Back to blogging with a big, fat bang….

dv1554019I have been subject to a ‘blogging malaise’ over the past few weeks. Trying to think of a subject to cover; a poem to recommend; a book to discuss etc has seemed too much trouble. No more wriggling out of writing was the title I chose for this blog three and a half years ago now, before I could really call myself a professional writer. Now I am one. So why need I blog?

Well today I thought, at last, of a reason to get on here and say something and it struck me that perhaps I had forgotten how important it is, even as someone lucky enough to have commissions to work on, to simply WRITE. No wonder I am feeling low – I haven’t been writing much at all. I have been reading a lot, but as an escape and as procrastination. So I am grateful that Radio 4 and Any Questions actually got me sufficiently riled to put finger to keypad once more. Here is why.

2013 was not a good year for my insides. I started suffering acute stomach pains and was sent for all manner of scary tests at the hospital. Many of you will know that as someone who has been treated, successfully, for breast cancer, I find the words ‘because of your medical history we just need to check’ are words that strike the fear of the Almighty in me. I had a few of those moments in 2013, but eventually it was discovered that my gallbladder was as a bulging bag of lead shot, overflowing and requiring urgent removal. The stress here is on ‘urgent’ as I had narrowly avoided one hospitalisation and was fearing another at any moment. So the surgeon saying ‘we should have you in here in a month’ seemed like good news. Our local NHS hospital, Musgrove Park in Taunton, has always seen me right. Saved my life even. But as one month went to two, and then to three, I was getting worried. But a strict low-fat diet and regular, gentle exercise was seeing a weight loss of 2lb a week. By the time I was called in, I was two stone lighter and although still suffering from the shot in the gut, I felt much better for it.

As is so common, I have struggled with my weight for years. I have been slim, fat and somewhere in between. It IS hard for me to lose the flab; I have lymphoedema in my legs that makes them heavy and prone to serious swelling and I am on cancer and anti-depressant drugs that make it even more difficult to shed the pounds. But never was it more obvious to me that I had been using these things as an excuse than when I was waiting for my gall bladder op. I could do it if I tried, and I did because I knew my health could be seriously compromised if I didn’t. I took control.

Andy Burnham-of-the-lovely-brown-eyes - on the Any Questions panel
Andy Burnham-of-the-lovely-brown-eyes – on the Any Questions panel

Over the past few days, and on aforesaid Any Questions, the subject of the obesity epidemic in the UK came up again. Last week it was said that some 2 million people in the UK could be eligible for NHS gastric band operations in the next few years. Should we regulate the food industry? Teach kids what a vegetable is?

Now, at last, I get to the point. When I did at last get my appointment, after weeks of nice phone calls with helpful appointments staff, I found myself on the ‘gastric band’ list and was told that they often ‘squeezed’  a gall bladder removal (or choleocystectomy) on to that list. I was surprised, not least because I had no idea there was a ‘list’ for NHS gastric band surgery but also because those who were in the waiting room had not struck me as very different from your regular ‘Taunton tummy’ type, in which classification I would, two months before, have had to include myself. Overweight, possibly obese, but still a pretty common shape.

bandAs I slid down the day’s operating list to accommodate those with Type 2 diabetes who had to go before me to ensure their blood sugars didn’t spiral out of control, I had one of those wicked thoughts that creep up on us occasionally and cause us to judge others more harshly than we might otherwise do. Why had that woman just gone in front of me to have her gastric band, accompanied by her two sons who had had the same operation eight weeks before? She was no more overweight than I had been. Why couldn’t she, and her two sons, have done what I did and controlled their diet and exercised a bit more? Wasn’t that gastric band fitting a dangerous operation to control appetites that simply needed more self-control? If they needed it, then half the UK would qualify surely?

Perhaps. What worries me most is that since I had the gallbladder operation, for all my good intentions, the surgeons words ‘well you can go back to a normal diet now’ have inveigled themselves into my subconscious and eaten away at that very self-control I bemoaned the lack of in the woman and her family in the hospital. I must have put half a stone on since Christmas. Being overweight, for me, means a long hard road to fitness but it can be done. Surely I have no right to expect the NHS to sort me out just because I can’t pass a chocolate bar or a bun without cramming it in my mouth? Surely, if an NHS doctor can’t find it possible to tell me that, without my gall bladder, I still have to eat carefully, he is making work for himself and our cash-strapped health service?

I am a greedy pig and I know it. But it seems I have long term medical conditions that could qualify me for this radical  surgery. Why should we offer gastric bands as apparently ‘preventative’ medicine? Diabetes may be a silent killer, but tell us about it, have us in to your office and tell us we will die if we don’t cut out the pies and walk round the block. Tell us we are neglecting our kids if we encourage them to eat in the same way. Take adverts for McDonalds and KFC off the telly and sod corporate anger. Anything, but DON’T fit us with something that could kill us and will certainly not teach us how to live our lives in a healthy way. Who knows, is it far-fetched to think that we may end up fitting young girls with gastric bands just to help them achieve some ridiculous idea of ‘body-image’ that the madness of the media and big business would have us believe is the only way to be?

Put the money into treating those with life-threatening illnesses unrelated to gluttony.

There, said it. And perhaps you wish I had kept this bile to my duct, where it belongs….

‘Mum!! The dog ate the flapjacks!!!’ – So I share a perfect recipe with the world..

We have a lovely 5-year-old black Labrador x Collie dog called Barnaby. Apparently ‘free’, in that we had him as a puppy following a friend’s dog producing a surprise litter, he has, in truth, cost us a fortune. There have been the regular vets fees with various illnesses and he has doubled our bread bill, having shown a predilection for sliced brown. But we love him dearly – most of the time.

The only time that love has been tested recently relates to the following recipe. It is, I believe, for perfect flapjacks. Having combined numerous suggested ingredients from numerous cookery books, old and new, I have found that a recipe my brother-in-law Michael suggests can, only slightly amended make really juicy and (almost) healthy bars full of good things. And as you will find out later, dogs love them.

I don’t usually post recipes because there are so many wonderful food blogs out there already and I know my limitations. But this is practically poetry; and having made a batch today I wanted to prompt you to do the same.

‘Let’s pretend they’re good for us’ flapjack squares

Continue reading “‘Mum!! The dog ate the flapjacks!!!’ – So I share a perfect recipe with the world..”

Living the dream: on creativity, coffee and purple carrots….

Chris with his young staff-in-training

How many of us have wanted to leave the ‘rat race’ (who does ‘race’ rats?) and open a cafe or tea shop? Especially one set in a village close to wonderful rolling countryside and just a few miles from the sea?I have just come back from a weekend catching up with friends from our years spent in Brighton & Hove. It is a part of the country we still love, although as soon as we left we knew the cost of moving back would be prohibitive. Classic commuter country villages with the benefits of the city scene in Brighton make it very different from the Somerset we live in now. So we make the most of our invitations back and try to meet up with as many people as possible.

So on Saturday we popped in on our old mate Chris Wilson, who I have previously remembered best as the guy who, fifteen years ago, encouraged me to drink three cocktails involving about 10 different spirits. The results were of course predictable, but less predictable at the time would have been the sight of him behind the counter of his very own cafe, making me a cup of fresh ground (and very strong) coffee.

Continue reading “Living the dream: on creativity, coffee and purple carrots….”

‘Mood Food’ or Marian Keyes? ‘Saved by Cake’ & managing depression with diet

‘To be perfectly blunt about it, my choice sometimes is: I can kill myself or I can make a dozen cupcakes. Right so, I’ll do the cupcakes and I can kill myself tomorrow.’

So says Marian Keyes in the introduction to her new book Saved by CakeFamous around the world for her works of fiction this is her first recipe book; but she isn’t just another Kirstie Allsopp. Marian Keyes believes her impulsive decision to take up a spatula and bake has actually brought her back from the brink of suicide.

‘Saved by Cake’ is a wonderful book. Keyes is very honest about her mental illness. At times she has been on the brink of ending her life, planning to avoid desecrating her home by booking into an anonymous hotel to do the deed. She seems to have tried every therapy, drug treatment and homeopathic and spiritual remedy available. Continue reading “‘Mood Food’ or Marian Keyes? ‘Saved by Cake’ & managing depression with diet”

‘Face or figure?’ – On needing to lose a little weight in middle-age…

Woman With A Cigarette: Fernando Botero

Oh dear. I have been told I should lose a stone in weight. That is something else in kilograms but it won’t sound any better. It should probably be more like two  – I have lymphoedema in my legs and extra weight makes them swell. Added to that, my trousers are too tight, the sleeves of my jacket feel as if they have shrunk (and it is nothing to do with extra muscle) and when I do aquarobics my rear end bounces up and meets itself going down. My sister has lost weight and feels great but I have put on ten pounds since Christmas. Stressed and depressed I can’t even cling to lack of appetite and consequent weight loss as compensation. I can hear half price chocolate mint sticks calling to me from the fridge even now…..

Continue reading “‘Face or figure?’ – On needing to lose a little weight in middle-age…”

A new addiction? Or an answer to obesity? Now I really understand the appeal of cupcakes…

My sister Jane and I setting up the stand...

On Saturday I was lucky enough to be part of the Rural Living Show in Taunton, an annual event that has become a fixture in the Christmas calendar in Somerset. Styling itself a ‘craft and lifestyle show’ it is a great showcase for local craft, design and food producers who travel from all over the South West to take part. Thousands of people attend every year to buy or order artisan made gifts and consumables. Many will be Christmas presents or wonderful puddings and preserves. Others will be like the stand I was part of – delicious food you might intend for later but which actually lasts no longer than the length of the show.

My friend Charlie is a fellow breast cancer survivor and has been appointed Corporate Ambassador for Macmillan Cancer Support. Deciding to step back from a hectic life as a recruitment consultant she has now started her own business – Charlotte Jane Cakes – making celebration cupcakes, organising cupcake parties and producing those teeny little flags you see decorating plates of sandwiches at parties. This was her first time at the Rural Living Show and we weren’t quite sure how it would go, especially as we found we were sited next to an enormous chocolate fountain running with Nutcombe chocolate…

In fact it was a great success. Charlie sold more than 500 cupcakes, had a number of enquiries for parties and a christening and made a lot of new contacts. She also got a ‘wow’ from the WI and a cookery teacher. A wonderful time was had by all.

The fabulous Charlie, purveyor of fine cupcakes....

Earlier this year I wrote an article published in Family Tree magazine entitled ‘Cupcakes & cucumber sandwiches’. It was a brief history of tea time, inspired by my love of all things Victorian and the cupcake craze that Charlie has helped bring to Somerset.

Continue reading “A new addiction? Or an answer to obesity? Now I really understand the appeal of cupcakes…”

On finding real truth, peace and reconciling ourselves to the future

It is Good Friday. I once again maintained a Furneaux family tradition quite alone by eating far too many Hot Cross Buns. I am anticipating chocolate eggs on Sunday and looked forward to having the family around me for a few extra days over the weekend instead of finding myself alone at the computer all day.

And then this morning, instead of the usual Homes Under the Hammer or Animal 24/7 with my coffee I found myself catching the final few minutes of Bettany Hughes discussing forgiveness, and how hard we have to work to say ‘I forgive you’ or ‘I am sorry’ with any true meaning. I cannot say my life has been transformed, but my morning certainly has been. I remained seated for the first part of The Story of Jesus, examining the man’s life from an historical perspective and reading of the four gospels. Suddenly, the day seemed to have some significance beyond buns and chocolate. As my husband continued with some dubious puns and general mocking of religion it occurred to me that the increasing secularisation of society might have some direct correlation to increases in stress, anxiety and depression. I am sure this is not an original thought, but it crystallised for me the idea that my search for a place in the world, my anxiety about the future and my desperate need to find peace of mind and a place of safety might relate to my relationship with society as a whole.

This thought may not have been prompted by Bettany Hughes at all. I felt the first stirrings yesterday; once when I went to browse in Marks & Spencer and saw a whole range of chick and bunny decorated kitchenware. Who needs (or has the money for) tea towels, tea pots, cereal bowls, etc etc specifically for Easter? Christmas has long been lost to rampant commercialisation, but there has always been something rather more reserved about Easter, shocking though it is to see chocolate eggs in Sainsbury’s in January. I also thought shops had to remain shut on Easter Sunday, but on checking opening times for my daughter I found that Clarks Shopping Village in Street is open all day. Is there now no day in the year where we have to sit quietly with our own thoughts? Or does society now demand constant opportunities for distraction? Is our need for chicks and bunnies to celebrate one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar more to do with our love of childhood; our nostalgia at the loss of innocence?

I have never been able to commit to organised religion. I have long suspected that the need to ‘find God’ related more to my desire to shift responsibility for my life on to someone else than a real need for his spiritual presence in  my life. However, listening to Bettany Hughes; drifting along on the calm voice of Archbishop Rowan Williams; feeling uplifted by the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu; I felt more strongly than ever that we all need to find some peace in this mad world.

I believe, though, that to find peace you need to find truth. A real truth and an understanding of what is truly right and wrong in this world. With the increasing commercialisation of every aspect of society and the state of the British media how can we succeed in that search? Only yesterday the Daily Express printed figures about the number of people on long-term Incapacity Benefit owing to what they clearly saw as ‘lifestyle choices’ – obesity, drug and alcohol addiction. The words were then taken across internet news channels and supported by Conservative politicians. Apparently these ‘scroungers’ are costing us billions of pounds a year. Apart from the fact that as my friend wurzelmeone pointed out these claims amounted to less than 4% of the total, are these people seriously suggesting that people are staying on drugs, ruining their lives and relationships with addictions and eating until they can’t get out of a chair just to avoid work? Shouldn’t we be berating the fact that the budgets of voluntary sector organisations supporting these people out of self-destruction have been slashed in recent months whilst investment bankers continue to reap the rewards of their own destructive behaviours – gambling with our money? Or looking at our enthusiasm for another war in the Middle East where our oil interests lie when there are dictators in other areas of the world who can continue to persecute their own people without our intervention?

How can I, or anyone in society interested in finding a way to reconcile opposing values in the years to come, find the ‘truth’ necessary to offer the calm atmosphere necessary for clear and rational thought?

I have on many occasions been ‘accused’ of ‘thinking too much’, of being ‘too sensitive’. ‘Life isn’t like that, get on with it!’ is a phrase thrown at me on suggesting there ought to be a different way.

Well on Good Friday, whether you have an interest in established religion, seek a spirituality of your own or just ‘get on with it’ I think we ought to take a long hard look at the way we live now. It is not only me that needs to find some place of safety in this mad world.

Where do you…..?

Write…. Read….. Eat…..

I follow Rin Simpson’s great blog Now I am thirty , not because I have a great deal in common with her age-wise (I most certainly do not) but because like her I have a desire to write the perfect crime novel. I also share her love of the printed word and enjoy the fact that even with a taste for the macabre she has the prettiest blog. She also comes up with some great ideas for blog posts and like the best of them (StickyFingers Gallery for example) she prompts her readers to get their own creative efforts online. Most recently she has come up with Where do you write?, and without wanting to lose your attention I recommend you give it a look now, and with her blessing I have pinched the idea for my latest post.

However (and I hope I haven’t already lost anybody) I know some of my readers would rather chew off their own right arm than sit down and write creatively. My husband, for example, would produce an Excel spreadsheet; my sister would draw a planting scheme for her garden. Still creative, but they could potentially perceive themselves excluded from this post. So, and I hope Rin will forgive me, I have extended the brief.

I would love it if you would have a look at my ramblings, and then in a few words tell me: where do you write? Do you have a special pen and need Muse full volume on your iPod? Or do you tap away at a laptop in complete silence? Where do you read? How do you find a little time to really get engrossed in someone else’s work? And where do you eat? Not mealtimes necessarily, or even proper food. Just that little moment when you feel the need to put something in your mouth just for the pleasure of it, so to speak.

Continue reading “Where do you…..?”

Why do people argue in Asda?

I was walking in the aisles of our local Asda the other day. It is quite a small supermarket and has no George clothing range to make the visit more interesting. Just a few sad racks of pants and socks. But it has the unmistakable Asda aura, that indefinable something that makes a shopping trip just that little bit less bearable. I had just popped in for a few stop-gap items before the next weekly shop, which we usually do in the Tesco five miles away.

Now I will apologise to all Asda staff in advance. What I am about to say does not have anything to do with you, most of the time. Everyone I ask a question of is very helpful, and I have only once had to interrupt a clearly vital conversation about someone’s intimate love life just to be pointed in the direction of the gravy granules. But am I the only person who comes out of an Asda feeling a veil of misery coming over me?

Continue reading “Why do people argue in Asda?”

On a ‘Cresta’ of a wave – down memory lane to the retro sweetshop..

I appreciate that I may once again be accused of unremitting nostalgia, melancholia and a yearning for times past , (as well as an appalling propensity for puns in my titles) but there was only one significant disappointment on my recent holiday to Suffolk and the sense of it is lingering, like a little bit of Opal Fruit stuck in a filling.

Woodbridge has an ‘old-fashioned sweet shop’ called ‘Granville’s’, and learning of this in the weeks leading up to our trip I made sure I sneakily manoeuvred us to this pretty small town in search of my Holy Grail of sweets – chocolate hammers, spanners, saws and paintbrushes.  The penny sweets, not the posh ones you can get in a tin in Lakeland, or the ones that they sell in garden centres alongside chocolate secateurs and computer mice (mouses?). Granvilles is a lovely shop, rows of jars on shelves, stripy paper bags, tubs of chewy things – but they didn’t have any chocolate tools. As I paid for a packet of ‘Zubes’ for my mum (nothing better for clearing catarrh, apparently) the helpful women behind the counter empathised with my craving for doing cheap chocolate candy DIY. ‘I know they exist’, I said, ‘I get them from Cranch’s in Totnes’. This competition for my custom may spur them to put some on their next order to the Nasty Cheap Sweet Co. or whoever markets the plastic tubs we steer our children away from, but I suspect not. When I did eventually find some in Bury St Edmunds they had mixed them up with chocolate foam bananas so they smelled horrible. I suspect they are not a big seller.

Continue reading “On a ‘Cresta’ of a wave – down memory lane to the retro sweetshop..”