Being broke

Going from a salary of around £50k to around £0 is a bit of a shock to the system. Especially when you do that immediately after buying a house – not that my mortgage is any more expensive than rent was. I am fortunate in that I can afford to tide myself over for a few months, so I’m not really down-to-my-last-dime broke. But, I very really could be. Oddly, this situation is still a whole lot less anxiety-provoking than my last job was. As time goes on, I’m still unpacking how very damaging that was for me.

I have started my own business offering business coaching to small businesses and for a couple of weeks in, I think it’s ok? Some interest, anyway and I will keep pursuing that. But, I’m also still applying for jobs – full time, part time, anything I can get. Some money is better than no money and fortunately, I never thought I had a career in the first place so it’s not like I’m wedded to anything in particular.

And, inevitably, I have a budget and am suddenly very aware of where my money goes. I don’t have disposable income any more, so unavoidable costs like parking have to come out of money allocated for something else. Probably food, as that’s the one area really under my control that I can whittle down even further.

Other than the fact that having to sense check every purchase adds a lot more decision making to my days, it’s all ok. The luxuries just go, and I don’t really mind. I’m cooking and baking more, which I enjoy. Now that it’s Asda and Lidl rather than Sainsbos and Waitrose, why buy their crappy bread (and it is crappy) when I can bake a better loaf at home?

The interesting thing is with job applications, though. I’m used to being able to drive everywhere and not consider distance. But for a minimum wage part time job, I do have to take that into consideration because I could easily wipe out a most of a week’s earnings in petrol and parking. Or parking and bus fares. Or parking and train fares. So although part of me is thinking apply, apply, apply, that’s not actually realistic. Argh.

Well, all I can do is to keep chipping away at the problem. I won’t say ‘and hope something comes up’ because it’ll take more than wishful thinking!



I went camping for the weekend. We thought that S needed her spare room back for guests, and I desperately wanted to see the sea. I felt guilty spending the money but I bought a tent and a cheap camping stove and reasoned it was the most cost effective way of achieving a quick holiday. I decided on Norfolk because after blasting through all of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series earlier in the year, I’ve been wanting to see salt marshes. I booked a camping pitch for £15 a night, checked the weather and was hugely relieved to see it looked several degrees cooler at the coast.

As it was a back to basics weekend, I navigated via road atlas, which actually worked pretty well. I just needed to remember the names of the key destinations and road numbers along the way: Evesham (A46) – Stratford – Warwick – Coventry (M6) – Thrapston (A605) – Peterborough (A14) – Wisbech – King’s Lynn (A169) – Cromer. In this age of Satnav, does anyone still plan their route any more? When I can, I like to make the journey part of the trip rather than just a means to an end. This was not the prettiest route but there’s a kind of magic to a list of unfamiliar place names. Now I have the geography of another part of the country roughly laid out in my head for when I need it again. It also meant that I could listen to Everyone Brave is Forgiven without Siri interrupting me.

The heat has been so oppressive around here that when I stepped out of the car into a breeze, I barely recognised it. Suddenly, the sunshine was beneficent again. Plus, I love being on my own in places where no one knows me. It’s like being invisible and you just know you aren’t going to have to talk to anyone at a level beyond the transactional for days. I don’t know if that’s an introvert thing, but I find it really relaxing. After 5 hours of travelling, I was reinvigorated.

Even so, there’s not a lot to be done with Cromer, but I found the second hand bookshop and the first two Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Reginald Hill has been on my TBR list since I heard Mick Herron recommend him at the Oxford Literary Festival.

I’ve been camping plenty of times, but never on my own before. And tents are a lot easier these days but still come with exactly the sort of instructions that make no sense to me whatsoever. I had one tricky moment, then I figured it out and suddenly, I had a sturdy blue bolthole for the weekend! After which, I was overcome with laziness and decided to settle in with the default camping foods: Dairylea slices, bread rolls, red wine. I hung my torch up in the tent and read A Clubbable Woman. 

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My tent was definitely the smallest on site. Even the guy on the motorbike had a pop up tent that was bigger.

Now, admittedly an air mattress might have made sleep a more comfortable proposition, but it was ok for a couple of nights. Besides which, there was coffee. That little camping stove was amazing. I mean yes, it took a while to boil a litre of water, but it got there. And it was a gorgeous morning, so I was happy to wait.

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That was Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that S brought me back from the US.

Since it wasn’t a thousand degrees, I’d decided I’d try walking from Holkham Beach to Wells-next-the-Sea. The website said it would be a couple of hours each way, but I thought I could pick up the Peddar’s Way for the route back and get some shade in the pine trees.

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Holkham Beach was a sight to lift the heart. I paddled all the way to Wells and there were barely any people. Turned out, they were all at Wells. By the time I got there and remembered why it’s called Wells-next-the-Sea not Wells-on-Sea, that last mile inland nearly broiled me. I bailed on the walk back and got the bus instead. Peddar’s Way will have to wait for next time.

Empty beaches were a theme. But I was warned by the locals that out of term time, everywhere gets mobbed and is horrible, so I guess I was lucky with my timing. This was Sheringham beach, I got in and out on Sunday morning ahead of their world record attempt for the largest number of Morris Dancers in one place at the same time. Shudder. I had idly wondered why I kept seeing lone Morris Dancers around.

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I don’t even remember where this one was (Cley?) but only a few miles away up the coast from Holkham, the sand shifted to shingle.

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Sunday was all about the seals, though. I was expecting a pleasant boat trip and maybe a few seal heads bobbing around in the sea at a distance. I’d booked my boat trip with Ptarmigan, based on nothing more than picking up their leaflet at the shop on the campsite.

They were great, one of the smaller boat trip companies so we had to wait for several boat loads of Bean’s Boat Trips to get out of the way first. But the boats all take the same route out to Blakeney Point – thankfully not open sea because I get seasick really easily. Not that I can tell port from starboard but I like boats and the seasickness banishes all Patrick O’Brien induced fantasies of sailing holidays, or even any kind of long trip. I barely made it to Block Island.

Ptarmigan’s was a traditional clinker built boat, and the guide pointed out various other, locally built boats as we headed out to the seals. Blakeney used to be a major shipping harbour in the Middle Ages and was still going through to the 19th century. Now it’s heavily silted up and there’s just one commercial shipping boat, which goes after crab and lobster.

And then, seals! There are a couple of colonies of common seals and grey seals, so maybe 2,000-3,000 seals. They weren’t afraid of the boats, they were curious, but they kept their distance.

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Grey seals in the water could disappear as soon as they went under, even though it wasn’t that deep. They merged with the shadows.

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The grey seals are darker and have the longer faces, ‘like Labradors’ our guide said.

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After all that, I got home sunburnt, salty, tired and incredibly relaxed. Bring on more camping, more Norfolk and more seals.

New Year reading

There are two main things that are driving my reading at the moment. The first, the positive, is that I’ve started a short course on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and glory be, it gives me access to a bit of an academic library. The course is at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education, and the library has only a small classics section. Still, I will happily take the academic crumbs that come my way, so I scooped up some basics and have The Cambridge Companion to Ovid to play with.

It’s only a 10-week course and we aren’t reading all of Metamorphoses, so the tutor has given out a reading plan that allots us a section or two each week. It’s about 20pp maximum, so I’ve put together my own supplementary reading list to complement the selections from Met. 

  • Euripides’ Medea
  • Mr Heracles – Simon Armitage
  • The Odyssey – transl. Emily Wilson
  • The Aeneid – transl. Robert Fagles
  • Euripides’ Ajax
  • Lavinia – Ursula LeGuin

I’m really liking the look of that mix of original text and reception. I’ve got Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid  and Simon Armitage’s The Odyssey as well, so I may throw them into the mix too, if I have time.

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The painting is Apollo and Daphne, by Antonio del Pollaiolo. In one of many rape or attempted rape scenes in Met., Apollo chases the nymph, Daphne. She prays for help to escape him and is turned into a laurel tree. Apollo promptly declares that the laurel will be his symbol, because even though the woman is turning herself into a tree to avoid him, he still can’t bloody well take no for an answer. Plus ca change, and all that.

The second driver is that I’m in that state of mind where it’s an effort to get myself to work every single day. I’m very actively job hunting and let’s hope something comes up soon. Anyway, audiobooks to the rescue: instead of getting in the car to drive to work, I get in to listen to the next instalment of my audiobook. It’s a small mental trick, but it works. I don’t have the same anxiety when I’m working from home – don’t know why it’s all so much more focused around the physical location when it’s the job itself that is the problem, but hey. More crumbs of comfort.

I’ve been chain listening to Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series. Ruth is a forensic archaeologist at the University of North Norfolk, and DCI Harry Nelson is the local copper. Ruth helps him out on cases sometimes, and they also had a very brief affair that resulted in Ruth having a daughter, Kate. While Nelson will never leave his wife, Michelle, he loves Kate and has very mixed feelings for Ruth. How all three of the adults navigate this scenario makes an interesting backstory to the murders or mysteries of the individual volumes.

I’d read a few of them but it’s one of those series where the next book is never on the shelf in a bookstore when I go in. (Unlike Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, when the next book is nearly always there. Spooky.) The individual books just about last me a week on audio, but I’ve now spent so many hours listening that I’m addicted. Plus, I find myself getting a bit confused as to whether Ruth and Nelson are real, and thinking back on things they’ve said and done before remembering that in fact, I don’t know them.

I’m also starting to really want to visit Norfolk again. Ruth’s cottage is set on the edge of the salt marshes, which sounds like a wonderful, liminal landscape. I can’t shake the longing for a blustery, sea-salty walk amid lots of sea and sky. What I’m really craving is mental space, of course, but I always think that a geographical open space will clear my head as well. Sometimes it does.

Vacation by the numbers

I was off on a sneaky, autumn break to the Lake District. I toyed with the idea of not taking even my phone, but there’s always the possibility of emergency need. As it turned out, the cottage had slowfi and no phone reception anyway, so it sort of worked out.

Books read: 5. On day one of the holiday, I didn’t get dressed until mid-afternoon and I didn’t go out at all. I just read, drank tea and ate chocolate biscuits, which had been the vision in my head about what I most wanted to do on holiday. It’s pretty hard to disappoint that level of expectations, especially when your starting novel is The Trespassers, by Tana French. The rest was a mix of books I’d bought as holiday planning, and a couple I picked up locally: The Outrun, Amy Liptrott; The Coffin Trail, Martin Edwards; The Grown up, Gillian Flynn; The Girl with all the Gifts, M.R.Carey.

Walks: 2. That’s a bit rubbish, actually, isn’t it? We did do lots of strolling around, but in terms of proper walks, only two. And they were pretty easy ones. Oh well. What that means is, I’ve got a great excuse to get back up there and do some real walking.

Horse rides: 1. I booked this a couple of weeks before we went, and I screwed up the date. So we turned up on time on Tuesday, and no one was at the stables. Because they’d been there on Monday. We rescheduled for Wednesday, which turned out to be the first rain-free day and so a much better choice for a gentle stroll on to the fells. One day, I’ll be able to keep both feet in the stirrups when it comes to the trotting part. This time round we were four strides in and I was clinging to my horse’s neck to stay on, while simultaneously trying to get her to stop and get my foot back in the stirrup. I know it’s not that difficult, but then again, I only ride for an hour every 12-18 months so…

Days of rain: 11/2. It’s probably obligatory to spend one day driving round but not really getting out of the car for fear you’ll be swept away. The rain cleared enough for us to grab lunch in Keswick and for a brief stop at Castlerigg stone circle. This might also have been Grasmere gingerbread day.

Vegetarian sausage sandwiches eaten: 3. One of them with a pint of tea, which is about my ideal of what lunch should be on a chilly day. You would assume that, given how easy an offering it is, the vegetarian sausage sandwich would be pretty common. You would be wrong. The vegetarian and gluten free options up in the Lakes were much, much better than I’m used to. I’m assuming this has something to do with the demand amongst the walking demographic (I bet there’s an overlap between ‘people who can afford Mammut’ and ‘people who eat quinoa on a regular basis’) but whatever the reason, when a pasty shop in Keswick can magic up a gluten free pasty, it makes you wonder what’s wrong with the rest of the country.

Lakes visited:  5. Windermere, Ullswater, Derwentwater, Buttermere, Coniston. Of which I give the palm to Buttermere, because there was not a view of it that wasn’t stunning. Poor old Coniston, which could more than hold its own in any other company, was frankly disappointing afterwards. It’s been more than 20 years since I was last in the Lake District, and I had no recollection at all of how beautiful it is. Also, how close it is, really – a couple of hundred miles makes it long weekend territory. I shall plan ahead for next year.

Boat rides: 1. Last day, Windermere, sun just setting and a chill settling. An appropriate elegy for the end of a holiday.

So there you have it. I’m still fending off the tidal wave of normalcy until work tomorrow. My ideal return would have been a dead of night swoop on the house, scooping up cats, laptop and a few more items of clothing before speeding back to the motorway and the glorious north. I’m thinking new life in a cafe-cum-bookshop by one of the smaller lakes…

To road trip, or not to road trip?

On the face of it, a road trip is always a good idea, but the one I had in mind is that roughly 3,000 miles from LA to CT, mostly via Route 66 but turning off after Oklahoma to go through Tennessee, so I could go to Nashville. Then up through the Virginias and skirting the East Coast. I really don’t want to have to drive through a lot of Pennsylvania again.

Of course, driving Route 66 is a damn good idea. But, in around 10 days on my own? I was a little concerned that I’d get bored, fed up of driving and a bit crazier crazy. On the other hand, there’s the glory of the open road, different time zones, a few states I haven’t ticked off and no one (most likely including me) knowing exactly where I am.

I got a quote from a travel company for flights and car hire and the first night’s accommodation in Hollywood. After that, the plan was not to book anywhere to stay, but to allow myself the flexibility of making it up as I went along. That way, I could burn serious miles one day, and take it easy the next.

But – would it be an adventure, or just too damn much driving? What would I do in the evenings? I’m pretty comfortable walking into a bar or a restaurant on my own but maybe not for so many successive nights. And while the romantic vision in my head saw me motoring into the distance in some shiny, chrome wheeled classic convertible, the reality was going to be a two door Chevy Whothethehellcares with a hefty one way drop off fee at the other end.

I loved the road trips I did with my ex-husband, and I think I was trying to set up a journey that would recapture some of that feeling. But you can’t cross the same river twice, and I realized that this time round, the experience might be hollow at the centre. For a couple of weeks, I hovered around making the call to book the flights. Then I let it go.

Music Monday

So, today entailed a little day trip to Manchester. My top tip is don’t attempt to get there by train from Bicester while there’s a replacement bus service between Banbury and Leamington Spa. It’s been a long day of trains and buses and trains and buses.

I loved Manchester when I studied there, just as much as I desperately hated the town I was from. As soon as I was out of halls of residence and no longer compulsorily evicted at the end of each term, I began to stay in the city as much as I could. I did a token few days at home over holidays, and then fled back to its comforting anonymity. When my degree course finished, the one thing I knew was that I wasn’t moving home. I’d spent enough time in my parents’ house feeling trapped and confined, as though my arms and legs would burst through doors and windows like Alice in Wonderland. So I stayed in Manchester about another year, until I got a job in London.

Despite the fact that I haven’t been there for at least 10 years, Manchester still seemed familiar. I started walking and the geography unrolled in front of me: Piccadilly, the Arndale, Spring Gardens, St Anne’s Square, all in their turn, and I realized for the first time that Manchester is one of my dreamscapes. I didn’t have time to get far from Piccadilly, and I don’t think I could face the old haunts of Fallowfield and Withington anyway. Some memories are best left undisturbed, especially when they involve Newcastle Brown Ale. But I’d like to go back again, for a weekend, and explore and rediscover. It’s way beyond time to be trying to recapture the past. Even a few years ago, I might have made that attempt, but these days I don’t need nostalgia. It’s a different kind of pleasure to revisit a formative location in a new way, and to interact with it as I am now rather than searching for glimpses of who I was then.

Still, in honour of the glorious (and inglorious) days of 1990-1993:


Another year older and what do you get?

This year, half a share in a chess set, a gold bee necklace (I’d just re-read Angelmaker but the bee is not mechanical), the usual tenner from the APs and a weekend away camping. Handily, the latest boyfriend’s birthday is on the same day, so he has the other half-share in the chess set. I am comprehensively rubbish at chess, so it’s an aspirational present, in that I aspire to something more than ‘Remind me how the cute little horse moves again?’

We set off to go camping in the sort of weather that makes sensible people shudder, draw the curtains and pop the kettle on. Between Google directions and sheer luck, we navigated the wilds of Norfolk and found the farm where the pitch was booked. There is some slight irony in paying to stay in a field on a horse farm for a couple of days, when the rest of the time I pay to live in a converted barn on a horse farm, with a view of a field. (This has been quite some problem in booking cottages for weekends away. I’m usually looking for somewhere quiet and rural, and I favour old places with wood-burning stoves. My sister pointed out that I should just stay at home and save £350, and she’s right.)

The tent was pitched by torchlight in the teeth of a gale, while the rain poured down in a most un-birthdaylike way. I sat helpfully in the car, reading out the instructions, until it was my turn to contribute by dishing up the magnificent birthday supper. So I opened the thermos of tea and doled out the bread and cheese.

While I cannot sleep through the slightest urban disturbance, rain drumming on whatever-the-modern-equivalent-of-canvas-is, horses whinnying, cockerels crowing and wind rustling the tent don’t bother me at all. One night spent sleeping on hard ground is also great for straightening my back, and thus is it proven that I’m not a real princess. Sigh.

The camp site was within decent walking distance of Wells-next-the-Sea, so that was Saturday’s plan. Fortified with tea, leftover bread and cheese and ginger biscuits (because you’re allowed scratch meals when camping, that’s part of the fun) we set off in search of beach huts, amusement arcades and chips.

Beach huts

Behold the beach huts! If you ask me, Well-next-the-Sea has more than its fair share, and most unreasonably, none of them are mine. Also, what you need with that amount of sand to play with, is a great, lolloping dog. Probably of the Irish wolfhound variety. Meanwhile, back in the real world, it was time for the trip to turn seedy.

For the most part, gambling bores the arse off me but I do like the two-penny waterfalls that are still to be found in seaside amusements. So I recklessly threw away a whole pound, and all the incidental winnings on the off-chance of winning a horrible plastic keyring. I came away about £1.40 down, a wiser woman, and let us hope that I have learned my lesson that gambling doesn’t pay.

(That was the seedy part, in case you couldn’t tell.)

The calculations as to appropriate chip-eating time were complex: there was a 5 mile walk back to the camp site and we had no intention of dragging ourselves further than the village pub once we got there. That meant chips were probably dinner but we also had to be back before it got dark. Then, as everyone knows, chips are best eaten while walking along a sea-front, but in accurately named Wells-next-the-Sea, the sea itself is too far from the chippy. Like, totally ZOMG, how were all these factors to be reconciled? After exploring every shop in Wells, buying a paper so that the big crossword could provide the evening’s entertainment and identifying the marina as the next best thing to an actual sea front, it was finally time. They were the best chips I’d had in ages, too.