A successful recipe – review article

For this, the second in my books-by-my-bed review series (see below for links to earlier blog posts on this theme) I’m staying with the subject of death. But this time it’s fictional, I think…

Arguably, Anthony Horowitz’s work is best known by fans at opposite ends of the age range; by ‘older’ TV watchers for Foyles War, Midsomer Murders and Poirot and by young readers for his Alex Rider series (which have sold a cool 19 million copies worldwide). As if to confirm his supreme talent, he was commissioned to write a James Bond novel – Trigger Mortis, published in 2015. You need a safe pair of hands for that one.

I’ve enjoyed odd episodes of Foyle’s War but have not watched it avidly; it was via another string in Horowitz’s bow – writing new Sherlock Holmes mysteries in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle – that I got into his writing.  The book I’ve recently finished reading – a gift that had sat unread by my bed for many months for no good reason – is The Sentence is Death. It’s second in an expected trilogy featuring ‘disgraced private investigator’ (it says in the back-cover blurb) Daniel Hawthorne.

Like all good crime-fighters, despite his murky past Hawthorne unofficially works alongside the police because they know he’ll probably solve the crime before them and they want to be able to take the credit.

You don’t have to be a detective to work out from the book title that the crime in question is murder. For me, the book would read as a fairly routine mystery (if there is such a thing) if it wasn’t for its structure – not just the plot – and the author’s role within it. Just as Noises Off by Michael Frayn is a play within a play (and a big West End hit that I enjoyed seeing in the early 1980s) so The Sentence is Death is really a story within a story.

From page one, where the narrator is juggling being on set for the filming of Foyle’s War with pursuing the murder investigation that’s the core of the book, Horowitz blurs fact and fiction (and clearly identifies himself as the narrator). Even the cover illustration of the paperback edition features the (real) iron bridge over Archway Road in Highgate, North London – informally knows as ‘suicide bridge’ for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to go into – that has a significant walk-on part in the story.

Interweaving fact and fiction is, of course, nothing new for thriller writers – I’ve hitch-hiked with Jack Reacher all over the USA and I trust Lee Child to have done his research to make the scenery and locations authentic. What I think makes this book quite exceptional is how Anthony Horowitz involves his real-life writer self in the story he’s telling. When you read the book, you’re reading about the author researching the book you’re reading – if you see what I mean.

I’ll never know how authors manage to plan their books, structure their plots, develop characters, work out their relationships, and sustain parallel timelines all at once, but this book adds another ingredient to the recipe and, continuing my tired analogy, cooks up a treat for the hungry reader.

Even though I read the book during lockdown – with, arguably, more time to read and less competition for my attention – I really did look forward to returning to it over the Easter weekend I consumed it – fast for me, given that I’m a slow reader. But I urge you to make up your own mind (the proof of the pudding and all that) and share your verdict here.

Related blog posts:



To order The Sentence is Death https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Anthony-Horowitz/The-Sentence-is-Death–A-mind-bending-murder-mystery-from/23639303  (When you order online from Hive in the UK, you support local independent bookshops)

Death and life – review article

Some years ago, when my work-life balance was causing me serious stress (I’m reformed now…) I used to remind myself that “Nobody on their deathbed ever says ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work’”. As a mantra it helped bring some perspective back into my life, and I’ve since repeated it when counselling others.

Little did I know at the time, but the quote probably originated from a now-famous blog post – Regrets of the dying – written a decade ago, which I discovered soon after it was published.

The five regrets in the piece were simple and wonderfully matter-of-fact, but ultimately deep:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier

I could relate to each of those five regrets, even though I was only 54, and certainly not close to death. I suspect many men of my age would agree – particularly the one about expressing our feelings!

Author Bronnie Ware had written the blog post from her experience of giving one-to-one end-of-life care to many people – men and women, mostly older, but some as young as I was when reading the piece. The positive response to her initial piece prompted her to write a book – The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – a Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing – which I would describe as a personal understanding of life through death. For Bronnie Ware, it’s also about re-birth after being on the brink of taking her own life, induced by what reads like PTSD at a time when, objectively, she shouldn’t have been happier.

The book isn’t just about her close relationships with people with terminal illnesses, it includes many other diverse elements of her personal and professional life – including a violent upbringing, an abusive adult relationship, teaching song-writing in a women’s prison, house-sitting other people’s properties, travel to remote places, falling in and out of love and, ultimately, motherhood.

Many of the issues addressed by the author are life lessons for us all – much is about finding balance: the need to work and the desire to find something we love to do; a longing to be free but wanting to have enduring relationships; a desire to travel but feeling a need for security and having somewhere to settle down. She shares wisdom throughout the book – not just her own reflections, but advice she’s inherited. “They say everything comes down to love or fear: every emotion, every action, and every thought” and “Nothing good can be done alone” are just two of many.

The author’s relationships – with herself, with family, friends, the natural environment and, of course, the people for whom she is a professional but loving carer – are a golden thread running through the book. She writes well and movingly – I had many a tear in my eye as she described (with verbatim records of conversations that makes me think there’s been some artistic licence in the retelling) intimate moments so vividly.

The subject matter of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying may not seem like an obviously read while the world is witnessing a pandemic which is bringing death to thousands. But the book is strangely uplifting and the writing makes the numbers real and lifts the taboo about talking about death.

As Bronnie Ware herself writes “Our society has shut death out, almost as a denial of its existence. This denial leaves both the dying person and the family or friends totally unprepared for something that is inevitable. We are all going to die. But rather than acknowledge the existence of death, we try to hide it. It is as if we are trying to convince ourselves that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ really works. But is doesn’t because we carry on trying to validate ourselves through our material life and associated fearful behaviour instead.”

Further reading

Bronnie Ware’s blog https://bronnieware.com/blog/regrets-of-the-dying

The book https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Bronnie-Ware/Top-Five-Regrets-of-the-Dying–A-Life-Transformed-by-the-Dearly-Departing/23828296

A related blog post https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/the-books-by-my-bed

Shedloads of DIY – review article

At the time of writing, we’re all being instructed to stay home because of the Coronavirus pandemic. ‘Staying home’ means different things for different people – those lucky enough to have gardens and garages have space to breathe and do stuff; I feel for those in tower blocks with young children for whom the options are very much more limited.

Already there are people speculating how the world might be different ‘when this is all over’ and I think, at a personal level, there’s no harm in thinking about projects you might undertake when the lock-down is lifted (or while isolating if you have the space, tools and materials to hand). With this in mind, I’m highlighting two books that might help practically-minded people at least plan some creative home-based projects.

Note: These reviews first appeared in Shoulder to Shoulder – the free monthly bulletin from the UK Men’s Sheds Association https://menssheds.org.uk/newsletter-archive

DIY for beginners

Full declaration: I know co-author Alison Winfield-Chislett as it’s she I have to thank for introducing me to the world of Repair Cafes (she runs one from her wonderful Goodlife Centre in London). When, with Alison’s encouragement, I set up a Repair Café in Royston I was amazed to discover how many people of a certain age and stage seemed to know about electronics. I was not one of them and, when I asked how they knew about fixing electrical appliances, I got a puzzled response; ‘doesn’t everyone?’

Well the answer is ‘no’, or nor does everyone learn DIY at their mother’s knee. Which is why I welcome this hands-on book that guides the first-timer through the basics of DIY – from the tools and terms, through 30 step-by-step projects around your home, to the techniques.

I love the ‘DIY hacks’ sprinkled throughout the text – so you can talk like a professional, even if you take a while to learn to work like one. I was also pleased the book has a gender-free feel to it – both in words and pictures – which may be explained by the female co-authorship.

Speaking as a grumpy old pedant who worked in book publishing for 15 years, while I welcome the inclusion of a jargon-buster and index, the book’s transatlantic character means there’s no explanation of the similarities between anchors and Rawlplugs, between P-traps and U-bends, and I had to check that a vice and a vise are the same thing. But maybe I’m just splitting hairs; not one of the DIY projects…

Beginner Guide to DIY: Essential DIY Techniques for the First Timer by Jo Behari and Alison Winfield-Chislett. Order online at https://www.waterstones.com/book/beginners-guide-to-diy/alison-winfield-chislett/jo-behari/9781580118286 and (if you must…) https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1580118283/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_pHM.Cb8NYR4P9

More about The Goodlife Centre here https://www.thegoodlifecentre.co.uk

Haynes Shed Manual

Another full declaration: I went to the same school as Alex Johnson – co-author of this book – and my top tips for starting a Men’s Shed appear on page 173.

Shedders know it’s a lot of fun working alongside others in a shared workshop, but we can also enjoy tinkering in a shed at the bottom of the garden. This new Shed Manual from Haynes (better known for their car maintenance guides) is a great resource for working on a range of timber-based projects in home and community workspaces, not just sheds. The authors show their passion when they say “Whatever tools you have already, a big project such as building a shed is always a good opportunity to buy some more!”

Alongside four step-by-step shed-building projects are generic sections on planning, tools and materials, furnishing and decoration. There’s more than a nod to environmental considerations, including an eco-shed build, and references to sustainable energy and roofing. But I was surprised not to see more being made of reclaimed materials; I know that making a shed from pallets is neither as easy nor as cheap as many people imagine, but reclaimed timber can make an important statement about greener ways of working.

Who would use (it’s very much a tool and probably something you’d not read from cover to cover) this book? Perhaps a reference to Eddie Grundy and Lynda [Snell] on page 163, without mentioning the Archers on Radio 4, gives you a clue.

Shed Manual: Designing, building and fitting out your perfect Shed by John Coupe and Alex Johnson. Order online at https://haynes.com/en-gb/shed-manual More from the authors at www.secrets-of-shed-building.com and www.shedworking.co.uk

For a look at light-hearted books on Sheds, see https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/12/20/shedloads-a-gift-list-for-book-and-shed-lovers

Working well at home – some resources

I started drafting this blog post some time ago and then, of course, the Coronavirus struck – not me, but… well… everything else! I had to go away and rethink what content might be most useful during the current lock-down.

There’s small comfort coming out of Government for small businesses and self-employed people – I know some are ill-able to wait while the promised financial support comes through. For what’s (meant to be) available, this summary from my friends at Enterprise Nation may be useful https://www.enterprisenation.com/learn-something/small-business-coronavirus-support-budget.

There’s lots of non-financial support around and, personally, I think it’s a matter of identifying just one of two reliable sources to avoid information overload! Below I’ve highlighted a couple of items I’ve spotted recently:

Are you sitting comfortably? https://www.wired.co.uk/article/working-from-home-posture-back-pain?

If you’re running a business from home  https://www.startupdonut.co.uk/hub/coronavirus-business-help

Free upcoming ‘lunch and learn’ webinars for small businesses https://www.enterprisenation.com/coronavirus-support/online-events

5 work from home tips https://www.hubbub.org.uk/5-work-from-home-tips

Being connected https://www.techdonut.co.uk/blog/20/02/your-complete-guide-to-business-connectivity

Advice from ACAS on rights and responsibilities  https://www.acas.org.uk/working-from-home

Here are a couple of items around sustaining your wellbeing in the current climate….




At a more personal level, I hope you’re discovering ‘what works for you’ while staying at home. Most people I’ve spoken to find some sort of routine helpful, but I also try to build in some differences as well, otherwise one day is very much like another.

I find purposeful activity (such as combining a bit of shopping with a longer-than-normal walk) also rewarding. It’s also a good idea to focus on what you can control and avoid the rest.

For loads more resources to support small businesses, check out https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/free-lunch-business-support

Go well, work well, and stay safe

The books by my bed

When I started writing this blog post some weeks ago, little did I think I’d have the time to do some serious reading! What follows is largely what I wrote then. The main difference is that I now plan to write short reviews of the books by my bed to share over the coming weeks while we’re all staying at home. 

What are the books?

As regular readers of my blog posts will know, I’m a lover of real books and enjoy reading almost as much as writing. My  reading is largely Influenced by author reputations; based on previous books I’ve read by them, and recommendations from other book lovers that I respect. There are currently 14 unread books by my bed

The books – the baker’s dozen

Top Five Regrets of the Dying Strangely uplifting given the subject matter (and the current Coronavirus crisis) this book started life as a blog and grew into a journal of the Australian author’s own life and learning as a professional end-of-life carer and house-sitter. https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Bronnie-Ware/Top-Five-Regrets-of-the-Dying–A-Life-Transformed-by-the-Dearly-Departing/23828296

Top Five Regrets of the Dying reviewed here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2020/04/27/death-and-life-review-article/

The Sentence is Death Crime writing at its best says the publicity, but I already know that Anthony Horowitz is a versatile and talented writer so I believe the blurb. I’ve particularly enjoyed his new Sherlock Holmes novels, and I expect this second title in his Daniel Hawthorne private investigator series will be equally entertaining.  https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Anthony-Horowitz/The-Sentence-is-Death–A-mind-bending-murder-mystery-from/23639303

The Sentence is Death reviewed here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2020/05/10/a-successful-recipe-review-article/ 

Broken Vows; Tony Blair – The Tragedy of Power The unofficial biography of Tony Blair. Bought for 99p in a book sale and, given its size, it doubles as a doorstop from time to time when the bedroom window is open. https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Tom-Bower/Broken-Vows–Tony-Blair-The-Tragedy-of-Power/19673554

Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us I like popular psychology books and a positive review by Malcolm Gladwell (one of my must-read authors) prompted me to order this probably a year ago. I’ve got to page 61. https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Daniel-H-Pink/Drive–The-Surprising-Truth-About-What-Motivates-Us/21901101

Duane’s Depressed given/lent (can’t remember) to me by brother-in-law (author of Nobody of any importance – see below) a fan of Larry McMurtry, who also wrote The Last Picture Show and Texasville, and other American authors. I see I made it to page 116 first time around… https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54816.Duane_s_Depressed

How to be alive: A guide to the kind of happiness that helps the world Already people are talking about how our world might (or might not) be changed forever when the Coronavirus pandemic is over. This book is apposite in that context. I bought it, got to page 184, then my daughter borrowed it to read (she’d read the author’s previous book No Impact Man) But that was a while ago, so I think I’ll have to start again!  https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Colin-Beavan/How-to-Be-Alive–A-Guide-to-the-Kind-of-Happiness-That-Helps-the-World/19419158

Nobody of any importance This book is written by my brother-in-law and is his late father’s recollections (written and verbal) of frontline action in World War One. It’s a great work of love and dedication – self-published and sold in aid of the British Red Cross.  http://www.footsoldiersam.co.uk

One Hundred Years of Solitude This book gets my award for ‘most-appropriately-titled-Coronavirus-reading’ (alongside Love in the Time of Cholera by the same author). A gratefully received recent gift which, given my past life in publishing on Latin American affairs, is wholly appropriate. A book I’ve been meaning to read for many years (but not 100). https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Gabriel-Garcia-Marquez/One-Hundred-Years-of-Solitude/15437723

Rethink: The surprising history of new ideas Author Steven Poole writes on ideas, culture, language and society. I share his love of words and I’m interested in creativity, so that was the attraction when I bought the book (a couple of years ago…) https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Steven-Poole/Rethink–The-Surprising-History-of-New-Ideas/20530224

The Last Landlady This was an impulse buy, except it wasn’t; I paid for the book but didn’t receive if for another 18 months or so. You see, publication was crowd-funded and the campaign must have come to attention at the right time. As a book and pub lover it was particularly appealing so I happily paid over the odds. The book is described as a memoir of the author’s grandmother – a landlady – and a social history of pub life.   https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Laura-Thompson/The-Last-Landlady–An-English-Memoir/23910248

The Snowman Author Jo Nesbo has millions of fans worldwide and my brother-in-law (another one) is one of them. I was given this book as alternative holiday reading (I usually take the latest Lee Child or John Grisham blockbuster). My bookmark tells me I made it to page 17 when I last picked up the book last summer. https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Jo-Nesbo/The-Snowman–Harry-Hole-7/16453092

Tickbox Written by David Boyle who I’m admired for many years as a thinker (and writer) and known through our shared involvement in Timebanking when it was new to the UK. He writes on diverse subjects – I think he’s essentially an economist (he’s a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation) and has written the wonderful Little Money Book, but I also enjoyed his book Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life more than 15 years ago. https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/David-Boyle/Tickbox/24240617

Upstream: How to solve problems before they happen A new offering from one half of a writing team of two brothers (Dan and Chip Heath) who author intriguing popular psychology type books. I can recommend Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die and The Power of Moments: Why certain experiences have extraordinary impact. https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Dan-Heath/Upstream–How-to-solve-problems-before-they-happen/24555849

The 14th book in the photo (spine to the wall) will be my last read – if necessary – when I’ll reveal what it is, if I do read it.

Why do they remain unread?

Despite 4-day weekends, I can’t find/ don’t make enough time for reading for pleasure. Luckily, I don’t have any problem getting to sleep at night or staying asleep, so no reading in the wee small hours. You’ll notice I’ve started quite a few of them, so maybe that says something about my inability to stick with reading books a bit at a time – I need a long run-up like when I’m on holiday. I’m also a slow reader.  The magazine you see on top of the pile of books – Private Eye – is another reason I don’t get through books; I’m too busy reading that (I’ve been a subscriber for decades).

Another reason I have so many unread books is… shameless plug; I can’t resist the ease of ordering online through Hive Books (often cheaper than you-know-who and they support local independent bookshops https://www.hive.co.uk). Even when I’ve bought a book but not (yet) read it I don’t feel it’s a waste of money. For now my plan is to read the books by my bed, before adding to the pile.

Once the books are read, some will stay in our house (‘too many’ says my wife) , others will find their way to my little library (outside https://www.facebook.com/MillRoadLittleLibrary) and/or charity shops, or will be given as gifts to friends (Man Walks into a Pub https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Pete-Brown/Man-Walks-Into-A-Pub–A-Sociable-History-of-Beer-Fully-Up/783549 being a recent example)

Do share details about your own bedside reading – ideally with a short review!

Related blog post:                              https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2018/07/09/my-love-affair-with-books 


What’s the going rate?

What the going rate for mending a toilet flush? What would you expect to pay someone to make and fit a solid wooden outside gate? An impossible question to answer without further information – the spec for the job – even for a trained plumber and carpenter.

I know that the price for a product or service is about supply and demand, and it may vary even from the same provider. You’d  expect to pay more for an ice cream on the beach in the middle of summer than in a city centre in the middle of winter; and similarly with cinema seats. Then there’s the cost of the materials, the time it takes to do the job, and the quality of the work (I wonder – do more skilled workers take more or less time to do a job?)

Before we go out to get an estimate for a job – from someone like a plumber, a carpenter, or an electrician – we’re unlikely to have even a ballpark figure at the start of the process. We need to do some research – find out if anyone has had a similar job done locally, get a number of actual quotes and compare them.

In an emergency you have less scope to ‘shop around’ and the providers know this – a burst pipe needs fixing quick and you’re prepared to pay almost anything to stop further damage. I understand why the hourly rate of a service provider can look high (apart from you paying for their expertise) – it has to cover the down time, and all the business costs – including time spent on travel and the administration when they’re not out actually earning money.

I was talking about my plumbing problem (no, not that kind of plumbing) with a friend who thought that insurance companies were to blame; that plumbers (he was talking about one that came in to fix his boiler…) will declare something beyond repair because they know an insurance company (and, ultimately, premium payers like you and me) will pick up the bill, however inflated.

Back to the plumber who had come round about a non-urgent job – my toilet flush. I had little idea about the price for the job but I think he assumed I’d say ‘go ahead’ whatever the cost. I didn’t – I said I’d consult my other half about it when I heard the cost – twice the price of the plumber I eventually used. He went off in a bit of a huff making me feel guilty for not giving him the job (maybe that was the idea?) I also felt bad when a gate supplier sent me a short text message saying ‘you get what you pay for’ after I told him I’d gone with a quote that was 40% lower than his. I suspect I’m being too sensitive; that one-man (and yes, they tend to be men) providers of domestic services see the to-ing and fro-ing around prices as a normal part of running a small business.

But what about the multinational providers? I was advising someone recently about the art (it’s not a science) of pricing products and services; about how the cost of his time and his expertise might fit into the equation I’ve outlined above. We got on to talking about the ridiculous price of printer ink (often more than the cost of the printer itself, and many times more expensive than the finest champagne). I learnt from him that the brand leaders have invested heavily in making their printer ink of such a viscosity that other inks clog up the printer jets if you use so-called ‘remanufactured’ cartridges. Once again big companies are locking us into making them money by cutting out alternatives – so much for competition!

Meanwhile, my bathroom toilet is now flushing fine. I’m still waiting for the wooden gate…

 A related blog post: https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2016/01/05/value-cost-and-price/

Being last, not fast

“There is more to life than increasing its speed” Mahatma Gandhi

My dear old dad hated school sports. He told me he was so determined not to come last in running races (he had standards…) that he once ended up in second place and was annoyed that he had to run again in another heat!

At the weekend I recalled my dad’s remark about not coming last when attending my local parkrun. I’ve written other blog posts about my love of parkrun – particularly that it’s about community rather than competition – but last Saturday’s experience was a first for me – I came last!

My time was 00.55.41 for the 5K – the slowest of 304 parkrunners – but that was all part of the plan as I was a ‘tail walker’. It involves making sure everyone returns safe and sound at the end of their run/walk/whatever. My hour-long walk around the route was a joy – very fresh air (a good blow in bright sunshine), great exercise in beautiful National Trust surroundings, and friendly chat – mainly with my co-tail walker who’s recovering from a hamstring injury. We talked about everything from sports injuries obviously, to dogs, caring duties, films, and the NHS.

It wasn’t quite a stroll in the park, but I was pleased there was no pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) to do other than finish the 5K circuit… last. I feel society is increasingly inclined to make us think that fast is desirable – that cramming more and more into our already busy lives is ‘a good thing’.

The idea of slowing things down is, of course, nothing new – the slow food movement in Italy dates back to the late 1980s https://www.slowfood.com.  I bought Carl Honore’s intriguing bestseller In Praise of Slow soon after it was published in 2004  https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Carl-Honore/In-Praise-of-Slow–How-a-Worldwide-Movement-is-Challengin/1980344 and I’d probably buy The Idler (a bi-monthly magazine for people who like to live in the slow lane https://www.idler.co.uk) if I had time to read it.

On a similar theme, if there was a competition for firing up your laptop, mine would probably come last. Every time I sit there after switching on my computer, I’m reminded of an early marketing database I used which allowed me time enough to make a cup of tea while it was selecting records from a list of 10,000 book-buyers. Fast forward three decades and, for all my impatience while waiting to use my computer, I’m grateful for the enforced delay as an opportunity for some mindful reflection at the beginning on the working day.

To coincide with its 15th anniversary, parkrun-UK commissioned some research  https://blog.parkrun.com/uk/2019/10/05/not-just-run-park. Two findings particularly interested me – firstly, that volunteering at parkrun was found to be better for our health and well-being than just running or walking the 5K. Interestingly the role of tail walker has been renamed in recent years – it used to be ‘tail runner’ – and this relates to a second research finding; that the average time for the 5K circuit had increased year-on-year – reflecting the growing number of people taking up parkrun (and running?) for the first time.

Looking more widely at slowing down society I don’t think I’m inclined to start a ‘come last’ campaign, but anything we can do to find more flexible ways of working (I’m right behind the campaign for a four day working week https://www.4dayweek.co.uk ) and to reduce the pressure on the next generation, is to be welcomed as a route to improved well-being.

Related blog posts: