Tuesday, 30 September 2008

A Stay of Execution

I don’t worry a whole lot. I figure it’s a non-productive behaviour that just saps energy so better to use the energy you have to try to find a solution to a problem and I certainly don’t spend precious time worrying about something that will probably never happen. But today I’m worried.

I don’t actually have a problem myself. Well, I do - we all have our problems but I don’t have anything major going on in my life, and certainly nothing that would warrant worrying about, but somebody I care about has a serious financial problem and as I can see that it’s dragging him down into that black place where nobody really likes to be, I’m worried. I heard about this during dinner last night and even though we were having vegetable stew, one of my all time favourite meals, it put me right off - my appetite just flew out of the window. And I didn’t sleep well last night. I had dreams that were related to the problem and woke up at 2 am thinking about it.

I could dip into my kitchen fund and bail the person out in the short term but I can’t see how it would have any long term effect and I’d still be without my kitchen. Now I know that sounds kind of selfish, but I’ve been saving for a long time and that money hasn’t come easy. I’ve saved coins in a jar, put a fiver away whenever I could and gradually the fund has grown. I’m already owed £200 from it by another person, and that kitchen means a lot to me.

What’s more, I should have had the kitchen a long time ago. I originally took up a £3000 loan for it but due to circumstances at the time (very little income coming into the house), I had to keep dipping into it in order to survive and eventually it was gone. I’m still paying the loan and £98 a month makes a big dent in my income, especially when it’s for something I never had the chance to enjoy.

But I do feel terribly selfish. I mean, compared to some people in this world, my life is one of luxury. Even compared to the life of the person I’m worried about, my life is extremely comfortable from a financial point of view and that’s saying something because I struggle too. Is it selfish of me to put my own needs first? That kitchen’s really important to me as mine is very impractical with hardly any storage space and I’m fed up with keeping things in boxes and stacked on top of each other. My mobility is impaired, I get worn out quickly, and although I enjoy cooking, it’s just no fun when everything’s so difficult. It also has a floor that’s nigh on impossible to keep clean.

However, I’m not about to lose my bank account and neither do I have the threat of bailiffs at my door. I have had in the past, but not now. Not since I sorted myself out and decided that racking up debt and living outside of my means wasn’t the way to go.

I really don’t know what to do.

I know nobody here can help me make a decision or help the person concerned, but getting my thoughts down on ‘paper’ helps a little. My mind doesn’t feel quite as muddled.

Last week, I actually offered to lend him some money on the condition that he paid me back a set amount each week but because of his unstable financial situation, he isn't able to make a repayment plan - there just isn't room for further outgoings.

If I knew for sure that £500 would be all that it’d take for this person to turn his future around then I’d give it to him without hesitation, but it isn’t that simple. He has no way of paying me back on a loan, I don’t feel I can afford to lose the money, and it really would only be a short-term bail out. What then? What happens when my kitchen money’s gone and he’s still in the same position, just a few months down the line?

If only I knew the answer.

Sharon J


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Monday, 29 September 2008

The Fear of Failure

Thankfully, failure - or what society perceives as failure - has never been something that’s worried me, but I know plenty of people who have lived their entire lives so far without ever taking a risk because they’re sure they wouldn’t be able to accept failure. Either they have extremely high expectations of themselves or they fear that others will ridicule them.

Well guess what? Others DO and WILL ridicule us when we ‘fail’. But those people are generally suffering from low self esteem themselves so therefore love to see others trip up - it makes them feel less of a failure in their own lives and if my ‘failures’ help them in some way then so be it. I can’t change how they view my life so I just have to accept it.

What can be changed is the way we view our own lives and the expectations we have to ourselves. This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently - mostly because of a friend who always follows the safe path even though she’d love to turn her life around and do something more interesting.

Now I’ve taken a few silly risks in my time , been maybe just a bit too spontaneous, but I’m still here to tell the tale and my life’s pretty good. Sometimes things have worked out the way I’d hoped and sometimes not, but I honestly don’t feel as if I’ve failed at anything.

Failure is just a perception of the outcome of an event but the way I see it, everything we do in life carries a lesson with it and regardless of what I’ve done, my life’s been enriched because of the them. I’ve learned a lot and experienced a lot - life’s been an adventure and isn’t that the way it should be?

I’ve upped sticks and moved loads of times without worrying about my children’s inheritance or the fact that other family members would comment about it being time to put down some roots. I’ve been homeless with three kids and a dog, sleeping in a car, in cabins and in friends’ houses but even that was an adventure and we all learned loads from it. I’ve quit my safe job for something I’d rather be doing and although it didn’t turn out quite as I’d hoped, I learned a whole load from that too. We managed fine, but had to be frugal. Not a hardship, really. I’ve started college courses and quit because they weren’t for me, and even though I was told it’s about time I learned to stick at something, I’d learned stuff I wouldn’t otherwise have known. And why stick at something you’re not enjoying just because others think you should? Life’s too short! It’s funny how those same people forget that I managed to get a B grade in social sciences A level without attending a single class though! A lot of people will always focus on the negative but it’s up to us whether we let it bother us or not.

Even my kids who have, according to others, “been pulled from pillar to post” agree that our life was an adventure - they met a lot of people and did a lot of stuff that most haven’t done. They learned a lot. Lise feels it’s time to settle down, LM wants to continue on the adventure, and Paul… well, he doesn’t care. He’s happy wherever and whatever.

Obviously I’m not advocating jumping off Tower Bridge just to see what it feels like or selling your grandmother’s jewellery in the hope that she won’t notice - things like that can get you into deep trouble and can have an adverse effect on others - but as long as you’ve considered what the possible outcomes are likely to be and nobody’s going to get hurt and you won’t end up behind bars (and I’m not talking pub landlord here), taking a risk can be enriching, educating and incredibly thrilling.

If there’s something you really want to do but don’t dare, all you need to do is weigh up the likely results, ease up on yourself and stop worrying about what others will think. This is YOUR life - not your parents’, your children’s or your friends. Only you know how to live it. Failure really isn't an option simply because it doesn't exist.

Sharon J


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Sunday, 28 September 2008

A Very Good Day

I’m back. It was just a day but a day made a difference.

One of the mistakes I’ve made in life was that I always thought I had to put everything and everybody else before myself in order to be a good mum, housewife, daughter, friend, lover, employee, carer or whichever hat I happened to be wearing at the time. But that’s not so. While we do have certain duties that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored, taking time out to just be ourselves and do whatever we please makes being what we are for others so much easier and more enjoyable. Things become less of a chore. When I wore myself down so much by constantly running round after others and getting emotionally involved in the lives of everybody who felt like drawing me to the point where the stress actually landed me in hospital, I learned that Sharon has to come first. If I don’t look after myself, how can I be of any use to anybody else anyway? I sure as heck wouldn’t be much use buried six foot under the ground.

Anyway, yesterday was good. Very good.

I spent the first part in bed, hooked up to my feeding pump, alternating between an old Peter Robinson book and watching James Martin on the telly. LM came in and sat with me for a while and we chatted about relationships, friends and wotnot.

Once up I filled some rolls while LM fed the pets and we headed for the park. It was a beautiful day and I got a lovely dose of vitamin D while we watched a grandad throwing a stick into a chestnut tree, gathering conkers for his grandsons. It was peaceful and relaxing.

I usually have a bottle of chilled water with me whenever I go out but not so yesterday. When I dived into my canvas shopping bag to find the old Evian bottle (yes, once upon a time I used to buy them regularly), what did I find instead? Frozen sausages. Five plump pork and herb best butcher’s sausages. I’d taken them from the freezer before we left and obviously… well, suffice to say the water bottle was still on the work top at home.

We had bread for the ducks with us too but alas, there were no ducks. Usually, as soon as you bring out the sarnies they surround you but yesterday there was neither a quack to be heard nor a feather to be seen. The ducks had decamped.

After the park, we headed for town. LM wanted to buy a book and although I don’t actually need a new book, taking me into a bookshop is lethal. I mean, is it actually possible to go inside and come out empty handed? I’m sure booksellers cast some magic spell on unsuspecting casual browsers that compels us to buy at least one stack of printed paper bound in an enticing cover. I was good though, I did just buy the one. Well, at that point anyway.

Next LM wanted to go to Superdrug for new make-up. I couldn’t walk that far so suggested I go into a second bookshop to browse while I waited. Do I need to tell you what happened? You know the answer already don’t you? Three books and a four rolls of sellotape later LM found me. But the books were cheap; this was ‘The Works’.

I know shops like this aren’t good news for authors and while I do buy some books new and at full-price (the first one I bought was - honest), I can’t afford to buy them all like that and given the choice between everything at full price, the library and cheap, I have to go with the latter two at times. Well, most of the time actually. I could just stick to the library, and generally do these days, but it’s that being in an actual book shop syndrome thingy…. I just can’t resist opening my purse. Still, all four books cost me £14.96 so that wasn’t too bad. And one’s really useful - it’s all about bi-carb - what it is and it’s gazillion uses. The full-price book is Stuart Machonie’s ‘Pies & Prejudice’ and sounds both interesting and a good laugh. The third is an ‘unusual facts’ type book and as I love useless information it's right up my alley, and the fourth… well that’s a secret cos it’s a Christmas present and the recipient may well be reading this. You just never know who's lurking out there, do you?

Anyway, I was eventually scurfed out of the book shop and off we toddled, back to the car and headed for Morrison’s. I’d seen a three-tier steamer there on Friday for £9.98 and had decided to buy one. Ok, so that was another tenner that could have gone into the kitchen fund but I figured a steamer would give us healthier veg (well, it’d give LM healthier veg - I could eat pig swill and it’d make not a blind bit of difference to me but the veg will be tastier, I‘m sure) and would save money in the long run because I’d only need to use one gas ring for the spuds and veg instead of the usual two or three. I shall be trying it out today when those well-travelled sausages finally get eaten along with mash, carrots & cabbage. They were thawed but still cold by the time we got home.

Speaking of which, we were supposed to have the sausages yesterday - bangers and mash makes a good comfort meal I think - but by the time we got back I was shattered. We’d also been to a car lot to look for a new motor for LM y’see. Hers isn’t very well at the moment. Anyway, too knackered to bother with dinner, we decided to order a take-away. Yes… I parted with even more money. Oh, the extravagance of it all. The local Indian was called and a meal was duly delivered. £13.60...a lot of money when you’re supposed to be frugal and saving as much as possible but it was nice. Very nice. And it was my day to do whatever I liked and believe me, I liked.

We wound up the day by watching a film. I can’t remember the name of it now but it made me cry. But then so does Corrie. And Pet Rescue. And Casualty (the latter for the wrong reasons though - I hate it!). While I watched it, I knitted. I got half a sock done in that time so was quite productive really.

The best thing about the day was that while I got to do what I liked, I also got to spend the day bonding with LM. Mums and daughters need that and in today’s busy society, things like that often get overlooked. Sure, we eat meals together, sometimes go shopping together, and now and then we watch a film together, but a whole day spent together is something else. It was indeed a good day. A very good day.

Sharon J


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Saturday, 27 September 2008


Today I’m writing nothing. I’m tired, I have no inspiration and all I really want to do is knit and read.

Maybe tomorrow….

Sharon J xx


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Friday, 26 September 2008

Getting Rid of Electrical Equipment

I’ve noticed a trend on Freecycle recently: more people are offering electric gadgets.

It seems to me that this can only mean one thing, that an increasing number of members are opening their eyes to the amount of energy these gadgets use and that they can actually live perfectly well without them. Of course, I don’t know how many takers there have been as only a handful ever post ‘taken’ messages; it could be that these energy using gadgets are simply changing hands and will continue to suck up electricity unnecessarily but whole it isn’t good that they end up on the landfill either, I’m kind of hoping that a lot of them are being ignored.

During the past few days there have been:

An electric coffee grinder
A smoothie maker
An espresso maker
An electric warm plate
Hair straighteners
An electric blanket
A toaster
A trouser press

Of the above I have to admit to having a toaster and LM has hair straighteners. I can kind of understand why she’d want the hair straighteners - at 19 it’s important that you look the part and even though she’s my daughter, I have to say she looks beautiful when her shiny dark hair is perfectly straight. Mind you, whereas she used to use them every day, she only uses them when she’s dressing up now, otherwise the hair tends to go up in a pony tail. As for the toaster, I’d get rid of it tomorrow and use the grill - it’s just a waste of space as far as I’m concerned - but LM insists on keeping it because it’s quick and I guess she doesn’t have much time to make breakfast when she’s on a 7am start.

Sharon J


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Thursday, 25 September 2008

Savings Stamps & Hamper Schemes

Morrison’s have a ‘miles’ scheme where you get points for every litre of fuel you put in your car and you can also buy savings stamps in store, said to be a good way of saving up for the extra outgoings on groceries at Christmas. You can buy stamps to save up to pay your phone and a few other bills and there are probably lots of other similar schemes about, but they’re the ones I know of.

Hamper and high-street voucher schemes also seem quite popular - several people I know have joined them and are looking forward to their Christmas goodies. The dairy our old milkman worked out of used to have a scheme where you paid in a couple of pounds a week and would receive all sorts of food delivered to your door. All sounds good and funky I guess, but what’s it really worth?

Well for one, you don’t get any interest on any of the above schemes. Points, tokens, stamps and the likes are worth nothing more than the money would be had it been sitting in a piggy bank in your kitchen. And what’s more, the money is in no way protected the way it would be if you’d put it into a savings account with a proper bank instead. Should Morrison’s or the dairy go bust, all that money would just disappear out of the window. Should the bank go bust, the government would have to step in and give the customers their savings back because that’s what they’ve pledged to do through the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) and it’s all part of the reason why we’re advised to use banks instead of stuffing the money under our mattresses (up to £35,000 is protected - way more than anybody would put into a stamp or hamper scheme!).

The strange thing is, it’s often those on a low income that use these stamp and hamper schemes believing they’ll help them budget even though most have access to a computer and could just as easily put the money into a savings account and use a spread-sheet to track how much is to go to what. That way they’d earn some interest on their savings and they’d know that whatever happened, especially in today’s unstable financial climate, there money would be safe.

It’s said that the rich are only rich because they’re canny with their money and I do believe that’s the truth. Using savings stamps and hamper schemes isn’t a canny (clever, for those who don’t understand our lingo) - you might just as well keep the money under the mattress instead.

Sharon J


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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Poverty - Important - Please Read

Just a quickie.

This morning Debi posted about how Italy, France and Canada are backing out of their pledge to donate 0.7% of their national income towards the fight against poverty. That money has the potential to save millions of lives and yet they’re no longer willing to give it; they’d rather keep the whole pot for themselves, even though they already had 99.3%. If that isn’t selfish, what is?

I’m so glad I was made aware of this because it’s up to us all - each and every one of us that are lucky enough to have secure homes, a meal on the table every day, adequate clothing and a comfortable bed - to do our bit to help those who are far less fortunate than us. Surely the world’s governments all know that? It isn’t difficult to work out what “love thy neighbour” means.

Avaaz currently have a petition to try to persuade the leaders of the aforementioned countries to stick to their promise. The petition will be delivered, along with a speech, to the UN assembly by UN summit tomorrow by Jeffrey Sachs, UN official and economist.

If you’re like to sign the petition, just click here.

Sharon J


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Freezing Casseroles

No, I don’t mean casseroles that are shivering in their pots, what I’m offering here is a group of tips related to keeping casseroles in the freezer. But you knew that really, didn’t you?

I generally make at least a double portion of any casseroles that I make, although there are exceptions, which I’ll come back to a second. It makes sense to use the cooker just the once - who wants to waste energy, whether it’s gas, electric or your own? Far easier to just whip some out of the freezer, heat it through and dig in.

Most casseroles can be frozen and kept for up to 2 months (remember to date it - it’s easy to forget when you put it in there) and generally don’t take up too much room in the freezer. Rather that than a stack of pre-packed frozen meals from Tesco, anyway. There are a few things to know about freezing casseroles though, so here goes:

Pasta doesn’t freeze well. If your casserole contains spaghetti, macaroni, noodles or the likes, it won’t be anywhere near as good when re-heated because pasta tends to go sloppy after freezing. Some people don’t mind this but it reminds me too much of hospital food. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you freezing the meat, fish or veg mixture before the pasta goes in.

Potatoes don’t freeze well. I make quite a few vegetable stews and casseroles plus a few meat based casseroles that contain potatoes. I soon learned that freezing them isn’t such a good idea, though. Potatoes change their consistency when frozen and the results aren’t always pleasing. Rather than waste any leftovers I just remove the potatoes (they either go in the dog or are chilled and used in a second meal) and freeze the rest. If I need them, I can always boil up a few spuds next time - that’s still easy and more energy efficient than making the whole thing over again.

The taste can change. Some seasonings change their taste when frozen, becoming either weaker or stronger so be aware that your casserole may not taste exactly the same. You can always add more seasoning if need be and if it’s too strong, a little milk added to it usually helps tame the flavours somewhat.

No freezer container to spare? No worries. I was always running out of tubs and things to freeze leftovers in but soon realised that I’d have to find some other way of doing it. Enter aluminium foil. I line a plastic Tupperware type tub/box with foil, stick the casserole in, freeze it, remove it and then take the foil and casserole out of the tub again. I wrap the foil around it then stick it in a freezer bag (which get reused a couple of times, being as no food comes into contact with them). Another good thing about using this method is that you don’t waste freezer space with half filled tubs.

Try freezing small amounts first. If you’re using a new recipe, rather than make a huge batch, just double up in case it doesn’t freeze as well as you’d thought. If all goes well, go mad next time.

NEVER refreeze food once it’s been thawed. I know some people do this but it really isn’t a good idea. Every time food it brought back to room temperature, the bacteria it contains continue to grow. Freezing doesn’t kill them, it just stunts their growth. If you do make a big batch, freeze in individual portions to avoid thawing more than you need.

I know quite a few of my regular readers will already know these things but I’m sure there are people out there who don’t and we all have to learn sometime, somewhere.

Sharon J


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Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The Battle of the Batteries

Batteries! I hate them! I can never find one when I need one, they cost a fortune and my charger for the rechargeable ones gave up the ghost ages ago.

Batteries are dangerous. Depending on the kind of battery you use, they contain zinc, mercury and all sorts of nasties that leak out and get into the environment, damaging wildlife and ecosystems.

Around 30,000 tonnes of general purpose batteries thrown away every year but only about 2% of them are ever recycled. Apart from the leakage, that’s a lot of waste that has to be put somewhere.

I very rarely bought my children toys that needed batteries, and would ask others not to buy them for them either but eventually decided to go one step further by trying to avoid anything that I have to use batteries in. In the cases where it’s unavoidable, I look for products that have rechargeable batteries (like cameras, for example). As a last resort, I’d use my own rechargables but since my charger died on me a year or so ago, because I use so few batteries, I haven’t yet needed to buy a new one. However, if you use a lot of batteries, there's a gadget available now that let's you recharge throw away batteries. To find out more, click here.

I don’t have a personal CD player and I haven't used my mp3 player for several years. I have no hand-held games console (or any games console for that matter), a battery driven handbag sized hair dryer or any other unnecessary battery driven gadgets but I do have a torch. It's not particularly reliable though so I'm on the look out for a decent wind up version. Oh... hold on... the wall clock has a battery in it. It’s only been changed once in five years though so it’s not exactly making me a big battery consumer. No doubt there are other things but the batteries are changed so seldom that I can't even think what they might be! Except for the remote controls, that is. They drive me up the wall so I really must put a multi-purpose remote (or whatever they're called) on my wish list and maybe somebody will buy it me for Christmas (note to close friends and family: big hint dropped there).

Now that I have the battery problem more or less sorted, I really need to sharpen up and stop leaving my mobile phone charger in the socket. Either that or I need to buy a new extension lead with individual switches.

Sharon J xx

Confession time: I did once have a multi-function remote control but I threw it in temper and... well, suffice to say, it no longer works.


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Monday, 22 September 2008

Living Off Of A Little

Since becoming ill and having to give up work, the money the state are willing to give me through income support and disability living allowance are all I have. It’s not a lot but I’m not complaining because I manage just fine. There isn’t room for many luxuries but then I don’t need them either so that doesn’t really matter.

What amazes me though is the number of people who say “you seem to be doing well on benefits” as if I’m fiddling the system somehow. I don’t know whether they think I’m selling imported fags and booze on the side, dealing drugs or running a secret brothel but I can assure you that I’m not. My benefits are my ONLY source of income.

By ‘doing well’ these people are referring to the fact that I’ve paid off a relatively large chunk of my debt, saved quite a bit towards my new kitchen and can afford to eat out occasionally and take a holiday once a year. But the only reason I’m ‘doing well’ is because I’m frugal. I’m careful with my pennies and never buy anything unless I either really need it or absolutely love it. Things that ‘might come in handy’ or that are fashionable fads just don’t get past the door. I repair things rather than buy new and I look for stuff that’s either second-hand or on offer. Most times, these things are better quality than they would have been had I paid a lot more for them and certainly better than their full-price, brand new counterparts at the same price. I look for things that will stand the test of time so tend to go for classic or quirky things rather than what’s fashionable.

I use websites like Quidco for money-back and use just one credit card for most spending and then pay it off immediately so that I can take advantage of the cash-back. Price comparison sites are always useful and I visit MoneySavingExpert regularly to pick up tips and hints.

I stick to a list when I’m grocery shopping, menu plan and batch cook so that there’s as little waste as possible. Next year I’m hoping to grow some of my own vegetables too, although that depends on what my health’s like at the beginning of the season.

By cutting back on stuff doesn’t make my life any worse - in fact, most of it enriches my life because I’m able to enjoy a few luxuries too. The occasional meal out with family or friends, a visit to the cinema or the theatre, a trip to Norway to see my family and friends there, or a holiday just for the sake of getting a break. But even then I look for the best deals and I still live frugally on holiday, although perhaps not quite as frugally as otherwise.

Tracking helps too. Knowing exactly where my money goes is important to me - how would I know where to cut back otherwise? I track all my expenditure, whether it’s bills, shopping, or anything else. I honestly think a lot of people would be shocked if they realised just how much they spend on ‘rubbish’ - stuff they really don’t need.

I’m not ‘tight’ - I often invite family and friends round for a meal and I’m happy to help out those in need - I just don’t throw my money away. That way I ‘do well’ on my relatively small income and although frugality isn’t glamorous, it’s very satisfying and means I can live in a way I’m happy with on a relatively small income. I really don’t have much to complain about.

Sharon J


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Sunday, 21 September 2008

Awesome Autumn!

I was talking to my mum on the phone the other day, she was complaining about how autumn’s here now and that it’s just going to get really cold and miserable. She moaned about how she won’t be able to get the washing dry, that she’s having to put the heating on during the evening, and Lord knows what else.

Every season has it’s drawbacks but they all have their good sides too. You don’t get bugged by mosquitoes and wasps the whole time during autumn, after all, and sweating your kiskers off isn’t a problem.

I personally try to make the most of every season and there’s plenty to do in autumn that you either can’t do in summer, or just isn‘t quite the same.

Kick leaves in the park like you did as a kid. There’s no shame in being ’childish’ - we need to just have spontaneous fun now and then.

Take a walk in the woods or just around your neighbourhood and admire the colour changes. The bright flowers of summer may well be disappearing fast but they’re being replaced by some fantastic reds, oranges and yellows that can be beautiful as a single tree - like the fiery colour of the hornbeam - and absolutely breathtaking when viewed en masse.

Bake an apple pie. Autumn’s apple season and home-made apple pie with lots of cinnamon tastes soooooo much better than shop bought varieties. Hot with cream or cold with warm custard... how can you go wrong? If you don’t want to make pastry, try a crumble instead. They’re dead easy and there are loads of recipes on the web.

Have a picnic. Just because it isn’t summer any more doesn’t mean the picnic seasons over - as long as you dress appropriately, a picnic on a crisp, sunny autumn day can be really nice too. Think cheese & pickle sandwiches, pickled onions, pork pies, sausage rolls, coleslaw, hot drinks, slices of fresh apple pie, and all those wonderful berries.

Make jam. Gardens and hedgerows are full of juicy berries in autumn just waiting to be turned into delicious sweet jam. It isn’t as difficult as you may think and you don’t need lots of special equipment either. In fact, I used to make loads of ‘jam’ just by crushing berries with sugar and freezing them. Delicious when thawed on fresh bread.

Get crafting. The dark nights don’t exactly inspire people to go visiting the way the long light evenings of summer do, but they’re great for settling down inside with some knitting, sewing, card-making or whatever other craft you fancy. Let your imagination run riot. Make stuff.

Enjoy your comfy autumn clothes. I love wearing a good pair of soft, comfortable jeans, a well worn t-shirt and a wooly jumper that’s just a bit too big and luckily that’s the perfect get-up for going out for walks in autumn. Shorts and vest tops are all very well and good but there’s something very comforting about big, baggy sweaters.

Visit a maize maze and get lost or a while. Lots of farms do these to make some extra money so there’s a good chance there’s one near you. We spent a couple of hours looking for our way out last time we went so it’s a good idea to take a few sarnies and a drink with you.

Fill yourself up with stews and casseroles. As much as I love the light foods of summer, once autumn arrives I can’t wait to get the stew pot out and start cooking rich, hearty food. Make use of all those lovely root vegetables that are about now - they almost all combine really well in stews and casseroles and there’s nothing easier to cook than a one-pot meal.

Bring out blankets and cuddle up in them during chilly evenings. A blanket, a good book and a cup of hot chocolate…. Heaven!

Richard and I are off to Cholmondely Castle Gardens for a picnic today. There's no point sitting indoors when the sun's shining and double Gloucester cheese sandwiches made with bread baked fresh this morning are up for grabs.

Is there anything you particularly love about autumn?

Sharon J


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Saturday, 20 September 2008

Who Tried What First?

Have you ever thought about how we come to have such a wide choice of food available? We take it for granted that carrots, lettuce, eggs, sheep’s livers, blackberries, oranges and everything else is edible, yet somebody must have been the first to try them.

Who first decided they’d try eating a blackberry? Didn’t they know that others had gotten sick through eating berries? Blackberries could have been as poisonous as raw elderberries for all they knew. And that’s another point. After seeing somebody throwing up after eating elderberries direct from the tree, what made them try cooking them and eating them instead? Did they just fall from the tree into a hot pan of water and somebody accidentally ate one?

Then there’s carrots, turnips and stuff. Why would anybody pull up a plant and decide to cook the roots? Did they just bite into anything ‘back in the day’? And potatoes. Why cook knobbly things growing amongst the roots of a plant?

When did the first person decide to pulverise a bit of bark and sprinkle it over their apple pie? Or grate a rock hard nut over their rice pudding?

We mustn’t forget the humble mushroom, either. We all know how nasty some of those can be yet somebody must’ve curled up in agony, gotten high (maybe he or she didn’t mind too much?) or dropped down dead before the safe ones were found? What possessed them to keep trying? “Oh, the bloke next door just popped his clogs after eating those mushrooms over there but never mind, I’ll try some of these instead”. I think I’d have given them the no-no myself.

The ones that gets me most though are eggs. Milk I can understand - it comes out of our udders so why not try the similar looking stuff that comes from other mammals - but eggs? Who decided to take the hard thing that comes out of a bird’s bum and boil it? That surely must’ve been because one accidentally fell into hot water? I reckon I’d have still been a bit dubious, but I suppose whoever it was must’ve been starving. A fried egg probably came about by being accidentally cracked open on a hot rock or something.

And what about pastry and pasta? Who first made them and why? The same goes for bread and cakes.

Food’s all around us and for us here in the West, in abundance. But we do take it pretty much for granted, don’t we? Imagine if we were the ones having to try all this stuff for the first time.

Sharon J


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Friday, 19 September 2008

Consumer Bullying

Apparently, a survey has shown that around 55% of teens here in the UK have been bullied because they didn’t have the right products, be that the latest designer trainers, computer game, mp3 player or some other object that's considered ‘cool’.

I know what it’s like to have children bullied by their peers - it puts a LOT of pressure on parents. We have our own standards and ethics that we try to live by yet at the same time the last thing we want is to put our children through the torture of being sent to school each day to meet the bullies and live another day of hell. Because for the kids concerned, it really can be hell, so much so that some teens choose to end their lives rather than face another day of it.

How do we bring our children up to understand the value of things and that true happiness and contentment with life can’t be found in stuff when they’re receiving the opposite message whenever they set foot outside the home? In fact, they don’t even need to do that. All they need to do is switch on the television or open a magazine to be told that they should have whatever they want ‘because they’re worth it’? (The one advert that really make me cringe right now is the one for DFS furniture that uses Nickleback’s ‘Rockstar’ with all it's "I want..." messages).

I clearly remember my daughter asking for a £70 pair of shoes. This while we were living in an area where most people were on benefits and therefore couldn’t have had (shouldn’t have had?) much of a disposable income. Although I was working, I was on a low income and £70 was a lot of money, probably about what I had left each month after carefully budgeting for the bills, food and other necessities. Out of that I had to clothe my children, furnish our home (it was very basic back then) and run a car, the latter of which was important to me because of Paul, who was difficult to travel on public transport with. Seventy quid for a pair of shoes wasn’t only way above and beyond what I would have considered reasonable for a pair of school shoes, it was impossible to find. The result? She got bullied. Badly.

Eventually both girls were bullied to such an extreme that they were taken out of school. They were too afraid to go there - in fact, they were too afraid to even leave the house without me with them. Up until that point, they’d believed that the answer to their problems lay in having the right stuff, but eventually realised that no amount of worldly goods would ever be ‘good enough’ - the bullies would still find something to pick on them for.

And that’s it. Therein lies the dilemma. Do we give in and buy all sorts of stuff for our kids, supporting the consumer band-wagon and possibly putting ourselves into debt, or do we try to help our children understand that the bullying would go on regardless? That being the ‘cool kid’ isn’t always what it appears to be? That attitude is far more important than material status? How far do we let things go before we cave in to their consumer demands?

Mary Whitehouse may have seemed a bit extreme to most of us but she did have a point when she said that television was corrupting society only these days it’s the adverts I’m opposed to. I realise they’re a necessary evil if we’re to have ‘free view’ channels but what kind of freedom is there in being drip fed with non-information about stuff we should have but really don’t need? I don’t care how much people say “It’s our choice”, It’s akin to brain-washing and unless we’re very strong, it’s easy to be misguided, especially while we‘re young and susceptible to all sorts of influences. Yes, we can turn the TV off but does that really mean our teens will never be exposed to it? Of course not.

I don’t have the answer to the problem (but oh how I wish I did!) but it’s a sad state of affairs when our children’s lives are being wrecked because of the pressures of our money oriented consumer society. All I hope is that the credit crunch will have more parents thinking twice about what they buy their kids, and that some of the pressure will eventually lift.

Sharon J


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Thursday, 18 September 2008

Help Wanted, Please


Thanks to Jennifer at HomeMattersMost, I’ve learned that Internet Explorer won’t open my blog. It just comes up with some warning box thingy and then the page disappears. Arghhh!

I’ve no idea why this is. Jen suggested that it could be something to do with the Black Sheep Ale photo on yesterday’s post but I’ve removed that and it’s still happening. Try as I might, I just can’t figure out what the problem could be.

Does anybody have any idea? It’s working fine in Firefox but IE just won’t have it.

Sharon J

UPDATE: 15:30 - Problem solved. After all that faffing about, it must have been a Blogger thing.


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Pass Me A Stick and The Salt Pot, Please

These past couple of months I’ve re-discovered celery.

Mum never really used it in salads or stews because she always found it too stringy but Grandad loved it so every Christmas she’d get it in special for our evening ‘light bites’ (sarnies, celery, pickled onions, jellied eels and mince pies). Grandad would douse a stick of celery in salt and then, alongside his cheese & pickle sandwich, he’d take a bite. I can still hear the sound of that satisfying crunch! It was the crunch that eventually got me to try a stick myself. Anything that sounded that good surely had to taste good too? Well, that was the philosophy of a 7 year old, anyway.

And it did. I used to look forward to Christmas for a plethora of reasons but celery was definitely one of them. I think part of it was also the sharing of something special with Grandad, the man who I respected more in my life than anybody I’ve ever met either before or since. He was such an amazing influence in so many ways.

Anyway, because I’m always trying to get more fruit and veg into my daughter, I’m forever buying stuff that she either hasn’t tried for a long time (she accepts that our taste does change) or has just never had at all. Celery was one of those vegetables that I’d kind of dropped by the wayside when I left home and had never properly re-discovered. It was time to remedy that.

Nowadays there’s always at least a couple of sticks in the fridge because it’s become one of our staple salad veggies and now, as the colder weather starts to set in, it’ll be used in lots of casseroles and stews. We’ve already tried it in a few (including spaghetti Bolognese) and are happy with both the taste and the texture.

Celery’s great for those who have to watch their weight because it has very few calories but lots of fibre. In fact, it’s said that celery actual leaves us with negative calories because celery is quite difficult to digest so the body uses more energy to burn the fibre than it actually contains. The jury's still out as to whether or not there's any truth in that though, but it could explain how Grandad managed to stay slim and muscular when he ate huge amounts of protein and calorie rich foods but also ate a whole lot of celery!

Those with high blood pressure will also benefit by incorporating celery into their diet as, thanks to the Pthalides, it helps the muscles of the arteries relax, thus allowing blood vessels to dilate. It’s also high in vitamin C so will help prevent colds - a good reason for bunging some in those stews and casseroles - and contains a few essential minerals. It also offers a decent dose of vitamin K, necessary for blood clotting (although not so good for those who have 'sticky blood' - that's blood that's actually prone to clotting).

Good celery tastes slightly bitter with a spicy after taste and although I wouldn’t suggest dousing it in salt the way Grandad did, a few grains can help bring out the flavour. It's worth using sea salt rather than table salt though; it's less of a poison. Stuffing the cavity with cream cheese is really nice, too.

Locally grown celery should be available all year round some of which may be organic, although the latter may come from further afield than the 30 mile radius that’s usually used to measure whether food is or isn’t local, but you should definitely find British grown, organic celery at least. Personally, I'd go for local before organic but that’s just a matter of choice. Of course, if I can get celery that's both local and organic, all the better (or, at least, I think it is - I'm still on the fence regarding the long-term environmental impact of organic food).

Along with onions and peppers, celery is one of the staple ingredients of Creole and Cajun cooking, which pretty much matches my own. I love using onions, could eat raw red peppers with every meal (but I don’t), and… well, you already know about the celery.

What else could be so enjoyable that's long and hard with dangly bits below it and a big, bulky head? Answers on a postcard, please....

Sharon J


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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Black Sheep


One of my cousins has her birthday today. She’ll be 48 too.

We grew up together and share a lot of history but eventually she moved to another part of the country and we didn’t see each other quite as much. Then I moved to Norway and, apart from Christmas card, we lost touch.

One of the things I did when I got back to England was to get back in touch with her. We hit it off pretty well and would phone each other about once a month to share family gossip and generally have a laugh. We weren’t what I’d describe as close but we definitely had a friendship.

The rest of my family were still pretty much outside of my social and family networks though. I’d have the occasional chat with one or two on the phone, email with a couple of others but that was the extent of it. Those people who had all lived within walking distance of our house when I was little were now spread around Essex and East Anglia.

My dad was no doubt to blame for a lot of the ‘coolness‘. He decided about fifteen years ago that he no longer wanted anything to do with two of his sisters and their families. I know why but I can’t see that it was good enough reason to cut all contact with them, but that was his choice. My cousin would tell me about family christenings, silver anniversaries and all sorts that we’d never been invited to. And yes, it hurt. As far as I knew I’d done nothing to deserve that kind of treatment.

Anyhow, one day I received an email from another cousin, an email that I found particularly vulgar. It was outright racist propaganda in the form of a joke (remember the one that some government minister was hauled up for having forwarded?) and I really didn’t find it funny. I told her so, she replied saying that we’re all entitled to our opinions and that was that. Or so I thought.

Unfortunately somebody I forwarded it to (not as a funny joke but just to show him how disgusting it was) traced the email address that it had come to me via and contacted my cousin’s boss, telling him that she’d been using company emails to send out such dirt. As he’s Asian himself, I can only imagine what his reaction would have been.

Fast forward a few weeks and a letter arrives in the post. It’s from the cousin concerned and basically tells me that she knows I was behind it all and that I was hiding behind the other person’s name and that the whole family are so disgusted with me that I can no longer consider myself part of them.

Riiiight. Ok. If that’s the way they want it then it isn’t really such a big loss to me - it was years since I’d ever felt I had an extended family so I wasn’t likely to miss it much. What upset me though was the fact that they’d just jumped to conclusions without even consulting me first. I’m guessing they traced the domain name registration that the email came from and found out that I’d registered it. What they obviously didn’t think of though, is that a domain name doesn’t have to be used by the person who registers it. I’d register this particular one for the person who did send the email because I built their website.

I’ve since called the cousin I got along with but she was clearly uncomfortable. There have been no phone calls from her since, and no texts. I didn’t even get a birthday card, something she always used to remember. Having lost her trust is what saddens me by it all - the rest of them I’m really not bothered about. But I guess that’s just life for you. People come and go.

I’ve still sent her a birthday card though.

Sharon J


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Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Saving on Restaurant Visits

Since turning my back on over-spending, I’ve cut the number of visits I’ve made to restaurants dramatically. In fact, since February, when I started this blog, I don’t think I’ve eaten out more than four times, and two of those were paid for by somebody else. My birthday meal was one I wouldn’t really like to give up and as I had to split it over two evenings this year, I ended up have two meals instead of the usual one, but that’s ok - it’s important to me to take my loved ones out for a meal once a year at least. Then there was lunch in the pub with Richard as a treat, a meal in Wales rather than just grabbing a take-away, lunch at another pub with a friend who just sprung it on me as her treat and finally dinner with Richard way back in early Spring. Considering I’d usually eat out at least once a month, that isn’t too bad. And I only paid for 3 ½ of those meals.

During those few meals I’ve realised that there are ways of cutting back still further without having to give up eating out entirely. Here’s how I’ve managed to keep the bill lower.

  • I don’t have a drink with my meal. I ask for a glass or jug of tap water instead. Four out of those five times I’ve been given it with ice and lemon - only once was I served a glass of rather tepid water ‘au naturelle’.

  • I skip dessert. I really don’t need anything after my meal. It’s enough to have eaten a good meal without having to prepare it or wash up after and to have enjoyed it with good company.

  • I look for 2-for-1 offers. Pubs often have a certain number of menu items that can be ordered on a 2-for-1 basis and, in my experience, they’ve been no worse than the meals that aren’t on the offer. The offer will usually be displayed outside in order to bring the punters in so finding them isn’t difficult.

Other ideas that I’ve thought of and shall no doubt be putting into practise are:

  • Go to ‘all-you-can-eat’ style grills and buffets. My daughter recently went to one and said she’d never eaten so much food for the money (and believe me, she can shovel it away!). Years ago, our local pizza restaurant used to have a buffet style lunch menu that was extremely good value so they’re definitely worth looking out for.

  • Look for new ‘opening offers’. Newly established independent restaurants often have special offers in order to introduce themselves to the locals. Next time a restaurant opens in town, I shall be enquiring about their menu and prices.

  • Look for special offers in the local rag. I recently saw an ad for “20% off any meal with this coupon” in our local newspaper. I didn’t need it at the time but I shall definitely look out for them before planning a restaurant visit.

I know some say that if you’re serious about saving money then you shouldn’t be eating out at all, but I do think we all deserve a little luxury now and then, no matter what our situation. It’s just a matter of balance. Go overboard and you’ll regret it - deny yourself everything and saving can easily become too much of a chore.

Saving for a better future is good but I don’t think we should ever forget that it’s today we’re alive.

Sharon J


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Monday, 15 September 2008

I'm A Bitch!

While most of us either still do or have had times when we’ve wanted to portray ourselves as being ‘perfect’, that fact is that none of us are. We all have our personality traits and the law of averages dictates that some of those are bound to be what society consider negative.

I have my share.

One of them is that I can be quite bitchy, although in a subtle kind of way. The kind of way that’s stabs just a little, but enough to draw blood.

I don’t like it and would much prefer that I wasn’t but the truth is, I actually enjoy it. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? It isn’t a side of me that I deliberately chose though - I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I’d be a bitch.

I think peer and family influences have a lot to say in why some people are bitchy and others not so much although how bitchy we get probably depends on how susceptible we are to outside influences rather than making our own choices.

I really don’t like doing anything that I know will hurt somebody else in some way, let alone doing it deliberately. Luckily I did eventually ‘wake up’ one day and decided that I’d give a lot more thought to the consequences of my bitchiness than I had before and have gradually learned to curb it considerably. A mini-bitch still lives on though and to be honest, I don’t mind her too much.

Sharon J


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Sunday, 14 September 2008

Lion King, The Lyceum & Andrew

I’ve promised a few people that I’d write a post about our visit to The Lyceum Theatre to see Lion King while we were in London a couple of weekends ago so here goes. It’s perhaps not quite the story you’re expecting though.

The day started out bad. We were stuck in traffic, had to dash about to find a dress for LM to wear, and get something to eat. We’d had nothing since breakfast and as my mum had given us the money to go and get a decent meal on her, we wanted to find a nice restaurant. Could we find one? Not on your nelly!

London’s splitting at the seams with pubs and restaurants but along our route from Stratford to Central London via Bethnal Green, Mile End and Aldgate, there wasn’t much to get excited about. Well, there were plenty of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Caribbean & Italian restaurants but we wanted English food. Not that we have anything against ethnic food, we'd just made up our minds, that's all. In the end we decided to settle for a pub meal but even that went wrong. The waiting time was too long for us to be able to eat and get to the theatre on time, so we upped and went again.

We parked up close-ish to the Lyceum and headed for the theatre via an Italian restaurant where we booked a table for after the show. By this time we’d given up on English food. Once that was sorted, we joined the theatre queue. A long queue. Oh dear… and on legs that already hurt from walking the 200 meters from the car. But it moved surprisingly quickly so I was feeling more optimistic when I walked inside only to be faced with at least 100 stairs up to the Circle.


I couldn’t believe it. Where were the lifts? Out of action, I was told.

How I ever got up those stairs will forever remain a mystery to me. My legs were hurting, my heart was beating so hard it felt as though I’d have a heart attack at any moment, my chest was hurting, my back hurt… I was, to say the least, a bit of a sorry sight. But I got up ‘em through sheer stubbornness. I’d paid £35 for that ticket and I’m was blowed if I was going to waste it!

We managed to find our seats easily enough but half way through the performance I needed the loo. That meant climbing back up the 20 or so steps to the back of circle again but I figured it was better to do that than pee myself. Well… you would, wouldn’t you? What I didn’t realise is that once you got beyond the door marked ‘toilets’, there were another 6 flights of stairs heading down to them. I stood at the top, wondering whether I’d be able to hold it for the rest of the performance and go on the way out. No, I knew I couldn’t. I had to tackle those stairs.

Getting down was relatively easy but once I’d relieved myself came the task of getting up them again. By the last flight I was counting them. Just three more… just two more… just….. ARGGHHHH!

My legs gave way and I went head first into the concrete wall. As I went down my lower knee hit against the metal edge of the stair pushing my knee cap up and I soon found myself laying spread-eagled on the landing in considerable pain.

Enter Andrew.

Help was called for (thanks to a young girl who happened to be standing on the landing at the time) and Andrew, a young Australian guy, appeared. And what a wonderful bloke he was! He had somebody bring me an ice-pack, sent somebody else to find my daughter for me, and once the worse of the pain had subsided, helped me get down to the stalls where he found us seats at the back (it was a full house so he had to bring in two chairs especially) and did everything he could to make sure I was comfortable. At the end of the performance he came back, waited with me until my daughter had brought the car round, helped me get out of the place and then cleared the area outside of rik-shaw people so that LM could bring the car right up to the main entrance.

I’ve just emailed The Lyceum praising Andrew for the way he helped me. He really did go beyond what I would have expected.

Anyway we go home, still starving but too late and too tired to get anything so had to make do with a take-away pizza for lunch the next day. It wasn’t quite the same. What's more, we'd been given a parking ticket because, unknown to me, my blue badge isn't valid for parking other than in designated disabled spaces in the City of Westminster. Buggar! Another £60 to fork out.

As for the show itself, if you’re ever in London and want to see a good musical, I’d definitely recommend Lion King. It’s different to anything I’ve ever seen before. I’m still amazed at how they’ve managed to re-create such a complex story in such a simple but unique and artistically challenging way.

Sharon J


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Saturday, 13 September 2008

Making Friends

I was watching an old programme on Sky a while back where a couple of mature singles were being ‘taught’ how to meet new people. Basically, they taught them how to be more approachable themselves, how to approach others, how to hold an interesting conversation and a bit about body language. They also taught them how to improve their social lives to give them a better chance of actually meeting new people. It was, of course, aimed at singles looking for love.

Now I’m not looking for love but the programme got the old thinking cogs whirling. I’ve lived here for about seven years now and still know relatively few people in the area. I’m not entirely friendless but it would be nice to have a few more people in my social circle but while it was easy to meet and get to know others when I was younger - most of the close friends I've had have been met through either my children or work etc - it isn’t so easy anymore. I don’t go out to work and I don’t have young children.

So what’s a girl to do?

I’ve already met one good friend though a writers' group that I was once a member of and as this person also teaches new age philosophy at his home, I’ve got to know some of the others on a “see you at the next meeting” basis. There’s at least one woman there who I’d like to get to know better, possibly two, but unless one of us makes the first move, it isn’t going to happen.

There’s really only one way to go and that’s for me to invite her to meet up for coffee, lunch or something.

I’ve decided that from now on I’m going to be bolder. If I feel I get along with somebody, I’m going to extend some kind of invitation. I know there’s a chance that some will say yes but then never contact me (although I imagine that would be a bit embarrassing for them if they plan to continue going to whatever group we’ve met through), and some may well turn me down point blank but that’s a chance I’m going to have to take. In the big scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. And it can’t be anywhere near as bad as having to approach a member of the opposite sex in what one could call a ‘flirty manner’ and, believe me, I’ve done that enough times in the past [gulp!]. In fact, thinking back on it, I only got to know one of the closest friends I've ever made because we'd hit it off at a nightclub where we'd met through a mutual friend and, on her suggestion, had exchanged phone numbers and later met up to get slaughtered for a drink.

I’m definitely going to be more aware of the people I meet and, if they share any of my core values and seem approachable, I’ll make my move (hmmm….sounds a bit predatory, doesn‘t it?)

Friends aren’t going to come knocking on my door but people are everywhere. It's just a matter of finding the right ones.

Sharon J


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Friday, 12 September 2008

F is for Family Meals - Spaghetti Bolognese


I’ve been asked by Kelly of Almost Frugal to post one of my favourite recipes here as part of her "F is for..." series so here goes.

Just about everybody I know loves spag bol so when the family gather for dinner, I always find this is a good bet to serve. From the very young to those who are getting on a bit, they’ll all eat it.

Now as some of you already know, I don’t like tomatoes so in order to not have to put myself through the ordeal of picking out big bits, I had to devise a Bolognese sauce that didn’t actually have any tomatoes in it but still tasted the way it ought to. This is what I came up with and as I’ve yet to have any complaints, I’m guessing it really is as tasty as I think it is.

Sharon’s Tomato-less Bolognese Sauce

Serves 6

750 g minced beef
A couple of tbsps olive oil
2 large onions, chopped or sliced
1 ½ small or 1 large garlic bulb, crushed and chopped
1/3 red pepper, sliced or diced
1/3 green pepper, sliced or diced
10-12 closed cup mushrooms, sliced
2 carrots, grated
1 stick celery (optional)
8 dl beef stock
6 tbsps tomato puree
1 ½ dl red wine
1 heaped tbsp dry oregano (or 3 tbsps fresh)
½ tbsp dry basil (or 1 ½ tbsps fresh)
2 tbsps Worcestershire sauce

  1. Gently fry the onions and garlic in a little olive oil over medium heat until the onions are clear then add the mince and carry on frying until it’s brown and crumbly.

  2. Add the beef stock, tomato puree and red wine, stir it all up then add the peppers, mushrooms, grated carrot, oregano, basil and Worcestershire sauce.

  3. Bring to a boil then simmer for about 15-20 minutes, stirring now and then, until the sauce had reduced and thickened.

I usually make a big batch and freeze some for a quick meal at other times. Thaw it overnight in the fridge (or, if you forget to take it out, use the microwave defrost setting or submerge the container of frozen sauce in hot water for a while) and then heat through until its piping hot. You may need to add a little extra liquid, but on the other hand, you may not - it depends how liquid the sauce was at the outset.

Sharon J


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Thursday, 11 September 2008

Ebico - Cheap Pre-Payment Gas & Electricity

Ok, maybe cheap will never be the right word for our energy supplies but Ebico offer it on pre-payment for the same price as billed gas and electric.

Apparently, pre-payment customers pay up to 3 times as much as others for the energy, even though most of those on pre-payment meters are on a low income and we all know that it’s really not fair. The government have asked energy suppliers to bring their pre-payment energy prices in line with the rest making energy more affordable to all. Most, however, have done little or nothing to improve the situation.

Ebico is a not-for-profit organisation set up initially to provide cheaper energy to those on a low income but they’re now open to all.

I haven’t switched yet myself but am told by somebody who has that he made a substantial saving by changing.

I’m on a pre-payment meter myself. I prefer it that way because there are no surprise bills, but now that most companies offer online meter reading (I haven‘t actually seen this in action but I‘ve been told about it), the surprises shouldn’t be as bad. Also, having to go outside in the wind and rain in order to put money into the meter isn’t much fun to start with but the fact that mine’s right down doesn’t help.

Because of my dodgy legs, getting down to it and getting up again is fraught with risk. If I fell and broke my hip I’d really be up the proverbial creek (I have osteoporosis). At the moment either Richard or my daughter put it on for me, but once my daughter moves out I’ll be even more dependant on Richard having to come over to put the emergency on. That also goes for the electricity because although I can reach that ok myself (it’s higher up the wall), if I happen to be hooked up to my feeding pump at the time, I’d risk losing my entire feed regime for anything up to a fortnight and at a cost of £120 a day to the taxpayer, that just isn’t witty. Not to mention the hassle of getting emergency feed to me while my new feed is being compounded.

So what do I do?

Just two days ago I decided that I’d take the £100 out of my kitchen fund and use it as a deposit instead. That way I’d be left with more to save in the kitchen fund each month (or to pay off credit card debt with) so it seemed the sensible thing to do. Then yesterday I heard about Ebico and all that changed. I’ve decided now to switch to Ebico but stay on pre-payment for the time being while I save up the necessary deposit to switch to quarterly billed metering.

My present energy supplier wants £100 deposit (bad credit history since getting into a two and eight over my credit card spending) as have several others I’ve contacted. I’m assuming Ebico are the same. That’s understandable I guess - so many people just do a runner when the bills get too uncomfortable - but not everybody can just dip into their pockets and pull out a hundred quid. These things need to be budgeted for. But the catch 22, of course, is that in the meantime those who don’t have any disposable savings are paying far more than need be for their energy leaving less each month to save.

I’m just glad I heard about Ebico before I made the switch.

Sharon J


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Wednesday, 10 September 2008

When It Comes To Organic Food, I’m In A Bit Of A Quandary

I’ve been thinking about organic food versus non-organic for a while now and although I’m still convinced that organic food has to be better for our health, I'm not so sure about the environmental side of things because, while there seemed to be no doubt that spraying the countryside with pesticides is damaging animal habitats and upsetting the balance of things, the fact that it’s a less efficient means of farming than the conventional non-organic way is worrying me. We have a growing population in this world that needs feeding so surely we need to be looking at ways that will increase food yields rather than reducing them?

Because organic farming is less productive, organic food naturally costs more. The farmer still has to make his living, after all. Now that increase in price is all very well and good for the middle-classes with a reasonable disposable income and those of us who are naturally frugally minded but what about those who are at the poorer end of the scale and who aren’t frugal in the same way? Those who don’t understand how to cut costs elsewhere in order to be able to afford the best possible quality of food? And not everybody can grow their own, either. Some live in flats without so much as a balcony, others may simply be physically incapable of growing much other than few herbs and salad leaves. These people still need to eat a good, balanced diet that’s affordable. Not to mention the starving millions who’d be ecstatic to have a diet that comes anywhere close to the one we generally enjoy.

Here in the UK, our children are suffering from obesity. The government have warned parents about the dangers of the fats and sugars that kids are being fed with (microwave meals being a HUGE culprit), but if the price of fresh fruit and vegetables continues to rise and production continues to decrease, the obesity situation isn’t going to get any better. I personally know families who honestly believe they can’t afford to give their children 5-a-day already, let alone buy organic pasta, rice, bread, milk, meat, fish and use organic herbs and spices, and although I could easily re-budget for them, making it possible to at least ensure 5-a-day of organic fruit and veg, being on a low income myself I know it isn’t possible to buy everything in its organic version and still have money to save for other essentials and a rainy day fund. Choices have to be made, and if the organic lobby get their way, those choices will surely become increasingly unavailable?

Of course, one answer is to stop all production of animal food products. No more beef, pork, lamb or poultry. No more eggs or milk. We all know that isn’t going to happen, though. Even though I’ve cut back on the amount of red meat we eat - especially beef as cattle are a big environmental problem - the hardened carnivores amongst us (of which I have to hold up my hand and admit that I am one) are never going to just sit back and quietly accept that.

While we’re on the subject of meat, this is the one area where I do believe organic really is best. While I’m still on the fence regarding the environmental consequences of organic crop farming - the pesticides that leech into the environment versus the growing need for food - when it comes to livestock, only the best possible methods of raising them is, in my opinion, acceptable. That means no stuffing them full of anti-biotics or keeping them in conditions that restrict movement and their ability to act naturally. Unlike fruit, vegetables, corn and the likes, animals have feelings and should never be raised or slaughtered under inhumane conditions just so that we can stuff our faces. We carnivores will just have to put up with a little less meat and fewer eggs, it’s as simple as that. We CAN get our protein elsewhere and if I can accept that I can’t have an egg for breakfast every day and I have to make my meat go further by adding more veg and cereal to stews, casseroles, meatballs and what have you, then so can others. Making do with less isn’t such a hardship and it beats having to give it up entirely.

Anyway, what do you think? Apart from the health benefits of eating organic food, should we keep focusing on organic food production for the sake of the environment or not?

Sharon J


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Tuesday, 9 September 2008

When Things Go Bad - The Importance Of An Emergency Fund

I have an eleven year relationship behind me that was great to start with but gradually went bad. Really bad. I was scared of the man - scared of what he’d do to me, my children, my pets… everything. He was very unbalanced and prone to lose his temper for the least thing, often something totally irrational and unexpected, and was really not a nice person to be around when that happened.

I knew I had to get out of the relationship but I had no idea how I’d do it. I had no money, nowhere to go, and no local support network. It took me several years to pluck up the courage to walk away, regardless of the threats that he’d kill us all if I did, and start afresh in another town with nothing to my name.

I managed to get some old furniture (and I don’t mean old as in antique but old as in ready for the tip!), a clapped out cooker, a fridge and other basic essentials. Home was far from cosy and comfy, but it was at least safe and that’s what mattered most. I went on benefits in order to survive and we muddled by.

Looking back, if I’d had a decent sized emergency fund, things would have been so much easier. I would have been able to get out earlier and been able to equip the house with decent essentials (I still wouldn’t have minded second-hand, but a little better than what I had - proper beds instead of mattresses on the floor, for example, a fridge that was cold enough and perhaps even a TV that didn’t switch itself off every half an hour) and most of all, I’d had the peace of mind in knowing that, if things got dangerous again, I could take the kids and leave there and then.

Unfortunately, I was still rather naïve when I met him and hadn’t built up an emergency fund. I also allowed myself to be suckered into having joint accounts. Never again.

By the time I met Richard I’d built up a reasonable emergency fund and that was just as well. When I became seriously ill, both Richard and I had to give up work and our income was slashed drastically. For a while we lived on some money that he had, then my emergency fund, then my credit cards. Now I’m once again in the position where I have no back-up funds, and a whole lot of debt. But I’ll get out of debt, and I’ll build up that emergency fund again. It’s important to me because no matter how well you think life’s treating you, things can so easily go bad. Nobody knows what’s around the corner.

Do you have an emergency fund? If you don’t, I really do suggest you start one. About 3 times your monthly income should be enough, although the more you have, the safer you are, obviously.

It may seem like a daunting prospect, but by saving a little each month, it will gradually build up and the peace of mind it brings with it makes the little sacrifices made so worthwhile.

Sharon J


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Monday, 8 September 2008

Are You A Sniffler?

Because my bowel can’t accept natural nutrients, my immune system is seriously compromised, which means that if I catch a common cold, it can take weeks, if not months, for me to shake it off. Some patients with my condition have even had to be hospitalised because of what most just think of as a bout of the sneezes. Anything more serious and… well, I’m sure you can imagine.

Because of this, I have to try to do other things that help boost the immune system and when I talk to people about that, I often realise that they don’t know much about this subject; our immune system is something we kind of take for granted.

As well as eating nutritious food, which of course includes getting your five-a-day of fruit and vegetables, reducing alcohol consumption, eating less sugar etc, there are other, non-nutrition based ways of boosting your immune system even further, helping ensure a long and healthy life.

1. Maintain a healthy weight. By keeping your weight at a healthy level the body’s cell development is better balanced and therefore better equipped to fight off infection. Yo-yo dieting, on the other hand, has the opposite effect; the more our weight fluctuates outside of healthy norms, the less likely it is to cope.

2. Make sure you get enough sleep. Even mild sleep deprivation has an adverse effect on the body’s immune system. When we’re tired, the body’s less able to cope with the fight against infections. Unfortunately, fatigue is one of the negative side-effects of the rat-race society we’ve developed, where people are working long hours, coming home to more work, caring for children, and so forth so slowing down and living a simpler lifestyle is definitely better us physically as well as psychologically.

3. Exercise. One of the main benefits of exercise - and we’re talking mild exercise here, not weight lifting or training for a marathon - is that it helps the body produce more bacteria attacking cells as well as helping those that already exist move more quickly around the body. For this to have any long-term effect though, it’s important that mild exercise (walking at least a mile, heavy housework, gardening, swimming etc) is kept up on a daily basis.

4. Don't smoke. I’m pretty much preaching to myself here, being as I was stupid enough to start smoking again after five years of going without, but just as exercise increases the number of bacteria fighting cells, smoking reduces them. Luckily, this is one of the things that change rapidly when we finally ditch the weed.

5. Avoid stress. I was told on leaving hospital that stress would basically knacker my already compromised immune system and several times that information has been proven correct. In fact, the two times that I’ve become seriously ill since developing my condition, stress has been the forerunner to the problems. I don’t know why stress does this, but I know it definitely does.

Unfortunately, my weight is largely determined by hospital doctors and out of my hands but I’ve certainly noticed that after losing more weight than was healthy for my height and build, I became more susceptible to infections. Thankfully, the doctor I have now has accepted that I was forced to lose too much weight and has given me a 70 kilo goal to reach. 5.5 kilos up so far, 17.5 to go!

Sleep can also be a bit of a problem as I’m often up at night to empty out the waste from the 2.5 litres of TPN that’s pumped straight into my blood stream. I’ve learned to sleep when I’m tired though, even if that means going to bed at 8pm or having a couple of hours kip in the afternoons.

Exercise can also be a bit iffy because of my PVD - my legs hurt far too much for any real kind of walking (100 yards and I’m struggling), cycling’s out of the question, and although I could swim, I can’t get in and out of the pool because of the weakness in my legs and the kind of ladder steps they have at our local bathes. I do try to push myself just that little bit extra when I do walk though, and doing the housework is good for me. And dancing has always been something I’ve enjoyed so I often put on some music and dance for as long as my legs and stamina will let me.

As for smoking….well, you know the score.

Unfortunately, even though I tell them how bad stress can be for me, a lot of people really don’t understand it. I suppose that’s natural because they only have their own reactions to stress to judge by but as a consequence, in order to maintain my own health, I’ve had to seriously cut back on the amount of time I spend around people who stress me. I don’t like it, I can’t deal with it, and I won’t compromise my health because of it.

Anyway, if you’re one of those people who seem to easily pick up infections, maybe one of the above could be part of your problem.

Sharon J


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Sunday, 7 September 2008

Selfish Parking - Disabled Spaces Are For The DISABLED

I have a blue badge in my car. For those that are unfamiliar with the scheme, it’s a badge available for those who experience extreme discomfort when walking more than 100 yards or have other specific reasons for needing to be close to their car, giving us the right to park in specially allocated spaces and on yellow lines.

When I first received my badge I was really thrilled. At last I’d be able to park closer to the shops in town, enabling me to get about easier. Unfortunately it didn’t take long before I realised that it doesn’t always work that way.

The first thing I noticed was that there never appeared to be enough disabled parking spaces available. I’d often have to drive around town several times, spewing unnecessary carbon into the air, before I eventually either found one or gave up and went home. I couldn’t help wondering why so many taken. it’s the council’s job to issue the badges so it would stand to reason that they’d have a general idea of how many spaces would be needed. The answer, my friends, lies in the selfishness of the fit and healthy.

Time and time again I’ve been unable to use the disabled parking areas because of spaces being occupied by cars that weren’t displaying a blue badge. I’ve even seen perfectly fit people leap from cars that they’ve parked in disabled spaces and practically run into a shop, using the space as convenient parking rather than taking the trouble to walk a few hundred yards extra.

Not only are those people stopping those of us who can’t walk far from shopping comfortably, disabled spaces are generally wider than the average parking bay, making entering and exiting a vehicle far easier. I wonder whether they’ve ever tried getting out of car and into a wheelchair when there’s about a 12 inch (or less) gap between cars! Even getting crutches sorted out is pretty close to impossible without risking a scratch on the neighbouring car.

What’s more, there never seems to be a traffic warden around when the spaces are taken by non-badge holders. No, they’re always too busy at the main car-parks, looking for those who have parked for a few minutes longer than they’ve paid for!

Why oh why are there so many selfish drivers around? Are people really so lazy that they’d rather stop the disabled from going about their business in order to go about their own in as few steps as possible?

Sharon J


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Saturday, 6 September 2008

Book Prize

No, I haven’t written a book for which I’ve won a prize - I’ve won a prize which is a book. And what a useful book it is too.

Jennifer of HomeMattersMost ran a competition a while ago where anybody who wanted to enter had to write about why their home matters most to them. I wrote mine but didn’t really expect to win; I’m one of those people who rarely wins anything. But low and behold, I won, and now I’m the proud owner of The Reader’s Digest Household Manual from 1978! And believe me, having already spent several hours pouring through it, this is one very useful book.

A lot may have changed since the book was printed but things are changing back and the knowledge in this book is valuable. There’s information on everything from decorating, installing kitchen units (I’m sure this will be useful when I’ve finally saved enough for my new kitchen) and laying a carpet to sewing, housework hints & tips and cooking. There’s information on how to use just about every vegetable common to the UK, freezing instructions, info about cuts of meat and how to use them and much, much more. The book also focuses on repairing or improving what you already have rather than buying new. What a treasure!

Thank you, Jennifer. And thank you too for the way you wrapped the book, complete with a pretty little sachet of lavender. Receiving it really made my day.

Sharon J


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Friday, 5 September 2008

Red Cabbage

I have to admit that I’m generally not a lover of cabbage, however, there is one exception and that’s red cabbage.

Red cabbage differs from all other types in that rather than being cooked quickly so that it doesn’t go limp and smelly and lose their flavour (remember those old school dinners?), the red variety can be cooked slowly and with it’s lovely sweet flavour makes a perfect accompaniment to all sorts of meats but is especially nice served alongside poultry and pork.

One of the really good things about red cabbage is that they last ages in the cupboard - longer than their white cousins - so although they’re a relatively large vegetable, especially for those who are living alone or as a couple, they’ll still get used up before they go off. Mine usually last for about 2 weeks in the cupboard although they do keep longer in the fridge but I’ve found the taste isn’t quite as good then.

Red cabbage has the highest vitamin C content of all cabbages and also contains more iron, potassium and calcium than any other type. It’s also low in calories - about 30 calories per 100g portion - and it contains plenty of fibre too. How can you go wrong?

Apart from shredded raw in salads, it’s probably best know when used in sauerkraut, or pickled red cabbage, but there are plenty of other ways of preparing it. It can be used in coleslaw, boiled plain, sautéed, braised or used in casseroles. In fact, when it comes to casseroles, it‘s the only cabbage worth using. And because, when prepared, they don't look like your typical cabbage, fussy children who say they don't like cabbage will often eat them anyway.

Thanks to their long growing season, British red cabbages are available throughout most of the year and are always a popular choice at Christmas (beat those disgusting Brussel sprouts, any day!) or as part of a winter side salad. Served as a warm side vegetable, it brings colour to the plate, something I always feel makes a meal look more appetizing.

If you’ve tried the white, pointy or savoy types and not liked them, don’t let that put you off. Red cabbages are different and unless you try one, you just won’t know whether you like it.

Quick Recipe: Red Cabbage & Apple

Half a large red cabbage, finely sliced
1 large onion, sliced
1 large apple, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoon red wine vinegar (or malt vinegar if that’s all you have)
1 clove garlic, crushed and chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
A small handful of currants (optional)
Enough water to just about cover ingredients
Salt & pepper

1. Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onion. Sweat for about 5 minutes while stirring.

2. Add the remaining ingredients, bring to the boil and simmer for about 45 minutes under a lid, stirring occasionally, or until most of the water has evaporated.

Can be served hot or cold and tastes delicious. It can also be made beforehand and chilled or frozen, which is always handy, then reheated by adding a little water to the pan and simmering for about 15 minutes.

Sharon J


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