Monday, 29 September 2014

What I wore: Tartan checks

The weather's been all over the place lately - not hot enough to discard tights, but definitely too warm for a coat or even a cardi. Luckily this dress - my final purchase before the spending ban kicked in - is perfect for early autumn and will carry me right through the winter when teamed with a chunky cardigan.

Made of a stretchy, knitted jersey in a striking purple check pattern, it's so comfortable to wear and is a great length. I'd never bought anything from New Look's Petite range before but I definitely will again, as this is the perfect fit on my 5'3" body. Teamed with my bargain Clarks satchel, tan brogues and a bird necklace, it was the perfect combination for a lazy September Sunday.

* Dress: New Look via ASOS * Bag: Clarks outlet store * Shoes: Clarks * 
* Necklace: years old so I can't remember where I got it! *

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Spending ban update: month one

Surprisingly, a month into my spending ban and things aren't going too badly. I've found sticking to the rules pretty easy this month (with only one wobble, when I put some dresses into an online shopping basket and then quickly turned my laptop off without spending a penny!).

Allowing myself a bit of spending - on a weekly date night, on secondhand stuff, and on Christmas gifts - was a masterstroke. During previous spending bans I've struggled with the lack of social life and have missed the Saturday trawl around charity shops. Making sure I can still do the things I enjoy has made it tons easier to stick to spending nothing elsewhere.

So, what have I spent this month? Leaving aside the normal bills and grocery shopping, my total is £112.69. Here's my spending broken down:

£5.50 on secondhand books from charity shops
£8 on Christmas gifts
£20 on a brunch cinema date
£18 on a ticket to see Robin Ince and a cheap burrito meal with my mate before the show
£16.20 on prescriptions
£7 for a cute skirt from the excellent Sue Ryder vintage shop in Leicester
£25 for a dinner date with my boy
£12 for an evening at a pub quiz with another couple
99p for a new phone cover, as the old one had fallen apart

As you can see, I've hardly been suffering a Scrooge-like existence. I'm still spending a bit of money and having a social life. Unfortunately my gym membership was renewed this month, so with the addition of that £190 expense I haven't quite managed to make the savings I would have liked. However, my overdraft has been completely paid off and I intend to start on the credit card debt next month. Wish me luck!

Thursday, 25 September 2014

September Reads

It was all about the literary equivalent of a warm blanket and a mug of hot chocolate in September: comforting, soothing, unchallenging books to get me through the first month back at school. For me, that means either crime or YA fiction. The problem with reading lots of similar books, though, is that I now feel a bit under-nourished. I think I'll need to turn to some classic fiction or a political tome to improve my literary diet in October.

1. A Level student Isabel is queen bee of her school and leader of a coterie of equally bitchy girls. Of course, Isabel has hidden depths and it takes meeting enigmatic student, Smith, to uncover them. I didn't find Let's Get Lost wholly believable, mainly because both Isabel and Smith constantly act in utterly contrary and nonsensical ways. But there's always something to enjoy in Sarra Manning's YA novels and Let's Get Lost was no exception. Despite not being one of her best, it's still a book I'll keep hold of for rainy afternoon re-reads.

2. Ezra is the golden boy of his high school: prom king, tennis captain and boyfriend of the prettiest girl in school. When everything is knee - and therefore his sporting prowess - is shattered in a car accident, he starts to reexamine his life and his priorities: maybe he'd have more fun joining the debate team and hanging out with mysterious new girl Cassidy? I found Severed Heads, Broken Hearts slow going to begin with, but the second half picked up the pace and I found myself really falling for Ezra, his best friend Toby and their little gang of misfits. There are some cracking one-liners, too. It was just a shame that Cassidy is nothing more than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope writ large, sent to give Ezra a shove in the right direction and then break his heart. The book would have been much more interesting if Schneider had gone for a dual narrative, giving Cassidy a voice of her own.

3. Perhaps because I read this hot on the heels of Let's Get Lost, which covers similar themes of 'Mean Girls' and family bereavement, but I didn't totally fall for Paper Aeroplanes. Despite being set in the mid-90s, there were some jarring moments that didn't ring true of that setting (I realise in retrospect that I really should have made a note of what they were, shouldn't I?! Trust me, they were there!). Nevertheless, I liked the way in which O'Porter precisely evoked the passion and excitement of teen female friendships, and I will keep a look out for the follow-up, Goose.

4. The Silkworm is the second outing for J.K. Rowling's private detective, Cormoran Strike. I liked the literary London setting of the murder mystery, but in common with the later Potter books it's over-long. There was so much here that was incidental to the narrative and it could have done with a good pruning by an editor. And why on earth does every literary detective have to be burdened with loneliness, alcoholism and a tragic past?

5. Sophie Hannah's crime novels become increasingly ludicrous and intricately plotted as time goes on, but they're still incredibly readable and The Telling Error was no exception. If you can suspend your disbelief and cope with the generally horrible characters, it moves at a cracking pace and keeps the tension going until the very last pages.

6. After a stressful few days during the Scottish Referendum (The Boy is Glasgwegian and spent the two weeks surrounding the Indyref up there campaiging), I turned to literature to salve my spirit. Unfortunately, I failed to choose wisely: Saints Of The Shadow Biblethe most recent Rebus novel, turned out to be set in the run-up to the referendum, with frequent references being made to Scottish politics. It's a classic Rebus mystery: gloomy Edinburgh setting, late-night drinking for our leading man, a mysterious car crash to investigate.

7. Harbour Street wasn't one of Ann Cleeve's best. When a body is discovered on a packed tram just before Christmas, police inspector Vera Stanhope and her sidekick Joe turn to Harbour Street, in a small fishing village on the coast near Newcastle, to answer the question of why anyone would want to kill the widely liked but secretive elderly woman. The book didn't always hold my attention, and I'm starting to find the character of Vera - who is, oh what a surprise, alcoholic, overweight and lonely - a bit repetitive.

8. The man behind legendary Twitter account My Sad Cat has written a number of books about his pets, with Under The Paw being the first. It's a very quick read, entirely unchallenging, and very funny in parts. If you like cats, it's pretty much guaranteed that you'll enjoy his writing. Still, when the only non-fiction I've managed all month is a book about cats, I need to have a word with myself and pull my reading socks up.


9. & 10. If teen and crime fiction are soothing reads, re-reads are even more comforting and easy. I enjoyed Let It Snow just as much the second time around, although it wasn't all that seasonally appropriate. And Attachments was also just as much fun as a re-read as it was the first time I read it.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Why I write

Recently Freya nominated me to take part in the blog hop that's currently doing the rounds. I don't always take part in stuff like this, but I really liked the questions and thought it would be a good opportunity to think about my writing process. So here I am!

Why I write
I've loved writing all my life: at school I was the kid who always handed in ten page stories to my long-suffering teacher; the one who, when asked to produce a short project, spent every waking hour putting together a perfectly presented lever arch file on the given topic.

When I was sixteen, I discovered the world of fanzines and suddenly my writing - up to then only done in a school context - had a purpose and an audience. I wrote compulsively: gig reviews, band interviews, poetry, song lyrics, short stories, stream-of-consciousness diary entries. I still have, buried deep under piles of junk in my attic, a box containing most of what I wrote between the ages of 16 and 20. My writing style, at least in the poetry, lyrics and diary entries, can best be described as 'word vomit'. It's solipsistic adolescent bullshit at its very best (or worst), and reading it makes me both cringe and feel terribly sad for that desperate, depressed teenager.

But, in amongst the terrible song lyrics and the paeans to beautiful, long haired boys, was some evidence that I was perhaps an alright writer. The pieces I wrote for my music zine are sparky and witty and interesting (if I do say so myself!), and rediscovering the box in 2011 gave me the push I needed to start a blog. I'd been reading blogs - mostly lifestyle and fatshion ones - over the previous few months and quite liked the idea of writing again, but I was doubtful whether the blogging world was for me: was I cool enough or interesting enough? Coming across all my old writing proved to me that, even if my life itself wasn't necessarily that fascinating, I perhaps had the ability to put words together in a vaguely interesting way. And what do you know? Once I started blogging, my life started to get more interesting too.

But I suppose what I was answering there was Why did I begin to write? As to the question of why I write now, I think the thing that motivates me to carry on blogging, almost four years after I first posted here, is the community. I still get a little thrill when someone leaves a nice comment on something I've written, and nothing beats getting involved in long Twitter discussions with women I've never met but who I feel like I know because of this 'ere internet. It's pretty fab to be able to build communities online, from the comfort of my own sofa, and it suits introverted and shy people like moi down to the ground.

What I'm currently working on
For once, I don't have a huge pile of half-written posts cluttering up my drafts folder, which is worrying me slightly as I also don't have many bright ideas at the moment! One thing I would like to do is return to something I did a lot of in the first couple of years of blogging, which was writing about my weekend adventures (even when the 'adventures' were nothing more than going for a walk, reading a book and baking a cake). I love being able to look back on that record of what I got up to and I think it's a shame that I lapsed. I think I got a bit caught up in what I thought was 'cool' to blog about and started focusing too much on what I thought other people wanted to read rather than what I wanted to write about. So, expect a few more 'What I did at the weekend' or 'Lately' posts.

How my blog differs from others
In the sense that it has pictures of stuff I do, things I make, outfits I wear, and books I read, it doesn't differ too much. I think my USP (urgh, horrible term, sorry) is the fact that I combine the usual lifestyle blogger stuff with more political, feminist stuff and pieces about my own experience with everything from depression to self-harm to abortion. I think this comes from my background writing zines, where it was a case of the more confessional, the better. I haven't quite wrapped my head around the fact that big bad internet that anyone can read =/= anonymous zine.

A little bit about my writing process
I mostly sit at a table in the corner of the kitchen to write, radio playing quietly in the background, cup of tea (or glass of wine, if it's been one of those days!) on the table next to me. I seem to be at my most productive when I'm busy. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but over the summer I really struggled to write anything and as soon as I was back at school I suddenly felt the urge to write again. I think that says a lot about why I write, too: it's an escape and a way to relax.

I've passed the blog hop onto Suzy and Daire, for no other reason than I thought the questions would appeal to them. Isn't it weird how, despite never having met, I do often think in those terms about other bloggers; "Oh, so-and-so would like this film/book/post".

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

What I wore: The last days of summer

Last month I visited my mum and step-mum and badgered them into taking me to my very favourite place on earth: Hebden Bridge. Hebden is amazing for so many reasons, but ace vintage shopping is pretty high up there. Hotcakes Vintage, just off the main A646 through the town, is one of my favourite vintage shops and I was delighted to find this 1980s-does-1950s midi skirt for a mere £12. I'd resigned myself to putting it away unworn for the winter when, last weekend, the sun made another appearance.

Paired with a trusty black tee and my bargain Swedish Hasbeens (£48 in the sale, thanks to Jen on Twitter for letting me know!), it was the perfect outfit for a lazy Sunday morning brunch at Phoenix Arts before an early afternoon showing of Guardians Of The Galaxy.  The only thing I think this outfit is missing is a kick-ass necklace or some other piece of jewellery, but I'm notoriously bad at accessorising so if anyone has any ideas on what to pair with this, I'm all ears.

* Skirt: Hotcakes Vintage * T-shirt: H&M * Sandals: Swedish Hasbeens *

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Good stuff: Links & likes

Image source here

This piece by Jenny Trout about wearing a bikini is just wonderful; I defy you not to laugh out loud. Just a taster:
"The most common concern was my health. Presumably I, as a fat woman, would not know how to properly operate the complicated piece of equipment known as a bikini. What if I strangled in all the straps and ties? What if I became distracted by the complexity of spandex, a substance heretofore unknown to me, and wandered blindly into traffic? What if I ate it?"

Last Saturday's Guardian had a great article about Laura Dodsworth's project to photograph and interview 100 women about their breasts. The stories are incredibly moving and the photographs are powerful (although, predictably but sadly, the below-the-line commenters did not get it at all). There's also a Kickstarter for the production of a book, if you're interested in supporting her work.

Sarah is reliably brilliant but I especially loved her post on living a blogable life. As always, she beautifully articulated many of my own thoughts: in this case, some of the issues with a money-drive, haul-obsessed blogging world.

Considering I have no immediate plans to get wed, I'm far too obsessed with Rock'n'Roll Bride, and this compilation of 44 budget weddings was brilliant, showing how much you can do even on a tiny budget.

While on the subject of weddings, Amy's thoughts on changing her last name really struck a chord with me. I'm quite militant about this: let's just say you would never find me taking a partner's name.

If anyone wants an early Christmas present idea for me, one of these would do nicely, ta.

Have you come across The Every Body Project yet? So much more interesting and inspiring than ordinary street style blogs; I quite often pin a photo and then go on a charity shopping mission to recreate the look.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The best books for crafty girls (and guys)

There are a seemingly endless amount of books being published to cash-in on the ongoing trend for all things homemade, upcycled and hand crafted, and sometimes I feel like I own most of them. Despite rarely having the time to actually make anything, when I'm browsing in a bookshop I always seem to feel the need for just one more craft book. But which books are really worth the money? Here are five of my favourites...

Subtitled, The Modern Girls' Guide to Knitting, Sewing, Quilting, Baking, Preserving & Kitchen Gardening, this is a great one-stop shop for beginners. The author is the daughter of tock royalty (Joe Strummer of The Clash) and she also founded the achingly hip Shoreditch Sisters branch of the WI, so this is very much a hip, rock & roll craft guide. Nevertheless I fell for the appealing layout and the fact it covers so many crafts. People with more experience may find it frustratingly basic, though.
Most inspiring make: How can you fail to fall for the donut and cake pin cushions, pictured above?

A fantastic and beautifully presented introduction to sewing. I love how the projects are divided into how much time they'll take to make, and the chats with crafty women, professional makers, and bloggers are inspiring. There are beautiful photographs of each project and I found the instructions really simple to follow (not always the case with sewing instructions, which I am easily baffled by).
Most inspiring make: Either the patchwork pouffe, pictured, or the simple pleated skirt. Now if I could only learn how to sew in zips...

American feminist mag Bust has been running DIY and craft features since its inception in 1993. The DIY Guide To Life is an enormous collection of every project plus hints and tips for living. From a DIY on how to make a floating bookshelf, to a guide to unblocking a sink; a beginners how-to skateboard, to how to travel alone (including a project to make your own luggage tags), this guide has it all. 
Most inspiring project: So many, but my favourite is this awesome pants & vest set made from an old band tee.
Public Service Announcement: I've just found this for £4.99 on The Works website. Bargain!

I picked up a copy of this from my local Oxfam in the sale, setting me back a whole £1.49, and I'm so glad I did because it's a treasure trove of ideas. Centred around the idea of upcycling and, well, recrafting from everyday items you can pick up secondhand or for free, the book has tons of creative and simple projects, from making toys out of old jumpers to fashioning a satchel out of a tweed jacket.
Most inspiring make: The homewares, pictured above, are probably my favourite projects due to their simplicity. 

Not a collection of craft projects, this one, but a series of interviews and essays with/by craftivists from around the world. Craftivism is the using of craft in activism, for example yarn bombing, AIDS quilts, or prison sewing projects. This is a truly inspirational book and will make you want to get your needles out and engage with craftivism locally. Greer also wrote the brilliant Knitting For Good, which I heartily recommend to any yarn fans out there.
Most inspiring make: All of them! But I particularly like these Suffragette banners.

Monday, 8 September 2014

When a chair is not just a chair

This is my most precious item of furniture. Doesn't look like much, does it? It's a dodgy shade of brown velour (after being reupholstered at some point in the 80s) and it has too many scratches and marks to mention. Looking at it, you're possibly wondering what makes it so precious. Well, sometimes a chair isn't just a chair. Sometimes it's also a symbol: of love, of family, of the journeys people make.

The chair came into my family when it was bought by my grandfather, Theo, for my grandmother, Helen, when she was pregnant with my uncle. It was to be her nursing chair.  That was in 1940s South Africa but the frame is obviously older than that and I think it must have been owned and loved by another family first. What I do know is that my grandpa would have found it at a garage sale or auction. He almost never bought furniture new, always preferring to find something secondhand that he could restore and breathe new life into. When it was reupholstered in the aforementioned brown velour, he did it himself.

After being bought some time in 1941 the chair accompanied my grandparents and their growing family on many moves around South Africa; from Johannesburg to Rustenberg, on to Durban and finally Cape Town. My grandmother nursed five children in it, and they kept it even after their sons and daughter grew up and left home. And this is where the history of my chair becomes entwined with world history.

By the 1970s my grandfather, a charismatic Methodist minister, was the regional director of the anti-apartheid Christian Institute. His outspoken writings and public lectures against apartheid meant he ran afoul of the South African government. He was banned and subject to virtual house arrest, and in 1978 plans were made to smuggle him out of the country so that he could continue his activism in exile. In June 1978 (my granny having come ahead to England using the cover story that she was visiting her daughter, my mum) my grandfather said goodbye to Cape Town and began a journey that involved a chain of cars driven under cover of night, transfers conducted in dusty and silent desert towns, a trip across the Botswanan border in the boot of a sympathetic diplomat's car, and finally a flight to London. He didn't know if he, or my grandmother, would ever see South Africa - and the things they'd left behind - again.

It didn't take long for the authorities to work out that Theo had escaped and soon my uncle was able to start packing up their house. A lot of their possessions went to friends and family in South Africa, but some important pieces were shipped to the UK ready for my grandparents (who by late 1978 had temporarily moved to the Netherlands to work for the Christian Institute office there) to return and settle in England. The chair was amongst the few items of furniture that made the journey from Cape Town to their new home in Birmingham.

Theo & Helen in the early 1990s

The drama of escape over, the chair settled into calm domestic life once again. Theo first got a job teaching at a theological college in Birmingham and then moved to work as parish minister in a Warwickshire village. My memories of the chair are of perching on my granny's knee as she read me bedtime stories. Of my grandpa, older now and exhausted by a life lived in exile, sitting reading letters from friends and colleagues back home.  And when, in 1994, Theo and Helen were finally able to return to a new South Africa (now governed by their friend and comrade Nelson Mandela), the chair stayed behind in Bradford with my mum, where it lived first in her living room and then the conservatory.

When I bought my house five years ago, mum asked if I might want to give the chair a new home. After making seventeen moves in twelve years, I was finally ready to settle and put down roots. I could think of no better piece of furniture to take pride of place in my new home than my granny's old nursing chair.

The chair now lives on the landing after many years in my bedroom. It's getting a bit tired looking and the colour doesn't match anything I own. I've thought about having it reupholstered many times. But sometimes a chair is more than just a chair, and nothing on earth could convince me to change one that holds so many memories.

This is my entry into the British Gas History Of Home competition. It was also a good excuse to write about Theo, one of the most important people in my life. After a long illness Theo died in 2003, aged 82. Helen passed away last year at the age of 91. I wrote about her here.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

What I wore: Posh frock & high heels

Six weeks ago today (I know, I'm bloody rubbish at getting posts up promptly!) my very lovely friend Emma got married, and it was one of the most fun weddings I've been to.  I'm sure one of the things that helped me have fun and relax was the fact that I loved my outfit, which sounds like a given but for me... not so much.

Photograph © James Mottram Photography

For years and years I would go to weddings in the most horribly frumpy dresses and I can't quite figure out whether I've just got better at dressing my body or whether the clothes in the shops have improved.  All I know is that I never used to be able to find stylish, smart dresses that fit my boobs and now I can. I think it's partly because I've now come to terms with my body in a way I hadn't managed even a few years ago, but from specialist retailers like Pepperberry (the fashion arm of the Bravissimo chain, and every big-busted woman's best friend) to high street brands, I'm finding it ever-easier to track down dresses that fit beautifully. Regardless, I absolutely loved this Closet dress as soon as I tried it on (and all the more so because it was reduced to £18!).  It really plays up my natural hourglass proportions, and felt comfortable to boot. And look!  Pockets!

I do always feel a bit like I'm in girl drag when I'm dressed up, though.  Despite presenting as femme and spending a lot of time in dresses, I'm not super-good at the performative gender stuff: nail polish, high heels, beauty treatments... it's all a bit baffling to me.  And as much as I like the chance to get gussied up once in a while, it's always a relief to come home, kick off the heels and put my flip flops and hoody back on!

       * Dress: Closet Blu via House Of Fraser * Shoes: Dorothy Perkins * Necklace: New Look *

          L-R: The amazing handmade (pretty much everything at the wedding was made by 
     Emma's fair  hands) wedding favours: a mix CD of tracks that mean a lot to Emma & Joe; 
   The happy couple after the ceremony; The Boy and I, a few drinks down, hit the photobooth.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Yet another blogger spending ban

My name is Janet, and I'm a spendaholic.

I love to shop. I love the thrill of finding a dress that makes me look good, or the feeling I get when I walk out of a bookshop with a bag full of new things to read.

I work really hard at my job and it pays me a decent wage in return.  You'd think, to look at my pay slip, that I couldn't possibly have any money worries, but of course it's not as simple as that. I'm terrible with money - slightly less so now than in my twenties, but still pretty bad - and I have a lot of debt. Come the end of the month, I'm always short on cash. And sometimes, if some miracle has occurred and I'm not counting the pennies, instead of trying to save what's left I embark on a mad spending spree.  As if it's a requirement to have an empty bank account come pay day.

How many times do we say to ourselves, "I need this bag/that top/a new cake tin," when we already have bags aplenty, a wardrobe that's so full it won't close, and plenty of old cake tins? We have become very good at convincing ourselves that without stuff, our lives won't be as good.  That the pretty dress will make us happy forever and ever, rather than ending up in a charity shop donation pile a few months down the line.

The idea that, "I work hard, therefore I deserve a reward," is what I often use to convince myself that spending money is not just my right, but a treat. I almost never stop to think that maybe, if I didn't spend so much on 'rewards', I wouldn't have to work so hard.  That perhaps happiness comes not from staying on the consumerist treadmill of work-buy-work, but from calling a halt and seeking out experiences that enrich my life rather than buying products that don't.

I'm also concerned about the labour practices of major clothing retailers, about the amount of waste created by consumerism, and about how to reconcile my political beliefs with spending huge amounts of money in what is undoubtedly an unethical industry.

So, this autumn, I'm embarking on a new spending ban. I first tried this in the autumn of 2011, and it worked incredibly well.  In that instance, I imposed a total ban on all spending other than essential food and drink.  For a while I was able to really alter my spending habits, but as soon as I'd finished I fell back into my old patterns.  In autumn 2012 I tried the £100 Challenge, imposing no limit on what I spent money on, but spending no more than £100 a week.  Again, in the short-term I was successful but as soon as I finished, back I went to splashing the cash.  And so, as September begins, I'm going to give it a third go.  I have some new rules this time, ones which I hope will make it easier to maintain the ban for a longer period than previously:

My Rules
1. No limit on essential food & drink spending, but I'm nevertheless going to start looking for ways to reduce our grocery bill, such as shopping at Aldi more.
2. Spending money on a date night a week allowed, be it a meal or a trip to the cinema or a takeaway.
3. Any spending on secondhand goods is allowed. I hope this will allow me to scratch the shopping itch while keeping costs down and being kinder to the environment.
4. Buying gifts is allowed.  Previously, I found doing the Buy Nothing/£100 Challenge in the run-up to Christmas really challenging, as I like to spread my spending over the whole autumn.
4. There are a few essential items I am allowed to buy, if I can't find what I need secondhand: winter boots, a jumper (how can I have no jumpers? How is that a thing?!), new tights and a new bra.
6. The spending ban to last from 1st September until the end of 2014, with one week off for good behaviour during October half term.

Spending bans are pretty common in the blogosphere and I appreciate that they're perhaps not the most interesting thing to read about, but blogging about it is the only way I know I'll be held accountable and therefore stick to the rules - trust me, I know what I wily minx I can be!  So apologies if this gets boring, but fingers crossed this third crack at a spending ban means I'm able to cut my spending dramatically and get some debt paid off, while also being a bit more eco-friendly in my buying. Wish me luck!