Things to do in a crisis

After an extremely torrid five days where – I do not exaggerate – esteemed colleagues in the cultural sector are talking about their organisations and personal livelihoods being decimated, planning for 6 months closures and everything being cancelled for the foreseeable future, I am retreating to my preferred way of dealing with a crisis: seed sowing and forward planning.

We do not know what the future holds but I do know that panicking about it helps no-one. As a self-employed household, we have already had several contracts put into question by coronavirus, so now’s the time to be prudent and as self-sufficient as possible, and lend a helping hand to those who need it. Because it could be a whole lot worse (think of those Doctors, some of whom I was at university with, who are running the ICUs at the moment).

So here is my list of things to do in a “shit I’ve got no work on” crisis.

  1. Work out how much we need to live on vs confirmed income and budget accordingly.
  2. Finish building the shed and then insist Matt moves the concrete mixer so that I can tidy up the shrubs in the back garden
  3. Finish building the utility room
  4. Plan what colour to paint my office
  5. Potty train Harry (note, this will be harder than any day’s work I’ve ever done in my life)
  6. Plant all my seeds (already doing well with this)
  7. Dig out the brambles and grass from the allotment
  8. Plant out broad beans
  9. Dig out and replace the strawberries
  10. Replace the greenhouse
  11. Watch This Life and Ready Steady Cook on iplayer
  12. Study the sutras again (this is yoga, always the best medicine)
  13. Actually write that damned book

Because in this life, the most important things to learn in order to survive are how to grow things, how to make things and how to cook. Look out for your community (and well done to all those organisations who have promised freelancers that they will honour contracts and invoices) and let’s be sensible.

A new and timely addition to our art collection, from Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft
A bit of free time is give me space for this lot! 40+ different types of veg and flowers are now in the process of being sown.

The joy list

As I write there’s a man upstairs deep-cleaning my carpets with chemicals, hot water and an unfeasibly loud vacuum. In a grown-up version of Craig David’s 7 days, I found out about The Carpet Cleaner on Wednesday (having admired my neighbours spotless rugs), texted him on Friday, he came to quote on Sunday and by Monday his brushes were in action (I intend to chill on Tuesday).

I like to take this week after the alleged-holidays for a bit of cleaning, in all senses. Christmas with a two year old in no way is a break; it took me 7 hours this week just to get through The Sound of Music due to interruptions for Hey Duggee!, nap time, snack time, etc. Plus there’s all the visiting, carting toys around, tantrums, cooking, entertaining…every year I feel mental. So to take a bit of time from 6th January for scrubbing and reflection has come to be a useful aid to my health and happiness.

The climate of 2019 was difficult: the suicidal state of UK politics, ecological crisis, Trump, the daily grind of running two small business, feeling skint because childcare is the same as a mortgage. Watching a bit of vintage Nigella on the Food Network yesterday, Matt and I reflected that 20 years ago food TV was deeply aspirational – all about having a lovely time, doing fun things with beautiful people and maybe picnics on the beach with Toploader playing in the background. Now it’s all about survival: you need to make your dinner in 15 minutes and on the cheap because you’re back from work late and you’re short on cash.

So in the spirit of fighting back against the gloom, I have started a Joy List for 2020. Anything can go on provided that it will actually be achieved, and any visitors to the house are welcome to add things to it. Whether your idea of joy is growing your own food, eating ice cream in January, brewing beer, jumping into a freezing cold lake because you can or finally visiting that posh restaurant you’ve had your eye on since you were a teenager, perhaps this is the year to actually make it happen?

Some items from the Joy List might include…

More cut flowers for the home and for gifting. The allotment has now been covered in plastic to keep the weeds down until spring.
Admiring beautiful art and architecture, such as this ornate ceiling in Tewkesbury Abbey
Ice cream in the park is a TOP joy for Harry, even if it’s January and he’s dripping snot into his Mr Whippy
Fire pits and farm visits with old friends
Planning sunnier retreats to the beach / Cornwall
The joy list as it currently stands

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: All the usual Christmas stuff including a memorable turkey chilli from Jamie Oliver’s Christmas cookbook. Matt’s toasted sandwiches with chicken, cheese and chutney. Home-made clementine jelly.

Plus: Reading Grampy’s 1930s copy of Robinson Crusoe and not quite sure what to make of it. It flits from being a work of great philosophical depth to a boy scout manual; do I really need several pages describing fisticuffs between groups of grown men? Plus making full use of our National Trust membership so that Harry gets some fresh air.

Be the change

I have thought for several years that December (and into January) is a particularly difficult time of year. There’s the obvious things, like the darkness, the cold, the drizzle. But more than that, the commercial onslaught of Christmas and the enforced jollity within which we are meant to thrust ourselves sits awkwardly with me. Christmas is great…..when it’s at Christmas. When it starts in November, then it’s a No Thanks from me.

This year we add to this an election, with exhausting levels of mud-slinging from all sides; the ecological crisis; the homelessness crisis; food poverty; terrorism….it goes on and on. I can’t sing Jingle Bells on November 30th when I know that a few hundred metres from my house there is a man sleeping rough on a doorstep, and families are using a food bank because their lives are in crisis.

However. The answer to these problems is to do something, anything, however small. In the words of Saint Mother Theresa, ‘in this life we can not do great things, we can only do small things with great love’. The small people of the world, if they stand together, have enormous power – just look at Greta Thunburg and her inspirational, angry campaigning that has every teenager in the world shouting her on whilst the suited, male, middle age politicians she lambasts appear idiotic with their inadequate responses. (The young people of today should give us all hope for the future.)

In the meantime, this Christmas, let’s resolve to be the change that we want to see in the world.

We live in the fifth largest economy in the UK and yet some people can not afford to feed their children. This is a national disgrace. Can you imagine, really try and imagine, what it is to have a newborn baby, be exhausted and emotionally on the edge, and then know that you can’t afford to buy your baby nappies, or that your landlord may kick you out of your flat at any point because you have only £50 in your bank account and it’s either food, heat or the rent? If this bothers you then perhaps consider making a regular donation to the Trussle Trust https://www.trusselltrust.org who organise food banks around the country.

If you see a rough sleeper in your neighbourhood, at least acknowledge their presence and perhaps ask them if they need money, a hot drink, whatever it might be. Human kindness and dignity goes a long way.

Abandon Amazon with their tax-dodging ways and instead, buy local and buy small. Less is often more. As usual, Matt and I are making many of our presents this year (I admit that Matt is dead good at making things, which does help).

If you are grieving, as some of my friends are, take time out over the holidays to light a candle and honour your loved one. Give thanks for their presence, however short-lived it was.

Use your vote wisely.

Be the change.

I will be taking a car boot of donations to the Sandwell Food Bank on 16th December so if anyone has anything to give, drop it with me.

Frugality Challenge finale

How did the remainder of the Frugality Challenge work out? Well, it still worked out pretty expensive, but that’s December for you (as well as all the Christmas food, gifts and socialising, there’s the car MOT, road tax and TV licence to contend with).

By the end of the month I’d spent £339 on groceries – most of this was on Christmas goodies – but I have no doubt that the bills will shoot WAAAY down now that we’re into the proper austere winter months.

Being mindful of one’s spending habits can become addictive, and of course peering over one’s shoulder to see how other people organise their finances is an ageless joy that never tires. Over Christmas I enjoyed this article in The Guardian about a Millennial’s spending habits, which sums up accurately what it is to be a young working woman in the city (i.e. spendy), but was saddened to read about the backlash that the writer faced for daring to have a social life at the age of 28.

Give her ten years and she’ll be spending her evenings working out how to make the most of her leftovers, just like the rest of us. (Incidentally, the joy of Christmas for me lies in leftover creativity. This year the pork stuffing was simmered into a magnificent fennel-scented ragu, and leftover goose was baked with saffron, onions and rice to make a delicious biryani).

Will the frugality challenge continue into 2019? Elements of it will, certainly. I don’t think of it as being ‘frugal’ or ‘austere’ though, I just think of it as being sensible. Why waste your cash on stuff you don’t need, with all the environmental and social problems that that brings? We’re better off saving it for lovely long family days in Cornwall come the spring.

Normal Veg Patch service will resume next week.

The Frugality Challenge

I am setting myself a frugality challenge for December: can I cook and eat well through the month without buying loads of new stuff? My grocery spend has crept up this year and I’m horrified to work out that since the summer, an average of £331 a month goes on trips to Waitrose, Aldi, farm shops and butchers. This does include things like nappies, cat food, washing liquid and so on but it’s still higher than it needs to be.

Living in a city encourages the spending of cash so much more than a rural existence. The message of BUY BUY DO MORE ACHIEVE MORE BUY BUY BUY is ubiquitous and it patterns our daily behaviour. The iPhone is full of messages to buy, I receive loads and loads of marketing emails daily wanting me to buy, the buses that trundle down my road carry adverts that I can see from my living room telling me to buy. When I’m getting cabin fever, it’s easy to drive to the supermarket in order to get out of the house and before I know it, that’s another £30 gone. (Note: this is a genuine thing. A friend who shall remain nameless spent thousands in her local supermarket when her two children were tiny.)

I am not a bad housekeeper – I cook from scratch most days, batch cook for the freezer, buy certain things in bulk and I prefer to make breads, stews and cakes for Harry rather than buying ready-made. I don’t buy much booze since pregnancy buggered up my liver. We don’t eat out much. I grow fruit and veg and flowers. I don’t like fast fashion. We’ve not been abroad for nearly two years. I rarely use a credit card and there’s no debt.

But the truth is that we need to rein it in. Here are some simple truths about parenthood, freelancing and finances:

  1. We are not entitled to the same amount of maternity pay as people on PAYE (despite the fact we work as hard if not harder)
  2. Self-employed men have no right at all to paid paternity leave
  3. There’s a gap of 27 months from when maternity pay ends to when free child nursery places start. During that time, we earn significantly less (because we’re looking after the babies) but our expenses go up (because babies cost money)*.
  4. Even if your babies are in nursery or at school, regular working hours just don’t fit with nursery or school hours. Something has to give and it’s usually the mother’s career – and therefore earnings – that is sacrificed**.

Obviously paying the mortgage is the priority and it’s the peripheries that need to be cut down. I relish this challenge – I love a bit of frugality and a sticking two fingers up to consumer culture. I was going to write that December is a crap time to do the Frugality Challenge but actually, perhaps this is the BEST time to do it. A Christmas that isn’t tainted by buying loads of tat and then being stressed by all the spending?  YES PLEASE.

The Frugality Challenge rules:

  1. Daily to ask, do I really need to buy this new thing or can I make up a great dish with something already in the fridge, freezer or cupboards?
  2. We’re still cooking proper food, not relying on cheap ready meals
  3. When I do buy I’m buying well – to paraphrase the Brexit nonsense, no bread is better than bad bread
  4. Rule 1 is repeated for all Christmas purchases – do I really need/want it or can I do better by thinking creatively?

So it begins.

Home-made Christmas pudding (though I would have made these anyway). A reminder to grow my own leaves instead of buying bags of rocket and watercress. A trip outside with the secateurs to bring the outside inside, instead of relying on hot-housed cut flowers from the shops. The frugal option so much nicer than the shop-bought.

Stir-up Sunday resulted in two puds – we’ll have one and Helen Annetts will have the other

Those bags of salad are rubbish so let’s get on with sowing windowsill leaves

Cut flowers are out, aromatic viburnum from the garden is in

Also this week:

Allotment: Matt tried and failed to have a bonfire, the pile having got too damp. Still harvesting cavolo nero and chard.
Cooking and Eating: Potato and savoy cabbage curry with daal, sprout linguine, soda bread (Harry’s new favourite), Tuscan bean soup.
Life: Headed out to Woolhope (Herefordshire) for a visit to their brilliant pub and to get some country air. Everyone’s had a stomach upset so there’s been a few 3am baby-sick calamities (days lived on 5 hours sleep are hideous). Planning and plotting a new product line for Plane Structure.

 

*This is the time when many people face genuine financial issues. I am deeply thankful that I was able to put savings aside before I got pregnant but still, I worry about money. Spare a thought for all those who are not as fortunate.

**Yes this makes me angry. It’s not the Dads’ fault though.  Working practices in the UK simply do not support the parents of young children, both men and women. I think Matt and I are actually two of the lucky ones as at least we can work flexibly.

Life on hold for a bit

For the past fortnight I’ve been meaning to post my recipe for cornbread (using September’s fresh corn, obvs) and could never quite get the energy together. Turns out the reason for this was that I was in early labour: Harry Joseph Foster-Stallard appeared at 11.17pm on Sunday night, a week early and very much in a rush to join the world, with a mere four hours from the first niggles to birth.

Child, mother and father are now trying to get over the shock and find their new normal. Until we get there, here’s a few pictures of the last week BC (before child).

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Cornbread

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Jungle of flowers

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Last summer harvest, I suspect

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The bump

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The biggest harvest of them all… On the way home from hospital

June in Cornwall

Perhaps the best place to escape election overkill is the Cornish coast. The place we stay at Mawgan Porth has zero phone reception, and watching the motion of the sea is far more compelling than watching the telly. There’s still the email of course (that’s the lot of the self-employed, we can never truly be away from our businesses) and I wish we had two weeks instead of four days (due to work issues I came down a day later than planned, and Matt two days later), but always here there is warm air, salt-licked skin, good food, and a sense (albeit brief) of lightening.

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A massive colony of mussels is growing on Mawgan Porth beach

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Bit of rock scrambling is a Cornish must

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Wind swept!

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I love these dramatic spiky plants, reaching well over 8 foot in height

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Wild roses give shots of colour to hedgerows

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The feedback comments at Tate St Ives are very amusing. (The art wasn’t crap, but this person needed a little more help to appreciate it I think)

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Buddha keeps watch over Green Ocean cottage

Ate: A oddly-bitter tasting crab from Rick Stein’s, cream teas, Matt’s guacamole, pasties, ice-cream, fudge, curry at the pub
Visited: Bedruthen Steps National Trust cafe (twice), Padstow chippy, Leach Pottery, Tate St Ives, St Eval Candle Company, Bedruthen Steps hotel spa
Read/watched: Frenchman’s Creek, Springwatch, election stuff, sodding email

May flowers near a Cornish beach

I’m writing from Green Ocean, our home-from-home, a holiday let overlooking the sea in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall. Outside is a cacophony of bird-song as crows, blackbirds, gulls and others besides try to outdo each other in the pink evening light. The outgoing tide has left a silver sheen on the sand and the sky is streaked with violet and orange. It is the first week of May and we are held in the very cup of the year; the natural world is undeniably awake.

Time then for that traditional festival marking the end of winter and the start of summer, the May Day holiday. On Monday, despite the drizzle and chill, Padstonians celebrated with their traditional Oss dance and the town was bedecked with flags, flowers and lots and lots of visitors.

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Padstow on May Day

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The Padstow maypole, decked with flowers, marks the start of summer

Within a few steps of Green Ocean there is the sea, an ever-moving landscape that draws one back to the present. We’re both working on this ‘holiday’ and I react to it badly, feeling work’s grip even on supposed down time. How good then to look up and see the sea, the birds and the wildflowers and be reminded that life is what happens away from the computer.

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Mawgan Porth

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Wind-sculpted sand

The Cornish roadsides and cliff-tops are awash with wild flowers. Some, like the primroses and daffodils, are the hangers-on from our late spring. Others, like the dog violets, dead-nettles, buttercups and bluebells, mark the start of summer. I love their presence and it reminds me how much I miss, living in the city.

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Primroses are still in bloom

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North Cornwall roadsides are awash with white bluebells

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Bluebells turn the cliff sides into a wash of colour

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Blossom like tiny delicate spikes

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Can anyone name this? Have spent twenty minutes on Google and am none the wiser

May flowers near a Cornish beach, one of life’s simple pleasures.

Arrivederci Amalfi part two: Growing

Back to Amalfi we go. There are a few things to bear in mind about this mountainous, coastal part of Italy. 1; There’s not a lot of industry and therefore not much money swilling around. 2; It takes hours to get anywhere; that’s the joy of mountains. 3; It’s surprisingly densely populated, with villages clinging to the cliffs.

What do you do if you live in a place such as this? Well you grow all your own food of course. It’s not a lifestyle choice as it is in the UK, it’s just obvious. It’s been obvious for centuries. In Pompeii, archaeologists have replanted fields of vines using ancient Roman planting schemes and they looks exactly the same as any vines you’d see these days, 2000 years later.

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Pillars at Pompeii. Archaeologists have replanted vines here based on the original layout.

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Archaeology for the masses. Photo of people taking photos at Pompeii.

Some things are different now though. The Romans would not have had tomatoes, courgette, potatoes, corn or chillies, all of which came to Europe from South America in the 16th century or thereabouts. In Agerola, the cluster of cliffside villages where we stayed, every property was surrounded by rows upon rows of tomatoes. I can only imagine the industrial efforts required into turning this lot into passata for the winter.

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Tomatoes on the agriturismo, a crop that was of course not known to the Romans. Here they are grown between two strings to support the growing vine.

As well as the ubiquitous tomatoes, everyone grows grapes, potato, maize, beans and fruit of some description.

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Grapes are grown across trellis made from local chestnut wood. There are three benefits: the vine can spread as it will, the grapes can drop down for easy pickings (and to reduce the risk of mildew) and the leaves provide canopy shade for whatever grows below. Ingenious.

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Fruit is everywhere. As well as peaches, apricots, strawberries and pears, we spied these mulberries.

Further down the cliff is where the famous Amalfi lemons are found. Their renown is justified: these are the biggest, narliest, most fragrant citrus you are likely to find.

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The famous Amalfi lemons are grown on steep terraced banks, often covered with netting to protect from strong winds.

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Or maybe the nets are just to deter thieving tourists!

Up in the mountains, the air is scented with herbs: sage, mint, rocket and most of all, oregano.

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In Provence they have the wild thyme and rosemary of the garrigue… In Campagnia, they have wild rocket, oregano, sage and mint.

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Despite the heat, the wildflowers are not dissimilar to those found in an English June summer. I found these on Capri.

We ended the trip with the Walk of the Gods, a cliff-side trek that descends 600m from a country village to the seaside resort of Positano.

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End of the road

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Path of the Gods, a fitting climax for any birthday.