Twenty-twenty foresight

I’ve been doing far too many recipes recently, and not enough musing on life, and getting older. So, here’s something non-food-related…

Twenty-twenty foresight

When I was young I looked forward to being older, and gaining wisdom. I imagined myself in the future, side-stepping problems and overcoming all obstacles with a serene calm. I would know how things went wrong, so I could engineer ways to avoid catastrophe and disappointment. Life would be a smooth voyage of satisfaction and success.

Decades later I find myself suffering as many glitches as ever. Knowing what causes things to go wrong, and how they go wrong, doesn’t stop them from going wrong. You simply have longer to agonise over them. At your leisure you can watch situations slip into the same abysses for which they were always bound.

We moved into our first modern house in the November. With superb insulation, double-glazing throughout and modern gas central heating, we looked forward to our first Christmas. We were going to be so warm and toasty throughout the festivities.

All that glowing anticipation evaporated a couple of weeks before Christmas when our boiler broke down. After a few cold days, our system was expensively fixed and we were back in the warm glow of our first exciting Christmas in our new home. We took out a maintenance contract so that we wouldn’t be at risk of a ruined Christmas again.

The next year, as winter began to bite, the gas engineer turned up at our door and we welcomed him in. Just a quick check, we thought, and he’ll be on his way, leaving us with a nice warm home for our second Christmas there.

We led him to the boiler in the kitchen and left him to it.

First there was an urgent banging as he tried to remove the front of the boiler.

Bang, bang! BANG! BANG!

Then silence, as he worked out that the cover needed delicately removing and then gently twisting out through the housing.

Work commenced in earnest, and several minutes later, pop! The main fuse blew and we were plunged into darkness.

‘It weren’t me!’ claimed the gasman.

‘Trouble is,’ he said, a few minutes later ‘it’s an electrical fault, and I don’t know anything about electrics. I can’t get the boiler going again. I’ll have to get the supervisor to come. It’ll be a few days…’

We saw him out. Several very cold days later we welcomed the supervisor. He was a tall, cheerful, capable fellow with dark, curly hair. He had the system up and running in a short time, and was on his way.

A year later…

Bang, bang! BANG! BANG!

A few minutes work, then Pop! The main fuse blew and we were plunged into darkness.

‘It weren’t me!’ claimed the gasman.

‘Trouble is,’ he said, a few minutes later ‘it’s an electrical fault, and I don’t know anything about electrics. I can’t get the boiler going again. I’ll have to get the supervisor to come. It’ll be a few days…’

Again, the curly-haired supervisor came to our rescue, and restored heating for the big Christmas break.

Moving on a further year, we were telephoned by the Gas company to make our annual maintenance appointment.

‘Look’ I snipped, ‘instead of sending the first man who always breaks the system, can you send the supervisor first off? Cut out the middleman, so to speak?’

‘I’m sorry,’ crooned the administrator, ‘we have to follow procedure.’

Our welcome was somewhat jaded for the gasman this particular year. We directed him to the boiler and left him to it.

Bang, bang! BANG! BANG!

We eyed each other dolefully, and, with a deep sigh of exasperation, hubby wearily walked across the room, knelt down and zipped his head into his sports bag.

Hubby with his head zipped into sports bag, in exasperation

A picture of exasperation.

Pop! The main fuse blew.

The gasman popped his head round the door and cheerily stated ‘It weren’t me!’

‘Trouble is, I don’t know anything about electrics…’ His voice tailed off as he absorbed the strange tableau before him. There was a man kneeling on the floor with his head zipped into a sports bag, and the lady of the house looking like Whistler’s mother.

‘Erm… I’ll get the supervisor to come round. I’ll see myself out…’ he said, reversing out of the room. He quietly gathered his tools and slipped out of the house.

Another year passed and the boiler maintenance appointment was duly made. We had resigned ourselves to the usual fiasco.

At the knock, I wearily opened the door. My face broke into a smile as I saw a cheery face, topped with a head full of dark curly hair.

‘Hello! I don’t think our engineer has been round yet, has he? Must have been some mistake. Never mind, I’ll check your system while I’m here…’

That’s what makes life worth living, isn’t it? Twenty-twenty foresight isn’t always correct. Only most of the time.

Being healthy, wealthy and old

This is my ambition, and here are the four ‘rules’ I’ve evolved to achieve it.

1. Don’t eat out.

Well, I don’t mean don’t EVER eat out. It’s a lovely thing to do with friends, for special occasions, and to treat yourself to some really good quality, exciting scoff.

I mean don’t do accidental eating out. This is usually harbingered by flopping in a chair, feeling tired and uttering the words ‘I can’t be bothered to cook’. This is the moment when you order a really mediocre takeaway, or end up in a nearby pub that may not serve the greatest food. It costs a fortune and can be completely unmemorable, unsatisfying and dull.

I calculate that this rule alone has saved me about £12,000 pounds these last six years.

2. Eat in.

I enjoy cooking everything from scratch, and it really is the cheapest, healthiest way. Sorry! Double up the quantities so that you can freeze some for eating down the line, when you have an ‘I can’t be bothered to cook’ moment.

For real economy, use dishes from countries that have traditionally been quite poor. They’ve really got the hang of squeezing great tastes out of the cheapest ingredients. My favourites are India, southern Italy (la cucina povera) and Mexico.

You need a good set of spices. When I was working in London I used to go to the Hoo Hing on the North Circular Road. That’s one of the few things I miss about working life. I see they have an online store, so I shall be frequenting that very shortly. I buy whole spices and used to have a pestle and mortar, but now use my super Krups coffee grinder. That’s another whole opportunity for exercise gone.

My spices

The dried orange peel on the right is surprisingly useful.

I’ve got some odd things in my spice cupboard – dried orange and lime peel, for two. I use a vegetable peeler to cut strips of zest from my oranges in the winter before I eat them, sitting in front of the telly. I put them in a little basket on the radiator, and they make the room smell nice. They are great popped in an infusion of green tea, and really tasty when added to spice blends before grinding. Orange combines with star anise in Chinese dishes, and lime peel works well in some curries and Chilli con carne.

3. Don’t buy entertainment media.

That means DVDs, CDs, magazines and books.

We wait for movies to come up free on our communication package (BT Vision in our case – very good).

Magazines (apart from the Saga one, of course) can be such a disappointment. I don’t understand where a magazine that looks fascinating in a friend’s house is suddenly very skimpy and dull when I buy an issue myself. I use the internet now for all my magazine-type needs.

Read library books. Our library in Brixham is a lovely place. The only problem is to remember to return the books on time. Nothing brings out a tightwad apoplexy in me like having to pay a pointless fine. That issue has led me to thinking that an electronic reader would be good. Apparently the downloaded library books just conk out at the right time, so you don’t have to physically return anything. Unfortunately the readers cost £200+, so I’m still mulling that one over as a viable tightwad possibility.

4. Keep out of newsagents

They don’t sell anything us mature folk need. Cigarettes, chocolates, crisps, fizzy drinks…

When I worked in a laundry as a student summer job, back in the 70’s, I used to love getting my manila pay packet, replete with pound notes (what a memory!) on a Friday. First stop would be the newsagent’s where I would kit myself with magazines, sweets and ice-cream for an afternoon lounging in the garden (it was hot in the mid 70’s). Those days are gone now, and we just shouldn’t be having any of that.

2000 year old man

A Mel Brooks creation

Mel Brooks created a character called ‘The two thousand year-old man’. I love what he says at the end of the movie. When asked what his secret is, he replies ‘Keep smiling… and stay out of those little, low Italian cars’. I would add to that ‘…and newsagents’.

Coffin dodging

There’s a pivot point in life when it dawns on you that nature is no longer on your side.

The vital, benevolent presence that allowed you to party all night and not feel too bad in the morning has mutated into the grim reaper. When did that happen?

I remember working all night to get a job done, or being kept awake by a teething child, and really not suffering too badly the next day. Now the reverse is true; stay up until midnight one night and I’m non-functional for two days.

All the little injuries and any surgery you’ve had come back to pain you afresh. It’s a concerted effort to grind you down and stamp you out.

It seems that all the favours mother nature gives in youth now have to be repaid in full, with interest.

As far as nature (and the government) is concerned, we are now surplus to requirements. You can almost hear nature (and the government) saying ‘Could you hurry up and die, please? You’ve had your kids/done your work, now you’re just taking up too many resources, so just piss off”.

I’m not going to warmly ramble on about the vast wisdom and patience of the ‘third agers’, a band of society to which I’m a new recruit. My argument is that we’re pretty useful just in hard, economic terms. We’re putting money into the economy (especially pubs and hostelries). We’re buying services and products, sometimes at an even greater rate than before. For example, I’ve just had my first new kitchen fitted.

Now I’ve spotted this vendetta by nature (and the government), I’m going to rear up in revolution. They’re not getting me out of here until I’ve sucked the goodness out of my pension fund. I believe you have to be 85 to get back what you put in, so, 90 years of age, here I come!

As for nature, I’ll get fit and start running…

Suddenly, I’ve come over all tired. Must be that late night I had last Thursday.

The perfect (cheap) hanging basket

One of my little retirement projects is to evolve the perfect hanging basket. It’s not going well so far. At my current rate of progress I will be a centenarian before I get it right. This is my sixth year of experimentation here in Brixham, and the years have gone like this:

Year 1: Beautiful, mixed baskets that flowered all summer. That’s because I bought them ready-made from the garden centre at a whopping £40 each! Easy when you’re in gainful employment.

Year 2: Planted up my own selection in the hardware from previous year. I bought mixed plants plants called ‘the hanging basket selection’. It was really boring. Huge amounts of tedious foliage with the odd red flower here and there. If you’d been colour-blind, you wouldn’t have known it was flowering at all. Whose idea was that, Mr B&Q buyer?

Year 3: Forgot. By the time I got to the shops in late May, all the hanging basket plants were sold out. We didn’t have baskets that year.

Year 4: In an early manifestation of the tightwaddery I am currently trying to make into a fine art, I decided to go minimalist. Plants grow to fill the available space, right? So if I just put three in each basket, they will grow bigger. It worked, but I forgot that when one has finished flowering and dies, a third of your display has gone, too. We had baskets that looked half dead half the time.

Year 5: In April I bought a range of lovely, strapping, healthy plants from a local garden centre. By June my baskets were in full flower. Beautiful! Unfortunately, it all peaked too soon, and by July all was over. According to our local horticultural society expert, you shouldn’t put baskets out until June at the earliest.

Year 6: This year, I’m going super cheap. I’ve bought a pack of ‘Hanging basket’ seeds from Trago Mills – 75p!

Adding the cost of basket liners and compost, that brings my five hanging baskets in at under a tenner, instead of the 200 quid they were five years ago. Doesn’t it give you a delicious, tightwad shiver down your spine? It does me!

Things are going reasonably well so far. I could have done with planting the seeds at different times – the nasturtiums (nasturtia?) are all over the place and ready to flower, while the lobelia is still only as big as cress, but I live in hope.

Hanging basket plants grown from seed

Plants grown from seed, hardening off in the cold frame ready for their debut in situ next week.

I’ll plant them out next week and get them out ready for the first week in June, as per the horticultural expert. Let’s see what happens.

The vegetable gap is over!

These last two months have set my teeth on edge. I’ve been having to BUY VEGETABLES!

We grow all our own veg, and a lot of fruit, on our allotment. However skilful a gardener you are, there’s always a week or two when everything runs out. It’s tantalising because everything is bursting into life and growing at a rate of knots (especially weeds), but there’s nothing to eat.

Last week was ‘game on’, and I managed a celebratory meal with all our own produce. We had asparagus tarts with baby leaf salad, followed by simple, gorgeous fresh plaice.

Asparagus tartlets

Asparagus tartlets with baby leaves dressed with honey and preserved lemon dressing.

Followed by:

Butter-fried plaice with broad beans, parsley sauce, new potatoes and lemon butter

Butter-fried plaice with broad beans, parsley sauce, new potatoes and lemon butter

Everything fresh from garden (and docks, in the case of the fish) today, enjoyed with good company, much alcohol and several games of cards.

Retirement doesn’t get any better than this!