Sunday, 26 April 2009

Baker Bull

I was thinking today about abandoning journalism altogether and embarking on a completely new career. So I looked at which of my multitude of skills I could turn into a lucrative business.

1) Cleaning. House-proud is a very accurate way to describe me. Not quite to the point of my ever so slightly neurotic mother, but I’ll get there one day there’s no point denying it, so I could set up a cleaning business.

2) Plucking eyebrows. I was renowned for my interminable tweezer action at university.

3) Dog walking. In Argentina they have people called paseo perros, who walk about 25 dogs at once – profitable and time efficient. There is a definite market for that in East Dulwich.

4) Baking. Now this is unquestionably an asset I pride myself on. Indeed, last Christmas my mince pies were something of an event among my friends – of course I didn't mention the pastry was bought frozen.

Yes…I can see myself as a purveyor of decadent fairy cakes and sticky pastry treats. Bull’s Bakery – doesn’t that have some kind of lip-smacking ring to it?

I let my mind wander into the realms of banana cakes and vanilla slices. Have I had any serious baking disasters?

Nope, nothing of note. Apart from that time when the landlord came to do a few maintenance jobs on the house. Being the domestic goddess that I am, I resolved to greet him with the smell of freshly baked orange and almond biscuits – you know, just to prove we were tenants worthy of a rent freeze. All was going to plan until I attempted to blend whole blanched almonds, butter, sugar and orange peel in a very shallow bowl using my hand-held food mixer. Cue massive almond explosion and peel lodged in eyelid. The smoothie maker didn’t prove a much better blending option. I had to add so much milk to un-clog the mixture from the blades that my dough was pretty much liquefied. But apart from that, oh and the time I added black peppercorns instead of raisins to my fruit scones, I am an unadulterated baking success story!

Best go and buy some supplies: Cake packet mix, ready-to-roll icing, Delia’s How to cheat at cooking…

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

24 Hour Party: Peckham

In the days of regular monthly payslips, I’d only ever been to Peckham on sporadic trips to the cinema. I’d clocked the Asian supermarkets, the mobile phone kiosks and the heady smell of fish, sure, but I’d never really thought about what kind of a neighbourhood Peckham really is. I mean, what could Rye Lane offer me that I couldn’t get on Lordship Lane in a much more refined form?

I’ll tell you. A perpetual street party, that’s what.

As luck would have it, I now have another reason (aside from seeing the latest blockbuster) to pay Peckham a visit – it is the home of my local JCP (Job Centre Plus). But on my several sojourns to the high street in recent weeks, I have been greeted not with the smattering of buggies and pensioners I was expecting – quite the opposite, in fact.

Picture the scene: A carnival atmosphere cloaks the streets, music blares from Carribean cafés and people of all ages team the narrow pavements, spilling onto the roads seemingly unconcerned by the red, bendy floats snaking their way through the crowds. And here’s the best bit. The core of the entire party is taking place in none other that Argos. What’s behind the unassuming blue and red exterior is akin to Newcastle’s Big Market on a Saturday night. The collection point is four-men deep with punters wrestling for their warehouse-fresh purchases and the queue for browsing through the revered laminated catalogues stretches round the block.

This is what's going on ever single day in Peckham. Go see for yourselves if you don't believe me.

Peckham’s got it just right in my opinion. Who needs work or school when there’s this much free fun to be had on your doorstep?

Friday, 17 April 2009

Freeganism is looking tempting

One major advantage of having so much free time these days, is that you can realise many of the things that have been penned on your virtual To Do List for the past three years but never actioned. For me, that included growing my own. Oh yes, I wanted to get back to the good life, dirty those fingernails and be able to sit, weeks later, with a luscious salad in my lap in the smug knowledge that yours truly cultivated the contents. All the more poignant was my mission thanks to the now lack of disposable cash to flitter away on culinary treats.

So to work. Being the type of girl who’s always thinking ahead - either that or in my last week at work I was so fraught with the impending prospect of unemployment that I took home enough freebies to fill a small caravan - I’d already acquired a few vital packets of seeds that were knocking around the ex office. Such are the advantages of working for a consumer lifestyle magazine. I had also, wisely, put aside a couple of those plastic trays mushrooms come in, knowing that they would come in handy one day for this very purpose.

Method: A dollop of fresh compost, scatter in seeds, bit more compost, quick water and place on sunny kitchen windowsill. Took about ten minutes. Now what?

What’s that? I have to wait?! Urgh.

Three days later….

Oooo some tiny green shoots - how exciting! Both my lettuce and cress were germinating, hurrah! Am kitchen gardener of the decade!

I must admit that after this minor triumph, I forgot about my seedlings somewhat and packed myself off for a long weekend break with the family. Lord knows I needed a rest after being on Seed Watch for 72 hours.

I returned, relaxed and well watered, only to find that in my absence my little baby seedlings were not, and looked like they’d had some kind of all-weekend rave. My cress was almost three inches long, a tad yellow and drooping like old men, and in the lettuce tray an all out war was on the verge of breaking out. Call me naïve, but I didn’t realise when I planted the things that one seed equals one lettuce. I’d planted the whole sachet in a 10cm by 5cm plot and now my 40 mini Little Gems were clambering over one another, jostling for space like school children eager to jump on the bus home.

In a week all I had to show for my efforts was some dried up cress and a lettuce war. Freeganism has suddenly become a much more appealing option.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Signing on for shame?

“Do you have any qualifications, miss?”
“Tell me them please.”
“Sure. Eleven GCSEs, three A-levels, a 2:1 honours degree in French and Spanish and a post-graduate diploma in journalism.”
The reaction that followed my response – a spontaneous chuckle and raised eyebrows – was at once unsurprising and galling.
“There isn’t an option for post-graduate diplomas on the system,” replied the worker.

At 27, signing on had never been part of the master career plan. And yet, thanks to a bunch of ill-made risks taken by so-called financial leaders of the world, the rising cost of paper and a magazine company in subsequent jeopardy, for me the benefit office has recently become a reluctant reality.

The practical side of my brain persistently tells me that I ought not to be ashamed of signing on. I’ve paid my taxes and national insurance contributions consistently for four years, and am therefore entitled to a finite amount of state benefit. Yet walking through the doors of the job centre, sitting on the scratchy blue sofa and waiting for my name to be called, the assertive voice of reason dissolves into nothing. What settled on me instead like a determined migraine was shame, a sense of failure and guilt-ridden panic.

Shame because, rightly or wrongly, this country has a certain perception of someone who lives on benefits. The mere phrase ‘signing on’ denotes images of dole queues and layabouts, and my inner middle class snob was searing to not be associated with it.

Failure because losing my job – the job I’d recently beat over 100 hopefuls to and had dedicated my career to landing – was like Mr Monopoly plucking me from the board and putting me right back to the start, without passing go or collecting £200, needless to say.

And guilty panic because what I was going through at that very moment was being played out the length and breadth of the country. Every day, the rising numbers of unemployed face no other option but to claim benefits. Are we the ones draining government resources and subsequently stalling the recovery of the economy?

Without wanting to sound overtly vulgar, and probably failing, it is a likely fact that eight months ago, I would have been one of the most qualified people sitting on the claimant side of the cluttered job centre desks. But last week I doubt I was alone.

I strongly believe that I shouldn’t be ashamed of signing on, because the system exists precisely to help those in my position and we as a nation are fortunate to have it. And if, like me, the whole experience of signing on still terrifies you - so much so that you become hell bent on getting work - then maybe the system is working!