When the local branch of the Society of Authors met in Monmouth this week, somebody asked me which I liked more—writing, or gardening.I had to confess I couldn’t decide!
I’ve loved doing both since I was old enough to copy plant names onto seed labels with a grease pencil. When the weather is cold and miserable, as it is while Storm Chiara is rolling around the house, there’s no contest. All I want to do is curl up by the fire with paper and pencil, or sit in my nice warm office with tea, cake and a deadline to meet.
The trouble starts when February rains ease and the sun slides out onto a blue sky only lightly smeared with clouds. Then I want to drop everything, get outside and start getting the garden (and myself) into shape for spring.
Before I started writing romance, I used to write gardening columns for magazines. That combined my two loves perfectly. I always had an excuse to get out and about. If I wasn’t looking for inspiration, I was taking photographs to illustrate my work.
This has been a really mild winter so far. Although it’s too early to tempt fate by looking forward to making more apricot jam, the flowers are already beginning to open on the fruit trees in my greenhouse.
That’s a real sign of spring! It won’t be long before we’re looking out for beach reads. Here’s one for your list—the three-book collection With Love From Florence. My contemporary romance The Italian’s Blushing Gardener is teamed with Scarlet Wilson’s His Lost-and-Found Bride and Heidi Rice’s Unfinished Business with the Duke to create a big, bold celebration of love.
I spent one of my best holidays ever in a little hideaway in the countryside not far from Florence. What’s your favourite holiday destination? Post a comment below to be in with a chance to win a copy of With Love From Florence. The winner will be chosen at random on 28th February, so let me know where you love to spend your holidays!
The short, dark days of January are enough to make anyone feel rough. It always seems such a long month, too. The bills for Christmas fun always arrive before January’s payday can bail out the bank account!
Here are five cheap ways to take your mind off the misery…
Anything that gets you out of your chair is a good thing—even housework, with all that bending and stretching. If you’ve got a dog, you’ve always got a good excuse to go out for a walk and when the weather’s bright and clear, there’s nothing like it. When my joints are working properly I run several kilometres before breakfast on alternate days, but to be honest that does require some investment. To prevent injury good running shoes are vital, and if you’ve got a bust, a properly-fitted sports bra. Neither comes cheap but both will last a long time if you look after them.
I meditate for twenty minutes each morning, as recommended by Jack Canfield in his Success Principles. I learned how to meditate by using Headspace, which has a great selection of short courses, tutorials and animations. That started me off, but now I’ve established a routine it’s just a case of settling down somewhere I won’t be disturbed and taking a few deep breaths…
Feed the Birds
Watching birds is as restful as an aquarium, and a lot cheaper. The special foods from firms such as Haiths or CJWildlife provide the ideal things to feed, but if you’re careful you can do it for free by putting out household scraps. No meat (which might contain diseases which, while not affecting humans, could infect the wildlife you’re trying to attract) or white bread, as it’s about as good for birds as it is for us! A sprinkling of wholemeal breadcrumbs, cooked brown rice, chopped apple or grated cheese is okay. When my children were small they used to “help” make fat cakes by mixing dried fruit and cooked potato into melted lard (obviously, I was in charge of the hot stuff!). Once set, the mixture can be turned out onto the bird-table, like a cake. Make sure you put out clean water, too, for the birds to drink and bathe in. They need to do that even in winter, to keep their feathers in peak condition.
Look Out for Signs of Spring
This is one of the best tonics of all. When the sun came out today after a long run of miserable, dark, wet days I discovered polyanthus, a sheet of snowdrops, some hellebores and catkins all on display. Just getting outside felt good, and finding flowers (okay, maybe catkins aren’t strictly flowers!) made the spring seem a little bit closer. I wish you could smell this winter honeysuckle, which grows not far from my kitchen window. No wonder its Latin name is Lonicera Fragrantissima! Pollinators love it, too. On sunny days you can hear the hum of bees from metres away.
When I was a child, my father taught me the names of the stars and constellations he had learned in the days when he lived right out in the sticks, with no electric light. Light pollution makes the number of things in the sky visible to the naked eye far fewer than it was in Dad’s day, but it’s still a wonderfully relaxing thing to go outside on a clear, cold night, look up and wonder what was happening here on earth all those thousands of years ago when light left those distant objects. Much closer to home, the flashing green and red lights of aircraft passing overhead makes me wonder where they’re heading, and whether anybody up there us looking down on me, looking up at them!
What’s your favourite way of beating the January blues?
It’s official—Heritage: New Writing VIII, the 2019 collection of new writing by students, alumni and friends of the University of Gloucestershire—is now available on Amazon. Packed full of short stories, poetry and illustrations, Heritage is the perfect Christmas present for bookworms, and anyone who loves the county of Gloucestershire. Click on the box below to make sure you get your copy—stocks are limited, so buy yours now!
We had so many submissions of quality that we couldn’t squeeze them all in, but with two hundred pages containing fifty-eight pieces of quality work, Heritage represents stunning value for money at only £8.99. As joint managing director (together with Chris Davies) of the anthology project I’m not allowed to have favourites—that’s a good thing, as it would be impossible to choose—although as a writer I felt every word Joyce Grant wrote in her piece The Urge!
I’m really proud to have been part of the Heritage production team. You can find out who we are, and how we all worked together to create the 2019 anthology, here.
Last night was the launch Heritage: New Writing VIII, the University of Gloucestershire’s latest anthology of poetry and prose. Held in the stunning surroundings of Francis Close Hall’s Chapel, a huge audience listened to extracts from the book.
The launch of Heritage was held in November to coincide with the university’s graduation ceremony, which was held the day before. This meant that graduates travelling from overseas could make the most of their trip—their presentation on Thursday before Friday’s evening of fiction and fun (and a weekend at leisure in Cheltenham, as they say).
This anthology was made possible by generous funding by the Creative Writing Department of the university, and kept on track by self-styled (for anthology-creating purposes only!) Capitalist Pig Dr. Mike Johnstone.
At the heart of the Heritage project was its content. We appealed to students, alumni and anyone who has worked at, or for, the university now or in the past. Around a hundred and fifty submissions arrived from all over the world. The standard was so high, choosing which to include was almost impossible. Luckily our team of editors, Carlie Chabot, Rich Kemp, Carole May, Hayley Saunders and Maria Stadnicka was up to the task and did a great job. Those contributors whose work couldn’t be included have the satisfaction of knowing they were in good company. The standard of writing was extremely high. That means there are plenty of writers linked to the University of Gloucestershire with something ready to submit when the 2020 anthology opens for business, in a few months’ time.
The artwork and design of the whole Heritageproject was worked on by Sam de Weerd, Hayley Porri, Hayley Saunders, Shannon Storm (who also produced the promotional material), and Jacob Luke while Chris Davies, Sam, Carole, Hayley Porri, Shannon, and Ross Turner handled the marketing. The copy editing was down to Jacob Luke and Ross, while I did the proof reading and Rich acted as consultant to the whole project.
My co-managing director, Chris Davies, made a magnificent compère last night. He kept the evening running smoothly, and the audience loved him. As well as working with the Art and Design team and creating the cover of Heritage, Shannon created a stunning visual presentation to accompany the readings. She also gave a great vote of thanks at the end to the tutors who have made such an impression on us all.
It was a wonderful evening, and paperback copies of Heritage: New Writing VIIIsold well. The anthology will be available on Amazon soon—I’ll let you know when it goes live.
Heritage will make a great Christmas present, so get your orders in as soon as you can!
I love watching washing dance on a clothesline, like it’s doing in the photo above (by Jill Wellington, via Pixabay). There hasn’t been much chance of that this week. The weather forecast said showery. That turned out to mean torrential downpours lasting for hours, with burst of sunshine. The dry spells tempted me to peg everything out, but they never lasted. Then it was a mad dash to pull everything off the line and get it back into the house.
My latest university project involves the effects on women’s lives of automation during the twentieth century. I’m collecting memories of washing-day from the times before everyone had an automatic machine.
It was the late nineteen-nineties before I bought a washing machine. I’d been using the handy service wash system at my local launderette. I could drop the dirty clothes off in the morning, and pick it up all clean, dry and neatly folded on my way home from work.
That was lovely, although loading and unloading our own washing machine is hardly a chore. It’s not as though we have to scrub each item individually, before rinsing and wringing as in days of yore. I also get a lot of pleasure from watching a line full of washing dance in the sunshine. Getting a load of wet washing dry when it’s raining is a lot less enjoyable!
I haven’t been online much lately as I’ve been busy sorting out my modules for the next semester. This time last year I’d finished my first week at university as a mature student, and couldn’t wait to start the next one! All the worries I had about going back into education after so many years working alone evaporated during my first lecture. I’ve had so much fun over the past twelve months, I’d recommend university to everyone!
When I decided to study for Gloucestershire University’s MA in Creative and Critical Writing, I decided to put my writing career on hold. I’m only a part-time student, but that takes up an amazing amount of my time. Beyond blogging, the only writing I do these days is for assignments and assessments. I’m so glad I’m not trying to write for publication at the same time!
There’s a lot of background reading to be done for each module. I’m a slow reader. That doesn’t help—neither does the fact I need some time to call my own. There’s my family to enjoy, pets to look after, wild birds to feed and a garden to wrangle.
This week I’ve also been getting ready to speak at the Bristol and Avon Family History Society’s annual fair about my latest release, Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol. Their fair is being held at the British Aerospace Welfare Association in Filton. That’s not far from Rolls-Royce Aero, where I worked for a while. It’ll be great to go back after so long away, but I’ve heard that the buildings where I was based have been knocked down, and the site redeveloped.
That’s a shame, but maybe some of the people I used to work with at Development Accounts (Dev Accs) or the Technical Publications (Tech Pubs) library (or even Sun Life Assurance?) are still around? If so, why not drop in to BAWA this Saturday, 28th September. The Family History Society are really friendly and helpful. If you’ve ever thought about trying to trace your family tree, The Bristol and Avon Family History Fair would be a good place to start. It runs from 10am to 4pm, and I’m on at 10:30am.
I hope you’ve had a great summer. September is a lovely month here in the country. The days are still long enough to enjoy any good weather. The nesting season is over, so the garden and wood is full of youngsters finding their way about. Some of them are still at the fluff-ball stage. It’s cute to watch the new generation of blue tits and long tailed tits discovering how to use the bird-feeders.
Every year there’s one big baby who refuses to grow up. Buzzards nest in our wood, and from August onwards their latest brood are turfed out to make their own way in the world. There’s always one who hangs around its parents’ territory. It shrieks to be fed from first light until dusk. The cries ease off once it has learned to find food for itself. Some of them aren’t too quick on the uptake, so the racket can persist for weeks.
It’ll be back to university for me soon. I’ve got two induction sessions next week. After that, I’ll be doing two modules before Christmas, my final two after Christmas and rounding off the 2019/2020 academic year by submitting my dissertation.
I can’t wait to get started. I’ve already bought a season ticket for the Dean Heritage Centre. It’s packed with artefacts and records that can help me in my work on the way small advances in technology had huge effects on the lives of ordinary people during the twentieth century.
There’s one last holiday treat before I start running round the education track between lectures, workshops, archive and library. The York Chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association are holding their annual afternoon tea this Saturday. This started as a local event but they now kindly extend invitations to lovers of York. This year I’m taking my husband Martyn as my guest, to show him the city. Fingers crossed for good weather—it bucketed down with rain last time I went!
I’ve written before about trying out Paul McKenna’s I Can Make You Thin. I’ve been listening to its self-hypnosis CD to help me lose weight. It has been working almost too well. The CD runs for about half an hour, and is so relaxing I usually drop off to sleep.
The subliminal message must be sinking in, as I feel more positive about reaching my goal. I want to weigh 9 stone 12lb (that’s 138lb, or around 63kg) by the time the new university term begins. That’s on 23rd September—only six weeks from now!
I’ve lost six pounds already, but I still have nearly twelve pounds to go. Losing 2lb per week will be tough. I love my food. If I can stick to eating smaller portions than usual that will be fine. I’m working on the basis that there’s no such thing as a forbidden food, only forbidden amounts. Doing plenty of exercise to make sure I expend more calories than I take on board should help shift the extra weight.
The problem with that is I already spend a couple of hours each day walking Alex. Add on the forty minutes of running I do on the treadmill every other day, and that’s quite a chunk of my working week accounted for already. I still have to fit in doing the washing, cooking—not to mention eating and sleeping—as well as earning my living.
Good food is one of my hobbies. Writing is supposed to be my job, although as I scribble in my spare time, it’s a hobby too. Writing as a career has one big downside— I’m constantly searching for opportunities. Research and promotion take big bites out of my working time, too.
I’m already racking up between 12,000 and 17,000 steps each day on my pedometer. Much more legwork, and I’ll have to be resoled (I already have a spare tyre, thanks!). I decided to use a combination of the CD and the mindfulness and meditation app Headspace to double my chances of achieving my weight-loss goal.
After trying it out for a while (you can read about that here) I took the plunge and subscribed. That costs around £72 per year. It is a lot of money, but that fact acted on me as an incentive. I want to lose pounds in weight, not waste pounds in money! I’ve meditated with Headspace at least once a day for several weeks. It’s helpful that the app has varying lengths of meditation. If I can’t manage a twenty-minute session, I can squeeze in five-or-ten minutes, instead. There are also short animations and films, which are fun to watch as well as informative.
When I’m trying to plan projects for my next year at university it’s tempting to spend hours each day sitting in front of my computer. That will lead to me putting on more weight, rather than taking it off.
To give myself an added incentive. I’ve booked my hotel and train tickets ready for the York chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s afternoon tea in September. I’ll need to have reached my target weight before sitting down to a wonderful spread like the one we had last year (the picture shows only one of several cake-stands delivered to our table!).
The McKenna CD at night gives me a good night’s sleep. Headspace’s Mindful Eating sessions in the morning is a lovely way to ease myself into each day. You’re talked through a ten-to twenty-minute session (you choose the length) of relaxation. It has encouraged me to think about my relationship with food. That may sound snowflakey, but as it seems to be working I’m not too bothered about that.
Any spare time I have now involves either losing myself in a fantasy inspired by Paul McKenna’s improving talks where losing my excess weight sees me beat my personal best time for running a mile. If I’m not doing that, I’m planning meals so I never become desperate enough to snack on something sugary.
It’s made me think hard about whether I actually want to eat something, or whether I’m simply bored (answer: get working instead!), feel in need of a treat (get out into the garden, away from the cake tins!) or thirsty. That last reason, suggested by Headspace, surprised me. To test it, the next time I had the urge to eat I drank a cup of tea instead. It worked. From now on, there’ll be more tea, and less food. More tea can also mean more exercise. While the kettle boils, I’ve got time to fit in a few lunges and squats!
Looking back on my long and loving relationship with food reminded me of those endless, school holidays in summer. When it was too hot to work in the garden I’d take a book and hide in the shade of our big old Bramley apple tree. Its branches swung so close to the ground I could climb out of sight without much effort. I would lose myself in something like The Once and Future King or The Goshawk (both by T.H.White). Mealtimes were feasts of home-grown new potatoes, carrots, peas, beans or cabbage, with lamb chops, sausages, or bacon and egg on top. At this time of year, there were big bowls of stewed blackberry and apple with custard for pudding. It was all delicious, and we had to sit to the table until it was all finished. That was never a problem for me—but in those days I was still growing upwards, rather than outwards!
What’s your best memory of those long summer holidays?
I had two bits of good news today which I just had to share. First, The Bristol and Avon Family History Society gave my current non-fiction release, Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, a great review. Here’s a taste of it, courtesy of my publisher, Pen and Sword Books…
‘This book is meticulously researched & contains extensive reference notes, bibliography & a detailed index… An excellent contribution to the history of Bristol’s women.’ (Bristol & Avon Family History Society)
My second piece of good news is that Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol is now available as an ebook. You can download it by clicking here, or on the advert at the top left of this page. If you’d prefer the paperback edition (at the special offer price of only £10.55) you can buy that here.
Sitting around, eating too much cake and not taking any exercise wasn’t doing me any good at all. I started using music to nibble (!) away at the problem, as you can find out here.
The second reason I couldn’t lose weight was outrageous. Over the centuries and around the world, people have killed over a “problem” like mine. Eating when I wasn’t hungry was a luxury that not many people can afford. My weight wasn’t anybody else’s problem. I had nobody but myself to blame. If I wanted to shift those extra pounds, I’d have to take responsibility for doing it.
I began by eating smaller portions. This was tricky. The truth is, I hate being hungry. When I was a child, there wasn’t much money to spare. Our household operated on the army principle that you got just enough food. The idea was that you always got up from the table thinking you could eat more. Blow that for a lark, I thought when I left home. Food—both cooking it and eating it—has been one of my hobbies ever since.
Using a smaller plate restricted my intake. There simply isn’t enough room for a big meal. That didn’t help with the food I was eating after my last meal of the day, though. Sitting in front of the idiot lantern was a time for eating straight out of the bag, tube or box.
It took a personal development course offered by the University of Gloucestershire (you can find out more about that here) to persuade me to change my habits. One of the group exercises involved brainstorming our personal problems. My team gave me some great ideas for low-calorie TV snacks. For instance, an apple sliced very thinly takes a long time to eat. It has fewer than 100 calories. Contrast that with the 300 calories or so in the amount of Pringles I could shift in half that time!
It was a start. Then I remembered how shy, retiring me found the confidence to apply for a place at university in the first place. I used Instant Confidence by Paul McKenna—and it worked. You can read my review of that here. There was clearly a link between the success of that self-hypnosis system and my lack of willpower over food. That should make McKenna’s I Can Make You Thin the perfect weapon in my weight-loss campaign. Its subtitle; Love Food, Lose Weight appealed to me, too.
I sent off for it and set aside half an hour each evening to listen. My heart sank with the opening words. It was a warning not to listen to this “eyes-closed process” while driving or operating machinery. I had no complaints about that—only the ridiculous way it was delivered. It was read out by an American man who must earn his living announcing programmes such as Are aliens living among us? or Was this teenager eaten by Bigfoot? on cable TV. He bellowed it with such excitement, it made me want to switch off.
Luckily, I didn’t. Paul McKenna’s I Can Make You Thin follows the same pattern as his Confidence CD. McKenna lulls you into a state of relaxation which makes you sensitive to his suggestions for regulating your appetite, and improving your lifestyle. I’d like to tell you what those suggestions are, but McKenna has such a restful voice I can’t remember what he said. As I soon began to lose a little weight without consciously dieting, his system may well be working. It’s going to take time, though—and my weight loss could be due to replacing those starchy evening snacks with fruit.
The big advantage of I Can Make You Thin are that it takes absolutely no effort at all. You just lie there, and let Paul McKenna’s voice wash over you. It’s lovely—which is my only problem with it. Every time I’ve tried it, I’ve fallen asleep. That’s fine, but then I wake up a few hours later in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. If that happens, how can my brain take in the information? The only way to tell is to see if I keep on losing weight.
That’s right, this week it’s everyone else’s fault but mine!
I wrote here about one way I tried to lose weight. Running is brilliant at keeping my weight under control, but that’s all. Exercise alone couldn’t shift my excess poundage. To put it bluntly, I was living an eleven-stone life in a 5’4” body. That was never going to work. I needed to find some way to whittle away at the—ahem—curves I’d spent years building while I sat in in front of a computer, writing.
I had to face the fact that my increasing chubbiness was a problem manufactured (in all senses of the word) by first-world living. I’m lucky enough to be able to choose my own food from a whole range of possibilities. As I said last time, I prefer to eat homegrown, organic food which I cook from fresh—but even virtue signalling has a drawback. It’s portion control. When it comes to food, restraint isn’t my strong point.
It’s an age thing. Anyone under the age of about forty will think what I’m about to write is fiction, but I can assure you every word is true.
Until I was eleven, I lived with my maternal grandparents. Everyone of that generation lived through the Hungry Thirties, and wartime rationing. We had neither fridge, nor freezer. The food was good, but economical—roast on Sunday, the cold remains on Monday with potatoes and veg, soups from the bones on Wednesday, bacon and egg on Thursday, and fish on Friday. Portions were small. You never got pudding until you’d finished your first course, and you never left the table until you’d eaten all your pudding. Chips were a real rarity, as my grandmother had been a professional cook. She never cut corners. They were blanched in hot fat in small batches, then cooked a second time before serving. The beef dripping had to be brought back up to temperature in between each batch. It took forever!
Nobody grazed. There were set mealtimes, no snacking, and no such thing as McDonalds in the UK back then. If the local shops didn’t sell it, then we didn’t eat it. We sat to the table together, and nobody got up until everyone had finished their meal. The same rules applied at my schools, with the addition of Grace before meals. This was normal. My friends all lived similarly regulated lives.
And then, like millions of other people in the late 1970s, I went abroad for the first time—and discovered Carrefour. It was like walking into heaven. I’d never been in a supermarket before. There was only a greengrocer, butcher, baker, newsagent, grocers, and fishmonger in our village. That soon changed.
By the time I married and left home, I could load my trolley with convenience food and ingredients from all over the world, at any time of year, and at most times of the day or night. George Bernard Shaw saw marriage as the maximum of temptation combined with maximum of opportunity. That quote now applies to eating. For me, as a writer working from home, this freedom of choice has been disastrous. As we live some way from town, my kitchen cupboards are always well-stocked. I can’t afford to run out of something while I’m cooking. This means every minute of every day I’m face with maximum opportunity to over-eat.
I have tried to resist. I’ve vowed to eat only home-made cake. The thought of having to get out the tins, prepare them, make the mixture, cook it then wait for the resulting cake to cool down usually kills my craving in seconds.
Then at Christmas, someone fancied a custard slice. That’s one (among many) of my favourite cakes. My recipe, however, makes 16.
I thought I could eat one, and let my family eat the rest of my share.
I was wrong.
And then there is pizza. We all love the stuff. I make it once a week, for the whole family. Then it dawned on me that the amount of pizza dough each of us was eating in one sitting was the equivalent of a quarter of a loaf of bread! And that was before I’d added an ocean of home-made tomato sauce, half a ton of sliced vegetables and topped it all off with grated cheese. Oh, yes. Plenty of grated cheese…
One day on a whim I bought ready-made pizzas from the supermarket. They are about the same size as the ones I make, but only have a fraction of the topping. Yet according to the boxes, they contained almost 800 calories each!
Until that day, I couldn’t understand why I was doing so much exercise but not losing weight. Now I knew. A daily diet of organic oatmeal and fresh fruit, with a wholemeal sandwich or jacket potato for lunch, and pizza for tea might be healthy —but not in the quantities I was eating them.
There’s worse to come. Once the TV goes on at teatime, it’s the perfect excuse to sit down for the rest of the evening. Once I tried to cut down on what I was eating, I realised that food is in shot on TV almost all the time. If it isn’t being advertised directly, then people in adverts and programmes are meeting over coffee, making meals, or sitting in pubs.
“Did somebody say J*** E**?” Yes, but it’s usually far more subtle than that. It’s subliminal advertising to the weak-willed, like me. For instance, I’m a career tea-drinker. Show me someone with a cup, and I want one too. And as McVitie’s used to say about their digestive biscuits, “A drink’s too wet without one.”
I used to make biscuits, but they were too much of a temptation. I switched to muesli. It’s far healthier…but dried fruit and nuts are loaded with calories.
Luckily, the weather over the past few weeks has been too good to waste in front of the TV. This has meant I’ve been doing lots of gardening. I’ve slipped in an extra dog-walking session each day, too. My step-count target has gone up from 10k per day to 12k, and I usually beat it by a long way. Portion control has been even more useful. I’ve cut down on the amount of pizza topping I apply, and keep in mind that huge evening calorie-load when I’m deciding what to eat earlier in the day. Thanks to my team on the Sprint sessions, when I do get the urge to snack I cut an apple into the thinnest slices I can. This gives a satisfying crunch, while taking ages to eat. Add a teaspoonful of peanut butter, and it keeps me busy until bedtime.
The good news is, reducing the amount of time I spend in front of the TV (and snacking), together with portion control has shaved two pounds off my weight in the past week.
Unfortunately, I know my body. It will soon get used to those tactics. My weight loss will stop, and may even go into reverse. There’s only so much time in the day I can devote to exercise, after all. If I try to cut down my portion sizes too much, then a sneaky inner voice will say ; “You didn’t have much for lunch. You can afford to put a bit more on your dinner plate…”
I have a tactic to beat backsliding. It is hypnotism. Paul McKenna’s Instant Confidence worked a treat for me, as I wrote here. Could his I Can Make You Thin live up to its title? I’ll let you know how I get on!
One of the many reasons I became a writer was because it involves a lot of sitting around. To a chubby child who was always last to be picked for sports teams at school, it sounded like the perfect career. It has turned out to be my dream job, but the biggest advantage I saw in writing as a child is actually one big drawback.
Once I left school and began life behind a different sort of desk, I started piling on the weight. “If I eat a 200g bar of chocolate, I put on a kilo of weight. Anything that goes into my mouth heads straight for my hips, and stays there. It must be genetic, Doctor!” I wailed.
“Rubbish!” he snapped back, for this was in the days before fat-shaming was A Thing, “I know your family. Keep them away from cake and they’re built like whippets. And don’t bother saying you’ve got a slow metabolism. The bigger you are, the faster it has to work.”
I was given all sorts of tests. The only thing wrong with me was a marginally under-active thyroid gland. I was prescribed tablets. I started taking them, and sat back expecting the weight to fall off. It didn’t. The clue, although I didn’t spot it at the time, was in those two slender words, “sat back”.
I didn’t think my weight problem could be my fault. A lot of people expand because of poor nutrition, but I knew that couldn’t be the case for me. I’ve always grown as much of my family’s food as possible, and to make sure we all get our “five-a-day”. I cook meals from fresh ingredients almost all the time, conveniently forgetting that organic doesn’t mean “non-fattening”. I love food almost as much as I love writing, and that’s the problem. If I’m idle, tired, bored or unhappy, I eat. Like the workhouse boys in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! I love that full-up feeling.
The only way to enjoy that, and not become spherical is to use more calories than I take in. I bought a cheap pedometer, and started walking 10,000 steps per day. That was easy when the children were at our local village primary school. I was walking a minimum of two miles per day each working week during term time (and avoiding all the school-gate squabbles over car parking).
Then I was struck down with a bad reaction to an insect bite. I went from walking miles each day to barely being able to hobble as far as the garden gate.
My husband bought me a treadmill to help my recovery. Slowly, I built back up to being able to reach my target of 10k per day again. Then DD borrowed Running Made Easy by Susie Whalley and Lisa Jackson from the library. After reading only a few pages over her shoulder, I sent off for my own copy. I’d never run before without a ferocious PE teacher snapping at my heels, but I wanted that book. It had charts to fill in and boxes to tick, and I can never resist a progress chart!
I worked through the book, then discovered the NHS’s Couch to 5K programme. Working on my treadmill because I was afraid of falling on the uneven forest tracks, I went right through the programme. I now exercise for half an hour, every other day. My sessions are made up of five minutes walking, twenty minutes running at a speed that leaves me just about able to hold a conversation—as long as it’s simple!—then a five-minute cool down walk.
If I’m honest I find running both a chore and a bore, although the high I get when I finish a run is fantastic. The trouble is, I have to do it all over again, forty-seven and a half hours later. I run as soon as I wake up, before I can think of an excuse not to do it. I can’t write while I run, so that’s annoying. I find even thinking about work difficult while I’m running. Having the radio on full blast so I can hear it over the sound of the extractor fan and my pounding feet is not an option at 5.30am. I had to wait until I got an i-phone before I discovered a way of bringing some fun to running. I made a playlist specially for my sessions on the treadmill. It definitely speeds things up.
Here it is…
Lawrence of Arabia(Main Theme) by Maurice Jarre —This is loud, evocative, and perfect for my warm-up as the march section is just over 5kph—my walking speed!
The Trap (Main Theme) by Ron Goodwin—For as Dr Sheldon Cooper said, “What is life without whimsey?”
Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash—When I saw Walking the Line, my joints were so painful I could only sit and watch other people moving, and that definitely tortured me!
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Main Theme) by John Williams—this was playing on the radio one day when Number One Son walked in and saw me flagging during my run. “Just pretend you’re being chased by a big boulder, Mum,'” he said.
Spitfire Prelude and Fugue by William Walton—I used to work for Rolls-Royce Aero, in Filton. The staff there had seen it all, and done most of it, too, but at the distinctive sound of a display Spitfire coming in for a service they’d all drop everything, and rush to the windows to watch it.
The Great Escape (Main Theme) by Elmer Bernstein. When I first put my playlist together, this was the final track. The title says it all! Unfortunately, this collection turned out to be a couple of minutes too short when I tried it out. I needed one more track. The Magnificent Seven was too long, but
The Dambusters March by The Central Band of the RAF is exactly the right length to complete my sessions. The speed matches the last part of my run and cool-down, then during the last moments I walk down the drive to our front gates and do my stretches. Perfect!
While I haven’t actually lost any weight through running, as long as I keep doing it regularly it stops me putting any more on. Which is progress, of a sort.
Next time: The Second Reason Why I Couldn’t Lose Weight…
After diagnosing us all with raging Imposter Syndrome and then trying out the cure, I’m returning to another subject covered on Sprint, the women students’ empowerment course provided in June by the University of Gloucestershire—stress busting. Making time for yourself is important whatever your age or gender .
Hobbies, especially sport, are a great way to either relax or burn off tension. But what if you need something more reflective? What if you can’t, or don’t want to, go out and about in search of “Me-Time”?
Scroll back through my blogs and you’ll see we live in the middle of an ancient Gloucestershire wood. Sometimes it feels like we’re in one of those old black-and-white Western films. Tottering Towers is our Conestoga Wagon, circled not by furious landowners but by noisy boar and deer! It can be pretty stressful when the deer eat my plants and the piggies plough the footpaths. Days here are peaceful compared with the city. That doesn’t mean they are any less stressful.
Power cuts and the broadband going into trickle mode cranks up the tension. I’m studying for my Masters, my husband works from home several days each week, and our children are still living with us here. We all get on really well, but this is not a large house.
OH’s work also includes frequent conference calls. I prefer to work in silence, beyond birdsong and the occasional Noisli track. And there’s the problem. Much as I love my husband, his deep, booming voice can be heard for some distance through the house.
Several women I met on the Sprint course suggested meditation could help my stress levels. They introduced me to the Headspace app. I was sceptical about something which sounded so intangible, but this app appealed to me from the start. On their webpage Headspace makes a thing about being …committed to advancing the field of mindfulness meditation through clinically-validated research on our product. That sounded good to me.
I got my first smartphone only a few days before starting the Sprint course. I loaded the app straight away and started using it. I found it attractive, and easy to use. There’s a free introductory course of meditation sessions which takes you through the basics. You can also sample short sessions of between one and three minutes to give you a flavour of the many things with which meditation can help, from anger management to attitudes to food (I’m working through that one myself at the moment).
You can use a certain amount of Headspace content for free but to get the most benefit from it you can subscribe. You can pay either by the month, or annually. Like many subscriptions it will renew automatically until you stop it. If you subscribe to Headspace, take care to make a diary note a week or so before your renewal date. Then you’ll have time to decide if you want to cancel it, before you’re charged.
I love Headspace. There are meditations in differing lengths to help with all sorts of situations. It teaches useful skills in a restful delivery style, with meditation sessions of varying lengths to suit the time you have available. There are mini videos, animations with cute graphics, and lots more.
I enjoyed the free introductory course and some taster sessions so much, I signed up for a paid subscription. This gives you access to tons more content: courses for anger management, sleep problems, stress, and ways to become more comfortable inside your own skin. These are all delivered in handy, bite-sized sessions.
The best thing of all is that the Mindful Eating course seems to be making a difference to me, although I’ve only been doing it for a couple of weeks.
I’d love to say I’ve gone right off cake and crisps, but that isn’t how meditation works. It guides you towards eating more mindfully. You are persuaded to consider how and why you’re eating. This can help to stop you not noticing that you’ve been continuously picking at food while watching the television (one of my worst sins).
Headspace explains that it’s important to set aside time to eat without any distractions from phones or screens.
Pausing for a few seconds before starting to eat, considering each mouthful in silence, and pausing for a few seconds at the end of the meal makes a real difference to the enjoyment I get from meals.
It felt weird for the first few days—like being back at school dinners. We always said Grace at my secondary school, and there was a strict “no talking” rule at mealtimes. We sat at tables of eight, and nobody was allowed to get up before everyone on their table had finished eating and all the plates and cutlery were stacked. I’d like to see teachers try that these days!
I wrote here about a course provided by the University of Gloucestershire to boost the self-esteem of women post-graduates. Every one of us who attended the course learned we suffered from so-called Imposter Syndrome to a greater or lesser degree.
Imposter Syndrome is where you live in fear of being discovered as a fraud. For example, you believe you can only have been given your job or promotion through luck, because your face happened to fit, or the boss felt generous that day. It surprised us all to find out how common this feeling is. That’s because to sufferers, it’s a guilty secret. If nobody ever lets on to experiencing this, how will any of us discover that we aren’t alone in the way we feel?
There was a resource table available during the course. It was full of articles and books about successful women, their career tips and research. There was also plenty of information about improving self-confidence and getting that dream job. The Imposter Cure by Dr Jessamy Hibberd was on the table, and it proved a popular choice.
I can never resist a self-help book. My favourite is The Success Principles by Jack Canfield. It’s the book that persuaded me to start writing again, when I had run out of inspiration and was feeling really fed up. The Success Principles put me back on the road to, well, success!
After flicking through The Imposter Cure , I ordered it straight away. The book didn’t disappoint me. Dr Hibberd is a fellow stationery fan. Anything that includes the instruction buy yourself a notebook to use alongside this book sounds good to me. That sentence on its own promised three enjoyable experiences. I had the fun of selecting a new notebook, using it, and then checking my progress against my notes afterwards.
This book is in three sections: Understanding Imposter Syndrome, Why You Are Not An Imposter, and How To Say Goodbye To The Imposter For Good! Part One reassures the reader they are not alone, and explains how and why Imposter Syndrome takes hold. Your definition of competence has an impact on what you expect of yourself, says Dr Hibberd.
She then goes on to outline the five accepted patterns of perfection which torture us all. These are; The Perfectionist, The Natural Genius, The Soloist, The Expert, and the Superwoman/man. Most people have problems under combinations of more than one of those headings. It was fascinating trying to decide which nagging perfectionist had its claws in me. Actually, I have one perched on each shoulder! I’m a combination of Soloist (unless I’ve achieved something completely on my own, it doesn’t “count”) and Superwoman (multi-tasking to exhaustion because I can’t bear to delegate).
This is a chatty, informative book. The text was easy to read, and included plenty of real-life case studies, flow charts, bullet points and chapter summaries. I found it useful, and learned strategies to disarm the symptoms of my own Imposter Syndrome.
The most important thing is to remember that everyone feels insecure and uncertain at times. Study your own reasons for thinking you’re an imposter, one by one. Dr Hibberd has a cure for them all. For example it wasn’t “only luck” that got you that dream job. Luck might have played a small part, but think: you did the work to get the relevant qualifications and experience, sent in the application form, and turned up for the interview. Hundreds of others never got that far. You then went on to be the best candidate on the day. That’s not simply luck. It’s a winning combination of determination, forward planning, ability and charm.
Earlier on I said this book opened with a suggestion which gave me three enjoyable experiences. There was another one waiting for me at the end. I had the satisfaction of discovering thatThe Imposter Curereally did help me stop being so self-critical. I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever felt insecure. And remember, as Dr Hibberd states on Page 253:
There’s a reason you haven’t been found out so far: there is nothing to find out.
Have you ever found a self-help book that worked for you?
I spent some time last month in the company of a group of dynamic and forward-thinking women. It was a fascinating, uplifting experience—but it proved to me that nearly all of us is hiding a toxic secret.
Although we delegates were drawn from different walks of life and stages in our careers, we had lots of different things in common. Some of us found it hard to accept compliments. Only one of us could manage to say no to taking on too much work. Most of us said we would go out of our way to avoid conflict, and confessed to wasting too much time on our phones.
Over four days, post-graduate women on a personal development course offered by the University of Gloucestershire were shown techniques for coping with life and the workplace.
There was one thing that every single person in the room—guest speakers included— admitted to suffering at least once in their lives. It’s called Imposter Syndrome.
People with Imposter Syndrome can’t accept that they’ve succeeded on their own merits. They’re convinced it must all be down to luck, or that they are frauds. Convinced they’ll be exposed sooner or later, people with Imposter Syndrome can’t enjoy their achievements. They are always worried someone is going to “find them out”.
Life shouldn’t be like that. Once you realise almost everyone feels the same way you do, it’s a great relief. A little bit of shock and awe when you achieve something is natural. Just make sure you learn to accept that some things in life are down to your talent and hard work, rather than luck.
You were the best candidate who was called for that interview. Somebody spotted something special in your application form. Then on the day you proved you were the best person for the job!
Your book was accepted by a publisher, not because they were feeling sorry for you but because they thought people would love to read it. Everyone in business wants to make a return on their investment. You must have earned that contract!
You can shake off Imposter Syndrome, but it takes work. Try listing five of your achievements. Here are my five: I learned to swim, I learned to ride a bike and drive a car, I’ve sold nearly three million books, and I was accepted onto a post-graduate course last year despite leaving school at 16 (a long time ago), without so much as an A-level.
Not everybody wants to be a writer, or go to university as a mature student, but most people learn to swim, ride and drive. Those are all great and useful achievements. The important thing about them (and many others) is that no-one can do them for you. There may be a dash of luck involved on the day, but 99% of your success in those skills will have been down to your hard work.
Fight back against Imposter Syndrome right now. Post a comment on here about something you’ve done that has made you feel really proud of yourself!
This has been quite a year for me. I was not looking forward to my son’s last university open-day of the season on June 29th 2018. I was due to spend the day as his taxi service, sitting around for hours while he tried out sample lectures at the University of Gloucestershire.
Twenty-four hours later I was studying the university’s prospectus myself, and wondering if they’d accept me as an undergraduate on the basis of my handful of mismatched O-levels, and a portfolio of written work. Twelve months later, and I’m looking into topics for my Phd.
Things happened so fast after I discovered UoG accepted mature students that I’ve hardly had time to catch my breath. I’m lucky that my hobby of writing is also my full-time job. The idea of doing a degree in Creative and Critical Writing as part of my continuing personal development really appealed to me.
The first piece of good news was that the usual minimum requirement of a degree at 2:1 level or above was waived for mature students. Then I found myself fast-tracked. I had an interview, where it was explained that my publishing history suggested I’d be better off going straight onto the Masters course, rather than doing a first degree. The list of modules looked so interesting I agreed straight away.
It was only on my way home from the interview that I started to worry. I hated the idea of being the oldest student in the place (it turned out I wasn’t—not by about three decades!).
I hadn’t driven in a city rush-hour since I became self-employed, back in the nineteen-nineties. Going back to that would be scary (I got used to it).
The university car park is small. It’s always a case of squeeze in where you can, and I wasn’t a confident parker (Last week, I had to take my son for one of his regular check-ups at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. The car park was packed and we were heading a procession of cars looking for a space. Suddenly I spotted one, flung the car into reverse and squeezed in with inches to spare. Son No. 1 was impressed. “It’s something else I learned at University!” I told him).
One of my regular lectures didn’t finish until 9:15pm. An hour’s drive home through wintry, pitch-black country lanes really didn’t appeal to me (I got used to that, too).
Somehow, I managed to enjoy my first year of lectures, workshops and assignments at university—and a whole lot more. That surprised me. Part of the reason I became a writer was because I like my own company. Going from an almost silent working life behind a keyboard to the full-on excitement of a campus was nerve-racking. The first time I spoke up in a lecture was scary, but as I had to attend two workshop sessions every week, it soon became second nature.
The more I did, the more I wanted to do. I’ve been interviewed about my job in front of a class of undergraduates, talked to a class of forty first-year students, taken a women’s empowerment course and completed a business start-up weekend. All that gave me the confidence to sign up for extra curricular activities, too. I haven’t been a party person since I got married, but I’ve been to two social events in this past month!
I’ve got an amazing amount out of signing up as a mature student. I’d recommend it to anybody. It’s given me a whole new lease of life. Why don’t you investigate what’s available in your area? If there’s nothing on offer, try the University of the Third Age, or even the Open University. Blended learning, which is the term given to a mix of online activities, face-to-face lectures and tutorials make learning much more fun than it was when I was a teenager.
I’ve enjoyed all the things I’ve tried, especially the business start-up weekend. That was particularly useful. It’s made me wonder about setting up my own small business. That’s going to take a lot of thought and organisation, so follow this blog and sign up for my newsletter here to find out what happens!
Each year students on the MA course at the University of Gloucestershire create an anthology of the university’s best new writing. The search for new stars has just been launched! The only restriction on authors is that they should be either present or past students of the University of Gloucestershire. Here’s the call for submissions—please pass the word on to any qualifying writers you may know…
Heritage. What does it mean to you? Family, identity, history… or something more?
The 2019 UOG Creative Writing Anthology – Heritage: New Writing VIII – is inviting submissions from Monday 4th February to Friday 8th March 2019. Prose, poetry and creative non-fiction pieces on the theme of ‘Heritage’ will be considered from all students and alumni of the University of Gloucestershire.