Friday, 23 June 2017

How To Be Happy

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

My suppers this week!

These are the dishes that I cooked and relished in the last week. They say that if you love to eat you love to cook!

Roast Chicken. Home from work at 6.05pm. Chicken in the oven at 6.20pm, on the table at 8.15pm (having rested for twenty minutes).

Served with:

Petits Pois à la Parisienne. Cooked this while chicken was roasting.

Pan- Fried Tuna Steak with Fennel Seeds, served with Sauerkraut.

Fried Rice served with leftover Roast Lamb.

Omelette aux Fines Herbes with Home-Made Chips.

Broccoli Tempura- I could literally eat this all day every day. Easiest thing to make if the oil is just the right temperature. I ate a whole head of broccoli like this one evening.

Anyone can cook- please try! You'll be saving your sanity, health and the planet at the same time.

All photos copyright SvD.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The season of abundance

Summer fruits are in plentiful supply at the moment and the easiest dessert which everyone loves is sliced fruits soaked in a bit of freshly squeezed orange or lemon juice (or whatever booze is lying around, rum or cointreau, for example) and served with sweetened double cream. Choose fruits which are just bordering on overipeness- they are the sweetest. Refrigerate the salad before serving. On scorching days like today this is a perfect light and refreshing dessert.

The dollop of cream in my photo resembles a sheep's head for some strange reason....

Photo copyright SvD.

A Real Tree

Whenever I come upon a tree which has not in it its entire long life ever been lopped or pollarded or tormented by human hands, my heart skips. On my 5 mile walk today:

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Cows in a row

This morning on my dog walk making way for one hundred dairy cows freshly milked and let out to pasture:

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

How I found a 190million year old fossil on Charmouth Beach

I discovered Charmouth Beach quite by accident- I had gone to church one Sunday while staying in Sidmouth on holiday. The couple who were sitting next to me in church and to whom I had not even spoken, invited me to coffee straight after mass. As it turned out, they had lived in Sidmouth all of their lives- they were in their 60s. I asked about fossil hunting and they suggested Charmouth Beach and so I headed off the next morning armed with a plastic bag to collect my finds and a sturdy pair of shoes.

I arrived at the beach in the pelting rain- oh, the joys of the British summer! I asked a passing local if I should turn left or right on the beach for the best finds. She said right which I did picking my way along the beach which is essentially a quarry of medium to large rocks forced out of their dormancy from the overhanging cliffs by rain. Heavy downpours soak into the cliff making it fall apart literally and as the cliff disintegrates, the fossils are loosened from their resting places. I was lucky- we had experienced a terrific storm the night before replete with thunder and lightning. I hoped I was going to get lucky.

Indeed I was one of the first few hunters on the beach which stretched for two miles or so before me. I rubbed my hands with glee. Off I went bent over peering earnestly at my feet. I quickly learned not to touch the crumbling cliff face as the disintegrating rock is tar-like and sticks to your hands like glue. Gloves would be the order of the day but I had none. Instead I would have to find fossils amongst the rocks on the beach. I kept going. One of the attributes you acquire living on your own is amazing concentration. Used to my own company I can literally go for hours on end on a single task like painting or writing. So bending over relentlessly scouring the rocks for something out of place was easy.

And here's what else I did- I meditated. I emptied my head of the figurative rocks in my brain and blocked out the ancillary noise- the sound of people's voices, even the crashing of the waves a few feet from me. I got to the point where there was nothing in my head at all just a silence punctuated by a sensation that I should stop and look near my feet and not move. That's what I did. The sensation grew stronger. I did not veer even one inch away from where I was standing but concentrated all my energy into examining the rocks as intently as possible. Suddenly I felt that I should bend down even closer which I did and that again, I should not move. I did what I was being propelled to do. And there it was. I picked it up not knowing what it was but sensing it was incredible.

There was a further strong feeling that I should stop searching as to want more than one prize would be greedy. I turned around and  retraced my footsteps away from beach.

By now in need of some sustenance I headed off to the nearby restaurant where a surplus of customers meant that we had to share tables. As I sat down I examined my finds. The gentleman at the same table who was in an amorous clinch with his girlfriend looked up. 'Very impressive,' he smiled, at the fossil not me, unfortunately. Turns out he was a palaeontologist on holiday with his new girlfriend and he knew just about everything on fossils and dinosaurs. He confirmed I had struck very, very lucky indeed for a complete novice with no knowledge or experience.

Later on the local museum re-iterated the same thing: my ammonite (an ancient type of squid) was rare and wonderful.

The sensation of our temporary passage on this earth is made all the more profound while standing in the rain holding a 190 million year old fossil.

So there you have it: when we abandon our will sometimes great things want to find us. Neither is this the first time where coincidence after coincidence has guided me towards something.

If I could, I would spend the rest of my life down on Charmouth Beach which has to be one of the best experiences ever of my life.

My ammonite. Photos copyright SvD.

If you'd like to know more about ammonites, this link has all the info:

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Summer has begun ...and soon will end

In ancient English folklore, the appearance of flowering elderflower signifies the start of Summer. When the flowers turn to fruit, Autumn has begun. Today in Oxfordshire:

Photo copyright SvD.

Seaweed amongst the fossils on Charmouth Beach, Dorset.

Photographed as I found them. Photos copyright SvD.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Soggy, mystical, ancient Britain

I've just returned from a holiday on the Jurassic Coast- six hours driving back with a two hour detour at Stonehenge. As you can see from the photos, sun was in scarce supply and fossil hunting in the pouring cold rain takes grit and determination, not to mention a strong constitution. What a wonderful time I had though! Simply extraordinary. I learned things I didn't know and found a 190 million year-old fossil on Charmouth beach- more of which I will share later in a separate post. The story of how I found the fossil is fascinating. Even more strange is sharing a table in a restaurant with a paleontologist who was on a hot date with his new girlfriend but patiently went through all my finds and explained what they were- more on that later too...but consider this, what exactly are the odds of finding a paleontologist when you need one?

I LOVE this country in all its soggy glory. A stodgy pasty never tastes as good as when eaten in the rain while staring at a grey, foamy sea.

Stonehenge was interesting but the hordes of tourists ruined it for me. Any chance of connecting with some ancient mysticism wasn't going to happen while little Charlie was screeching about wanting a wee. The English Heritage staff were all surly and unfriendly and frankly I could have saved the £17.50 entrance fee by ignoring the signs and driving past along a side road. I would have seen Stonehenge in the distance only but I would have been spared the interminable wait to buy a ticket then once inside, another wait for a shuttle bus to deliver us at the stones and then back again. Security was extremely tight and my bag was searched and I was scanned on arrival. PS It is estimated that 100 men would have had enough strength to move each of the stones below.

Stonehenge. Photo copyright SvD.

Charmouth Beach, Dorset. Photo copyright SvD. This beach is rated as one of the best places to find fossils. Do wear comfortable, heavy soled shoes as there are rocks (not stones or pebbles) on this beach. You might want to throw your shoes away afterwards as the tarry black rock sediment is impossible to clean off. You can keep what you find but it is forbidden to dig for fossils. A museum full of fossils and things you didn't even know existed is on the beach. A really GREAT experience.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Hake..and then there was none

I alternate meat and fish days but admit to liking both in equal measure. When I was a child, my favourite dish was my mother's baked fish with a white sauce, boiled potatoes and boiled vegetables. If there was a blander meal on the planet I would have liked that too. It was many, many years later that I discovered the difference between bland, unappetising food for frankly, invalids, and the joys of French flair in cooking.

This dish is again, relatively simple as is all my repertoire (I work long hours!). I love the tail of a fish- it is somehow 'sweeter' to eat.

Squeeze half a lemon over the hake and add salt and pepper (sea salt and a good grinding of coarse black pepper). Lay the fish in a baking tray with a splash of olive oil. Add a pinch of thyme, a finely diced clove of garlic, a splash of dry white wine and a good handful of chopped spring onions- white and green parts. Dot with butter. Leave the fish to marinate for 15 minutes max.

Meanwhile, blanch a handful of cherry tomatoes in boiling water. Remove with a slotted spoon and peel the skins off. Add the tomatoes to the fish. Cover the fish with foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 230 degrees C. Cook for twenty minutes. Reduce the heat to 200 degrees C and cook for ten minutes more.

Uncover the fish and cook for a further ten minutes at 230 degrees C. By now all the vegetables including the tomatoes will have amalgamated into a thick sauce. Remove the fish carefully and set aside. Keep warm.

Cook the sauce over a medium heat for round five minutes. Add 1/2cup of double cream and simmer gently. Taste for seasoning. Add more cream if liked.

The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add finely chopped parsley to the sauce and remove from the heat.

Fillet the fish. Drape the sauce over the fillets.

Serve the fish with roast potatoes or boiled potatoes and a steamed vegetable of your choice.

Any white fish will do if you can't get hake- cod or haddock or halibut work well. The secret is in the sauce...:)

Photos copyright SvD.

Monday, 15 May 2017

What hungry people eat after a walk in the countryside

This weekend I covered ten miles all together in the countryside. Brilliant sunshine but not hot at all, a wonderful 15-18 degrees Celsius. These days I have to walk on my own as my darling doggie can't anymore. Walking makes you hungry! I marinated pork ribs on Friday night in my secret marinade- and slow cooked them on Saturday. Tear-apart softness, moist and fragrant! Accompaniments were boiled potatoes and sautéed leeks with white wine. Just scrummy!

Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Keep looking and you'll find forever...

Walked for five miles on Saturday. This was part of my route. Isn't that feeling of seeing forever so wonderful?

Of course, I opened the gate....

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Did Towns Civilise Humans

When we consider the recent terror attacks, the scourge of gang-related knife crime and the higher than average proportion of homelessness in major cities, one has to wonder if urbanisation did indeed civilise humans. There is a theory that the creation of towns, densely populated areas of human interaction by way of trade and skills, was the harbinger of civilisation. Where people of varied backgrounds and cultures came together, a certain liberty also emerged which encouraged the development of trade, religion, philosophy and invention. Those from different tribes found themselves living in harmony within the loosely defined structure of an evolving society.

I agree wholeheartedly with the premise that towns were fuelling demand for all sorts of goods and services and the interaction of people from outside of their micro societies allowed humans to evolve. My argument, as we watch the conflict that urbanisation has created, is if the word 'civilised' is appropriate. The other question I would like to ask is whether agriculture has had a greater impact than urbanisation on civilisation.

I live in the country and therefore am biased against towns. I often long to go to the theatre in London or  just sit at a café in Victoria Station observing all of humanity pass by. But then I go for a walk in the countryside and can think of no place better on earth. In terms of agriculture versus urbanisation, I have been fortunate to observe our village farmer in recent months. This week, for example, the lambs were sent to slaughter. The same lambs I had seen gambol with unrestrained delight in the fields where they lolled about with their mums without a care in the world. In the morning, I would hear the lambs and ewes call out to the farmer as they spied him descending the long hill in his jeep laden with their prepared feed, a supplement to the sweet-tasting Spring grass. The bleating sheep, barking collies together with the incessant sounding of the jeep horn as the farmer attempted not to run over his own animals was the morning cacophony just after my porridge and right before my coffee. As I would walk the dogs I could see in the distance the white dots against the emerald green fields, and now, suddenly, there are fewer dots.

A few weeks ago, the dairy cows were sent out from their winter stables to the open fields. Watching the cows skip along the grass, some hundred of them left me gawping in open-mouthed awe more so as the earth literally did move. One hundred cows weigh one hundred tons so imagine that bouldering past you. I've learned that the best patch of a field to play ball on with the terrier is where the cows have trodden- they helpfully munch the grass right down and flatten the ground with their hooves so the ball bounces a lot better. I'm grateful that the farmer has moved the cows out of their stables as the smell of mucking out would waft straight onto my freshly bathed, perfumed and blow-dried person leaving me with a whiff of eau-de-cow-pat. As a former townie, I have sufficiently made a fool of myself by asking the farmer if the dairy cows were girls. There is also an unwritten rule around here to wear battered clothes when dog-walking and shiny, new, expensive brands are frowned upon. In essence, people in the country don't think like people in towns. Yet the milk and lambs are destined to enter into the sophisticated system of distribution which supports those living in towns.

Is a city such as London still evolving? Is urbanisation a work in progress? Now that we have so much more than our ancestors and access to everything our hearts desire, has the apex of 'development' been reached and are we truly civilised? Our village farmer allows residents to roam on his land with their dogs. His late father on the other hand, used to lie in wait, gun in hand and threaten to shoot the offending 'trespassers'. Have times changed or is the son more civilised than his father?

When country folk think of a big city like London they almost always cringe at the noisiness, the busy-ness, the loudness of a huge mass of heaving bodies all sharing the same air. Yet the act of  writing was developed partly due to trading in a densely populated area around 3200BC as disparate groups needed to find a common way to communicate and keep track of animals and goods. If it wasn't for the growth of towns and cities, we would not have the need for numbers or for the written word. From one perspective, we owe our civilised condition, away from the loin cloth and caves, to urbanisation. From a more abstract perspective, we remain anything but civilised.

Obesity, fuelled by inactivity, is a peculiarly urban illness. It is not unusual to hear a farmer say that he has never had a holiday in his life as he cannot leave his animals. (I admit to being in complete shock at the idea.) A morbidly obese farmer would have difficulty with the dawn-to-dusk demands of the job. The idea therefore that in a city one has everything one could possibly need and then some, does not necessarily result in fulfilment or happiness in greater levels. Just as an 'embarras de richesses' can lead to a destitute spirit, when one has very little the soul is forced to soar. Perhaps the soaring soul is the true mark of being civilised. Just food for thought.

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Say no to faddish clean eating, pointless diets and learn how to cook

Let's get one thing straight- food is not entertainment. So-called clean eating gurus are frauds. If you want to learn how to prepare nourishing, wholesome meals, buy Escoffier's Ma Cuisine or an early publication of Mrs Beeton's cookbook and learn the basic principles of food preparation. I cook to nourish my body and my mind. I honour the farmers and the animals when I prepare my main meal of the day. I cook every day. If you care about the planet stop eating processed or ready made food.

Meals I've cooked in the last few days:

Chicken Casserole with Coriander

Tuna with Fennel, Sautéed Potatoes and a salad of Wild Garlic (Ramsons)

Oxtail Stew with Kidney Beans served with Rice and a Cos Lettuce salad.

Photos SvD.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Time waits for no one

My beloved father, Arnie, took this photo of me, age 6, marvelling at nature as always. When I look back at my life, I feel incredibly sad that time has gone so quickly. I might be in my 50s but there is a real sense that I have grown wise before my time. My advice to anyone today is to seize life with both hands, do whatever you feel in your gut that you need to do and embrace every second. Forget fashion, the mainstream and what others think. If you want to live life fully, remember this- the exception proves the rule. The last time I saw my father before he died (I was 42) he remarked that I hadn't changed at all and was the same as when I was a little girl. He's right: I don't think we can ever change who we are or who we were meant to be.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Challenge yourself

Not content with holding down a full time job, writing articles for The Huffington Post and doing the odd radio show, I have now started an antique business which fills up my weekends. Up at 5.00am is the secret if you're wondering. Energy is learned- get up early, eat properly and keep pushing yourself. Most importantly, don't expend precious energy on people who waste your time and don't appreciate you or teach you something useful. Life is a challenge and we should keep reaching for what interests us while there's still time left.

My little stall. Photo copyright SvD.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Surprise resident in our village

No one knows how he got there but he has been living in our village for years. He is loved, fed and watered by non-terrorist normal humans. He was calling for a mate outside my kitchen window last evening. I hope he didn't have me in mind!

In Greek mythology, the markings on the peacock's tail came about this way: Argus was a man who had one hundred eyes, of which two only slept at the same time. Juno sent him to watch Io but Mercury, at Jupiter's command, killed him. Juno put one hundred eyes into the tail of the peacock, the bird sacred to her.

Photos copyright SvD.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Banana bread in a hurry

My baking skills are not terribly fantastic- in fact I am not very gifted in that department at all. When I cook, I can afford to behave like an artist and re-create a recipe in my own way and not follow it slavishly word for word. Cooking is both a relaxing and cathartic experience- we can create almost any dish we like and the end result reflects our personality. Baking is a whole different animal, so to speak. If you veer too far from the recipe you 'll have a disaster that cannot be brought back from the brink. A savvy cook can rescue a split Hollandaise but no amount of genius can save a cake that fails to rise.

This recipe is easy and takes no intelligence or technical wizardry. Bananas that are slightly overripe work best. Eat the bread while its warm with a splash of double cream. You can even slice it, brown the slices in butter in a pan and serve with a coulis. Everyone likes this bread and it makes my life easier in the baking department.

Mash 4-6 overripe bananas, add a good squeeze of lemon juice and set aside. Beat four ounces of unsalted butter until creamy and pale. Add two beaten eggs and a splash of vanilla essence and 1/4 teaspoon mixed spice. Add four ounces of self-raising flour and combine. Add the mashed banana and gently fold in. If the mixture is too thick, add a splash of milk or booze. Turn into a greased baking dish. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees C for twenty minutes then at 180degrees C for a further twenty minutes until risen and golden brown.

PS Add a handful of raisins or sultanas, if liked, pre-soaked in boiling water and drained, to the final mixture. Your oven will have to be pre-heated and very hot otherwise the fruit will sink to the bottom of the dish.
Photo copyright SvD.

Potage de boeuf for when you're poorly

I was recently quite ill with some strange flu. Three days spent in bed feeling extremely sorry for myself but as always I tried to cure myself with food. I had organic beef in the freezer and I know that onions are good for lungs so I invented this potage. First I tossed the cubed beef in flour mixed with paprika then I added it to foaming hot butter. Loads of garlic, thyme, ginger (which is the perfect partner for beef), ton of chopped onions. Once onions were just brown at the edges, deglazed with large glug of dry white wine then a good grinding of pepper and salt, water to cover. I added lardons for extra flavour and another layer of taste and simmered for one hour. I did not render the lardons first as I find they keep their shape nicely and release their smoky flavour if they are added at this stage. After one hour I then added chunks of red pepper for extra colour and crunch. Simmered uncovered for ten minutes more and ready to eat. The end result was very tasty indeed. And you know what? I think it worked!

PS Anyone can cook if they follow basic principles of French cooking. Really not difficult!

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

My family

My darling doggie has been my family for almost fifteen years. He is getting so old now and like his mum towards the end of her life and who died in 2011, he needs to sit down every so often on our walks. Despite a tumour on his hind leg, he still wants to be wherever I am and can just about manage a short walk. If you haven't had a dog you couldn't possibly understand how wonderful they are. I have had dogs for most of my adult life. People come and go, those who you thought were friends will probably let you down but our canine friends would literally move Heaven and Earth just for the chance to be with you. There is a theory that in the course of  evolution, dogs civilised humans. My doggie and I have done some incredible things- he once sat quietly in the back seat of my car all the way to Brittany, France- a nine hour drive- without so much as a whimper. At the end of that journey, he accompanied me to a restaurant where he sat at my feet and ate one half of a large steak. Dogs are just perfect- they are kind, joyful, full of love - if you leave the room for five minutes they behave as if you have been gone on Homer's Iliad and just returned. I shall be bereft when my darling pooch needs to go to the great big kennel in the sky. Quite simply, I do not know how I shall cope. It will be the saddest day of my life.

Photo copyright SvD.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Mid-week fish supper

I love meat and eat a lot of it but at least two to three times a week I try and have fish. This quick and easy supper is fool-proof. The secret is fresh fish and knowing when the oil is hot enough to fry the fish without burning but resulting in a delicious crunchiness. I place my hand above the heating oil and if it feels really hot but is not smoking, I know it's ready. Cooking is made easy by experience so the way to get better is to practice every day. I coat the fish is flour which is mixed with hot paprika and a good grinding of black pepper. If you want a bit more heat, try slipping a few crushed chilies in the oil but remove them as soon as they begin to burn. My local supermarket had just received these Cornish sardines so I grabbed four which weighed 260g in total.

The idea to roast Brussels sprouts is not mine- I heard about this method from a friend. I've added cubes of poitrine fumée as I've just returned from France and it is the one thing I can't live without.  I slice the sprouts in half or quarters depending on their size, toss in olive oil, salt, pepper and a sprinkling of dried thyme, add the poitrine fumée and roast in a hot oven (200 degrees C) for thirty minutes covered and then fifteen more uncovered. Strong tasting white fish marry well with pork/bacon so go ahead and experiment!

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 12 March 2017


I've just returned from a few days in Paris which in spite of recent terrorist atrocities, remains shockingly beautiful. They say that you cannot expect to go to Paris and not be influenced by the culture and the language- whenever I arrive in France - the only place I ever go to on holiday- I always feel as if I am returning home. Look closely behind me- that's the Arc de Triomphe which the German Army walked through on June 14, 1940 when they invaded France.

The atmosphere in Paris was tense but there were many police everywhere. I felt safe and would urge tourists to visit this wonderful city.

PS I drove from England to Paris and it was an absolute doddle- three hours from the Eurotunnel in Calais to Paris and after a relaxed lunch on the Somme river in Normandy halfway through, the remainder of the journey to Paris seemed to be over in a flash.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The best way to relax

We all live pretty frenetic lives- even on a subconscious level we are anticipating the next thing to do on our daily lists, hence the reason many claim to be too stressed to even relax. I know a couple, for example, who take regular holidays abroad (which cost a small fortune) just to be able to escape the mad, demanding pace in their professional and personal lives. For them, Heaven is a remote beach away from everyone and everything. When they're back in the fray of family and work commitments, they need sleeping pills every night. The mad cycle where the mind and body never get a real rest can be ultimately detrimental to our health. Sure, lying on a beach sipping your umpteenth piña colada may sound fabulous but it clearly doesn't solve the problem of how to cope with life without losing your mind and damaging your health in the process.

Why not try these tests to see how stressed and preoccupied you really are? The first test is to look at the picture below. As you may know by now, I'm a nature fiend- if I feel a cold coming on or I'm depressed, I put on my walking boots whatever the weather. I feel better for walking in the fresh air and preferably in isolation- a very dense wood with the sound of birdsong and where I can smell the seasons works best for me. Finding moments of peace and quiet enable me to keep my head together and banish the blues. Let's face it, life is not easy- or put another way, life is hard if you think too much (hence the reason that mind-altering drugs, too much alcohol and cigarettes are so popular).

Take a good look at the photo. See how long you can look at it and if those dew drops hold any fascination for you. If you can lose yourself staring at this evocative photo, your mind is probably not overloaded with anxiety and stress. If you can barely hold your gaze for five seconds...whoaaaa! Slow down!

In my book, How to be Happy, The Little Book of Peace for the Soul, I write about the sound of silence- the ability to think of nothing. For me it's meditation on the go and something that I can squeeze in no matter where I am. Try looking at these videos. One is of birdsong at dusk as I walked my hound one evening. Just close your eyes and listen to the birds. You should feel calmer and more centred by focusing on the birds' evening melodies. In the process your head will be emptied automatically of all the other stuff that is weighing you down. Try it.

Birdsong at dusk

This second video was made in my garden one summer as I was captivated by a leaf hanging off a filament of a spider's web. The leaf dangling in the wind and actually dancing was somehow mesmerising. The same principle applies- when you focus on the leaf, the computer in your head is forced to shut down. The end result is you feel lighter, less wound up and not as stressed.

Dancing leaf

Best of luck! And peace!

Photo and videos copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Huge skies north of London

It wasn't until I discovered the countryside north of London that I experienced these huge, endless skies which make you feel that you can touch Heaven. I had seen skies like this in rural America and marvelled at them then. Every time I drive out of London and reach Buckinghamshire, the magnificent skyline begins. BBC3 in the background with preferably Dvorak or Schubert and I am lifted outside of the monotony of daily living. This vista and a melody to move my innermost core remind me of the fragility and beauty of life. Simply wonderful. Funny, isn't it, how sometimes everything we need is right there waiting. Last night on my way home from work:
Photo copyright SvD.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

What that selfie says about you...

I'm in the second half of my life which means that I'm in my 50s. This is a strange time to be alive- no longer young and nubile and not officially a geriatric either. As the body ages, the thought of mortality is ever present on our minds. There is a sense that time is running out and all those things that we would like to still do, well, we may never be able to.

The luscious ripeness which women, in particular, display in their child-making years, disappears completely after the menopause. By your 50s you have grown into your face and body and if you don't like what you see, that says more about what's in your head than on your face.

I wondered what had become of my classmates from my primary school and secondary school years and how they looked today so I spent several hours one weekend trawling Facebook. To be fair, everyone looks pretty good and without wanting to sound like a snob, I think a lot of that has to do with upbringing- our families tended to be middle class professionals and our mothers or housekeepers cooked the evening meal every day. Families ate together and as I recall from spending numerous sleepovers at the homes of my schoolmates, all of our families lived pretty much the same way and certainly a shop bought ready-made meal was never served at the dinner table. It would appear that our diets have kept us looking passable in our latter years.

Judging from the happy family snaps, and umpteen selfies, I can only assume that the subliminal message behind sharing these photos on a regular basis, is 'Aren't I lucky'? and 'Aren't I beautiful?' Naturally, every posted photo receives the desired approbation that yes, 'Aren't you lucky!' and 'Aren't you beautiful!'.  After several hours spent seeing a pattern of 'Look at me!' and the resulting seal of approval over and over again, I suddenly began to feel, a) queasy and b) uncomfortable with my own life.

'Cogito ergo sum.', barked my hound as he took yet another selfie, slowing down our walk considerably. Photo copyright SvD.

What about Miss Frump who has a genuinely engaging and interesting personality? Why isn't she on Facebook? Remember the girl at school that no one found attractive- she was too fat, smelled and had greasy hair? Chances are she looks like an older version of herself now but you can be sure she's not on Facebook. Why would she post a selfie in her size 20 dress? How would we make her feel to know she never married or had children, never had more than the occasional badly paying job and is essentially so nondescript she could be invisible. Miss Frump might never have the courage to admit her averageness because guess what, not a whole lot of pats on the back will come her way. Like the virgin who watches porn, Miss Frump probably surfs Facebook longingly wishing she could be a part of the action, desperate to join any reality apart from her own.

From a philosophical perspective, Facebook takes the non-participant on a toxic journey which can only result in self-loathing. The message is that we are the sum of someone else's view of ourselves. If we're attractive, if we can display the smiling-family-with-adoring-spouse photo, we've won the lottery in life and somehow we are better. The snapshot of smugness seems to be our only accomplishment. Out of the  dozens of profiles I viewed on Facebook, no one made mention of what was going on in their heads and what they had learned from life. After all, we're in our 50s with more than half a century of experiences to brag about, yet is the end game of life a photograph of our perfect irreality? And the idea that we are 'better' than others which is why we are willing to shout about it in a public domain, creates a dangerous precedent: remember 'some animals are more equal than others'? An undercurrent of narcissism pervaded more or less every Facebook profile I visited. Co-operation, community, solidarity, empathy, an interest in other people, the human condition, the soul life, all of these are alien territory to the narcissist. And if you hadn't realised, it's all about me.

Photo copyright SvD.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Give me the sodden British countryside any day.

How I wish I grew up on a farm such as this. I would have spent all my time playing with lambs and fishing for guppies in the babbling brook. Some kids play pokemon, others live in their imaginations, chasing butterflies. This remains my idyll where my muddied wellies are my faithful companions (and my two hounds). There is more poetry in the dawn and setting of the sun and in the dance of starlings or wild ducks streaking against a crimson sky than there could ever be in humanity.

Photo copyright S. van Dalen.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Sunshine and showers

I was born at 2.30pm which explains why I was never an early morning person or so I thought until I conditioned myself to get up at the crack of dawn. Human beings have an incredible built-in mechanism which allows them to get used to most things and to program our minds however we want, even in matters of the heart.

I've been thinking of a former French boyfriend quite a lot in the past few weeks. When that happens it usually means the person in question is wondering about me too. I think we were madly in love once- I use the word 'think' because more than twenty-five years have passed since we met. Were we? Who knows? The fact is we're not together and much has happened in both of our lives, the equivalent of War and Peace in mine and I can only assume, the same in his.

There is no trajectory in anyone's life which is plain easy and nothing is ever what it seems. One of my university friends deliberately cut off contact because she struggled financially and found herself unemployed. I only learned of this some twenty years later and by chance from a third person. In our shallow and facile 21st century living where social media dictates that we are all wonderful, successful and beautiful, if you're out on a limb, you don't actually want to be reminded of not being perfect. The same could well apply to my French boyfriend. Although he was relatively successful and well-known when we met, there's nothing to be found about him on the internet. Does this mean he is dead? Or could it be that he disappeared into obscurity and is padding peacefully around in his slippers talking to his houseplants? Maybe he became a drug addict and his career crashed. Maybe he lost all his money and is living on social benefits on an estate reminiscing about the life he once had and the one woman he should never have let go.

None of us will ever fully understand if we made the right decisions in our lives. The late John Hurt famously replied when asked if he had regrets, that yes, he regretted everything because in hindsight he could have always behaved differently. Just as my heart was broken, I'm responsible for breaking a few too and pretty shamelessly at the time although I only understood that after the fact. And yes, I probably should have listened to my mother and married DR BORING WITH ZERO PERSONALITY but at least by now I'd have been enjoying a comfortable retirement trapped in an utterly loveless marriage for the sake of it but thankfully too comatose to notice. (Cue the joke of the husband and wife who claim to get on very well because they never speak.)

I still have the couple of love letters my French boyfriend wrote to me. The last time I found them by accident as I was throwing stuff away to prepare for a house-move, I couldn't believe my eyes. I remember it all as if it were only yesterday: the way we looked at each other when we were introduced (when kismet had to be and was not forced through a computer screen), that feeling of 'there you are', how he captivated every waking thought, and yet if we were to cross paths in the street we probably could not bear to speak to each other. I think that's true love. When no amount of words could express what could have been or should have been and how sorry we both must be that we didn't have the guts to forge a life together. Sometimes there are those who place their stamp so indelibly on our hearts that it is simply too painful to revisit the past or even see them again because we could never recapture what we once had. So what do we do instead? We convince ourselves that life must go on and we just carry on.

My late mother had no end of suitors in her time and turned down many marriage proposals before she deigned to marry my father. One suitor, a Frenchman called Claude, never forgot her. Several years into her marriage with children of her own, my mother was riding down an escalator in the London Underground one day when she heard someone call her name. It was Claude. They spent hours over coffee filling in the gaps of the previous two decades. Claude eventually died and to the end kept photos of my mother which he would often gaze at wistfully. Claude's wife, Marie, informed my mother of this after Claude had died. Even when Alzheimer's had destroyed Claude's memory or so it would seem, the one person he remembered and would speak of was my mother.

Love therefore shares a lot in common with our British weather which is notoriously unpredictable and follows no particular pattern. For example, it's not unusual for warm sunshine to follow an endless freezing downpour or for a menacing cloud to suddenly waft away revealing the bluest of skies. And in the summer we moan endlessly that it's too hot and how we wish it would rain! In the course of life we will experience both sunshine and showers and more often than not, it will rain on the days we forget our umbrella at home. We discover too late that matters of the heart are as transient as the clouds in the sky and when we look back, we only can see the happiness we thought we knew.

Photo copyright SvD.

Friday, 27 January 2017

'Clean eating' = AAaaargh!

I watched the lovely Ella Mills on you tube the other day out of curiosity as the 'clean eating' movement was garnering criticism in the press. She was making a 'risotto' by puréeing squash and pouring it over rice. That ain't a risotto, honey. That's puréed vegetable mixed with boiled rice. Risotto is made with Arborio rice, stock and takes time over a gentle heat. It's a bit like calling me Sophia Loren when I'm obviously not her.

I despair and have much experience of being a vegetarian- I used to live on soya mince and other 'good' stuff. Having been brought up eating bloody steak I eventually relented and returned to my carnivorous ways when I began working in London where the pace is relentless and the hours long. London is so competitive that you could arrive at work and before you've eaten your croissant, be shown the door. Stamina and balls are required to survive London and a vegan diet would leave you exhausted, cold and prone to much farting. Hardly conducive to schmoozing clients on The Sunday Times Rich List.

Here's the thing that all these deluded and no doubt, overly idle devotees are missing: a vegan diet was derived for the purpose of achieving spiritual awareness. By not consuming meat and the energy of animals, one was meant to become enlightened and closer to reaching nirvana or bliss. Meat is grounding- it is heavy and hard to digest and keeps us rooted. In order to achieve enlightenment, the body must be light and the mind clear. The yogi in India who's life is dedicated to spiritual awakening survives on fruit, nuts and pulses and would not dare to corrupt his pathway to bliss by consuming animals products, even cheese or eggs.

The trend of clean living is nothing new but its application in today's society is as always, misguided. One wonders who comes up with the next trend for the sheep to gobble because that's what it is. The irony in the preparation and purchase of ingredients of the 'clean living' movement is that it is expensive and relies on processed vials of this- or-that extract or powdered roots or enzymes extracted from the tooth fairy's breath. Let's be clear- those vials are overpriced and are made by a large scale manufacturer whose sole purpose is to turn a profit. The supreme irony therefore is that in order to clean out our systems, become healthier and save animals from being killed for food, we should spend more and support globalisation in all its destructive glory.

The lovely Ella Mills is 25 years old with an excellent pedigree. She clearly saw a gap in the market hewn from her own experience of eating badly, saw the light as it were, and in the process improved her health and her bank balance. Good for her. But as a serious French cook myself who loves food, the preparation of it, the respect for it and in memory of all those during the occupation of Paris who during WW2  ate cats to survive, please don't tell me that this trend of 'clean eating' is anything more that complete nonsense. If you want to get healthy- eat unprocessed food in as close as possible to its natural state. And don't eat a lot of it. Everything in moderation except fads of which none is better than any at all.

My homemade organic lamb stew with hand made buttery dumplings.
Photo copyright SvD.

And here's what I look like now- in my 50s, stressed out, work long hours, up at 5am to walk my hounds, red wine every single day with supper. No health problems, ideal weight, normal blood pressure. Just suffering with an aversion to gullibility.
Photo copyright SvD.