration: self-love is what it’s all about. In the absence of parents and family and friends, we have to be our own parent. We have to treat ourselves with the same love and generosity as we would our own children. I’ve been exceedingly bad at it. It’s time to change and I’ll start now, by throwing away the cold green tea I’ve had sitting next to me for the last half hour and making myself a fresh hot cuppa.

 

Jan castle loch

 

 

 

 

 

What I’m writing at the moment and the 30,000-word test

Each novel I write seems to follow a pattern at the beginning up to the point where I decide I’ll definitely write it. If it doesn’t pass this stage, then it doesn’t happen. First of all, I have an initial idea and, for the idea to take shape, it has to grab my interest really strongly. I write a brief synopsis, leaving the idea fairly loose, and let it sit for a while: I’ll be writing something else at the same time, editing something else and have another idea in the planning.

Then the time will come round to turn the idea into a new novel. So I make a start, not rushing it, having planned the beginning and the ending, and I’ll start to create my character. But at 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000 words in, I expect to be well-hooked into characters and action and plot and I’ll stop and check: if I’m not completely engrossed, my reader certainly won’t be and I’ll rethink the whole thing.

So, at the moment, I’m writing a novel for 2021 in which a character and a companion leave one place to stay in another. They have a few adventures there, then the protagonist takes off again, this time to somewhere completely different. I’ve allowed 20,000 words to embed the first section before the journey, 20,000 more in order to explore the second place and then the character can have 50,000 words in the final glorious location.

Once I’ve written the beginning, created the protagonist(s), given them something they need to find by the end of the novel – which might be an opportunity to develop or change, ior it may be something personal, something they don’t know that they want yet – I know I’m off and running. At that point, I can get down to detailed planning of the rest of the novel and organise the highs and lows, more fun parts and the episodes of conflict and development.

So, currently I’m 35,000 words into a new novel and I’m quite happy. I have my main character fairly well developed; she has flaws, energy and a great deal of positive points and she’s already shown her true colours. But the journey she’s on, which is not just physical but also self-discovery, has to be considered in detail if she is to be the person I want her to become, to have the experiences I want her to have and to become happier with life. There are people she’ll need to meet, some of them barely sketched in my head yet. So, at this point in the novel, I always stop and ask myself a big question:

Now I’m a third of the way through, do I love this novel enough to want to write it all?

Because if I don’t feel a real attachment and real commitment at this stage, it won’t work and I’ll drop it like a stone.

Loving a novel enough to write it goes a long way beyond commitment and stickability; there will be characters I’ll need to live alongside for months, take them into my life and to help them to grow. Obsession may be too strong a word, but I have to want them to move in with me and talk to me incessantly for a long time if I’m going to write them. They will wake me up in the early hours, fill my head during social occasions and frequently interrupt conversations.

So once I’ve written the opening chapters,  I read the first 30,000 words back out loud to myself to check it is effective and coherent and then I read it to other people I can trust and persuade to listen, and  monitor their reaction. I want them to be entertained, engaged, immersed, to like the character, to laugh, to be captivated, to care about what happens in the rest of the story. It’s one of the many points in the writing stage where I have to be tough. If the story-so-far doesn’t have the impact I want it to have, I’ll shelve it and keep some of the ideas for another novel.

As it turns out, the feedback on this one is positive; I’m very happy and I’m going to keep writing. I have to know I’ll enjoy writing it; that the journey will fascinate me and, despite careful planning, new ideas will jump in as I progress that are usually better than the ones I’ve already written down, which are more likely to surprise my readers.

So the current book, which is scheduled for 2021, is underway and I have two more new novel ideas that excite me waiting in the wings: one is likely to be a hoot, allowing me to push boundaries and create fun situations and characters, and the other will be a learning journey for me, based on the subject matter I need to research. But it’s all exciting.

I recently read an article by a writer saying how difficult the job was – that our lives are always full – we’re always writing a new novel, editing the last one, publicising the previousone, planning the next one and reading for inspiration and research all at the same time! But what a lovely position to be in. All writers strive for exactly this: it’s a great life. I couldn’t be happier.

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