Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Alpacas on my mind

We had another adventure, this time to Ely. We weren't long in the town, but I bought a new notebook which is always exciting. On the two journeys we saw a lot of local wildlife. Readers from overseas may wander what kind of birds and animals it is usual to see in this part of the world.

A barn owlWell, we saw rabbits, pheasants, partridges, pigeons, sheep, goats, geese and chickens, all of which are rather ordinary, though always nice to see. On this trip, we also saw a field with about a hundred and fifty swans, perhaps on their way up to the Wash. At one point a field mouse scurried across the road and at another point, a gorgeous white barn owl flew along beside us. We also saw an ostrich and a herd of alpacas.

Really. We really did. Not even in the same place. There was an ostrich in someone's back garden and a herd of alpacas, including some rather small ones, in a field. I thought they were llamas, but when I got home and looked on-line I found that they were, in fact, alpacas. If that's not proof of Climate Change I don't know what is.

This magnificent photo is by Stevie-B, licnesed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. The barn owl we saw was similarly beautiful, but it was in flight and if I had tried to get my camera out I wouldn't have enjoyed watching it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sometimes life is too exciting

I didn't leave the house for the month between Boxing Day and Friday, when we went shopping for wallpaper - an expedition only slightly less exciting than it sounds. We came home with £60 worth of wallpaper having paid only £15 (this was in Focus, if you need any wallpaper just now).

But I am wanting to get out again this week, at the very least to attend the dentist appointment that I missed a few weeks back. The trouble with this kind of rock'n'roll lifestyle is that, what with this kind of social calendar, together with all the drugs and the unrelenting sexual experimentation, one barely has the energy to write.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Goldfish Guide to Painting a Portrait from a Photograph in the Absence of Talent or Experience.

Portrait of the Blogger's Mother by The Goldfish, 2008Now this I am chuffed with. I've never painted a portrait before and this is roughly what my mother looks like.

Of course, I did cheat and I thought I should confess all here in case it might be useful to anyone else. I know there are a few proper artists who read here, but there might be someone who has a similar absence of either talent or experience as me.

First off, I used a photograph. Obviously. I used a digital photograph which I printed off as big as I could, which happened to be A4. I found a painting board at the back of my craft cupboard which was about half way between A4 and A3 and of the same proportions.

Using these proportions, I then drew a grid of approximate squares on both my photo and the board. You don't need to measure along the edge - you'd have to use fractions of milimetres. Instead you use that old trick from school maths where you lay the ruler diagnonally across at a multiple of the number of lines you want to draw. So for example, if I wanted my grid ten across on a board 334mm wide, I would lay the ruler such that one edge of the paper was on 0mm and one was on 400mm, then draw a mark at every 40mm. I'd then repeat this so I've got my two dots I need to draw a straight line. Does that make sense?

I then turned the photo upside down and began to copy the picture across, using the lines as a guide. Copying upside down is a very good idea if ever you're copying an existing picture, because it forces you to draw what you see as opposed to what you know to be there - I imagine this is particularly important with faces, which we instinctively want to be symmetrical and orderly, when of course they're not - especially not in my family.

Anyway, I then splodged all the paint onto the board in a random fashion, returning to it for a few minutes at a time a few times a day for several days. Okay, so that's not fair; I suppose I do have some experience with using paint, but as you may have gathered, I tend to decorate things in a cartoonish manner as opposed to proper painting.

And I have to say, that whilst the painting is a good likeness to my mother, it doesn't compare brilliantly to the photograph. So a further cheat should probably be, destroy the photograph and nobody need be disillusioned.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Echo & Narcissus had communication issuesThe ability to listen to each other is the most important social and intellectual ability we can have, but it isn't always easy. Every time we truly listen to someone, or read carefully what another person has written, we risk having something of our own worldview challenged or permanently altered.

This is why we can't afford to do it all the time; anyone who listened to or read every word of advertising they were exposed to on a daily basis would have time and energy for little else. Much of everyday social interaction requires the endurance of banality, where one must smile and nod from time to time and think over one's plans for a new type of spacecraft as your friend laments her decision to date yet another Pisces.

Meanwhile, we lack role-models. For example, to watch our MPs debate - the people whose considered decisions effect all our lives - is rather like listening to a sober version of Just a Minute; they are often less interested in the substance of what their colleague is saying than whether or not they are going to slip up. Of course, there are many occasions in politics where some detail of a word or phrase is pivotal, but when did you ever see footage of the House of Commons when someone said, "Actually, I see what you mean now." or even "That is a valid point, however..."?

Trouble is that it feels good. Sara wrote an excellent post about this just the other day. Pedantry can be fun, tripping people up and laughing at their foolish ideas. However, I think pedantry should almost always be about laughter and we should only laugh at those who we can't afford to listen to; people with inpenetrable prejudice and hatred. We need to give a little more leeway to those who claim to have similar objectives to our own (peace, tolerance, democracy, a nice family Christmas without any major rows, etc..).

It is very important to recognised shared objectives. We struggle to do this, even within the closest relationships; neither lover wishes to argue, both wish they could be friends again and yet they treat one another like enemies. In other areas of discourse we can get massively distracted by something which seems like a fundamental difference but which makes no odds to the subject at hand. Almost religious conflict involves this error; we all want to live in peace, but how can I trust someone who doesn't worship the Holy Hamster of Birkenhead?*

The Golden Rule of listening is to always assume that the speaker is as intelligent, sensible and sincere as you are and to expect at least something of what they are saying to be true. If you assume that everything a person says is bullshit, that they are bound to be stupid or unreasonable, then there's no point talking to them at all. However, if you take this approach to all those who disagree with you, you'll never learn anything and you're certainly not going to resolve any conflict.

People are never simply wrong; only ideas and arguments can be wrong, usually because of mistakes which we are all capable of making. It is impossible to correct someone when you don't really know where they're going wrong; it's no good repeatedly contradicting them in the hope that they'll figure it out themselves in the meantime. By the same score, if you don't understand another person's mistake, you can't rule out the possibility that you have made the mistake.

But this is also very difficult. Too often, we are tempted to behave as if we are right on principle; I am right because I am an expert, because I am more experienced, because I am a good person, because I am a good parent/ Christian/ feminist etc., so if you disagree, you must be wrong. I'm sure we all do it to some extent, forgetting that the other person has just as much reason to think the same about their own supremacy.

One must learn to force the mind ajar every once in a while if one is to develop in any way whatsoever.

I am using the language of spoken communication here, but of course I really mean pay close attention to what another person is communicating by whatever means; "listen" is easier to type.

* As far as I know, nobody currently worships the Holy Hamster of Birkenhead (praise be to the hamster), but if they did, they would undoubtedly advocate Treat others as you would wish to be treated just the same as everyone else in the world.

Friday, January 18, 2008

It speaks!

Alex in his sunflower jacketAlexander has started talking. Kind of. He's started pointing at things and uttering monosyllabic nouns (not just any nouns though; roughly appropriate ones). That he thinks all birds are ducks and all vehicles are cars is demonstrative of his impressive pattern-recognition skills. After all, imagine how well developed you'd have to be before you could explain the qualities that cars and other vehicles have in common. I mean all road vehicles have wheels, but not all wheeled things are road vehicles. And they all travel on the road but so do bicycles. It is really very clever to recognise the connection, I think.

He has also taken to declaring "Done!" after each meal. Being so well brung-up, this horrified me. "You mean, he can't manage a thank you?"

In the picture he is wearing a jacket I made him in the autumn. This was an incredible feat on account of the fact that I had no pattern, no experience of making such a garment, but most crucially, I hadn't taken a single measurement of the child and just had to guess how big he was. This was a very foolish way to go about things, but I was fiddling with it when I was rather ill and by some miracle it worked.

Unfortunately, he is sporting a somewhat "Auntie made me wear it" expression in the photo...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The queerest of the queer

Queer is one of my favouritest words in the English language - favouritest being another word I like, although that's not strictly speaking English. As I was growing up, I heard queer used to mean several different things:

(1a) adjective: odd, amusing, eccentric; "John looked terribly queer in his new wig and nobody could take him seriously."
There is also the Lancashire/ Yorkshire expression "There's none as queer as folk." (meaning there aren't anybody who is as strange as what people is, so to speak).

(1b) adjective: odd, sinister. "Shortly after his wife disappeared, Mr Smith was seen digging his garden in the middle of the night. There was something queer about the whole thing."

(2) adjective: unwell. "Jenny was sent home from school with a poorly tummy; the poor kid did look ever so queer."

(3) adjective: impoverished. "Sally said she was queer this week so I leant her a fiver."
sometimes used as down Queer Street. "Since the factory closed, the whole family has been living down Queer Street."

(4) verb: to spoil or pervert something. "I'm afraid my experiment with coriander has queered the entire soup." There is also the expression to queer someone's pitch, to sabotage one's plans, as in "Harriet didn't really want the job, but when she found out I wanted it more than anything, she decided to apply just to queer my pitch."

(5) adjective: homosexual or else not heterosexual. "He doesn't like football, so he must be queer."

These uses undoubtedly vary from region to region; I know my Yorkshire and Suffolk grandparents use the word quite differently. Incidentally, at least the first three of these queers are used in the Hitchcock classic The Lady has Vanished, my favourite being when the lady in question is described as "A queer old bird" (in the sense of 1a). I myself aspire to such a description should I live long enough.

In most of its descriptive uses it is rather vague and non-committal, not even as strong as peculiar. This subtlety and its ambiguity has always made it a rather funny word. On The Fast Show, Paul Whitehouse's Arthur Atkinson, a parody of Arthur Askey, had two inexplicably funny phrases (pretty much all he said); "Where's my washboard?" and "How queer!"

And perhaps because of all this, queer represents probably the most successful reclamation of a term of abuse by a disadvantaged group. Of course, it probably never had quite the spike of the N word, cripple and others, it is a soft word and has become the most inclusive way to describe that group of people who are not straight. After all, without the cultural baggage, bisexual (for example) is no more pertinent than prefers blondes or monogamous.*

[And while I am on words bisexual is a rubbish term. What's this "bi" malarkey? The defining experience of being this way is that one's sexual wiring fails to categorise the population into two opposites with nothing in between. Some people have tried to overcome this with the awful pansexual (which sounds like you fancy everyone) and the even worse omnisexual (which sounds like you fancy everything). Never mind.]

There is, of course, the dyslexic's nightmare which is... I'm sorry, but even now I'm thinking BLT, even though I know it should have a G in it somewhere. But what is the significant thing that makes us a group? Not that we deviate in this way or that, but what we deviate from and the political and social implications of that.

I'm not altogether comfortable with using this label to describe myself because I have the good fortune of having a heterosexual life-partnership, but then perhaps it is those with the most privilege who have the most responsibility to show solidarity (I'm not sure - my concern is that I might not be entitled to the word, not that I would be ashamed of it).

However, I think I could probably be described as queer in a few others senses and I make it my habit to use the word in every sense and at every opportunity. Which may seem a little queer, but that's the way I am.

* Sly Civilian has written some great stuff on this subject.

On a completely unrelated subject, Maddy puts everything into perspective with the excellent telling of her very scary Christmas in Russian Roullette. This was such a great post it needed to be mentioned here.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The book sucks

So I'm reading through one of the most difficult passages in my book, a moment full of sexual tension and intrigue. Unfortunately, I read that my heroine remains

hoovering by the door.

Characters do take on a life of their own, but that's ridiculous. I'm trying to bring things to a head and she's worrying about the domestic chores.

Friday, January 11, 2008

You can take me where you will, up the creek and through the mill

Sometimes in life, we rely too heavily on directions and forget to examine the map. It's not until we find the road ahead to be blocked that we realise that not only are there two or three alternative ways of getting to where we were going, but there are all manner of other destinations which we might consider heading towards instead. However, in this modern age of Sat-Nav (and indeed before then for other reasons that this metaphor flounders over), it can be very easy to forget that there is a map in the glove-compartment at all. So you sit at the roadblock and weep.

A woodland pathEvery time things change with my health, I tend to panic for a while before I remember to do what I have always managed to do previously. More than panic; it does cross my mind that this is it, that this is one obstacle too many and I've gone as far as I'm ever going to go. This seems incredibly melodramatic in hindsight, but I never learn.

Because whilst there usually are several unexpected paths to take, not everything is possible. I can't learn Judo or the Tango (both of which have always had some appeal, oddly enough) because all the conceivable routes to those things are blocked. If I am able to work for a living, then I am yet to discover that road; it's either very well-hidden or may involve taking a short-cut across a field (hmm, I hadn't really thought that one through).

So it's not totally irrational that I despair; if I cannot see it, it might not be there. But past experience suggests it probably is. I just need to study the map again.

Writing is a deeply unsatisfactory exercise just now. The windows in which I can work are extremely narrow and infrequent. Some days there are none and some days there are very few; things are getting better but there are still days of thick white fog. And how much you can write or edit in five or ten minutes doesn't really seem worth it. You lose your mental thread between times so it can take several of those minutes to find your bearings. And then it occurs to you that those four or five sentences weren't particularly good so in frustration, you delete a day's work. That's if they're actually there at all; if you timed-out at the end of the last session, you might well have closed up without saving. Which is a bit of a bummer.

But it is a very simple choice; either I wait until my health is good enough such that I can churn words out for much longer periods at a stretch or I find a way to make it work now. That way it happens slowly, but it happens. After all, at some much earlier juncture I had to accept that I couldn't write all day without very many significant breaks. And everyone has to accept that whatever they're doing, however much they are into it, sooner or later you need to eat, sleep and have a bath.

A particular bugger if bathing consumes almost all the energy of one day. But then you can always wash less often.

So I guess it'll have to be one sentence at a time, sweet Jesus.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

That All-Important 2008 US General Election Decider

Since it appears I'm going to be subjected to news and analysis about an electoral process I don't fully understand, but most crucially one in which I have no say whatsoever, for the next ten months, I thought I should make my position clear.

My American cousins, if you elect someone as spectacularly daft as the one you elected last time, I shall never speak to any of you ever again. That is my last word on the subject.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Seven Myths about Incapacity Benefit

I used to feel quite defensive when people moaned about Incapacity Benefit but these days I just get very very angry. Every media story and every political statement made on this issue presumes that there is widespread fraud and "malingering", where there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. Of course fraud exists, as it undoubtedly does throughout the tax and benefit systems, but there is no evidence that it is widespread with IB. In fact, I struggled to find any up to date statistics about fraud at all.

But see, thing is, people on Incapacity Benefits include some of the most vulnerable people in society. We're all made vulnerable by our dependence on the state and our relative poverty, but we're also a crowd of duffers; people who don't always have the intellectual, cognitive, physical or emotional capacity to fight their own corner.

Thus we make an excellent scapegoat. Of course, most of us are white British, so we're not perfect, but if people are fed up with the amount of tax they pay (and people always are), it is a sure winner to point to us sponging cripples and declare that we're not quite as crippled as we look (best of all, some of us don't even look crippled, which is surely proof we're on the make).

This week it was the Tories, with David Cameron stating,
"I don't believe that there are nearly half a million young people in Britain with a disability which prevents them from doing any work at all."
In other words, the figures don't sound right so there must be something amiss. What about 250,000? 100,000? 4537? What precise figure would satisfy the man's intuition?

Incidentally, when I was looking for the unfindable figures, I found that the excellent RADAR had had exactly the same idea, but they came up with slightly different myths to me. Also they weren't so angry so if anyone found this via Google and was looking for a serious reason, RADAR is a much better bet. Anyway...

1. People on incapacity benefit are not assessed by a doctor.

People can be so naive; frequently I hear or read people talking as if you just fill in a form, tick the right boxes and receive the cash. The Conservative Party has suggested we should be assessed "regularly" as if that doesn't happen already.

Narcissus quit work and sat around looking at his own refectionIn fact, people on Incapacity Benefit and Severe Disablement Allowance all have to see an independent doctor for an examination at least every three years. They also have to fill in the IB50 and their own GP will be asked for information about their condition. One cannot receive IB at all without a doctor confirming that, to the best of their knowledge, one is incapacitated for work. And I'm not sure anyone gets signed off as permanently incapacitated, even if they are medically retired in any other context.

2. People on Incapacity Benefit have never worked and never have any intention of working.

Nonsense. The majority of people on Incapacity Benefit become incapacitated in middle age. The older you get, the more likely you are to experience significant impairment. So most people on IB have probably worked for thirty or so years before becoming unable to work.

There is the very obvious point that if you do become incapacitated from work in your fifties for a period of a year or so and then get better, you may have significant difficulty getting a new job. This is especially the case if you are now able to work but you are no longer able to do the sort of work you'd done previously.

However, if we want people to return to work when they are able to do so, we need to create a society which doesn't discriminate against older and disabled people (and thus doubly against those that are both). Putting these people on unemployment benefit for the rest of their lives saves a few quid every week, but by lowering them into even greater poverty, we almost guarantee they cost us more in the long run.

3. People on Incapacity Benefit get free cars.

Politicians tend to have done enough research to know this isn't the case but it is a myth frequently repeated by lay people who have no other explanation for seeing wheelchair users driving shiny cars.

But nope. Nobody gets free cars. If you qualify for an entirely different and very specific benefit, Disability Living Allowance Higher Rate Mobility, then you do qualify for the Motability Scheme which enables you to rent a brand new vehicle suitable for your needs at a very cheap rate. But this has futtock-all to do with whether or not a person is or is not able to work.

4. People receive more money in Incapacity Benefit that a hard-working taxpayer earns at their job.

The Lady of Shallott reckons she had a nervous breakdown following Lancelot's rejectionBolsters. I'm sorry, but it is impossible to receive more in Incapacity Benefit than someone working full-time at a minimum wage job. What's more, with that level of income, your worker gets tax-credits and is entitled to other sorts of help in any case.

There is absolutely no financial gain in getting sick off work - unless you have a private pension or similar lined up and even then that only might make you better off than some workers; you are most unlikely to be better off than you would be if you were working. There are also other exceptions, but they are somewhat odd and apply to just a handful of people.

Possible explanations for people on IB appearing to be much better off than you are may include
(a) They use their money in a different way to you.
(b) Appearances can be deceptive.
(c) .... uh...

5. There are loads of people defrauding the system.

See above then insert a lot of emphatic swearing about what a total and utter pile of pants this is, even though it is widely believed and frequently implied by politicians on both sides of the House. It is just not true.

6. The 40% of people on Incapacity Benefit for mental health problems would be better off if they worked to keep their mind off their troubles.

David Blunkett said it himself when he was in charge of the DWP;
"If people... re-associate with the world of work, suddenly they come alive again. That will overcome depression and stress a lot more than people sitting at home watching daytime television."
Yeah, and perhaps he wouldn't need his guide-dog if only he ate more carrots. Yes I know it was years ago, but it was unforgivable.

The Loch Ness Monster has been claiming for a bad back since 1972 People incapacitated with mental ill health are even more vulnerable than those with physical impairments. The discrimination these people and their families face is altogether nastier; wheelies might struggle to find housing because of physical access, whereas we hear stories of people with mental ill health struggling to get housing because there's a children's play area in the close vicinity. And if they're not considered to be monsters, of course, then they're not consider to be properly sick at all.

These ideas are shockingly stupid. And yet people with so much power come out with such gems.

7. People receive Incapacity Benefit for minor conditions like acne and obesity.

There was a truly repugnant new story a few months ago when the News of the World used the Freedom of Information Act to get figures of the conditions cited on Incapacity Benefit forms. Whether any of the things listed were part of multiple conditions an individual had, it is unclear - I imagine they were, but it wouldn't have been such a good story if they'd said that.

Originally, the News of the World ran with "Benefit Scroungers too spotty to work" illustrated by the smiling face of someone with one zit and a wad of cash - subtle! Then we had
The Times "Too fat to work", illustrated by a big fat belly and The Guardian "Tiredness among 480 reasons given for being unable to work", among others.

Nobody receives Incapacity Benefit for a condition. We'd all agree that cancer is a serious condition, but whether it stops you working depends entirely on the severity of the particular set of symptoms you happen to have. No diagnosis would be enough. Indeed, it is possible to get IB without diagnosis if it is evident that you are incapacitated by symptoms which are, as yet, unexplained. Which is perfectly sensible; not all conditions have names yet, and those that do can sometimes take months or years to properly diagnose.

As for the obesity and acne, ha ha, if all else fails just point and laugh at fatty and spotty!

There are people with eating disorders, and occasionally a physical disease, which results in such tremendous obesity that a person experiences significant functional impairment and all manner of secondary health problems - including some which place the person in mortal peril. Such cases are extreme, which is why there are apparently only 2000 people in a country of 60 million incapacitated by this sort of problem.

As for acne, one has to stop thinking about spotty teenagers and consider acne in it's worst manifestation. Your skin is inflamed, broken and oozing blood and puss, pretty much all over your body but particularly your face, neck and torso. It is constantly itching and it is difficult to wear clothes which don't rub or add painful pressure. You have significant facial scarring and you feel you have been turned down my employers because of what you look like. Other unpleasant social experiences have completely shattered your confidence, so that you need to summon up courage every time you leave the house.

Rare, I grant you, but so do the statistics. Statistics which imply absolutely nothing about the validity or otherwise of these claims or the fairness of the system as it currently exists.

Hmm. I realise that (a) I've said much of this before and (b) it is unlikely I'm telling anyone reading this anything they didn't already know, but I had to get this out of my system. It was probably better for me than daytime television... Thanks if you read this far down.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Making the least of the January Sales

So it's 2008 and we still haven't solved this wee problem of climate change. Who would have thought it?

This is a good time of year to think about such things, mostly because many people are feeling hard up and it is much easier to be environmentally-friendly when you're living on Queer Street. Indeed, as far as your British consumer is concerned, by far the most significant behavioural change an individual can make is simply to buy less stuff. Every single little thing we purchase required a certain amount of energy to produce and transport to us. And we have a lot of stuff.

Of course, nobody has a great investment in promoting this message and amidst the constant barrage of messages equating stuff with happiness, it may sound a little depressing.

Here in the West, spending money is a national past-time. It is quite extraordinary compared to other cultures and our own culture just a few generations back. People always wanted stuff, people always aspired to have nice things for all sorts of practical, social and psychological reasons and they always will. But that doesn't mean Epirucus wasn't right.

Is there any relationship between the stuff we have and our quality of life? Financial security is one thing, but that's quite different - and sometimes incompatible - with having a load of stuff. This culture of constant buying is not sustainable. Even if it wasn't for the small matter of climate change, it is not economically sustainable. And indeed, it's not psychologically sustainable; frankly, I think it makes us miserable. None of us have enough money to buy all the stuff we think we want. The last person who actually used the phrase "hard-up" to describe their financial situation is actually one of the wealthiest people I know. But they are hard-up in the Mr Micawber sense; lots of people owe money and feel that they can't afford things which they need.

, by the way, is my second-favourite Greek and people imagined that his household, intent as they were on a life of pleasure, was a place of orgies and hedonistic consumption (thus epicurean). In fact, having studied the matter in great depth, Epicurus hit upon what we really need:
"Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship."
So there you go.

Anyway, Sage has given up buying stuff for New Year and many other bloggers - lead by Andrea at A peek inside the fish bowl - are participating in the Shopping Embargo 2008, giving up non-essential buying for the first two months of the year (a project I came across through Nna Mmoy Andrea, who has written a number of super posts about The Green Family).

I think this is ambitious and very much worthwhile, but as Sage pointed out in an excellent post, to be environmentally-conscious can sometimes be a little like belonging to a religious sect which can alienates those who feel they can't commit to the entire doctrine. Therefore, some suggestions about reducing the amount of stuff you buy, without making any solid promises or feeling that you're missing out:
1. Use the stuff you have. Often revisiting old stuff can be as rewarding as brand new stuff; books you haven't read and movies you've not seen in an age. If you enjoy the things you actually possess, you will have less desire for the things you haven't got yet.

2. Use is a much better measure than need when it comes to making purchases. The issue of need is very difficult to wrestle with, and one can end up feeling very guilty about the slightest luxury - at least I can. A far greater sin than having things you don't need is having things that you don't use. Nobody needs two dozen pairs of shoes, but if you have them and each pair gets an outing at least once every few months then that is far better than a person who has just two pairs of shoes and only ever wears one. One is wasteful, the other is not.

3. Share your stuff. I must say it is second-nature for me to consider who I might pass a book onto once I've read it before I actually buy it. Borrow stuff and lend stuff, and where appropriate, give things away. Don't be afraid to offer people the stuff you don't want; so long as you make it clear that you will not be hurt by their refusal. Otherwise sell stuff on eBay and offer things up on Freecycle.

4. Identify truly useless purchase. The magazine or newspaper you barely flick through, the cosmetic magic potion whose promises never deliver and so on. Make sure that the only things you buy out of habit are bread and loo-rolls. Or at least that sort of thing.

5. Beware The Radish Principle. This is when, in the summer, you want to buy some radishes to go in your salad, and at the supermarket you can buy two packets of radishes for the price of one. Only you don't particularly like radishes, it's not like they can be used up in any recipes you know of and so you neither need nor want the extra packet of radishes. Only they're free! Free radishes!

This is the kind of heart-breaking moral quandary I face in my life. I hope you sympathise. Point is that however cheap something is, it is not good value for money unless you actually want it.

Do you get the impression that all I ever spend money on is books and groceries? Hmm, not quite.