Don’t Listen to the Voices

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Courtesy of laurazera.com

The voices want your money. In December, they said that you had to pack your house with rich, expensive food – or Christmas would fail! Now you have to lose weight and take up exercise, or you will die.

If you live, you’ll be fat, diabetic and a drain on the state, which is worse.

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Courtesy of health.com

The only way to avoid this is by spending any money you didn’t fork out on the cheese and chipolatas that are now clinging to your thighs. You need a diet that is delivered by post in sachets and costs £17 per pound lost. To exercise, you need to a fitbit, gym membership and expensive running shoes.

No activity can be embarked upon without state-of-the-art equipment.

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Never believe you can buy slimness.

Anyone who asks you to pay them for weight loss does not have your interests at heart. It is not in the interests of diet-flogging companies for you to lose weight and keep it off, which is partly why most diets fail.

Like geese, they fatten us up over Christmas, but in the New Year we’re meant to despise ourselves. Don’t! Everyone puts on weight over Christmas. A return to normal eating habits will sort this out over time.

And don’t think you can buy fitness/a fabulous new you.

I couldn’t believe the amount of equipment that littered the poolside when new swimmers took to the water this week. There were flippers, pull-buoys, laminated training programmes and specialised sports drinks.

Soon, the crowd will be gone and there will just be us regulars – unflippered and without isotonic assistance, but still swimming.

By all means, take up exercise, but don’t spend anything if you can avoid it. Make sure it’s something you actually enjoy. You might just be trying to persuade yourself you enjoy it. The truth will out as the New Year fervour fades. Don’t pay up for a whole term of some new activity unless you’ve tried it and it works for you.

Walking, running, gardening and hoovering are great exercise, and free.

You can do step aerobics on your stairs, with music to inspire you. You can lift baked bean cans instead of weights. Some parks have outdoor gyms. You could walk your neighbour’s dog, if you don’t have your own.

Believe in yourself, not the voices. The voices are not our friends!

Posh Food on a Pittance

After a slough of despond in my freelance/writing life, things are looking up. Three books I edited as a freelancer just got brilliant reviews, which I fed to myself intravenously as an emergency measure to revive flatlining confidence.

Then a US publisher confirmed that a collection in which I have an article is finally going to be published. They changed the book title because Women of Faith was already taken, and have called it Enduring Love instead (?!?) so I’m not sure what Ian McEwan will think about that…

I have also been enjoying working with great authors on books that are going to be excellent, and relishing the fact that I can have a life in between instead of flinching every time my phone beeps. For instance, I  popped round to see my lovely writer/editor neighbour, who was suitably outraged at SerialCommaGate (see previous post) and assured me that similar things have happened to her. After this encouragement, I went for a gorgeous autumn walk with her dog, Gracie, and foraged a handbagful of chestnuts.

Foraging for free food gives me more joy than all the bargains I bag at Poundland, Lidl, Wilko and Asda put together. By way of celebration, here are a couple of recipes for truly posh food that I made for almost nothing.

Romesco

This is adapted from a recipe in the Guardian, whose food pages are usually full of obscure and expensive ingredients, but can inspire even the cash-strapped to create great food. This week, someone gave me a good white bloomer that was past its sell by date, so I turned to this recipe to use the stale bread.

Romesco is a thick, pesto-like sauce that tastes incredible but costs very little. I used red peppers from a Lidl jar (£1.79), blanched almonds from a Lidl bag of mixed nuts (£1.59), smoked paprika from the local Asian shop, red wine vinegar which I had in the cupboard instead of the sherry vinegar recommended, and of course the free stale bread.

Ingredients:

75g blanched almonds

3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for frying

Thick slice of stale bread, torn into chunks

1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped

½tsp smoked paprika

110g roasted red peppers, drained

1tbsp red wine vinegar (or any wine/cider vinegar)

Salt and black pepper

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Method:

1 Preheat the oven to Gas mark 6/400F/200C. Place the almonds on a baking sheet and roast for 8–10 minutes until golden.

2 Heat olive oil in a pan and fry the bread until golden brown. Add the smoked paprika and garlic and cook for another minute, then take off the heat.

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3 Put the nuts and fried bread in a food processor, add the peppers and blitz to a coarse paste – you want a bit of texture.

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4 Put all this in a bowl, add the olive oil and vinegar and mix, then season to taste. You can add a little water if it is too thick, or a bit more oil or vinegar to get it how you like it.

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Romesco makes a fantastic spread on sandwiches and is also great used like pesto: stirred into pasta, noodles, rice, soup or potatoes. You can also use it as a marinade for roasting vegetables.

And if you’re wondering what I did with those chestnuts…

Pumpkin and Chestnut Dim Sum

This recipe wraps up the fruits of a European autumn – pumpkin, sage, leeks and roasted chestnuts – in a decidedly Chinese parcel, so let’s be really posh and call it Fusion Food. The whole pumpkin was only 50p in Asda, and I used about an eighth of it. I had leeks from my Dad’s garden, but you can of course use onion. You can make up your own flavourings: spring onion, ginger and garlic would also work well. I had the Chinese pancakes in the freezer, left over from when I made Peking Duck because the garden was overrun with plums and I had to make Hoi Sin Sauce.

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Chestnut foraging note

The best chestnuts are found by busy roads, because squirrels don’t go there. The first ones I found were beside the A26 with traffic roaring by. They had bounced out of their prickly skins from sheer exuberance at being so huge and glossy, whereas in the woods, you find the ones the squirrels couldn’t be bothered with. The ones photographed are the latter category, but I still found some that were big enough to be worth the effort for someone more determined than a squirrel.

Equipment note

You need a bamboo steamer – don’t buy one in a cookware shop as they are much cheaper in Asian supermarkets.

Ingredients:

A couple of handfuls of chestnuts

About twice the amount of pumpkin, skin removed, chopped

A little leek/onion

Pancakes for Peking duck

Nutmeg and black pepper

Soy sauce

Sage, chives and 2 bay leaves or any herb you have: coriander or parsley would be good

Method:

1 Slice the hard skins of the chestnuts round the middle/equator with a serrated knife so they will split as they cook.

2 Preheat the oven to Gas 7/220C/425F. Put the chestnuts in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a simmer, then drain and put on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes.

3 Meanwhile, fry the leek/onion gently in a little olive oil, then add the chopped pumpkin and herbs and sweat down for 5 minutes. Add a little water and a splash of soy sauce, put the lid on and steam, keeping an eye on it and stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin is tender. Add grated nutmeg and black pepper and season to taste.

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4 When the chestnuts come out of the oven, put them in a bowl and cover with a towel to steam for another 15 minutes. You should then be able to peel off the skins and rub off most of the browned pith.

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5 Blend the chestnuts with the pumpkin mix with a stick blender.

You could now use this as a dip, sauce or soup. You could use it to fill canelloni, rolled up lasagne sheets or ordinary pancakes. I decided to try making dim sum parcels. To do this:

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6 Brush a little water round the edge of a pancake and put a dollop of pumpkin and chestnut mix in the middle. Pull up and stick the edges to make a little parcel and place this in a bamboo steamer. Repeat to fill the steamer.

7 Put a little boiling water in the bottom of a large saucepan, put in your steamer, filled with parcels, put lids both on the steamer and the saucepan and steam on the heat for around five minutes. Leave to cool a while before taking out and serving, as the pancakes are very soft when freshly steamed and tend to stick to the steamer and break.

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Spiralizing out of control

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You can now enter this blog without fear, because all trace of its former smugness has gone.

I was pretty pleased with myself, wasn’t I? Dropping hints to those poor mugs still stuck in offices that I had found the secret to a better life!

Then came a nasty bout of anxiety and depression for my husband Jon. Two weeks of holiday, though lovely in its way, led to a couple of crises, with Jon wanting to be his usual happy holiday self but feeling dreadful. Back home, he has adjusted his medication and we are hoping for improvement.

With all this going on, I have not had the headspace to write, and rejections have been flooding into my inbox from agents I have approached with my novel. They have shown an uncanny ability always to arrive on a particularly bad day.

Down – are you? Here – have a kick!

Who knew?! The life of the freelancer is not all creative joy.

And Jon has been worrying about money. No donations necessary, I hasten to add – but his anxiety means that giving up my regular income doesn’t seem quite the stroke of genius it once did.

When I was struggling with all this, a wonderful friend  gave me two pieces of advice that I highly recommend:

1 You will have to park certain worries (e.g. I will never achieve my dream of being a published writer – I’m not even writing!) and come back to them when the really important thing (Jon!) is better.

2 When things are bad, you have to take it one day at a time. Then you will not be overwhelmed.

And so onto money saving! Last year, expecting the usual enormous glut of courgettes, I bought a cheap spiralizer. A poor harvest meant that it has stayed in its box since then – but today, clutching a reasonably sized courgette and a few recipe ideas, I got it out.

I am not one of those carbo-phobic people who thinks that spiralized courgettes will convince my body that it has had spaghetti. Sometimes only real pasta will do. But I did fancy having a go at using up our plentiful home-grown courgettes and sage in an appetizing way, so here’s what I did:

Spiralized courgette with sage and walnut pesto

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Ingredients:

One medium-sized courgette, spiralized

A handful of fresh sage, chopped

A few walnuts, chopped (from a bag of Lidl mixed nuts)

Olive oil

Parsley and/or lettuce, chopped to bulk out

A little parmesan, grated (also Lidl)

Lemon juice and zest if desired

Salt and pepper

 

Method

First make the pesto. Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend into a smoothish paste. The parsley appears in most recipes to bulk out this pesto, because sage can be too bitter on its own. I have found that a lettuce leaf can be added if you don’t have much parsley. Add a squeeze of lemon juice if you like.

Gently stir fry the spiralized courgette in olive oil for about five minutes so that it softens a little but doesn’t go soggy. Add the pesto and stir through over the heat. Add a little salt, a good grind of pepper and a little lemon zest if you have it – then serve.

 

 

 

Money-saving for summer

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This will be the last post for a couple of weeks, so I have been taking stock. I find that I am part of a movement, as Radio Five reported yesterday that more and more over-fifties are going self-employed to gain flexibility in their lives. I really hope that this will give the poor, beleaguered younger generation a chance – those who have enormous student debt, struggle to find the work their degrees were meant to equip them for, can’t even dream of buying a house, and pay astonishing amounts for car insurance. This generation includes my sons, and all I can say is kids, I’m so sorry.

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My boys pondering their student debt

Meanwhile, my money-saving drive has continued, and I can share the following tips:

Camp frugally

I have just come back from shopping for next week’s camping trip and the theme for the menu is tins. Tins of things you can heat up quickly, or eat cold. Luckily, Jon has recently come round to my way of thinking that cold Smart Price mushy peas are an acceptable lunch. Looking at the haul as I unpacked, it was hard to tell the difference between our week’s food and the cat’s.

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Camping supplies and cat food – spot the difference

Grow your own

The garden has finally woken up and yielded strawberries, mangetout, cherries, blackcurrants, broad beans and new potatoes as well as a huge array of herbs. In a previous era of double-income frivolity, we used to carry on buying things and use our own produce as a bonus. Now an urge for fruit means foraging in the strawberry patch and hoping the slugs haven’t beaten us to it. If you don’t have a garden, investigate what you can grow in pots or troughs on windowsills or balconies. BHS even have bags for growing potatoes, if you can get there before they all close down.

Laugh in the face of superfoods

Recent TV programmes have confirmed what we all suspected: ordinary foods that Granny said were good for us are every bit as healthy as so-called superfoods. Strawberries contain as many nutrients as goji berries. Cabbage is every bit as beneficial as kale, and in my view, much less disgusting (oh come on, no one actually LIKES kale). Rapeseed oil has been elevated to superfood status, with prices to match – but if you check out cheap vegetable oil, you’ll find this list of ingredients: Rapeseed oil.

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Make do and mend

I recently I fished out my long-abandoned sewing kit and mended the seam of a summer dressing gown instead of buying a new one. I even cinched in the waist of a cardigan that had lost its shape with the help of a bodkin and some matching wool. Most exciting of all, I discovered the following:

How to get oils stains out of t-shirts

Spilling oily food down me is my usual way of ruining clothes. I hate it when a favourite t-shirt comes back from the wash with a dark patch that hasn’t come out. I found all sorts of solutions online that sounded complex or involved items I don’t have (one required WD40). However, I tried this on a t-shirt I didn’t want to throw away, and it really worked:

  1. Put a little washing up liquid on the stain.
  2. Sprinkle it with baking powder.
  3. Rub it with an old toothbrush or clean scrubbing brush.
  4. Rinse out, then wash as normal. Once dry, the stain should be gone.

Change your car insurance

I have always been one of those people who don’t shop around for better deals because I hate the palaver of changing and fear I’ll end up paying twice or not being covered. But lately, Martin Lewis’s insistence that automatic renewal means paying a tax on the lazy has got to me. I went on Uswitch.com this week and changed our car insurance. I admit, it took much longer than changing energy suppliers and involved lots of online form filling, which always makes me shout and swear. I mean, who remembers the month and year their driving licence was issued?? (Turns out this is written in column B on the back of your licence card). However, I am now paying £230 a year instead of £330 (punches the air).

But don’t go up a ladder!

OK I am not always rational in my balance between frugality and spending. For instance, I paid £60* for someone to clean the gutters and windows this week because I have watched too many episodes of 24 Hours in A & E to allow anyone in the family to climb a ladder. This makes no sense when I will do almost anything to avoid paying £2.40 for parking – but I’ve seen those programmes! Ladder usage is the short route to ending up in a trauma ward with a camera in your face. I had the phone in my hand and a finger poised over the 9 button the whole time the man was up there. By some freak stroke of luck, he survived.

*I will not be doing this often. The man recommended quarterly, but I’m thinking we’ll do it again when we can’t see out.

 

Why are we so stressed?

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Courtesy of rosannadavisonnutrition.com

We all know someone who has suffered anxiety and depression. It is the most common mental health problem in Britain today, accounting for 43% of work days lost. Stress is the usual trigger. Many more of us, though we have not been ill, have nevertheless felt the pressure of the lives we are living. So what is it that is making us so stressed?

Recession has meant that competition is fiercer than ever in the world of work. There is a sense that we need to work harder and more effectively than ever before, to get that essential edge. Businesses need to run faster just to stand still; the fear of falling behind competitors is all-pervasive. There is a constant need to find new, better ways of surviving, and the number of long-loved shops that are no longer on the high street is testament to the perils of not keeping up.

It’s the same in health, education and social services, where statistics show that work stress is most prevalent. Targets must be reached and league tables must be climbed. New initiatives are always being implemented, so workforces have to cope with constant change. All pupils and all schools must be outstanding; the NHS must be a 7-days-a-week service – and these heady ideals must be achieved despite resources being already stretched to breaking point.

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Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Can-do leaders are admired; anyone who suggests that impossible targets are not achievable has the wrong attitude – in fact when junior doctors point this out, they are vilified as greedy.

There is also a misguided belief that we can cherry-pick ideas from other cultures, but without investing in them properly. We think we can achieve things faster if we take shortcuts.

The Chinese way of teaching maths is much admired. Surely we’ll be more competitive in the world if we take that on? But the cornerstone of the Chinese system is that the teacher does not move on until every child has fully understood. In Britain, however, teachers must get the class to a certain standard by a certain time. They can’t linger with those who can’t keep up, because boxes must be ticked and data analysis must reflect outstanding progress.

Many people’s working lives are blighted by pressure from above – from people who are under pressure themselves. Shortcomings must be pointed out and improvement must be urged. Years of diligent service might not seem relevant. There is no room for sentimentality and no time or appetite for support and encouragement. In this toxic environment, time pressure, tiredness and anxiety are compounded by emotional distress. Employees feel that nothing they do is good enough.

It makes sense that the causes of work stress most commonly cited are: ‘workload, lack of managerial support and organisational change.’

Since work takes up so much of people’s lives, everything fulfilling has to be squeezed in round the edges. We’re stressed, so we want to relax, keep fit and being creative – but with so little time, we need shortcuts.

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Courtesy of http://www.everythingetsy.com

Adult colouring books take us back to a time when the only challenge we faced was not going over the lines – and nobody worried if we did. They’re also a quick route to creativity – someone has done the drawing for us. I’m not knocking it – I love the excuse of having children round to return to the felt-tip habit of my childhood. There are some excellent books out there, some of which I helped produce. But ironically, the craze for this calming, mindful activity has led to publishers falling over themselves to rush books out in time to exploit the trend. Believe me when I say that behind every stress-busting colouring book is a publisher’s office full of nervous wrecks.

We want energy, so we drink coffee or eat sugar. We want to relax, so we have a drink. Sometimes, booze, stimulation and sugar are all offered in one hit – a vodka and Red Bull for the lady!

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Courtesy of http://www.telegraph.com

Parenting has also been hit by the get-there-quicker bug. We want children to be happy and compliant so that the time we spend with them feels like quality time – so we ply them with sugary shortcuts to pleasure. It’s amazing how often you see adults pressing cakes on children, rather than being pestered for them. What are we teaching them about the route to contentment?

There is also no time these days for potty training – why invest hours in the win-some-lose-some process of helping children to become dry and clean at night, when there are pull-up pants in the world?

We want to work harder, relax faster and enjoy ourselves in quick, accessible ways. In place of companionship – which takes too long – we choose constant connectivity, flooding our minds with communication and stimulation in every spare moment.

I have nothing against hard work, and I know that competition and challenge can enrich our lives. In my former life in the office, I was involved in applying the pressure to make deadlines myself. I love colouring in. I like alcohol and cake. I have been known to ply children with tasty things to make them happy. I’m on facebook and I have occasionally enjoyed tweeting and reading tweets about something I’m watching on TV. All of these things are fine in themselves and in moderation.

But I can’t help feeling that the way we are living, with all this crammed in and real relaxation abandoned, has created a perfect storm for stress. And the shortcuts to relieving it are not working. We need real change, and an end to the cult of competition and of doing everything faster. We need to take back control over our time.

 

Community – Our Lost Treasure

Apologies for the lack of posts but my lovely husband has been suffering from anxiety – that is, the illness rather than the state of just being worried. It has rather wiped the smug ‘Look at me, I’ve given up my day job!’ smile off my face.

On the other time, I am more than ever convinced that I have done the right thing. Last time Jon had anxiety, it took nine months for him to recover from the severe depression it provoked. This time we are coping better as a couple, and I know that my much more helpful reaction is because I am mellower and less stressed myself.

Last, time, I was so terrified of this illness, in which Jon seemed to be erased before my eyes, that he couldn’t share how he was feeling, so he retreated into his pain and I into my frantic efforts to make him better. We lived side by side, but alone.

This time I have a measure of calm, and I have time. Most of all, I have a new strength, gained from spending quality time with other people, having proper chats. I’m available if someone needs me, and now that I need a bit of support, it’s there. Don’t get me wrong, I worked with fabulous people when I was in the office, but we were all too busy to be truly available to one another.

This, I believe, is what we have lost because people are working so hard: community. Relatonships are essential to human beings – we are herd animals; we simply do not thrive alone. Research shows that isolation is more of a risk factor for early death than smoking (http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/03March/Pages/Loneliness-increases-risk-of-premature-death.aspx).

When you work long hours, everything fulfilling in life has to be crammed round the edges of the day job, along with all the chores. You might seek community in clubs and pastimes, but these become another burden on your time, like doing the recycling. Perhaps you join a book group to help give your life more balance, but you’re so frantic and over-stretched that you avoid your neighbours because you haven’t got the time or the energy to speak to them.

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Somehow, we have been sold the lie that a good lifestyle can be bought if only we work hard enough. But quality is sucked out of our lives in the process.

My parents live in an ordinary road with a bit of garden where Dad has always grown fruit and veg. When I was a child we played with the other children in the street, knew all the neighbours and walked to the local primary school. Now the house next door has been bought to let, and families move there from London, drawn by the promise of a good life in a leafy Kentish town with clean air, green gardens and desirable schools.

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Courtesy of getbusygardening.com

My parents report in bafflement that their new neighbours don’t do the garden. Weeds run riot and apples rot on the trees. The newcomers seem surprised that my parents greet them over the fence and take an interest in their children. They commute to the London jobs that are paying for all this. Childminders ferry the children to and from school and the pavements no longer ring with the seventies sounds of playing on bikes and skates. I wonder if life seems rich to these families, or just crammed with people and activity, but strangely bleak?

I volunteer in a community café, and I see first-hand what it means to people. Some might have needs of various kinds, and the café helps them out, but many are just there for the company. It might not seem like much – a warm place to sit with a cup of tea or a meal, and people who know you and take an interest in how you are. But it’s everything. I know this, not from some patronising do-gooder standpoint, but because this is what I need as well. Like everyone else, I leave the café richer.

These days, community is fractured, time-tabled out or put on hold. When we get a whiff of it – at a rare local event or a party for someone’s big birthday – we are elated, calling out as we leave, ‘We must do this more often!’ But years go by and we don’t.

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The lovely community of Vale Road (I’m top right), coutesy of Rosanne Smith.  We must do this more often!

I’m not advocating that women should be back in the home, or imagining that everyone can chuck in their day job and like Mother in The Railway Children ‘play at being poor!’ But I wonder how many people feel locked into the double-income lifestyle, when learning to live on less might be the key to options they didn’t know they had.

While overworked millions in this country turn to mindfulness manuals and colouring in, the world’s best stress-buster – community with others – is being thrown on the scrapheap of history.

But it can be retrieved if you just give yourself more time and less pressure, and gently reach out to those around you. It brings simple joy in good times, and a web of support to sustain you when things go wrong.

 

 

 

I’m a completely different person

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Courtesy of Huffingtonpost.co.uk

This must be true because my Mum told my son, and he told me.

Four months after I gave up the day job, I look back at Office Me and I begin to understand what was up with her.

  • She was big on security and routine, but so hungry for distraction and human interaction that she had to self-impose a social media ban during work hours.
  • She was generous with money but mean with her time.
  • She had always put all her energy into doing things well, but regularly felt that nothing was ever good enough.
  • On waking, she would instantly be alert for the next thing to dread.

Now I don’t have material riches, but life is richly varied. I’m in control of what I do with my time, and I can afford to be generous with it.

I have plenty of work now, but I managed not to let it bother me when I didn’t have much, and that is the real achievement.

At the Café where I volunteer, it struck me this week that everyone leaves happier than when they came in. I love being part of that.

I spend time with people who need to talk. I sit in cafes with my parents, just watching the world go by and shooting the breeze.

I realise that in my previous existence, busyness was eating away at my humanity.

I have spent concentrated time working lately, enjoying the task with the windows open, birds singing and bees pottering in and out.

When I went into the office for a meeting, my lovely ex-colleagues looked oddly immobile, as though someone had clamped them to their chairs. When I asked how they were, they all said, ‘busy’.

I know that many people don’t have the chance to give up their day job, and that it wouldn’t suit everyone. But it seems to be working out for me.

And now my frugal tip of the week:

Join the library!

Having not been for years, I went in, joined at no cost at all and on the spot ordered a thriller that had been published that very day: When She Was Bad by Tammy Cohen. Within a couple of weeks, an email came to say it was ready for me. I have it for three weeks, but it isn’t going to take that long to finish it, because it’s gripping – and all for free! If you’re looking to make a saving on books but don’t want to miss out on the latest titles – what could be better?

And if you’re into cheap eating, have a go at this frugal recipe:

Roast cauliflower with black pudding and olives

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This is adapted from a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe from the Guardian. I always think his food looks tasty but lose interest when I see the 13 obscure ingredients and a pan I don’t have. This, however, is dead easy and  really cheap.

1 large cauliflower separated into small florets

150g of black pudding, skinned and cut into big chunks

A large onion cut into wedges

A handful of pitted green olives (buy them in big jars, in brine – try Lidl)

2 tsp smoked paprika (cheapest in Asian shops)

A handful of pumpkin seeds

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

3tbsp olive oil (doesn’t have to be extra virgin, again, Lidl or Asda)

Salt and pepper

Handful of chopped parsley

Heat the oven to Gas 7, 220C, 425F. Put everything except the parsley in a bowl with salt and pepper, mix well and spread out in a roasting tin lined with greaseproof paper. Roast for 25–30 minutes until the cauliflower is golden and soft. The black pudding will be cooked through and this is healthier than frying. The original recipe had chorizo but I have discovered a passion for black pudding and it’s so cheap!