Sunday, 25 February 2018

Snow ahead: energy deal smugness, magical winter scenes

A short while back I put myself onto a new one-year fixed-price deal with SSE which was a little cheaper than the old three-year one that was coming to an end. It was dual-fuel: electricity and gas. And, by golly, I'm glad I did. The cold weather in the last couple of weeks has pushed up the wholesale price of gas. Quite a bit. And that could mean SSE (and the rest) seeking to raise their prices. If I had let the old deal run on to its natural end in May, and only then sign up for a fresh deal, almost certainly I'd have been paying more. But I won't be.

I can't claim to be prescient, or an energy-price insider. Getting onto a new deal early was just a fortunate act at the right moment. There was a principle behind it, that in the long run domestic fuels, particularly gas, are likely to get more expensive, and so one can't lose out by regularly taking new deals that hold down the monthly cost, or actually reduce it. Even a modest saving must buck the long-term trend.

In this instance it will work out nicely. But I recall doing the same thing a few years back - and it was a three year deal - that didn't go in my favour. I consoled myself with the thought that at least I could predict my monthly payments and maintain financial stability. Nobody wants excessive bills, but stable bills are a lot better than fluctuating bills - and that of course is the real advantage of all fixed-price deals. It matters especially when you are on a fixed-value income, such as a pension. You have to budget very carefully indeed, because there is no scope to match a sudden increase in expenditure with overtime, or a promotion, or a change of job, as you might if still employed.

Anyway, for the year ahead I can snap my fingers at talk of a general gas price increase on account of increased cold-weather demand. And if that is smugness, then I plead guilty m'lud.

My home isn't difficult to heat. It's a compact bungalow, so all rooms are on the ground floor, and all of them open onto the central hall. I don't have any unused rooms, and therefore no unheated rooms, apart from the conservatory.

There is double glazing throughout. The double glazing is not the newest, but it must be efficient because I can wander about scantily clad and still feel comfortable. And - another indicator of good double glazing - the inside of the house is remarkably quiet; sometimes completely silent. I might notice the sound of cars starting up outside, or the bin men doing their stuff, or power tools being used next door, or shouts from weekend football teams practicing in the park, but otherwise the house is serene and peaceful. Just how I like it! I suppose I'm wrong to say that good sound insulation equates to good heat insulation, but I can't help feeling that there is a strong connection.

I don't mess around with switching my heating on and off all the time. Experiment has revealed that - except in summer - it makes no difference to have the central heating on all day long, from 7.00am to 11.00pm, and just let the thermostat control when it fires up and tops up the warmth in all my rooms.

It's a sunny house: the front faces east, the back west, and each room in turn, including the central hall, gets its measure of warming sunshine, the lounge and conservatory at the rear most of all, right up to sunset. In fact the conservatory (which is a heat trap) can get so hot that in high summer I can't let the heat from it leak into the coolness of the house. But in early spring and late autumn, I sometimes have the two doors into the conservatory open while home, so that the pleasantly warmed-up air can circulate around the rest of the house.

Some heat undoubtedly leaks away through my attic. The insulation up there is thin and certainly not up to modern standards. But I'd have to entirely clear my attic to install new insulation material, and that clearance is a big task I am not yet in the mood to tackle. In fact it's something I'd prefer to leave until I need to have a new roof, with solar panels installed, all of which may be years away. Meanwhile I have easily-accessed storage space that never freezes. I think it's a reasonable trade-off.

Well, it's a lovely sunny day outside. Cold of course, and snow is forecast within a day or two. Snow in Sussex! Not unheard of, but a novelty all the same, and a great reason for getting wellies on and trudging out to get some magical photos, especially if the sun makes an appearance. Alas, it rarely does!

Here are some pictures from 2001 to 2013, taken in and around Ditchling, a nearby village at the foot of the South Downs. I want more shots like these!

Friday, 23 February 2018

Like my Mum?

The lack of posts reflects the stark fact that I'm not able to get out much at the moment. Oh, I do local things - that has never stopped - but my longer-distance outings have been few, and consequently the number of stimulating places visited has been few as well. Not so many outings, not so many posts. 

Why? The toe of course. Its healing is so slow. I will admit that, on the whole, the toe is now showing increased signs of recovery from its early-January surgery, but I am not yet convinced that something isn't holding it back. And yet, for instance, it doesn't look infected (and I have some recent definite assurance on that). But the longer this drags on, the more I feel inclined to get the toe checked over yet again. I chafe at this present inactivity. I'm not a very patient person!

And besides, I do so want to spend long afternoons - or even whole days - visiting spots, taking pictures, and getting some fresh air in abundance. Especially as the first signs of Spring are here, with sunshine to enjoy, even if it does remain cold outside. But that cannot yet be. The toe will tolerate confinement inside a boot or shoe only for a couple of hours, even when driving: after that, it feels uncomfortable. Walking about for any distance, or over rough ground, is also uncomfortable. I stumbled in a country churchyard the other day. Ouch!

So I spend a lot of time at home with my feet up, doing whatever you can do when sitting around.

I have recently been comparing myself to Mum, as she was at my age.

When she was sixty-five and coming up to sixty-six (as I am) it was 1987, and Mum and Dad were living in a quite-new house at Liphook in Hampshire. Here it is, in 1993, much as it ever was.

I was still working in 1987, of course, and could see them only on weekends. Still, the Sunday Lunch with Mum and Dad was a regular thing, an institution, and it always seemed to be sunny at Liphook. I generally went with W--- at this time, and after the ritual lunch we would wander around the village, or go for a stroll in Radford Park opposite, an area of historic meadowland and old mill races, with lots of restful running water. Mum was no rambler, but had been keen on extended casual strolling all her life, had no aches and pains, and in her mid-sixties was still good for some seriously long walks.

She was could be pretty mumsy too. Here she is, holding my niece Jenny (then a toddler, now a grown-up mum) in April 1987:

And this is Mum (left) with my auntie Peg (right) in the same month:

Eighties fashions? No, a hangover from the seventies and earlier. Mum was never a fashion diva. 

In June and July 1987 my parents were in Pembrokeshire (where I wanted to go to in April this year, but had to forego). Here's Dad, Mum and Peg on the sands at Broad Haven:

And here's Mum at Tenby, looking a little more stylish:

None of the above shots were mine: I wasn't present. They were Dad's pictures, or Peg's.

Five years on, in the early 1990s, after W--- and I had separated, I would go down and see my parents on my own. Mum was by then seventy or so, but the extra years had not slowed her down much, although, loyally, she walked at Dad's limping pace. Arthritis was getting to him, and in 1993 he would have a double knee-replacement operation.

I remember Mum and I taking a particularly long and strenuous walk in the Devil's Punch Bowl at Hindhead. That very occasion was notable for her quizzing me on my long-term plans, now that I was separated and looking at a divorce. I remember choosing my words with great care, as you always had to with Mum. She was inclined to pass a well-meant but scathing comment on everything, and many a cherished idea or plan had been unnecessarily pooh-poohed by her in the past. It was a fault that worked to her disadvantage, because in self-defence I'd be secretive with her, as a way of avoiding any argument, for I couldn't win. I often wondered if she guessed that I was keeping some things from her.

And it had a bad effect on me too. Over the years, I gradually developed the habit of being secretive about most things with most people, not just her. This must have led to a situation where I'd subconsciously thrust odd or difficult notions from my mind, to stop myself dwelling uselessly on them. Uselessly, because I couldn't bring them out and discuss them with anybody - and by doing that, possibly see a way to make them real. A form of blindness, I now think.

Here are Mum and Dad in 1993 on the beach at Oxwich, on the Gower. This time, it's one of my photos. They had me along - bribed with a free autumn holiday all at their expense. Although I did really enjoy their company most of the time, and Dad's car was very nice to drive!

But you can sense how united they were, and what a forthright and formidable couple they made - and how hard it might be for me to stand up to them.

How do I stack up, now that I'm more-or-less at the stage of life they had then reached? Here are some photos of myself from late last year, when I had turned sixty-five:

The first thing to remark on is that these are all selfies: I am not one half of a couple. And I holiday alone. Neither of my parents would have dreamed of taking a selfie, and neither would ever have set forth unaccompanied. They were each other's lifelong support - perhaps (in a psychological sense) dangerously so. I have no such dependency on another person. 

Although I would never claim to be adventurous, and I am nervous of quite modest heights, I do think nevertheless that I am more inclined than Mum ever was to do dodgy things, such as getting near to cliff edges for the sake of a photo. And I certainly drive faster than Dad would have. I'm guessing that the lack of a family leads to a degree of personal recklessness, or dismissal of danger. In other words, if your demise can make no practical difference to anyone, you tend to take the odd extra risk. The lack of a family - never having been more than a light-handed step-parent, and that for just a few years - also shows up in having a less careworn demeanour. Or is this actually a generational thing - that my generation, having no wartime experiences, and long used to healthier and less stressful living, genuinely seems younger, fitter, and more energetic? (Post-surgical toes aside, that is!)

I certainly don't share Mum's sharply-defined attitudes. I'm less dogmatic, far less likely to take a stand on a principle, and I am certainly a good deal more diplomatic - something learned from my Dad there. 

Enough said for the present. I will return to how I compare with my Mum in future posts. We must have strong similarities, but mostly I can't see what they are at the moment. I am chatty, just like Mum was, but I wouldn't build too much on that. 

I was always too different from my younger brother for there to be a close affinity, but if he were still alive, we could at least see each other and discuss our parents, Mum in particular. But that cannot happen. It's at times like this that I wish there had been a sister...

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Slightly ripped off

I think restaurants and gastro-pubs everywhere need to pause and rethink what they are presently offering to customers. I eat out a fair bit, at least twice a week, and I'm definitely noticing a trend away from giving good value. Either you pay an awful lot, or get small portions, or both. I will exempt Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants from this general complaint: thank goodness, you can still get a full tummy for a very reasonable amount at such eateries, unless they have pretentions. I'm mainly talking about the kind of place found in the centre of Brighton, but also in other trendy spots, that aim to impress you with their ambience. All over the country. I noticed quite a few of them last summer in Newcastle, on the north bank of the Tyne, near the Sage and the Baltic.

Last night at the Côte Brasserie in Brighton, for instance. An upmarket exterior; staff everywhere, buzzing to and fro; comprehensive menus, catering for various needs (one of our party needed gluten-free food: there was a special menu ready for her); generally a classy experience.

We had an £80 voucher to spend (Côte had cancelled a pre-Christmas booking at the last moment - a kitchen problem - and the voucher was recompense) but nobody went mad on what they ordered. Each had a starter, a main, and either a dessert or a coffee. I myself had a smoked salmon starter, a lamb shank main, and a black coffee instead of a dessert, accompanied by one large glass of house white wine, and some water. I drank less wine than three of the others - who shared two bottles of house red - but otherwise my food and drink selection wasn't very different in cost or quantity from what the others ordered. How much then? There were five of us, and the bill (before deducting that £80) came to £196, with a 12.5% service charge automatically included. £39 each. That wasn't a cheap meal.

Here's a shot of my smoked salmon starter, with capers, on a medium-sized plate.

Eaten with a small amount of toast, it was very nice, but scarcely a tummy-tightener.

This was my main. A diddy lamb shank on some mashed potatoes with mustard in it, and a pleasant jus. No green vegetables - those would have been extra, and I overlooked ordering any.

It was very good; cooked just right; but there wasn't a lot of it.

Add in one glass of white wine (nothing extra special), a tumbler or two of tap water out of a china bottle, and an ordinary Americano coffee.

Was it all really worth almost £40? I don't think so.

I'm not singling out Côte as an arch perpetrator of poor value. As a social occasion, it was great. The service was friendly and attentive, if a little too inclined to suggest we bought more drinks. But I do say that I expected more to eat for the cash.

Earlier that day, at lunchtime, I was at village friend Jo's, and she had whipped up a spicy soup...

...and a vegetable quiche with new potatoes, pasta, and a salad to follow...

...accompanied by somewhat more than one glass of white wine (I provided the bottle), water, and a nice cup of tea. Oh, I forgot the yummy yoghurt, summer fruits and blueberry dessert (I could have had a that on a meringue nest, but I turned the nest down, wanting to be as Slimming-World compliant as possible).

The bottle of wine cost me £7.95, and I drank £3-worth of it, another bottle coming into play. (There were four of us: Jo, Jackie, myself, and Jo's husband Clive, who joined us from a morning's golf) And that was an attractive, satisfying meal, which Jo described as 'light' but was actually rather filling and threatened my appetite for feasting at Côte later the same day. What might it have cost overall? Let's say £15 for the foodstuffs consumed, plus another £15 for the two bottles of wine we opened: £30 for the four of us. £7 a head, give or take a bit.

My point is, what you cook up at home, and what it costs, is a world away from what you get at a restaurant in town, and what that costs. It was of course always thus, but recently I think the difference has become more marked. Nowadays, eating out at gastro-pubs and brasseries, let alone places with more stellar reputations, seems to involve real pain in the purse department. Pain not mollified by enjoying a meal to remember.

What has gone wrong? I suspect that over the last ten years popular TV cookery programmes like Masterchef, and the way a bunch of celebrity chefs have become household names, have all created an aspiration for 'fine dining', and a public liking for places to eat that offer a special experience. It's been goodbye to traditional pub grub, hello to new twists on old recipes, quirky menus, and fussy service - anything to make the food on the plate look 'different' and full of 'added value'. But whether you get adequate nutrition for the money is another matter. Attempts at finesse and refinement generally mean not much on the plate. Personally, I wouldn't mind if the food were tipped onto the plate anyhow, so long as it was tasty, and I had enough to eat. I don't greatly care about artistic presentation. It's nice, but hardly essential. I'm certainly not impressed if a tiny pot of jus is dribbled for me over a single shaped carrot, or speck of meat, as the chef's signature flourish.

I mean, look at this chock-full plate of food I cooked up at home recently, just for myself one evening.

Or this.

Or this.

No art here. Just a neat arrangement on the plate. But these meals were delicious, filling, and - gravy and mint sauce excepted - Slimming-World compliant too. The ingredients were good-quality (mostly from Waitrose, or a local butcher) but didn't really cost all that much.

Why can't I get hearty meals like this at places like Côte? I appreciate that I must pay a premium for their doing the cooking, and I clearly understand that they need to cover their overheads and make a decent profit. But I still want a well-covered plate for my money!

A vain hope. All that attentive, friendly, service  comes at a price. And a whole generation of young chefs have been taken on, and expect to be paid well. So to cover these staff costs, you get less food, and pay through the nose for it. And in many places it feels like a rip-off.

I still think that a wonderful meal out is one of life's great pleasures. But I think the experience is getting rarer. Either the meal has been big on theatre but small on hunger-satisfying potential, or the cost has been so much that after paying I've wanted to forget it all, as if it had been a rash and embarrassing mistake that I'd rather not admit to. Especially when I can prepare a fabulous meal for myself for so much less cash.

I hear that many restaurants are getting worried about profitability in the year ahead. Customers have been led to expect more, but are feeling the pinch and are looking for ways to eat out for less. Or indeed eat in. Some restaurants are bound to go under. It won't be enough to pile on peripheral things like a posher ambience. People want, above all, delicious food and plenty of it.

So I say: less pretension, please, and better value. Or we will all stay away.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Better healing

I had arranged for one of the podiatry team - Victoria - to look at my toe and tell me why it wasn't healing up as it was supposed to. Where was I going wrong, with my daily ministrations at home?

She took off the latest dressing and assured me straight away that it wasn't infected. It was a healthy wound. That was very good news. But a proper scab had formed only in the front corners of the old nail bed. The rest was soft and pink and still weeping.

She asked me about the saline baths I ought to be giving the foot before each redressing. I told her that I had stuck to the printed notes: ten minutes every time. Every day for the last five weeks. Ah! That was the reason for the delayed healing - at this stage, the wound now needed to be kept as dry as possible, so that a protective scab - or better, the new protective hard skin - had a chance to develop, finally stopping the constant weeping.

So, the saline baths need not be daily any more. And in case they shouldn't be more than a quick dip, just enough to clean the foot. And when showering, I must devise a method of keeping the foot, or at least the toe, completely dry. I promised to comply at once.

So it was as simple as letting the wound dry out, not just for a few hours at a time, but all the time. This wasn't made clear in the printed notes I'd been given. I felt now that those notes ought to include a sentence like 'After the first few days, keep the nail bed as dry as possible - make the saline baths brief, just sufficient to clean the foot, and not in any way a prolonged soak.' Because of not doing that I was probably two or three weeks behind in the normal healing process.

Victoria didn't think that I would have compromised healing capabilities, simply because I was in my sixties. Gratifying.

Well, that was all two days ago. Any immediate effects? Yes indeed. The toe looks different. It is still weeping a clear fluid, but a kind of crust has formed over the former nail bed, and it's dark red, not pink. Surely a good sign of progress.

But - again contrary to the printed notes - I may not get full healing for a long time to come. Victoria explained that the timescales in the notes were average, and, regardless of their age, people varied very widely in the time it took to heal up. In my case, I should not be surprised if it took as much as twelve weeks.  On that basis, it was still early days. Provided I kept the wound sterile and dry, and didn't stress it with unsuitable footwear or too much activity, I would eventually have a great outcome. But I had to give it time.

There you are. It looks as if I will be going down to the West Country in March with the toe still bandaged up! And there won't be any dipping my feet in the sea at Bude or Woolacombe, Exmouth or Sidmouth, sunny day or not. But a careful walk on Dartmoor or Exmoor may be all right. A short one, anyway.       

Thursday, 15 February 2018

No Orchids for Miss Melford

It was of course St Valentine's Day yesterday. No welter of Valentine cards fell through my front door. I certainly wasn't expecting any, and would have been shocked if there had been even one of them. My days as the object of love-messages - or the sender of them - are long over!

And never to return. I have made my mind up about that. No more attempts to find love, nor any attempts to secure a special relationship involving a yearning for one person in particular, and exclusive commitment to them.

I've tried doing it. I've had some short-lived relationships, and two long-term ones. Both the long-lasting relationships ended sourly, with dire consequences for my self-confidence and self-valuation. Indeed every relationship I've ever had, brief or longer-lasting, has ended badly or at least discreditably, leaving me with the feeling that I could have done a lot better if the will had been there. But if you really don't possess all the qualities necessary for making a relationship work, or you can't cope with the ordinary demands of a worthwhile relationship, or you find that a relationship has turned out to be a prison, rendering you powerless and unappreciated, or simply bored, then it's time to get out. And stay out.

Staying out also means avoiding romantic love, what St Valentine's Day is all about. Yet for the sake of self-preservation, I am happy to do that. I don't think it will warp my nature. But who knows?

But I will never be able to pass St Valentine's Day by without noticing it. For I got married on that day in 1983. It was my idea, my own romantic gesture. And my marriage began reasonably well. But was not so good after 1987, and separation followed in 1991. Then divorce in 1996.

There was never a proper inquest as to why it failed. There were definitely shortcomings on both sides, though not misbehaviour. In retrospect, from the distance of thirty-odd years, I would say that if I'd had more experience, more insight into human nature, more understanding of what it really takes to live with someone long-term, then I'd have backed away from the entire affair and - whatever the inconvenience to others - stopped the show. I don't see now how it could ever have worked. Neither of us was unkind, disloyal or mean-spirited, but we were not kindred spirits. It fell apart because of insufficient glue. We hadn't bonded properly. And yet the relationship that eventually followed this one seemed to be full of bonds, and it lasted much longer, yet it too melted in the end.

Some people no doubt said that I could have fought for my marriage, that it failed because I let it go without trying hard to save it. Or that I should have given more, and more again, and not stop until I had no more to give. In other words, not admit the thing had passed the point of no return, and seek martyrdom instead. Rightly or wrongly, my temperament did not allow that to happen.

I don't believe that any amount of shared interests, attitudes, standards and jokes are enough to ensure success. I think it must - tritely - all be a matter of 'chemistry'. Whatever makes it satisfying, interesting, and exciting to be with another person. It's not reducible to box-ticking. You need the ability to feel, and to reach out, and to think as much of somebody else's needs as your own. And there must be a longing that only another person can fulfil. I'm much too self-contained, much too independent, to have that kind of longing. I'm very fortunate in being content with this, for wanting to walk the world alone. So many single people are not at all content, and suffer accordingly.

Still, I have mixed feelings about missing out on enjoying a candlelit Valentine dinner, whether at home or out. It's a ritual, of course. But I remember it meaning something very important in years long past. It was a mutual reassurance that the relationship was still alive and kicking, the flowers and cards a re-avowal of romance. That we had made it through one more year. That we were still 'in love'. If the divorce hadn't taken place, yesterday would have been an important wedding anniversary - the thirty-fifth. We would have shared a particularly love-soaked occasion, or would have tried to.

I never had a family of my own. That might have been a big factor in the collapse of my two main relationships. It's surely an important thing for older couples to ponder, as they sip their wine in the candlelight, that the natural result of love is a family. A joint achievement. It's glue.

Ah well. For me, it's a face into the wind, and eyes on the far horizon. 'Stay alive, stay free'. My personal motto. Life unhindered, life unfenced. But life without love.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Holiday plans pruned

Although my financial state in 2018 is really no different than in 2017, last month I booked up caravan holidays for the entire period to early November, carefully taking into account all other known appointments and commitments, and (so far as possible) friends' birthday celebrations, but ignoring the effect on my savings account balance. I thought it would all come out fine.

The total number of nights away in my caravan was quite impressive: 107 nights; fifteen weeks. Not far short of one third of the year on the road. Now that's travelling. OK, it would all be on the UK mainland, and nowhere exotic by many people's standards. But to me, a Sussex resident, the West and the North are exotic, and I always look forward to seeing them again. This year would include visits to the far west of Wales (Pembrokeshire), the best of the middle Pennines, the Peak District, and Suffolk. Places not seen for years.

It felt so good to get all that booked up.

It was, frankly, a defiant gesture against necessary but irksome financial restraint. I'm quite tired now of being short of money through having to repay the bank loans taken out from late 2015 so that Fiona could have a new automatic gearbox (I'd worn the old one out with the demands of caravanning) and then, one year later, a new rear differential unit (itself a kind of automatic gearbox, all to do with traction control, and also worn out with caravanning). I was over halfway through the repayment schedule, and the outstanding balance had dropped dramatically, but the relentless need to make monthly repayments was squeezing my ability to spend. That's why I was getting fed up with owing money to the bank and having to repay it. Never again, if I could help it. Next time - when the house needed a new boiler, say - I'd cover the cost with cash from savings. The loans had squeezed me for all of 2016 and all of 2017. No wonder I felt rebellious and badly wanted to be on holiday more. Long-term prisoners must get like this. Stir crazy. So booking 107 nights away felt sweet.

But a niggling voice in my mind said 'You'd be sensible to extend your income/expenditure/savings spreadsheet into the next few months, and be absolutely certain that you can afford all this holidaying.' I am a sensible person. I listened to that voice. I worked out how things would go in the months ahead. It was going to be a year of heavy expenses: new tyres, front brake discs and pads for Fiona (possibly a new exhaust too); new specs and a dental filling for me. And I discovered, to my chagrin, that my savings account would go into the red in the early summer - an impossible situation. Damn.

So the grand 2018 holiday plans had to be pruned. I couldn't possibly forego my usual trips to the West Country in spring and autumn, nor to south Wales. And the basic integrity of the Northern Tour I'd planned had to be preserved. But I saw ways to cut away days and destinations, and whittled it all down to 88 nights away. I have sacrificed Pembrokeshire, the mid-Pennines, the Peak District and Suffolk. The Northern Tour is now more correctly a North Eastern Tour. No commitment to meet up with friends is affected. It's still a good programme. And while my savings account sinks low for half a month, it doesn't go into minus figures, and it recovers nicely.

All the rejigging took hours, and it gave me a mild headache. But I think my meaner, leaner holiday plans match this year's financial resources much better. By August 2019 those pesky loan repayments - and some other cash-draining items - will be gone. Finished, or greatly reduced. From then on I can genuinely afford to travel about much more. I just have accept that no really ambitious trip will be feasible before August 2019. That moment seems a long way off, but the months will of course fly by fast enough.

And 88 nights away in 2018 isn't by any means starving myself of holiday time. It's twelve and a half weeks. Well, I know people who can't get away for even two weeks. I'm lucky, and should keep that thought in mind.