Funny how ideas have their moment. Several years ago, I'd got excited about writing a book about simple pleasures: cheap, fun and environmentally-friendly pursuits that, quite literally, do not cost the earth. No one was interested. Too quirky, said some; too worthy and too retro, opined others. I put it on the back burner. Then, just before Christmas last year, my agent Jane Turnbull got in touch with a proposal from Rowan Yapp at John Murray: a modern spin on the 'Weekend Books' that were common in the 1920s and 30s, packed with games, recipes and other things to do and make that would help put the fun back into the Great British Weekend. It seemed that the twin challenges of credit crunch and climate change had made the notion of a book on simple pleasures suddenly more marketable, and they wanted 80,000 words by the beginning of May. I did what any self-respecting hack (I have a weekly column in The Sunday Telegraph and write regularly on gardening and greener living) would do: divided it up into manageable chunks and chapters and got stuck in straight away, cutting my teeth on subjects with which I felt the strongest personal connection, such as gardening, open-air swimming, letter-writing, cooking with foraged food and celebrating the seasons.
But there had to be more to this book than picnics and playing French cricket on the beach. As The Wonderful Weekend Book: Reclaiming Life's Simple Pleasures took shape, and research revealed that an average of six hours of each weekend day is taken up by food shopping, house and garden maintenance and other mundane tasks, I became almost evangelical about inspiring people to free up more time for fun and to Bring Back Sunday, not for church-going, necessarily, but for hanging out with friends and family and enjoying quieter, more contemplative activities.
I've always been an advocate of a slower pace of life. In the Eighties, when I took off to work in Italy after graduating from Cambridge, I was probably thought of as a bit of a slacker. Much though I loved my first full-time job back home - on World of Interiors magazine - I remember thinking that five days in the office and two days off was way out of balance, and resolving to work part-time when I could. When asked to help launch the Sunday Telegraph Magazine in the mid 90s, I was famous for negotiating my three-day-a-week deal on the grounds that I needed to spend a certain amount of time looking out of the window when writing. My way of life has never been particularly centred around shopping, and I grew up with the idea that one to live well while consuming less. Born on a farm to parents who, out of necessity, grew vegetables, cooked meals from scratch and made most of our clothe, gardening, cooking and making things have always been a part of my life. I got my first allotment back in 1996 and began growing organic fruit and veg way before urban plots became as sought-after and fought-after as the best children's schools. And though I've always enjoyed fashion - even writing about it for The Guardian for a short spell - I've always had fun mixing designer sale bargains with thrift shop finds and customised hand-me-downs. This all seemed totally natural to me rather than a conscious 'lifestyle choice', so it was fantastic to be informed that, far from being quirky, worthy or retro, my way of life was now cutting edge and my ideas about it the perfect material for a book!
The Wonderful Weekend Book has been the most tremendous fun to put together. Not only have I been given a free hand to write little essays on allotments, keeping pets, building fires, the perfect night in and many other aspects of life I feel passionate about; I've also had the opportunity to explore new areas such as buying British wine and using the internet for blogging, campaigning and sharing photos with friends. To make the book really useful, it is packed with telephone numbers and websites for everything from unusual shops and museums to pet-sharing schemes and natural pest control. As well as listing my own personal favourites, I've also canvassed a wide range of stylish and resourceful friends for their own recommendations. This book tells you how to bake the best scones, find the best campsite, throw an impromptu party, learn the ukulele and be the perfect weekend guest, not necessarily all at the same time.
The result is, I hope, a book that is both useful and entertaining, and that will inspire those who read it to free up some time and try something new. Above all, it's a cheerful book. There's a lot of doom and gloom about at the moment, but the message on these pages is that simplifying our lives might be necessary but it can also be great fun. 'The best things in life are free' might be an old saying, but its time has certainly come round again.