In this exclusive extract from her new book, Kate Humble shares how a series of tragedies sent her off in search of an easier way of life – and the lessons she learned along the way.
It’s been a –––– year. I’m not sure of the word to use here. There doesn’t seem to be one, or if there is I don’t know it. Perhaps if I just give you the facts, you can fill in the gap for me.
In the first few weeks of this year a number of people I love have died. Jennifer, the beautiful, graceful, infinitely kind woman who took us under her wing and made us part of her family when we first moved to Wales. My father-in-law, with breathtaking suddenness. Di, the dear mum of dear friends. My own dad.
None of these deaths was a tragedy. All had lived into their 80s – my father-in-law was 90. And all had died with the people they loved beside them, knowing that their lives had mattered, that they would not be forgotten, that they, too, were loved. But I am left now with a tangle of emotions that I can’t describe, and I can’t put a word to.
Perhaps these losses have helped bring something else into focus, that has, for some time now, been niggling away on the periphery of my thoughts. It’s not unpleasant; not one of those vaguely discomforting feelings you get when you might have forgotten something important, or done something that has caused upset, but you’re not sure what.
This is more of a quietly forming and growing realisation – maybe consciousness is the right word – that life could be lived differently, more simply, and that I might be happier for it.
And there is another factor at play. The state of the planet that is our home, that sustains all living things, has never been so fragile. It worries me profoundly that the things we do, or don’t do, the way of life we have become so used to, that we take for granted, really is no longer tenable.
I know I have to be open-minded and always let curiosity get the better of me. I also know I have to be scrupulously honest with myself and accept that some things may not be possible to sustain or won’t feel right for me. And most importantly I don’t want to run away from real life, to go and be a hermit in a cave. This isn’t about living a life of penury, devoid of joy or fun – quite the opposite. It is about finding, or rediscovering, the aspects of life that really matter and having time to value and enjoy them. It is a search for simplicity and the contentment that goes with it.
Toast and marmite
Toast. Student staple, comfort food, rescue remedy for those too exhausted to cook, or those that don’t know how. Forgiving (burn it and it can be fixed with a bit of judicious scraping) and endlessly adaptable. The simple act of toasting (I don’t think I can go as far as to call it an art) transforms one of those flabby, scrawny coffee-shop sandwiches that come in a plastic envelope into, if not an epicurean treat, then at least something with texture, even if it entirely lacks taste.
The thickness of a piece of toast matters, and it does rather depend on what it is being used for. Toast for breakfast, or a snack, needs to be a robust slice, not thin and floppy. So ideally it should be from a loaf that needs slicing by hand. Our bread-maker bread makes really good toast, although nothing beats my friend Polly’s sourdough. Maybe my fledgling bread-making skills will one day make a loaf that surpasses even that, but I suspect it will be a while. Everyone has a preference for how toasted they like their toast to be. Personally, I like it well browned, and if the thickness of the slice is right, there is then a perfect crunch-to-squish ratio. What has to be avoided is through and through crispness, which just ends up as crumbs, and provides none of the comforting stodge that makes toast so universally appealing.
Then there is the bewildering number of things that go with toast, although I will never sully a slice with either chocolate or sandwich spread.
My husband Ludo’s amazing homemade marmalade is a strong contender for top toast topper, as is his cheese on toast recipe, which involves beating an egg, grating strong cheddar into it, mixing it all up with Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper, piling it generously on to a piece of toast and putting it under the grill. But my never-fails-to-satisfy choice is butter (and it must be butter, salted at that) and Marmite. I’m not going to make a case for Marmite. We all know you either love it or hate it, and lovers of it don’t need telling that its pungent, yeasty saltiness is irresistible. What I have never understood, though, is Marmite lovers who only love it if it is so thinly applied it almost isn’t there. It needs to be spread generously, covering the toast in a glossy, dark slick. There is literally nothing better to sink your teeth into.
I’ve been working for the past couple of days in the west of Wales. The drive home is long, but the treat of a summer evening is that it is still light and warm when I get home, the sun spreading its long, golden fingers over the fields. I open the door to the barrage of barking that is the welcome I get from the dogs and persuade them to come to have a leg stretch with me. We walk up the farm lane and take the path that climbs diagonally up our neighbour’s field. The far hedge is laden, as it always is at this time of year, with particularly juicy blackberries.
Plastic bowl in hand, I mooch along the hedge as the dogs scamper and sniff. There are a lot of berries here. I test them with my fingers, only picking the ones that pull away easily. They are irresistible and soon my tongue as well as my fingers are telltale purple. Why is it, I wonder, that the fruit you pick yourself tastes so much better? It’s fresh – obviously – not chilled and tasteless, and perhaps, because it takes a bit of effort (although in the case of these blackberries, the effort is minimal) and when you consciously choose each fruit you pick, you have a greater appreciation for it, which maybe enhances the experience of eating it.
My bowl of blackberries is gradually filling up, despite the fact I’m eating one for every few I pick. Before long it is full. Dogs and I turn back, walk through the warm evening shadows with our wild bounty that costs nothing but will taste better than anything money can buy.
Working in bed
No sniggering please. Not that sort of work. Not at my age. I’m talking about the sort of work you might do at your desk, or at the kitchen table, which can, it turns out, be just as easily done in bed. It was my friend Polly who made this discovery. ‘It’s marvellous!’ she tells me on the phone. ‘I’m in bed now.’ I look at the clock on the wall of my office, where I am sitting at my desk, achieving very little. It is 2.15pm.
After Polly’s phone call, I couldn’t get the image out of my head of my lovely, cosy bed just a short flight of stairs away. Why not? I thought, and I unplugged my computer, gathered up my phone, my notebook and pencil case – don’t mock, I love my pencil case – and carried them upstairs, feeling that heady mix of guilt and delicious indulgence.
I never, not even if I feel like I’m at death’s door, take myself to bed in the middle of the day. When people talk about the heavenly prospect of a ‘duvet day’ – an entire day spent on the sofa or in bed – I can’t imagine how they do it. I feel restless and mildly ashamed if I watch two episodes of Succession back to back.
The dogs have sensed something untoward is going on, rush up the stairs and jump delightedly on the bed as I’m just settling myself in. I remain fully dressed, which makes me feel less slovenly, and don’t get in under the duvet, just the quilt that lies on top of it. But I do have woolly socks on – Polly says having warm feet is key. I arrange the pillows so that I can sit upright and be supported, and I put a pillow on my lap on which to rest my computer. Phone and pencil case go on the bedside table, notebook open beside me. Badger rests his head on my legs, Bella curls herself up on the pillow next to me, Teg stretches out on the floor beside the bed. I start to type. And three hours later I press send. ‘Deadline met,’ I say to the dogs. ‘Let’s go and open one of those bottles of wine.’
Not only did working in bed prove productive, it was enjoyable. It felt like a treat. I have resisted doing it all the time, because then it would feel less treat-y, but there are days – particularly if I’ve got something boring-but-important nagging at me to get done, or the weather is foul and I’m cold – when I happily retreat upstairs and snuggle in.
I’m writing this in bed. There is a tempest raging outside and it’s been like that for the past five days. But here I can work, listening to the wind howling around the house, the rain being lashed against the roof and windows, and feel safe and secure and warm. Polly is right though: woolly socks are imperative.
This is an edited extract from A Year of Living Simply: The Joys of a Life Less Complicated by Kate Humble, which will be published on 17 September by Aster, price £20. To order a copy for £14 go to whsmith.co.uk. Offer available until 6 September. Enter the code YOULIVING at the checkout. Book number: 9781783253425. For terms and conditions go to whsmith.co.uk.