If you had told me when I was 24, that two decades hence, I would have stopped doing most of my favourite things I wouldn’t have believed you. At that time, those of my favourite things which aren’t too rude to mention were (in no particular order) my boyfriend, living in London, my mum and dad’s dog, drinking copious quantities of gin and wine, eating out, takeaways, sight-reading instead of learning my music properly, lazing about on the settee eating crisps and chocolate, and shopping.
Ten years ago, a lot of these things were beginning to pall, or at least to take their toll. The boyfriend (who was an awfully nice chap) had been married, divorced and then exchanged for a different model. We’re both much happier with the people we’re with now. I’d moved out of London, following my dad’s clever advice not to let my home be dependent on my relationship, and had a little cottage in Northamptonshire. Mum and dad’s rescue black lab did brilliantly, coping with arthritis until he was nearly 12, but by the time I was 34, mum and dad and I were dog-sharing beautiful chocolate Treax. She was very definitely one of my favourite things.
I was still extremely committed to my gin and wine hobby – aided and abetted by my then boyfriend (now husband). We invented an almost nightly activity called “kitchen” where we would stay up too late standing at the back door (Andrew smoking out of it) talking bollocks to each other while we emptied bottles into ourselves. It was great! The eating out was less enticing in Wollaston than in London – Wollaston has a number of pubs which at the time didn’t serve food, and one that did which was well on its way to getting a Michelin star which meant people who actually lived in the village could never get a table as it was booked up for six months in advance. There was, however, the Chinese van which parked outside the church. This was more suited to my budget and sensibilities. I dread to think how many times I had a jumbo spring roll instead of a proper dinner – it was hard to resist because they were HUGE and only cost £1.
By this time, I had stopped thinking that sight-reading from memory was either big or clever. I was constantly stressed because I didn’t have time to learn my stuff as well as I thought I should have. I didn’t have much time for indulging in my sofa-surfing – I was usually supplementing my very expensive hobby of being an opera singer by teaching until stupid-o’clock in the evening – but chocolate and crisps were definitely two of my usual five a day. All of this consumption of delicious and naughty things had, however, begun to catch up with me. My skinny post-divorce figure had been exchanged for quite a bit of prematurely middle-aged padding. I called it contentment. Piling on the pounds also meant that my shopping habit was still very much in evidence – going up a dress size every year meant I had to keep buying new clothes (dressing always for the sorts of singing jobs I wished I’d had rather than the ones I actually had) and because I looked fat in everything, I kept wanting to buy new things to make me feel better. I was spending far beyond my means and had a massive overdraft as well as a massive arse.
Fast forward to 2016, and some things had definitely changed. My boyfriend was now my husband and we lived in a village on the outskirts of Chesterfield. I still really enjoyed talking bollocks and emptying bottles into myself (in a different, posher kitchen). I’d started exercising properly -hiking, swimming and running seemed to be the only way to offset the takeaways (the gastronomic delights of Chesvegas’s restaurants being even dodgier than the Wollaston pubs). Our takeaway of choice was Hasland House who made delicious jumbo spring rolls for, guess what? £1. I was very sadly without a dog. Treax had finally succumbed to her arthritis, just like poor old Benson. I was just about managing not to have to do my shopping in plus-size shops most of the time. I got posher, louder singing jobs by this stage, so I needed posher clobber. However, despite my plethora of Hobbs and L.K.Bennet outfits (however well and flatteringly cut, they were usually straining a little at the seams), I really was starting to look old, so I spent more and more money on skincare and makeup and superfoods and supplements which I was convinced would offset my poor lifestyle choices. I drank a lot of Berocca. I memorised all of my music.
Looking back, I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. It was BRILLIANT! But then, as I’ve written about here I got a horrible germ and everything changed. First I gave up the booze, then I gave up the unhealthy food. Then I got my beautiful Juno and started getting fit. And then I had an epiphany.
You see, the thing that came as a complete surprise to me, was the realisation that things which I had considered to be treasured, favourite and really non-negotiable acitivities – drinking more than I should and eating delicious greasy things – were actually causing me a huge amount of background stress and guilt for quite a lot of the time. I worried about my poor lifestyle choices. I felt guilty about my lack of self-discipline. I worried about my health. One of the ways I stopped worrying so much and feeling guilty was to eat and drink and be merry. Then I’d feel guilty and crap about myself about that too. It’s really quite a relief to be out of that cycle. It’s also really great waking up and not having a hangover and remembering exactly what I’ve said to who, and what embarrassing things my friends who were all drinking have said and done. Smug doesn’t cover it.
I turn 44 on Sunday. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to live the rest of my life. I’ve had an absolute blast, but I think it’s time to embrace my inner-grownup, so I’ve started to think hard about what other things in my life are making me feel frustrated or guilty or like I could be doing better. One of those things is shopping. Not just because spending too much is, like over-indulging in food and drink, satisfying for a short time, and leaves you feeling terrible afterwards. But it’s also that I feel that I am drowning in stuff. I have so many things. It isn’t just that my house is cluttered (it is) – a spot of Marie Kondo-ing would sort that out – but it’s the terrible, crucifying guilt at looking at all of the impulsive, greedy purchases which I didn’t need. I don’t need four different pairs of gold shoes. I don’t need three different Jo Malone body cremes because I couldn’t decide which one I liked best. I don’t need fifteen (at a conservative estimate) handbags. I don’t need four cashmere jumpers in different colours. For God’s sake I can only wear one at a time!
I think the number one is key. I aspire to be as minimalist as my husband. He has one set of tails, one suit (bought c.1985), one smart pair of shoes and two dress shirts (he only wanted one, but I persuaded him that a tour of 24 Messiahs meant he needed to alternate and wash them!). He doesn’t wear makeup or anti-ageing cream, and he doesn’t smother himself in Jo Malone. Andrew’s grooming regime involves Vosene and not much else. It really shouldn’t be more expensive and difficult to be a female singer, but I’m not brave enough to ditch my makeup bag entirely and however much I wish it wasn’t the case, I am judged more on my appearance than my husband is. I’ve got my own grooming regime simplified to shampoo bar (cropped hair has its advantages), deodorant (essential for everyone particularly people sitting anywhere near me on public transport), one Jo Malone body creme (the rose one if anyone’s considering buying me a birthday present but actually don’t buy me any until I’ve run out) and my factor 50. Add a slick of mascara and lipgloss and I’m respectable for most professional situations.
Seriously though, what about all the stuff I used to use? What about all the expensive outfits just sat in the wardrobe? The shoes gathering dust under the bed? The thousands of pounds worth of cosmetics going off in their tubes? The gadgets sat redundantly in kitchen cupboards? So much stuff. We are all drowning in stuff. Stuff that makes us individually poor. Stuff that makes us stressed. Stuff that none of us need. Stuff that is using up our world’s resources. Shopping on a need-only basis is a good idea for lots of reasons. It isn’t going to solve climate change – as George Monbiot says, we get easily obsessed with fannying about changing what sort of cotton buds we’re using and buying reusable coffee cups instead of attacking the way in which our whole economy and society operates. But George says here that there are two things we can do on a personal level which actually will make a difference, and here’s where the real adulting thing comes in. He says we can stop flying, and we can eat a plant-based diet. My initial reaction to this was “I can’t stop flying and meat is delicious.” Well, no I can’t stop flying, but I can take the train when possible, even if it eats into my earnings a little bit more (after all, I won’t be spending them on shopping). And as for meat? Meat is delicious, but it makes me stressed. In the way that drinking made me stressed, and shopping makes me stressed. I worry about it. I worry about animal welfare. I worry about using up so much of our resources with intensive farming that we can’t feed everyone properly. I feel guilty about the little calves and the little lambs too, and I really like pigs.
And for all it is fannying about with cotton buds and reusable coffee cups and (if you’ll excuse the pun) reusable menstrual cups instead of tampons, if everyone makes changes, it will make a difference. I know I won’t get it right all of the time, I know I’ll mess up, and cave into consumerism sometimes, but knowing that we won’t be perfect isn’t an excuse not to try at all. So as of Sunday, I’ll be aiming to be a middle-aged, teetotal, vegetarian exercise fanatic who doesn’t buy stuff she doesn’t need, always turns the lights off, doesn’t leave the tap running while she cleans her teeth and has reusable cups for both ends of her anatomy, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Now how grownup is that?