FAMILY: The best things in life are free

Keiron PimIt's a new year and we are all looking at ways of revitalising our lives. A Norwich-based author's new book offers more than 100 ways of doing just that, as KEIRON PIM reports.Keiron Pim

It's a new year and we are all looking at ways of revitalising our lives. A Norwich-based author's new book offers more than 100 ways of doing just that, as KEIRON PIM reports.

Have you ever watched the sun rise and set on the same summer's day, gone bell-ringing, memorised a poem or sketched your relatives?

It may be a clich� that the best things in life are free but it remains true, and that is the essence of a new book by a Norwich-based author, who has done all these things and 99 others of a similar ilk as well.

102 Free Things to Do, by Alex Quick, compiles an assortment of activities that we can do at no cost, and which are sure to help refresh our lives as we make a new start in 2010.

'It struck me that there are things to do in life that are either fun on the one hand or self-improving on the other, which are actually completely free,' says the writer, whose real name is Gary Dexter - he has adopted the pseudonym Alex Quick for this book as it marks quite a departure from his previous works.

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'In the fun category are activities such as going out cloud-spotting, or taking a swim in the sea, or growing huge sunflowers. Under the self-improving category would be things like learning to meditate or learning a new language.'

Some activities are not only free, they might even earn you some cash: taking part in a police identity parade, for instance. The simplest way, the book explains, is to register as a potential line-up candidate at your local police station. They will take note of your appearance and when they need someone who looks like you, they will get in touch. When Gary did this he was paid �20 for his trouble. As he points out, you're likely to get more work if you're a young man than an elderly lady, and don't worry - if you're identified by the victim, you can't be sent to prison.

However, this example is not really representative of the book's spirit, he adds.

'It's not designed to be about getting freebies or quick and easy ways to earn money. It's more about fun things you can do that will improve the quality of your life and will develop you as a person.'

These can span from the physically strenuous - such as climbing one of Britain's mountains - to rather gentler activities. Gary has some sunflowers growing in the front garden of his terraced house in Norwich, which relate to idea number 92 in the book: 'Grow huge sunflowers.'

'Last year I grew some that were 8ft tall. Last summer a young woman knocked on my door and asked if she could have one so that she could cast it in bronze. She was from Norwich University College of the Arts. She did it and sent me a photograph of her holding a bronze sunflower - that was a wonderful surprise.'

This idea of living in a spirit of generosity and finding that it reflects back on you recurs often in the book. At the same time, Gary counsels that we try to shed some unhealthy ways of thinking. Number 14 is 'Give up craving for recognition (and be admired for it)', in which he describes the perils of basing your self-esteem on other people's opinions of you and how people will respect you more anyway if you do not appear needy. Number 52 is 'act without expecting anything back', 68 is 'Notice beauty', 69 is 'Let go of emotional pain' and 75 is 'Laugh in the face of death', which proposes humour as the only way to stay sane.

Still others are plain practical advice that show how to take advantage the needless waste created in our society.

'One of my favourite ones, which I did in Norwich, was that I always wanted to have a go at 'freeganism',' he says, referring to the trend for salvaging good food that shops have needlessly discarded.

'I explored all of Norwich's supermarkets to see what was on offer and it was quite astonishing, the amount of waste going on.

By going for half an hour you can get enough food to feed you for a week, which is what I did. You don't ask for it, you just take it; it's in their dumpsters outside, or often it's simply left out the back.

'One of the most amazing things I found was a child's birthday cake in perfect condition and perfectly fresh. Another one was a pack of individually wrapped chocolate brownies where the sell by date was the next day, again in perfect condition. Punnets of strawberries that hadn't reached their sell-by date, bread rolls, crumpets, muffins… you name it.'

Gary, who's 47 and married with two children, has tried all of the 102 things that he describes in the book, and he continues to do some of them every day.

'A lot of them are one-offs, not things you would do every day, such as getting sponsorship to go to the La Tomatina festival in Spain. But as for the lifestyle ideas, I'm continuing to do a good proportion of them: giving up my car, keeping a diary of one sentence a day, getting up earlier.'

The book is far more than a quickly dashed off self-help guide. It is well written, wise and thoughtful, hinting at the fact that Gary's main writing career is as a novelist and literary journalist. Previous books include Poisoned Pens, a compendium of amusingly venomous correspondence between authors, and a novel, The Oxford Despoiler.

His journalism includes a column for The Spectator called Alternative Reading, looking at the curiosities to be found among famed authors' lesser-known works. These range from Isaac Bashevis Singer's book about Miami beach to Dan Brown's 'survival guide for the romantically-frustrated woman', entitled 187 Men to Avoid.

'The reason for the pseudonym is that the other things I have been doing are so completely different that I wanted to develop separate channels of literary production,' Gary says. 'You could call 102 Free Things to Do my alternative reading.'

102 Free Things to Do: Inspiring Ideas for a Better Life, by Alex Quick (Old St Publishing, �7.99) is available now.

Gary Dexter is teaching an adult education course on 'How to write your novel' at Wensum Lodge. Places are still available - see or call 0344 800 8002 for more information.

For ideas on the things you can do for free this year don't miss Life Matters in today's Norwich Evening News (on sale Wednesday January 13, 2010).