Tag Archives: simple pleasures

Today it will be mostly…scorchio

What is that strange yellow orb in the sky?

What is that strange yellow orb in the sky?

A couple of weeks ago, I took a cup of tea out onto the sunny 10th floor balcony of the office I work in, for a quick lunch time break away from my desk. It was like stepping out of an aeroplane on the first day of a Mediterranean summer holiday – a wall of heat hit me as soon as I opened the door. I’m talking truly scorchio here, the kind of temperature more commonly felt lying on a sunbed with a good book, a cold beer and the tss-tss-tss of cicadas in the background. Bear in mind that I work in the centre of Manchester, the rainiest city in England and you will understand my shock. Much as I enjoy the heat, I think what I love even more are the expansive clear blue skies. There is something about the quality of light and the glint of sunshine sparkling on every reflective surface, be it the water of a swimming pool in France or the roofs of the cars on the city street ten floors below me,  which lifts my spirits even if I did not realise they were down. The joy of a clear, sunny day is a rare treat in my neck of the woods and one to be treasured irrespective of how many layers of clothing I have to wear to be comfortable outside in it. I have felt my heart sing under a crystal blue sky with ice on the ground in January, as loudly as it does when I hit the tarmac in Turkey or Crete.

I am not sure if there is an evolutionary reason why sunshine is such a pleasure, a release of
endorphins to make sure I soak up enough Vitamin D perhaps?  I should probably research it but I’m feeling lazy (sorry). Or maybe it’s just the shock of the new? A novelty because, having lived most of my adult life here in the north west of England ,truly clear, sunny days are precious gems. Perhaps if I lived in Australia or Africa I would take it for granted and never ever appreciate that little thrill that comes from turning my face tfacing the suno the sun, closing my eyes and taking a moment to enjoy the warmth. If I had to live and work every day in a hot, sunny climate would I crave a cloudy, rainy day instead? Would a grey sky thrill me as much as a cloudless one does now?  Somehow I doubt it. There might be relief from heat and light, but no joy surely.

Admiring the sunshine and shadows on my legs on a beach in Turkey this year

Admiring the sunshine and shadows on my legs in Turkey this year

I also find that I slow down a little on sunny days, irrespective of temperature. Those lovely deep blue skies are such a pleasure that I always relax and enjoy it, knowing how fleeting they may be. My pulse and breathing slow down and the tension in my neck and shoulders dissipates. It makes me want to stay outdoors, and to sit for a while with a chilled beer (if it’s hot) or if it’s in December and cold,  a cup of tea and a McVitie’s digestive biscuit. Bliss. Sometimes I’m just so English…

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Living in the Past

rose-tinted-specsNostalgia is a bittersweet thing. Sharing happy memories  and sighing wistfully about simple pleasures which we seem to have lost over the years, is undoubtedly a pleasant and entertaining activity, particularly when undertaken socially with friends or family.  We all enjoy looking back fondly at our childhood or youth when things seemed simpler, free-er and less stressful.  Being able to play outside unsupervised by adults,  until the street lights came on; eating sweets and fizzy drinks without an accompanying sense of guilt; never even thinking about wearing sunscreen or worrying about  paedophiles. And later as students with all of the carefree optimism, energy and idealism of youth, skipping lectures to spend the afternoon in the pub, or in bed with a lover. Staying up to the wee small hours talking, drinking, listening to music and still being able to get up and go to tutorials the next morning with only the teensiest hangover. Ok, so I lied about the last bit… I meant the next afternoon.  But you get the picture and it is one best viewed through spectacles of the rose tinted variety. This is the fun side of nostalgia.

The not so fun side of nostalgia is that invariably when discussing the past with other people, the conversation moves from  how great things used to be to “what is the world coming to” and tut-tut-ing about “the youth of today”.  The whole sentimental yearning for times that have long gone tends to focus the mind on what has been lost rather than what has been gained and a lot of people seem incapable of looking back without complaining about the present.  I am as guilty as the next person of mourning the loss of certain aspects of my past but I refuse to succumb to the “whatever happened to the good old days/the world is going to pot today” philosophy.

For every moan and groan about the state of the world today I can think of a dozen more reasons to be grateful.  I feel sorry for those people who are so obsessed with the things that we can no longer do (or at least feel that we can no longer do – and there is a very real difference) that they are blind to the many things that have improved.  As a small example, had I been born a hundred or even fifty years earlier than I was, into similar circumstances in a small northern town, I would not have had the opportunity to continue my education beyond 15 and social mobility would have been nigh impossible. I would probably have died from the appendicitis that I experienced aged 37.  My Dad would not have recovered from his heart attack and my sister would also have died as a consequence of the difficult birth of her daughter.  Even if, by some miracle I had managed to escape a life of working class drudgery, I would not have had the same career opportunities and would have been paid less for doing the same job as my male colleagues.  Within living memory prejudice and sexism were far more overt and widespread than they are today.  Three things I remember from my late teens:

  • Whilst shopping in the local market with my Mum, just before I left home to become a student, the stall holder tutted and told us what a waste of time and money it was letting girls go to university because they only got married and pregnant anyway (!)
  • I was advised never to use “Ms” as my title on job application forms because it implied I would be a bolshie feminist trouble-maker and that it would go against me (!!)
  • A friend of a friend was discouraged from going to university by her family because they said that not only would she be left on the shelf and be too old to marry by the time she graduated but that men didn’t like intelligent girls anyway (!!!)

The fact that we no longer have to put up with shit like that is reason enough to not be too nostalgic for the past and to be more grateful for the present.  I would not want to turn the clock back. My son may not have some of the freedoms that we had as children but he is growing up in a world which is more open, diverse, tolerant and where he is likely to live a longer, healthier life.  He is not being forced up a chimney or to work in a mill for 12 hours every day for a start.

Of course we have a long way to go before everyone feels these benefits globally but I truly believe that the world is a better place today than it was a hundred, fifty, even twenty years ago. By all means reminisce about your happy, carefree past but wear those rose-tinted spectacles with caution and remember…

“The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be”  Marcel Pagnol.

DON’T Curb Your Enthusiasm

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There are occasions in life when everyone asks themselves “Is it me? Am I abnormal or what?” I have asked myself this question lots of times over the years and have come to the conclusion that I am most definitely NOT “normal” (in the sense of “similar to most people I know”) with regard to…well quite a lot of things actually. I will give you a few simple examples and then explain further.

  1. I like classical literature. I also like detective stories, fantasy and sci-fi, light comedies, young adult fiction, biographies, mysteries, ghost stories, holiday trash and general modern literature. In fact I’ll read the back of a cornflake box given half a chance.
  2. I listen to an eclectic range of music. Nirvana, Ella Fitzgerald, Justin Timberlake, Stravinsky, Wham, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Adele and Youssou N’Dour. There is something listed in every single genre on my iPod.
  3. I enjoy world cinema. And big blockbuster events, rom-coms, zom-rom-coms, period dramas, action, sci-fi, small indie films and old black and white weepies.
  4. I like food. Period. There is not a single cuisine that I will not eat with relish. Indian, Chinese, Mexican, English, Spanish, Italian, French, Greek, Middle-Eastern, Japanese, Thai, Turkish etc., etc. Sweet, savoury, sour, salty, bitter. Fishy, meaty, veggie, spicy, crunchy,  smooth and creamy. Love it all. Except beetroot of course. Food of the devil.
  5. I am interested in history. And art. And the history of art. And cosmology, botany, geology, social sciences, dance and drama, astronomy, natural history, psychology, physiology, language, etc., etc. Basically I fascinated by the whole world and all of the wonders of life.

Well,  what am I getting at?  The fact that I am constantly surprised, and often disappointed and a little saddened by other people’s rather limited and restricted interests and enthusiasms. I struggle to understand how some folk can be so narrow in their likes and how wide their dislikes spread.  I get that everyone has personal preferences and tastes and I am not so un-discerning that I don’t have personal favourites, of course I do.  But (cliché alert #1) variety is the spice of life and if you have only a few “likes” then life must be pretty dull and uninspiring.

I have friends, dear, intelligent, thoughtful people, who refuse to read anything written more than 50 years old or to watch black and white films. Others that only read (or watch) non-fiction, or a single genre of fiction/film.  I know fussy, faddy eaters who won’t try anything with a hint of spice or herbs, or sniff at one pot dishes where the ingredients are “mixed up”. Lovely, funny, kind people who disdain ALL sciences. Or arts. My own beloved brother shocked me last week by admitting that he had no interest whatsoever in natural history. I could write a whole separate blog entry about why I think that is weird but getting back to my original point…personally there are not many topics that I am not interested in, not many genres of books I would refuse to read, films I’d refuse to see, music I wouldn’t listen to at least once and few foods I’d refuse to eat. Except beetroot  – it really is deeply unpleasant.

Why am I so enthusiastic for so many different things? Well I have a natural curiosity, a greed for sensory pleasure, and a fear of missing out on anything. I also suspect that there is a deep,  sub-conscious reason…I want to avoid being pigeon-holed or becoming a stereotype. You know the sort of thing I mean; I am a middle-aged, middle class, white woman in suburban Cheshire and therefore I must prefer to read “chick lit” and “aga sagas”, watch rom-com films, listen to Michael Buble, and to drink only white wine and eat grilled chicken with a light salad. Bollocks. It’s not that I don’t like doing those things (I am quite partial to all of them) but I don’t want them to typify me. So, I enjoy  the odd pint of Guinness as well as a glass of sauvignon blanc, I read “A Game of Thrones” as well as Jane Austen, watch “Boardwalk Empire” as well as “The Great British Bake-Off”, and listen to Linkin Park as well as Take That. I am not contrary or rebellious by nature but I hate being pre-judged…

The diversity of my enthusiasms is genuine and I honestly do have way more likes than dislikes in life. Anyone who is a personal friend and linked to me on Facebook will testify that I click “like” an awful lot more than I moan and groan. The odd rant slips in but I like to be a “radiator” not a “drain”.  My favourite people are the ones who are happy and enthusiastic about life – their energy and warmth is contagious. I tend to hide from the energy sapping “I don’t like THIS, THAT is boring and the OTHER is not my cup of tea” brigade. My philosophy in life is that you’re a long time dead and that you should make the most of every opportunity.  There is so much to enjoy and enthuse about so (cliché alert #2) open your mind, broaden your horizons and don’t be dismissive of new experiences … yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. Sorry – I know that you’ve heard it all before but in short,  as my old Dad is fond of saying, “don’t knock it till you’ve tried it”. You never know, you might LIKE it. Unless it’s beetroot – yuk.

Evil foodstuff...

Evil foodstuff…

Musical escapism

field of dreamsEveryone has songs or pieces of music which they associate strongly with certain times and places in their past and which automatically spark memories or emotions long forgotten. For me there is one piece in particular which awakens all of my senses, instantly transporting me to a grassy field, miles from anywhere, on a perfect spring day…

I lie on my back gazing up at a blue, blue sky watching occasional feathers of white cirrus drifting slowly by. My fingers brush the cool, soft grass and the scent of fresh “green” is intoxicating. Overhead, the sun is warm, while a cool breeze brings both a pleasing tactile sensation on my naked arms and a delicious smell of meadow flowers and May blossom. My eye is distracted from the clouds by a sudden speck in the blue, rising ever higher. I tune in to the song of the lark, complex, beautiful and joyful. My heart fills with the perfection of the moment and I am moved, almost to tears as I am swept away by the achingly beautiful and emotional music of  “The Lark Ascending”.

This Vaughn Williams’ piece affects me the same way every time I listen to it, even in a windowless office, plugged into my iPod and pondering some tricky conundrum of information management. It has an actual physiological effect on me whenever I listen to it. My heart rate lowers, my shoulders relax and my breathing slows because this sublime piece of music has the power to take me to a very personal and private place in my head where nothing, nothing matters apart from The Moment. And how precious these moments are. No fretting about the past, no worrying about the future, no distractions from the bustling, noisy, insistent “look-at-me-listen-to-me!” world around me. The demands of work, friends and family are forgotten as I close my eyes to lie on the grass in my field, absorbed in the gentle, sensory pleasures of being alone outdoors in a field in May, utterly relaxed and at peace with the world.

In absolute honesty my reverie is not rooted from a single, specific memory but rather a nostalgia for a time in my life when I lived in rural Lincolnshire and was lucky enough to enjoy many an idyllic afternoon lying in a field, reading or walking across open country and listening to the glorious song of the skylark. The moment I first heard Lark Ascending I was taken back twenty (plus!) years, to that period in my life which was filled with big open skies, fresh country air, and birdsong. Of course it is easy to view the past wearing spectacles of the rose-tinted variety, and in reality there are many things that I don’t miss about my few brief years living the rural lifestyle. For a start our unheated and distinctly chilly farmhouse suffered a regular influx of spiders, which, judging by their size, could only have been the offspring of some unholy union between Shelob and Aragog. There are stories there for another time… In the interim I’m going to hit rewind, listen again to Vaughn Williams and enjoy fourteen minutes of sheer bliss.

The farmhouse we lived in  in North East Lincolnshire in the mid 1980's

The farmhouse we lived in in North East Lincolnshire in the mid 1980’s

Thoughts from an autumnal garden

Looking up through the canopy of my glorious silver birch. Nov 2012

Late on a perfect October afternoon and the first leaf raking of the autumn. Residual heat from the gradually sinking sun filters through the semi-naked branches of the ash, birch and laburnum to warm my bones. The damp, earthy smell of the fallen leaves rising from the lawn with every thrrrupp, thrrrupp of the plastic rake. The whole sensory experience that comes with gardening is a pleasure and I soak it up. I know that many people loathe chores like this and see gardening as a tedious extension of housework. There are times when I agree with them; when I’m in a rush, distracted by other worries or overwhelmed by the long list of chores that need to be done, then I find it hard to enjoy. But not on a day like this. I am making the most of the shimmering, golden light, the smell of mouldering leaves and the persistent calls of the gold finches perched on the rose arch.

As I gather the foliage into piles on the lawn it occurs to me that there are parallel reasons why I enjoy both gardening and writing. The first of which is “me time”.  I am a social animal and thoroughly enjoy the company of my family and friends but I am also perfectly content with my own solitude. Gardening gives me space and time to think, to sort through my mental jumble and nurture ideas just as I nurture seeds in my potting shed. Writing too, gives me “head space” and it is this time to think, about the world, my relationships and about myself, that I treasure. Some might call it navel gazing and my head certainly fills up with scrupulously examined belly-button fluff  at regular intervals, but I do believe that self-awareness should be part of everyone’s mental good health regime.

In both writing and gardening there is an element of cultivation which appeals to my nurturing nature. Germinating the seeds of an idea is as delicate a procedure as persuading your half hardy annuals to sprout in the potting shed. In the same way that over or under watering will cause your precious seedlings to wilt and die, over or under thinking an idea will prevent it from achieving its full potential. Often with garden hoe in hand,  I will have an idea and then spend a lot of time pondering how to develop it into something substantial enough to be worth writing about. Only for it to wither and die under close scrutiny. Occasionally, though a little gem will take root. “Confessions of a Tea Snob” was conceived whilst weeding the herbaceous borders, or to be precise, whilst sipping a drop of the brown stuff on a break from weeding the herbaceous borders. (Admiring the effects of your hard work in the garden over a mug of steaming tea is a must).

The mug was a gift from my son – smart boy.

Stretching the analogy still further, editing is the literary equivalent of weeding. Removing the unwanted dandelions, bindweed and brambles, whilst keeping ivy and alchemilla mollis under control is akin to stripping out the superfluous sentence, pruning the repeated adjectives and separating your mixed metaphors 😉

Since I wrote the above autumn has moved forward into November and there is now barely a leaf left on the trees in my garden. It is not looking at its best. Mud and decay dominate at this time of year, but I’m planning to get out there still, if the rain holds off. I have 3 dozen white tulip bulbs to plant before the hard frosts begin and the prospect of how stunning they will look next spring is enough to make me brave the damp and cold. Our resident Robin will no doubt be hopping around close by, in the hope that my trowel will turn over something wriggling or scuttling, and, if I time it right, I’ll be able to listen to the blackbird as dusk settles. How can it be a chore when there is so much to enjoy? Go grab a hoe or a trowel and get outside in the dirt. Listen to the birds, feel the soil under your fingernails and smell…autumn. It will help clear your head and free your imagination. Who knows what bright ideas you may come up with…

Confessions of a Tea Snob

Time for a brewThere it is in black and white in the middle of an ex-line manager’s description of me on a well-known professional networking site. And of course if it’s on the internet then it must be true. I am, officially, a “tea snob”.

In my defence I would argue that it is all relative. I drink bog standard builders’ brew and not lapsang souchong (well, not often).  My reputation as a tea snob arises from my refusal to drink the stuff that masquerades as tea in most vending machines in the corporate world. After many years working in various large companies, I have developed a sliding scale of drinkability for machine tea. From the “will drink it reluctantly in a moment of weakness but then whinge about it for an hour” to “I would rather drink my own urine or die of dehydration before letting that pass my lips”.

In this latter category comes the “instant” white tea made from some sort of artificially flavoured powder. Whatever alternate universe exists in which this passes for tea is beyond my imagining. Probably the same one in which carob is an acceptable substitute to chocolate.

Marginally less offensive is the instant black tea to which you add UHT milk from tiny plastic containers. However, you do run the risk of opening a damaged carton to find that you have inadvertently poured cottage cheese into your brew instead of milk. Nice.

Occasionally you will come across a vending machine which proudly dispenses one of the famous branded teas and you may be tempted to try it. Don’t. It will still taste like the sweepings from the factory floor. There is no substitute for making your own brew.

Real teabags, a hot water dispenser and a fridge to store your fresh milk. Best of all, water dispensed that is actually hot enough to brew tea and not just raise the ambient temperature of your mug to “warm”. If your office water dispenser is hot enough to scald you then you’re on to a winner and know that you have secured employment with a company that really cares about its staff. Heaven forbid that you do have a water dispenser related accident but at least then a friendly colleague would be able to comfort and calm you with a decent cup of hot, sweet tea which is, as everyone knows, the panacea for all ills.

My love of tea began in early childhood. Playing with my toy tea set in my den, underneath the dining table, I would copy the tea-making ritual I had watched my beloved granddad perform every day, but with cold milk and water instead. One day, desperate to make real tea in my own teapot, I subjected my granddad to the full force of my charms (knowing full well that he could rarely resist me) and begged him for tea leaves and hot water for the pot. There was a great pause while he weighed up the potential waste, mess and risk of scalding. Eventually he suggested a compromise whereby he would decant some of his already whitened, sweetened and cooled tea from his cup into my toy teapot. I readily agreed and with great excitement poured out three or four tiny cups of the amber nectar for my dollies. Surprisingly they wouldn’t drink it, so I downed the lot. Thus began the habit of a lifetime.

I have long since given up sugar and switched to semi-skimmed milk but my love of tea is undiminished and I drink it by the gallon, provided it’s the real McCoy and not some vending machine sludge. Does this make me a “tea snob”? Perhaps. Writing about it has certainly made me thirsty though…time to put the kettle on methinks.