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Timewasters

I should have seen it coming. After all, it’s not as if I’m new to freelancing. Finding the balance between chasing work (when desperate for it) and doing some (if you have any) is like spotting the fine line between the darkness and the dawn.

I’d met the potential client, I’ll call him Anand, at a networking do. He’d recently set up a business and felt his website wasn’t working. I looked at it later, saw it was pretty dreadful, and contacted him suggesting a meeting.

Our India links boded well and Anand seemed receptive to ideas. I let my initial hour run on, as is often how it goes when there’s hope of clinching a deal, and three hours later I left having given him quite a lot of free advice. Yes, yes. Naive, I know. But I reasoned it was unlikely that he’d be able to put it into practice – and that it was worth it to win his confidence.

I gave him an idea of how long it would take and my usual spiel about fixed project fees being better value for money. He said he’d probably be Indian about it and barter. Wry smile to self (as in pride comes before a fall sort of wry). I sent him a detailed estimate for bringing his website up to snuff, writing standard emails and letters for prospects and a leaflet. I was on course, I thought, for a decent bit of work.

When he asked to meet again to take things forward, I warned him  that the clock would start ticking as he’d already had three hours of my time. Another handshake, another coffee. Three hours later (yes, a pattern was emerging) I left, having reiterated all the points I’d made at our first meeting plus gone through some very basics together. Very, very basic. He didn’t know who his competitors were – or how to find out. I introduced him to the delights of Google – first searching for his business (totally hidden) then his competitors (scores of them popped up). He was grateful; said he’d been a bit naive (no scope for another wry smile from me on that one) and started bartering. After giving him six hours of strategic advice, I was tough. He pushed; I stayed firm. He was slithery – and I became ruthless. I wasn’t in the market for working with someone who couldn’t give a straight answer to a straight question. If he agreed a decent fee I’d do the work – emphasising the need to be open and honest with his clients.

And then he called me to a third meeting – to meet the person with whom he was going into partnership. What! Six hours and no mention of a partner – despite me asking how he was going to run his business as it was clear to me it would soon be too much for him on his own.

From the first second of the seventh hour I knew this was not going to work. Mr Partner wore a self-satisfied sneer and greeted me with smarm that hid no charm. Anand asked me precisely what I would recommend for his website. I explained I was not available to write it on the spot, for free. He said I couldn’t expect him to take me on without knowing what my work was like. I reminded him I’d sent him links to websites I’d written as evidence. He asked me, in an even more roundabout way, to shave my fee. I said, again, that he’d had nearly seven hours – almost a day – of strategic advice and I couldn’t afford any more concessions. He said, I said … It was like an uncivilised game of ping pong. I put down my bat and left.

The dilemma between wanting to have pride in work well done, and maintaining pride by not chasing work for work’s sake, is one that emerges very early on. If you find yourself spending more than a couple of hours speculating, the chances are it’s not only the client who is wasting your time.

When there’s no time to waste (Imam and giant baked beans with houmous)

One tin Palirria Imam (aubergine in oil)

One tin Palirria Baked Giant Beans

Home made houmous

Cayenne pepper

Rocket (as the photo shows, I finished yesterday’s watercress but rocket would have been better)

  1. Open the tins (how time-saving is that?). I usually use about a third of each unless I’ve had a tiny supper the night before. Whatever’s left does me for supper a couple of days later.
  2. Splodge on the plate with the houmous and the rocket. Sprinkle cayenne on the houmous.

Cheating to catch up on lost time. With only myself to blame.

It’s one big sticky lunch – apart from the crunchy leaves – with the chilli in the houmous adding pep and cutting through the extravagance of oil.

No, I never buy houmous – now I’ve cracked the recipe. Roast the garlic. Use far more tahini than anyone recommends. Add red chilli. Whizz. And, yes, of course you need to add lemon, water to create the consistency you like, and salt to counteract the blandness of the chick peas and the richness of the olive oil (with which I tend to be rather reckless). To serve with carrot sticks and other dippers, sprinkle with cayenne and drizzle with more olive oil. Calories, anyone?

As for ordinary Heinz baked beans, I’ve always loved them. Straight from a tin with a spoon. Tinned curried baked beans, too. As for having them on toast which turns to sludge … never. But for this, you need these unctuously smooth and tomatoey giant baked beans.

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Networking nightmares

In my last employed job almost everyone’s role included some networking, the success of which was measured not against the potential benefits of making the connection but against the length of time (the longer, the more impressive), the venue (if a Michelin star was involved, all the better) and the wealth of the guest (Times Rich List members preferred). I still remember the black look thrown at me by the chief executive when I declined to join him for some “hobnobbing with four millionaires” at a celebrity chef’s restaurant.

Yes, of course I built strong relationships with the organisation’s members and, no, my answer wasn’t driven by arrogance. I needed the time more than I needed to support his ego boost.

When I went freelance I decided to liberate myself from networking lunches believing that, with so many independent cafés a short walk from my front door, mid-morning or mid-afternoon hour-long sessions over a cup of delicious coffee would be more productive.

Inevitably, freelancers desperate for work have to network wherever and whenever – and compromise (what, me?) has to be faced.

Well-known organisations (chambers of commerce, BNI) tend to meet at breakfast which, for anyone who washes their hair every morning, means a five-thirty alarm call for a seven o’clock sharp start. Business gained by me (I gave them all a good go)? None – probably because my “one minute to win it” was spoken in tongues, the only language I can manage after a short night.

So I was thrilled when I discovered a couple of networking groups which deliberately avoided power breakfasts. Recognising how women prefer to work, they met in the evening over high-class nibbles and drinks. Business gained there? None. Be warned. If you admit to having organised anything, you will be roped in … I seldom networked for me; I networked for the group.

Out of the blue an email invited me to the launch of a new group.  In my town and for women. We met … over lunch (yes, yes, but it was informal and infrequent – monthly – and it worked). Business gained? A sizeable commission at the second meeting on the back of which I gained another through which I got a third – and the first came back for more.

Four years later, it happened again. An email bounced in announcing a new networking group. Several emails followed – from friends, all asking if I’d heard about it and would I be going. Held in a local restaurant, the cost brought two drinks and a range of nibbles. Will I go again? Despite it being at lunchtime, the buzz was energising and the potential – well, who knows, but some useful contacts were made. It’s time to eat not lunch but my words.

Eating my words (drinks party small eats)

No recipe for this one. No photograph either (I forgot to get out my camera). I hope you can picture the scene …

  1. Mini croques monsieur – three-bite rectangles, slightly burnished from a very buttery frying, with a generous dollop of proper creamy béchamel sauce wobbling on the top
  2. Blinis, lavishly buttered when warm, with smoked salmon and a sprinkling of lumpfish roe (I’d have added a coffee spoon drop of crème fraiche and a snip of chives)
  3. Tiny pastry cups of an unidentifiable veggie mix with raw onion (why raw onion when trying to make a good impression is the priority?)
  4. Rounds of fried bread (yet more more butter) with a generous twirl of rare beef on top (they never reached me, stuck in the centre of the room with much of the food passing round the edges)
  5. Small choux pastry lozenges filled with cream and drizzled with melted chocolate (easy to scoff, as many did though not savoury-toothed me)
  6. Slivers of flaky pastry with slices of strawberry layered above crème patissière (very hard to pick up and eat, leaving many with sticky fingers and gloopy lips).

My mother called this sort of food “small eats”. I find the term so much more reassuring, and wholesome, than “canapés”.

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It’s easy to achieve nothing

Freelancing is unpredictable. It’s not just that it’s feast or famine – far too much to do or, more often, nothing at all – it’s the days during which you don’t stop doing but, when you look back for a sense of achievement, nothing counts as work.

Today was one of those days.

I’d had a busy weekend – a training workshop all day Saturday and a long, lazy lunch on the Sunday which, because we ate outside in the shade of an early heatwave, left me good for nothing for the rest of the day (the effect of even a light rosé is long-lastingly debilitating, even when drunk with as much water as wine).

So Monday started late. With someone due to call round at 10.30, I argued that being ready for that was early enough; I deserved a no-alarm morning having spent Saturday with my work brain in gear.

I say someone. It was Suzie of Suzie’s Yard on her way to my local deli to tempt them with her Tuscan treats. I’d offered her a visitor’s parking voucher and expected her just to ring the doorbell and dash off. Instead, I spent an unexpected, and unexpectedly pleasurable, half hour salivating over her latest finds (www.suziesyard.co.uk).

Back to my desk. Check for urgent emails (ever hopeful of a sudden request for something leading to an invoice) before nipping out to the shops. Having been out all weekend, my cupboards were bare and, after drooling over Suzie’s offerings, my tummy was rumbling for its breakfast smoothie the ingredients for which were missing from my kitchen.

And then the phone rang. An hour later, after another “quick look” at emails and sending a “quick reply” I set off. It’s Monday! My favourite (independent) supermarket is closed! So I diverted and started dashing to the only other supermarket I’ll enter (Waitrose).

Inevitably, in our villagey town, I bumped into a local friend and another half hour was lost in enjoyable but non-earning chat. I made it back in time to … well, not to make my breakfast smoothie. With only a few minutes before I had to leave for my twice-weekly remedial knee/back class, there wasn’t enough time. But I needed something.

At a meeting with a colleague last week, I’d been re-introduced to a nutritionally naughty nibble from my childhood and the distinctive packaging caught my eye in Waitrose. With six in a box, I told myself I’d be disciplined, hiding them for every-now-and-then-indulgences when I felt I’d earned it. I unwrapped one for a bit of an energy boost (“I’ll probably work off the calories in the gym”, my head said) and gloried in its gloriousness.

Four thirty, I’m back and it’s time, at last, for lunch. The phone rang. You can imagine what happened next. Perhaps just one more – really, only one – would be ok. It was so good, so dreamily light and smoothly fluffy – what does it say on the packet about calories? Never mind the fat content (surprisingly low), ignore the sugar level (shockingly high), just the calories. Because I’m so, so hungry. And that was three gone. And then, because the photo would look better, a fourth.

Freelance life is like this. Undisciplined days when you are never idle but you don’t achieve anything either – and when the lure of fridge or, given mine is often empty, the box-I-should-never-have-bought, takes over. Tomorrow will be different, won’t it?

Mini clouds as light as nothing (Tunnock’s Tea Cakes)

And then there was one ... immediately after the camera had clicked.

I remember Tunnock’s tea cakes from my mid-childhood. They are nothing like the supermarket own-brand versions. As light and as heavenly as clouds, they transported me to a much higher place than my top floor flat– and I’m sure it wasn’t because of the sugar rush. http://www.tunnock.co.uk

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Caught out

“Hello?” It was more of a groan than a greeting, grumping its way out in my early morning voice. Who could possibly need to ring so early, waking me up?  Early? It was 11.30! And on the line was my best client. I sat up and tried to sound professional (though the rustling of the duvet surely gave me away).

What constitutes a best client? Quantity of work is one measurement but this client gives me very little – the annual report (it comes round every year so it’s regular work – and the deadline is December which helps with increasingly expensive Christmases) and, perhaps, a leaflet or two in between. It’s a charity so it gets me at my (very reduced) charity fee. But it pays up with no quibbles – within a fortnight of invoicing.

In my books (where each month there seems to be less and less to double-enter) paying on time is what clients should do; paying early makes me feel they value my work (this is, of course, self-delusion; their accounts department plugs me into their computer without a thought).

If you rely on clients paying on time, you will be forever disappointed. Advised early on by a fellow freelancer, I ask for payment within 14 days. Charities excepted, this is seldom respected but it means I can put the pressure on sooner. When invoices are few and far between, it can make the difference between crashing through the overdraft limit then having to find a more sympathetic bank (impossible) or being able to buy supper (and I don’t mean out; I mean me, a plate and the television). The big guys – household names – have no sense of what it is like to be dependent on a few hundred pounds. If you thought accountants were dull, going freelance will teach you how creative they can be when dreaming up excuses for not paying up.

Back to waking up, which I just have. Freelancing means you can work, wake (and go to the gym) when it suits you but, if your office is in your bedroom, you will be caught out. My solution? A loft extension – with builders arriving at 8am six days a week for 25 weeks. So much for early morning freelance freedom.

A good catch (Smoked mackerel with beetroot and horseradish salad)

Smoked mackerel from a fishmonger

1 cooked beetroot

2 to 3 tsps grated horseradish root

2 tbsps half fat crème fraiche

Half a lime, squeezed

Watercress or a mixture of various leaves

Black pepper

  1. Make the beetroot salad. Gently stir the grated beetroot into the crème fraiche. Add one or two tsps of lime juice – enough to loosen the mixture and give it a bit of tang. Cut the beetroot into chunks and lightly stir them into the crème fraiche mixture, turning it over once or twice – it’s prettiest if you can see some bright white crème fraiche amidst the pink.
  2. Cut chunks of smoked mackerel or serve it in fillets if you prefer (I like the glistening amber of the skin so tend to chunk it).
  3. Serve it with a few leaves and a small piece of lime to squeeze over, if you like your fish with lemon or lime (I don’t).

Pretty in pink.

The first time I had beetroot in a sauce of some kind was when I was involved in pressure group politics and my then boss, Iain Picton, invited his committee to a strategy discussion over lunch. He’d made a white sauce for the beetroot. It was, of course, immediately a pink sauce. And so is mine today. Two stirs fewer and it would have retained more of its whiteness which would have been prettier.

And here I am eating smoked mackerel again. It is, as you’d expect, from my local fishmonger (Covent Garden Fishmongers) and deliciously moist and soft – nothing like the hard, dry, vacuum-packed, uniformly-dull stuff. Seek the real thing out if you can. It’s such an easy way to eat your two to three portions of oily fish a week – and can be turned into something delicious without any effort.

This blog first appeared as an article in PR Business in which I had my own column for six heady weeks.

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Chicory with Roquefort and walnuts

It’s another appallingly environmentally-irresponsible day. I’m in a quandary. It seems impossible to support my local independent shops and limit my impact on the environment.

This recipe works well with ripe, juicy English pears – but I’m supposed to keep my sugar intake down and I broke that rule earlier this week with the Alphonsos. So Dutch chicory it is. I could use English stilton but the silkiness, and slight sweetness, of Roquefort lifts the glory of this dish into the stratosphere. At least it’s only travelled from France to Mortimer & Bennett. Walnuts? Bought from my local health food store, they’ve come all the way from Argentina. I will try to do better next week.

If you are in your fifties or older, you’ll have had these delicious mouthfuls hundreds of times, as a dinner party starter or drinks party nibble. It’s still useful for both but, as I don’t currently give dinner or drinks parties, lunch is where I slot it in. Infrequently (because of the cheese-cholesterol concern and as my nutritionist might be reading this).

I’ve tried variations on a theme. Feta doesn’t work ever, not even with pears – it’s too one-dimensional and dry. Stilton works better with pears than with chicory – the mix creating a better salt-sweet balance. Dolcelatte, Picos blue, Gorgonzola, Saint Agur, Fourme d’Ambert, Cheshire blue, Bleu d’Auvergne … anything blue and sticky will do. Including the late and very lamented (by me) Lymeswold, derided as the Blue Nun of cheeses but of which I was particularly fond.

The disadvantage of serving this at girly lunches (they happen rarely, but they do happen) is that everyone always says how wonderful it is, they ask if I’ve ever served it as a starter – and then go off and replicate it. In my mother’s day, recipes were only passed on (or pinched) on the understanding that the recipient (or thief) would never serve it to someone in the originator’s circle. No such rules apply these days. Which is why it’s my personal indulgence. It’s perfect for sitting in the shade in the garden on a sunny evening, a drink in the other hand. If only I had a bit of outdoors.

Perfection on a plate

One head of chicory

2 ozs or so of Roquefort (or other strong blue cheese)

Four walnut halves

Avocado oil (or olive oil or walnut oil)

  1. Separate six chicory leaves (or as many as your hunger dictates)
  2. Cut the Roquefort into small chunks (many recipes say crumble it but I find it’s too sticky, even for a finger-licker like me)
  3. Chop the walnuts into small chunks
  4. Dot the chicory leaves with the Roquefort and chopped walnuts
  5. Drizzle your choice of oil along each leaf

Yes, I've overloaded the leaves and, oops, was a bit heavy-handed with the avocado oil.

I ate them with my fingers. And ended up making more.

The very best avocado oil, in my view, comes from Chile. A Chilean networking colleague of mine was going to import it and invited me round for a taste test. We tasted blind and both preferred the organic extra virgin version, which is what I used today. It’s golden, thick and very full-flavoured – but all of them were better than the widely available Californian version which is thin, pale and watery. The New Zealand version is marginally better. But if you can find Chilean, I urge you to buy it.

I suppose this all adds up to another bunion on my carbon footprint.

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Quick smoked mackerel pâté with a seasonal twist and added memories

I love this time of year. Looking over gardens below my top floor flat, my world glistens with the pale pinks and soft whites of magnolia, cherry and apple blossom, and clematis. I take the long route to the High Road, specifically to walk past other people’s front gardens.

It’s also Alphonso mango time – so I take the even longer route home past my wonderful greengrocer, A&G on Turnham Green Terrace (where they know me as Alphonso Jo). Grown only in Bombay, I can’t look out on Alphonso mango trees here but I remember walking past one, its branches glinting with golden yellow fruit in the pre-monsoon sun, on the way to the park with my ayah, Mary.

By far the smallest mango, the Alphonso’s lack of stature is more than compensated for by its huge flavour. Intensely perfumed, sweet and creamy, its juicy flesh is the colour of 24ct gold and its stone almost free of hair (though floss is useful if you suck it as dry as I do). Called the queen of mangoes, once you’ve had one, no other is worth bothering with.

Something else not worth bothering with after you’ve had the real thing is vacuum-packed smoked mackerel. When I discovered whole smoked mackerel straight from the smokery, at my excellent fishmonger (Covent Garden Fishmongers, next to A&G), Phil said I’d never eat any other. And I never have. Moist, soft, smooth, subtly smoked and not even slightly stridently fishy, it’s a silk versus cotton no-brainer. One fish feeds three to four so, as I don’t have a freezer, I need to think of things to do with it to ring the changes.

Today’s late lunch

1 fillet of a fishmonger’s smoked mackerel

1 tbsp of Quark (or cream cheese or crème fraîche if you aren’t worried about your fat intake)

Half a lime

Black pepper

Cayenne pepper

One Alphonso mango

Half a red chilli

Bunch of watercress

Olive oil

  1. Holding the mango upright on its curved edge, slice down about an inch in, against the flat central stone. Turn it round and slice down the other side. Cut across the skin surrounding the centre section then peel it away gently, sucking off the fruit as you peel. Cut away chunks of mango from the stone or … let’s be realistic, slurp it off noisily, breathing in its heavily perfumed scent as rivers of golden juice trickle down your fingers. This is no time for manners; it’s a sensuous moment to be shared only with yourself.
  2. Back in the real world, run the rounded tip of a knife through the fruit in the cut-away sides, carving down to (but not through) the skin from top to bottom in strips about 1cm wide. Do the same to cut across the strips creating squares. Scoop out the squares and put them in a bowl.
  3. Finely chop the chilli. Gently mix with the mango and a light squeeze of lime juice.
  4. Roughly mash the smoked mackerel with the Quark (or cream cheese or crème fraîche), adding black pepper to taste. Slacken it slightly with a squeeze of lime juice (not too much, add it a tsp at a time so you don’t mask the flavour of the fish).
  5. Dollop the pâté on a plate and sprinkle with cayenne pepper (this is for looks, not heat – there’s plenty of that in the chilli). Add the mango salsa and decorate with generous sprigs of watercress drizzled with olive oil.

Learning not to be purist about Alphonso mangoes

I’m normally purist about Alphonso mangoes, eating them just as they are. When I take them to friends who say they’ll put them into a smoothie I look horror struck and lurch into lecturing. But this boxful has been disappointing; every mango has been partly bad and I’ve picked my way around to find enough to chunk. And then I discovered it was heavenly with the pâté. Apologies to everyone who’s experienced my ‘you must not sully an Alphonso’ tirade. Though I do think shoving them in a smoothie is a step too far.

As the last mouthful of mango salsa slid into my mouth I realised that, because Icelandic volcanic dust has brought air freight to a halt, Alphonsos will be stuck, and rotting, in Bombay – and the livelihoods of the pickers and packers will be at risk. I know buying them is bad for my carbon footprint but my guilt is balanced by the fact that I’m helping (I hope) some of the poorest and most exploited people in the world – in my home town. Let’s hope flights resume soon, not just to satisfy my Alphonso addiction.

(Interesting napkin ring? It’s an Indian toe ring – purely decorative and, yes, from my childhood.)

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Too green for a free life?

I’d been toying with the idea for years, longing to be released from the tyranny of bad management, stifling office politics, endless pointless meetings, inflexible routines, the deadening soullessness of commuting and the vicious back-biting that is rife in our industry.

Unsure whether I could survive, every few years I persuaded myself that changing jobs was the answer. A different boss, a new subject, working in-house, in established teams, starting from scratch … I tried every variation I could think of – as an employee. After 20 years creating a broad CV (I was proud of it but there was no denying it was choppy), there was only one option left: freelancing.

Within days, friends remarked about how happy and relaxed I looked.  My confidence and self-esteem rocketed; the precariousness of my financial situation mattered not at all. I was free. “Why didn’t I do this years ago?” was my constant thought.

Former colleagues used my services, almost all giving me repeat business. Driven by the fear of no income, I had offered to work on projects at home and as a gap-filler in-house, I was available for consultancy advice and to be a workhorse. So, when the early rush of commissions slowed down, saying yes to a friend who asked me to fill a six-week press office spot was easy. “That means a regular invoice!”, said a voice in my head.

The down side began to emerge when I worried about what to wear. Here at home, anything goes; occasionally, nothing goes as well (if clients knew I was naked, my hourly rate would change significantly … not necessarily for the better). On day one, when the clock woke me, I groaned; surely freelancing means not being ruled by alarms to meet other’s expectations? When I saw my desk, and heard whispered asides as the in-house team complained about a boss, I knew I had got it wrong.

Without thinking, I had recreated what I had set out to leave behind – a form of prostitution (anything for anyone anyhow, as long as it earned me money) and it made me feel cheap. Freelancing was not the easy option, as I was beginning to discover.

A symphony in green (Avocado and walnut salad)

Half a ripe avocado (or the whole thing if no one is counting your calories)

Handful of chopped walnuts

Lamb’s lettuce

Walnut oil

Himalayan salt and black pepper

  1. Do you really need instructions?
  2. Sprinkle the walnut oil onto the lamb’s lettuce and toss gently (I used my hands). Pile it into the middle of the plate.
  3. Run a knife lengthways through the flesh of the avocado, cutting down to but not through the skin, to create strips. Run the knife through it again, across the strips, creating chunks. Scoop them out with a dessertspoon.
  4. Pile the avocado into the middle of the lamb’s lettuce which, inconveniently, will spread itself out all over the plate making the whole thing go flat. Fiddle about as much as you wish to try to prettify it but it’s mostly pointless. It would probably be better dotted all over the lamb’s lettuce.
  5. Sprinkle the walnuts around.
  6. Grind over the black pepper and sprinkle on some salt.
  7. It’s really not a recipe, is it.

Does it look better than it tasted? Or did it taste better than it looked?

With lamb’s lettuce on the turn, a perfectly ripe Hass avocado and not much else, this is a bit of a scratch lunch. But it was good – light and pretty, for all its greenness – and very filling thanks to the walnuts.

I tried a bit of it with a little lime juice, to see if it added anything, but all it did was kill the subtle velvetiness of the avocado and drown the nuttiness of the walnut oil. It’s best as a very simple platter (though anchovies might be good next time).

This blog first appeared as an article in PR Business, in which I had my own column (what a thrill that was!)

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