a week in amsterdam
God I needed this.
The last time I departed England's shores it was in a different, more heroic age of travel, before Google Maps, before Kindle, before Spotify. Before, if you young herberts can envisage such a time, Android and the iPhone. I'm talking of 2005.
As well as quite a few trips abroad for work that year, including Las Vegas and Doha, I went on holiday twice. I took my beloved Fiat Coupé 20V Turbo over to Spain and spent two weeks driving down to Andalusia from the Basque region and back again, ending with a few days in Bilbao eating my weight in pintxos.
The second jaunt was to New York, staying at the Hudson. These are just the places I can recall eating at: Nobu, Gramercy Tavern, Brasserie les Halles, Bar Masa, Balthazar, Babbo and Lupa. There were more.
The travel was all part of my increasingly frantic attempts to convince myself that I was ALL RIGHT REALLY and not hopelessly and dangerously fractured. Because in late 2004, with my drinking well out of control, I'd had a breakdown, bodged a suicide attempt (diazepam/vodka/stanley knife/warm bath), and had to resign from the all the projects I was working on. Then I started pretending. Apart from the travel, here's what else I did: went into therapy; started going to AA; spent money I didn't have; went on a diet; bought a whole new wardrobe of clothes; started having regular sessions of reflexology and acupuncture; spent more money I didn't have.
It was all to no avail, of course, and the wheels finally came off the bus after a year or so.
But now, after bankruptcy, homelessness, metal illness and years on the sausage, here I am in 2014 with a paying job, a brand new passport and public sector annual leave coming out of my trapdoor. So when I was invited to come and speak at a recovery conference here in Amsterdam, flights paid, it seemed too good an opportunity not to tack on a holiday to the trip.
peanut soup and fufu
Well that took a lot longer than I'd imagined. I could lie and tell you that my extended sabbatical from here was due to working these ancient nadgers off in my new job, and to some extent that's true. But it's really because of two other factors. One is that my last several-months-long depressive episode left its usual aftermath: a veritable cesspit of a flat and an unusable kitchen. Then the change from long-term unemployment to full-time work proved harder to adjust to than I could have imagined. Up until a few weeks ago I was perfectly fine, cheery and efficient at work, but as soon as I got home it was like someone just unplugged me. I shut down. Until the next morning when I went to work again.
But I think I'm getting the hang of it now, the old work/life balance thing. The flat, and more importantly the kitchen, are back to being ship-shape and Bristol fashion; I've been to a few restaurants - Artusi, Cafe Murano, Pizza Pilgrims, Tonkotsu; I've even been, I shit you not, to see a West End musical, The Pyjama Game. I'm hopeful that I'll have an article appearing in a certain august food periodical in a few months time. Oh, and I've signed a book contract.
The usual apologies to everyone who has got in touch and to whom I haven't replied. My silence doesn't mean that I don't welcome and value your comments. Now, on with the motley...
My friend and colleague Nash was born and brought up in Ghana. He went abroad recently and when he came back, the very first thing he absopositively HAD to have was peanut soup and fufu. Intrigued, I asked him for the recipe. Well I asked him for the recipe for the peanut soup. I stupidly forgot to ask how he makes his fufu.
you'll be doing alright with your christmas of white, but i'll have a blue, blue christmas
The more eagle-eyed amongst you might have noticed a certain lack of activity on these pages of late. I’m afraid that, as last November bled into December, I went into one, big time. I resurfaced only a couple of weeks ago. Cooking, at least cooking anything that might merit a mention here, has been beyond me these last few months. I’ve been eating shite.
If you don’t know, writing this blog and volunteering (at The Maudsley and The Dragon Café) have been the two major pillars of my recovery. So when, in October, the blog won an award and the volunteering led to me being offered a job at the Maudsley’s new Recovery College, you might reasonably have expected a festive season of unrestrained jubilation, fireworks and marching bands.
But that would be to ignore the fact that you can’t chart the recovery journey in a straight ascending line. Not only does it rise and fall, it also spirals backwards before continuing along. Even when your demons are at bay it’s never safe to assume that it’s more than a fragile peace.
You know how you can work your bollocks off all year and then, when you take a holiday, you come down with awful aches and pains? Well, it’s the same with we frazzled of mind, except the aches and pains are psychological – in my case self-loathing, self-doubt, anxiety and alienation. With Princes Corned Beef and Findus Frozen Macaroni Cheese for Christmas lunch – culinary, maudlin self-harm.
But fear not, because The Skintster abides, and is currently bobbing along on an ocean of wellbeing. And it’s all because I started the job three weeks ago. The first paid employment I’ve had in eight years. And what a joy it is. I hadn’t quite realised what a vast difference being a wage earner once again would mean – I’m even walking differently, the service-user shuffle replaced with a spring in the step. I should have known because, before my crisis, I’d had a long and rewarding career; had, in fact, never been out of work since I gave up studying for a law degree to run off and join the theatre. But you don’t, I guess, realise the weight you bear on your shoulders until it’s lifted from you.
The corrosive effects of unemployment aren’t limited simply to the obvious financial hardships or to the stress imposed by the current system of demonization; a big part of it is the loss of identity, of status, of a sense of self-worth, of a valued place in the community. If you find yourself without a job, without a home, and mentally ill then you find yourself in a world devoid of hope, control and opportunity. And without those three elements in place, nobody can have a satisfying and meaningful life. I’ve now got them back.
The story of my life for the past decade could, I suppose, be told in mainly tragic terms and I have, of course, told it that way on occasion, both to myself and to others. But now I’d like to tell it a different way. I’d like to tell the story of my great good fortune .
SHORTLISTED FOR FOOD BLOG OF THE YEAR 2014