Saturday, November 29, 2008

M.O.T, V.A.T., Celebrity

Where has all the time gone?

Well first there was much to-ing and fro-ing as my car went in for service and MOT, to be swapped with M’s van, only to have to return again because of an oil leak. So while at home and carless, I concentrated on the last couple of pages of the VAT return, which is now almost completed and just awaiting a couple of stray invoices and some totalling up. My brother-in-law came for dinner last week, too, and invited us for Christmas, as the children will be elsewhere. He will do all the cooking. He’s a marvel – how could two brothers be so dissimilar?

I was supposed to be meeting friends for a pub lunch on Wednesday, but one of them had a horrible bug – there’s lots going around at the moment – so it was postponed. So I have also during a few boring days, been catching up with washing and ironing.

The highlight of the week was the Goldenford talk at Horsley Library, which was a fantastic occasion – one of the best we’ve done, in my opinion.

The Friends of Horsley Library made us so welcome and there was wine and savoury snacks for ourselves and the guests despite it being a totally free event.

It was an unpleasant chilly night, but that didn’t stop a number of people coming out and the room was absolutely full up, with every chair taken. One member of the audience was a teacher from my daughter’s school, Tormead, in Guildford. She remembered that I had come to the school to see their archives, as part of my research for Tainted Tree, for she was at that time the archivist. She was pleased to hear that I had included in the acknowledgements my thanks to the school for their help.

The three of us - Jay Margrave, Irene and I – talked about our books and how our personal lives had influenced our writing. Once we had finished, there was a stampede to the table where the books were on display and a member of the library staff dealt with all the selling and taking of money on our behalf – while we signed copies and generally felt like celebrities. I can’t speak highly enough of their efforts. They had managed to raise the profile of the library and even stop it being closed a few years ago by holding such events and generally raising its profile. At their next evening, they are hosting Simon Brett, the well known TV playwright and crime writer, so it was a privilege to be put in the same category as him.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Getting my just desserts

Like Bridget Jones, I have been v. bad. During the past few days, I've put on about 4lbs (2 kilos). And it's all down to indulgence.

On Sunday last, M and I were out with friends. We went to a local pub and I had an enormous roast dinner. I shouldn't have been able to eat anything else, but when I saw there was chocolate mousse on the menu, I couldn't resist. Unlike chocolate icecream, this is truly chocolatey. Back to our friends for a cup of tea, but my friend, in the role of temptress, had got in a chocolate cake for tea. She did it because she knows I like chocolate, so I couldn't have refused it, though I would have quite happily resisted a fruit cake or similar. It was a mistake ever to confess to her my weakness.

That night I had great difficulty in getting off to sleep. A few years ago I developed an increased sensitivity to caffeine, which manifested itself in a condition - sinus tachycardia - which sounds worse than it is, but causes a fast and loud heartbeat and shakiness. I have sorted this to a great extent by generally having decaffeinated tea and no coffee. Certain types of nuts also contribute to the condition. At any rate, on this day, I had two cups of ordinary tea, which, combined with the chocolate, caused me to be wide awake at two in the morning.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I have been at the Guildford Institute restaurant with Irene, selling our Goldenford books. Naturally we had lunch there, and - I can hardly bear to confess it - I had a dessert on both Monday and Wednesday, to follow my vegetarian lunch. On Monday, it was their most delicious effort - a pecan based meringue with cream. (Pecans don't affect me.) On Wednesday, I should really not have had their Black Forest gateau, because half way through I realised it was too much for me. I had only had it because it was there. A very bad reason.

Now I'm home with my car in for service, so I will have a frugal lunch and hope for the best.

In the meantime, apart from our selling activities, it was a useful few days for networking. On Monday, I talked to someone who had heard a Goldenford talk some time back and wanted me to contribute to a workshop on Writing your Life Story, partly because she knew of my autobiographical book, The Fruit of the Tree. On Tuesday, I chatted with the tutor at the Creative Writing Workshop which takes place at the Institute about giving a presentation in one of the other areas where she runs classes. Yesterday, Irene and I called into both the Institute library to remind them to get in our most recent books, and the Guildford Library to suggest giving a talk at some time, as we are doing in East Horsley Library next week. We also suggested a similar talk to the Guildford Institute book club.

Now all I've got to do to make a good impression is to lose the weight I've put on this week.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Don't beg, borrow or steal it - Buy A Copy

A busy few days, including Sainsbury’s, invoices, the dentist, the hairdresser; meeting up with a friend on Wednesday and tea with friends whose daughter with 9 month old baby was staying, on Thursday, prior to a productive Goldenford meeting in the evening.

I might have offended the friend on Thursday. I’m not sure, because she changed the subject pretty quickly. She had told me how much she had enjoyed Tainted Tree, and I couldn’t appreciate her enthusiasm because on the telephone, recently, she told me she was loaning it to her son, and today she told me she was loaning it to her sister in law, together with my other books, A Bottle of Plonk and The Fruit of the Tree. All this adds up to quite a lot of enjoyment. She also said she hoped she would get them back. I suggested she tell her relations to buy their own books and she said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t.’

Later I gave her a little hint – ‘If any of your friends want to buy the book for Christmas, I can easily get them to you – delivery to your door, if you like.’ Then she said that her s-i-l would be receiving Tainted Tree at around Christmas. ‘That wasn’t what I meant,’ I said. As she well understood.

What I can’t understand is how normally intelligent people cannot understand that a book will die if it’s not bought. When you loan to your friends, it probably hastens the demise of said book. And yet many of the people who have been most enthusiastic about Tainted Tree, to the extent of ringing me up specially to tell me, have gone on to boast that they have loaned it to all their friends. People in my village enjoyed The Fruit of the Tree so much, that one copy circulated around virtually the whole village. I exempt my friends overseas from anger – I know how prohibitive the postage costs are, though with the lowered pound, it’s not quite so bad. But if only my local friends would realise, if groceries could be eaten, then magically appear again, to be passed on to a friend, then grocery shops would soon close. It’s the same with books, folks.

Writers like JK Rowling can weather this. We can’t. If we don’t get the sales, we can’t afford to publish more books; we can’t afford to advertise; we can’t afford to pay for selling opportunities. If we can’t get those people who’ve enjoyed the books to support us, who on earth can we rely on?

However, we have some selling opportunities ahead. Irene and I will be at the Guildford Institute at lunch time next week, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with all our publications; later in November - 27th at 7.30 p.m., we will be at Horsley Library to give a presentation. Good news, the Friends of Horsley Library have got the Surrey Library service to take copies. So there's a thought. If all those people who enjoyed our books told their friends to get copies from the library instead of loaning their own copy, maybe we would actually benefit from Public Lending Right.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Family dos and birthday treats

It has been a fairly social few weeks; my brother in law came for dinner; my younger sister-in-law and other half came for dinner the following week. I made a beefy meat pie (with my own pastry), as bro in law doesn't like to see to much greenery in the meal. I made a mistake with the hors d'oevre, though - avocado pate - very green indeed.

Then this weekend, the S&H and famille arrived to join us and the neighbours for a bonfire party. Unlike last year's magnificent effort, though, it was a bit of a damp squib. So wet and miserable. The bonfire took for ever to light and needed aerating from underneath with a garden leaf blower. And we needed so much shelter to watch the fireworks. Our neighbours - each with teenage children and a huge number of friends, put a lot into it. I just did my usual tray of chocolate brownies and a tray of baked potatoes. They all went.

On Sunday, the S&H and OH and children took us out for a meal to celebrate my birthday, earlier in the week. We went to our usual Chinese restaurant. Whereas in the last year we had to join a long queue at the buffet, this time, it was not very full. I'm glad we went there. We have to keep supporting businesses that are going through a hard time.

The family also bought me some books - Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, Dawn French's autobiography and the little ones gave me Teach your Granny to Text which I believe contains the uplifting comments of around 5,000 children. I expect the latter to be rather cuter than the Angela Carter one which I imagine will be rather gleefully black.

My son was roped in to help remove stuff from our loft, as we're going to have it lagged, or rather, the lagging that's there, is to be augmented. So he and M removed about three mattresses and an iron bed frame, and lowered it down and later took them to the local dump. S&H also found a box of school books, and was still sitting on the floor of the porch, peering into the box and muttering, about an hour later. I suggested he file the stuff in his bedroom and work through it slowly. Too traumatic to throw out everything at once - I know; I'm the same.

Today, I've been dealing with invoices and a quotation. They're all ready to go in the post now, which is just as well, as I'm in and out tomorrow - meeting a friend and having my hair trimmed.
I also sent off some stories to a competition last week. Trying weakly to keep the flag flying, but really, I'm not feeling at all creative at the moment. Perhaps my writing days are over.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Our rosy apples are green

I missed a day of peeling apples today - but it was my birthday. Other than that, it's developed into a bit of an obsession. But there are good reasons.

Using apples stops me spending a (probably modest) sum each week on desserts for M, who is a firm believer in ending every meal with something sweet. So in this time of financial crisis, (and everyone's affected some way or another) that can't be bad. Apart from the apples we are eating at the moment, there are about 15 or 20 packs in store in the freezer for future occasions.

Because the apples don't have to travel anywhere, we are helping to reduce the amount of food transported by road.

Because the apple tree is never sprayed, the apples are truly organic and pure (once the mud has been washed off and any insect life removed.

The best reason though is the look of them and the feel of them. They are wonderfully rosy, unlike the Bramley apples in the shops, which are always picked early and are always green. When I start to peel them, they are pure white, and as the knife cuts into them, they are crisp. There is an awareness of their superiority and a certain aesthetic pleasure in dealing with them.

This is an apple crumble recipe which I have used for goodness know how many years, and which is still very popular with my family. I used to stew the apples in a saucepan, but now, of course, I use the microwave, which means that no water need be added. I used to make the crumble mix by hand, but now I use a food processor. So you can choose either way.

2lbs cooking apples approx (1 kilo)
a little sugar, if required

6oz flour
3oz caster sugar
3oz hard margarine (I use Tomar)

Peel and slice apples.
Stew apples, with sugar if required, in a little water until tender, or cook in a 2 pint pyrex dish, covered with clingwrap or paper, in the microwave on full power for 3 - 4 minutes or until tender.

Place or leave in the pyrex dish.

Make crumble as follows: Rub the fat and flour together until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. (Use the tips of your fingers and keep your nails short for this job). Alternatively,
mix in the food processor on full power for a few minutes.

Stir in sugar. Using a spoon, shake the mixture on to the top of the cooked apples. Do not press down. The crumble mix needs to be aerated. You can try adding nuts for a different effect and/or cutting the sugar by half, for a healthier option.

Place in a moderate to hot oven, about 180 - 190 C or 350 - 375 F for about 25 - 30 minutes, until golden brown. Serve with ice-cream, cream, yoghurt or whatever you fancy.

If you have any crumble mix left over, store in the fridge in a screw top jar for another time. But don't leave it too long -a week/fortnight should be OK.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Running a small business, then and now

I have been trying to catch up with office work, which had fallen behind. We got our books back from the accountant a few weeks ago, and so there was a fair amount of book-keeping, as the VAT quarter looms. Having nearly caught up with that, M & I sat down and worked our way through several invoices today. They're now in the computer and I'll print them out tomorrow and send them out. We still have some more to do. If I get the work behind me, I may be more inclined to get back to the current novel.

Because of the financial crisis, I have been thinking again about when we started this business. I mentioned recently how M had run a business and how the amount we owed grew like Topsy. Then we repaid everything when he became employed. But he got itchy; he liked being his own boss, and eventually, he said he wanted to go out on his own again.

It was the start of the 1980s. I said that with two children, I didn't want him taking risks and getting us into the same position that we had been in before. He said he wouldn't. He wouldn't take on any employees; it would be just him, so there would not be the huge amount of outgoings that we had had before.

By this time, I had learned that cash flow is all important in business. If you have a vast company, no doubt, you have to have an overdraft. But if you are running a one man band, the ideal thing to do is to manage with your own money. I still remembered how the bank had contacted us and asked us to reduce our overdraft one day without warning.

The way to build up a business is to start by taking on very small jobs. You put the profit to one side and save it up. This is the way we did it. M did a number of modest jobs; he had a few contacts from his previous employment and they called him in. Before the current regulations that require certificates, etc, he could do plumbing, heating and electrical work. In the eighties, which was also a period of recession, people were more inclined to repair things than to have big new installations. For approximately two to three years, M didn't do any major jobs. That meant we did not have to fund the purchase of equipment - always costly. So no overdraft, and no large outlay. Then, he wanted to take on a large job, and by that time, we had the money. It was not a limited company, so we funded the job with the money that we had put by, and I was always the person who decided if we could afford to fund a job. Then, when the payment was eventually made, we were able to take this money out of the business again, together with profit, and so the business grew to a level that it was providing us with a good income and enough money to do what we wanted for our children and ourselves.

M also provided a maintenance contract to our business customers. They paid in advance and he called in whenever they had a problem. This was his idea, and it worked well for us. By calling in regularly, he also got to do extra jobs.

I didn't want to be tied to the house, being a secretary/bookkeeper and answerer of the telephone, but I saw that it would be good for us financially if I did. And so I made the best of it, and eventually used the flexibility of a job in my own home to squeeze in my writing.