Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Reaping what I sowed

So a good three months after I planted our strawberries, I've gathered in the harvest. Both of them were lovely: sadly, not quite enough for all three of us to have one each. I reckon, allowing for plants and compost, they cost about £2.50 a berry - slightly more than I paid for two vast punnets of delicious ones from the supermarket.
Yup, yet again I've fallen into the annual trap of thinking growing your own is somehow thrifty, rather than being a ruinously expensive hobby.
This year I planted tons of rocket, spinach, lettuce and red mustard seeds; half a dozen strawberry plants; another blueberry bush, to make my supposedly self-fertilising bush actually fruit; some french bean seeds, tomato seeds and (a bit optimistically) red pepper seeds.
And now? The salads have been great: a couple of quid on seed (I had some left over from last year) will keep us in leafage until autumn and has genuinely saved us money. Herbs are also a nobrainer for anyone who cooks.
The blueberries are now fruiting, but as a £10 bush produces a small punnet's worth, it'll probably take about six years before it's in profit. The beans are all flowering and might even cover the cost of their compost.
And the tomato plants are worth it for the gorgeous smell of warm tomato leaves alone, which reminds me of my grandfather's greenhouse when I was tiny. Just as well, since although they're covered in tiny green globes I doubt they're worth it on economic grounds (all that expensive compost again: I know, I know, cheaper if you make your own, but we've not lived in this house long enough to get a heap going).
And to my surprise there are eight pepper plants, although no sign of any peppers. Hell, if they don't fruit they can be recycled as very boring houseplants.
One of the reasons for growing my own this year was to teach my son that vegetables don't all come shrinkwrapped in plastic, and that bit worked. There's something magical about turning a seed into a sprout, then into a flower and a fruit (and not just for three year olds). So educationally, it's been a triumph.
Recreationally, I've rather enjoyed pottering around in the evening sunshine ineptly pinching out tomatoes with a glass of wine. Financially, however, it's been a washout - apart from the salads and herbs, everything would have been cheaper at Waitrose.
I bet I do it all again next year.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

why twitter is the new fag break

When I gave up smoking, many years ago, it wasn't really the nicotine I missed. What I pined for was the smoking room at work, where all the renegades of the newsroom congregated to spread filthy rumours, slag off the management and bemoan the end of the golden age of news (translated: the age when you'd be doing this in the pub, not the smoking room). It took far longer to wean myself off that habit, not that I ever really did: bitching about the boss by email was fortunately invented shortly afterwards.
That same familiar feeling flooded back yesterday, going back to my old office for lunch with a friend who still works there. Bumping into a few nice ex-colleagues reminds me that the one thing I miss about office life is the people.
That's people both in the particular (the Guardian and Observer staff are an unusually nice bunch) but also the general. One of the great joys of freelance life is the absence of office politics, bruised egos and power games: but while I like not having to deal with it, I do miss gossiping about it. I miss the watercooler stuff: rumour, innuendo, the stuff of other people's lives.
These days, I rely heavily on Twitter for my virtual fag break/watercooler moment. Many of my old friends and colleagues now tweet, which helps, but as a bonus I also now get the rest of the world's office gossip too.
I waste a lot of time on social media, but perhaps it's not so much of a waste. We all need human interaction, but tend to assume that online socialising doesn't really count: that it's for cold-hearted geeks who can't deal with flesh and blood friendships.
Well maybe not, if this American study is right. It argues that using social media bumps up our levels of the hormone oxytocin (the 'bonding' hormone, which rises when you're with people you love and makes you feel happier) just as 'real' socialising does.
I'm dubious about the writer's claim to have got the same hormone spike from ten minutes on Twitter that a bridegroom got from his wedding: if true, I wouldn't bet on that marriage lasting. I'm not convinced we react the same way to words on a screen (or in a letter, or a phone call) even if we know the person they're from, as we do face to face.
But for the kind of casual office banter I miss, social media is not a bad substitute. Which means not actually having a boss is no longer a barrier to communal moaning about the boss: what a relief, eh?

Sunday, 20 June 2010

sex & the art of headline writing

Call me oldfashioned, but the screaming headline 'You'd think I could GET A DATE' over an interview with the actress Kim Cattrall does kind of infer she was discussing her frustration at being single.
So quelle surprise to find she actually told Saturday's Daily Mail it wouldn't be the end of the world if she didn't find a (fourth) husband because 'I'm free to do what I want..My big passion these days is my work.' Hmm.
So far, so normal: newspaper brings a successful (ok, forget about Sex & the City 2) woman down a peg or two by inferring that she might have an enviable career but hell, nobody wants to sleep with her. The Cattrall piece is unusual only in the sheer determination required to slap a 'woe is me' headline on these quotes.
So I'd have left it there but for opening the Times's review section to a Tracey Emin interview headlined 'I've got my sex drive back.' What followed was an intelligent and balanced interview, under a weirdly phew-what-a-scorcher headline.
Sexism again, deliberately reducing women to the level of you-would-wouldn't-you rather than taking their professional lives seriously? You'd think so, but for the awkward truth that firstly much of Emin's work is about her sex life, and secondly a male artist who said he was now dying to 'go out and f*** the world' would doubtless also find it made the headline. (See Lynn Barber's interview with Rupert Everett in the Sunday Times mag the next day: headline 'I used to be so sexually driven, but that's completely turned off'. Maybe Emin could give him some tips).
The issue isn't just sexism: it's sexuality as commodity. I know why sub-editors write headlines like this, because it automatically makes more people want to read it. I just did the same in this blog title. Feel conned? Well, me too.
This will sound as if I want to rush around covering up piano legs lest they give rise to impure thoughts, but it would be nice if occasionally writing could be sold on the back of something - anything - other than the obligatory saucy Sex Quote.
As a journalist, you're always relieved to get it (hurrah! now I know I'll be able to get this dreary interview with actor hyping film/model who is the new Face of National Prune Week/preview of the Budget in the paper). But it would just vary the tone a little if occasionally the same headline importance was given to, I dunno, art. Or work. Or money (Emin's attitude to her wealth is fascinating). Or power. Or whatever.
Except it won't happen, because as newspapers go digital the one surefire way to get your article clicked on is to make 'sex' a keyword. Stand by for much, much more of this.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Is stay at home motherhood a class issue?

The health visitor who did the first home visit after my son was born didn't stay long. She weighed him, whizzed through her questionnaire on autopilot, gathered up her handbag and said she was sure I'd be fine.
She was right, luckily, but I doubt she deduced that from her questions, having barely listened to the answers. I suspect she just scanned the livingroom for signs of your classic middle class mother (Habitat cushions, Earl Grey avaliable on request) and mentally moved on to more vulnerable clients.
I was reminded of this last week, chairing a Labour leadership hustings, when Diane Abbott got onto the subject of lone parent benefits. She said she always wondered why when middle class mothers stay at home fulltime that's considered a good thing - lovely for the kids, a noble sacrifice for the mother - but when poor single mothers stay at home it's suddenly bad. One mother is a pillar of society, especially for the conservative right: the other's a drain on the state and should be driven out to work with a cattleprod.
That double standard always bothered me, and particularly now the government is offering tax breaks to stay-at-home married mothers but simultaneously expecting single mothers to get jobs. Why is what's 'good' for the children of married parents strangely bad for the children of lone parents, who might arguably need them around even more if there's been a traumatic family breakup?
The answer's partly that the mother on benefits is subsidised by all of us through our taxes, while the married mother is subsidised by her husband so it's nobody's businesss but theirs. Except that isn't the whole truth.
When I worked full time, I paid a lot of tax: now, I use just as many public services but pay less tax, because I earn less. Doesn't that make me a burden on the state too, since I'm not working as hard as I arguably could?
Which leaves the question of whether this is about class. Middle class mummies get mocked for our pushiness and ponciness but we usually get the benefit of the doubt from authority figures, be it health visitors, teachers - or the media. Poorer mothers are negatively stereotyped from the start.
Yet parenting is blatantly easier when you have the money for everything from the big things (good childcare, house in the catchment of a good school) to the small (treats and activities that get you out of the house). The welfare issues are complicated, particularly at a time when public spending is under such pressure: but we're more likely to reach a fair solution if we can stop subconsciously dividing mothers into slummy or yummy according to income.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

in which i knit my own yoghurt

Q: What's the difference between milk and nice expensive Greek yoghurt? A: Eight hours in a warm airing cupboard.
It's just under two weeks until George Osborne's Budget of Doom, my deadline to hack back my spending to downshifting-friendly levels. So this week, I knocked a good 15 per cent off the weekly supermarket shop by instigating three new rules.
1. Goodbye A Leading Supermarket Chain, hello (whisper) Lidl. Shopping here is a bit like going back to the Seventies: strip lighting, strange German brands you last saw inter-railing, and none of that wafting-bread-smells guff supermarkets use to convince you they are actually a leisure experience.
Not everything is cheaper, although the fruit and veg is a steal: luxury stuff like mangos and avocados is half the price. And I had to go elsewhere for some stuff Lidl doesn't sell (breadflour, kids' toothpaste, chicken that looks like it occasionally enjoyed the use of its own legs). But the main reason the bill was faintly unbelievable is that the general ambience encourages one to get the hell out fast, thus spending less.
2. Once it's gone, it's gone. No nipping back to the shops midweek for anything other than cornerstones of human civilisation (coffee, looroll, milk for offspring). If an ingredient needed for dinner turns out to be missing, alternative dinner must be improvised.
3. No more convenience foods. And I don't mean readymeals. The breadmaker I'm often too lazy to use has been hauled out: a loaf in this costs about half its shopbought equivalent. Enough pizza dough for two pizzas, topped with rocket from the garden and oddments of meat and cheese from the back of the fridge, costs less than a tenth the price of a takeaway.
As for the yoghurt, I used this Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recipe: heat milk, stir in a bit of (bought) posh live yoghurt, leave somewhere warm overnight et voila: yoghurt that tastes like the brand it was made from, but a quarter of the price.

The thing about downshifting is you move from being cash rich but time poor to being skint, but with free afternoons. And that means the time I won back by giving up my Proper Job isn't exactly free: some of it has to be re-invested in fiddlier but cheaper ways of living.
The saving grace is that this is stealth economising: should one not want people to know one is saving money, simply pretend to be making one's own bread from sheer, smug Cath Kidston-style oneupmanship. Nobody need know that the reason for the homemade gnocchi is that it's a fraction of the price of deli stuff (it's just mashed potato, egg and flour - how have I paid through the nose for this for years?)
Unless, of course, you blog about it.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

run and become

I've always secretly envied running bores. You know: those evangelicals who go on about runner's high, and how the stress just rolls away, and how they get their best ideas when they're running, and the marathon was the best day of their life even though their toenails fell off, bla bla bla.
I envy it because I've always hated running, and the few times I've tried to make myself persevere (because it's good for you, cheap, quick, and you can do it anywhere) it's always ended in failure. And the comfort of hot buttered crumpets.
So imagine my surprise when I forced myself out for a run tonight and actually enjoyed it. Well, didn't actively hate it, anyway.
It helps that running along a riverbank is more invigorating than picking my way through abandoned takeaways in a London park. Sheer vanity is definitely there too: who was it said that until your 30s you have the body you're given and after that you have the body you earned? After three post-baby years merrily doing no exercise, I so don't want the one I've earned.
But it also feels luxurious to have a bit of time purely for myself: more so, actually, to have my body to myself for a bit. Life with small children often feels like one long physical demand, from the hazy days of round-the-clock breastfeeding to the constant desire of toddlers to clamber on you.
The problem now is how not to give up. After all, I've got to this stage before and then fizzled out through sheer boredom/laziness/refusal to go out in the rain. So, evangelical runners, I need to know: how do you keep making it interesting?

Friday, 4 June 2010

the daddy wars begin

THIS week saw the first shots exchanged in what you could call the 'daddy wars'. On one side, David Cameron and Nick Clegg changed the time of a Cabinet meeting so they could take their kids to school first - sending a powerful signal to fathers and employers about the importance of family life.
Fire was returned with both barrels by the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn, who complained in his Friday column that when his children were small he left home at 5.30am and only saw them at weekends. The Mail's diary column says Cameron and Clegg 'invite our contempt', a view I suspect the Mail's editor Paul Dacre probably shares. I'm sure some older male MPs are muttering similar things, and there may be jitters around Downing Street.
Well, I hope they stick to their guns. Littlejohn reflects what many British men, particularly older men, probably think. But there is another generation of fathers who don't want their children to grow up in their absence, and Cameron and Clegg owe it them to show the sky doesn't fall in if you occasionally put family first.
The 'daddy wars', just like the much better-chronicled mummy wars, are often rooted in guilt: if a man announces he won't sacrifice his children to a career, men who have essentially had to do just that are bound to feel criticised and defensive. There's a sense of 'I had it hard, why shouldn't they?'
And men who disagree don't always dare say so. Some years ago when the Commons was debating changes to late night voting, those campaigning for more humane hours were nearly all women (and mothers) while those against were nearly all men. A male MP (and father) told me he and several colleagues were privately on the women's side but staying quiet because it was easier to let the women take the flak.
Well, where working fathers and working mothers share the same frustrations about office life it's time they made common cause. Cameron and Clegg have a unique chance to make a difference: I hope they grab it with both hands.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

home economics: the sequel

Oh dear. Just totted up what I've actually spent in the last seven days as opposed to what I think I spend, and am genuinely appalled. How have I got through £260 without anything decadent to show for it? The only things I bought for myself were an intray to sort out my overflowing pile of invoices (tax deductible, maybe?) and a mint plant from the garden centre.
OK, it was a bad week for presents: wedding anniversary, niece's birthday, housewarming for a friend. The silliest thing on it is £35 for a couple of months' supply of the dog's stupidly expensive diet food, as instructed by vet. I could hire it a macrobiotic chef for less.
Nonetheless. The efficiency savings hitherto announced are coverdue. Inspired by David Laws's first decision at the Treasury - cancelling the office potplant budget - it's time to get cracking, or my downshifted career will last approximately as long as, well, David Laws's.
So far have identified the following grievous wastes of money in this house:
1. Leaving the immersion heater switched on for, like, ever (that would be me).
2. Leaving every single electrical appliance in the house on standby constantly (my husband)
3. Buying aubergines. I don't really like aubergines, but buy them for the odd recipe in which I don't mind them, and then never do anything with the inevitable leftover half. I have wasted literally POUNDS on inefficient aubergine use over the years.
4. Parking fines, congestion charge fines (him again), library fines and extra charges for overnight delivery because I never order birthday presents in time (me).
When the Treasury made £6 billion efficiency savings, they axed advertising budgets and management consultants. We are what you might call between management consultants right now, but a flick through the bank statements reveals I still pay a £4.99 a month subscription to lovefilm, despite giving up on them after a couple of scratched DVDs. Ha! No longer. There is also a subscription I forgot to cancel for a childcare website through which we didn't find a childminder months ago (top tip:'s list is free). Zap goes another £12.99 a quarter. This is quite fun.
Then I turn the thermostat down a degree (even though the heating's not on) and turn off everything electrical that is blinking: washing machine, laptop left plugged in and half-on, microwave. I turn off all the lights in rooms we aren't using, feeling virtuous.
My son, who is playing in the kitchen, complains that if the lights aren't on in the livingroom simultaneously 'I'm worried little people will come from under the sofa and bite me.'While demonstrating the lack of snarling little people under the sofa, I find some missing Lego. I bet George Osborne is having similar experiences all over Whitehall.
Next step: the axeman cometh for the supermarket shop. Aubergines are just the beginning.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

home economics

IT's one of the oldest tricks in politics: ooh, don't mind me, I'm just a housewife. Margaret Thatcher told us in 1980 that spending cuts were essential because 'every housewife has to' stop shopping when there's nothing in the purse. During the election, David Cameron suggested that shaving squillons off public spending was just the sort of scrimping on pennies that households do all the time. No doubt we'll hear it all again during this month's Budget.
Which is timely, as a bit of frugality is long overdue in this downshifted household. So to cheer myself up during the grim process of spending less money, I'm conducting a little experiment. Where possible, I'll be channelling current Treasury thinking when I take the scalpel - or possibly, given my last bank statement, a whopping big axe - to the Hinsliff finances. Who knows what we might learn about the real economy from this not-even-remotely-scientific model, eh?
So here are the ground rules:
1. I won't cut back on frontline services. After careful thought, am defining these as: things that genuinely make three-year-olds happy; gin and tonic; occasionally getting out of the house.
2. I will act in the true spirit of coalition, ie I haven't really told my husband what I'm doing. I am by nature stingy, fretful and given to hoarding bits of string in case they come in handy: he cheerfully blows money on what I regard as total rubbish. This, I feel, may give me a useful insight into the relationship between the Tories and the LibDems.
3. I shall consider the merits of salami slicing all budgets vs boldly axing big programmes, or what I call The Highlights Question: viz, I could save a fair bit of money by no longer being blonde. Or I could keep going to the hairdresser and cut back a bit everywhere else. Hmm.
4. I will devolve spending locally. Which means: first for the chop is money spent via corporate giants with rude call centres. Last to go is anything bought from shops you can walk to, where they hold the door open for pushchairs.
So for the next month, we shall be Delivering More With Less Money on this blog. And Making Things Better Without Just Spending Money. And, of course, being Brutally Honest About The Results (that last is the only one that is not an authentic Cameron slogan, by the way) on here. If you're doing the same, please join in and share your ideas.
Tomorrow: the efficiency savings begin....