Thursday, 22 February 2018

A Good Read

Thank you for the kind comments on my last post which has definitely boosted my confidence with regards to writing. I think that it would be difficult to become a good writer without also loving to read. Thinking about the possibility of writing more seriously also got me to thinking about exactly what books I really enjoy reading the most and why that might be. I don't like books with lots of wiffly waffly language (and I am aware neither of those are words but I'm sure you get my drift), over peppered with adjectives, or ones that labour a point treating the reader as though they might be a little bit dense. I like to be credited with some intelligence when I read. And I like to have to work things out for myself which brings to mind a quote from one of my favourite ever books The Lacuna - "The most interesting part of any story is the part we do not know" (I am probably paraphrasing here). I don't like books where the author tries to show how clever they are, jamming in every last little bit of information, showing off their superior knowledge. In my mind what is really clever is knowing what to leave out.

Which leads on quite nicely to one or two books that I have read recently that have ticked some of the boxes for a good read. Our book club choice for February was The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a reasonably popular choice. There is some well written prose that creates the atmosphere of the time perfectly. The story of schoolgirls Grace and Tilly who in the blistering heat of the summer of 1976 set out to unravel a series of mysteries and secrets that are held by the various residents of their neighbourhood, starts well. The central mystery is the disappearance of a neighbour Mrs Creasy but as the story builds there is almost too much going on; too many secrets, bullying husbands, overbearing mothers, kidnapped children, grieving spouses and the slightly odd man who lives on his own in the big house. There were things that didn't quite add up, other bits of the story that seemed irrelevant and superfluous (if you have read it, what was the point of the drainpipe?) and despite the promising start it never came to any resolution and we are left still not actually knowing why Mrs Creasy disappeared. That said it opened up a lot of questions about differences, herd mentality and the way we judge people - who are the goats and who are the sheep? Overall it was an easy and entertaining read but it didn't quite manage to pull together for me.

One of the best books I have read in ages, one that I literally couldn't put down was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. This is also a story that looks at differences. The central character Eleanor is slightly odd; she gets on with her work, has a tendency to speak her mind quite bluntly and likes to stick to her routine. She prefers to keep herself to herself and doesn't mix but at the same time she is profoundly lonely. As the story gently unfolds we are given glimpses into her background and her difficult relationship with her mother. I found this to be heartbreakingly sad in places but also triumphant and uplifting as well as hilariously funny at times. Because it is not only a story of difference but it is about acceptance and healing too. A book to make you laugh and cry but ultimately feel good.

As well as favourite books I have favourite writers, those whose precise prose gives away just the right amount of information and lures you into the story. Writers who make you care about the characters and their lives. One of those writers is Maggie O'Farrell who has a gift for weaving a story and I have yet to read one of her novels that I didn't enjoy. This Must be the Place is about love and relationships, central themes to all O'Farrell's stories. it skips between continents and time zones gradually piecing together a picture of lives that I can't help feeling are about to fall apart. I picked it up at the library a couple of days ago and I am already half way through. I might have finished it if it wasn't such a hefty hardback - there is only so long I can hold it upright when I'm reading in bed!

Have you read anything really enjoyable recently?

Monday, 19 February 2018

Off Piste

This is not my usual type of blog post but I hope you'll bear with me, even though it might be a bit wordy... depending on how fast I type! A few weeks ago I signed up for a free on-line Winter Writing Workshop with Do What You Love for Life. Despite having kept this blog for over ten years, written a pantomime, edited our village newsletter for the past year and  having always written diaries I don't think it has ever crossed my mind to consider myself a writer. But I quite liked the idea of the challenge of a week of writing prompts. On day five we were looking at the value of critisism and rejection which included watching Oprah Winfrey interview J. K. Rowling. Our writing challenge for that day was then to write a 30 minute* blog post on "What Oprah Winfrey has taught me"

To be fair we could choose another public figure we admired but I liked the challenge of writing about Oprah Winfrey, especially as until last Saturday I don't think I had ever thought an awful lot about her. I knew she had been a tabloid style chat show host with a hugely successful show, but beyond that I knew very little. The only time I've ever seen her before was in the film "The Colour Purple" in which she gave an excellent performance gaining an Oscar nomination but I could hardly claim that had taught me anything. 

But I thought her interview with J. K. Rowling was totally captivating and it had me fascinated for the entire conversation. She showed such a connection, empathy and genuine interest in her guest that I was determined to find out more and so I did what all good writers should do and that was some research. I was  surprised by some of the things I discovered. Oprah was born into poverty in rural Mississippi in 1954, to an unmarried teenage mother. She was raised in turn by her maternal grandmother, her mother and then her father. She suffered abuse in her childhood and became pregnant aged just fouteen but her only son died in infancy.

Whilst still at school she got a job in local radio and despite all her disadvantages she excelled at school and won a scholarship to Tennessee State University. Her career in local media took off and her meteoric rise to host the most popular TV talk show ever, was rapid. She has gone on to write books, produce, act and has become a media proprietor. Not only is she cited as the richest African-American she is also ranked as the greatest black philanthropist in American history, supporting numerous educational causes and relief efforts. There is no doubt her life has courted much controversy but I was struck by her openess and generosity of spirit. She has risen from her own disadvantaged background to show strength, overcoming adversity and going on to help others do the same. So to answer "What Oprah Winfey has taught me" I think it is that despite where we come from, despite our mistakes and our flaws, we can constantly learn and grow aspiring to be the best version of ourselves possible. In her own words "Step out of the history that is holding you back. Step into the new story you are willing to create". It has also been a lesson not to make judgements without being informed. I  could have quite easily dismissed Oprah Winfey as just another over-hyped celebrity... I would have been wrong.

So that was my blog post for this particular writing exercise and I would be interested in your feedback, because it feels a bit scary going off piste like this and away from the safety my usual subjects like cake and knitting! Are there any public figures you admire? Who would you have written about?

* This actually took longer than thirty minutes but I was too absorbed in the process to stop writing.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Sunshine and Snowdrops

A quick post today... lots of photos but few words (I say that now but of course that could all change by the time I get to the end of this post)

I know I have written posts about visiting the winter garden at Anglesey Abbey before but on Monday I met up with Gill specifically to see the snowdrops (which of course means it counts as a sixty x sixty). Apparently there are over 250 different varieties scattered around the estate. I can't tell you whether we saw them all but we certainly saw a  lot.

We were so lucky with the weather - it was bitterly cold but a beautiful bright sunny day, the sort of day when the winter garden looks its best. Of course, also being the first day of half term the place was heaving with families and hoards of small (and mostly well behaved) children but I'll gloss over that.

As well as snowdrops there were stunning Tibetan Cherry trees with the shiniest trunks imaginable. I'm sure someone had been out with their duster and Mr. Sheen!

Fabulous fluffy Witch Hazel

Dogwood in colours ranging from the brightest yellow to deepest red... you can see why this variety below is called Midwinter Fire.

There was blossom...

and even a few lone daffodils.

And the specatcular grove of Himilayan Birch, which apparently they wash to keep them bright white.

This one kept its eye on us!

Lots of pretty Hellebores too

We walked and talked, browsed the second hand book shop where we each bought gardening books and then we camped briefly in the coffee shop for a cheese scone and a hot chocolate (just to prove I don't rigidly stick to rules). There had been plans to sit and knit but as I said it was half term and it was loud, crowded and messy (yarn and crumbs of chocolate cake don't make a good mix) so we didn't linger too long but lovely to catch up all the same.

Back home I looked through my photos and dreamed how I might transform my garden or possibly even wash my single Silver Birch tree (no, you're right, I didn't even consider this), but I know it won't happen. Plus we are starting to seriously think about downsizing before too long so not much point investing money and effort if we won't reap the benefits. Although we've been saying this for the past five years which adds up to a lot of benefits that could have been reaped had we been so inclined!

Friday, 9 February 2018

The Four Pillars

Blogging really feels like it is taking a back seat the moment, which is frustrating because there is much I would like to write about but as always is the way when there is lots happening there is no time to write. Of course when there is plenty of time to write I've nothing much to say!

Despite being busy I'm still trying to follow the advice in Dr Chatterjee's book The 4 Pillar Plan, trying to improve how I relax, eat, move and sleep. For each of the four 'pillars' there is a five point check list and until I started writing this I thought I was doing really well... oh how we can fool ourselves!

For relaxation he suggests carving out some 'me time' each day. It can be almost anything that is solely for me that doesn't involve a screen plus I mustn't feel guilty about it. If nothing else I read a real book for at least 15 guilt free minutes a day so I think I can consider that ticked. I also eat at least one meal around a table... in fact we generally eat all our meals at the table. so that is two points ticked... however keeping a screen free Sabbath (or any day I guess) is not something I've done, nor a daily period of stillness... although when I'm laying awake unable to sleep I try to meditate on my breathing. Does that count? The fifth suggestion is to keep a gratitude journal which I sort of do mentally but just forget to write it down. He suggests doing it last thing at night but it's just about the last thing I think about... too busy thinking about that elusive sleep!

I'm not scoring so well on the moving either. I mostly manage 10,000 steps a day but strength training, high intensity intervals training, exercise snacking, daily glute exercises? I don't think so... I really must reread that chapter! Sleep is not scoring so well either. I can appreciate an environment of darkness for going off to sleep but I actually like the arrival of daylight to wake me up. Plus I'm not about to get new curtains. I did a few days with no screen time in the evenings (until I discovered the ancestry research) and even a few days with no caffine in the evening but even though I have tried really hard  I find most herbal teas revolting and as there was no discernable difference in my sleeping pattern I've reverted back to old habits. At least I get twenty minutes of daylight outside every morning.

But for the eating I'm scoring four out of five (if you have the book you will know that he suggests it is far better to score two in each pillar than a high score in one and nothing in others... but we'll gloss over that for now!) Retrain taste buds to de-normailise sugar... tick, Eat five different veg a day... tick, eat all my food within a twelve hour window... tick, unprocess my diet... tick! The only thing I struggle with at this time of year is drinking eight glasses of water a day. I do try but mostly forget. And when I do remember, I spend half the night up and down needing a wee, so it doesn't do much for me getting a better night's sleep

But I'm really enjoying the food... breakfast is always a favourite meal especially every conceivable porridge variation - the current favourite is made with blueberries and topped with yoghurt and slices of kiwi. Or maybe fruit and yoghurt topped with homemade granola... so much nicer than any supermarket brands. 

Homemade Granola
I warm up 25g butter with 60g nut butter (usually almond) and 60 g honey. Stir that into 300g oats along with 75g chopped nuts (almonds, hazelnuts and pecans all work well). Spread this onto a baking tray and bake at 180 deg C (160 fan) for 15 mins, turning half way through the cooking time. Do set a timer as there is a fine line between toasted nuts and burnt! Allow to cool and stir in a handful of dried cranberries (or raisins) before storing in an airtight container.

Soup is always an easy way to eat several portions of vegetables for lunch and I've been making soda bread each week to go along with it.

Seeded Soda Bread
Mix together 450g wholemeal bread flour, 75g mixed seeds, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda. In a jug combine 1 tablespoon black treacle with a carton of buttermilk and top it up to 450 ml with some cold water. Mix well into the flour mixture and allow to stand for five minutes while the oven heats up to 200 deg C. (180 fan) Shape into a loaf, place on a baking tray and bake for 30 minutes.

And just in case you think I'm being too virtuous to be true... there were some date and walnut muffins this week (and some chocolate, but that's a secret!) 

So that's where I am with the four pillars... not doing as well as I thought but I generally keep good health and have plenty of energy, plus I have shed a few pounds since the new year so it can't all be bad. I shall definitely stick with it.

I hope you have a good weekend!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Updating my Intentions

I don't know about you but I'm not really sorry that January is behind us. I always find it so long and cold and dreary with the promise of  twinkly fairy lights and never ending mince pies behind us. And let's not talk about the mud... I don't think I've ever known such a muddy January. I seem to spend my days cleaning the dog and washing towels.

But here I am on 1st February... such a lovely short month... looking out the window at a beautiful blue sky. It might still be cold but there were snowdrops and daffodils to be seen on my walk this morning, birds could be heard singing and even the dog came back clean. So reasons to be cheerful as Spring is in sight. Yes I know there are probably still weeks and weeks of rain and mud ahead but don't burst my bubble just yet.

So in a buoyant mood I've turned to one of my 'intentions' for 2018 which was to restock my Etsy shop with tangible items as well as PDF tutorials and as yesterday I managed to finish off another appliqued zipped pouch (finishing things is another 'intention') I spent an hour or so uploading things to the shop. It took a while... it terrifies me how quickly I forget how to do things related to technology when I haven't done them for a while... is it only me?

But once I managed to do one, the others were fairly straightforward.

And so I now have four little zipped pouched listed in my Etsy shop... and the problem of getting people to see and hopefully buy them. So I'm telling you first... and if they sell I might make some more.

You can find them here should you want to take a look and there is free shipping in the UK!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

While I was gone...

 I hadn't planned to be away so long... I know it's only been just over a week but it feels like longer... but you know how it is... I've been busy, easily distracted, caught up with other things. So what have I been doing?

I've been researching.
For a while now I've planned to do some research on my family tree, but in the spirit of my 60 x 60 and "what am I waiting for", and spurred on by my friend Liz I've joined and I'm finding it a little compulsive. I've gone back to the early 1880s on my Mum's side of the family. The photo above is of one of my great aunts in a locket the size of a 50p piece. The photo below is of my Dad (he's the little one on the bike at the right) with his brothers and little sister. It's fascinating! Yesterday we visited a couple of Cambridgeshire churches in the hope of finding some evidence of relatives in the churchyards. We were out of luck in finding anyone but instead we did find a wonderful church inWillingham complete with the most amazing wall paintings. One thing leads to another...

I've been cooking
lots of meals from scratch using loads of vegetables, continuing to follow the advice of Dr Chatterjee. Stewart was overheard to mutter "Your Mum will have biscuits" when we were on our way to see her this weekend... he wasn't wrong. I fear my attempts at healthy eating might be failing!

I've been planning
New classes in a new venue and it feels exciting

I've been stitching
more little hoop portraits. My Marc Bolan caused some debate on Facebook... is it Brian May, is it Phil Lynott, is is Roger Daltry (someone even suggested Noel Fielding)? No... it's MARC BOLAN!!!

Bob Marley was a little more recognisable it would seem.

I've been drawing
More daily prompts on Instagram... houseplant, beins with "L", suit (Chanel and Armour), can, wheels, paint, denim, row...

I got as far as 'hug' but have fallen by the wayside over the past few days...

too busy researching all those ancestors!

Saturday, 20 January 2018

A Saffron-Orange Bundt Cake

What is this I hear you cry... a post about cake only two days after I tell you I'm cutting back on sugar. But in my defense... this was made last weekend (before I started the new regime), it was a special occasion and I am once again joining in with The Cake Slice Bakers.

It has been a long time since I made a cake with this group but they have kindly let me stay a member. Each month the Cake Slice bakers, a group of bloggers who enjoy baking and eating cake, are offered a selection of recipes from a chosen book for the year. We choose one of the recipes to bake and then on the 20th of the month we blog about it. There are very few rules but the main one is that we have fun trying new recipes and baking cakes.

This year it is slightly different as our book, The Perfect Cake from America's Test Kitchen (I'm imagining this is a bit like our Good Housekeeping Institute in the UK)  hasn't been published yet so we cannot actually see the whole book and we are only given access to the choices for that month. Also we have been asked not to share the recipes on the blog... but I can show you pictures!

I chose to make a Saffron-Orange Bundt cake. It was easy to put together, no complicated techniques and it baked beautifully at the temperature indicated and for the stated time... something that never happened with our last book. It also smelled wonderful as it baked. I think my only gripe was that as with all American books the ingredients are measured in cups and sticks... really... who on earth decided on sticks of butter as a unit of measurement! I dug out my American measuring cups and reweighed everything into grams so I had a recipe I was happy to work with.

I don't think I'm giving too much away if I say there was one unsusal ingredient that I have never added to a cake before and that was turmeric. It was a tiny amount and I can only imagine it was there to enhance the golden colour of the cake as any contribution to the flavour would be minimal. There was however a whole teaspoon of saffron which could make it an expensive cake, but I still have a pot that Joe brought me back from Morocco.

The icing was described as a glaze but for me a glaze is something that lightly coats a surface as with a lemon drizzle cake but this was a thick glace icing. This is not a complaint just an observation as it was delicious and added just the right amount of sweetness.

And the cake? Well it was lovely even if I say so myself... delicately flavoured with just the right amount of orange and saffron, it had a dense even crumb a little bit like a Madiera cake. I was worried it might be a little dry but it was perfectly moist and very well received by everyone last weekend. We happened to have Stewart's son James and his wife Elizabeth staying with us for a couple of days en route from Australia before they started the next stage of their adventure in Cape Town and as it was James's birthday on Monday it was a good excuse for a cake.

You can see what the other bakers have made by following the link: