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…?