Internet eating

However did we live without this magical interweb thingy?

If we’ve got a few things left in the fridge that we need to use up before they start walking out the door, Gill will Google the random ingredients and – eureka! – out pop a load of off-the-wall recipe ideas.

Plug in celery, ham, spinach, for example and here’s a great idea:

Celery, ham & spinach gratin

Or the other night I stumbled across a very tasty blog called Deliciously EllaElla suffered from a rare illness which badly affected the quality of her life. After conventional medicine failed to improve her condition, she researched more natural options.

Eating a whole foods, plant-based diet – giving up all meat, dairy, sugar, gluten, anything processed and all chemicals and additives – was a drastic but successful solution for her.

Now Ella is sharing her recipes online and I cooked the warming winter curry a couple of days ago. We already had Gill’s allotment spuds resting in the garage, carrots & spinach in the fridge and spices & chopped tomatoes in the larder.  I just needed to buy some cannellini beans and coconut milk from Sainsburys and, a blizzard of peeling, chopping and boiling later, we were enjoying a vibrant, healthy and tasty curry.

curry2blog

In days gone by we’d have grabbed a gravy-stained cookbook off the shelf for inspiration, but in this digital age the world is literally our lobster, Rodders.

And now that we’re not working, Gill and I need to make sure nothing goes to waste.

Thank you, interweb thingy.

 

Pensions….how much is enough?

So here’s the deal….

I’m 57. Gill’s 52. We’re on a break. No, not on a Ross & Rachel Friends break. A work break. Early retirement. A hiatus. A mature gap year.

And that’s the thing…we’re not really sure ourselves yet how long this intermission might last.

How come?

Pensions. How the *&^% do we know if we’ve got enough to get us through however long we need to get through, in the lifestyle and financial comfort that we’d like to get through it in?

We’ve been lucky – and sensible – enough to stash away some savings in a tax-efficient SIPP for the last 15 years, alongside paying off the mortgage. Largely thanks to what I earned and learned working for The Motley Fool and lovemoney.com, Gill’s hard work building up South Minster Kitchens, and using Hargreaves Lansdown’s excellent guidance and online platform to manage our pension savings. And not having children made a huge financial difference. And being teetotal and never going out, obviously.

Until fairly recently, your pension choices were limited, but clearer. Work until 65 for men, 60 for women. Start collecting your state pension from the Post Office every week (along with those really nice mint humbugs), and additionally – if you were lucky – get a monthly, fixed pension from where you worked for 40 years. And oh yes, it probably increased every year automatically, in line with inflation. And that occupational pension scheme income would probably have been a function of your final salary before retirement, rather than a measure of  how much your actual contributions ( personal and employer) had grown to. Not that I’m bitter, or anything.

Ah, how simple things were. Like having only 3 or 4 TV channels to choose from. Or deciding whether to go for a bottle of Liebfraumilch, or that exciting new slightly fizzy Lambrusco wine.

The recent changes to pensions have added flexibility and complexity to that simple – but outdated – view of pensions in retirement. And the further changes proposed by the current government to take effect in April 2015 will provide even more flexibility.

But here’s the quandary Gill and I have to wrestle with now…

  • we’ve got a defined contribution (aka money purchase) pension pot
  • we just missed out on the defined benefit (aka final salary) pension scheme era, giving a decent fixed inflation-linked income for life and certainty over your financial future in retirement
  • I won’t start collecting my state pension until 2023, when I’m 66. Gill will have to wait even longer, until 2029, when she’s 67.  And there’s every chance the dates will be pushed back even further before we get there. If we get there…
  • I’m over 55 so I can take 25% out of my own pension pot now, free of tax. Very nice, but without a current income for either of us that one-off lump sum will have to put food on the table, pay the council tax, and finance any of the fun stuff that we’d like to do while we decide what to do with the rest of our ageing lives
  • we could take an annuity from our current private pension pots. But because of  the prevailing global financial position and interest rate environment, annuity rates have been running at, or near, historic lows
  • for £100,000 saved in a defined contribution pension pot, I’d get roughly £400 a month or £4,800 a year, if I were to swap the remainder of my pension pot for an annuity now – ie an annual return of 4.8%, before tax. And that’s NOT inflation proofed and Gill would get NOTHING after I’ve popped my slightly older clogs
  • it gets worse. I’d only get an annuity income of around £200 a month or £2,400 a year now for £100,000 of pension savings – ie 2.4% return before tax, if I want to protect against the risk of inflation eroding my income and ensure Gill gets 50% of that meagre annuity income once I’ve snuffed it
  • so simplistically that would mean I would have to stick around a long time to make sure I got my money back from the annuity provider to whom I “sold” the pension pot

The only advantage of an annuity that I can see at these levels of return is certainty. You’ll know exactly what your income is for as long as you stay above ground.

Fortunately there is now an alternative. It’s called income drawdown. How does it work?

  • you leave your defined contribution/money purchase pension funds invested, without buying a fixed income annuity
  • you can take out a flexible income, based on what you need and subject at the moment to certain statutory limits (to make sure you don’t spend it all too quickly on fripperies and throw yourself on the mercy of the state too soon…but these restrictions could be lifted next April, and you would then be able to spend the lot on fripperies  and throw yourself on the mercy of the state)
  • the main risk of going into income drawdown is that your pension pot remains invested, so it is subject to market fluctuations – depending how you decide to leave it invested – and your income is not guaranteed

The other great unknown for an income drawdown pension is life expectancy. How long have you got left? The current risk adjusted life expectancy for me is 84, so let’s say another 27 years…..possibly more if I stay really fit and cut out that regular Friday night curry. And let’s say Gill lives to 86, that’s another 34 years for her…maybe closer to 40 if she’s anything like her Nan.

Can we really eke out our current pension pots for that long?

Despite the risks, I think I still find the income drawdown route more attractive than taking out an annuity. It puts quite a burden on you to make the right investment decisions, and not spend beyond your pensioned means, but at least it’s flexible and largely in your control. It is your hard-earned money, after all, and the current government’s attempts to recognise that are to be applauded.

I’ve highlighted some of the decision-making quandaries above, but I’ve still only really scratched the surface of things to think about in making such an important decision.

Why not take a mixture of guaranteed annuity and flexible drawdown income? What are all the other tax considerations, based on current legislation and also after the proposed changes due in April 2015? And what happens to our remaining pension pots, once we’ve both shuffled off our mortal coils, in any of these very different scenarios?

And there’s much, much more to ponder…but the greatest unknown remains the question of life expectancy. How galling would it be for us both to kick the bucket in 5 years time – tragically both crashing on the rocks during a cliff diving competition in Mexico – having taken out an annuity, so that the insurance company enjoys the fruits of our long labours more than we have?

Or if we go the income drawdown route and, thanks to healthy Madonna-like macrobiotic diets and staying fitter than a bunch of butchers’ dogs, both get telegrams from King William….but have run out of pension pot dosh at some time in our energetic 90s?

And there’s the rub. There are just too many variables to be able to make an absolutely correct decision NOW. Unless of course, you know that you’re definitely going to fall off your perch at 9 o’clock on Saturday night, just after Strictly, on 24th October 2026. Then you can really plan ahead, and cut your pension cloth accordingly.

I’ll write again on this mystical subject of pensions and let you know which options we follow, but for now I hope this article has at least highlighted some of the considerations we – and others – face approaching those allegedly golden years of retirement….

“You can always alter and adapt your plan….provided you have one.”
Manoj Arora, From the Rat Race to Financial Freedom

Book review – Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace

I’ve just finished one of those books where you’ve become so engaged – emotionally invested as the psycho-babblers might say – that you’re in a quandary over how to read the last 100 pages.

You’ve come to love the characters so much that you’ve finagled yourself into the narrative too. Well, they won’t notice, will they….?

You want to luxuriate in that booky pleasure and become one of their inner circle of off-the-wall friends….but at the same time you really want to know how the quirky plot will get resolved.

Welcome to the fun and immersive world of Charlotte Street, Danny Wallace’s first novel, published in 2012.

It’s all about a man who one night helps a girl. Just for a second. And there’s a moment between them. But then it’s over. She disappears. But in his hands, he realises he’s still got something of hers…

Her disposable camera. So what should he do? Develop the film? Or forget about her? He develops the film. Of course he does. And he looks at her photos. And that’s when he spots something very unusual indeed…

That’s the official synopsis, lifted from Danny’s website. But it’s really more about the characters than the plot. Well, the plot is clever and funny….but as you turn the 400 pages you live and enjoy, sometimes suffer, the characters’ lives with them long before the clever, funny plot resolves itself.

The narrator and central character is Jason Priestley. No, not the Beverley Hills 90210 Jason Priestley, as Danny’s Jason frequently has to explain.

He’s been a knob. He has a shot at redemption, but blows it. Several times. He gives up hope. He redeems himself just in time. He regains hope.

But wow, the story is weaved brilliantly around that over simplified summary of Jason’s character using some original plot development techniques and a motley crew of friends and passing acquaintances.

I get the feeling Danny is clever and funny. One of his writing techniques is clever and funny repetition…like always mentioning that Jason lives with his best mate Dev on the Caledonian Road, above a videogame shop between a Polish newsagents and that place that everyone thought was a brothel, but wasn’t.

But it’s a heartwarming, emotional, witty, sad, insightful novel that I know you’ll enjoy too.

And yes, it’s also very clever and very funny.

Craster, Northumberland…..a new favourite place

Close your eyes and think of your favourite place….

Sitting on a bench in the Jardins des Tuileries in Paris spring sunshine, dozing under the welcome shade of a plane tree after a long, liquid lunch and too many moules? Strolling along a deserted Connemara beach, weak winter sun inevitably losing the battle against the wicked westerly wind? Your local café,  a haven of strong coffee,  comforting cakes and friendly faces?

We’ve just returned from a week in Northumberland and I can definitely add Craster to my own list.

Tucked away on the coastal Area of Outstanding National Beauty, between Amble in the south and Bamburgh in the north, it’s a tiny harbourside community punching way above its fragile weight.

Arriving as we did, past the beguiling hilltop remains of 14th century Dunstanburgh Castle and a long stretch of dramatic wave-pounded and gull-strewn shoreline, seemed to accentuate its remote attractiveness. As if you’ve finally managed to get a first date with the aloof girl who everyone at school fancies.

The harbour pulls focus, a combination of Local Hero and French Lieutenant’s Woman and photogenic enough to have its own starring roles in film and TV productions.

This is the source of the royally famous Craster kippers, thanks to generations of hardy fishermen who brave the ocean swell constantly waving a defiant fist at the harbour entrance.

Explore the village and you’ll stumble across L. Robson & Sons, smoking the fishermens’ kippery catches since 1906; the seafood restaurant attached to the smokehouse and offering a gull’s eye view of the harbour and, beyond, to Dunstanburgh castle; the cosy Shoreline Café, dispensing landlubbery food, coffee and cakes; The Mick Oxley Gallery, for artwork inspired by the constantly changing coastal landscape, the artist reflecting the moods, light and textures of this unique Northumbrian location.

And then drop into The Jolly Fisherman pub as we did, to cement Craster as one of our own special destinations. You know those rare days when everything just seems to fall into place, when you glow with smug satisfaction that maybe, just maybe, life isn’t so bad after all? Eating their famous fresh crab sandwiches and kipper paté with toasted sourdough bread, washed down with neighbourly Yorkshire Masham Black Sheep ale, and overlooking the simultaneously angry and friendly swelling sea was definitely one of those days.

We will return to Craster, and hopefully stay in one of its weathered cottages so that we can uncover more secrets of this idyllic community and its thrilling coastline in even more leisurely fashion.

J01_0312 Craster harbour.JPG

Bella Italia

Grazie, Alex Polizzi.

I stumbled across the final episode of her Secret Italy series on TV last week. This piece was on Puglia in the south, the heel of Italy’s endlessly fascinating boot.

The concept of the series is Alex reconnecting with her own roots, as part of the venerable Forte family.

Her first language was Italian, but she has been brought up largely in the UK. My own connection with that bellissimo country is more tenuous, but she helped to remind me of the places I’ve already been lucky enough to enjoy visiting, and those still on the list for my retirement years. And also kick me into a more structured approach to learning the beautifully demonstrative Italian language, as animated as a Roman rush hour.

My father used to work in the travel industry, and I could only have been 5 or 6 when he secured tickets for a posh cruise around the Mediterranean. We enjoyed a few days stopover in Rome, in an August heatwave, and brief trips to Pompeii and Capri. I was too young to appreciate the history, beauty and passion of this romantic country, but the seeds had been sown in my youthful soul.

Fast forward many years and the love affair was ignited when Gill and I spent a week walking in the majestic Dolomite mountains. Part Italian, part German and part Ladino, this area is an intoxicating miscela of cultures, language and food. The following week touring round Tuscany was almost an anti-climax, although it sounds folle to dismiss the living museums of Florence, Pisa and Siena so heartlessly.

We found the quieter Lucca more rewarding, sipping chilled glasses of Prosecco in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro as dusk brought to life the locals in the multi-tiered ancient properties encircling the elliptical plaza, like the opening scene in an epic production at the Globe.

Trips to the beguiling islands of Sicily and, more recently, to Sardinia – both with their own distinct history and culture – continued the affair. And back on the mainland, another epic twin-centred Italian vacanza cemented the relationship for ever: a few days in Rome, my first time back there since the 1960s and now in a more bearable temperature; and a week in the Majella mountains and national park in Abruzzo, an unspoiled eastern province with hilltop villages unchanged for centuries and seaside resorts, with the clear Adriatic lapping at its broad, sandy beaches.

A couple of skiing holidays, in the tax-free Livigno domain and the vast Sella Ronda area back in the Dolomites, didn’t provide another full-on Italian affair. But it’s still rewarding to find a tiny piste-side trattoria serving a secret recipe home-made pasta special for lunch, or gargle with a throat-stripping grappa before bedtime….and know that the country’s traditions will endure for longer than I’ll be around to enjoy them.

So where’s next? The rugged Ligurian coastline; Le Marche, Abruzzo’s quieter northern neighbour; the tourist mecca of the Italian Lakes; stay in an Apulian trullo; and visit biblical Matera, in Basilicata, thanks to Alex Polizzi’s own love affair with this ancient community etched into its rocky surroundings, and saved in the 1980s from its poverty-stricken ghost-town status.

And I’d like to immerse myself somewhere in this bellissimo country to learn their language properly. To engage fully with Italians on the merits of this year’s Montepulciano vintage, or who will win the Scudettonow there’s a worthy ambition for retirement.

Bravo bella Italia…e grazie Alex Polizzi.