Saturday 27 January 2024

Sod's Law

We should now be sitting beside a swimming pool with the sun warming our pallid skin. We’d have already tucked into fresh papaya for breakfast and we’d be looking forward to grilled turbot for dinner in our four star hotel. But instead we are at home with our winter woollies on and a renewed dose of the January blues. We booked our winter holiday to Lanzarote with great optimism. Finally we would get away from howling gales and the freezing cold. But we both got injuries: T a bad back, me a bad knee. So we ended up having to cancel our trip on the advice of our GP. Today it’s 23 degrees there, with a gentle breeze. Perfect conditions for a swim and some relaxation on a sun-lounger with a good book. Oh dearie me.

Lanzarote is a volcanic island that emerged from the sea about 15 million years ago. So it isn’t going to slip back beneath the waves in the next few months. The sun will still be shining later in the year. A happy time when we hope to be fully recovered and raring to go. And then we can set about restoring the Vitamin D deficiency that we’ve accumulated in dull and drab NI.

Monday 1 January 2024

Old Git Hogmanay

The Scottish tradition is to remain at home until the bells chime midnight. And then to go out and wish all your family, friends and neighbours a Happy New Year.

I lived in Scotland for seven years and enthusiastically did this. But now I'm an old git, I was in bed at half past ten and fast asleep soon after.

So here I am wishing you and yours a Happy New Year.

Sunday 24 December 2023


Dear Readers,

Let us seek peace on this earth and give goodwill to one and all.

Wishing you and yours a Happy Christmas.

Paul x

Friday 15 December 2023

Agents Again

I’ve just sent the opening of my novel to a dozen literary agents in London. So my fingers are firmly crossed. It’s almost a year now, since I first submitted to agents. The novel has changed enormously in that time. I’ve rethought the identities of both the main protagonists (a postman hero and a waitress heroine) and the antagonist (a smooth-talking villain). I’ve introduced several minor characters. Key aspects of the journey that the protagonists take have been altered too. And I’ve changed the narrative from the past to the present tense. In effect, the novel has been transformed over the last year. This was needed. The novel I had a year ago was a working draft. Not the more polished product I have now. A year ago it had plenty of flaws, which at that time, I couldn’t see. But I’ve learned so much about novel writing and editing since then. All of it gained the hard way - by making mistakes and later on having to rectify them.

Novel writing is indeed a craft. It requires time, determination and experience to develop as a writer of fiction. I’ve been working hard at improving my novel for a year, mostly on my own. I got feedback from a novelist who read and commented on the manuscript last spring, and from two agents who were generous enough to write and tell me what they liked about my novel and what they thought didn’t work. The others just rejected it: some by a standard rejection letter; the rest by no response at all. Many agents’ websites now say, if you haven’t had a response within two months then you should assume I’m not interested. So among the many qualities a writer has to develop is a tough skin.

Sunday 19 November 2023

Zoe Doesn't Like Gluten-free

A new relationship is fraught with tensions. Both parties are sussing the other out and monitoring their reactions. Things can improve or deteriorate. And over recent weeks Zoe and I have been growing apart. I discovered a year ago that I’m gluten-intolerant. This is one of the most common allergies in the UK and affects several million people. It’s easy to manage. All supermarkets offer a range of gluten-free foods. But it is a problem to Zoe. No account is taken of any food allergies. Zoe scores foods primarily on the basis of how processed they are. However, many gluten-free foods are processed to remove or avoid gluten. Thus they fall foul of Zoe’s scoring system and are given unreasonably low scores. For example, I usually eat cornflakes for breakfast (a gluten-free cereal). To a half-bowl of these, I add nuts, seeds, blueberries, natural yoghourt and a sliced banana. Cornflakes are scored zero on the Zoe system. And despite the other healthy ingredients I include, my whole meal is downgraded because of it. Zoe wants you to score 75 or over on their system every day. The best I’ve ever managed is 62.

Zoe’s overall intention seems to be to turn pizza guzzlers into card-carrying vegans. It’s a laudable objective. In this mission, Zoe sends you rafts of messages every day, filled with dietary information in bite-sized chunks. It’s a system of programmed learning for people with low attention spans and little or no knowledge. The messages are broken up in one or two sentences, with a button to press to get the next chunk. The button is invariably labelled ‘Wow. Tell Me More’. To be frank, I find these so irritating that I’ve largely given up reading them. This messaging is another example of Zoe’s inflexibility.

Much is made in the advertising that Zoe will offer you specific dietary advice, tailored to your needs. As a general guide the Zoe system is fine. But the specifics of it are far too inflexible to be helpful. The Zoe scoring system assumes that one size will fit all. Taking no account of allergies is a serious flaw. Low scores are given to foods to encourage someone to seek higher-scoring alternatives. But I am unable to substitute gluten-free foods for gluten-full ones. Surely it is not beyond the wit of whoever designed the Zoe scoring system to accommodate one of the most common food allergies in the world. It’s looking very much like Zoe and I will soon be parting ways.

Monday 23 October 2023

Samhain and the Source of Halloween

The autumn equinox (the point of equal day and night) has just passed. Today we enter the dark half of the year. Like all turning points, it has always been a time of looking back and looking forward. The sun is lower and the days are shorter and colder. Plants and animals begin to hibernate. The warm half of the year has faded and died. It’s a time when we feel closer to death and those that have departed. In ancient times, the festival of Samhain was celebrated at the equinox. Records suggest that it involved gatherings and feasting after the cattle had been brought down from their summer pasture. Thanks were given for all the food that had been harvested, which was needed to keep those people and their animals through the winter months. Fire was an important part of the festival, symbolizing both death and rebirth. The spirits of the dead were thought to return at this time. A place was set for them at the table and offerings were made. Celebrants were believed to have worn masks and other costumes.

Over a thousand years ago, Samhain became transposed into All Hallows Day (or All Saints Day) by early Christianity, which chose to piggyback onto pre-exisiting traditions rather than to confront them. But the pagan traditions of Samhain re-emerged in Halloween (the Eve of All Hallows Day), with its attention to fire, the spirits of the dead, feasting and costume. So when lighting a candle in a pumpkin, putting on a witch’s hat or decorating the house with skulls and skeletons, try to remember where all this came from. And try to put yourself in the animal-hide shoes of those ancient peoples who lived here thousands of years ago.

Saturday 30 September 2023


There’s a new woman in my life. We began to meet online. Then she shared some videos with me. And I was hooked. But T need not worry. I’ve not joined a strange Russian dating site. Zoe is a nutrition and gut health improvement programme run by eminent scientists from Kings College, London, and Harvard Medical School. And I’ve just become one of their thousands of guinea pigs.

Oddly enough, you begin the progamme by eating muffins. But not any old muffins. The specially prepared ones they send you. After the first meal of muffins you monitor your blood sugar, via a sensor in your upper arm. After a second meal of muffins you monitor your blood fat, by doing a pinprick blood test. Then you send them a sample of your poo. To some, this might sound a bit off-putting. But it’s very easy to do. Your results arrive fairly quickly.

My blood sugar response was graded good (in comparison to all participants) and excellent (in comparison to people of a similar age and sex). So my body processes carbohydrates very effectively and I’m not at risk of diabetes anytime soon. My blood fat response was graded poor in relation to both sets of comparators. To some extent I already knew I had a problem in this area. I’ve been taking a statin for some years to lower cholesterol. But now I need to do more. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my microbiome was graded as excellent. The poo sample showed that my gut contained a preponderance of good bacteria and very little bad bacteria.

So what next? The Zoe app has inputted my results. When I log the food I’m eating into the online diary, it scores every item on the impact it will have on my blood sugar, blood fat and microbiome. It also puts each food item I’m eating into four categories. Eat rarely. Enjoy in moderation. Enjoy regularly. Enjoy freely. Zoe has an enormous database of foods, so you can look up different items to see how they have been scored. Then you can change ingredients or substitute healthier alternatives. This is helpful, as I’m trying more actively to control the level of fats in my diet.

Joining Zoe isn’t cheap (it costs several hundred pounds for one year). But it’s already proving to be a valuable investment.