2013: Writer’s blog

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Behold, a year in “selfies”, although taken with my laptop not my phone, and holding a variety of mugs in a variety of places, including my old bedroom at my Mum and Dad’s house, a dressing room at the Roundhouse, a dressing room in a car park in Glasgow and a hotel lounge in Cheltenham. Having this week parodied my gender once again and organised 2013 into a series of lists, how about a more considered review of the year? This time last December, I will have been glancing over my shoulder and bemoaning the loss of Word magazine. A year and half on from its demise, I can state that nothing has replaced it. What I can’t have known last Christmas is that I would stop being asked to deputise on 6 Music in 2013 and have thus spoken nary a word on the radio all year, apart from a couple of appearances on Front Row (for which I remain grateful). Maybe this is for the greater good. If I didn’t read out my weekly TV review in a little rectangle on the Guardian website, I would be a writer and a writer only. There’s something appealing to me about that, after more than 25 years of dabbling and failing to commit. Signing with Avalon in March 2012 helped to focus me on what I really want to do with my life: write scripts. (And edit other people’s.)

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I think I’m right in saying that a year ago I had two comedy pilot scripts in development. One of those, Total Class for Channel 4, has since fallen by the wayside (I may as well name it now it’s dead). The other, for the BBC, has enjoyed a belated surge of energy with a top-level cast assembled around it with a view to a read-through for the broadcaster in the New Year. Fingers crossed for that. (The surviving script was commissioned at the same time as Total Class, but I’ve been working really hard on rewriting it from scratch.) In addition, I now have another sitcom in development, of which more presently, but which began life in February over a desk in the offices of production company The Comedy Unit in Glasgow when I was up to cameo in series one of Badults (which they produce and which I script edit). Below is a snapshot of Tom, Ben and Matthew aka Pappy’s, exec Gavin, me and producer Izzy at an early London session for series two of Badults, which is pretty much ready to shoot in early 2014. A very happy association for me. (Although I did the work in 2012, the first episode of Greg Davies’ Man Down for C4 also afforded me a script editor’s credit, which I was proud of when it went out. I also thought of the title.)

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It’s been fantastic working on Badults (and appearing as “Andrew Collins” in series one, episode six) as it fulfills my desire to hang around with talented comedians – something I’ve always done – while essentially restricted to the backroom, which is where I feel most comfortable at my age. Anyway, fingers also crossed for what I’m calling “the Scottish sitcom”. The script now rests in the inbox of its commissioning editor – again, after rewrites; again, with a big name actor attached – and we await the thumb up or thumb down. It was ever thus, and will forever be. One can just about subsist “in development” but it’s a commission one dreams of.

To lose Word and 6 Music in less than two years has had quite an impact on my income at a time when money is an issue for all but the privately wealthy. (It was an eye-opener to discover this year that Virgin were more than happy to print an updated edition of my Billy Bragg book but did not have the funds to pay the author to actually write the new chapter.) There can’t be a soul reading this who isn’t affected by the continuing economic woes of austerity Britain. I can say without a doubt that I have never hated a sitting government as much as I hate David Cameron’s. It’s almost bracing.

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When Thatcher died this year, I refrained from actually slipping on my dancing shoes, but it was sobering to remember a) how single minded and driven she was, and b) how fundamentally her free-market zeal changed this country. In Thatcherism’s place (she’d never have privatised the Royal Mail, remember), we have something potentially more terrifying: a bunch of self-serving, privately-educated, out-of-touch hereditary hoorays whose hatred of the poor and the weak and the old outstrips Thatcher’s. I don’t remember an issue that has made me so regularly angry as the dismantling of the welfare state, which continues apace and we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We are at the mercy of a political class with no empathy and barely any experience of ordinary life as it is lived by millions.

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I do not wish to live in a country where food banks have to exist. Poisonous Tories like Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey seem not just happy with the situation, they clearly think it’s the poor’s fault for having to swallow their pride and use food banks. There but for the grace of God, or circumstance, go any of us.

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The papers were full of ever more shocking headlines about celebrities and their alleged sexual misconduct (or in the case of Stuart Hall, no longer just alleged, as he pleaded guilty in April to the indecent assault of 13 girls aged between 9 and 17 years old, between 1967 and 1986). As with the Catholic priests before them, it seems all to have been about male power with these DJs, presenters and musicians. The crimes of Ian Watkins of Lostprophets struck a new low in November. If any good has come of all this, it’s the possibility that other victims will no longer remain silent.

Chris-Huhne

More perversion, but of the course of justice. As a Guardian reader not a contributor, I hereby protest the newspaper’s willing part in the rehabilitation of the sleazy liar Chris Huhne, whose columns it regularly and prominently prints, crediting him as a former cabinet minister and not as a convicted criminal.

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I didn’t get out as much as I might have liked this year. When one is watching the pennies, staying in and watching all that amazing telly that’s on seems a far wiser option. Holidays are for another epoch. However, the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A was a treat. So was a foreshortened trip to the Cheltenham Literature Festival, despite the rain. David Morrissey and Esther Freud’s evening for the charity Reprieve was the poshest thing I attended all year. The Edinburgh TV Festival was as reliable as ever: enjoyed seeing Kevin Spacey and Vince Gilligan live, and hosting Q&As with the Wrong Mans gang, Greg Davies and John Bishop, as well as catching Sarah Millican and Richard Herring’s latest shows. And to repeat the Wrong Mans experience at Bafta in London, this time with James Corden in attendance, was a cherry on a cake (splendid to meet Nick Moran, too). Professionally, it was a pleasure to interview Steve Coogan, Irvine Welsh, Judd Apatow and the World’s End triumverate for Radio Times.

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While we’re in the approximate area of my profession, can I retroactively plant a tree to commemorate finally getting Simon Day’s character Colin on the actual telly? Common Ground was Baby Cow’s compendium for comic characters and Simon and I were chuffed to see Colin come to life, finally, even for ten minutes on Sky Atlantic, having previously written a 90-minute film about him for C4 and had it scrapped by an incoming exec back in 2006. (I wonder where I developed this thick skin?) I even had a cameo as a man walking past a bench, pictured above.

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As a writer I’ve been too busy for most of this year to blog as regularly as I used to. (I never even reviewed the Morrissey book or the end of Breaking Bad or Gravity.) But starting a new blog, Circles Of Life: The 143, was a tonic – and a healthy corrective to any ideas above my station I might have harboured: I may be “followed” by thousands on Twitter, but a mere hundred or so are interested enough to read my essays on the 143 best songs of all time. It really does feel like an exclusive little music-appreciation society, and I intend to plough on in 2014. I welcome your patronage.

I hate to sum a year up by saying it presented something of a holding pattern, but it did. Lots of groundwork was laid for potential growth in 2014. I’m grateful that circumstance has helped focus my ambition. And I’m grateful not to have had to use a food bank, or have my benefits slashed. All work is precarious, whether you’re in employment or self-employed. Telly Addict could go at any moment. Radio Times could do some sums and discover that it doesn’t need a Film Editor. The Scottish sitcom could be rejected, with compliments. But you must have faith.

They may not be in it at all, but we really are in it together.

And I was very pleased with my home baking, including the controversial grape muffins. Let us eat cake.

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Currant affairs

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Unlike David Loftus, who was in the year above me at Chelsea School of Art in the mid-80s and is now Jamie Oliver’s go-to guy, I am no food photographer. But I’m quite proud of the above snap of this weekend’s experimental Lemon and Grape Muffins. I’d love to say I “pimped” the recipe in Linda Collister’s Great British Bake Off: Learn To Bake book (with foreword by Mary Berry), but all I did was replace 200g of blueberries with 200g of grapes. This seems to have been a controversial move within the home baking community. I threw out a call for advice via Twitter, and @-ed in @BritishBakeOff for luck, asking if I could use grapes for blueberries in muffins. (I’ve only ever made muffins once before, without a dedicated muffin tray, and they came out like muffiny pancakes: lovely, but not muffins. I was keen to use my new tray.)

A few decided to greet my sincere query with withering responses along the lines of, “This is what bakers call ‘raisin muffins'”, which were atypically unhelpful and snidey, two qualities I do not associate with Twitter’s bake-iverse. Most people kind of said, “Hell, why not?”; one supplied a link to a British Heart Foundation recipe in which grapes were the number one choice; others cautioned against the grapes sinking the muffin (I had always planned to cut the grapes up); and Ali, current contestant on The Great British Bake Off, wished me well and advised me to peel the grapes. (Currant contestant, more like.)

Home bakers are, on the whole, nice. This is my nuanced conclusion. (On the wholemeal, more like.)

I peeled the grapes. It was a fiddly, but worth it. I then quartered them and threw them in at the point where the blueberries would be thrown in. I enjoy baking muffins and cakes, I find: the arm-breaking creaming of the butter and sugar (and lemon rind), and the follow-up workout with the beaten egg, adding a gloopy spoonful at a time. The addition of lemon juice to the natural yoghurt. The ethereal dust of sieved flour and bicarb. I don’t use the Magimix when baking. I don’t know if this is martyrdom, but I like to feel like I have added the air myself, with my bare hands. It’s not a macho thing. And there is an element of laziness: can’t be bothered to clean the dishwasher-unsafe mixer parts.

LemonGrapeMuffinstraySep8It’s a thrill when you finally blob the mix into the paper cases using a succession of spoons. It’s even more of a thrill when you “discover” that you have just enough “spare” on the spatula for a good lick: the ultimate perk of the home baker. Recognise: these are only my second batch of muffins ever. Allow: I’m quite proud of them. Ali was right; peeling the grapes was worth the effort (I envisaged the horror of curly tomato skin in homemade soup). What you get is little, jelly-like bombs of grape flavour, not too sweet, not too sour, perfectly encased in the muffin mix. Unlike blueberries, there’s no attractive “bleeding” of purple, but it’s still a worthwhile experiment. Jamie’s all about pricing up portions on his disingenuous Money Saving Meals, and I started home baking in order to fend off any evil temptation to spend money on pre-made carbohydrate parcels in the Outside World. Shop-bought muffins, which are mostly air – industrially pumped factory air – cost a fortune. Mine – and I got 15 out of a recipe promising a dozen – cost pence.

I don’t have a team of “girls and boys” like Jamie does, to calculate exactly how many pence, but I do have a freezer drawer – if not the massive chest freezer Jamie assumes to be in every dream home – and I’ve already entombed 12 of my muffins in there, to be removed at a fixed rate of one a day for the next 12 days. That’s how to make these moreish morsels go further. And to save money. I laugh in the face of the expensive cakes and pastries on sale through the Peyton & Byrne concession at the British Library.

Yes, I Tweeted the above pics of my still-warm wares on Sunday. I can’t help it. It feels so right. And it never feels like showing off, merely sharing. Self-raising is the great leveller. And it’s sweet when bakers on the other end of social media type, “Save me one,” or “Send me one.” It’s enough that the request is made. No cake need actually change hands; we never need to meet, we Twitter-connected home cooks. It’s enough to know that others are creaming, beating and pricking with a cocktail stick for victory.

While I’m here, I feel moved to publish this spring and summer’s other baking highlights: the lemon drizzle cake of June 2; the trayless “pancake” muffins of July 20 (don’t inspect them for too long; they tasted super); and the flapjacks of 4 May.

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It’s amazing what some flour, butter, eggs and sugar can do, along with the willpower to self-ration, as if there’s a war on (which there always is, somewhere). By the way, I have eaten one muffin today, and I ate one muffin yesterday. My evil plan to beat George Osborne is working. He’ll never take away our freedom to save money and – get set – bake!

Writer’s blog: Week 14, Good Friday

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I am, unusually for a working day, sitting in my kitchen. It is Good Friday. The British Library is closed, which is fair enough, as Good Friday is a bank holiday. I have too much to do to contemplate a day off, but I’m not angling for sympathy. To everyone who does get the day off, on full pay, I wish you a most excellent day (and likewise on Monday, which is Easter Monday, when I will be writing and filming Telly Addict at the Guardian just like it was a normal Monday). At least at home, I can drink my own coffee, and not pay through the nose for it.

Actually, of late, and to beat the system, I have been taking a flask out with me, charged with homemade coffee, which I then decant into a paper Peyton & Byrne cup in the Library canteen. There are polite notices up stating that only food and drink purchased on the premises can be consumed there, but I don’t believe this has ever been aggressively policed – at least, Library users are exactly the type to bring in their own sandwiches. Tupperware tubs are prominent, and, frankly, as long as most diners pay through the nose for Peyton & Byrne’s expensive cakes, I feel sure that capitalism ticks over. I don’t flaunt my not-bought-on-the-premises food and hot drink, and if I’m meeting someone, I always buy Peyton & Byrne’s coffee, and if the person I’m meeting is paying, I always have an overpriced cake too!

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Talking of food and drink, I’m hooked back into Masterchef. I usually favour the Celebrity version for reasons shallow, but I reviewed the first episode of the new series of the Civilian one for the Guardian and haven’t been able to tear myself away. It’s formulaic, but some of the most comforting telly is, and Gregg and John move ever further into self-parody, but, again, it isn’t broke, so why fix it? (The irony here is that Masterchef has repeatedly tried to fix itself when unbroken, but aside from the impossible new “palate test”, this series is relatively untinkered.)

I was given the basic Great British Bake Off Learn To Bake book for my birthday earlier in the month, and I’m also watching Paul Hollywood’s Beard on BBC2 and finding him a stout and reliable tutor, so cooking is back on the agenda. I made this marbled chocolate banana bread at the weekend, which was supposed to be baked in individual tiny cake cases but I chose to do it in a single loaf tin. The result is not “marbling” in the elegant Baroque sense. But it tastes bloody nice. (Someone on Twitter asked if it was gluten-free. I’m afraid not. I have tried baking with rice flour, and various ancient grains, none of which truly did the job. The gluten is the protein that binds dough, and without it, you’re on the back foot. I avoid wheat for reasons of waistline expansion and maintenance of general energy levels, but I am not allergic to it, so when it comes to cake, it’s gluten or the highway.)

BananabreadmarbledMar24I’d read that you can freeze individual slices of cake, but never tried it before, so – after a call-out for tips and advice on Twitter – I wrapped them in tin foil and put them in a sealable bag. Yesterday I took one out, and by the time I was ready to eat it, it was as good as new. (Typically of Twitter, someone re-Tweeted my call for advice to food writer and TV cook Nigel Slater himself, who said, “It should work, but I’m no expert.” I was happy to report back to him that it did work, which makes me an expert.) When you’re baking to save money on shop-bought cake and biscuits, you have to learn how to ration. There’s a war on.

I should, by rights, have been in Glasgow last night, attending the studio recording of the final episode of “the Pappy’s sitcom” for BBC3, which as you know I script-edited. (I think it’s still called Secret Dude Society, but that may not be fixed.) However, it was being filmed in BBC studios, and the wrap party was also being held on BBC premises, so I didn’t travel up for what would have been, for me, a massive jolly, as the NUJ and Bectu were on strike from midday, over redundancies and “bullying”, and it would, for me, have been inappropriate. (It’s an entirely personal matter, and I make no judgement on anyone else.)

Anyway, I got a lot more work done yesterday and this morning as a result. As usual with these writer’s blogs, I cannot give too much away, but I have three comedies in development, currently, all at varying stages. Of the two pilots script that I’ve written, one, with C4, is written and delivered, and has hit a stalemate, but it’s not over yet. The other, for the BBC, was delivered last year and sent back for a complete overhaul – it’s the one that gave me writer’s block – and I have finished the second draft, which I wrote again from scratch, a blank screen. It’s almost ready to go to the broadcaster. The third comedy has only just been green-lit for development, and I’m carefully constructing a story breakdown with a production company before launching into the script. In comedy terms, I have three plates spinning. It’s all about keeping them from crashing to the floor.

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I’m printing this picture in memory of Richard Griffiths, who died yesterday but whose passing was announced today. I feel certain it was taken at the first Empire Awards, which were in 1996, although I can find no record of the event to confirm it. I was definitely at the first Empire Awards, and the second, as a chaperone, and I had a terrific time at both, with various approachable film people, so who knows? I seem to recall a whole load of people connected with Withnail, so was there a special award for that film, or for Bruce Robinson? Don’t look on Wikipedia, as it’s not there. If anyone can help, I’d be grateful. I certainly jumped at the chance to have my meeting with Richard Griffiths captured on camera, and it’s a treasured Polaroid in my archive. Someone on Twitter pointed out that he can only have been 48 at the time, as he was merely 65 when he died. I am 48 today. Mortality is a terrible c—, if you’ll pardon the apposite language.

Two further things before I sign off:

Went to the cinema this afternoon – awarding myself half a Bank Holiday, as I’d completed my main writing task of the day by getting up at 6.30am – and after the trailer for A Late Quartet, starring Christopher Walken, I heard an older gentleman in the row behind claim loudly to his wife, “That’s Angelina Jolie’s dad!” (I resisted the urge to turn round and say to her, “It’s not. Don’t listen to him.”)

Now that we’ve seen the David Bowie exhibition, with all of his costumes on display, seeing footage of him on TV has taken a new turn. Catching the end of another repeat of BBC4’s Ziggy Stardust documentary (the one narrated by Jarvis), we found ourselves going, “Ooh, we’ve seen that cape!” and “Ooh, we’ve seen that fishnet vest!” It reminded me of my own dear Nan, who used to love to point out places she and Pap had been on holiday if they ever turned up on television. “Ooh, we’ve been there, Reg!” she would shout, if they showed, say, Minehead.

Happy Easter.

 

Save £££££££££££s!

I had a realisation yesterday, and it may be a sign of the times, but it hit me like a diamond bullet in the forehead all the same: I get much more of a kick out of saving money than I do from spending money. I made the vanilla and almond biscotti that I have very badly photographed above, and, on carving out around 48 biscuits from one baking tray and popping them into Tupperware tubs, I decided to calculate exactly how much they cost to make. (It was fun to cook them, by the way, and took just over an hour.)

In a possibly over-forensic manner, I worked out how much I’d spent on flour, sugar, eggs, butter etc. (this is easy to do if you know the price of the food you buy), and the grand total, discounting the electricity I’d used to bake the biscotti for a total of 40 minutes, was £3.88. Now, I could have reduced this total sharply by not using organic eggs, organic almonds, organic butter and – added ingredient! – about eight squares of Green & Black’s chocolate. (I had to buy the flour round the corner, having spontaneously decided to make the biscotti, and they only had non-organic.) Although I saved on vanilla pods by using a drop of essence, I used flaked almonds instead of whole, as I had some in the cupboard; next time, it would be much cheaper to smash up whole almonds bought in big bags. In other words, I reckon it could be done for closer to £2. Even at my organic price, that’s about 8p a biscuit, but at £2 it would be more like 4p. I sometimes treat myself (those words) to a shop-bought box of biscotti and they cost £2.19 for about 20 biscuits – the rest is packaging – which is almost 11p a biscuit. Over 40 biscuits, that’s a saving of £1.20, which would rocket to £2.80 if you spent less on the ingredients, as I will do next time. If you buy a single biscotti in a high street coffee shop, it’s 99p. You don’t need to do the maths (which is lucky, as I am shit at maths). The maths does itself.

In yesterday’s Observer, the ever-reliable David Mitchell was writing about Michael Gove, chiefly, but had this enlightening thing to say about saving money.

In my life, the money I would otherwise spend on shampoo is very dear to me: I buy the cheapest possible shampoo. When I can steal it from hotels, I do. I use every last squirt from every bottle, eking out days’ more use from each one when most people would have thrown it away. I dote on the thought of that saved money. It may amount to as much as £14 over my lifetime. Meanwhile, the money I waste because I’m perpetually on the wrong mobile phone tariff is sent out into the world neglected and unloved.

Now, Mitchell is a well-recompensed TV personality and broadsheet columnist; he has less need to scrimp and save and worry about money than most. But unless you’re actually in the 1%, we really are all in this recession – or these recessions – together, and if Mitchell instinctively squeezes shampoo bottles, so should we all. And if we’re not squeezing them, we should ask ourselves why not. It may be the vilified “bankers” who got us into this mess – or more rightly, the governments that let them get us into it, or even more rightly, the free market that so dazzled the governments in the first place that they turned two blind eyes to the deregulated sleight-of-greed that was going on in their name – but we were happy to spend, on credit, when the going was good, and it’s up to us, I think, to put the brakes on and adjust to the new world order.

In the past couple of weeks, as you can see, I have made beetroot soup, a banana cake, and a radish and mint soup (which tastes a lot nicer than it looks). My imperative for doing this has been to use up what we’ve got. My fruit and vegetables are delivered, in a box, and that means you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. One week, you might get 700g of beetroots, which is exactly the amount required for Delia’s beetroot soup recipe, which is free online [see: Factsheet at bottom]. Rather than see the beetroots going wrinkly and unloved in a drawer, I used them, and it serves four, which means it serves me, four times, over four days. The banana cake was, like the biscotti, a cunning method of giving myself a sweet treat in my packed lunch which obviates the need for me to buy expensive cakes and biscuits in coffee shops, or the overpriced British Library café.

I used to work in a rented office, but that had to go come the crash of 2008, when all but the most affluent belts were tightened. I have been working in the Library ever since, as it’s free once you have a Reader’s Pass. But in those early days, I used to buy my lunch, and a mid-morning snack, and even sometimes breakfast, in the cafeteria or café. Even though I was cutting back on expenditure by letting the office go, and cancelling my gym membership, and picking up my newspaper rather than having it delivered, it’s amazing how much I found myself spending per day on food. So the packed lunch became my creed. I cook up something meaty and long-lasting on a Sunday, and apportion it out Monday to Friday. I add to that something sweet, and maybe a Tupperware tub of plain yoghurt with dried fruit or stewed apple in it. Lovely! Although, yes, some days I wish I didn’t have quite so much in my bag, I always relish getting it all out for my lunch. (And to sneak out a couple of biscuits, especially homemade ones, in a coffee shop, feels like a moral victory.)

I have, it seems, turned into a 1950s austerity housewife. And that suits me fine. It takes time to make your own food, but as long as you enjoy cooking, as I do, it’s a surefire way of de-leveraging. We are all feeling the pinch to varying degrees, but it feels good not to throw your money away, doesn’t it? Capitalism requires us all to feel constantly dissatisfied, and to want to own more goods, and better goods. I have had my car for 11 years. By now, according to capitalism, I should have replaced it, or, at the very least, started to envy the better, newer cars of those around me. I don’t. I just don’t. (I am lucky enough to live in London, with its excellent public transport links, so I really don’t use the car much. I feel sorry for those who don’t have that luxury and can’t get about without a car.) I remember reading Will Hutton’s excellent The World We’re In a few years ago and being struck by the observation that the middle classes are the engine of free market capitalism, as, according to the rules, they own some stuff, and it’s the people who own some stuff who are in a constant state of anxiety about their stuff not being enough, or good enough, so they thrive to work harder and earn more money, so they can spend it, and thus, they motor the economy. This, one assumes, is why right-wing politicians are keen to convince us that we’re all middle class now. If we are, then we are the suckers.

This is a horrible period to be living through. I am personally not on my knees, but that’s mainly because I’m self-employed and cannot lose all my clients overnight in the same way that someone who is employed can lose their job overnight. Even in the media, budgets are being cut everywhere, and the BBC, one of my main employers, is public sector. And we all know how much love the Tories have for the public sector. It’s hard to imagine that, a few years ago, I had a gym membership. That seems so wasteful now. (Walking, I have discovered, is free.) Surely it’s better to bake your own biscuits than to buy them?

Oh, and my biscuits taste better. They’re not as sweet as the Arden & Amici ones, but the money I’ve saved is sweet enough.

 

Factsheet: the recipes mentioned are here, although I have customised them freely, as I often do, to accommodate what’s in the cupboard and fridge, which is a frugal way of doing it.

The almond and vanilla biscotti came from a Waitrose recipe. I used plain four instead of self-raising, so added bicarb and baking powder. I also added choc chips. The beetroot soup, Polish apparently, is a Delia recipe; again, adapted – I added red chilli for kick, and have tried both bacon for the stock, and the giblets from a chicken. The radish and mint soup was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s, although it’s designed to be eaten cold and I warmed mine up and used yoghurt instead of creme fraiche, and paprika for cayenne pepper (again, through necessity), which may have changed it for the worse. The beautiful banana cake – which lasted me for a week and a half, rationed to one slice a day – is by Dan Lepard, from the Guardian magazine. (I must admit, I was so exited by the outcome, I sent him the photo on Twitter, and he replied and everything.)

Incidentally, my food photography is rubbish because I don’t have a mobile phone with a camera, and instead use the rudimentary and awkward PhotoBooth application on my laptop. I don’t have a posh phone for the same reasons that I don’t belong to a gym or pay 99p for a biscotti in a coffee shop.