Monday, 31 January 2011

Vintage Knitting Patterns and me possibly slain by chocolate cake

Today I ate flat-out the worst chocolate cake I have ever eaten in my life. I swear it actually had Jeyes Fluid in the icing, I mean this quite literally. Normally I am fairly undiscriminating and think cake is cake, but, good Lord. Then I made my friend try it to see if I was just being effete, and obviously I wasn’t at all, so now instead of the disaster being contained there are two of us wondering if we will survive the night. Luckily we think Casualty will be quite quiet today as January is not much of a party month, so at least if we are having to be given antidotes or hooked up to drips at 3am we should get seen quickly.

Anyway, I have been going through some old knitting patterns of my grandmother’s which my Aunty Kath was kind enough to send me. In a weak moment last week I ordered a job lot of Ethical Twist and thus am after DK patterns, and yes hooray there are indeed one or two.
I think Smith's Wool might still be in the market hall in Chesterfield
I thought this one was rather nice but then, I have a weakness for woollies of the tank top persuasion.
I myself use the stroke stroke stroke stroke STRIKETHROUGH! system. IIII, thus
Do you scribble down your row counts everywhere, like this? On the newspaper, on the back of your hand, on the cat with an eyeliner, on envelopes. What an excellent use for the gas bill, that’s what I say.
Knitting patterns meet A Clockwork Orange
This one is a little bit disturbing. I don’t know if she ever knitted this for Grandad but I am fairly sure he never had this expression.

Thank you everyone for your kind comments on the first chapter of Preserving Passion (credit there to Maria. How could I have missed such a perfect title?). You will perhaps be excited, or perhaps not excited at all, to know that there will be another chapter, as I have acquired a fan. Yes! A fan! Family communication systems have cranked into action and my mother has let me know that I must write a bit more so Aunty Kath will have something to read during quiet moments in the shop. I bet no-one ever said that to Hilary Mantel. But never fear, Aunty Kath, the next installment will be coming up shortly.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

I can't believe I've done this rather than cook dinner

Because, now we have no dinner, and that may cast a shadow over the evening. However, first chapter of romance novel below (click on read more thingy, that way those of you who aren't interested don't have to be bothered with Chardonnay!). I can't think of a title - it ought to be Preserving Something, but the only thing I can think of that would alliterate is Preserving Purity, and that is, like, 360 degrees absolutely not the point. Anyway, here we go.

Home Improvements. Do not do it, especially in the garden

I am not going to bore you generally with my fencing problems because I do appreciate that the bathroom was boring enough. I am going to bore you with them in this post, though, so, feel free not to read.

The problem:
Our garden has a surprising amount of fencing which is all falling down. What would I do if it fell on the big white cat from two doors down while he is doing his acrobatics on the top of it and squashed him, or, even worse, the small and incredibly well-behaved child who rides her tricycle down the passage? Then everyone would hate me. So, I am trying to get someone to replace the fencing at a price which does not necessitate my selling a kidney (ha!). I am also trying to get someone to move two bushes from our front garden, which will hopefully make the whole thing look less as if a witch lives here. (Although, come to think of it, a witch does live here).

Now, I have learned many things during this exciting time of home improvements, one of which is that, getting estimates is like drawing teeth. I ring people, I leave messages, they do not ring me back, I grind my teeth, I fall out with Partner. This is before they have even seen the horror that is our fencing. I don’t know if this is because we live in a slightly questionable area, but I do know that if I say the words ‘in the most economical way possible’ in the message this increases my failure rate. Once they have seen it, however, they trot off, brightly, promising to send me a quote, looking nervously from side to side, and then they do not.

I do not begrudge these people, but I have become cynical, and I now factor in a certain amount of natural wastage. So, whereas I started off by noting carefully down in a small book who I had rung and what their name was, now I adopt a scatter-gun approach, and I pick people at random from the Yellow Pages and leave them clipped and unhopeful messages while I am having my coffee in the morning and am half asleep. Well the joke is on me today, because everybody I rang this morning is coming tomorrow, along with the man from the Salvation Army to pick up an armchair and the City Ranger to repair my green dustbin. I do not know their names because I didn’t write them down and I won’t know if they are expecting to see a bush, a fence, an armchair, or what. I have tried to schedule them at least half an hour apart but what if they all come together? It will be like a French farce involving garden contractors, with me in my furry-hooded Parka intoning briskly ‘who are you, and have you come to assess my bush?’ at the man from the Salvation Army, and a City Ranger trying to repair a green bin while competing men with tape measures measure up for palisade fencing under his feet. I will have to adopt a more organised approach in the future, and indeed you may see me next year in House Beautiful looking smug, under a caption which says ‘I acted as my own project manager and saved £xxxx on our renovation project!’. The caption never says, and I alienated all my friends, upset the dog and gave myself an ulcer in the process, but, we know.

On a brighter note, here is my stool which I had upholstered:
Rhapsody in beige
The man was the Henry Ford of upholsterers: I could have any colour I wanted but on the other hand he did have a beige remnant. I think it’s come out quite nice, though, don’t you? Yes, that might be yarn on the top. It might be Ethical Twist. I shall tell you more about this another time, when I shall also rant about the fact that the pattern for the Corrugated Asymmetrical Sweater in Loop-d-Loop just doesn’t work. There is a reason, as I often ponder, why I am so fond of the top-down raglan. There is a reason.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Just give me one good reason

Why I shouldn't just take all the money that is ringfenced(!) for the new fencing
I want them so
and spend it on a Terracotta Army Of Owls for the garden instead. Just one good reason. See! There isn't one.


Tuesday, 25 January 2011

And I can't fight this feeling anymore. I've forgotten what I started fighting for

February is coming up and our thoughts turn to romance.

Mine do, certainly, because I have just cleaned the bathroom in my usual resentful manner and I have had the following realisation. Partner and I have been together 13 years (how?!), during which, my cleaning bathrooms toll is at least, wait for it, 650. And Partner’s is, wait for it, 0. 0! And I have read Germaine Greer! I swear he doesn’t even know where we keep the clean towels. I swear he doesn’t. Anyway. That is not what this blog post is about, no. It is about romance novels.
Not an engagement ring because, astonished though you may be to hear this, no-one has ever shown the slightest desire to marry me. I know!
A while ago, the Gingerbread Lady who is very funny, waves to Gingerbread Lady, posted about a romance novel she was reading which she had intended to give her mother but which had turned out to be slightly more explicit, which makes me think of the time my cousin Kerry lent my mother a novel featuring an unfortunate scene with a courgette which we have never referred to since. (I am having an argument with someone over email about my apparently ‘random’ use of commas, and, reading the last sentence back, I am indeed wondering if I have punctuated it in the absolute optimum way. Do feel free to add a few dots in your head while you are reading it if you feel that would improve things). Well, the Gingerbread Lady was then obviously deluged by excited people wanting to share their thoughts on the subject of romance novels. And this made me think. OK, look, obviously I am a feminist and moreover Trained To Recognise Great Literature. (To recognise it and run away. That's a joke). But I do always kind of want to write a Mills & Boon book. Just to see if I can. Don’t you? Go on, admit it. Yes you do.
Me. Ha ha no. But you're not going to believe this, I've actually got an umbrella just like that (long story). I'm nearly there!
So I’m going to. I’m having trouble thinking of a scenario because all the romance novels I’ve read have been on cattle ranches and things like that, and frankly if I know one end of a cow from another then that’s as much as I know, so I’m not sure I could make a cattle ranch convincing. Or indeed a Bedouin encampment. Or C14 Spain. (Definitely not C14 Spain). And I'm dead certain I can't do anything even remotely explicit because, look, I was discombobulated by pectin (see last post). Anyway I shall ponder and if I manage to get more than two words strung together you’ll all be the first to know because I shall post it on here in installments and people can chip in if they want (although, you know, they have to end up together in the end. There’s a limit to how far you can subvert the genre).

I’m betting really, really strongly that it won’t be as easy as it looks!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Putting Up Preserves

I have been making marmalade. The last time I made marmalade, my mother rang me half way through and expressed a degree of doubt that I would ever get my marmalade to reach setting point, so I boiled it right into submission and the resulting marmalade would have grouted tiles or performed a useful duty as bath sealant. This time I didn’t boil it for as long, and I have ended up with vats of it (6 jars and 2 ramekins). I’m not sure whether I should have boiled it for longer. I’ve not tried it yet, so when I have, I will let you know if it tastes of anything or is weak and watery: whether it is the Ed Balls or the Nick Clegg of orangey preserves.
Ugly but useful. Seville oranges
You make marmalade with Seville oranges, which are in season at the moment. I think whoever discovered you could make marmalade with them was very clever and must have been very pleased, because they are a bit rubbish as citrus fruits. They are all pith and pip. If you opened one thinking it would be a delicious snack you would be very cross. I bought mine from the veg box and they cost £2 for 1kg (6 big fruits), but you can probably get them cheaper at your local greengrocer or market (here we have them at both our local greengrocer AND market, so, essentially you can buy them anywhere that isn’t Tesco, although they do sometimes have things like this at Waitrose).
Catch all those pips in a sieve!
This is the recipe I used. I have a couple of tips for you. Firstly, this recipe doesn’t tell you that when you are simmering for 2 hours you have to do it without a lid and reduce the liquid by about half. But you do! Also, when you are making a little bag with all the pith and pips, don’t buy muslin squares from Lakeland Plastics (much though I love Lakeland Plastics), because they are really expensive. Buy half a yard of muslin from your local friendly fabric supplier instead. Buy white muslin otherwise your marmalade may go a funny colour and you may find yourself unwillingly and unwittingly enacting a scene from Bridget Jones. I tie my muslin bag to the handle of my pan with just normal cotton that I use in the sewing machine. You see, you get to a point where all your hobbies start to interlink, it is very satisfying.
It is a bit Blue Peter, although no sticky-backed plastic is required (although, don't let me stop you)
When you have simmered your peel, juice and water for hours and steamed all your house up, and carefully dissolved all your sugar, then you have to squeeze the pectin out of your muslin bag. I wear my rubber gloves for this, as the bag is hot. Now, there is no nice way to say this, but... it feels pervy. It actually feels like I should be starring in some kind of muslin squeezing fetish video. There actually probably are women squeezing muslin bags on youtube somewhere and gurning at the camera. It is one of the strangest sensations I have ever had while cooking anything, you have to kind of manipulate the bag and milk the pectin (you see? You see?!), and get as much of the resulting cloudy liquid out as you can into the pan.
Marmalade at a good rolling boil!
Then you boil hard for about half an hour. I know the recipe only says 10 minutes, but, half an hour, although, see comments in first paragraph about grouting. I do not know how to tell when you have reached the right stage, I have never got my marmalade to form a skin on a cold saucer, but it normally turns out all right. I think at times like this you have to think to yourself, what is the worst that can happen. Well, the worst is probably slightly runny marmalade. Runny marmalade! That is all. So don’t be a princess, just stick it in the jars when it looks done. Sterilise them in the oven first: remember Mr Bacteria!
Cut your shreds smaller. Don't be lazy like me. This marmalade redefines chunky
Marmalade, done. That will last us a good long time. Cost per jar:
Oranges, £2. Sugar, £1.68 (some I had in stock already). Lemon, 38p. Everything else I had lying about. - 68p per jar, + I was able to get in touch with my inner sensuality through the use of muslin. I call that a bargain all round. Toast for breakfast tomorrow!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Today I made

A back for the big quilt top.
One day we will have daylight again and then my photos will be pretty once more
Now I have done the back I will order the batting, and then, I will leave the whole thing out for the Quilting Fairies to come out at night and hand-quilt it all neatly. I see no flaw in this plan, I think it will be very effective. I may leave out a biscuit, and then they will bind it for me as well. I bet Mitred Corners hold no fear for the Quilting Fairies!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

WIP Wednesday: Dealing with the Fireplace of Shame

Can you believe it’s WIP Wednesday again, no nor can I, but thanks anyway Tami for hosting, and as ever go to Tami’s blog to see WIPs by lots of talented people. Well, I have measured out my life in WIP Wednesdays rather than coffee spoons, but, this is what I’m working on at the moment. First a clue.
Today we had The Kills. Good for quilting to. And how cool are those slippers, hey hey hey?
Yes. That combination of one foot properly shod in a fluffy slipper against the cold and one foot naked in order to feel the foot pedal, along with the fabric, mess, and loud music can only mean one thing. I am digging out my quilt tops and I am backing and binding those suckers. Hurrah! So, today I have managed to finish my small art quilt which I am going to hang over the dodgy fireplace. I have decided we are going to have honest photographs on this blog and I am not going to pretend I am an attractive person leading a stylish life because, I am not. So, I am going to show you just how dodgy the fireplace is, and you will see that it is not conceivably possible for me to screw up the binding on this quilt enough that it will look worse than what it is going to cover.
No part of this house is too depressing for Partner to sneak a stack of books in
I know I should get a builder in to deal with the fireplace, but, in my defence, I am dealing with the garden at the moment. I had a man round today to quote for a new fence, and all the time he was measuring, I could see he was thinking, ‘oh, God, look at this ivy. Just move. That would be easier’. I could see it in his eyes. Anyway, that is enough of my Home Improvements Angst and we will move on to Quilt Binding Angst. I am not good at binding quilts, and I am confused by mitred corners. I used this tutorial, which I thought was helpful and straightforward, but, (and this may make sense to quilters or it may not), I do not understand how to vary the depth of my corners. Does it vary according to how far you stop before the end of the seam, or, how big a seam allowance you use when you are sewing the binding to the edge? Does that make sense? Only, I seem to get what I am given, which is fine, but sometimes in life it is nice to be able to make a choice. This is what I ended up with,
The corner is slightly too short. Why? How? What to do? It is a mystery. What does it all mean?
which is passable, but, I don’t entirely feel in control of the process. I might try binding the next quilt with square corners, I don’t know. I dug out my quilt which was made by my grandmother (Nana Bessie) to look how she had bound hers, and, she hadn’t! She hadn’t at all! It is two quilt tops sewn together, with no batting.
No batting! No binding! Call the Quilt Police
This is anarchy! Sadly Nana Bessie is no longer with us, so I can’t ask her why she made the decision to finish her quilts like this, but if she was still here, she would probably say ‘Oh, Susie, that’s the way you’re supposed to do it’ in a brisk and dismissive kind of way, then she would purse her lips at me and give me the News Of The World and a polony sandwich. Then she might make a trenchant remark about the size of my hips and wander off to landscape the garden and bring peace to the Middle East before putting some beetroot on for lunch.
If you look at it from a distance the rows almost look lined up properly. This is not true though
Anyway, this is what I ended up with. It’s ok, isn’t it? It’ll serve its purpose. One thing it did do, which I think is going to save me a lot of heartache and despair later, is make me realise that quilting without a long-arm machine and a quilting foot actually isn’t all that easy. I’m eyeing up the Very Ugly Quilt Top next, and I’m wondering if I might just hand quilt it. That’s a way off, though, because I’ve got to scrabble about and piece the back together next. God! When I could just buy one from Debenhams! (I’m joking, honestly. Go the DIY revolution! Even when it bloody takes forever!).

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Keeping our lizard skin safe and germ-free

Vivianne raised some very important points in the comments on my post yesterday, thanks Vivianne, and because of this I am going to take this opportunity to tell you everything I know about Bacterial Contamination of Homemade Cosmetics. Bear with me, gentle readers, because knowledge can only make us stronger. Now, although most of us apart from Partner pick up some idea about food hygiene along the way, i.e. don’t rub your crudités on a raw chicken (no that isn’t a euphemism but wouldn’t it be marvellous if it was), don’t let the dog go for a walk through mud and then put his paw in the tiramisu, that kind of thing, with homemade cosmetics we are often not expecting to ever make our own and we only have commercial ones as a yardstick: these stand for months on the shelves, and so we (and when I say we I mean I) tend to think ours should do that, too. Wrong! This is the excitement of homemade cosmetics, they are nothing like the commercial version. It is like comparing homemade mayonnaise to Hellmann's, Hellmann's will sit in the cupboard for 6 months and so will homemade but then if you ate it you would die whereas with Hellmann's you would just feel vague disappointment.

So I am going to share with you what I have picked up along the way about shelf lives. Everyone feel free to correct me if I am wrong!
Mr Bacteria, mocking us. OK, it may be rubbish. You don't read this blog for the pictures, though, you read it to see if Home Improvements are going to break me. Yes, yes they are
Homemade soap: when you make soap, all your oils go through a saponification process, and this stops them going rancid, as far as I know, although, if they are rancid to start with then your soap will smell dodgy. However, (this is the science bit), often soaps are superfatted, which means you put in a bit of extra oils and it doesn’t all get saponified. Since there are unsaponified oils floating about in the soap, I would presume they could go rancid eventually. Your oil will have a sell by date, so I would think your soap is fine until then, then keep an eye on it after that. The scent fades a bit if you store it for too long as well.

But I think generally your soaps are good for a good few months and do not have to be refrigerated (and I am sure there is some homemade soap that has been hanging about for years). My mother drinks wine, becomes lively, and then steals all mine as soon as I make it, so this is entirely academic to me, indeed, would that I had this problem.

Homemade cosmetics with water: to make cosmetics which have a texture which is anything like the bought version, you have to use water and emulsifier. The presence of the water means bacteria can grow. So, if you do this, you have to use preservative, or you have to store your cosmetics in the fridge and use within a few days. Otherwise you are risking mould. Eeeeeeek! Vivianne shared this link with me which shows what happens. So, it is not possible to make an all-natural hydrous product, unless you are making it yourself to use immediately: commercial producers who use preservatives have no choice, and do it to make their products safe. If you scroll down to the comments, though, you will see the risk is not the same with…
Hydrous product, with chemicals, without mould. It's out of focus, it's not you, don't start worrying
Homemade cosmetics without water (anhydrous): if your cosmetics don’t contain water, there is not the same opportunity for bacterial growth, and you are safe to leave out preservatives (or use an antioxidant), and store them outside the fridge. This is things like body butter, balm, lip balm, solid perfume, stuff like that. Since I avoid preservatives, these are the things I make for myself.

BUT! When you use your cosmetics, you introduce bacteria (from your hands), and possibly water – especially things like scrubs in the shower (I found this article which deals with this. I love her blog). So, depending on how you feel about things, you could deal with this by: scooping things out with a spoon instead of your hands: adding a bit of preservative: keeping an eye on things and being aware generally: storing things in the fridge: making small batches and using them up. It is your call. I have never had a mould problem so I am possibly slightly cavalier, but the minute anything goes furry on top of one of my Whipped Body Butters you can bet I will be running straight to this blog squawking ‘Experiment Over! Everybody back to Boots!’.
Mr Bacteria, properly managed and repressed through good hygiene during use of anhydrous products
There is another way of looking at this and I will warn you I am reading a book on herbalism at the moment. I am kind of keen on the all-natural way because, deep breath everyone, I am a Wiccan and I try to honour the Goddess by using things as close to nature as possible. So, if this means I can’t make my own hydrous lotions, well, that is ok. But I was thinking, not only could we look on cosmetics as something you make like food – fresh, often, and store in the fridge – but, we could make cosmetics that don’t bear any resemblance to the ones we are used to, and actually, we could reimagine the whole thing. So, for example, herbal infusions instead of lotions or something like that. I will postpone this burbling until I have actually read the book, though. In the meantime, beware of Mr Bacteria…

Monday, 17 January 2011

Invasion of the lizard people

I don’t know about you, but winter means one thing to me (obviously it doesn’t, it means more than one thing. I mean this rhetorically): it means I turn into a lizard. Yes, come early October, there I am with my hideous lizard skin until March. Sometimes there is a bit of variety, which makes the suspense more exciting. What will it be this year? Will I have cracked hands and spend the winter months juggling plasters and neutrogena and swearing every time I have to go near an orange? (Seville oranges! Coming tomorrow with Dave the veg box man! For marmalade!). Will it be the flaky legs? Face like a 2000 year old mummy? No, this year it is dry and itchy ribs and general skin malaise. Fortunately, the worst part of my transformation into a lizard this year has coincided with my decluttering zeal, and I have rediscovered the Whipped Shea Butter I made last year which I got so bored of whipping I squirrelled away into a cupboard. I have un-squirrelled it, and I have been using it, and actually it is rather good, so I thought I would give you the recipe.
Whip that sucker! Whip it into a frenzy!
Now fasten your seatbelts for just a bit of my anti-corporate ramblings, I know this brings out the worst in some people (in fact, I may have to name and shame. Every time I write about the evils of Tesco, my Aunty Kath goes out and does a shop there. Yes she does!). Hmm hmm, clears throat. Home made whipped body butter doesn’t have the same texture as bought – it is oilier, and mine is heavier, because I’m not sure I’m very good at whipping it (but you might be better! Do let me know if you’re successful). Because my skin is so sore, though, I feel ok about putting it on because I know what is in it and none of the ingredients are harmful*, indeed some of the ingredients you can eat. Also, because it doesn’t contain water (which is why it is heavy), it lasts for ages with no need for preservatives. Out of interest, I looked up the ingredients of a commercial body butter which contains shea, like mine. This is what is in The Body Shop shea body butter:

Aqua (Water) (Solvent/Diluent), Butyrospermum parkii (Shea Butter) (Emollient), Cyclomethicone (Emollient), Theobroma cacao (Cocoa Butter) (Emollient), Glycerin (Humectant), Glyceryl Stearate (Emulsifier), PEG-100 Stearate (Surfactant), Cetearyl Alcohol (Emulsifier), Cera Alba (Beeswax) (Emulsifier/Emollient), Orbignya oleifera (Babassu Oil) (Emollient), Lanolin Alcohol (Stabiliser/Emollient), Phenoxyethanol (Preservative), Parfum (Fragrance), Methylparaben (Preservative), Propylparaben (Preservative), Xanthan Gum (Viscosity Modifier), Benzyl Alcohol (Preservative), Disodium EDTA (Chelating Agent), Linalool (Fragrance Ingredient), Coumarin (Fragrance Ingredient), Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone (Fragrance Ingredient), Limonene (Fragrance Ingredient), Butylphenyl Methylpropional (Fragrance Ingredient), Sodium Hydroxide (pH Adjuster), Citronellol (Fragrance Ingredient), Citral (Fragrance Ingredient), Geraniol (Fragrance Ingredient), Eugenol (Fragrance Ingredient), Caramel (Colour), CI 19140 (Colour).

And this is what the cosmetics database says about its toxicity. The other Body Shop body butters get higher toxicity scores (I’m not singling out The Body Shop here, I’m using it as an example because they had their ingredients online – I suspect the ones which don’t have their ingredients online are worse!). Now, I will be honest with you and say that I do not understand chemistry on any deep level, and I can’t pronounce convincingly on the cumulative effect of using parabens & things day after day. My rule in life, though, is the less commercial processing, the better, and anyway I think it’s nice to have an alternative so you don’t have to use commercial products all the time if you don’t want to. So here is my alternative body butter, and I hope it’s useful. The advantage of this is that if you make soap or lipbalm you are liable to have these ingredients hanging about, if not and you are in the UK I use The Soap Kitchen or Fresholi and they have both been very good. (I have also used Aromantic, they were good too).

* Unless you are allergic/ sensitive to any of them. I’ll trust you to know if you are!

Makes about 2 small pots (easily doubled/ halved/ trebled whatever).

100g Shea Butter
30 ml Jojoba Oil (you can buy this in health food shops. It is cheap)
50ml Olive Oil (I just use whatever’s in the house)
1/2 tsp Vitamin E (I add this for extra preserving power – you can leave it out if you want. You can buy it in health food shops too)
Essential oil, probably around 20 – 30 drops or whatever you think. (I tend to use a mix of lavender and patchouli. Also, if you’re pregnant, you need to check the essential oils you’re using are safe).

Melt the shea butter in a pyrex bowl in the microwave (keep an eye on it). When just melted, add the oils, and the vitamin E, and stir thoroughly. Then put in the fridge. When it is starting to cool and thicken up, take it out of the fridge, and whisk for a few minutes with an electric mixer. Whisk until it’s thickened a bit and isn’t thickening any more, then, put it back in the fridge to cool further. After 20 mins or so, get it out again, whisk again, then put it back in the fridge and wait a bit longer if necessary. What you are aiming at is a whipped cream texture – just try to get as much air as possible into it in the cooling process (if it never looks like whipped cream, it will still work fine, it will just be a bit heavy). When you have whisked it up to your satisfaction, or alternatively until you want to bang your head against the wall, add the essential oils, put in little pots or jars, and store in a coolish place.

Happy anti-corporate moisturising. What effect will this have on Aunty Kath? I hope it won’t be too inconvenient! ;-).

Thursday, 13 January 2011

We are the village green preservation society

I was wandering into town earlier in the week and I happened upon a tree which seemed to have been singled out for special attention.
It may well be more attractive when it has its leaves on. Let us not judge
This is a tree in the middle of a common with many trees on it. I couldn’t quite understand what made this tree special, but it seemed a very popular one. Has it been targeted? Is the council after this particular scruffy-looking tree? I did google, but frankly I can't make head or tail of it.
Hugely controversial. Your guess is as good as mine. Go Valerie! Go Cressing Temple!
But then I thought more about Cambridge trees. And I’m feeling a bit smug now because we have, like, a million trees in our back garden. Well, not a million, more like, ooh, I don’t know, eight. Big ones. All this time I spend feeling bad about my trees, thinking, oh God I ought to get someone to go up a ladder and trim them a bit or whatever it is you do to trees, when all that time, I didn’t realise what I’d got.
Save all the trees! Look, there are some others in the background! Save them as well!
I've got a tree sanctuary! Yes! It’s just as morally impressive as having a donkey sanctuary, but a lot less trouble! And my trees give so much! I have a beautiful cherry tree that blooms in Spring, with great big pink flowers – a laburnum – a big apple tree – an elderflower bush – and big tall ones at the back that I don’t even know what they are. Every one of them more exciting and impressive than that scrotty old thing with the baubles on. And yet somebody (possibly a mad person, yes), loves that scrotty old thing enough to put baubles on it even though I wonder if just writing to the Cambridge Evening News in a non-mad fashion might be more effective. And I have never put a single bauble on any of the trees in my sanctuary! They must think I don’t care. So this is my pledge to my trees: you will always have a home with me, lads, (and lasses), and I will appreciate you more. I am not going climbing up you to put baubles anywhere because, you are pretty enough with your various blossomy events, but I will appreciate you silently.

You do need trimming, though. I wonder if I should get a quote, oh no :-(.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Book Masochism Challenge 2011: Getting Started!

OK, so, I wanted to let you know how I was getting on with the Book Masochism Challenge 2011.

I put the list of books on my blog! Here it is. The books I’d already read are crossed out, and the books I’ve read since I started the challenge are crossed out and also have a pink background (because we need to be technical and accurate ;-) ). So far I’ve read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford and Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

Now, this is what you need to know about me. I do not say this to boast, because after all, it’s not much of a skill in the scheme of things, but, I read very, very quickly. I read like a robot processing information. I get through a shortish book normally in an evening and actually it irritates people. ‘Have you read that already?’ they say, looking at me suspiciously, as if I've cheated. Well, yes I have read it! And even given this not-quite-a-skill, it took me a good fortnight to get through Moby-Dick. A good fortnight! Empires rose and fell. People: this is not an easy read, it is really not. I had to concentrate. I had to shush Partner (he chatters away, artlessly). I had to turn the telly off. Things became serious. However: I was not tempted to give up because, honestly, this is a great book. I mean great in the sense of really impressive. It is fabulous, or, it walks a narrow line between, complete unreadability and complete fabulousness. Which side does it fall, well you must decide that for yourself, but I will tell you that it is only £1.99 on Amazon in case you feel like having a go and I think it is so cheap because no-one wants it. I bet they can’t shift them. I bet the CEO of Amazon is sitting with his head on the desk saying, no, don’t buy any more Moby-Dicks! We’ll never sell the dratted things! Send one out free every time someone orders Twilight, we’ll hope they don’t notice!
Quiz: what famous knitted wrap is Moby-Dick posed on?
This is the thing with Moby-Dick; although everybody knows the basic narrative, man chases whale, situation ends badly, actually I’ve never read a book where the narrative is less the point. It’s not about the story. It actually seemed to me to be about the nature of scholarly authority (who has the right to talk about whales?) and the interplay between life, life as story, how one becomes the other, whether the other can go back to being the one (no). Anyway before I go off and write you a long boring essay we will move on,

Because, I also want to tell you about The Good Soldier. Now this was also an excellent book. It is safe to say I would never in my life have read this by choice as I thought the title and indeed the cover (a woman in a big hat – sorry I can’t show you, I have lent it to my mother) were most unprepossessing, but, when I started it I couldn’t put it down. I won’t tell you what happens because who knows, you might read it too, but, it is all about the nature of narrative (but not in a boring unreadable way!), how you can never really know people, and social convention. It is lots of fun (well, kind of fun), and I thought the ending was very effective.

Next, I am reading Ulysses by James Joyce. I have actually skim-read this years ago, and I am a fan of JJ (start with Dubliners if you haven’t read any), but now I am doing it properly, and I am reading the Odyssey first (Ulysses is based on the Odyssey). I can say with some confidence that, after Moby-Dick, reading the Odyssey is like reading Heat magazine, so it is a nice rest before I gird my loins again for deconstructed narratives and internal monologues, oh no.
Partner said, 'The Penguin is just about readable if you have to read it in translation', rather sniffily I thought. Look, classical academic, I can knit socks
I’m pleased with how this is going so far – I’ve certainly read books I would never have chosen, and it’s been an interesting experience up to now. I’m wondering if 30 books as a target might have been a bit ambitious, though, especially if they’re all going to be great big dense doorstop-type things like a certain book concerning whales.

Other Book Masochists: how are you getting on?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Dealing with depression (couldn't think of a cheerier title. Not too bad, honestly).

Now, I like to keep my blog light and fluffy (apart from the moaning), but the time of year has made me think of this one so I put it out there in case it is useful to anyone, and if it isn’t, then do check back next week when we will be back to fluffiness and craft, and I will be boring you with my thoughts on the Book Masochism Challenge (and here’s my advice: don’t start with Moby Dick. God).
A life belt. See what I did there, hey hey?
Anyway. Let me tell you a little story, readers – you may wish to go and get a nice cup of tea, a custard cream, and a small violin. *Mournful string instrument plays*.  Now, once upon a time, indeed, the year before last, I was doing a job where, says she thoughtfully, it was not a good situation, and while doing it I gradually watched my personality and life outside work fly off into the ether. I delayed leaving because, among other things, I knew that once I left I would reap the emotional whirlwind. Anyway, I left, and I was quite correct, I did reap the whirlwind, and went through a good few months of what I now think was depression. I tried various things to become perked up and healthier, some of which helped, some of which didn’t, but it strikes me as I forge my way into the wintry beginning of 2011 that things are looking different to how they looked at this time last year, although it’s still a bit of an uphill journey some days. But something worked. Now, this time of year can sometimes be a difficult one. You may have fallen out with your family over Christmas, you may have spent all your money, you have certainly put weight on and are sitting about in your fat pants feeling sluggish (no? Just me? Sure?). It can all be a bit difficult, so if it ever is, hugs, and this is what helped me (and on the contrary if you’re feeling great, fantastic, go you, and we’ll all be reading your blog for cheeriness and inspiration! Get to it ;-) ).

Before I do my tips, I will also just say, I think people expect depression to equal sitting about crying and feeling sad. I don’t think it’s necessarily like this at all – I never felt sad, and I haven’t shed a tear in years. Mine manifested in having virus after virus after virus – I felt like I had low-level flu for about 6 months – and not being able to get going. A Victoran novelist would have loved my lassitude, but I like to get things done, and I did not. Also – all the advice you hear about eating properly, taking regular exercise, getting out in the fresh air and getting medical help if necessary is good advice, these are just my extra suggestions that I also found made a difference.

1/ Set yourself positive goals, and achieve them. It’s the achieving them that’s the important thing. So, if your goal is ‘I will go and buy a paper at Budgens and smile at Barry the cashier even when he takes 20 minutes doing a price check’ and you do it, that’s better than ‘I will weed the entire garden’ and only managing 5 square metres, even though in real terms you’ve accomplished much less. It’s like you have to build up your Finishing Things muscle and you can start as small as you want to.

2/ Don’t cut yourself off from people even if they irritate you. If you’re depressed, some days, everything people say will irritate you. Try to ignore the actual words and react to the intent, because often people will be trying to convey everlasting emotional support in the most cack-handed way you can possibly imagine. Take the thought for the deed. The people who are wanting to see you/ talk to you love you, and will put up with your irritation.

3/ Break everything you have to do down into as small steps as you need. I still have to do this sometimes and I find myself standing in the bathroom thinking, now I brush my teeth and then I put my trousers on, which is not very impressive when you are 36 and have a mortgage and 2 degrees. But then it is better than not brushing my teeth or putting my trousers on at all. Because what would Barry in Budgens say? His job is difficult enough as it is.

4/ This one is very important. In case you find yourself a bit down partly because the World or an individual part of it has screwed you over, every minute you spend getting mad or bearing a grudge is like wearing an emotional hair shirt, and it only hurts you. Protect yourself from being screwed over again in an adequate but not obsessive manner, then move on emotionally and don’t give the person/ people another thought. This isn’t easy, obviously, but it actually takes more energy to hold a grudge than to do something more interesting, so it gets easier as you go along. And there is always something more interesting to do. Take up knitting.

5/ This is Partner’s tip. Try to concentrate on something (it doesn’t matter what – a Sudoku, a book, anything) for a while every day. Not TV (unless it is a film where you have to pay attention) as somehow this doesn’t have the same effect. Concentrating calms you down and is like a holiday for your mind. During the Bad Time I went through a period of about 4 years when I was completely unable to sit still or concentrate on anything, and all I could manage at this period were the puzzles in Take A Break. So if you ever see me featured holding up a copy looking a bit raddled, with the headline saying ‘Take A Break’s Arrow Word Saved My Sanity’ you’ll know why.

6/ My Nana Bessie used to say this and it is true, although a bit irritating. Count your blessings. If you really put your mind to it it can be very cheering, and it forces you to see the things you normally take for granted. Today I myself am grateful that I won’t have to paint the bathroom again tomorrow.

7/ Take refuge in Art. Well, I could not sit still to read and I have never particularly been good at visual art but even in my darkest times I listened to music and it got me through, although now if I ever come unexpectedly upon ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ I may collapse in a traumatised heap. Often art is made by people who are much more depressed than you are, or addicted to something very unhealthy and difficult to obtain and consequently miserable, so it is like the homeopathic principle of curing yourself with something similar. Please don’t just drink tequila and fall over sobbing to ‘Everybody Hurts’, though, listen to something a bit feisty. ‘Everybody Hurts’ would depress anybody.

8/ Create something. Knit a scarf, write a poem, cook dinner from scratch. Sometimes I feel like any tiny thing I create is like dragging order out of the Void, sometimes I think it’s just making dinner. This one has the added bonus of, it makes you feel better, and you have dinner or whatever at the end of it as well.

9/ Know that this too will pass!

OK, well I hope some of this is helpful and you all don’t think I’m madder than you did previously (hmm). Have a lovely rest of weekend everyone. Rather shamefully, especially after tip no. 8, I am just off to put a Waitrose curry in the oven (I have been painting all day, honestly) but tomorrow I must find something exciting to do with the biggest Jerusalem Artichoke I have ever seen. It's huge! It’s like a joke without the punchline. A bientôt!

Friday, 7 January 2011

Confessions of a slovenly householder, no. 1: How To Paint

Everyone has roles in relationships and life. For some, their role is to be the supportive one, the one who deals with social occasions, the one who drives after evenings out, the one who catches spiders, etc. My role is to be the one who always does the decorating. This is not a role I consciously chose; if I were to choose, my role would be to be the one who spends all the household income at ascension online, but, here we are and now I have built up a degree of skill in it and I think I am trapped. As my mind is on this having spent today emulsioning the bathroom, I thought I would do a how-to of the correct way to paint a room. Most of you are probably better at this than me, and if you are, don’t hesitate to tell me where I am going wrong as I have to do the kitchen next and will incorporate your advice gratefully.

1/ Painting is very boring but it is not difficult. If you are up to balancing with one leg on various unsafe structures, then there is absolutely no need to pay someone else to do it although I can absolutely see why you might want to, so don’t feel bad.

2/ Painting is like sewing, it is all in the preparation, which takes oh god yawn forever, and the actual painting is very quick. As a rule of thumb the more time you spend preparing the better your room will look, so although it is counter-intuitive for me to say this, don’t think, oh I can’t be arsed, and dive straight in. No! First range your tools! You will need:
I have run out of masking tape, oh no
3/ Paint: listen carefully. DO NOT BUY CHEAP PAINT. While I am all for saving money, cheap paint is a hideous false economy. Does anyone remember the first Adrian Mole book? Where he tries to paint his bedroom black and it won’t cover his Noddy wallpaper so he has to do coat after coat and then scribble over the bells on Noddy’s hat with a marker? Adrian had clearly not bought Dulux, as this is what you are dooming yourself to if you buy cheap paint. This is the only time you will ever hear me say this, but, buy a named brand, and if it says ‘one coat!’ or something, so much the better. You will still need 2, though.

4/ A small brush for edges – all of them lose bristles, so you can buy a cheap one – and something bigger to cover more space. Do not buy a roller. They spray everywhere, and the hairy cylinder flies off and hits the carpet/ toddler/ afghan hound, it all goes wrong. Buy a Paint Pad with a small handle. If you are painting your hallway you can use the handle to tie it to the (non-hairy) end of a brush for greater length. Also you need a paint tray (these are very cheap).
Paint pad, tray and brush. Keep that mess contained. Lock up the cat
5/ Masking tape and polyfilla. These do not have to be wonderful quality, just buy the cheap ones. Buy polyfilla in a tub rather than a tube as otherwise you are forever squeezing.

6/ Now prepare your room. Have a wipe/ hoover round all the walls (because you would be surprised how cobwebs can accumulate), and clean with a damp cloth the tops of door frames, skirting boards, or anywhere that is liable to be dusty, because if dust gets on your brush, your surface ends up gritty. If you have any cracks/ holes anywhere, stick some polyfilla on (I just use a spoon and then smudge it with kitchen roll). It only takes about an hour to dry, and then you can sand it down.

7/ Now, stick masking tape all around every edge that will come into contact with paint: every single one. Skirting boards, tiles, doors, cupboards, light switches, overhead light fittings, everything. However tidy you are generally, assume you are going to be throwing paint at this room like a drunken monkey. Because you are.
Can you see? Like a drunken monkey. Buy that masking tape and use it!
8/ After hard-won experience I can tell you that: emulsion comes out of most things, and you can get gloss off hard surfaces, but the combination of gloss + carpet is a difficult one. So, if you are painting a carpeted room, put down dust sheets, at least next to the wall you are painting.

9/ This is just a tip which was passed on to me by my mother and which I now pass on to you. If you paint everything in your house white, you can use leftover paint easily and also you never have to be too accurate. My mother hyperventilates however if she is in a room which is painted anything other than white or magnolia so this is a better tip for her than for people who like colour, however everything I have ever painted I have painted white* and I can vouch for it working.

*Because partner only likes white. Yes, we have had the argument, we have had it many times.

10/ Now you are ready to paint, ha! Open your tub, stir it round with a spoon. With your small brush, paint lines along all the masking taped edges for a couple of inches, also in the join between the wall and the ceiling, around every light fixture and all the skirting boards. Also, if there are any angles between walls or on walls, paint there as well. This is because your paint pad will only do flat surfaces and cannot cope with corners or detail, so you do all the edges first and then just fill in the big bits.

11/ Fill in the big bits with your paint pad. Have a damp cloth ready and wipe up any bits of paint that go awol (wipe them up properly otherwise you end up with a smear and that is worse).

12/ Wait about 3 hours and give it all a second coat.

13/ The first time you leave the house either after or during a painting session, look at yourself in the mirror. You will have a large splodge of paint somewhere surprising. It is best that you find this out yourself, rather than have to have the bus driver tell you.

Make sure to have plenty of cups of tea and biscuits, and – and this is important – stop before you are exhausted. Painting is surprisingly tiring and you can’t just lay down your brush and walk away, you have to wash it (emulsion: wash under running tap, brush brush on newspaper to dry, squeeze water out of paint pad then lay on paper. Gloss: fill jar with white spirit, put brush in, later brush newspaper until dry) and sort everything out. Oh God, and I have got to gloss tomorrow! Anyway, the bathroom is looking much better. It’s white, since you were wondering. With white tiles. And a very pale grey floor.

All this does is prove to me that you can never escape your upbringing.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Just wanted to say quickly

That Amy from Knitter of Hats Speaks is doing a valentine's day card swap on her blog, which is a fab idea - if you want to go and sign up (I have, har har), here is the post, you have until 14th Jan.

Also, Resa from Discovering Asterisms blogged about the card she received from Sarah, go look, and I for one am very happy you have remembered how to internet, Resa, yay indeed.

And Moomin Mamma, just wanted to say to you that my Aunty Kath received your card safely and thought it was lovely, and I would have got a photo only I was a bit distracted during my Festive Visit (you can imagine. Waves to family. Hi!).

And one more thing - as you know, I am decluttering (misery misery oh woe is me). I am decluttering cookbooks and have some vegan cook zines (only about 3) that I would like to go to a good home. One of them is a bit mad and please ignore what it says about vitamin B12, but the other two are really useful (I am just not vegan any more, and I need the space, although I am retaining my trusty copy of Vegan With A Vengeance). If anyone would like them, just leave me a comment below - free to the first person who asks. I am painting the bathroom at the moment so I might not be able to post until next week, but I promise not to forget ;-).

Sleep well!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

WIP Wednesday - The Joy Of Sox

I’m decluttering. Oh noes! It’s awful. At the moment it’s going like this:
  1. Open cupboard
  2. Realise how much there is to do
  3. Put small item in discarded Waitrose bag (because they are stronger and better quality)
  4. Wipe exposed inch of surface in desultory manner
  5. Make nice cup of tea
  6. Read Living Etc and feel despair rising within like an overyeasted loaf.
Well I have paused at stage 5 this time to come and do a quick blog post and show you my work in progress. Thanks as ever to Tami for hosting WIP Wednesday, cheers Tami! And if you go and look at her WIP Wednesday post you will find lots of bloggers with nice things to show you.

I myself am knitting a sock.
Admire those gusset decreases
I know it doesn’t look very exciting. That is because this is a vanilla sock, which means it is plain and straight and has no cables, colourwork, lace patterns or anything. I am charmed that knitters have borrowed the term for boring socks from our friends in the bdsm community, because I love a bit of friendly linguistic swapping, and I feel we should give something back. Might I suggest that there are some technical knitting terms that would make really excellent safe words? I’m thinking particularly ‘steek!’ or, ‘nupp!’, but you may prefer others.

I always knit socks the same way. This is because I am not very adventurous, but also because I see them as utility items and I know this way produces a good, serviceable sock that I will be comfortable ambling about in. Also I really love knitting with bamboo double pins, I find it excessively relaxing. (Odd? Moi?). These are knit on 2.5mm needles although I am wondering if I should have used 2.25 (wouldn't you think I'd write it down instead of trusting my memory?). I am using Regia Kaffe Fassett yarn and I cast on with a knitting-on cast on:
I don't know how to do the old norwegian cast on, I am rubbish
It doesn’t look tidy but it is very, very stretchy. I use this rather than a long-tail cast on basically because if I use a long-tail I have to look it up, and also I don’t like estimating how much yarn I am going to need. I may one day go wild and try a tubular cast on, though, who knows. If I knit on my socks every evening, I normally get a pair done in about a fortnight. I think they are possibly my favourite thing to knit: quickish, useful, cheap, and everyone thinks you are a magician to be able to turn a heel.

Where do you stand on the whole sock issue?

Monday, 3 January 2011

Things that seem like a good idea at the time, no. 1

Not only have I bought the magazine:
Where's the article on Dealing With Ground Elder Without Despairing? I suppose it must be in the Feb one
I've bought a subscription. I know I'm going to be a bit busy this year, tightening what is currently my muffin top until you can bounce a tennis ball off it, Improving My Mind Through Novels, decluttering, achieving peace in the Middle East, running 5K, getting my hair cut, painting the bathroom, knitting up miles and miles of wool and learning Stranded Colourwork, forging excoriatingly honest and authentic relationships with all my loved ones and making my own preserves, but I'm sure I'll be able to find a few odd minutes to create an Earthly Paradise in our back garden. I'm sure that Gardeners' World subscription won't be mocking me by May. I'm sure I won't be looking at Alan Titchmarsh's cheery face on the cover and feeling like hitting him on the head with a shovel! (Only gently. Not to kill him. Only enough to stun him a bit).

Off to ogle Wisterias.