The call of the wild

There’s much debate about the likely long-term effect on our post-pandemic lives of closing down much of our social and economic life for the past eight months. Optimists like me hope that ultimately the impact will be positive – an opportunity to do things differently (I have refused to use the phrase ‘build back better’ since the government hijacked it). One view is that, based on recovery from two world wars, it will take more that even a year of lockdown to bring radical and lasting change – good or bad – to society. In truth, nobody really knows what will happen, but it doesn’t stop hopeful speculation.

The negative short-term impact is undeniable – the tragic loss of life, physical and mental ill health, businesses that have closed and jobs losses that may never be replaced. On the positive side, it heartens me to see how any people seem to have connected with nature when connection with each other has been so restricted. 

The healing power of getting outdoors for both mental and physical ill health is well-documented and I can recommend at least two recent books – The Natural Health Service and The Wild Remedy – which recount how science and nature helped mend (a word much-used in this context) the minds of the books’ authors. More specifically, as Michael McCarthy – co-author of The Consolation of Nature: Spring in The Time of Coronavirus writes “…nature at its loveliest and most inspiring, in springtime’s wondrous transformations, could offer people comfort at a moment of tragedy and great stress.”

Aside from the fact that lockdown is a new experience for everyone, I think people are seeking more positive new experiences to keep their heads above water. Over the past six months and more, I’ve come to the conclusion that what works for me is combining new experiences (in which I’d include learning new things) with comfortable routines. Some have suggested that, in this social media-driven world, the search for the new and exciting – something a bit wild maybe – is also a pursuit of something to brag about. I hope not.

Talking of The Wild Remedy brings me to my word of the pandemic – wild.  As a lover of language – a strand running through my personal and professional life – I’m currently interested in the increased use of ‘wild’ since the start of the lockdown.

To me, ‘wildlife’ seems benign, but mention ‘wild animals’ and my mental image is of danger – to myself. These days, of course, wild animals are probably more endangered by man than the other way around. At the start of the first lockdown, the desire to bring the great outdoors indoors saw a spectacular growth in viewing figures for webcams in remote places. Apparently combined views of the webcams of the 47 wildlife trusts across Britain from March to May 2020 was 433,362 – an increase of 2000% compared to the same period in 2019.  The wildlife trust is just one magic carpet to transport us to the nests of birds all over the UK, most famously perhaps the Ospreys of the Lock of Lowes, north of Perth in Scotland from the comfort and confines of our four walls.

As the lockdown eased, but with social distancing still uppermost in most peoples’ minds, the idea of ‘going wild’ became more about personal experience than watching online from our armchairs. And so it was that the country saw a massive rise in wild swimming and wild camping.

As spring and summer blossomed and indoor pools remained closed, demand for regular dips in open-air pools, lakes and rivers was so high that the Outdoor Swimming Society was forces to take down it’s online map of wild swimming spots in an attempt to prevent overcrowding.

The desire to ‘escape to the country’ was the source of a bad press for wild camping during lockdown. Dartmoor is the only place in the UK outside Scotland that it’s legal to wild camp – in certain parts and for a maximum of two nights – under non-pandemic conditions. Even then there was a temporary ban in Dartmoor during August, and this summer saw the countryside rubbished, the landscape ‘soiled’, and environmental damage from wild campers in parts of the country, trashing the golden rule of wild camping – leave no trace behind.

This points up the ‘paradox of popularity’ for adventures in nature. As more people join in, it threatens the very thing they want to experience – the wild-ness of being remote and away from others! It always amuses me to read articles on ‘the best kept secret beaches in the UK’…

Assuming the newfound delights of wild experiences will remain for many post-pandemic – not in itself a bad thing – there may be a way forward. We need to recognise that it needn’t be all or nothing; there are different degrees of wilder-ness for both swimming and camping.  Lockdown has seen a massive increase in interest in (organised) outdoor swimming that seems be sustained as winter approaches. The unheated Tooting Bec Lido in south London reports double the number of people swimming daily this October compared with than last year. Beyond the ‘built’ open air pools, there are probably venues across the country you never knew existed – take a look here

This summer I also discovered a brilliant idea – nearly wild camping – as organised by a co-operative of the same name Nearly Wild Camping connect landowners offering secluded ‘back-to-basics’ camping with people who want a wilder experience than a traditional campsite. And an unrelated initiative – Tentshare – allows you to further polish your green credentials by doing what it says on the, er… canvas.

And finally,  if intrepid exploration is not your thing, you can always answer the call of the wild and enjoy life at a slower pace thanks to another brilliant new collaborative project – Slow Ways

Books mentioned in this piece–How-Nature-Mends-Us—A-Diary/22862848–How-Nature-Can-Mend-Your-Mind/24578326–Spring-in-the-Time-of-Coronavirus/25135610

Remembering Kenneth

At the beginning of October 2020, I was planning fairly low-key involvement in Movember – the international campaign for men’s health. After 8 years there’s a limit to how many new ways you can tap family and friends for support. I’d planned to grow a silly moustache (because ‘silly’ starts more conversations and lightens the mood) and settled on the ‘Swiss army penknife’ – ear-to-ear via my top lip with a plunging ‘Jason King’ ‘tache either side of my mouth. See artist’s impression as they say.

In all honesty, I’d not intended to fundraise for Movember UK this year. But that all changed on 16th October when Kenneth – someone I’d worked with for 20 months and had come to regard as a friend – sadly died five weeks after being admitted to hospital. He was just 64.

Kenneth had been quickly diagnosed with a brain tumour after his left leg stopped working. But that was two months after he’d first mentioned he had a lump near his armpit; it took me that long to persuade him to call his GP. We can only speculate about what might have happened if the cancer had been diagnosed that much earlier. Like many men, Kenneth knew it was fear that was keeping him away from the doctor’s surgery.

And it wasn’t just his GP that Kenneth was avoiding; he preferred to keep his distance from most people. When we first met I was offering professional support, and doing my best to do so sensitively, Kenneth used to say the palms of his hands started sweating three days before each meeting. I was officially described as his mentor “But sometimes”, he told me, “I felt you were more like my tormentor.” I didn’t take this personally – in fact, I was pleased that he felt able to be this open with me. Our relationship did get easier as we got to know each other better. Kenneth was always grateful for the support and, after one of our meetings, he said “You somehow managed to make me feel better.”

I think his sometimes gruff exterior was a defence mechanism and, as I got to know Kenneth better, I discovered it disguised an analytical mind and an equally sharp, if dark, sense of humour. Last January he told me his new year’s resolution was “to give up”, but this belied a steely determination to carry on. 

He had a budgie that I believe helped keep him going. Kenny (that was the budgie’s name) flew freely around the flat and he (Kenneth, not the budgie) once said “people ask me if I’m worried about the mess… But I say, he’s only a bird – he can put up with it.

Bit by bit we discovered common interests beyond our shared sense of humour. Like a love of Radio 4 and The Archers – neither of us liked the lockdown monologues – and each evening his radio was tuned to Radio 4 Extra – for comedy classics like The Navy Lark and The Goons. His passion for books (accumulated through charity shop searches for favourite authors) was evidenced by the vast array that filled his flat. While I didn’t particularly share Kenneth’s interest in historical fiction, we both loved language. We were once discussing my early life – growing up on the Wirral peninsula and supporting Tranmere Rovers. The next time we met, Kenneth gave me chapter and verse on the origins of the names ‘Wirral’ and ‘Tranmere’ – researched on his phone. I was touched. 

Kenneth had a wonderful collection of pin badges (over 5,000 I think he said) organised around all sorts of themes – military, charity, history – each with its own story. I was pleased to see him wearing the UK Men’s Sheds Association pin badge I gave him; I regret that he was not able to join the local Men’s Shed we talked about setting up before the pandemic cut short all planning. We did at least make a bug hotel together that now has pride of place outside a learning hub he used to visit.  

The pandemic came 13 months after I first met Kenneth. He handled lockdown well in the early months and even saw the funny side, designing a face mask that allowed him to smoke without having to remove it. I was in touch by phone fortnightly and, for me, those conversations were an upside of the pandemic. We covered a whole range of subjects including nail bars, aeroplanes, knots, tattoos, places of historical interest in the area (Kenneth had already agreed to give me a guided tour when the pandemic was over). I also saw his caring nature as I learnt about the time he hand-reared four baby hedgehogs until their mum came back to pick them up.

Ironically, full lockdown seemed easier for Kenneth to accommodate than what followed. The instructions were clear and simple – stay indoors except for exercise and shopping – and, equipped with a sizeable backpack, Kenneth combined both. As restrictions were eased however, I sensed that Kenneth’s anxiety grew – he had to make decisions and began to worry about the public threat outside his four walls. He said as much on one occasion – “The world is getting back to normal and everything’s falling apart around me – I’m feeling terrible.”  As restrictions were eased, I was able to meet Kenneth outside and, eventually, at his flat which allowed me to admire not only his pin-badge displays but also the craftsmanship of his model-making – think of a vintage car made of matchsticks – a real privilege.


Which brings me back to my decision to get more involved in Movember this year, inspired by Kenneth. The connection is not tenuous; he knew about my past moustache-growing exploits (he already had a full beard otherwise I think he might have joined me). I was touched when Kenneth presented me with a ‘Mo Champion’ medallion from a bygone Movember with ribbon and presentation box. On my first visit to his flat, he also gave me a copy of The Moustache Grower’s Guide with (it says on the back cover) ‘instructions for growing and grooming 30 classic and modern moustaches’. Kenneth immediately directed me to page 133 – ‘The Laser Loop’ which the creator says is named after the US roller-coaster he recalls from his childhood. With too little time to tackle that one (the book says it needs 3 months to create) I’m afraid Kenneth, my friend, you’ll have to settle for my ‘Swiss army penknife’.

If you’d like to support Movember’s action and research into men’s health, including testicular and prostate cancer, mental health and suicide, click here  

Seven lockdown lessons

As we enter lockdown for a second time, it can be a stressful time. When we’re isolated in our homes unhelpful thoughts and habits can set in.

Below are some of the good habits I developed during the first lockdown that sustained my mental health. They work for me and some of them might help you.

Being purposeful – looking back at the end of the day (at a to-do list in my case) aim to have a few activities that you’re pleased to have got done. These worthwhile achievements could be quite small – doing the washing up or clearing the leaves from the pavement outside your house.

Comforting routines – fix some points in your day/ week for things you don’t have to think too much about to do. For me this is running on Tuesday and Thursday mornings (remember you can take as much outdoor exercise as you like during lockdown). Vacuuming the house on a Tuesday afternoon isn’t a pleasure until I’ve finished!

Enjoying new experiences – alongside the routine, do different/new things. This could include learning (skills and/or knowledge – there are loads of free courses and YouTube tutorials online). I recently spent a brilliant day ‘helping’ my nephew fell a big oak tree in sections – I never thought it would need so much pre-planning and problem-solving. I’m currently growing a silly moustache for Movember (my ninth year, so not a completely ‘new’ activity).

Rewarding yourself – when you’ve done a job you’ve been putting off for a while, or that you’ve been worried about, give yourself a treat. For me the reward might be watching ‘Money for Nothing’ on TV, reading a book for an hour, having a cup of tea, or eating a Mars Bar. And I try to remember to pat myself on the back for getting through a difficult day.

Creating something – if you’re pleased with what you’ve created that’s enough. It doesn’t have to be high art; it could be writing, taking some photos, doing a bit of gardening. In the first lockdown I got a ridiculous buzz from cooking, eating and sharing simple recipes. I’m currently making a Christmas ladder decoration for… Christmas, and a driftwood photo frame to go with a photo as a gift.

Switching off – this is about limiting your access to news on TV, radio, online about the pandemic – it’s usually bad and often confusing. Switching off is also about getting away from screens of all kinds to have more real, personal experiences (preferably involving nature). Try to be active rather than passive each day.

Taking control – for me this is important to keep a sense of perspective and for limiting the anxiety that can come from uncertainly in the wider world. Control what you can control and (try to) ignore the rest by setting your own routines, making your to-do lists achievable, and remembering – this is not forever.

For links to over 200 activities you can do in or near your home, go to  

Fix it yourself

Many moons ago, when I was a young lad, my dear old dad used to help me make and mend things. I was always impatient to get stuck in straight away of course, but he’d start by reminding me “the longest way is often the quickest” which frustrated my young self no end. But he was right – cutting corners (trying to bodge a job) is often a false economy; stopping, thinking, and planning a bit really can pay off in the long run – a life-lesson.

The same goes for any DIY repairs you’re considering – don’t be afraid to give it a go (with due regard for health and safety considerations – I give any broken mains-electrical equipment a wide berth) but take time to give yourself the best chance of success.

At the Royston Repair Café our volunteer repairers are frustrated not to be fixing things at our quarterly community repair events. Our last repair session was two days after Valentine’s Day 2020 then Covid-19 scuppered our plans for the rest of the year. At the time of writing this post, we don’t yet know when our 25th repair session will be.

To celebrate International Repair Day (17 October) as very much a second best service compared to free fixes, we’re encouraging people to try their own repairs – something which is often easier than people think (and much more satisfying than having someone else do your repair!) We asked some Royston Repairers for their top tips for DIY repairs and this is what they want to share with you.

Jon says “One bit of advice I always think of for electronic/ software items is to make a note of what happens just before it stopped working. Therein probably lies a clue to the problem.” Wise words from Jon, and the notes you make (did something go bang? was there a burning smell? did it stop suddenly or slow down gradually? was it exposed to moisture?) are also a good idea if you want a diagnosis from a repairer as it can help them narrow down the possible cause and potential solutions.

Some preparation before rushing in with a DIY repair is always a good idea (remember my dad’s advice). At the very least, allow yourself enough time to get the job done – there’s nothing worse than covering the kitchen table with tools, screws and parts only to have to clear them away come teatime!

Royston repairer Imdad advises “use a box with lots of small compartments to keep screws separate as you disassemble something. Stops you losing or mixing up the screws!” In the same vein, it’s a good idea to take photos as you take an item apart – it can help you to re-assemble it!

Personally, I love to learn ‘hacks’, which I’d define as an unconventional, but often simple, solution to a (common) problem. Imdad shares two (I don’t know whether they originate with him or he picked them up from other fixers – it doesn’t matter; this is all about sharing).  

“When an item’s PU [polyurethane-coated] leather covering starts peeling off (eg on a chair or headphones), use kinesiology tape of the same colour to patch over it and to stop it fraying further. Not sure about using it for the actual earpieces of headphones.” Yes – I had to look up ‘kinesiology tape’. It’s a ‘therapeutic tape that’s applied strategically to the body to provide support, lessen pain, reduce swelling, and improve performance.’ So, used by athletic types (which is probably why Imdad knows about it and I don’t!)

Another lovely tip from Imdad Use 3D printer plastic and an old soldering iron to repair small breaks in plastic. It forms fairly decent welds.” Well I do know about 3D printing (it’s magic by the way…) but I didn’t know this hack – certainly worth checking out.

While we’re talking about simple hacks, here’s a way to remove a screw with a stripped head using a rubber band… Simply place the rubber band over the screw head and push your drill or screwdriver into the rubber band while you turn the screw. That’s all there is to it – the rubber band fills the gaps in the screw’s head and grips the drill bit or screwdriver blade. If that still doesn’t work, click here

Three more top tips which, to my mind, are all common sense (but, as Voltaire once said, “Common sense it not always as common as we might like it to be”)

  • For items that may accumulate dust and dirt, give then a thorough clean first – it might just do the trick. In my experience, this is surprisingly often the case with vacuum cleaners and paper shredders (particularly if you didn’t take the staple out before shredding). Don’t forget to unplug them first!
  • Before you take on a messy job, rub washing-up liquid (a lot cheaper than Swarfega) into your hands until it’s fully absorbed. It will make cleaning your dirty hands much easier afterwards.
  • Search on the internet to see if anyone else has had something similar go wrong. Try putting ‘stuck telescopic camera lens’ into Google and you’ll see what I mean. [It brings up 10 YouTube videos].

Finally, thank you Royston Repairer John for grounding me when I get over enthusiastic about repair!

John suggests “Know when to recycle or throw away your broken item.” This begs the question – how to I know when that is? Well, one answer may be another of my dad’s sayings. He would look at a much-loved and well-used item destined for the dustbin (this was before recycling…) – a tool, a labour-saving device, or even an item of clothing, and he’d say “well, that doesn’t owe us anything.” So, has the item given you good value over many years?

In her early years, one of my sisters is quoted as saying “I think these shoes have had enough of me.” And, while we’re talking about old shoes, I once took a pair of shoes to a repairer in York and asked if he could do anything. He replied: “I can throw them away for you.”

For more blog posts on repair go to

Some of the many online sources for advice about DIY household repairs


My travel companion – review article

If the definition of a great book is that it’s laugh-out-loud funny, was reprinted 11 times in its first year in paperback, and describes incidents that this reviewer can recall pretty much verbatim 47 years after a first reading, then The Moon’s A Balloon by David Niven fits the bill.

First published in paperback in 1972 when I was 17 and the author was 62, I’ve hung on to my 1973 edition and, after nearly half a century, it’s looking in better shape than I am! At first I couldn’t think why, fresh out of school, I would have wanted to read a book about the life and times of a man – albeit a former English Hollywood film star – old enough to be my grandfather. Then I remembered that I’d seen David Niven being interviewed by Michael Parkinson in 1972; the telling of his life story must have grabbed me.

The book opens with Niven’s early education including banishment to a school for ‘difficult boys’ and expulsion from another. In 300 pages he recalls his military service, peacetime loves and wartime losses, and his early stage and screen successes and failures, ending up in Hollywood.

Niven’s father died when he was five, and without trying to play the amateur psychologist, I think the search for the love of a father-figure runs through the book. There was little affection shown by his mother’s second husband ‘Uncle Tommy’, but he credits a benevolent headmaster at Stow School, his comrades in arms, and those who nurtured his talent and watched his back in the Hollywood hothouse.  

The book is, of course, big on name-dropping – the index is packed with stars of stage and screen – but isn’t that the essence of an autobiography? As David Niven himself says in the introduction “Once behind those [open] doors it makes little sense to write about the butler is Chairman Mao is sitting down to dinner.”

As a skilled raconteur, his description of sexual encounters and general laddish behaviour was enough to hook me. And the hook sunk deep. Nearly 50 years after reading the book, I can still recall with delight the description of his sexual initiation, aged 14, at the hands – if that’s the right expression – of a whore. A stage performance that involved olives is hilariously described, and a laugh-out-loud account of a navy medical examination would bring tears to the eyes of most male readers for more than one reason. For me it was literally laugh-out-loud; I read it on a train en route to the south of France and got some funny looks from fellow travellers. In fact, I think that time and place – travelling to work abroad for six months – explains why the book struck a chord with me. I was 18 and travelling lone – embarking on an adventure and taking David Niven as my companion; his own journey unfolding alongside my own.–The-Guardians-Number-One-Hollywood-Autobiography/345767

This review was written for the Royston Arts Festival 2020 – for more (including other book reviews) click here

Thinking about work

I know a year is a long time in the age of Covid-19, but…

12 months from now I expect to be in at the end of the employment-support programme that employs me three days a week.

By then I’ll be just past retirement age, which got me thinking about work.

The world of work – definitions, 4-day weekends, my own non-career, and my current support role etc – is a subject I’ve covered in past blog posts. But lockdown and working-from-home, the imminent end of the government’s furlough scheme, and the funding of training places for young people in a post-coronavirus economy have got me thinking even more widely about the changing nature of the jobs market.

For me an immediate consideration is whether we need to redefine success in mentoring long-term unemployed people. ‘Moving individuals towards employment’ is a useful catch-all phrase to reflect the variety of ways on which we aim to develop the individual – including through training and volunteering opportunities – to increase their employability.

But the past 6 months has dramatically increased the virtual queue at the Job Centre and has, of course, made competition for jobs that much more harsh. While I’m in the business of giving people hope and building their self-confidence, I think we also owe it to our clients to manage their expectations.

For many years, I’ve believed that ‘purposeful activity’ is an important ingredient for our personal wellbeing. So maybe our immediate aim should be to ensure that unemployed people are spending their time ‘purposefully’? By that, I don’t mean spending 35 hours a week job-searching online; it could include gardening, making things, taking photographs, cooking, being creative as well as learning new skills and having new experiences. Alongside purposeful activity, it will be important to (try to) ensure that people can pay their bills and stay clear of the health and social care system for as long as possible.

The recent and untimely death of anthropologist and activist David Graeber in early September has also been an influence on my recent reflections on the meaning of work.  David is author of Bullshit Jobs – The rise of pointless work and what we can do about it (details via link below). So, in a Covid and post-Covid world, maybe we should be thinking about replacing meaningless jobs with those that matter – and stirring further discussions about a standard four-day week into the mix.

A year from now I don’t expect I’ll be rushing out looking for another paid job but would consider an opportunity if it came looking for me. I have 12 months to ‘get ready’ for retirement if that’s what happens. I’ll never be short of things to do; Covid-19 permitting, I already have a couple of long-term projects in the pipeline…–The-Rise-of-Pointless-Work-and-What-We-Can-Do-About-It/23056166

Happy at home #18 –  Staying healthier and happier for longer

This is to be the last of my Happy at home posts. It’s been great fun to do and I’ve learnt a lot, including some very simple (and mostly successful) recipes. It’s also confirmed my belief that being creative is good for your health and wellbeing.

Staying well

How to stay healthier and happier for longer is how I started this series of posts on 2nd June) and that’s how I plan to end it – with some great advice.


I have my 3 Cs (Connect, Create and Carry On) to stay well, Phil Hammond has his CLANGERS. Dr Phil is a practicing doctor in Bristol, a stand-up comedian, and he is also ‘MD’ in Private Eye magazine. CLANGERS is a mnemonic – hopefully fairly self-explanatory 

Connect – Learn – (Be) Active – Notice – Give back to others – Eat well – Relax – Sleep

Here’s Dr Phil explaining more about CLANGERS in relation to post viral fatigue

If your mood is low, Dr Phil recommends you think of 5- 10 things to do before you listen to your negative thoughts. This could be listening to your favourite piece of music, watching an episode of your favourite sitcom, wandering around your garden (if you have one), treating yourself to a favourite snack, stroking your dog or cat – or someone else’s!

Some of you may also know the New Economics Foundations ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ on related themes?


Connecting with nature

This has been a recurring theme over the past 20 weeks in my weekly mailings – whether it’s learning to identify birds and their songs or upcycling plastic containers to make feeders for your garden, or growing things. Here’s evidence about how nature positively affects our brains and bodies

The miracle cure

So, what is the ‘miracle cure’? Take a listen here and find out

Looking after ourselves

I’ve included some of the Action for Happiness calendars in previous posts. This month it’s  Self-care September – very appropriate because we need to look after ourselves to be able to support others.

Happiness in dark times

Also from Action for Happiness, this is a lovely talk from Dr Maria Sirois on how to grow through difficult times, including bereavement and other kinds of loss.

7 types of negativity to banish

If you’re a ‘glass-half-empty’ kind of person, you might like to take a look at this list at the start of each week (or even each day!)

21 brilliant ideas to remake the world

There’s been lots of dreaming going on about how the world might be improved following Covid-19 and the enforced lockdown – I say ‘dream on’!

The Guardian newspaper recently published 21 ideas for making the world a better place and I think they’re wonderful and you can read more here See also

Do face masks matter?

Face coverings – how to wear them and how to make them – have been another recurring theme in these weekly mailings. Here’s a readable recent piece from the USA about the scientific evidence in favour of wearing face masks.

And to lighten the mood… here’s how one artist has used face masks (and toilet rolls) to create a miniature world One to go with the pothole gardener’s creations that I shared some weeks ago?

And finally… have a laugh

It’s a cliché to say that humour is the best medicine, but I certainly find a good laugh makes me feel better. August would have been the annual Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Festival. So, I’ve selected 5 one-liners from the 2019 Festival that amused me:

“As a kid I was made to walk the plank. We couldn’t afford a dog.” Gary Delaney

 “I like to imagine the guy who invented the umbrella was going to call it the ‘brella’. But he hesitated” Andy Field

I have two boys, 5 and 6. We’re no good at naming things in our house” Ed Byrne

I never lie on my CV…because it creases it.” Jenny Collier

I’m entering the worlds tightest hat competition. Just hope I can pull it off.” William Andrews

Click here for over 100 jokes from previous Fringe Festivals

That’s it – best wishes and stay well

See other posts in the “Happy at home” series here 

Happy at home #17 – Get things done

Following my last Happy at home post’s reference to that wonderful TEX Talk on procrastination, this post continues the theme of ‘getting things done’.

Below are five tools, hacks, tricks – whatever you like to call them – for doing something you probably don’t want to. It could be a difficult phone call, or an e-mail you need to take time to plan carefully. Or maybe your head is spinning with ‘things to do’ and you can’t decide what to do first.


The Pomodoro technique

Named after the kitchen timer (shaped like a tomato – pomodoro in Italian) that belonged to the Italian inventor of the Pomodoro technique

This works for me and my daughter when we have to do something that will take time, but we just can’t find the time to start it… like tidying, decorating, writing a difficult letter or a long report.

The idea is that you break down the time you give to your task into short chunks – 25 minutes works for me – with a short break (5 minutes) in between each chunk. Every 4 chunks (so after two hours) you take a longer break. For me this gets over the thought of having to sit down for a solid two-hour slog – 25 minutes is a much more manageable prospect for getting me started.


Imagine you’re about to write an e-mail, a letter, make a phone call, or design a poster. How do you start planning what to say? One way is to use AIDA which stands for…

Action: Think what’s going to interest the recipient? Grab their attention? In the case of an e-mail it could be a clear, concise, but positive message in the subject box.

Interest: Building on the attention-grabber, how can you keep their interest and attention? Think of the other person when writing this – why do they want to hear what you have to say?

Desire: Spell out another part of your message that’s going to interest the reader – explain how they can benefit by responding to your communication

Action:  Be clear about what they should do next – how they could/should contact you (by phone, by e-mail, or how?)

This technique is traditionally used for writing publicity materials, but I’ve been using it for planning all sorts of communications for years. You’ll find more details here

The Pareto Principle

Also known as ‘the 80:20 rule’, this principle is over 120 years old.

Broadly speaking it says that just 20 percent of your activities will account for 80 percent of your results. In other words, if you have a to-do list with 10 tasks, two of those tasks will account for 80 percent of the value of what you do.

For using your time well, the trick is to work out which those two tasks are, and to get them done first! This in turn depends on knowing what each task is meant to achieve. This article explains more

Begin your day with the hardest task

You have a list of things to do, but one of them is worrying you more than the others. It might be a difficult phone call, an application that needs to be just right, or a meeting you’ve been putting off for a while.

The best advice is to tackle that task first. The temptation is to put it to one side (hoping it will go away) but, more often than not, it nags away in the back of your mind and can ruin your day.

In my experience, the ‘hard task’ is often not as bad as I thought it would be; in my mind I’ve made it more challenging than it turned out to be. If it goes badly, at least it’s out of the way, if it goes well, it’s downhill all the way.

One thing to add – if your task involves writing and you can leave your written work over night, for a final check before you send it off the next day, you’ll often see improvements to make when you read it again in the morning.

The Urgent – Important matrix

A simple but effective technique for sorting your to-do list tasks into what’s urgent and what’s important, and then deciding which to do first (and which to cross off the list!)

Draw a matrix with urgent along one axis and important along the other and then place each task in one quadrant of your matrix – depending on how important/urgent it is.

For example, if you’re overdue by a month on checking that your fire extinguisher is working OK, it’s important rather than urgent to get it checked. But if your front door lock is broken, getting it fixed is both urgent and important. So, your matrix might look like this…

More on the urgent-important matrix (also called the Eisenhower Matrix) is here


When all your tasks are under control, reward yourself by making some easy Chocolate Fudge Crinkle Biscuits – recipe below

PREP: 20 MINS   COOK: 10 MINS             MAKES 35-40 MINI BISCUITS


  • 60g cocoa powder, sieved
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 60ml vegetable oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 180g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 35g icing sugar


  1. Mix the cocoa, caster sugar and oil together. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking until fully combined.
  2. Stir the flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt together in a separate bowl, then add to the cocoa mixture and mix until a soft dough forms. If it feels soft, transfer to the fridge and chill for 1 hr. Heat the oven to 190C/170C fan/gas 5. Tip the icing sugar into a shallow dish. Form a heaped teaspoon of the dough into a ball, then roll in the sugar to coat. Repeat with the remaining dough, then put, evenly spaced, on a baking tray lined with baking paper.
  3. Bake in the centre of the oven for 10 mins – they will firm up as they cool. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool. Will keep for four days in a biscuit tin

See other posts in this ‘Happy at home’ series here

Happy at home #16 – effective communication

I’ve spent most of my adult life sharing ideas about effective communication – how to get noticed, how to (try to) get your message across and understood and, importantly, how to get someone to respond the way you want them to.

Whether it’s writing a job application (and the covering letter), responding to a volunteering opportunity, or asking a favour of a friend or someone you don’t know – getting the words right can save you a lot of time and effort.

My interest in communication was born out of an interest in language (written and spoken) and a frustration that, although we start learning how to communicate the moment we’re born, most of us fail to do so effectively for most of our lives!

This post shares a couple of simple tricks to make your communications more effective – they’re tried and tested and, more often than not, it’s about making your messages simpler, not more complicated.

Wearing face coverings

Nowhere is the issue of effective communication more important than during a pandemic – now. More particularly it’s important to be clear when giving guidance/ laying down the law about, for example, wearing face coverings.

So I thought I’d start by sharing the government’s advice on wearing face coverings

What do you think about this information?

  • Has it been written with you in mind?
  • Does it use short sentences and words that are easy to understand?
  • Does it explain anything that might not be clear (for example, do you now know the difference between a face covering and a face mask?)
  • As you clear what you’re meant to do as a result of reading the government’s information?
  • How does this information compare with the two pieces I sent you last week?

Writing e-mails, letters and other pieces

As with most written communication, when writing e-mails to get your message across, you should follow some simple (but often ignored) rules, including…

Get to the point – be clear to the reader why you’re writing to them (this could go in the e-mail subject box or at the beginning of your letter) and keep the whole thing short. Make it easy to understand – use short paragraphs (with only one idea in each), avoid long sentences and unfamiliar words, feel free to use bullet points for lists if it makes reading easier.

For more advice on writing good e-mails, check out

For writing in other situations, there are some brilliant tips (29 to be precise!) here

Three of those tips are:

  • Think before you write (sounds obvious but many people don’t)
  • Write for a particular reader – not everyone – visualise them in your head
  • Grab your reader’s attention in the opening line (the article tells you now to do this)

Using the spoken word

Whether it’s simply knowing how to have a good conversation with someone, making a phone call to someone you don’t know, or giving a talk to a group of people – there’s lots of advice around – all of it free.

The art of conversation: Yes – there’s a skill to being good at conversations and like most skills, they can be learned. This is a useful article on the subject including these three tips:

  • Show interest and be curious (about the other person)
  • Be an active listener – keep good eye contact
  • Relax, smile and be friendly [but don’t overdo this!]

This is a useful piece on good communication skills from the same writer

Overcoming phone call phobia:

Most people I know (including me!) have a fear of making phone calls – particularly to people they don’t know. If that’s you, you’re not alone. There are good reasons for it – as this article explains  Luckily, there are also ways to get more comfortable about making phone calls, including:

  • Prepare yourself for the call – physically and mentally
  • Don’t expect to have all the answers immediately
  • Plan which calls you make when

Presentation skills:

The thought of making a speech to a group of people (even people you know) sends many people into a spin; their palms start sweating just thinking about it.

Even if you don’t think you’ll ever need to give a talk, you can adopt good presentations skills in your everyday communications – a lot of the techniques can be used for helping you have better conversations and photo calls.

There’s loads of advice on the internet about making better presentations, here are three sources:

How to (try to) ensure your talk is interesting

Tips for better talks

Watch an expert – this is a wonderful talk – see how well the speaker uses timing and humour to get his message across (one of many thousands of brilliant TED Talks on YouTube).

And finally…

Last week I told you I’d be sharing an easy recipe that none of you will know – This is the recipe for making Scotch Woodcock!

Serves 4 Preparation and cooking time 15 minutes




  • 8 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cream
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon butter
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 8 slices bread, toasted
  • 12 anchovies, sliced in half
  • Sliced chives, to garnish


  • Whisk together eggs and cream.
  • Heat butter in a large non-stick pan over medium low heat. Once butter has melted, add the eggs and turn the heat to low.
  • Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, constantly stir the eggs until they have just set. They should have a loose, custardy texture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Divide eggs between toast, then top each piece with three pieces of anchovy. Garnish with chives if desired and serve immediately.

See other posts in this ‘Happy at home’ series here

Happy at home #15 – creating more

As we come to the end of my ‘get creating’ alphabet (U to Z), I’m not going to tie myself in knots (ref earlier mailings) trying to come up with ideas to stick under ‘V’ and ‘X’ – you can do that!

U & W – two for the price of one – Upcyling for wildlife What could be better than reducing waste and creating a wildlife friendly green space? You’ll find some really neat ideas here

W – Wild Swimming During lockdown there’s been was a lot of chat about the delights of wild swimming. If, like me, you find that too… er, wild, you might want to start with safer, more organised Open Water Swimming. Find your nearest location here

And here are a couple of TV programmes about wild swimming generally and open water swimming at Hampstead Ponds

W – Wellbeing and creativity You’ll know by now that I believe that creativity is good for keeping us healthier and happier for longer. But here’s the evidence that it isn’t just me that thinks so, and online creativity works as well as in face-to-face groups

Welsh Rarebit

Recipe of the week – a nod to other countries in Great Britain and a culinary delight that sounds impressive but isn’t!

Prep Time 10 minutes   Cook Time 5 minutes   Servings 2


  •  250g cheddar cheese
  • 70ml ale or beer
  • 5 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 20g unsalted butter melted
  • 1 tbsp English mustard or 1 tsp English mustard powder (French mustard also works)
  • 4 thick slices good quality bread


  1.  Lightly toast the bread under a preheated grill or in a toaster.
  2. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the grated cheese, beer or ale, butter, Worcestershire sauce and English mustard. Stir until thoroughly combined.
  3. Spread a generous layer of the mixture over each slice of toast, ensuring it covers the crusts too.
  4. Transfer each slice onto a baking tray and place directly underneath the grill for five minutes or so, until golden brown and bubbling.
  5. Carefully remove from the grill, cut each slice in half and serve hot, either alone or with a crisp green salad and rich, fruity chutney.

Adapted from: where you’ll find much more about Welsh Rarebit and variations on the basic recipe

You may know about Welsh Rarebit but I’ll bet you haven’t heard of (or tried) the recipe in the next ‘Happy at Home’ post!

 Wearing a face covering – Looks like we’ll all be wearing face coverings at some stage so here are a couple of sources on the subject to add to the references I’ve made in past mailings.

This is an American source, but I find it quite readable

And a recent UK source with some further questions answered –

And finally….

Zipper repairs Who hasn’t had a problem with a zipper at some time? Here’s everything you need to know to fix it!

See other posts in this ‘Happy at home’ series here