Sunday, 27 February 2011

Glamming up

Ok, so I don't like to think that I'm vain, but I am due to speak tomorrow at a Beauty Industry breakfast, where the audience will be full of Beauty Editors from the kinds of upscale magazines even I in my hermit-like novelist state have heard of (Vogue, Marie Claire, Harpers). And while normally I wouldn't worry about stepping out of the house without make-up (applying make-up has never been my strong suit, and you know what they say about lack of practice) I do just worry that I might be the only ungroomed person in the room.

It reminds me of when people find out I'm a psychotherapist and they assume (incorrectly, as it happens) that I am at that moment reading their mind. Knowing I'm about to stand in front of lots of people who write each day about beauty and make-up, I am stricken with terror that the wrinkles I've lived with for years, the colour of my mascara - which I have also lived with for years - even my haircut, will be under silent and severe scrutiny. Forget nerves about my speech, suddenly I'm highly anxious about what I look like.

Hence today's trip to the hairdressers (thank heavens for Sunday opening) and the eyebrow threader - not least because beautifying ourselves makes us feel confident and in control. With make-up or other beauty rituals, we acquire an aura of confidence. Because, as someone somewhere once said, We're Worth It.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The need to read more books

I have just returned from a Reading Weekend. That's reading as in books, not Reading as in near Slough.

But a Reading Weekend... Its very existence, the need for such an apparent luxury, is perhaps a sad commentary on our times. That our lives are so busy, so frenetic, that we should consciously need to create space in which to read.

These heavenly weekends the brainchild of Damian Barr - Salonista, Wit, super-host and owner of some jazzy striped pyjamas - and are held in the breathtaking Sussex countryside at Tilton House. Tilton is a treat in itself, being a gorgeous Georgian property five minutes walk from the Bloomsbury hangout, Charleston I fell totally in love with Tilton, and if I wasn't such a London girl would move in permanently.

The weekend is extremely chillaxed (see ref to Damian's PJs above). Log fires, a funny dog called Barclay, beautifully-maintained gardens, bottles of damson gin and divine food all compete for your attention. But I did managed to read the whole of Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes, make new friends (including with Laura Lockington, author of the wonderfully funny memoir Cupboard Love) and spent Saturday evening listening to writer Geoff Dyer read his hilarious short-story about the perils of picking up a hitch-hiker.

But seriously, a weekend set aside for reading? I loved every single minute, but on the train back I couldn't help feeling wistful for a time when reading was just something we did, not something we have to diarise. In books we can escape, explore, confirm and play - all vital activities for our ongoing wellbeing. The author Philip Womack has recently conducted a kind of survey to check that people are still reading books on the underground. They are - phew! - so all is not lost, but perhaps it's not too late to make a new year's resolution to read more from books each week, not just save it up for magical but rare weekends in Sussex.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Yesterday I was invited on to LBC Radio to talk with the presenter, Nick Ferrari about a story in the news to do with endings. The story in question was the 38 armed forces personnel who were told they were being made redundant by email. We discussed the brutality of such a method - a clerical error, the army, admits - and also ways in which the redundancy conversation can go better.

In our lives we talk often about a 'good enough ending'/ Patients in therapy hope to achieve it, especially if in their lives other endings have been messy or traumatic. We speak of wanting a 'good death', by which we mean without pain or suffering, perhaps surrounded by loved ones, or even in our sleep. But even vague endings, like the end of a pleasant evening out with friends, can mobilise in us a wobble about how to do the ending. We make promises about calling soon, we must do this again, I'll email you. We can't bear the end without making some attempt to confirm future meetings.

This is because human beings hate endings. They remind us of death. Redundancy is one such ending - which might explain why we have created so many euphemisms (letting go, downsizing) for what in effect is the end of a job, the end for some people of a career, and certainly the end of a phase in someone's life. When your identity is bound up in your job, this ending can deal a severe blow to your self-esteem.

Identify the hidden endings in your life, in your day. Accept them for what they are, and find space to acknowledge the end - to mourn them, even - even if it's just the end of a successful meeting. And remember that creating balance in your life will help mitigate those moments when something, big or small, comes to an end.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Valentine's Day

And a happy Valentine's Day to you all.

But seriously, isn't it all getting a little bit out of hand? I don't want to sound churlish - and yes, I did get a) a card, b) a scented candle and c) dinner out (on Saturday, when we can skip the faux-romance laughably implied by over-priced set-menus) - but do you really have to spend a lot of money, or any money at all, to say 'I love you' nowadays?

Because isn't it all getting a bit like Christmas, where so much is made of how happy everyone must be that those not in relationships are in danger of being made to feel inadequate? True, I can still recall the thrill of receiving my first proper Valentine's card that wasn't from my Dad. But it's a day to celebrate all kinds of love, not just romantic love. And it's a day to be authentic.

I tapped in to my inner child made Nigella's Love Buns, complete with home-made hearts...

Thursday, 10 February 2011

World Book Night

Yay, I've just received an email telling me that I'm to be a 'giver' in World Book Night, on Saturday 5th March, an initiative in which one million books will be given away free.

My novel is 'One Day' by David Nicholls, a fabulous novel where we follow a couple's relationship on the same date each year over 20 years. It's an excellent conceit and makes for some good irony and poignancy. I loved it and hope that the 48 copies I have to give away will go to people who will be similarly rewarded.

I shall be giving some copies away at the mental hospital where I work, and to commuters at Victoria Station. Will keep you updated here as to how I get on.

But what a fabulous initiative - a million books, given away for free. Reading for pleasure, in every sense of the word.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Internet Safety Day

Am feeling very post-modern, Facebooking, Sky News-ing & Tweeting about internet safety. The adolescent brain has poor impulse control and reasoning function. So, what's our excuse...?

I'm blogging and you're reading me, yet we aren't meeting face-to-face. We think we know the score, that we can evaluate this relationship, that we're not street-wise but rather net-wise.

But it's as well to remember that there can be no substitute for human interaction. I've just taken a break from writing today to have a carrot & ginger juice (she had spinach juice, I am such a wimp...) with a new-ish friend who is full of energy and positivity. I felt the warmth of the real sun on my face - not the over-cooked heat of it streaming directly through my garret windows - and smelled the delicious cooking smells in the cafe. And now I have a final burst of creativity before the day is out which I put down to leaving the computor alone for a while and going out and having a life for half an hour.

Internet safety isn't just about filters and childproof locks and being aware of how split-second decisions to text that boy who fancies you in Year 11 can lurk forever on the world wide web. It's about having the courage to pull out the drip once in a while and really live.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Sunday lunch

With the hurricane thrashing about outside our London home, thoughts naturally turn to cosy suppers and hibernation. Warming food, with fats and carbohydrate, is good for the body and soul, providing - above all - insulation. But every so often, it's good to kick start the system and play around with routine. So for today's Sunday lunch - despite a sky outside which could have been painted by Turner in a rage - we're off to the Maghreb for some spice and sizzle. A stuffing for the roast chicken made with chorizo and almonds, a pungent bowl of chermoula (a pickled lemon and garlic salsa, usually served with fish, but I love the way the citrus tang snuggles up to the chicken), thick yoghurt sprinkled with mint and pimiento. And some wicked roast potatoes - because there will always be some aspects of Sunday lunch which are sacred...

What's your recipe for the tastiest Sunday lunch?

Monday, 31 January 2011

Courgette Soup and a painting by Millais

Inspiration comes in numerous guises. This morning, I was strolling around Tate Britain making notes for my new novel, and was drawn to the well-known painting Millais' Ophelia. Not, this time, for its fluid brushstrokes, the beauty of the model (Elizabeth Siddall) or its mood of ethereal limbo, but for that vivid splash of green at the bottom of the painting. There's a hint of lime in it, and almost turquoise, a splash of colour which is fresh and alive in a way that Ophelia is so soon not to be. But above all, it reminded me of courgette soup.

And so, dear reader, this is what I made for lunch today - on a weekday , when we usually convince ourselves that we only have time to nibble that bit of cheese, or grab a sandwich. From chopping start to blender it took thirteen minutes to make, and obviously less time to eat. But it occurred to me - as I gently sliced through half an onion, sweated it in some butter, added some a thinly sliced emerald green courgette and a fluttering of thyme leaves, and covered the vegetables with a little chicken stock - that the relaxing properties of making ourselves something tasty, cheap and undemanding to eat in the middle of a busy day, is one of life's undervalued luxuries.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Chocolate = well-being

No, I haven't been baking chocolate cakes on National Chocolate Cake Day. But I have done the next best thing, which is to make a long-promised pilgrimage to my local Hummingbird Bakery in South Kensington to buy one of their new gluten-free range cupcakes, in their signature Red Velvet flavour. And truly delicious, eat-it-all-in-one-go it was, too.

The good thing about chocolate is that research has shown that it contains large amounts of anti-oxidents, which are good for reducing not only blood pressure but also the blood's ability to clot - making it a possible help towards reducing the chances of stroke.

So, guilt-free chocolate eating - what's not to like?

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The comfort zone

Have been chatting to an old friend whose two daughters are late teenagers, at Uni and in the sixth form respectively. Both girls are grappling with painful life lessons. Yet the eldest, it seems to me, has acquired an admirable sense of proportion that I, in my nominally grown-up state, have yet to master. When faced with a dilemma, a crisis even, she is asking herself: what's the worst that can happen? To prepare for this, she has Plan B, and sometimes a Plan C up her sleeve. Both options involve this young, courageous woman moving out of her comfort zone, throwing herself into the unknown.

I admire and applaud - nay, envy - her strength of spirit. Too many of us are tied down by invisible wires which delude us into thinking that we can't change, that indeed we mustn't change, lest things unravel. And then where would we be? Well, where indeed? Possibly somewhere more challenging, more nerve-wracking? Or more rewarding?

I went bunji-jumping once. A phenomenal experience. I'd planned to do it in advance, and surprised myself by not backing out on the platform 100 metres above Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls. Six months later I'd resigned from my job as an investment banker - something I maybe could have done 2-3 years earlier - and begun a new life: writing novels and retraining to be a psychotherapist. And looking back, I'm convinced that somewhere in my psyche, a shift occurred when I took that literal leap into the metaphorical unknown. A shift which eventually changed my life.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Happiness and mental wellbeing

Wellbeing has been in the news a lot lately, what with last Monday 17th Jan being identified as the gloomiest day of the year, and today, Tuesday 25th rumoured to contain the most stress (and a happy Burns Nicht to you too, Mr. Compiler of happy facts). And yesterday the BBC weighed in with an initiative to get us to measure our happiness.

But what does it all mean? What is happiness? And what is mental wellbeing? After all, it's so subjective. Your idea of a great night out at the footie is my idea of torture.

The key thing to remember is that the one does not equal the other. We have the sense that good mental wellbeing is crucial to being happy. But we cannot be happy all the time and forever. We can have moments of happiness but we cannot live life on a permanent upward trajectory. But we can still look after ourselves and love ourselves. Contentment might be the key.

Viktor Frankl said that happiness is what gives our life meaning. And for many of us, it's what we do and how we live emotionally that gives our life meaning. For example, doing kind things for others can make us feel good about ourselves, give us a warm glow. And it doesn't have to cost a bean. Living in central London as I do, I encounter people all the time who are lost: tourists, people down for an interview, people applying for a passport, or simply travellers hoping to get from the train to the coach station. They are standing in front of a map, turning it this way and that, and wearing that look on their face which says: I don't want to get stressed, but this ongoing helplessness is beginning to wind me up. So I ask them if they need help and - knowing my 'hood as well as I do - I can usually set them on their way.

It's a teeny, tiny thing, it costs me nothing at all apart from maybe a minute out of my day, and off such people go, feeling a bit less stressed. A random act of kindness. Maybe not leading on either side to full-blown I've just got engaged/won the lottery/scaled Kilimanjaro type elation, but something to improve mental wellbeing.

What random act of kindness will you make today?

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A hall of mirrors

Have been amused today to discover that my review last week in the Sunday Telegraph of Susan Hill's exquisite new novella, A Kind Man has itself been 'reviewed', in a way, in the New Statesman . The NS column is actually a summary of the fiction reviews in any given week, but the end result, especially for those of us mentioned, has a distinctly 'hall of mirrors' feel, fracturing the light, reflecting back a reflection. What if someone were now to critique the NS column, alongside, say, The Guardian and The Week, which run similar 'review of reviews' columns? Where would it all end? Reviews stretching to infinity.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Licking the spoon...

So, were you allowed to lick the spoon when your Mum was making cakes? In other words, did you grow up in a pre-lapsarian, pre-Edwina Curry, salmonella-free era, when scraping out the last of the cake mixture was a treat on a par with Christmas? Yep, me too. It combined the buzz of acquiring BETWEEN MEALS an additional ration of chocolate (all my mother’s cakes were chocolate), with the hint that by scraping out the bowl I was somehow contributing to the cake making effort. And that this made me a cook.

Now, being a proper grown up and all, I now know that cooking is a little bit more complicated than that. But deep down I have never lost the love of creating food from scratch, wafting around a kitchen filled with savoury aromas or the warm fug of baking. From the age of six when my mother graciously declared that my pastry was better than hers, I've chopped and whisked and rolled and sauted and enjoyed the simple pleasures of making good food. And over time I’ve found that cooking taps into magical things unrelated to the kitchen. As well as providing actual nourishment, cooking can be soothing, therapeutic, and good for the soul.

I'm not sure what I'll be blogging about, but then that's one of the big challenges of life: facing the unknown. The main ingredient will, I'm sure, be cooking. Except when it's about eating out, which is another passion. There’ll be a dollop of politics, a soupcon of social commentary, all basted in the juices of my job as a psychotherapist. And as I’m the agony aunt of Psychologies magazine, the glaze may well come from mulling over how this thing called Life makes us feel. I may not blog terribly consistently - I'm meant to be finishing my second novel, about Jax, daughter of a famous TV chef, who refuses to learn to cook - but then again, life is too short not to have a go at this multi-tasking malarky once in a while.

So join me here – not only to lick the spoon of life, but eat the cake too!

Now, where’s my apron…?