Monday, 6 March 2017

The year in books: March

My book for March is going to be The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan.  I saw a tweet from the publisher offering copies for review and it seemed interesting - will let you know!

My book for February was The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester, and very good it was too.  Young reporter Frankie gets caught up in events when Ebony Diamond, performer and suffragette goes missing in 1912.  There are several intertwined stories about action taking by suffragettes, the role of the media and police, as well as what's going on at the corset shop.  I'd definitely read something by this author again.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt* was excellent.

Most children probably know the rhyme 'Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done she gave her father 41.'  Other than that, I didn't know anything about the actual story and if you'd asked me, I probably wouldn't have been able to tell you whether or not the crime actually happened (it did, in 1892).  The story starts with Lizzie discovering Mr and Mrs Borden's bodies and then introduces the main characters (sister Emma, Bridget the maid, uncle John and mystery Benjamin) as the reader learns more about the family dynamics and what motivation (if any) Lizzie may have had for killing her father and stepmother in such a violent manner.  Slight spoiler coming up (only if you know nothing about the criminal case, and this doesn't spoil the book): Lizzie was arrested for murder, but eventually found not guilty as the jury (of men) couldn't believe that a young woman would murder her parents, even though the general public opinion was that she did it.  I'd definitely recommend this.

Joining in with Laura.
*Received from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Reduce, reuse, recycle - plastic

A resolution I've made for this year is to use less plastic and recycle more.  I'm pretty good at the recycling bit already -  I even take home recycling from work as we don't have recycling facilities on site (which in this day and age is a bit ridiculous, and a very long story I'm not going to go into here).  Most days from work I'll bring home an empty 4pt milk bottle taken from the kitchen and I almost get excited when I get quite a big 'haul'.  I possibly need to get out more.  Anyway, I am doing my bit for the environment.

It has made me realise though just how much plastic we all use - there's a Tesco opposite work and many people have a microwaveable ready meal for lunch.  I can take the card sleeve home and recycle that but the plastic trays can't be recycled.  Same with the pasta salad plastic containers and disposable forks - they just go straight in the bin.  I'm not complaining about the choices people make for lunch, I like a ready meal and honey mustard chicken pasta salad as much as the next person, but it really does add up - and if you take my relatively small department and multiply that across every office in the country, that's a lot of plastic.  Oh, and add in water bottles and smoothie bottles and drinks cans.

So I am making a real effort to use less plastic.  I work at the office four days a week, with one day working from home, so I need to have four packed lunches during the week.  In the past I've been making three and treating myself to a honey mustard chicken pasta salad on the fourth.  But this is such a waste of plastic - in the £3 meal deal I would get a salad, a drink in a plastic bottle and some crisps/chocolate.  The plastic just goes straight in the bin and that's not sustainable.  I'm therefore really thinking about what I take to work, and this has been made easier as the store has stopped stocking the honey mustard chicken pasta, and the other options I don't like as much.

My lunches at the moment are either a salad, or some soup - I have a great microwaveable mug with a vent, so I can put soup in it before work, put on the leak-proof lid (and it is leak-proof, it's been tested well!), store in the fridge at work and then just open the vent and put the mug in the microwave.  Yes, the mug is plastic, but it's reusable and that's better than disposable.  I have a water bottle in my bag, a pint glass of water on my desk and the office has a water cooler so no need to buy water.

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and most conferences I've been to have had ceramic cups and saucers, so obviously they can be reused.  This conference, though, used disposable cups, which can't be recycled and just get thrown away.  (It was annoying to note that all the cafes on the university campus offered a 10% discount if you used your own cup, as part of a big green initiative, whereas the university catering used disposables.)  I had three cups of tea during the day, most people there probably had the same, and there were easily 100 delegates - that's 300 cups thrown away.  I vowed there and then to always have a travel mug with me, especially when I go away to places like this.  I have several insulated mugs, but my favourite travel mug is my Keep Cup.  I bought it maybe five or six years ago and it's still going strong.

This weekend I went to Unravel (a great wool fair in Farnham) and I took my Keep Cup.  I was glad I took it, as I noticed they were using disposable cups and also there were so many people, having a lid on a hot drink was useful anyway!  I stood in line with my mug and when I got to the front I asked the lady to use mine one.  She took it from me, and said it would be a large not a regular size, I said fine.  She then took a disposable cup, filled it with tea and then poured it into my mug (which definitely would have fitted underneath the spout).  She gave me my mug, and the disposable cup was put to one side.  The queue moved quickly, and I moved along to the till, so I didn't see if the cup was used for the next person (who was also ordering tea).

This annoyed me slightly (and let's assume the disposable cup used to measure out my tea was thrown away), I'm making a real effort to use less plastic, but it needs to be a wider cultural shift.  I completely understand why events such as this one use disposable cups, but people like me taking their own should be encouraged.  Not necessarily with money off (although that's always nice) but perhaps not with staff using my mug and a disposable one! If we assume the disposable cup wasn't thrown away, and was reused, that's better, but why did it need to be used in the first place?  Is there a hygiene reason my one couldn't be used?  And if so, how do other places get around that?

I'm going to continue doing my bit to use less plastic, being mindful in what I buy, and also planning ahead.  Yes, it is a bit of a hassle to carry a mug around with me, but then half the stuff I carry around in my bag each day I rarely use and I don't need a mug each day, just when I'm definitely out of the office.  I just need to do my best, and gently try to encourage others to do the same too!

In the meantime, you can find me collecting milk bottles in the kitchen.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Knitting a tiger

In 2015 I discovered Sincerely Louise and faux taxidermy.  It's reasonable to say I fell in love with it all quite quickly.  I knitted the fox head, and when my dad made a shield for it, I think he fell a bit in love with it too.  Before too long, a cheque arrived in the post for me to buy the tiger rug kit and make it for his birthday in December 2016.

Now this is what you call a project.  I love the heads (I've now made two foxes, a badger and a unicorn) and I do honestly love the finished project, but I don't enjoy knitting them.  The super chunky yarn is hard to work with, and I thoroughly dislike sewing them up.  No matter how good the instructions are, it's hard making some bits of knitting into a 3D object which resembles a head.  And stuff it, and add eyes and ears and other facial features all in the right place.  The unicorn took me as long to sew up as it did to knit.  But the finished items are so amazing, I can just about overlook how much I don't like knitting them. I seem to forget how bad it is, and remember just as I sit down to knit the next one.

Anyway, I ordered the tiger and it arrived and I looked through the kit.  There was a lot of it!  I started knitting it in March, it featured in that month's #photoanhour.  I could only work on it when I had lots of spare time: it's so big and bulky that you need to sit down, and just knit.  In August I was finishing off the top half.  You can tell that I wasn't particular enjoying it.  Intarsia is not my favourite knitting technique and doing it in bulky yarn held double is even less fun.  Because it's so fat you can't wrap it round bobbins, like you would for intarsia normally.  So I had massive balls of yarn in bags for life (to try and stop the balls from rolling away) placed around my feet and when I got to the end of a row, and turned the work, I had to then turn it back on itself to try and reduce the tangling.  It didn't really work, and there was a bit of swearing, and lots of requiring Ben to come and help me get me out of whatever tigrine mess I was currently in.

Then I had to sew it together.  Now, bearing in mind how much I don't enjoy sewing the heads together, I knew I was not going to enjoy sewing this beast up.  In November, my sister came to stay and we had no great plans other than to sit and chat and eat.  She kept me company whilst I started sewing it up.  Sewing from one shoulder, all the way down the body and along the tail took 3.5 hours.  Then I stopped counting.

Eventually it was sewn up shoulder to shoulder and I had 'just' the head to do.  To be fair, it looked amazing by this point, but the facial features are the worse bit.  I needed Ben.  I needed lots of hands to hold things in place whilst they were sewn on (and then resewn when I realised they weren't quite in the right place).  Ben was in charge of stuffing it as by that point I'd had enough.

Finally, it was done.  Complete.  Finished.  Over.

And he looked bloody amazing.

That week, he came into work, partly because a few colleagues were genuinely interested in him, but mainly because I wanted to show him off.

My office is just off the central corridor in the dept, and I put him on the floor in the centre of the room but towards the door, so when you walked down the main corridor the orange of his tail caught your eye.  I had people coming in all day to feel and stroke and touch and hug and admire him.

Then he was taken to Cambridge for his grand unveiling.  Dad absolutely loved him, and he has pride of place in the living room, in front of their fire.

I shared many, many photos of him on social media and he was chosen as Sincerely Louise's Maker of the Week.  Each month, the Makers of the Week are entered into a competition to be Maker of the Month - her followers can vote on their favourite and the winner wins one of her kits.  It was pretty close between me and a mercat, but I won!  Or the tiger won.  Either way.  Hurrah!  Thank you to everyone who voted for me/him!  I chose another unicorn kit which I'll knit (eventually) and hang in the office - I took the unicorn head I made previously into work for the day and the ladies I share an office with were rather sad when I took it down to bring home.  I think they will appreciate having one!

This knitting project has been the biggest I've ever completed - biggest in terms of size, in terms of weight (just under 3.5kg if you're wondering), in terms of time, in terms of ridiculousness, in terms of cost, and most importantly, in terms of satisfaction with the end result.  I love him, and everyone who has met him has fallen a little bit in love too.  

He was really hard to part with, although I knew from the beginning I was making him for Dad and that he'd never be mine to keep.  I would quite like one of my own, but I won't ever make one again. 

Although never say never.  If I ever have £130 to spare, you never know what I might find myself ordering...

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The year in books: February

My book for February is going to be The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester.  I think Vikki sent it to me a while ago, and it appealed to me when I was sorting out the bookcases the other day.

January's book, Sucking Shrimp, started off well but then I completely lost interest.  I can't even tell you much of what it's about - a teenager who loves cooking, and Spain, and is slightly obsessed with her friend's mother.  That's as far as I got before I gave up.  Too many books I want to read, to spend time reading those I'm not enjoying!

Fires of Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky was excellent.  My mum gave it to me for Christmas the year before last, as she and I both enjoyed Suite Francaise.  This book is very similar, set in the early 20th century, and covering the lives of French families.  Beautifully written, and a book I devoured.

For Christmas I received two of the modern Famous Five books, Five Give Up the Booze and Five Go on a Strategy Away Day.  I loved the Famous Five books when I was younger, and these books are very much written in that style (and very tongue-in-cheek).  The Famous Five are now adults and appear to be living and working together (don't question any of this too much!).  Naturally, mystery and drama follows them wherever they go.  They're great stories, short and sweet, and genuinely made me laugh out loud.

In the library the other day I fancied reading a Jacqueline Wilson book.  She writes great stories and sometimes I just want something really easy to read.  I read Hetty Feather last year and found Sapphire Battersea on the shelf which is the second story in the trilogy.  Sapphire (Hetty) has left the home for foundlings and is now put to work as a housemaid whilst trying to write her memoirs and stay in touch with her not-so-secret mother.  A good read.

So a varied month - I am trying to make a real effort this year to read more.  I spend far too much time scrolling aimlessly through my phone.  Even if it's just a few minutes, those minutes add up.  So I've got reading material dotted round the flat even more than I did have before: I've got magazines in the living room (for when Ben says he's 'nearly ready' to head out, but I know he's not) and I have at least two if not three books on the go at once, so I will have a choice in reading material.  I've also given two bags for life full of books to charity shops recently - I own so many books (mainly from charity shops, or from friends) and really, I'm not going to read them all.  So I'm downsizing my collection, to show off the books I do have, and so I'm choosing to read books I do actually want to read.

Let's see how that goes!

Monday, 16 January 2017

So, a Rainbow said to me...

I love Guiding - it provides the opportunity for fun, and what makes it fun is the people within it.  I spent an hour a week at Rainbows (they're 5-7 year olds) and they never fail to make me smile.  Here are a few conversations I've had with them this year which have stood out:

We're making bird feeders at Rainbows - lard, nuts, seeds, cooked rice, all mixed together with your hands (some love doing this, some don't!) and then squashed into a yogurt pot.

Rainbow: Can I go and wash my hands?
Me: We can wash our hands afterwards when they're all covered in lard and seeds
Rainbow: But mummy says we have to wash our hands before cooking
Me: That's right, we do, but no humans are going to eat this, so it's okay to only wash our hands afterwards.
Rainbow: But I don't want the birds to get my germs
Me: They won't! The birds will be fine.  They eat worms straight from the ground, people wouldn't do that - we're all different.
Rainbow:  Okay! I'll wash my hands when we're finished.

At the end of a meeting on International Women's Day, I'm helping one of our youngest Rainbows do up her coat.

Me: Your earrings are very pretty.
Rainbow: I do taekwondo.
Me: That sounds fun.
Rainbow: It helps me be strong. So I can be strong and pretty!

We are trying to get our 13 Rainbows into a group of 6 and a group of 7.  After a few minutes with an 8 and a 5, a bit of reshuffling later we finally have a 6 and a 7.  

Me: This group of six is with me! Can you come and stand in a circle with me please?
Rainbow 1: Am I in your six group?
Me: Yes, all six Rainbows in this group are in my six group.
Rainbow 1: But I'm only 5.
Rainbow 2: I'm nearly 7 but I'm still 6 now so I'm in this group.
Me: That doesn't matter! I need six Rainbows in my group, it doesn't matter if you're 5 or 6 or 7, everyone in this circle is in my group.

We have a few new girls starting and so we go round the circle saying our name and our favourite colour.

Me: My name's Amy and my favourite colour is blue.
Rainbow 1: My name's [-] and my favourite colour is pink.
Rainbow 2: My name's [-] and my favourite colour is purple.
Rainbow 3: My name's [-] and my favourite colour is pink and purple sparkles.

We're starting a new badge at Rainbows, based on Russia.  I've brought along a world map and we're finding where we live (south coast of England) and where Russia is, far, far away.

Rainbow: Are we going to Russia?
Me: No, we're going to learn about Russia, and do some Russian crafts, and other Russian activities, but we're not actually going to visit Russia.
Rainbow: Oh. Why not? You could drive us there!
Me: I don't think we'd be back in time for your parents to pick you up at half five.

So, a Brownie said to me 2015
So, a Brownie said to me 2014

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Camp blankets and badges

When I was five years old, I went on my first Guide camp.  My mum was an adult helper with her old Guide unit (which eventually became my Guide unit) and the unit used to do 10 day Guide camps.  Ten days!  They were at the start of the summer holidays, and I have very many happy memories of these camps.  There were quite a few adult helpers with children, the photos from each year look remarkably similar to the year before, with the children just looking a little bit taller and in a slightly different field!

Every evening we would either play a game of rounders or, my favourite, have a camp fire.  A proper camp fire, with a circle made out of sitters (what's a sitter, I hear some of you ask? A long rectangular piece of groundsheet, long enough for about four or five Guides to fit and sit comfortably on), or large logs, if available, and a large fire in the middle.  We would start early evening, after we'd had dinner and washed up, and got the tents ready for the night.  There'd be a chill in the air, and several of the Guides would probably be in their pyjamas, under their camp blankets.  Ah! Camp blankets! That is where I am going with this.

My grandmother made my first camp blanket for me, I believe it's an old army blanket which originally belonged to her father.  It has a hole cut out of the middle so I can wear it as a poncho.  I'm sure it covered me when I was a Rainbow and Brownie, now I'm bigger and taller it barely covers half of me!  My grandmother blanket stitched around the edge, and my mum started sewing on badges.  I'd get a badge from wherever we were on camp, usually a local area badge, perhaps the badge of a place we visited, and fun badges.  When mum sewed them on, I asked her to space them out, to make it look as though I had lots.  When I left Brownies, she took all the badges off my sash, and sewed them on to my camp blanket.  When I was a Guide, she did the same with my Guide badges.  After that, I think she decided it was time I took responsibility for my blanket and learned to sew them on myself!

In my mid-teens I left Rangers (The Senior Section) and joined Venture Scouts (now known as Explorer Scouts).  It was through Ventures that I attended the 20th World Scout Jamboree in Thailand (which was fabulous) and it was here that I learned how obsessed people can be about badges.  Selling them, swapping them, archiving them, there was a whole side-street at the jamboree dedicated to people and their badges.  I'd always seen badges as a nice memento of an event, but never really thought about collecting them.

Fast forward a few years, and my original camp blanket is getting a bit full.  As a leader in Girlguiding, I seem to be doing lots of badges with my unit, and going on lots of events, and just obtaining badges without really thinking about it.  In 2008 I went with my old Guide unit to the Essex International Jamboree.  Every subcamp was named after an animal (the theme was endangered animals) and there was a badge for each subcamp, I was a komodo dragon (the best subcamp clearly, our badge was the first to sell out!).  Everyone got a badge of their own subcamp, and you could buy the others.  A leader and I went round and bought just a few badges.  Then we thought we may as well buy the full set.  So we did.  I remember sitting in our area of the subcamp, waiting for the Guides to meet us for dinner, and thinking that I quite liked badges, and how pleased I was that I got the full set.

From then on, I was hooked.

I love badges.  If we did a badge at Brownies, we always ordered enough for the leaders.  If I visited a place that sold badges, I bought one.  In the Guiding centenary in 2010 I joined with other adults to collect 100 centenary badges, and I soon reached that target.  I started my second camp blanket with a whole section dedicated to the centenary.  My first blanket has had a lot of badges taken off and resewn, in order to make use of all the space (even though I originally asked Mum to sew them far apart!).  

I even started designing badges with friends, sending a design off to a badge company to be made.  We had a district badge made up for Brownie Holidays, I had a Fluffy Owl badge made, and then a Brown Owl badge and Snowy Owl badge.  I then designed a badge saying 'my camp blanket is a labour of love', I've sold over 1500 of these (I still have lots available for sale, £1.50 + P&P!).  All the money I've made from selling badges has gone in a separate badge account, and I'm using the money to pay for Guiding adventures - it's currently going towards my trip to Iceland this summer.

A few years ago Sooty Owl and I went to visit a friend who was volunteering at Sangam, the Guiding World Centre in India.  We took Boris the Brownie Bear with us, and he couldn't resist buying a badge for each of the Brownies!  I have a few Guiding people who I know love badges, and they know I love badges, so we regularly buy an extra badge or four whenever we attend an event, just so we can send them to each other.  That's the spirit of Guiding!  For a Division earlier on this year, we purposefully over-ordered badges as we knew people would want to buy them!

My camp blankets are a story of my Guiding journey so far.  Everyone's blanket is different.  I'm not bothered about straight lines or neatly sewn badges or using the same colour thread as the badge edge, as long as the badge stays on that's fine with me! For Brown Owl's 30th birthday I sewed a lot of badges on to her blanket for her, she had rather a lot waiting to be done.  

I'm not a badge purist, some people will only collect badges they earned or from events they attended.  I'm happy to have random badges I've swapped, cute badges from other events, and I'm happy to buy badges which have been produced as a fundraising effort.  I love fun badges (I heart eggy bread) and personalised badges (Happy Birthday Fluffy Owl - this was a present, I didn't buy it for myself!).  

I love my camp blankets.  I love taking them on Guiding events, and showing them to people.  I love answering questions about my badges, and telling the story behind the badge (they're from my licence weekend, that one I made on a weekend for leaders only, that one has an ex-boyfriend's phone number on the back, he was a Scout, we met at a Jamboree, didn't have mobile phones so had to communicate via badges!).  I also love seeing other people's blankets, whether it be a Brownie with just a handful of badges, a Guide with a few more, or another leader who has, quite literally, thousands.

I've no idea what my blankets are worth, if you go on the basis of one badge equals £1, which is a very rough estimation, that in no way works out their value.  To me, they are utterly priceless, and I love them. 

The end of 2016 saw me completing my second blanket (this one is fleece and has badges sewn on both sides).  My third camp blanket is massive, wool, and has a slit cut in the middle so I can wear it as a poncho.  I have a backlog of badges waiting to be sewn on.  

Here are a few photos of blanket #2.

The blanket is quite organised, with the badges in groups, or years.  Here is my Big Brownie Birthday section, celebrating 100 years of Brownies in 2014.  The third badge from the left on the top is my 10 year service award.

These four badges commemorate how Guides helped during the First World War.

Sooty Owl made me a badge for my birthday.

Here are the Essex International Jamboree 2008 badges - the complete set!

These badges are celebrating the 2010 centenary of Girlguiding.

There are so many memories behind these badges.  I can probably tell you how I earned each badge, or which friend gave it to me, or why I bought it.

Bring on blanket number three! The needle and thread is waiting.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Day Zero Project - update #3

I realised the other day that I probably ought to pick up the pace on my 101 in 1001 goals/things to do/objectives (whatever I feel like calling them) as September will be here before we know it. I've gone through the list and I think I was a tad optimistic when I wrote it.  But I've done more than I thought, so here's a quick round-up:

18. Make a rainbow cake.

Well, I tried to do this.  I bought little pans from Lakeland and posh food colouring so I could have proper rainbow colours.  I made the batter, split into five (nearly running out of clean bowls/containers to put each layer on), coloured each layer and then baked.  I did grease the tins, but clearly this was not good enough as every single layer stuck to the bottom.  It did mean Ben and I had pretty bits of cake to eat (and a lot of buttercream icing I'd already made up) but it was hardly a proper cake.  I am going to try doing this again, and I will go to the effort of cutting out circles of greaseproof paper so hopefully the cakes will actually come out next time.  In the meantime, I am counting this as something I've done as I did make the effort to do it, which is more than can be said for some of the other items on my list!

44.  Attend a Guiding event for leaders only

I went to INTOPS in May and have been selected for a trip this summer!

98.  Reach 50 sent postcards on Postcrossing.

My friend Sandy introduced me to Postcrossing a few years ago.  It's incredibly simple, you register, add a bit of basic profile information, then request an address.  You then have the address of someone to write a postcard to, and some information about their (dis)likes (if they provided that information). Every postcard as a unique number, you write that on the card and then when it is received, the recipient can log it to show it's arrived.  Because you're the sender of the card most recently registered on the site, when someone else requests an address, yours is at the top of the list and so they send a postcard to you.  Easy!

5. Go to a large-scale yarn-based craft fair and 62.  Visit York

In September I had a great weekend away in York with Vikki which featured my first trip to Yarndale.

35.  Branch out from own-brand tonic water

In April Dad and I went to the Gin Festival, which was excellent, and sponsored by Fever Tree drinks.  Their tonic water is without doubt the best I've ever had, especially their Mediterranean tonic water.  It is pricey, but I think it makes a difference to the drink and as such is worth it.

49.  Visit a new country

In September Ben and I spent a week in Morocco.  I've realised I've not written a blog post about that yet, it's on the to do list!

51. See a West End show with Mum

Just after Christmas Mum and I went to see Rent - not exactly in the West End, but in London and very very good nonetheless.  One of my favourite musicals and Mum really enjoyed it too.

79.  Develop the Post Pals Twitter account - aim for 2,500 followers

Oooooh, I've just checked and it's over 3,000! Hurrah!

95.  Have something made just for me

I've had a few project bags made for me by talented friends with sewing machines - they make knitting even more enjoyable!