Wednesday, 20 August 2014

How To Have A Holiday


We have arrived on holiday so obviously I’m exhausted. This is because, as all parents know, the first few days of a self-catering family holiday are an endurance test.

After enduring the hell that is packing and the hell that is Gatwick airport on a Saturday in August, and the hell that is the procuring and driving of a hire car, followed by the hell that is finding your accommodation, you then have to find somewhere to eat because you have no food, and this can also be hell with a h-angry husband, three h-angry children, and no idea where to go.

Fortunately this year it wasn’t because a friend had recommended a restaurant and a clever brother-in-law, who speaks Portuguese, among other languages, had booked it for us from England before we arrived.

Still, I thought the first night at the restaurant on the beach, after all that packing and travelling, which actually wasn’t hell this time, just a bit tiring, was the perfect moment to end my self-imposed period of alcohol abstinence (31 days) with half a beer. Here it is…


Day Two, beginning on this occasion with a stunning bougainvillea-fringed glimpse of the Atlantic from our bedroom window, usually offers the prospect of more hell in the shape of a trip to a busy foreign supermarket. And this Day Two was no exception. A holiday with three boys, who are 18, 15 and 12, revolves around food.

I suppose the holiday supermarket hell is marginally better now than it used to be when the boys were little. Then we had no choice but to drag them around the aisles with us, where they would bicker and kick each other incessantly, while also sneaking extra large bags of crisps and chocolate cereal products into the trolley when our backs were turned trying to decipher food labels. Whereas now they are mature and considerate enough to stay behind at the villa asleep in bed while we do all this without them. Progress.

Which brings me here, post-epic supermarket shop, post-first swim in the pool, arms feeling like jelly, wondering how I did all those pounding laps last year (am I officially too old now? has it happened?). Tired of limb and heavy of eyelid, I am lying on a sun lounger watching these three male children, whom I love more than life itself, throw themselves and each other into a small strip of water, surrounding by unforgiving concrete, in a manner that looks as if one ill-judged leap could end in paraplegia, which of course it could.


I have a book to read, I always have a book to read on holiday, whole piles of them. I dashed off Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life before we came, which was brilliant, and this next slip of a thing, which I am about to finish, having begun it on the plane yesterday, is columnist Tim Dowling’s How To Be A Husband.

There must be some sort of law requiring columnists to write books with How To in the title. I’ve read Giles Coren’s How To Eat Out (really enjoyed that) and Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, of course, so now it’s T.D.’s turn. I imagine the conversation with his agent, “You must write a How To book, Tim. Everybody is doing it.”


Actually I think it’s a curious title for a book that will no doubt mostly be read by women, and which, from what I’ve read so far, doesn’t include a great deal about how to be a husband but does tell us something about how to be Tim Dowling, but only as much as he wants us to know, which I happen to think is just short of enough.

Anyway, hats off to the fella because he’s somehow pulling off the trick of writing about hot topics, such as sex in marriage, without telling the reader anything much, plus he letting it be known how much he loves his wife, while simultaneously slagging her off.

I suppose he’s stuck between a rock and hard place. He needs money, he tells us this; he must think of something to write about in order to earn some, his family is the easiest and closest subject to hand, but they aren’t just going to roll over and give him carte blanch to write whatever he wants, indeed his wife’s hovering presence is almost palpable, and he can’t bang on about how great she is because that would look immodest and embarrass her, so he tells us that she’s awful and leaves us to work out that he’s actually fibbing, or at least guilty of huge omissions, and that his wife is, of course, lovely. (I happen to know that she is lovely because someone I know knows someone who knows her and they say that she is, three degrees of separation, and not six, working nicely there.) So really the book is just one long humble-brag.

I think his best bits are about what it’s like to be the father of three boys. He certainly appears more comfortable writing about his children than about his marriage, perhaps because he doesn’t have them hovering around his right shoulder. So maybe he should have called the book How To Be A Father, or better still, How To Be Tim Dowling?

Anyway, despite the book having the tiniest air of something conceived from a list of topics written on the back of an envelope in the pub, or things from his column, I am a nosy person (see last blog entry) and every now and again he gives us a proper sneaky peek into his life and/or writes something I can relate to…

“He suffers from Nameless Dread!” I say, reading out the relevant passage to my men folk.

 “Who does?” they say.

“Tim Dowling,” I say.

“Mummy loves Tim Dowling,” Youngest says.

“Is that the guy who plays the banjo?” Middle One says.

“Not very elegant prose,” Husband says.

“He sounds like a girl,” Eldest says.

Obviously I don’t love Tim Dowling. I have never met Tim Dowling. I certainly love reading his column, but then I love reading a number of columns. Possibly I love successful columnists in the same way that an aspiring amateur footballer might love a famous professional footballer. There are those I really rate, who bare their souls a little and who are lucky enough and talented enough to write columns for newspapers, and this group includes women, or one woman. In fact it hardly constitutes a group at all: it is three people.

In this manner I am in love with Caitlin Moran and, as you already know, I am in love with Giles Coren, although I’m not sure I would get on with Giles Coren if I actually met him, and I know I would be absolutely terrified of Caitlin Moran if we ever went out on the razz together (bear with me, I live in a fantasy world) because she is obviously quite bonkers (lovely bonkers) and would drink me under the table, especially now after 31 days without alcohol.

T.D. seems the most normal and writes about his family and for the Guardian, and I write about my family, and I have written for the Guardian. That was before the lovely editor I was writing for suddenly vanished and things at the Family section went a bit weird and tense (I blame Julie Myerson).

Maybe I regard Tim Dowling, subliminally, as some sort of male version of me, which of course is ridiculous because he is a successful columnist, an American, in his 50s, and a banjo player, and I am none of these things. But there are some similarities, which in no particular order are -

He has three boys
He lives in London
He has been married for a long time (but not as long as me)
He did an English degree
His first son was born in 1995, I think (ours was born in 1996)
He stays in the house all day
He suffers from Nameless Dread
He is a bit of a self-confessed drama queen
He is the romantic needy one in his relationship

Come to think about it he isn’t a male version of me at all and Eldest was right: he’s a girl.

The next book on my pile is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I think reading this after How To Be A Husband might be going from the faintly ridiculous (but enjoyable, let’s not forget that) to the sublime. I’ll let you know…

Love E x


Two bits I particularly liked from How To Be A Husband –

“Never underestimate the tremendous healing power of sitting down together from time to time to speak frankly and openly about the marital difficulties facing other couples you know.”

That made me laugh.

“… make sure you are on the same side when battling outside forces.”

I read that one out to husband. The overdone steak in a restaurant in France last year still rankles. He should have backed me up when I tried to complain, in French, that it was badly burnt, rather than turning to me to echo the surly French waitress: “Yes, that’s true, Elizabeth, you did ask for it well done.” And I certainly don’t think that after I flounced out of the restaurant, hungry and furious, to sit alone in the car, he should have taken his time and then paid for the whole lot having eaten his own meal, and then my burnt steak as well.



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Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Make friends with your neighbour, and then have sex with him twice a week.


Millions of people do not know who their neighbours are and have no friends, according to two separate surveys in the papers this week, while a third survey reports that people in a perfect relationship have five cuddles a day, say 'I love you' at bedtime every night, have sex twice a week and are mostly likely to have met on public transport. But that survey was commissioned by National Rail so maybe we should add a big dose of scepticism there. Maybe we should add a big dose of scepticism to all three?

I do love a survey and I often use one to kick start an article because newspaper editors love something current, something with a 'topical hook', as they call it, but you do have to wonder where they get this stuff from. Actually I think those three surveys could combine to make one brilliant mega-article about making friends with your neighbour, giving him lots of cuddles and having sex with him twice a week, preferably on a train.

Is this really true, for example, that 50 per cent of people actively avoid those who live around them? Not in my world. That particular survey was commissioned by comparethemarket.com and involved 2,340 people, so not exactly comprehensive but quite a few folk.

We live in London, famed for its stand-offishness, and yet we are on extremely good terms with the neighbours on either side of us and the family living opposite us (ok, maybe they don't count because we were friends with them before and I suggested that they live there), and several other families in the street.

We are on stop-and-chat terms with the sweet elderly gent who lives up towards the Common on the same side as us, in the most decrepit house you can imagine, quite literally crumbling and rotting around him and yet he keeps his front hedge trimmed to within an inch of its life, and with a formidably energetic German lady a few doors down, plus several more families with children, who live further down towards the high road, and the drug dealer a few doors away, of course, you have to stay on nodding terms with him, or rather winking terms, his winking not ours, which incidentally really winds husband up, and even that woman with all the dogs over the road, the one who … actually, the least said about that the better.

So on one side of us is the most lovely Indian family, three generations, that you could ever have the pleasure to meet. They give us food, often, curries and chapatis and Indian sweets for the boys. We don't know if this is because they like us or if it's something the Hindu religion dictates, or possibly both. Either way it's win/win for us, although husband does fret that we don't give enough back and likes to rustle up egg-free baking for them in return as often as possible (mostly flapjack). I'm quite happy to roll with it, as it happens. I reckon I do quite enough food rustling for my own lot.

And then we have nice new people on the other side, in the bottom flat, a young couple who recently accidentally locked themselves out and so had to come through our house and borrow ladders to climb over and ingeniously break in from the back, which the chap did with the aid of a coat-hanger we found for him. Our boys were in their element watching - and helping with - that particular drama. I was happy we could be of some use because we had inconvenienced them quite a bit with our scaffolding, and they were absolutely charming about that.

Before they lived there there was this handsome young posh guy and his pretty young wife. She was an actress and scriptwriter, he proudly told me, with a successful movie on the go, which she was acting in and so she had to go away. Then I heard him swear viciously at her one day in the back garden, when presumably he didn't know I was outside as well, just on the other side of the fence, and later, one hot afternoon, she had a series of very loud conversations about the 'shoot' and the other 'actors' and the unreasonable 'agents' in the back garden on her mobile phone before disappearing off. She briefly came back to the flat and then vanished again completely, never to return. Handsome young husband lived there alone for a while, looking very forlorn, before suddenly selling up and leaving without explanation. Not that an explanation was really required. You don't have to be Sherlock to work that one out. Not that I'm nosy or anything.

Who am I kidding? I watch people, a lot. People are fascinating. I'm always trying to work them out, even the ones I know rather well, and I have to say it's not very difficult. If I don't know the story, I make it up in my own mind. 

Take the late middle-aged couple behind us who I can see through my office window when they are in their kitchen entertaining, or out in their garden. I know nothing whatsoever about them, we have never spoken, except when they kindly throw the football back and we shout thank you, but I know they have dinner together every night at the kitchen table and talk to each other. I reckon they have older kids in their twenties who have left home and come back from time to time. I think she works in something like publishing, as an editor perhaps, because of her haircut and clothes (sensible). I guess that he works as an architect maybe, or a graphic designer or possibly in advertising because they have those modern chrome and black chairs around their dining table. That's my scientific analysis anyway.

You can see why Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is my favourite movie, can't you? I love that film for so many different reasons but mostly because of the play-like quality of the lives acted out in the building opposite Jimmy Stewart's window, each one a little drama of its own. He does it too, doesn't he? His character, the photographer, invents lives for them all even when he doesn't have the facts.



I also like it because ultimately it is about love. He falls in love with glamorous fashion model Lisa (breathtakingly beautiful Grace Kelly) reluctantly, because he doesn't think she will be able to put up with his itinerant photographer's lifestyle, but she is so bright and fearless in the face of all that mystery and danger, he can't help himself. Hitchcock shows us this in the close ups of his face when she starts to believe his version of events. It's also about his incapacity, with her acting as the agent of his actions… Oh dear, maybe I'm getting a bit film-critiquey here and wondering off subject. Back to those people behind us…



I once saw them embrace very lovingly. They were standing outside their house, in the garden. She put her arms around him and lay her head on his shoulders, he held her in his arms. It was a beautiful tender moment and one of those uncomfortable voyeristic things when you know you should look away, but you don't. Just like when Jimmy Stewart sees the newly-weds arrive at the apartment opposite, and the husband carries his new wife over the threshold, and then the blind goes down...

And while we're talking about newly weds, the other ingredients National Rail listed for a perfect relationship were a shared taste in films, sharing the cooking, being able to admit you are wrong after an argument, talking, travelling to new places and having at least one romantic meal a month. Wow. Sounds like an almost impossible tick list for a happily married life to me, but maybe those neighbours, the ones who look like they have plenty of friends because they often entertain and who certainly don't avoid their neighbours because they throw the ball back to us, the ones I watch from time to time from my Rear Window, have got it sussed? I like to think so anyway.

Love E x


References:

How to achieve the perfect relationship - research from National Rail - The Times Monday 11th August

Britons avoid their neighbours - research from comparethemarket.com - The Times Monday 11th August

No close friends for millions of Britons - research from Relate - The Guardian Tuesday 12th August


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Sunday, 10 August 2014

Dinner a la Giles Coren.


New shoes

I've never written a restaurant review before but inspired by a wonderful meal in a local restaurant last night and by my love of Giles Coren's restaurant column in the Saturday Times magazine, (in fact by my love of Giles Coren's writing per se) I'm going to give it a whirl. I mean, how hard can it be?

Okay, so my first problem is that although the food was delicious and the ambience warm and convivial and the service friendly and informative and efficient, I realise I do not now, only the very next morning, have a detailed recollection of what I actually ate. Does Giles Coren take notes, I wonder? Already my lack of experience in the restaurant critic department is showing.

In addition to this, when I think back about what made last night such an enjoyable evening, my memory is dominated by the fact that I wore my new wedge shoes (Paul Smith, half price, photo above) and my new dress (Oliver Bonas, photo below) and that the night was balmy and warm and the restaurant not too far from home and so I was feeling sassy and sexy and wide-awake, and I do know that none of this has anything to do with the food I was about to eat and everything to do with me.

So already I am tumbling at the restaurant critics first hurdle here, aren't I? I'm not looking back at the restaurant and its food in the spirit of a dispassionate observer. But then, does anyone? We take our baggage with us restaurant-wise, even life-wise. Mine, as it happens, was all inside a new Orla Kiely inspired fabric handbag last night (from Tickled Pink, on Bellevue Road).

Nevertheless I hope you are gleaning something of a picture, even if it is only of me in new sexy wedge shoes and an Oliver Bonas dress about to be dazzled by excellent gastronomy at a restaurant called Gastronhome on Hildreth Street, Balham, SW12.

So, first things first: the waiter - actually it feels a bit rude to call him that because he was so much more and may well have been the proprietor, he certainly had the authoritative air of one - was everything you want a waiter to be: friendly, but not too much so, attentive, but ditto, knowledgeable, young and handsome, and in possession of a very sexy French accent. In fact his accent was so sexy and French, and his air so smooth and assured, that at the end of his lengthy and detailed explanation of the menu, so dazzled was I, I could not actually recall anything he had said and my lovely friend, sitting to my right, had to give me a quick précis.

After she had done this the four of us decided on the five course tasting menu. To be honest I was not that keen on the five course tasting menu because the last time husband and I had one it was the most pretentious load of 'wild grass' with 'edible soil' claptrap we have ever eaten, in Denmark, and no, not at Noma, but a cold and stiff restaurant at the top of a Godforsaken tower block on the edge of a sports pitch, hanging off the coat-tails of nearby Noma's reputation, in fact Copenhagen's reputation as the world's foodie paradise. And paradise it was not. But I'm digressing wildly here. Suffice to say I don't generally like tasting menus because 1. of the lack of control over what you are going to eat, 2. the length of the meal, 3. all the wine, and I'm currently not drinking alcohol, and 4. the price. Still, it seemed churlish not to go along with what the the other three people wanted (husband and our husband and wife friends) and so we all agreed to give it a go.

Shall I get on to the food now? Have I set the scene sufficiently? Probably not, and so in the spirit of Giles Coren I should give you an idea of the setting...

Hildreth Street in Balham. It's a pedestrian cut through, lined with high Victorian, gabled buildings, spanning from Balham High Road at one end to Bedford Hill at the other where during the week there is a workaday fruit, flower and veg market and now at the weekdays there's a much more chi-chi foodie/farmers' market.

For years it's had a grotty run-down 'Brixton in the 80's' air to it, replete with shops selling Afro-Caribbean hair products and dried fish (not the same shop, obviously) plus nail bars and Halal butchers. But gradually, gradually, in the twenty years that husband and I have lived in this area, it has changed and now it is on the cusp of something very different.

Just to give you an idea of how very on the cusp it is, the street is currently being renovated by Wandsworth Council, the actual street, that is the paving upon which you walk. I reckon it will shortly transform into an identikit Clapham Venn Street, cafes spilling out on to the pedestrian walkway, with that ubiquitous modern urban street backbone, a line of olive trees, planted down the middle. I hope so anyway. In short, there are areas of south London which are now turning into Shoreditch, not that I've ever been to Shoreditch but I hear tell of what it's like, and I think this area will be one of them.

We already have a great cafe called Milk on the corner with Bedford Hill there, run by Aussies of course, and serving perfect Flat Whites and eggs on Turkish bread, and a new florist, and one of those shops flogging bits of knackered French furniture and tat at exorbitant prices, and a shop selling upmarket wine, Oh, and a studio where twenty-something young women go to do Hot Bikram Yoga, whatever the hell that is, "On the weekend", as they would have it (this phrase really upsets husband, "At the weekend!" he chants, "At!").

And now this new little French restaurant, run by very young and very dishy and very earnest looking French men, is slap bang in the middle of all that. Actually husband and I can remember what was there before, a pretty rubbish cafe which soaked up the overspill from Milk (nice image there), where we had a memorable (but not in a good way) coffee with a bacon sandwich a while back because we weren't prepared to queue with all the more energetic young things to wait for a table at Milk. And it hasn't changed much inside. Still the white painted wood-clad walls and banquettes to sit on against the wall, but now with different plain wood tables and 'art' for sale on the walls.

That was the only bit I minded about the whole evening actually, the dreadful art and the fact that our charming waiter described it to us, presumably in a bid to sell it to us, before going on to describe the menu. Restaurants are for eating in, not for buying paintings in. Call me old fashioned. So, finally, I'm on to the food, I don't think I'll be much good at this bit.



First we had beetroot four ways, I think, with wonderful smooth creamy horseradish and other dollops of green stuff and it was delicious. I think there was more than one variety of beetroot, did he possibly say golden beet? I think he did. All perfectly cooked, not too hard, not too soft, and one of those lovely beetroot crisps with it too. As our friend J said, the male one, (both these friends have names which begin with J so it won't suffice merely to supply the first letter), "Beetroot has that lovely earthy taste," and I agree.

Then there was carpaccio of sea bass, that I did not like the sound of at all, but was kind of spicy and strong and oniony and I have no idea what was in it. It came with some sort of white froth and some sort of sauce on the side and that was delicious too.

Then meat and potatoes. Two large chunks of melt-in-the mouth beef, soft and smooth and lovely, with chanterelle mushrooms in a creamy yellow sauce (not enough of these), and another red sauce, no idea what that was but it was also delicious, and two gorgeous - crisp on the outside, soft on the inside - potatoes, which I could have done with more of but it didn't really matter because we were having five courses and so there was absolutely no chance of going away at the end of it all still feeling hungry. In fact I worried I would not be able to do justice to it, and shouldn't have. I ate everything single scrap except for the chocolate mousse thing at the end, which I gave to husband.

And now I'm bored of describing food (I have no idea how Giles Coren does this week after week and now know why he digresses so wildly on other topics and tells us all about his private life, which I love by the way, all that stuff about his babies and his wife makes him sound so New Man). 

Lastly we had a selection of cheese and one of them was Corsican, I remember, and when I mentioned to the waiter that they eat blackbirds in Corsica he genuinely did not appear to know this. Surprising. And there was chocolate three ways, which was fine but just a lovely bit of chocolate tarte and a mousse and a bit of ice-cream at the end of the day. Give me savouries any time.

So there you have it, my first and possibly last restaurant review. I'll give Gastronhome 9 out of 10 for food and service and bet you anything you won't be able to get a table there for love nor money in six months' time because there are only 20 covers and it really is very good indeed.

Marks for this review? Probably far too many 'lovelys' and 'deliciouses' and not enough knowledge of the, you know, actual cooking. Well there's space in the comment section there at the bottom of the blog so do feel free but go easy on me coz I've never done this before.

Love E x



New dress with new shoes in new(ish) kitchen

Gastronhome, 9 Hildreth Street, Balham, London, SW12 9RQ

http://gastronhome.co.uk/reservations/4577669389/
Twitter @Gastronhome1

P.S. If by any remote chance Giles Coren ever actually reads this I know my writing is not one patch on yours and in my defence I went to a comprehensive school in the 80s in North Yorkshire and so have absolutely no idea about grammar and punctuation, about which I know you are an expert and famously tell off the Subs for getting it wrong. I just make it all up and hope for the best.

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Monday, 4 August 2014

Mum is ill and everything goes to pot.

So I left you hanging last time, in the blog before I cut and pasted The Telegraph article, with an ellipsis after the words, "I can't breathe very well." Like this...

As you many have guessed by my silence ever since, I got ill. After antibiotics and steroids I  ended up on a nebuliser at my local surgery. Here I am…



That summer cold turned out to be flu. It went to my chest and aggravated my latent asthma. Asthma I never had as a child and only developed after having children of my own, and living in London, and pushing a double buggy up a steep hill, next to a busy road, for years on end...

There I was ignoring the warning signs that I wasn't up to much and just carrying on… Writing a couple of articles (one of them about the joys of doing nothing, ha!) attending an awful lot of meetings, going out to see the movie Boyhood and the play Bring Up The Bodies and the Italian fashion exhibition at the V & A and the local comedy festival and taking a child to and from a sleepover in West London... Oh and a trip to the outdoor cinema in the park, in the drizzle, to watch Thelma and Louise and have a picnic with mates. In fact, I was a bit of a twit...

Because mums can't afford to be ill. It's not like the washing and cooking and 'mum-ing' will wait. It won't.

So even when I couldn't breathe and the doctor said I might end up in hospital and could die of a fatal asthma attack at any minute (yes, she really did say that, which rather put the wind up me), I cooked the dinner every night and managed to put a wash on. 

I perfected a way of sitting next to the laundry bin on the landing and lifting one item out after another, to make a pile, and then asking one of the boys to carry it down to the machine, where I met up with it again and slowly loaded it in and switched it on.

I waited for husband to get home each evening and then asked him to chop things for dinner, and to arrange ingredients into piles, before gingerly getting off my pew and standing, as still as possible, in front of the hob to stir, or fry, or simmer...

And the children? Well Eldest spent most of the day in bed recovering from whatever he'd been up to the night before, so he wasn't much use, although I did get him to hang out the washing, once.

Middle One spent all day every day on the computer watching blues, or jazz, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, or whatever the hell he's into nowadays, while also playing the guitar and then the piano, and then the guitar again.

Youngest was my biggest worry. What to do with him? He was in danger of reaching a Club Penguin world record.

A friend rescued me, or rather him. She took him to the Lido with her kids three days in a row... 

I still had to help him find his swimming trunks, of course, which were exactly where I told him they would be, of course. And I had to find him a towel, and some money, and cover him in suncream, but at least he got out of the house and I knew he was happy. And my friend even made sandwiches for him.

Where would mums be without our friends? Up the creek without a paddle, that's where. 

So thank you friend, if you are reading this. In fact thank you to all my wonderful friends, who texted me constantly to ask how I was, who wrote lovely supportive things on Facebook when I posted that picture of me on the nebuliser, who offered to get me some shopping, who generally made me feel supported and loved... 

Because being a mum to three boys who are 12, 15 and 18 can be a tough and lonely job when you are ill. Having lovely mum-friends to get you through makes all the difference. 

And luckily I do.

Love E x

I haven't got round to telling you about how I managed to pack for Center Parcs even though I was ill… and what the decorator did to our beloved Virginia Creeper on the front of our house while we were away... "What do you want doing with it?" he asked. "Oh please just trim it," we said, "because we love it". And did he? I'll tell you next time…

And here's a selfie (my first and only selfie, honest!) taken BEFORE I got ill, when I had just had my hair done and was feeling swanky. It's here in the name of balance, you understand, just to show that I don't always look like a knackered old lady with a nebuliser on my face…



And btw - it's Day 20 without booze. Think my next drink might have to be by the sea, on holiday... 

Cheers to that!


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Saturday, 26 July 2014

In Praise of Doing Nothing

So here's that article what I wrote about doing nothing. Shame I look so stupid in the photo. In today's Telegraph...


Mindfulness: it's good to be busy doing nothing

Taking several timeouts each day, says Elizabeth McFarlane, helps to get the creative juices flowing and encourages her to be more aware of the moment

Elizabeth McFarlane
Easy does it: Elizabeth McFarlane  Photo: Jeff Gilbert
Are you too busy? Stressed? Not enough hours in the day? Not sleeping properly? Constantly rushing from one thing to the next? Then it’s time to sit down and do nothing.
Some people are brilliant at busy, it’s their thing. They pack the day from dawn until dusk with “stuff”. Not just the standard stuff either, like work and family, but extra stuff too, such as volunteering and exercising and cooking and manic socialising.
These people, and I know a lot of them because so many seem to be women, do not appear to stop.
Personally, I’m good at nothing, which is very different from not being good at anything. I am brilliant at sitting down and having a rest. I do it several times a day. I excel at staring out of windows, particularly at birds. I’m a prolific day-dreamer, thinker, plotter and planner. My pièce de résistance is napping.
You might say this makes me a lazy person, but I would disagree. I get a lot done. I work, writing and directing/producing marketing videos. I have three children. I run a home. I am a school governor. I exercise. I even go out in the evening occasionally. It is my contention that I would not be able to do half of these things if I didn’t do quite a lot of nothing in between. In particular, I think I’d struggle to come up with ideas.
I would not, for example, be able to come up with ideas for the videos, nor write my weekly blog, called, appropriately enough, I Don’t Know How She Doesn’t Do It (see what I did there?) Nor, on a more prosaic level, plan the annual family holiday. All these require thinking, and thinking is what I do when I’m doing nothing, mostly.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said: “Most people would rather die than think; many do,” and a recent experiment appears to prove him right, at least up to a point.
Most might not actually prefer to die, but incredibly they would prefer to be in pain rather than have to sit quietly alone in a room with only their own thoughts for company, for only a few minutes.
That recent experiment, led by Professor Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia, in which participants were asked to sit alone for up to 15 minutes in an empty room at a laboratory, found that 12 men out of a group of 18 preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than sit and do nothing.
The researchers concluded that the human brain has evolved to be active so that the majority of people struggle to switch off, even for a short period. “Simply being alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so adverse that it drove many to self-administer an electric shock,” said Professor Wilson.
Jonathan Smallwood, a neuroscientist at the University of York, says: “We’re creating a world where daydreaming isn’t so important. Nowadays, even if you are doing a mundane job, you can be on the phone while you’re doing it.”
This sounds familiar. I multitask using social media as much as the next 21st-century person – tweeting about a programme on television while watching it springs to mind – but I can also do a lot of nothing. If you are one of those manic busy types you might wonder how I manage it, so let me take you on a whistlestop tour – or should that be a sleepy amble? – of my average working day at home.
At 8am, during term time, the boys leave for school. This is my first opportunity to do nothing after the chaos of getting them out the door. After clearing breakfast I sit down with the papers by the window to read. I look up and stare out of the window, usually at birds. This is how I come up with ideas, flights of fancy, lists of things to do, and plans. Often I make notes.
I then do a sweep of the house, tidying, picking up towels, making beds, putting washing in. Sometimes I nip out to meet a friend for a coffee, before finally settling at my desk at about 10am or 11am. This is when I “work”, which usually involves a lot more gazing out of the window while twiddling my hair. I am prone to switch off, at least I think I am switching off but I’m probably not, because, according to psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, daydreaming provides the mental downtime necessary for us to be able to focus again. The mind is refreshing itself, rather like when we sleep.
But there’s more than one theory about the purpose of daydreaming. Sigmund Freud’s work Creative Writers and Daydreaming maintains that it is essential to the creative mind but also a form of unhappiness, while psychoanalyst Hanna Segal suggested that we are turning these unhappy thoughts into something creative.
I had a lot of unhappy thoughts about our horrible old kitchen and sat about daydreaming and planning what our new one, recently completed on a tight budget, would be like, so I think there’s something in Segal’s theory.
But back to my day. After lunch, more resting because I hate moving around after eating. Sometimes I even have a sneaky sleep, especially in winter. After napping I often wake with an idea and dash to my office to write it down, which perhaps lends weight to Bollas’s theory.
In the evening, after cooking and tidying and sorting and reading to children, I slump in front of the television. Sometimes I go out, of course, but I’m not averse to politely declining a social invitation if there are too many things in one week.
I think that all this staying at home and daydreaming helps me to deal with stress, which brings me to mindfulness, the cure-all philosophy du jour.
OK, so mindfulness is not the same as doing nothing. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment using techniques such as meditation, breathing and yoga. The idea is that this can give us an insight into emotions while boosting attention and concentration. In fact, the claims for what it can do are extensive – alleviating stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, physical problems, lowering hypertension, changing addictive behaviours and so on.
I only cottoned on to mindfulness recently but I think I may have been practising it unawares for years. Maybe not the breathing and yoga bit, but the being in the moment bit. Because doing nothing, just sitting and staring out of a window, makes you stop and take stock. It means you are not constantly “doing”, you are just having a moment “to be”.
That’s quite enough work for me for one day. I’m off for a nap.
THE ART OF DOING NOTHING
Be brave and say no to invitations
Bring back Sundays. Try to ring-fence them from work and chores and socialising
Practise sitting and doing nothing, adding a little bit more of it each day
Go bumbling, which means “wandering around without purpose”
Allow yourself time to daydream.
Remember that Freud said this is creative
Choose the right role models – Keats wrote of “evenings steep’d in honied indolence” – see also John Lennon, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman