Happy New Year. 2020, a new year, a new decade and new beginnings…

I love the moment when a new year begins: it comes with a feeling of optimism, new opportunities, out with the old: we start anew with a clean slate. And there’s a new calendar, a new diary, clean pages with nothing written on them yet. But oh, I wonder what will we write on these blank pages in 2020?

The last year and the last decade mean different things to different people. My heart went out to a friend of mine on Facebook who ended the year with a post that said 2019 CAN JUST F*CK OFF! I sent messages of positivity. I know my friend has had a life-changing bad year and I hope that everything will improve and happiness will return.

We don’t always have control over what will happen to us in the future and we have no crystal balls (mostly…), which is why it’s both exciting and a little bit scary. But we do have choices and we can take things into our own hands, to choose what we do based on the hand of cards life deals us.

The last decade has been wonderful for me: I left a job I love for the excitement of doing an MA in order to become a published author. I was determined that’s what I would do and I was lucky; I wouldn’t have it any other way now. I love writing novels and writing occupies a great deal of my time, giving me the opportunity to be creative, which is so important to me.

In the last ten years, my kids grew up, left home, embarked on their own lives and now, at the beginning of the new decade, I am attempting to reconcile the empty nest with the thrill of independence and having a great relationship with two adults whom I truly admire, not to mention their wonderful partners. But I still miss them like crazy at times and I’ve decided that is my right as a parent: I won’t feel guilty about those terrible moments when out of nowhere I suddenly want to mourn their absence. It has very little to do with feeling pleased about the great humans I’ve raised: it’s a natural process of coming to terms with change.

There were a few down times in the last ten years: I lost my dad and that’s been tough. My mum died in the previous decade and I still haven’t got over that. I’m not sure we ever do recover from the loss of loved ones.

I moved from the place where I’d lived for 20 years and brought up a family. I’m now in a house I actually like for the first time in my life although putting down roots is still hard and I keep wondering if I should move again. I suppose some things will never change.

But I have an incredible family, great friends, wonderful neighbours and a job I adore. Simply being healthy, happy and loved means that I am truly blessed and long may it continue.

So during the next decade, although I may not know exactly what will happen and there may be changes I can’t readily predict, I hope I’ll still be writing novels. Two books have already been finished and there are others waiting in the wings. I hope to travel, to continue to grow and learn, to be healthy, to spend time with those I love and to have fun, a sense of mischief, laughter and interesting conversation.

The world out there is beautiful; if we can ignore for a moment the savage injustices and inequalities, the waste, the greed and the cruelty, it is indeed a wonderful place to be. Many of us hope and strive for things to get better for everyone. Working together towards poositive change is the only way to be alive.

So 2020 begins and with it the new decade, the roaring or rocking twenties. Let’s be positive; let’s hope for healthy, happy, exciting times. That doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand and ignoring threats and dangers: quite the opposite. Solidarity brings all sorts of rewards and it is time to stand strong. But we also have to keep ourselves and others safe, and that means being cheerful, positive and reaching out.

We don’t know what will happen, but we will make it the best that we can. So I’m starting the decade by sending good wishes to all who read my books, check out my blog or who just want to receive my best hopes for the twenties. I wish for happiness, health, laughter and love for you all. May you be blessed. Zhan le Devlesa tai sastimasa.

 

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My Christmas past, present and future…

I always look forward to Christmas. I’ve been doing it for a long time, pressing my nose against shop windows, gazing at the twinkling lights in town, anticipating the fun and excitement of 25th December. Arguably, anticipation is a huge part of the whole Christmas package, putting up sparkly decorations, buying presents, going to carol services, listening to that Slade song you haven’t heard for a whole eleven months and watching Love Actually again on TV.

We know we’re really lucky to be able to enjoy Christmas as we tuck into that special dinner with our families, as we invariably remember of those who can’t share the joy: there are people in war-torn countries, others living in shop doorways. People have such high expectations of how perfect Christmas time should be that disappointment, loneliness and depression may go unnoticed and unsupported. Charity and kindness to others have always been an integral part of Christmas; in many ways we’re still living in the times of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim Cratchit.

This year could be my first empty nest Christmas and, after years of the festive season being mainly about the kids, planning for twelve months to make the celebrations great for them, the prospect of a silent house can be a strange thing to come to terms with.

If I think about it, Christmas has always been a full-pelt, manic time. I was reminiscing with my brother just the other day about how Christmases used to be when we were kids and it was one of those ‘if you told people nowadays they’d never believe you’ moments. Read on:

When I was about seven, the council moved us into a house. We had a bath, a toilet. Unprecedented luxury. Previously we’d had a moveable tin bath and a shared khazi in a field. Now we had a proper house with three bedrooms and a garden. No heating, no double glazing, no fridge, no phone, no carpets, but it was Buckingham Palace. We slept under coats – no blankets or sheets or duvets – and woke with huge icicles hanging inside the windows but we thought we were in paradise. We lived in the kitchen all year but on Christmas day our Dad bought a precarious paraffin heater and we were allowed to go into the front room to sit on the sofa. A real privilege.

We had very little money. Dad sold his Vincent Black Shadow one year, a motorbike that he should have hung onto, to buy us presents. But we had vegetables in the garden. My brother and I used to be sent out to pick Brussel sprouts in a wind so fiercely cold that our little fingers were numb and frozen to the sprout plant, which we hung onto to stop ourselves from blowing over in the icy blasts. Good times.

Christmas fare was about Mum plucking and gutting the pheasant our father had shot in the nearby woods while Dad uncorked a bottle of Bourbon he’d procured from some fella and drank the lot. We’d sit down to a cooked meal, everyone digging in except me,  experiencing early vegan tendencies, refusing to eat something dead and full of lead shot, expecting a slap for being ungrateful or ‘mouthy.’ Then we had to have Christmas pudding although nobody really liked it, and those orange and lemon segment jelly fruits that were still unopened in the wrapper well into January. It was tradition. It’s what people did, and we wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Christmas, once I’d become a parent, was about having a fun family time. I’d cook and bake for days before, take a hamper of goodies (and a bottle of Bourbon) and dinner down to my dad who’d refused to set foot in my house, then go back and start the festivities. My son and I would cook while the others watched the TV; we’d throw all sorts of creative things at the meal: crème de cassis in the gravy, vodka and chestnuts in the sprouts, and have a great time making vegan Yorkshire puddings, hoping they’d rise. Then four of us would sit at the table, pull home-made crackers full of gifts, eat too much and drink a bottle of sparkling wine. Happy memories.

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This year my son is in México for Christmas. He’ll have a great time and we’ll catch up on Christmas day for a chat on Skype. It won’t be the same but we can’t hang onto the same for ever. My daughter may come home if she can escape from the excessive workload she has and find a train on Christmas Eve. The offer is on the table: we could prepare food early in the morning, drive down in the campervan, pick her up and have Christmas dinner on the beach. An empty nest means you can do things differently, and I’m learning to relish change.

Next year, we’ve talked about spending Christmas in France. Choices open out like the pages of a new book. One day, I’d love to spend Christmas somewhere warm, although I can’t imagine how it would feel: I’ve been cold in December since year one. But it’s about grasping opportunity. Imagine spending a week in a log cabin with friends, surrounded by snow, fir trees, bears!

It’s difficult, of course, at first, to come to terms with change: Christmas usually means family, tradition, being together, sharing, the same-old. But there’s a nettle to be grasped that might just be a twig on the tree of life. It’s the chance to reinvent. Christmas could become all sorts of things now: camping on the beach, helping out in food kitchens, inviting new people to share hospitality and a log fire, sitting at the top of a mountain with a baked tofu sandwich.

Being privileged is something I’m strongly aware of in this age of food banks and cardboard box homes. This time of year reminds us that we should put something back, and not just at Christmas. But with the opportunity to rethink Christmas and not expect it to be routine and humdrum comes the chance to find a different way of having fun and coming together, to avoid the expense, the narrow expectation and the commerciality.

So perhaps it’s time to dispense with the eye-rolling ‘Oh not this old song again’ and the ‘Oh no: I’ve got the family coming to Christmas and I’ll have to peel all those sprouts’ and start again with the celebration of life, enjoying each day for its sheer pleasure. Christmas can be just that, simple delight, whether you are five or fifty five.

So bring it on, with my very best wishes. Merry Christmas everyone, however you choose to spend it: have a wonderful day and may your 2020 be filled with good health, love and your heart’s desires.

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Autumn is here – what will it bring, though?

I have to admit, I’m a summer person and the warmer months always seem to pass too quickly. It’s good to be outside in the sunshine, walking in the countryside, travelling to new places in the van, enjoying the open space on the beach. I love to cross the channel, go to France and beyond to favourite places. In spring and autumn, it’s still possible to do all these things, ignoring the extra layer of clothing you have to wear against the cooler weather, or just braving the elements. In winter, of course, it requires a mind-set change to enjoy walking in the cold and damp, but it’s possible to find joy in squelching mud and wet hair. I think that’s a good metaphor for life, trying to adjust to the climate, to external conditions and learning to celebrate them.

But September brings the autumn months and with it, Brexit. It is difficult to accept changes that almost half of us didn’t vote for, with the prognosis of food shortages, prescription shortages, higher prices, possible job losses and a great deal of uncertainty. A no-deal Brexit looms as a possibility. As a firm Remainer, I fear for the stability of my European friends in this country, for the stability of us all. I have enjoyed the right to be European for a long time. Those who voted Leave had no idea what quitting the EU would entail when they made a choice and there must be so many regrets from those voters now, since many people chose to leave Europe based on misinformation, lies and empty promises. We are living in difficult times where division of opinion, whatever party you support, is becoming the norm. There is anger, confusion and bitterness.

So, as winter approaches, I feel the need to search for positives. Cold weather, incessant rain and dark evenings don’t necessarily bring optimism. Open fires, crumpets, brandy and hot chocolate are temporary fixes, although those of us who have homes are ever fortunate to be warm, dry and under shelter. A good book will always lift the mood for a while, an engrossing film or an evening spent with good friends.

Winter months can also bring loneliness and solitude. Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and Christmas festivities are family times and it is a pleasure to share and celebrate with loved ones. A huge family, a tribe, is something special and belonging to an extended family is a privilege and a joy. Having parents, children, a circle of relatives, people who welcome each other into their houses, to their tables and into their clan is a priceless thing – ask anyone who doesn’t to belong to such a group. Families and friends are like a blanket protecting us from being alone and without them we are diminished. Winter is a cold time to be alone.

The cooler months are for me a time to write prolifically and I am blessed on that journey. I have several books in the pipeline, several finished, a great deal with a brilliant team and two new books ready to go next year. I am lucky that, when it’s cold and damp outside, I can sit at the computer and create new characters, new worlds, and to write stories that I hope will entertain others. I am lucky to have something positive to occupy me.

It’s a long time from now until the spring and it’s easy to be demoralised by the grey skies and bitter winds. But each month brings its compensations. I love the mists of autumn, the blackberries to be picked, and then the sloes. I love it when the skies hang heavy with snow and we can go out in scarves and gloves. I love sitting outside, warming hands in front of an open bonfire, gazing at stars. Christmas lights always do it for me too; although the words commercial and artificial may echo in my ears, I’m a sucker for the bright twinkling colours and the simple songs about winter wonderlands and merry little Christmases. Nowadays, I’m at the point where Christmas needs redefining; gone are the times when we enjoyed family fun around the table, the kids pulling open presents and laughing. But something else will take its place – life has to be celebrated while we can, every moment of it.

Then a new year will arrive, with much to look forward to, more to celebrate – a new spring, then summer. It’s important to believe that we are on the verge of exciting new beginnings over which we have some control or choice, even if there are changes afoot that we can’t predict or prevent. It is easy to see the end of summer as the end of warmth and freedom and the arrival of winter as something cold and sad as the year comes to an end. But, even in these worrying times where precious institutions such as the health service may be under threat, where supermarket shelves may become emptier and the everyday things we took for granted may become less affordable, we have to remain positive. We can write letters to leaders, sign petitions and demonstrate in our cities, and we can vote – that in itself is a positive.

Hope and joy will keep us alive. The summer may be fading, but each season brings its own gift, however cold the weather. Whatever we may feel about the end of an era and the prospect of uncertainty and changes we cannot prevent, we still have each other and we can still retain friendship, solidarity and humanity. Whatever may come, we must insist that there will be good times and laughter, happiness and opportunity. A new chapter may be beginning, but we can write our own story within the confines of a blank page.

My unconventional relationship with the sofa, based on Dr Who and the Champions’ League semi final game

 Perhaps I should start by saying that the only time I sit down conventionally is when I’m writing at the computer. And that is hardly conventional sitting – my cat, Colin, is behind me on my chair, occupying three quarters of the seat, so I am perched on the end, which isn’t a bad thing as it leans me myopically closer to the screen and the keyboard. Colin is purring, I’m typing away, so it’s a symbiotic situation that leaves me with a warm butt and Colin with a feeling of being connected to the person that feeds him.

Most of the time at home, I sit on the floor. At mealtimes, I am sometimes at the table, sometimes on the move, but for the purposes of reading or watching TV, I’m on the floor or on the exercise bike.

So – the situation with the sofa is as follows. I have one – a sort of soft sofa that visitors or family can lie full-length on with a cup of tea, nodding off if they wish, with a cat stretched across their torso. Sofas provide comfort. But, for me, a sofa provides more comfort than simply a place to stretch out and relax. A sofa is a sort of safe grandparent figure.

I only had one grandparent, and that’s a story for another blog. My Nanny Leigh was lovely but she wasn’t your conventional grandparent who lived in a conventional place and did conventional things. I certainly wouldn’t have crawled onto her knee for comfort. She’d have giggled and said something to me I wouldn’t have understood. So perhaps it’s not surprising that sofas are places I go to seek solace.

It started when I was a child, the first time I watched Dr Who and the Daleks. I was petrified. So, of course, I hid behind the old sofa and peered out at the scary metal creatures with the protruding stick arm that killed everyone with a blast of radiation and turned them into skeletons.

The good thinking about a sofa, and hiding behind one, is that it is big. You can duck behind it and just listen to the scary sound effects, or you can peek round the corner, having a huge barrier of safety, a wedge of furniture between you and the terrifying thing on the screen. It is also soft and giving, like a big hug, so you can lean against it and believe you are getting support from something larger and therefore less vulnerable than you are. Its solidity is solace itself.

Years later a student of mine, Magic Dave, recommended Gothika as a film he said I’d enjoy. Enjoy is one of those peculiar words. I did enjoy Gothika, but in the way that I’d have enjoyed having my toenails plucked out singularly for the fun of it. I watched the entire film behind the sofa, scared witless.

Peering out at Halle Berry’s psychologically terrifying and thrilling performance was even worse than the daleks. I took out my contact lenses and hid behind the sofa, peering out blindly occasionally to guess if the screen was safe enough to watch. I’d formed a habit now – the sofa was a shelter, a den and a giant brave grandparent all rolled into one.

And, of course,  there was the question of football. I’ve even put squashy cushions behind the sofa now, a duvet, pillows, a flask of soup, for watching football. Istanbul, the Champions league final of 2005, found me camped out for the entire 90 minutes plus extra time plus the heart-stopping Dudek heroics of the penalty shootout. And, cowardy custard that I am, I’ve hung out behind the sofa for most Liverpool games this season, both Premiership and Champions’ League.

This leads me to the Barcelona game last Wednesday, the game we lost 3-0 and still played very well. I was shivering behind the sofa singing ‘He’s Virgil Van Dyke’ at the top of my voice, clutching my flask of soup, hiding, peering out for a few seconds then diving back when the going got tough.

So, this Tuesday, with a 3-0 deficit, the game at Anfield, where will I be watching the entire match? I’ll be behind the sofa. I have no idea what will happen in terms of the final outcome, but I’m hoping for a miracle, a good result, the way my team often succeed by doing things the hard way and respond to adversity with heroics. We might score the first goal, a second before half time and then the second half is poised for a third goal. This will evoke memories of Istanbul, (seen from behind the sofa.) Messi may not turn up and maybe Mo Salah will. Maybe he’ll be fit and Sadio Mané will be on a roll and I may even be able to crawl out from behind the big sofa and watch some of the action before ducking back and shaking like a leaf, screaming ‘I can’t watch, I can’t watch’ at the screen.

Statistically, given that we’re three goals down, it’s possible that we’ll lose and I may emerge from behind the sofa to watch it all, Messi scoring the first, Suarez the second, and I’ll sit and watch the heroics of my team, playing well, missing sitters, not being quite incisive enough to score when we should have nailed it, but deserving to have found the net for a goal or two. I imagine I’ll sigh and be philosophical and say ‘Well, on another day we’d have won.’ ‘Who can play against that kind of Messi free kick?’ ‘We played much better than the result shows’ and ‘Next year, we’ll be there…’ I won’t need to be behind the sofa if we are five down on aggregate – the result would be a foregone conclusion, so therefore there’d be no tension, no fear. I’d be safe sitting on the floor in front of the screen in the knowledge that we’d lost.

But at least, although my air-borne dreams of football and trophies will have been dissipated, the sofa will be there in all its avuncular firmness, and I’ll be able to hide next season when, of course, my team will be beak with a vengeance, fully fit, ready to win the league, the Champions’ league, even do the treble.  The duvet and pillows and flask of soup will be at the ready and I’ll be able to dive behind for safety at any moment when a penalty is given, listening for the roar of the crowd to tell me whether we’ve scored or not before I can creep out safely and cheer.

I have a lot of reasons to be grateful to my sofa. But sitting on it is the last thing I use it for – unless guests come round and they’re not in my house to watch horror films or football.

On International Women’s Day – it’s about being worth it.

Today is International Women’s Day and there’s much debate about whether we need a day to celebrate all women. It doesn’t take long to realise that we’re not there yet in terms of gender equality – experience and statistics speak for themselves: in the workplace, in terms of pay, in terms of prospects, even in terms of childcare and the home, we aren’t all sharing equal status yet. Some people don’t want equality; some don’t care about others’ equality and for some it’s a global issue whereas for others, it’s personal. And of course, men need to be equal too.

Perhaps it starts with accepting, loving and celebrating the people we are as individuals – only then can we accept, celebrate and love others. It makes sense: in the world where people feel the need to project perfect selfies on social media and are embarrassed by their bodies, to such an extent that they are afraid to attend health screenings; where people feel dissatisfied with their lives and fall into anxiety, perhaps we need to adjust to the fact that, while not being perfect, our imperfections are all right. We are unique and we shouldn’t try to be perfect. Perfection is overrated and it doesn’t matter.

My parents’ generation affected their kids’ confidence by pointing out our faults all the time. We fell short. My generation affected our kids ‘confidence by telling them they were beautiful and could do anything they wished and when they couldn’t, they fell short. We just need to accept it all – we are all beautiful, we can try to do anything and yes, we have faults: we will fall short occasionally but it doesn’t matter. That’s part of who we all are.

Then there is the case of rewarding ourselves, being ‘worth it’ as the advert constantly reminds us. Being worth it is not about indulging ourselves, but about cherishing the person we are. I often think of it as being our own best friend. If my friend perceived a problem with his or her appearance, their happiness, their health, their relationships, their job, I’d be there for them. I’d encourage them, tell them they were special, wonderful, and bad things don’t last forever – it will come good again soon and I’d encourage them to keep going. So why don’t we do that with ourselves sometimes? Why do we behave like our own worst enemy and let the inner voice tell ourselves we are rubbish?

Is it just a women’s problem, on this international day of women, the fact that we want to highlight our own inadequacies and ignore our real potential, or do we all share the self-deprecation, whatever our gender? Here’s a basic example. Yesterday I had some great news – my book is being published in Slovakia. I was thrilled. I didn’t need rewarding though – the news was exciting enough in itself. Then I saw a lovely jacket I wanted to buy, not expensive, useful.  I can afford it but I don’t need it, as a reward or otherwise. I have other jackets – but my first response wasn’t ‘I don’t need it’ but ‘I’m not worth it’ – I should spend the money on someone else or on something more sensible.

Human wastefulness is another debate for another time, buying ‘stuff’ we don’t really need – but the real issue for me here was that it was a nice jacket, it would suit me ok, I’d wear it a lot and get a lot of fun from it but, no, I don’t deserve the treat – I can do without.

There is a school of thought about success that I agree with, and it’s to do with Ki or Qi – basic energy. I use Ki in Reiki healing; I studied it for years in Ki-Aikido, and it makes sense – focusing on what you want is important. Not in a greedy way or a selfish way to the exclusion of others, but simply to focus on a goal that is important to us is how we go on to achieve it. We need to focus on the positive, on the inner voice that tells us we are worth it, that we are strong. If we dissipate our focus with anxiety or self-deprecation, we dilute our potential; we hold ourselves back. Then the cycle begins again: we feel inadequate and miserable and we start to fail again.

So on International Woman’s Day, the message is simple, whatever your gender. Care for yourself and then you can care for others. Love yourself and then share the love. Believe in yourself and you’ll be able to believe in everyone else.

Much needs changing in the world, today and every day to promote equality:  attitudes to gender, race, religion, culture, age, species and sexuality – I could go on. Maybe we should start with ourselves first. Self-respect means we respect others and that’s the beginning of change for equality. It’s a nice thought for the day.

Now about that jacket….

If a vegan diet is good for a septic tank, then it might just be good for us…

I’ve just had an interesting conversation with a man who shovels poo for a living. More accurately, he has a machine which slurps waste from septic tanks and cess pits. Not the best job in the world, perhaps, but someone has to do it. On the plus side, it took him half an hour to stand by his machine while it sucked the smelly stuff from the septic tank in the field and  educated me on the vagaries of cess pits.

It was his conversation that interested me most. We had a lovely chat about waste: he knew all about it, the ups and downs, the best sort, the worst sort, what to put in a septic tank to make it function well and what never to put in. He was a real expert.

I’ve lived in the house for a year and had paid no attention to the bog-standard septic tank covered in nettles and briars in the field adjacent to my garden. I’m very careful what I put down the drains of course: no detergent, no washing powder, no cotton wool or plastic, just gentle stuff which biodegrades, a bit of food waste, water, that sort of thing.

So I uncovered the tank and invited out the man to clean it. What he said really surprised me. Not the bit about the tank being old, that he had no idea how it functioned so well at such a great age, that it would benefit from installing a smart new system, and everything else you’d expect him to say. What was really interesting is that he said ‘You don’t eat meat, do you?’

I was impressed: he could tell things about my diet from my cess pit? Now that’s a real professional.

It turns out that meat, the cooking of it, the disposing of residual bits of it through drains, the residual oils, all contribute to clogging and to the general bad condition of the system. Basically, it’s greasy and likely to make the drainage system function less well.

Now there’s an allegory.

If regular meat intake clogs drains and is bad for them, I wonder what it does to the human digestive system and to arteries?

I hear a lot from non-vegan people about vegan diets being inadequate and how do we ever manage to survive without meat. I am asked frequently what I eat and how I get enough protein, vitamins, how I maintain a high level of energy. I agree, whatever you eat, vegan or otherwise, it pays to have some understanding about the value of what you’re putting in your body. I take vitamin B12, and vitamin D in the winter. I consider what goodness I am getting from my food at each meal. I try to weigh up the balance of nutritional benefits and avoid foods high in sugar and bad fats, palm oil, too many empty calories. Doesn’t everyone?

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Nowadays, some people want to veganise everything, so they can enjoy burgers that bleed, authentic sausages, and cheese which tastes exactly like the ‘real thing.’ I can understand why these products are popular; it’s impressive when people who love meat and dairy give it up and it’s understandable that they want to replicate their favourite flavours and textures in everyday vegan fare. It’s useful to have ready-made standby foods in the freezer too. 

On social media, I read about a lot of vegans who are thrilled to find ‘sfv foods’: safe-for-vegan stuff is really just food not originally intended for vegans but that just happens to contain nothing which is non-vegan. Such ‘accidental vegan’ foods include things like Oreos, some makes of custard powder, pickles, some types of pot noodles, some crisps, bourbon biscuits, Skittles. Some vegans’ delight when discovering Oreos are vegan is touching. Vegan pizza has been a huge success, as has vegan ‘fish’ and chips. Now people can be vegan and not give up fast food and treats they crave from their pre-vegan diet.

 While I’m happy that ‘accidental’ foods like vegetable extract, baked beans, peanut butter and hummus are vegan, I’m cautious about commercial high sugar, salt and high fat foods and the long-term effects of eating too much processed fare, vegan or not. I’m happier cooking something from scratch, with simple ingredients that I know and that I can be confident are good for me. While I understand that people can live off a diet of bourbons and kettle chips and still be vegan, and that fast food takes less time to prepare and it’s great to have an indulgent cruelty-free sweet treat occasionally, ready meals are perhaps best as a stand-by.

Of course, it’s a different kettle of hummus when it comes to alcohol – in moderation. There are great vegan wines to be found, beers too, and supermarkets are starting to understand what makes alcohol vegan and label it accordingly. I still find myself in trouble in bars, restaurants  and shops when I ask ‘Is the wine vegan?’ There are still many places where I’m greeted with confusion, horror and the question ‘Why, isn’t all wine vegan?’ Why, indeed.

Back to the neglected cess pit in the field. What if our bodies are similar to septic tanks: we put stuff into them and they reflect our lifestyle- choice back by being in good working order or less so, depending on the nature of what we put in? The better the quality of ‘stuff’ that goes in on a daily basis, the better the tank functions long-term.

Of course, there’s no scientific correlation between the cleanliness of a septic tank and the health of the human digestive system; I’m being facetious: it’s just a thought. I’m delighted that the meat-free septic tank is hanging in there. I will continue to feed it a diet of biodegradable waste, detergentless cleaners and good vegan manure. I certainly won’t be adding any Oreos and custard into the mix, but there may well be a recycled glug or two of good vegan Merlot every so often.

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Revelling in life’s little pleasures…

Happiness is about enjoying the small things. It’s about getting the most from each moment and not letting an opportunity pass to feel grateful and blessed. Of course, there is happiness to be found in the big things: presents, promotion, pastimes, but perhaps real happiness is something we can connect with every day.

It’s true, external things bring pleasure. We aspire to something and then when we attain it, we believe we are happy. Why not? I know plenty of people who are exhilarated by the excitement of a new job, or a shiny car, a new relationship, a new home, a holiday: all these things bring the possibility of happiness and fulfilment. For me, completing a novel, beginning a new one, holding my finished book in my hand with its wonderful front cover design and title has the capacity to make my heart sing.

Things which happen by accident make us feel blessed. Winning the lottery, for example, would open up many new doors, offer new horizons and the chance to change. Things which happen to us externally, which are not fully of our making, are exciting because they present us with instant opportunities to make life better. Similarly, a promotion to a better job defines us as successful and it’s natural to feel that our achievements make us more exciting or more complete people.

But the problem with chasing happiness is exactly that: we are always seeking the next buzz, the next chance of fulfilment. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there has to be interim happiness which doesn’t depend on luck or someone else’s benevolence.

The base line  for happiness is our own good health and the health of those we love. Bereavement or constant worry about sickness will put a huge barrier in the way of happiness.

However, if we are blessed with life and energy, happiness can be found all around us. It is about taking the time to relish in the small things that promote sustained happiness. I suppose it’s back to the old concept of the half empty glass, and whether we can celebrate that it’s half full.

Today, it’s cold and raining. Usually, that doesn’t initiate a feeling of euphoria. But to be able to put on warm clothes and step outside, feel the wind, the water on your face, to come home and have the luxury of a fire in the hearth, a warm cup of steaming tea in your hands. That’s happiness.

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It’s easy to let immediate opportunities for happiness pass us by. We struggle through each day, busy with deadlines looming, technology pulling us in and absorbing us. How often do we take time to watch the sun rise or set? If it’s only when we’re on holiday, then maybe that’s not often enough. Maybe we should do it more frequently, taking a small drink, breakfast  or supper with us, and think about savouring every bite.

We have music all around us, but when do we stop everything we’re doing, turn up the volume and really listen to every note? We see people we love daily, but how often do we enjoy deep conversation or the time to take someone’s hand, look into their face and completely appreciate every moment we share?

As a fan of the beautiful game, I find it easy to fall into the trap of being governed by the lottery of  a result. If my football team win, I believe I’m happy. If we lose, I’m disgruntled and look for someone to blame: the ref, the goal keeper, the manager, the weather, the fixture list. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for life: it’s too easy to invest in superficial things we can’t control and which don’t really matter, then fall into the trap of blame and anger when it doesn’t go our way. But it is the people we love and the beauty within the moment which really make us happy.

Doing things for other people, making them smile, being kind, positive actions and thoughts towards others makes us happier, not just because we bask in being good, but because there is genuine pleasure to be found in making others’ lives better. Joy lies in reciprocating and sharing more than in allowing some external gratification to wash over us in a passive way.

Unless it is a beach, the waves from a vast ocean washing over us in the warmth of the sun. Or climbing hills, playing in the snow, squelching our boots in mud, alone or shared with others whose company we love. Not much beats grasping each transient moment life gives us, inhaling scent, savouring the taste and listening to the unique sounds. Perhaps nature is always there for us, offering us the opportunity to enjoy being alive in the present.

If that is so, if we can find joy in the duration of each moment, then we are truly blessed.

 

 

 

 

My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

Is nostalgia good or bad?

Christmas is over and we have finished celebrating the arrival of a new year. It’s now a time when we can look forward to the wonderful gifts 2018 can bring. We all hope for health and happiness for ourselves and for those we love and we wish for world- wide peace and an end to discrimination, disease and destruction. We consider changes to our lifestyle, wanting to be instrumental in making positive developments. We decide to eat healthier food, join a gym, spend more time outside, and help others. Such plans are admirable: we all know of people who will run a marathon in 2018, land a new job, find the perfect partner, raise money for charity or, simply, be more content with their lives. It doesn’t really matter if it’s January or July, looking forward confidently and with optimism is a good thing.

Yet we spend so much time looking back. Christmas time is a good example. We all love White Christmas, the archetypal festive 1950s film showing how perfect life used to be, and the Irving Berlin song dates back to 1942. We sit around the dining table, reminiscing about previous Christmases, missing people who are no longer with us, and old childhood memories of past years are stirred up and savoured. Many people yearn for aspects of bygone times, when food tasted better, everything was cheaper, we were less focused on commercialism, and people’s lives were less complex and perhaps in some ways happier. I remember as a teenager hearing a woman in her seventies talk about the Second World War with fondness. I was horrified. What about rations, bombs, the sacrificed lives? But she simply looked misty-eyed and said ‘Ah, but you had proper neighbours then. We all looked out for each other.’

I wonder if nostalgia is a bad thing: if we are always looking backwards through rose-coloured glasses, does it prevent us from looking forward clearly and determining our own destiny? But then, there are things we learn from the past. Life experience enables us to make decisions focused on a knowledge of likely outcomes. But the future is ours to determine, so why would we want to hold on to memories which have long gone? Perhaps that is it: like an old photograph, a letter or a school report found at the bottom of a drawer, the pages yellowed and the ink faded, perhaps the past provides us with a soft fuzzy feeling that makes us happy.

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Finding joy in nostalgia is not always easy to achieve. I have returned once or twice to the place I grew up and several times to towns and cities I have lived in. Much has changed and I feel no impetus to relive the past there. Yet I spoke to someone recently who went back to a town they left just over a year ago and they were filled with a sense of having belonged, having grown up there, having developed and become the person they are today against a backdrop which was important, which was in some ways formative. Memories such as those are tangible, important and cannot be taken away.

Music and the media are quick-fire ways to start a nostalgic conversation. Hearing The Clangers theme tune takes me back to childhood. Certain rock songs remind me of adolescent mischief. I know exactly where I was when I heard about The Twin Towers tragedy. Similarly, smells take us back to happy times, whether it is the lavender perfume of Grandma’s handkerchief, the smell of hot dogs at the fairground or the aroma of Mum’s apple pie in the oven, we are transported instantly and memory is picture- clear.

But is nostalgia good for us? A 17th Century medical student first used the term nostalgia for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. It was thought of as an illness, caused by demons. The word derives from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (pain), suggesting suffering due to a desire to return to a place of origin. However, modern thinking is that nostalgia makes people feel more socially connected to others.  This social connection boosts people’s positive feelings about themselves.

One of my neighbours has an old Ford Cortina she wants to sell and another neighbour longs to buy it, as it was the first car he drove when he was 18. Of course, he could own a modern car, one which is much easier to drive, more economical, but the idea of owning a defunct banger matters, quite simply, because nostalgia makes people feel good. Nostalgia is not merely for the older generations, either; I have heard twenty year olds wax lyrical about Pokémon, Beyblades, Wispa bars. People are nostalgic because reminiscing makes them feel happy about old times, and it allows us to share common feelings and experiences.

But nostalgia isn’t real, is it? Every time we recall an experience, the memory becomes a little distorted. It can be more positive, more negative; we even have the capacity to change things unintentionally. As time passes, the memory becomes further out of touch with reality and so it is hardly accurate or reliable, especially where emotions are concerned. But sentimental recollections often include anecdotes and memories of loved ones, which reinforce the social web that extends across people and across time. There is also evidence that nostalgia works towards counteracting depression. The act of reminiscing has been shown to neutralise loneliness and anxiety. When people speak fondly of the past, they also tend to become more hopeful for the future. So nostalgia can in fact be a healing and a bonding experience.

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So, on that note, I’ll wish everyone the very best for 2018. But when you find yourself reflecting back on your life, on those special moments, remember that you are finding value and meaning in it. You are reminding yourself that life so far has not been unfulfilled and you are looking forward to creating more fond and wonderful memories. So, enjoy remembering the past: and here’s to the future!

When you see something you disagree with…

There are lots of things we disagree on. Some things are inconsequential – a matter of taste – tea or coffee, cats or dogs. Some things are cultural, embedded in our way of life, important to us morally, such as choices about religion, matters of lifestyle. We all know that we have the freedom to make personal choices and we understand about respectful disagreement and the right to an opinion. But what about when the situation isn’t so clear cut, we disagree with something we think isn’t as it should be. It isn’t right, but we don’t know how to respond.

My mother hated injustice. She worked as a dinner lady in a school for a while, and in a soap factory. Both jobs had a hierarchical management system and the expectation was that supervisors were workers with a lot of experience who were paid a little more than the other workers to make sure that the job went smoothly. In both cases, my mum noticed supervisors humiliating inexperienced members of the team and my mum spoke out and made the point that the supervisors’ behaviour was unacceptable and demanded that they changed the way they treated individuals in public. Although she was just an ordinary worker, my mum felt it was the right thing to defend someone who was upset and couldn’t speak up for themselves.

It has taken a long time for rules about how we treat each other in relationships to become clearly defined. It wasn’t until 1993 that the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against women affirmed that violence against women also violates their human rights. We know attitudes about domestic violence have been slowly changing – it was only in 1994 that rape in marriage was made a crime, and that was after fifteen years of hard campaigning.

We’re not there yet, and sometimes things happen to remind us that not all partners in a relationship enjoy equal rights or are fairly treated.

Last weekend, I was in a DIY store and needed some assistance – with door knobs, as it happened. I approached an assistant who was helping a man and a woman and I intended to wait until they’d finished. The man was explaining to the young male assistant what he wanted and the woman quietly chipped in, to help. At this point, the man turned to the woman with an angry face and said, too loudly,  ‘Shut up.’ She recoiled and he leaned towards her and said ‘Go away and do some knitting or something.’ Who would even speak to their dog like that?

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We all know that’s abusive. It worked. She did shut up and she moved back and waited in silence. I wondered what to say. The man had help from the assistant and moved off and she trotted away behind him. Later in the store, I saw them both again, walking along in silence side by side in silence.

My point is, what could I do? What should I have done? I wasn’t intimidated, but to intervene with ‘That’s not very nice’ mightn’t have helped at all. I could have said to the woman  ‘Are you all right?’ but how would that have helped? How could she have replied?

The interchange was not part of a humorous role play, not a bit of intimate banter or fun between the couple. It was aggressive and meant to hurt. I wondered why the woman didn’t walk away, why she couldn’t.

Had the roles been reversed, and the woman had said to the man ‘Shut up. Go away and play with your golf clubs,’ would it have been met with a similar tacit public reaction? (Is the insertion of golf clubs as demeaning as knitting? What is the equivalent?) Hopefully, we have the same attitude to domestic abuse whether a man or a woman is the recipient. Abuse isn’t acceptable, no matter who is on the end of it. I wonder how many people -men, women or chidren – are used to this type of constant  bombardment on their emotions and end up feeling being unworthy of anything better. How can we speak out to help them?

It’s not just partners who indulge in repeated emotional abuse. It happens in the workplace, in schools, in families. The point is, how should we react when we see it? Are we nosy parkers if we speak up or cowards if we don’t?  Are we just making more trouble for the victim when they get home or do we owe it to them to help them realise they aren’t isolated?

I remember a story about a friend of mine carrying his four-year-old child out of the supermarket over his shoulder because she was having a tantrum. The girl was screaming ‘Put me down, you horrible man. I want my Mummy.’ But no-one challenged him, not for the three minutes it took him to leave the store. He said he’d have welcomed intervention, just in case he hadn’t been the parent. He’d have been pleased to see someone speak out for the safety of his child.

I don’t have an answer to this one, but perhaps we’re living in a time where our social lives are such that it’s easy to retreat into thinking it’s ‘not my business’ and then make a judgement afterwards. If we don’t know someone personally, perhaps we don’t think we should try to help. Perhaps we live in our own little worlds and are afraid or detached or just not interested enough to support others.

I’m not wholly happy that I don’t know how best to help a stranger who is being badly treated in a public place. Perhaps the man was able to be rude to the woman in the DIY store because he knew no-one would care enough to ask him why he was so abusive. Perhaps some teachers are regularly disrespectful to some children, perhaps some bosses take liberties with workers’ self-esteem  because they don’t expect anyone to speak out.

Perhaps we’ve become too self-absorbed and we’ve lost the concern for others which would make a challenge against injustice the norm, the right thing to do. There is the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian citizen in prison in Iran on trumped-up ‘espionage’ charges. There are things we can do to help. We can write to our MPs and urge them to take immediate action. There are countless cases of women abused by men in postions of power. Where are the people who know what’s happening and can speak out to support them? There are more than 250,000 homeless people in our country, and 1.2 million older people who are chronically lonely. Is there something we can do beyond a moment’s empathy and a cursory glance at our debit card?

The incident has given me a lot to consider. I will give it much more thought.