Wednesday, 29 April 2009

In the "You learn something new every day" department

My car insurance bill just got £60 cheaper per annum. Why? Because I changed DH's status from "honoured to drive the Toy when Pam feels like it" (a.k.a. "Named Driver") to "He signed on the dotted line so can't get rid of her that easily" (a.k.a. "Spouse").

It had never occurred to me to even mention it to the car insurers. We've lived together for 9 years, since before I purchased the Toy, and I didn't think we'd get a discount just because we formalised matters nearly six years ago.

I wonder what else we can save?

- Pam

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

A huge "Thank You"!

is due to one of the most generous people I have met on the internet. Thank you, MOI, for the wonderful sock yarn which arrived on Saturday. It is truly an amazing present.

Thank you, again.


Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Living your principles

Twenty years ago, Australia hosted a conference about pollution and climate change. In multiple venues relayed via video link, scientists met and discussed the implications of global warming. My flatmate, Marg, took me along to the evening, open session at the Dallas Brookes Hall.

Looking back over the distance of twenty years, it seems as if global warming has always been with us, always been an issue. And yet..... I can trace my knowledge to that evening. It was one of the bomb-shells dropped into my life that night. (The only other item I remember was the damage caused by dioxins in paper bleaching.) One day, I was in complete ignorance; the next... well, it was as if I'd been handed a live grenade to juggle and I didn't know what to do with it.

To be honest, I'm not sure many of us did back then. My own actions didn't seem to matter. The focus was about putting pressure on governments to face up to what was going to happen.

And yet, at the time I lived a fairly "green" lifestyle. I walked to work; I switched off the lights when I walked out of a room; I used the cold cycle to wash my clothes and hung them on a clothesline to dry. The one conscious change I made then was to buy unbleached, recycled paper products (why does anyone need toilet paper made from virgin wood pulp to wipe their bottom? Why??). I bought the "Green Consumer Guide" and read up about organic vegetables and cleaning products, then promptly forgot most of it and got on with the business of living.

Now, though, I wonder how I measure up. I wonder how far I've drifted from my first, passionately green principles.

We buy our vegetables from a local farmer, our meat from a butcher and the rest of our groceries from a supermarket. We live in your classic 1930's semi-detached house, which was last renovated in the 1970's. It has double glazed windows but needs cavity wall insulation. The central heating is old and hard to control (the boiler is on its last legs). I switch it off as early in the year as possible and rely on a the gas fire to warm the lounge in the evenings. We recycle glass, paper and plastic bottles. We wash and re-use plastic bags.

DH gets the bus to work. I drive long distances in a relatively low emission vehicle (the Toy clocks up 119 g/km).

(Note: For the best part of 10 years, I didn't have a car so took public transport to work. I only started driving to work when public transport became the more stressful option. If you've ever encountered London traffic, you're probably spluttering in shock by now but I had to go from South East London to West London at the mercy of 4 separate rail companies; to get to work required 3 changes of train and I was never sure, when I got to Paddington, from which platform my train would depart. Crawling passed the Elephant & Castle under my own steam was the more relaxing option. (If I worked up in London, I'd still go in by public transport, but working where I do - it's impractical both in time cost (I'd more than double my journey time) and in monetary cost (also double).) )

Oh, and for the record, I still wash my clothes in cold water and line dry them.

We're getting ready to do building work on the house. I daydream about photovoltic cells on the kitchen roof, a solar hot water system, and a small wind turbine attached to the chimney. The reality of our finances means that we will have to settle for more prosaic changes: the aforementioned cavity wall insulation; a new, energy-efficient boiler; a wood-fire stove to efficiently burn waste-wood and heat the house (added benefit - if the power goes out, we'll still have heating and cooking abilities). Maybe we should do a before-and-after green energy audit?

When I mention these things to colleagues/friends, some come back with the inevitable "Why bother?". I know that the actions DH and I take in our small corner of England don't have huge ramifications around the world. I know that they don't mean much ON THEIR OWN. But I also know that if EVERYONE makes "green" changes and cut down their food miles and their energy consumption, then perhaps we can make a difference. Every little action on my part does matter because it is the cumulative effect of all our actions that makes a difference.

Am I in a better or worse place than I was 20 years ago? I don't know. But I know that I won't stop trying.

- Pam (I'm getting this post in early for Earth Day.)

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Book Review: We Are At War

This is just a quick post before bed-time. I'm at Site for the week; for once, I don't have any colleagues staying in the hotel with me. This means I got a chance to read over dinner. The book I'm reading at the moment: We Are At War, a collection of five diaries from the Mass Observation Project collected and edited by Simon Garfield.

(If you've never heard of Mass Observation, it was/is a social history project started in 1937 which aimed to record everyday life in Britain for future generations. The majority of participants answered surveys; a few submitted diaries.)

The book opens in 1939, just prior to the start of the Second World War and covers a little over a year in the lives of its diarists:-

  • Pam Ashford - lives in Glasgow with her mother. Strong sense of fairness and common sense. Works in a shipping company and worries about her contacts in occupied Europe.
  • Christopher Tomlin - lives in Preston on the North-West coast of England. Runs his own business selling stationery. When the war commences he is the financial support for his parents. He worries about dwindling sales, the massive hikes in taxes pushing up prices, how to pay the bills.
  • Eileen Potter - works as a social worker in London. Responsible for evacuating children and mothers during the early stages of the war. Later, she is involved in planning for housing evacuees.
  • Tilly Rice - mother of three. Lives in Surrey near where I used to work. Has nightmares about being bombed.
  • Maggie Joy Blunt - writer. Very "chattering classes". Hospitable - seems to run an open house for her friends and family. Lives on the outskirts of London near Windsor. Comments on the political events of the day as well as everyday life and the war. Knitter.
The diary entries are woven to paint a canvas of the privations and fears they lived through. Their writing is compelling. I keep wanting to read their next entry and then the next and not wanting to stop. They speak openly and honestly about their lives, how they cope, the struggle to maintain normality. They chronicle the minutiae: Maggie Joy Blunt describes her embarrassment at living in her kitchen, laundry drying by the fire, knitting and the cat on her lap when a neighbour comes to call (characteristically, she brazens it out with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude).

I'm fascinated by World War 2 and life on the Home Front. This is one of those books that, on every page, leaves you wondering: how would I have coped? What would I have done in their circumstances? They are just ordinary people, like you and me, and yet they live bravely through some frightening and extra-ordinary times.

This book gets 10 out of 10.

- Pam

Friday, 10 April 2009

Happy Chocolate Festival Everybody

For the non-Christian, Easter is all about chocolate. No matter what you believe, it's hard to resist it's siren call. Easter eggs are everywhere.

We'll be visiting family and friends for the next few days and I'm taking along my Dad's absolute favourite chocolate: Coconut Rough. I've never seen it for sale in the UK, but if you're ever in Australia in winter, look for a branch of Haigh's Chocolate Shops - they'll sell you some. (They don't make it in summer because it melts too fast.)

Coconut Rough

375g chocolate, either drops or bars broken up (I use 50:50 70% dark chocolate : milk chocolate)
60g copha (pure distilled edible coconut oil, sold white and hard in a jar or bar)
3 cups of desiccated coconut


  1. Break the chocolate up into small chunks if necessary.
  2. Line a couple of baking trays with non-stick/silicon paper.
  3. In a bowl suspended over a saucepan of boiling water, melt the chocolate and the copha and stir well to combine.
  4. Stir in the desiccated coconut until well incorporated. Switch off the heat.
  5. Drop teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto the lined baking trays. Refrigerate until hard. It makes 30+ generous dollops. Here are mine just before I put them in the fridge to harden.

Store in the fridge.


- Pam

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

And in another instalment of our series, "Tales From the Motorway", PipneyJane knits whilst driving...

On my drive home this afternoon, I got to knit one-and-a-half rounds of my latest sock. To say I wa sitting in stop-start traffic, would be doing stop-start traffic a disservice. It was more like "stop-stop traffic". There was an accident on the M4 - a four car shunt (what a surprise?). It can't have occurred that much ahead of me; I was a mile away doing 70mph when I hit slam-on-your-brakes traffic and had to stop dead.

Fortunately, I always leave a lot of room between me and the car ahead. I'm a practitioner of the two-second-rule (i.e. when the car in front passes a stationary point, chant "Only a fool breaks the two second rule". If you are still chanting when you go past that point yourself, then you're driving too close).

I was more worried about the Porsche behind me, which was rapidly gaining. Anxiously, I flipped on the hazard lights and watched in the rear-view mirror as the driver reacted. Let's just say, I saw the whites of his eyes but our two cars didn't kiss.

We crawled along. We stopped. At one point, I switched off the engine, only to have to restarted it 20 seconds later to crawl along another 10 feet. Invoking Murphy's Law of Knitting on the Move*, I dug my knitting purse out of my hand bag and started work on DH's latest sock.

It worked a treat. I knitted 10 stitches before the car in front moved off. Put the sock down on the passenger seat. 15 feet later I was stationery again. Picked the sock up. Knitted 5 more stitches. The car in front moved again. Held the sock carefully in one hand and drove the next 10 feet using the other to hold the steering wheel. Stopped again. Knitted another 7 stitches before the car in front moved again. Put the sock in my lap and then decided it was safer on the passenger seat. Drove 15 feet. Stopped again. Knitted for 2 stitches. Started moving again. Rinse and repeat for about 200 yards.

One hundred stitches later, I got passed the accident to the clear road beyond.

- Pam (Yet another reason I carry some knitting with me everywhere)

*Murphy's Law of Knitting on the Move: just as you get settled down to knit, you'll reach your stop. This is a variant on Murphy's Law of Knitting in Waiting Rooms, which states that you will just get to a complicated bit where everything is precarious and your name will be called for your appointment. In both cases, you have to shove everything back into your bag and rush off or risk losing out.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Living out of a suitcase

Once upon a time, I lived out of a gym bag. For a year or so after I met DH, I'd pack my bag on a Friday morning with whatever I thought I'd need for the weekend, put on my suit for work and head out for the next three days. In those days, when I was waiting for Dumbo to buy me out of the house we'd shared, I spent as little time at home as possible. I was gone from Friday morning to Sunday evening, every weekend. After work, I'd see DH ("DB" as he was then) virtually every evening, get home late and leave early.

Sometimes, I didn't get home at all. There was one memorable Thursday when, after donating blood, I nearly passed out in an Italian restaurant (note to self: don't drink red wine directly after giving blood it dilates the blood vessels too much). DH calmed down the waiter ("No, there is nothing wrong with the food. It's lovely. She's just given blood and feels faint."). I limped back to his place and crashed out. Not wanting to drive halfway across London and back in Friday evening traffic, I went out and bought myself a new 16-inch head gym bag and a weekend wardrobe. Some crafty shopping later, I got the bag, tennis shoes, jeans, 2 tee-shirts, a cardigan, underwear and toiletries for my £50 budget.

That gym bag survived until last year. I used it for long weekends away, overnight trips for work and, of course, trips to the gym. It pretty much died on a work trip to the Netherlands - the zipper tag ripped off and the contents crushed. That was the last straw. On the way home, I wandered the luggage shop at Schiphol checking out the carry-on bags and blanching at the price.

A couple of weeks later, I bought "Junior" for £10 from Tesco. It's a Relic small trolley case: 25L capacity, with an expandable front that adds another 10L; 46cm/18 inches high, 34cm/13.5 inches wide, 19cm/8 inches deep with an additional 5cm/2 inches available.

Not a huge case but, with planning, large enough to hold an entire week's clothes.

And a laptop.

Of course, packing such a small case for a week working away poses a challenge, but I'd rather a bag I can lift and carry easily than something larger. Here are my tricks:-
  • Consider your travel clothes. Usually, I drive up on a Tuesday and go straight to the Site office; sometimes I've driven up on a Sunday afternoon/evening instead. Either way, whatever I'm wearing is part of the grander plan for my wardrobe for the rest of the week. On a Tuesday morning, I'll drive up in my suit, wearing my work shoes; on a Sunday, I'll wear my jeans, smart cardigan and trainers.
  • Capsule wardrobes are your friends. The classic "capsule" is a suit jacket with matching trousers and skirt; if you're lucky, it'll be sold with a dress, too, or an alternative skirt. Recently, I tend to wear the suit from this post: charcoal grey with a pink pinstripe in the jacket and first pair of trousers, plain charcoal grey second set of trousers. I'll add a second "jacket" in the form of a black or grey smart cardigan, and alternate between the options.
  • Think monochrome. Everything you pack/wear must go with everything else. My work wardrobe is built around grey and black suits. I add colour and contrast with blouses, t-shirts and finely knitted sweaters. Whatever I take to wear at Site must be wearable with either suit option.
  • Think multi-purpose. The smart cardigan I'll wear in the office is also the cardigan I'll cuddle up in in the evenings and wear with my jeans on dress-down-Friday. The shoes I'll wear into the office have to go with both skirts and trousers. For my casual shoes, I'll pack my running trainers - in the hope I'll go for a run in the mornings.
  • Think fabric. Knits don't hold creases, neither does crepe or wool flannel. I hate ironing anyway, so rarely wear stuff that needs it.
  • Think slimline. It has to fold up small. Fitted clothes take up less space, too.
  • Think small. Don't lug around huge bottles of shampoo or conditioner. If you don't like the regular hotel toiletries, buy 100ml travel-sized bottles and fill them up with your regular stuff. Or get samples of your favourite products - Clinique regularly have offers. I pack shampoo, conditioner, cleanser, toner, moisturiser, cotton wool pads, a wide-tooth comb, a razor for my legs, body lotion, crystal deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush and floss, all in a small toiletries bag. Here it is with my phone and makeup bag for size comparison.

  • For makeup, again, go for samples where possible. Pack only the basics: you don't need 10 lipsticks, when you'll only wear one. Swap your regular makeup-base-plus-powder for an all-in-one compact.
  • Keep some essentials in your travel case at all times. My spare phone charger lives in Junior, as does a couple of week's supply of thyroxin. That way, I can't leave home without them.
  • Pack something to read and something to entertain you. I'll pack a book, a small knitting project (usually a sock), my MP3 player and, more recently, my personal laptop. One way or another, I won't be bored. The MP3 player and my travelling knitting project usually go in my handbag.
And my final piece of advice: remember, if you forget something, you can always buy it when you get there.

- Pam

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Welcome Mr President

Since the President arrived in London on his first official visit on Tuesday, spotting the above bumper sticker on a car on the M4 seemed rather serendipitous. My only disappointment is that he flew into Stanstead Airport instead of RAF Northolt - it meant we couldn't attempt to spot Airforce One flying overhead.

- Pam